Sonntag, 11. November 2012

Language course - second or third foreign language

One of my goals for my exchange studies was (and still is) to do my best and try to master the native language, which is Swedish. Because of that I was really excited that I got in the EILC (Erasmus Intensive Language Course). This course took place a month and a half before the university term started. There was no placement test beforehand, so we basically just got split up into two groups, regardless of previous Swedish knowledge. The course lasted four weeks and our exam at the end was worth A1 level.
But at the end, not only I (as a language-teacher-to-be), but also everybody else who attended felt unsatisfied. When you take a four week long course, and you have lessons every day, you get homework and you generally hear a lot of Swedish, it felt like it would be impossible to not have some kind of understanding of the language. Then again, mostly the basic success depends on the teacher and their methods. I have to say that even though I expected to be in a better shape regarding my Swedish, I gained a lot of experience when it comes to teaching.
One thing I learned during my first years at the university as a student-teacher was that you should never stop reflecting. Whether it may be your own lesson-sequence or your own lesson, a presentation in a seminar or one of the courses you sit it, there always be opportunities to think about your professionalization and personal development.
So I would like to outline a few things I noticed. It has to be noted that I’m pretty sure that a few logistical problems could be an issue for the organizational staff of these courses, but nonetheless, as a teacher you have to make the best of what you have.

I believe the first issue at hand at many language courses is the level of the participants. Every language teacher knows that it is simply impossible to find any group (of random) students that have the same language proficiency. In our particular case it would have been way more effective for everybody if we would have split up our groups after the second week, or even the first week since you quickly get an impression how each individual deals with the language.
Obviously individualisation is always the issue when it comes to teaching. In this case it could have helped the better students to reach the level they wanted to reach. It was also clear that not everybody intended to really know about the language at the end, which is no big deal since the whole course structure offered many more benefits than just the language. But because of this, more advanced and motivated students could have progressed better. All in all, splitting up a group like this benefits both the good and not-so-good students. It offers more challenge for one group if the overall level can be higher but is also offers easier access for the weaker students, who may only want to learn really basic stuff.

The second issue is something that is thoroughly stressed throughout the teacher training program, namely the importance of lesson planning. This is the one thing that student-teachers cannot forget. A lesson plan has to be handed in an thought through before every lesson, even if you are only teaching the last ten minutes of a lesson. So with this in the back of my mind, it wasn’t pleasant to be part of lessons where the complete opposite was the case. The worst part about this was, that this problem was so obvious that even non-student-teachers immediately noticed and could point the finger at it. Especially when it comes to language teaching, it seems like a waste of time to teach a class without having a plan. It just won’t work if you are going to talk about whatever comes to your mind that morning.

Lastly, there is one thing that can really tip the scale for beginner students. When it’s the first time you hear a language, no matter how close it is to your native language, it can be confusing. Based on this thought, starting to talk in the new language in a lesson might not always be the best idea for beginners. Listening and speaking skills are usually the first ones to be taught to language learners, but that does not mean that it is good to confront beginners with a new language non-stop. The key thing is to find a balance where everybody is comfortable, but this is hard to achieve when students get more and more frustrated because everything is done so fast and without proper explanation in a language they actually understand. If the teacher goes to fast, the students become more and more frustrated and will soon close up and no progress can be made. It is tough to find the right balance between speaking and listening-to the new language and generally being understood, but to come back to a point I made earlier, it can help to split up students into groups according to their level.

All in all, it is tough to learn a new language, no matter how talented one might be or how common it is to one’s native language. The most important aspect is to be confronted with the language in everyday life, so learning a language in it’s native country is simply the best choice. And even though talking should be the focal point, there is so much vocabulary missing, that there is just nothing more that one could talk about. Students of a new language have to motivated to work on their own, picking up phrases and focusing on new vocabulary will help with everything else. As time goes by, the practical use becomes more and more natural.

Samstag, 8. September 2012

Exchange year in Göteborg, Sweden

Now that the first big wave of stress and astonishment has passed I can focus on my studies again.

In this autumn term I will attend three different courses which are all really exciting for me.
The biggest course is called English for young learners and is divided into three main topics: Didactics, Literature and Pronunciation.
My second course is called The School System in a Comparative Perspective which deals with all kinds of Educational topics.
The third course I'm taking is English: Oral and Written Proficiency. 
This is a great mix between pedagogic themes and also a general improvement of my own language skills.

I will get more into writing for the courses anyway, but I still have a few other topics to cover for which I had no time the last two months.
Also I'll still be using our Mahara Portfolio for my work here!
It offers a great Platform to organise my thoughts and assignments even though its not directly involved in my studies here, but I'm glad to have it nonetheless.

So, new posts will be up soon!

Freitag, 6. Juli 2012

Bachelorthesis - Mahara and teacher education

The last few points are getting finalized, and then starting with the next term, a colleague and me are going to start to work on our Bachelor thesis, which will include a heavy dose of Mahara, and it's role in our teacher education at the University of Education Vienna.

Our Mahara-research project is in it's second year now, and we are getting more and more involved with Mahara as an ePortfolio tool for our student-teachers.
The thesis will include the basics of ePortfolios, what kind of portfolio types are there and how are they used. But our biggest focus will be on Mahara, not only on the technical part of it, but also the possibilities of its use.
Some of the data that’s available from our research project will also be processed, and we will focus on our teacher education. We are both very much looking forward to digging in and involving ourselves more and more into Mahara, ePortfolios and teacher-education at our University.

