Category Archives: Standard 2

Now the content and how to teach it

Game Day

Have you ever seen those lists that go something like “You know you’re a teacher when…”?
My personal version is “You know you’re a languages teacher when you can think of a way to turn any kids’ game into a vocab or grammar game.” Scrabble is a no-brainer and Simon Says and What’s the time Mr Wolf? are part of the core repertoire. But this habit, which makes my kids and husband roll their eyes, goes further. A year or so ago my then 4 year old borrowed the “Cat in the Hat” board game from our local library. Two turns in I had the epiphany that I could adapt it for use with beginning students of Japanese. Instead of the English alphabet, the Hiragana script became the key learning. And yes, I got really excited by the idea… That’s probably the real reason for the eye rolling!

This evening it happened again… I was watching from the sidelines of his Aus Kick session, a beginning into the skills and rules of Australian Rules Football. Towards the end of the session the motley crew of 5-8 year olds was divided into 4 teams. Each team went to their corner of the allocated playing space. In the middle was a huge tub of footballs. They were to “rob the nest”… One person at a time from each time had to run to the middle and take a single ball back to their team as quickly as possible. When they got back, the next person ran and so on. When there were no balls remaining in the middle, they had to run to another group’s pile and “rob the nest”. When the coach called out to stop, whichever team had the most balls was declared the winner.

Needless to say, my language teaching brain started to tick over, “How can I use this? I reckon it could work…” The first question was vocabulary, script or grammar. So tomorrow I’m going to start with vocabulary for a Year 9 class. Four vocabulary categories, 6 words in each, a word per card. The cards are in a pot in the centre of the room. The aim of the game is to be the first team to get a full category set, firstly running to the middle, then robbing from other groups. They love anything competitive, they’ll need to be fast and thinking on their feet. I won’t tell them category headings, they’ll need to think through their words… Will it work?

Stay tuned…
To be continued…

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A sticky situation… Of the yellow paper variety

Where would we be without the post-it note? Since reading a number of blog posts by other teachers about how they use these simple little gems in their lessons, I too have been using them much more often. Student feedback at the end of lessons stuck on green or red ‘boards’ on their way out the door; jotting down a word they find hard to remember then moving around the room at the start of the next lesson finding someone with a good strategy for remembering it; the Particles of Japanese sentence structure easily moved around in structures.

This week in a moment of panic that I didn’t have the questions ready for a game, what should come to the rescue? Post-it notes! My Year 9 classes are your typical bunch of chatty, energetic, competitive 14 and 15 year olds. They enjoy team games and request them, even without the presence of a prize, except of course team pride or being first out at lunch time. With the convenience of being ready to use, the pre made PowerPoint game templates like Align the Stars or The Big Wheel are saved to the network and ready to go in an instant. But when you look at your lesson notes part way through class and realise you didn’t get around to writing up the list of questions… Panic stations… Deep breath, come up with plan B…

2 post-it notes per student, the instruction that students were to each write 2 questions about anything we’ve covered so far this term led to a perfect opportunity for revision that didn’t seem like hard work. Heads were quickly down, teams whispering excitedly as they realised that writing a harder question could give them an edge in the game if they could answer it and other teams couldn’t. Lots of looking back through notes, asking could they use things we learned last term, some writing things they were having trouble remembering, seeing it again in their notes while doing so, processing it as they thought about how to word their question, hearing it again as someone else answered it. Creating all the questions for the game proved to be a learning experience in and of itself. When I had all the post-it notes back I quickly numbered them ready for the game and flicked through as numbers were called in the game itself.

Come the second Year 9 group, I was once more minus questions, but this time by very deliberate choice. I didn’t reuse the first group’s questions either! So here’s a Friday ‘cheers’ to the post-it note!

Time to go down a different stream?

Have you ever noticed how the water in a stream doesn’t all take the same path around rocks and trees in its way, but it is all still heading in roughly the same direction, towards a bigger body of water further down the stream? Or how rain drops on a window wind their way down, some picking up others and becoming bigger drops along the way but all ultimately ending up at the bottom of the window?

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

CC licensed (BY SA) flickr photo shared by Velo Steve

I think the students in my language classes are much the same. It really got going when I was pondering over how we can improve the transition from primary school language learning to secondary school language learning in my school.

We have a large number of feeder schools, most of which have a program and specialist teacher for one of the languages we offer. There is a smattering of students who come to us having done neither Japanese nor German. Year 8 students select which language they will study for the year and may choose to study both. The time allocation and focus of the primary school language programs vary according to local needs and circumstances, so the students walk into our language rooms every year with a wide variety of past experiences, prior knowledge, expectations and hopes for their secondary language studies.

Common practice in the past has been to start everyone at square one.  Beginning from the beginning again. Certainly this was a reflection on the language predominantly taught in primary schools until around 10 years ago, but we are seeing this change. We used to have more students who had some knowledge of German for some of their primary schooling and only a small group who had previously done any Japanese. So starting again didn’t seem a problem. But that has been in a state of change recently.

As more of our primary schools are valuing language learning right from the junior primary years and as the numbers of our feeder schools offering Japanese has increased, more students now come to us with significant experience in learning the language. In addition, some choose not to study the language from their primary schooling, looking forward to a new experience and challenge.

While as recently as a month ago I heard a colleague from another school say that ‘by the end of the first semester they’re all at the same point anyway’, I have begun challenging the idea that all students need to go back to the very beginning. Certainly keeping everyone moving together at the same pace makes planning, teaching and assessing relatively straightforward and easy. But what about learning? Notice it’s not mentioned in that statement…

If we start everyone back at the beginning, it seems there are increasing numbers of our students who are treading water, going nowhere for a semester… and where is the learning in that? Of course revision and consolidation are valuable, but 6 months feeling