One of our goals was to put out a Mahara-Tutorial for our student-teachers, which we accomplished last semester. It wasn’t the first time we worked together on a Mahara task, but it was equally challenging and fun. As the research project went on, and we’re getting closer to the end of our studies, it seemed more and more obvious that our Bachelor thesis will be about Mahara in combination with our teacher education. One of the benefits of the research project was that we were able to see both sides: the student-teacher side, which uses Mahara as a tool during their studies, and also from the reseacher side, where we got to work on questionnaires and evaluate the results, create a Manual and generally help students with Mahara.
So as one of our research team members suggested that we write a Bachelor thesis together it hit us as the most obvious idea. It sounded exciting right from the start even though we had a lot to do at the end of this semester and couldn’t focus that much on it, the start of the fall semester will also mark the start of our work!

Language - barrier or stepping stone

It was a long time ago that I came to a new country as a kid without basic understanding of the native language. Even tough I took some (very few) language lesson before moving, those didn’t really help because they were pretty bad. When I got into kindergarden, where I only stayed for about half a year, I wasn’t able to communicate at all. My mother still tells me stories about how fascinating it was that I didn’t complain once. I couldn’t understand or speak a word, but I was still alright. After six months I had no problem whatsoever so get into a pretty good school and never experienced problems with the german language. The school I got in, was even one of the few schools at that time, that taught english from the age of seven or eight on. Which is probably also one reason I love the language, starting so early made me grow up with two foreign languages. Thankfully at home we still spoke (speak to this day) in our mother tongue.
As you can see, language learning was always kind of a big deal to me growing up. So, it’s no surprise that my path lead me to being a language teacher.

Language teaching is very diverse. There is school, which can also be divided into primary schools and secondary schools, in districts and so on. But there is also adult ecudation and university teaching. The range is so wide that it’s almost impossible to understand how each sector works. It is also tough to talk about teaching with people from a different sector than yours, because you just can’t now about all the details that go into their work.

My experience regarding language learning/teaching is small in comparison to other professionals.
But there are a few things that I experienced which made me think about the language acquisition process.

First of all, as I described above I’ve been exposed to three languages growing up and the way it is now, I’m fluent in all three of them, it may vary a little between speaking and writing but overall it’s pretty equal. My next big challenge will be to learn swedish, since I’m going to study abroad for a year.

I’ve talked about it a few times in this blog, I’m also currently a student-teacher teaching in highschools, and I also work as an english trainer with a project where I teach migrants who are looking for apprenticeships. 

I’d like to share a few thoughts on this subject, based on my experience.
-) motivation for learning a language:
Back then, it was obvious for me that I need to learn the language if I want to stay. I really needed to learn the languages because I wanted to stay here with my mother. And she made it clear to me that I’m here now and I will be in school soon. So it was necessary for survival. 
Additionally I had the support from home to learn the language, my mother cared just as much about german as she did with hungarian (I took hungarian grammar lessons a few summers later). And that’s the point, the kids we teach in the high-schools are in school becaue they are in school, not much to add. Very few of their parents are supportive, not of their general education and not of the languages. The society is changing, but somehow still stagnant. On one side, it’s obligatory to speak the local language, but it’s also kind of okay if you don’t speak it very well, because they somehow don’t really care.
Language for me is the cornerstone of a culture. So if you are new in country and you want to stay there, it should be the very least thing that you learn to communicate. And I’m not even talking about actual ‘spreaking’, I only mean ‘communicating’, so talking to a doctor, buying tickets, talking to the cashier at the supermarket and so on. It sounds very partial, but applies to a lot of people.

But, there are also really amazing young people, who came this country not more than two or three years ago at the age of maybe nineteen, without parents, without friends trying to start a new life. Not only do they have to learn the local language, but then they also have to learn another foreign language, because it’s needed for their apprenticeship or further education. The biggest difficulty for them was that the words they didn’t understand in english I need to be explained to them in german, but there were also many german words that they just didn’t understand, so someone who knows what that word means has to explain it to them in their mother tongue. 
As a young adult having to learn two languages at the same time is more than tough, especially because the last few years brought news and studies that it’s always better to start language learning at a young age.
Unfortuntely not everyone has a motivation for learning a language, which only makes life(s) tougher.

-) talent for languages
You can call it either skill or talent, but for me, coming from a sport-background I like to call it talent.
For me it was obviously the right time for languages, I was five when I started with my first foreign language and about three years later I started to learn the second one. Later in school, I also attened spanish and russian classes. I did alright, but looking back on it, I should have put more effort into it and actually use the ‘talent’ for languages I developed early on.
Of course it’s the same in school; some kids already speak three languages even tough they are ten and just came to the country a year ago. These kids usually don’t have problems with anything new, either if it’s german or english, they seem to have a mostly flawless understanding. The same with young adults, some of them speak excellently and are eager to learn new vocabulary to speak even better, others really struggle. These struggles are mostly about pronunciation rather than grammatical issues. Since they already have school experience they can easily deal with grammar rules and regulation.

The key to this is common knowledge: strengthen the strength, and work on the weakness. But the most important part is patience. You can’t rush somebody if they obviously have a lot of difficulty with parts of learning a language, but you also need the keep an eye on the more talented.

-) frame for learning language
Most people I've talked too who learned a foreign language said the best way to do so is to be confronted with it on a daily basis, meaning if you’re in a new country, go outside and get involved in everyday life. The keys part is to surround yourself with native speakers. Everytime I get a chance to meet or be with an english speaking native I try to talk as much english as I can with them. That sometimes seems problematic, but only because most of the natives want to learn german, so subsequently it ends in me talking english, while the native answers in german. Maybe not every native will be patient enough and hear you out, but the time you spend in that foreign environment the more you start to pick up language and it becomes natural.
And later on, it should help to attend some kind of language course and learn the structure of things you've been saying the whole time.

All in all, language can be a barrier to some people, but for the most part it’s a major stepping stone for everybody.

Language learning and teaching is tough, multifaceted but has an uncanny ability to connect people and cultures, and there needs to be an awareness out there how vital it can be.
The first step shouldn’t be at the school or university, not even in the work world, it needs to start with the families and parents, they can lay the groundwork for future development.

Donnerstag, 24. Mai 2012


Two weeks ago, we had the opportunity to visit different schools with progressive teaching emphasis. A few other colleagues and I got to go to a school, where they basically just started with Montessori-teaching methods. Their first two grades were the first to implement it. So the last two grades, the thirteen and fourteen-year olds, still had regular classes.
At first, we didn’t really know what to expect from this whole experience, but thankfully the first part of our visit included a basic theoretical overview about their beliefs, Montessori specifically, and some general information about the school. Their principal gave us a pretty good look at their Montessori system and proposed that we can look around in all the four classrooms, where they have these kind of lessons.
The first teacher we met was a real veteran. She probably was first one of their teachers, who has gotten an actual Montessori qualification (the other teachers only attended a few mandatory weekend seminars before the school switched).
Their ‘lesson plan’ is divided into two main parts. First of all, they have ‘language-days’, where, obviously, the content focuses on either german or english. The other part is referred to as ‘cosmic days’, which is basically a mixture between history, biology, physics and so on.
In principle, it all sounds pretty interesting, especially because the kids weren’t forced to actually do everything at the same time. At the beginning of a specific time period, they all got their plans and in the next few weeks they could work through all the stuff on their own pace.

But now to a few points that I observed. These points all refer to what we heard at the beginning form their principal. They all are in some way, a focal point for them in their teachings.
- Kids helping other kids
Due to the fact that the kids can work on their own pace, there are some kids who finish exercises earlier than others, and in this case, it’s great that they put a focus on kids helping other kids finish their tasks.
But: One of their teachers was really annoyed by kids quietly talking to each other. And they talked REALLY quietly, but she just kept interrupting them, even tough it was obvious that one was trying to explain something to the other kid.

- Kids have their own pace
Everybody in the class gets a list with tasks they have to accomplish. The good thing is, they can start with whatever they want, do whichever task they like second and so on. It’s great for the kids, because they don’t get forced into doing things in a specific order.
But: it seemed like just in a regular class, you can’t finish your stuff whenever you want to, for every list there is a specific time frame it has to be completed in. So this way, it still puts pressure on every kind of learner to finish in (at the same) time.

- No more teacher centered teaching
The key thing to their philosophy is that the kids do the learning on their own, meaning there are no more lectures from the teacher. The kids have to acquire everything on their own regarding any topic (Of course there’s enough material for them to go through, which the teacher provides)
But: The first class we went to, had a mathmatics lesson. And as soon as the lesson started, their teacher told us that they can’t teach mathematics with Montessori methods, because they won’t work with this class, so they’re teaching them the ‘classic-way’.

- Disciplinary measures
In the introduction the principal told us that their kids really like to be in school, because their focus is on the kids doing what they want to do.
But: These three hours we were in this school and the classes, it almost seemed like there are less disciplinary problems in a regular school, maybe because a regular has some kind of restrictions?

- Interdisciplinary teaching is the key
The material for all the subjects is mixed. Not only for the ‘cosmic days’, but also for the languages days. For example there will be an english story about frogs, and during the cosmic days, the kids will be able to research, what kind of different frogs there are in Austria, how they live, how they look and so on.
But: do they really get everything covered. At the early stages you definitely get the feeling that a lot of things get left out, but when you think about it, there can be the same approach in a regular school, the only difference is that there is a flow to the things you do, because you follow the tasks given by the teacher and you are depending on the lesson more.

- 100% open learning and individualized learning
To be fair, it’s not entirely open and individualized learning, there are times after learning phases, where the kids get to present and talk about the things they did and liked.
But: When I think about 'regular schools', in one week, it contains presentations, group work, working in pairs, individualized learning, open learning phases and also teacher centered presentations and so on. So there can be methodological diversity, which can’t really be reached with the Montessori methods.

- Transition into higher school and education
It would be really interesting to see how these kids, who get to go trough a Montessori school, fare in a regular school, or when they start their apprenticeship.

So, after the visit some questions remained, but I certainly want to see more of Montessori teaching methods, especially in schools, where it’s also the standard method and has been used a few years already. Especially because for me, in teaching, it’s the same as in coaching, you have to see all kind of different methods and pick the one that fits your style and you think are good. Then you can build on them and form your teaching personality accordingly.

Montag, 14. Mai 2012

finally...the Mahara Tutorial has been released

It was about time. After a roughly three week delay, we were able to launch our Mahara Tutorial. We hit a few bumps on the way, especially time-management and communication-wise, but at the end of the day my colleague and I were able to finish it off properly.
A specific practical-training Manual was already in the 
research plans for the second semester, but after our research regarding the acceptance of Mahara in the first semester, it became clear that a proper tutorial is really much needed.
The tasks for the students teachers evolved with Mahara (we had an older version of Mahara for our first year), including adding specific pages for practical training and personal development, in form of a ‘Gazette’ page, which includes reflections, tasks and also material to share with colleagues.
But since it was something for future student-teacher newcomers, we pretty much started from scratch.
The first chapter includes a basic outline about what it’s all about. Then the first few steps: registration, filling your profile and so on. But since we wanted to focus on the specific practical-training approach, the next chapter was already about how-to create a page and how-to upload files into it. One chapter gives a quick overview about the group-option, which is pretty basic, since most of the students are familiar with forums and how to communicate with their help.
The new part, even for us, was the Gazette page. This page defines the collaboration part of our e-Portfolios. Basically it includes three blogs: useful material, thought a day and link a day. For one, it is about sharing your thoughts about practical training, and also sharing useful links and material with your colleagues. The Gazette page also includes milestones, which are also new, where you can track your progress, either regarding your studies or practical training. The last part is reserved for the main tasks from practical training.

So we held the whole thing pretty basic, and as of right now, more and more students are updating their e-Portfolio with the help of our Tutorial.
But the key thing is that the next generations of student-teachers at the Univerity of Education Vienna will be able to get up-to-date smoothly with this Tutorial, right from the start.

Mittwoch, 25. April 2012

(b)easy reflecting

The last two months have been particularly busy. Managing work, teaching, preparing for exams and coaching, take up pretty much all of ones time.
Because of this, I wasn’t able to post new things to this blog. But not writing about something, shouldn’t mean you can’t think about it. Reflecting about your teaching is necessary either way. Most student-teachers won’t even reflect in a written form, they just ‘say’ they’ve been reflecting, but most of the time, the only thing they did, was to think about their preparation, or the lesson in a very basic way (‘well, I liked the lesson, it was good’; ‘the kids weren’t focused today’). But this thinking won’t get you far, you have to dig deeper and ask the ‘why’ and ‘how’ about the lesson or the kids. Being that busy, it’s easy to get into this random reflecting. But there are a few things, which can help make busy reflecting into easy reflecting.

There was one lesson, where near the end, the focus of almost everyone in the group just plummeted. It was one of the first spring days, where it was kind of warmer than the weeks before, but not necessarily different. It was after the lunch break, and the first part went pretty routine, but the second part (we did some reading and speaking exercises) was just ‘useless’.
It bothered me as soon as I stepped outside of the classroom and my mind raced through what happened, why it happened for the first time today and what could be done differently the next time. Almost naturally, I took out my phone and typed in two or three notes about this lesson, and because I wrote it in my phone, I had no urge to write more than three, four sentences. This way, I summed up my thoughts perfectly. Not only did I remember it easier, it made me focus on the important part of what happened.
The second thing that I also found useful, was to talk to somebody right after the lesson, just like with the notes. Now even if you don’t find colleagues, who are willing to listen to you for five minutes, just try one of your friends. The important part is to do it quickly and trying to sum it up. That way you have to focus on the little things that made it work or didn’t make it work. In my experience, if I’m busy and running from A to B all the time, it’s easier to share my thoughts quickly, than to get into long deep discussion, in which one of the partners loses their point anyway. So, share immediately, reflect through telling someone.
The last one is obvious. Before preparing your next lesson, try to think about the last time. But, don’t dwell on everything that happened, take the first two things that come to your mind. Now try to incorporate it into the new lesson (if it was something good), or think about how to avoid or fix it in the upcoming lesson (if it was problematic). Again, the key thing for me was to make it quick. Also, the two things that I remembered spontaneously, were usually things that stuck in my head for a reason.

I didn’t actively try out new things and try to reflect differently, but because of my schedule, I stumbled across a few methods that helped me. And since these things kind of came spontaneously, they were pretty natural. It made it easier and helped quite a bit.

Freitag, 16. März 2012

practice makes perfect

Being a student teacher is not easy. You have to teach from the first semester on. You’re in class almost immediately after enrolling. Within the first month, you get to sit in on classes for a whole week, while trying to figure out, if you are made to be surrounded by kids all the time without losing your cool. No later than the second semester, you begin to teach classes, at first you only have to teach half a lesson, but two weeks in, you're supposed to prepare and teach a full lesson.
From the third semester on, you teach with one of your colleagues, and you’re the ones who have to prepare lessons each and every week. In your last year at teacher training, you get the full dose of living the teacher-life. Each semester, you’re in school for two weeks straight. By this time, you should be able to deal with the stress that comes with it - preparing for classes every day, being in school four to five hours and teaching up to four consecutive lessons.

At the same time, teaching is still the smallest part of your week. You have classes to attend yourself and if you think about it, the whole 'teaching-thing' takes up, only about six to eight hours a week (including two lessons, the reflecting-sessions and the preparation).
Now with this little time focusing on the actual teaching experience, you finish teacher training after six semesters. After you are done, you go straight into teaching full time.

In previous posts, I already mentioned the problems with the framework and the logistical issues of practical training. It’s basically impossible to provide student teachers with more opportunities for practical training, maybe it’s different in other countries, but unfortunately, I have no experience with other teacher training courses around the world. 
But being a student teacher is easy. You get to be in class and teach right from the start. For six semesters, you experience what it takes to be teacher full-on. You get to teach with one of your colleagues and prepare and teach each and every week. It is one of best opportunities you can get!
Since I’ve been working as a coach for a few years, before I started teacher training, I couldn’t wait for practical training to begin. I enjoy every minute of lesson preparation and being in class teaching. But somehow I feel it's not enough.

There is no denying that didactics, methodological approach and reflection is a key and a major part of teacher development, but in my experience, actual practical training is simply invaluable.
So last week, I started my new job as an English trainer for a project called “Bildungswege 2012”. This project runs from march to the end of july and I get to teach young migrants between the ages 18 and 22 for five to ten hours a week.
At first I didn’t really know how to start with everything, I’m used to preparing for one lesson at a time, now I have to prepare for two four-hour courses.
But the great thing is, as soon as I step into a classroom, I instantly get into a zone. No matter how excited and nervous I was before and how the preparation went, a flip get’s switched and I’m in teaching mode. Teaching those two days was amazing. Somehow I feel that I've learned more during the four day preparing-and-teaching-stretch, than I've
learned during my first year at teacher training. And this kind of makes sense actually; during my first year, I prepared and taught four and half lessons in school, and in my first week with this project, I basically prepared and taught twice as much. And the circumstances were different too, in practical training my teacher suggested what I need to teach, but for these English courses, I was on my own the whole way.
It’s interesting to note that one of the benefits that practical training offers, namely the ‘safety net’ of a teacher you always have in the classroom, is also a restrictions for personal development. Without this ‘safety net’, you get to experience hands-on how the class reacts to different methods and you can adjust your lesson on the fly, which requires a lot of skill. But this ‘learning by doing’, only works if you are on your own, without someone, who swoops in if you stumble during one of the exercises (not that every teacher does that, but you just know there is someone who will help you out, if it doesn't go smoothly).
What I’m trying to say is that it is vital for student teachers to get as much practical experience they can get. 
One one hand, don’t discount the practical training at the University! You get constant feedback, you can share your experience with colleagues and you get to see different teacher-types.
But on the other hand, if you like teaching, and you want to be good at it, try to get out and jump right in: no ‘safety net’ and all by yourself.
If you combine both, you get the maximum potential of your personal development.

Donnerstag, 8. März 2012

group work - do you know if they fit?

This is a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. It is not only good to know for beginner student teachers, but also a good reminder for veteran teachers, who get a new class with kids they don’t know.
At some point during our classes, we all will use some kind of group work with the kids. If it's planned well, it can be very fruitful for kids. They learn to collaborate, they learn to give and deal with feedback, and they get confronted with opinions that differ from their own.
But there is one key aspect to it that I experienced in almost every class I’ve been in. The composition of the group is essential to its success and also to the pleasure and fun for the kids involved.
Now, since all the kids are different, and we all know that every one of them has ‘friends’, but also ‘I just don’t like them'-type colleagues, it is still important to find the best possible fit. I’ve been with teachers, who where first-timers in a class, and they wanted to try group work with their class. Of course we had to talk about the didactical variations in which we could divide the kids in different groups (i.e. counting them from one to four; picking numbers out of a hat or randomly assigning them together). But after we were done with that, the teacher admitted that it’s really exciting to see how they are going to deal with it. We both had no idea how the kids would get along, who are the ‘can’t-match’ pairs and so on.

Since it was the first time for this class too, it went pretty well, but mostly because it was a kind of a new environment for them too. After the class, we talked about our thoughts and experiences and if we saw some kind of combination that won’t work next time. There were one or two kids, who could be trouble when put together in the future, so it's good to take notes the first time out.
Even tough it seems like you can’t to do much, if you get a bad combination the first time, it's important to stay calm and either sit it out, or you pick one of the kids you know for sure can work with anybody and switch them. But it's better to keep the first few times a little shorter and just put in some sequences that feature group work, rather than going all-in without knowing how they are going to react.
So the thing to keep in mind, for either student teachers and veterans is that there always needs to be a first time, and for that - you can’t possibly predict how it's going to go. After a while, you will get to know the kids anyway and you get more sense of how they fit together in groups.

Sonntag, 26. Februar 2012

first eLearning conference - Moodle, Mahara and ePortfolio

Last thursday I had the opportunity to go to an eLearning conference about Moodle with my professor and one of my colleagues. We got to present Mahara and our use of it in teacher training. Even tough I had no prior experience with Moodle, it was still pretty exciting to be part of a conference and to be part of presentation.
And now I just want to give you a short summary of my experience (also you can check out some of the pictures here):
We are working with ePortfolios for almost one and a half years now, and we use Mahara as our platform. At this conference I got a little bit of taste of what Moodle is all about. On the other hand, I was kind of disappointed that there weren’t a lot of practical examples from teachers and educators. Of course I didn’t get to see all the presentations, but the ones I attended and where the title had at least something to do with teaching always ended up with way too much focus on the technical side. But since it was my first Moodle conference I can’t be certain that every one of them is like this, and I’m also sure that if you’re more familiar with it, then the things involved all become more interesting.

I was really looking forward to our presentation as it was the first I could ‘officially’ present at a conference. The template for it was a presentation my professor gave at the Online Educa in Berlin last year. But since then we made a lot of progress with our research project, so could already implement our findings.
The first part was just basic introduction about the University of Education, our teacher training and about what Mahara is and how we use it. My part was to talk about the setup and structure of a students ePortfolio, in this case I showed mine. Since the beginning of our Mahara usage, a lot has changed in the way we setup our portfolios. Part of it was that our old Mahara version wasn’t very good to look at and not that much fun to work with, but as soon as we got upgraded, whole new world opened up to us and it became real fun to build our ePortfolio.
So after I showed the students portfolio, my colleague talked about our use of it. Especially the collaboration and communication part, where we get together in groups and share materials but also send reminders regarding exams and deadlines.

The last part was about the research project and some basis statistics that outline the usage and approval of Mahara, compared between student groups (e.g. first semester students and third semester students).
After we were done there were some good questions regarding the reflections with our portfolio and how we incorporate it into our ePortfolio. It was great to know that Mahara is already in use in schools and also used actively in the classroom.
All in all I think it was a good opportunity to connect with other educators who already have experience with Mahara, and also with people who want to incorporate Mahara in their teaching.

Dienstag, 14. Februar 2012

student teachers and the internet

A little while ago I came across an article or study of some kind, where they’d researched the use of the Internet among teachers. The study divided the study groups into younger teachers (around the ages 20 to 25) and older teachers (it was something around 40 or 50). And if I remember correctly it showed significant differences between those age groups. But it wasn't the difference that everybody expected. The results showed that older teachers are more likely to use the Internet for their teaching then the younger teachers.
At first I was really surprised, but then I began to think about my experiences with student teachers and the Internet. Now my experiences during teacher training includes different things considering the use of Internet. To begin with, our English class was the first class that started using an e-Portfolio for our practical training. Secondly, as I already mentioned in an earlier
post we had a seminar dedicated to Web 2.0 and the use of it in teaching. So all in all, we were confronted with the internet right from the start and also from all kind of different angles.
We are using
Mahara as our e-Portfolio platform. And to be honest, we had a rough start with it. Unfortunately it took the Universities’ administration very long to get us updated on the newer version of Mahara. Now for everyone who is not familiar with Mahara, as for the difference in the versions, just imagine the step it took from the old-school Nokia mobile phones with regular buttons and black and white displays to the newest iPhone. That’s the step we took with the update. So you can imagine how fun it was to work the older Mahara version. Looking at it in that light, I can’t blame my colleagues for not seeing the benefits of an e-Portfolio. But then again, if you are familiar with Facebook and you can operate a mail-account and you even have a smart phone, you shouldn't have any troubles with it anyway.
We had different tasks to keep us involved and working with this platform. We had to form groups and got tasks to post something a group-forum, we could put up our lessons plans and worksheets for the other student teachers and we had to put up our reflections about the practical training. It seemed to me that the whole year long, people complained about it. And I still can’t imagine how the platform could have presented any real issues for these young student teachers. The good thing is that for our second year, and also for the beginner student teachers, the new version was already in place and as I see and hear it, the complaints have gone back.
As I’ve been researching for an article on Web 2.0-teaching, it’s became clear that teachers have to be taught about the possibilities of Web 2.0 before they start teaching kids. As I already mentioned above, we have this opportunity during our training. But unfortunately they were a few among our group who didn’t seem to get the whole idea of the why-and-how of Web 2.0 teaching, and it reflected in the use of our e-Portfolio of course.
I think as we move forward in our training and as the world (of education) develops technically, it is vital to at least know about these kinds of things, even if you’re going to be more of an ‘old school’ teacher and just use the blackboard and the workbook and hand out sheets, but then again, you will probably have to use the Internet to research and prepare your worksheets and your blackboard exercises.

Samstag, 11. Februar 2012

practical training - getting things done

I wrote a post about the positives (pros) in our teacher training program. At first I had in mind to write a pros-and-cons list, but after I wrote the first post I kept thinking about the issues that could be counted as negatives. The more I thought, the more I came to the realization that there aren't real ‘cons’ to write about. Of course there are a lot of issues that should be fixed rather soon to keep the level up, but nothing major came up to me.
Now the things that should be done, and can be counted as negatives as of right now arent really one persons or teachers fault. The root of most problems lies within the general framework of teacher-education and some times the school system itself.
Before I start explaining some points I’d like to see get fixed, I want to point out that most of issues I’m going to mention could only be fixed in a perfect world; because a lot just can’t be done logistically.
The first major issue is the number of hours we get to spend in an actual classroom teaching. I mentioned it in an earlier post already, we (at the University of Education Vienna) are still enormously lucky to have practical training implemented in our training right from the start. (Sidenote reminder: our first time in a classroom and in school is the second week of our training, after that we are in class every week, and we are already teaching sequences at the end of the first semester; whereas the main university student-teachers get to be in class somewhere around they second or third year). So, even though we get to spend more time in class doing stuff, I’d like to be in class even more. Teaching is one of the things that you learn best by doing it practically. And although I think it’s the best possible way to get student-teachers ready, we would raise the quality even more by being in class two hours per week more for example. The good thing is, there are a lot of student-teachers who think like me, we want to spend as much time as we can teaching and working with kids. So the easiest solution is to find work where you get the chance to practice, e.g., coaching sports or tutoring.
And from what I’ve experienced, you definitely see the difference between the student-teachers who work on their teaching skill besides the university and the student-teachers who don't (care).

So the time spent teaching is the most valuable time we as student-teachers can spend. And if you care about what you are doing, you are going to find a way to get even more practice time.

Now to the second point which might be a problem for some teachers but probably not all.
Almost every school we get to teach in, has already had student-teachers work there for quite some time, so the kids know about the whole routine. To be more specific, they know we are
student-teachers. This is were the problem lies, beginners who don't have that much prior experience in standing in front of a class and/or working with kids are facing some real disciplinary issues. There are always beginners without having taught previously that have a natural authority. It can be difficult for them to get into this teacher role, if the kids don’t treat them like a real teacher. The solution would be kind of easy to, but lies within the framework of the teacher training. Since it has been established that we are student-teachers it would take years again to get it across (also to some other teachers) that the students are to be treated as real teachers.

These issues don’t hinder the development by much, but it could be more effective without them. I think the key thing is to embrace the opportunity you have with your teacher training, but if you want to improve and develop as a teacher, take every chance you get to work with kids or in a teaching environment, be it as a tutor or coach.

Samstag, 4. Februar 2012

speaking and presenting skill

The main skills teachers should have, is to be able to talk in front of people.
In our teacher training, we have the opportunity to present and talk a lot. Not only do we get to teach in class, but there are also a few seminars in which some of the tasks require presenting something to a group.

If you want to be a teacher you shouldn't be too introverted, you should be comfortable with talking in front of groups, regardless if it is a group of kids or other colleagues.

I know it’s not for everyone to talk spontaneously about anything in front of a crowd, and it’s totally okay to be nervous.
But if you know you will have to present something, and you get two or three weeks to prepare for it, and you get specific instructions about what you’re supposed to talk, then there should be no excuses not to present professionally.

I’ve experience a lot of other student-teachers dealing with ‘stage fright’. Fortunately practice makes perfect, but there are also some basic tips that can help. Most of the mistakes made, are just because of the nervousness and can be easily fixed by focusing on a few key aspects:

- don’t talk to one person, try to incorporate everybody
- find spots in the room that you can focus on
- or look for two or three people in the audience that look friendly to you, and focus on them
- try to maintain eye contact, even though it’s not easy, it keeps everyone involved
- speak loudly and try to stay with you natural tone (speed and intonation)
- if you need something to hold on for, take a pen in your hand, of fold a paper in half and hold that

- don’t stand behind a desk or a chair
- try to get a feel for moving, step in front of the audience, but don't move all the time, it can be distracting

and the last and most important part:
- be confident

because you know you prepared for everything and it is something you worked on enough.

Take every opportunity you have in seminars and talk and try to remember one or two of points I mentioned above, and you'll develop this skill step by step.

thought a week - feedback and teacher training

The last week of every semester our groups get together with our teachers to reflect and talk about the teaching practice. Depending on the leading teacher, this talk can go either in the direction of self-evaluation or just feedbacking about the teaching experience and the teacher.
I have experienced both scenarios with a different set-up. One time we had a pretty big group, with about 30 to 35 student-teachers and six to seven teachers and we’re supposed to give feedback on our experience. Another time we had only ten to 15 student-teachers with two or three teachers and we had to talk about our personal development and reflect on it.
From my point of view, the differences in content and arrangement made a huge difference in the style and outcome of the whole discussion.
If you have a big group with a lot of different people in it, with some of them you may have closer relationship and others might seem more unfamiliar. And now you are supposed to share very personal thoughts about your experience in school. I can imagine that is not easy to do. There are more outgoing people in this group too, for whom it’s not hard to share stuff like that, but I’d say for the most part (and especially in the beginning of teacher-training) there are more conservative people.
With the previous thought in my mind, I expected that it’s going be an awkward silence with nobody really speaking up. But the thing that was a surprise for me that somehow the exact opposite happened. Unfortunately not in a good way. Everyone spoke pretty openly about their experiences and about their teacher, but everyone was giving way too positive feedback. Not only that, but each one was scratching on the surface with their feedback.
It was 20 times almost the exact same monologue, ‘yes, I really learned a lot and I really enjoyed the experience’. And the really weird part was when most of the teachers replied in the same way, ‘yes, it was the best student group I had in a long time, they worked really good...’ and so on.
Now I know that every group (we had smaller groups of two to three student-teachers in a semester) had really good conversation with their teacher
in private, in a confidential little circle, where was just the two other student-teachers and your teacher. During these meetings everyone opened up about their experiences and feelings and also gave valuable feedback to one another and the teacher. So in this case, I just don’t understand why it is forced onto bigger groups to do a group-talk, because it was obvious that nobody spoke honestly, and it’s understandable. On the other hand, it was great to talk with people who where closer to you during the whole semester, and nobody had a problem to share and give good feedback.
In the other scenario, I saw some other issues. First of all it was way better to talk in a smaller group, you wouldn't think that ten student-teacher really make that much of difference but it does. The other part was the self-evaluation process. The teachers asked everyone to talk about what they think their strength might be and what they’re planning on focusing for their future development. And their teachers were supposed to comment on that, and either confirm it or just give them some advice and encouragement. And out of this group, I’d say only two students said something about their weakness and that they want to work on a certain part. And also, there was only one student where the teacher said that he really needs to work on something, or that it might not be suiting for him to work with kids.
So even though the group was more private and the task was different it still ended up with the same results. Nobody was really honest in describing how they felt about themselves and nobody got valuable feedback for their development.

Giving valuable and appropriate feedback is enormously difficult, so not surprising to see almost everybody struggle with it.
We tend to think that we could hurt the persons feeling by giving feedback, so instead we don’t say anything or we say something superficial and overly positive.
It is extremely hard not to judge immediatly and get personal, we have to take a little time, really think about it and formulate a proper answer.
Easier said then done, but it’s actually not that hard to talk about something objectively, and explain what one saw and how one experienced it, and then suggest a solution based on that.
I think it’s really important to know about giving valuable feedback, because both parties can benefit. And especially if it’s needed in education or for a job, then all the participants should be taught about proper feedback and what they need to understand about the whole process.

Samstag, 28. Januar 2012

thought a week - creating and filling a lesson plan

Even tough there are plenty of lesson plan templates out there, working with a lesson plan and actually filling it can be very hard for student teachers in the beginning. If you are fortunate enough you get to know all sorts of different styles of lesson plans during your studies. Our professors always told us that it’s not mandatory to use this or that specific lesson plan, but it’s key to know what’s out there and how to work with all the different versions.
But in this post, I won’t talk about lesson plans and how you’re supposed to use them. I’d like to write about the creative process that goes behind designing a lesson.
I believe it’s very important for student teachers to find out how and when you get your creative side out while designing a lesson plan. At first I struggled with these things. When I had to design a lesson we sat together with our teacher and we got all the basic information about what we need to do. Just the main theme to the lesson, what skills we should focus on and what material we can/should use and so on. During those sessions I felt pretty much lost. It sounded like way too much and kind of overwhelming. Intuitively I thought, ‘that is absolutely too much and I don’t even know where to start’.

Of course the first thing you start to do, without even thinking about if it actually makes sense, you just sit down and try to work something out with the input you got. As the hours went by and no progress was in sight, I decided to take a break and let it rest. It was frustrating because you like to get the lesson done as soon as possible, especially if you know what kind of lesson you want. Since we had enough time to finish the planning, I thought it’s not a problem if I just came back to it the next day. Two days later I was supposed to meet up with my colleague in the library to work on the lesson plan. I arrived earlier then the appointed time, but I thought to myself I’ll just wait till he arrives. So as time went by I started to do something else, checking up on seminars and so on. But right at this point the back of my mind starting working. And right in the middle of it, I just took out our template and started to fill it out. After that, it was smooth. By the time my colleague arrived I completed the lesson plan and the only thing he needed to do was check and fill out his closing sequence.
The next time I planned a lesson, I tried a different approach. First of all, at the planning session with our teacher, I just made sure I listened carefully, took notes and nothing more. No immediate planning and no thinking about the lesson. The next step was to stay calm and relaxed and let it come to me. And thankfully it worked again. This time I was writing something completely different for on of my seminars when it hit me. Again, I just took out my sheets and notes, and started working.
Now this all sounds easy, but the point I’m trying to get across is that it may take some time to figure out how and when you have your ‘creative bursts’. I remember planning one of my lessons sitting in the tram. I was on my way home and these ideas popped in to my head, only thing I needed to do, take down notes and write it down properly when I’m home.
It really helped in the sense, that I’m calmer in the beginning, I don’t worry when I’m starting, I just try to let it flow somehow.
As soon as you figured out if you’re the kind that gets a lesson done, while researching everything from the first minute on, or you have to wait one or two days and sit down quietly and then get to work, or maybe you are like me and you have creative bursts and the ideas come when they may.

Montag, 23. Januar 2012

practical training - pro's

There is no better preparation for student teachers, then to be in class right from the beginning. I can’t imagine to ‘learn how to teach’, while only sitting in seminars and hearing about stuff. I love to be in class and work with kids, even tough I’m only an assistant-teacher at this point in my education, it’s still fun and an invaluable experience.
There are other teacher education programmes, where the students get to sit in class and observe for a year, then they have a few months of practical training and another year at the university just hearing about teaching, and not experiencing it in person. These students have to teach right after graduating, with very little practical training. I can imagine the first two years at work aren't much fun.
On the other hand, I really appreciate our programme. We get be in class from our second week on. We are in class every week, and if you enjoy it and your practical-teacher is open-minded, you get to help from your first lesson on and it’s a great way to get in touch with this kind of work and interaction for students with no prior experience in teaching or coaching.
It’s great that we get to teach a part of a lesson two months in. The second semester gets even better, we have to prepare and teach entire lessons by ourselves.
This hands-on experience with the addition of observation and reflection tasks, is a complete training which I wouldn't want to miss.

Another good concept is the team-teaching aspect. Usually we are in groups of two to three students. Three student-teachers per class seems to be the perfect number. Especially in the beginning, it can be very helpful to prepare and teach with two other colleagues. On the one hand it’s kind of a safety-net, having two other partners by your side (and the teacher of course), you kind of feel that it’s not bad to screw something up, because it can happen to anyone. But if it happens, there are no hard feelings towards each other, because you know that it’s natural to have jitters the first few times. On the other hand, it’s more comfortable to talk about the teaching experience with fellow student-teachers, than talking with the actual teacher. I also liked preparing the lessons with a partner, because even if one of us does not have an idea, the other one may have a great solution. So with this team-teaching concept there’s always some kind of support you can count on.

So all in all, practical training is not only a great way for teacher education, it is the only way.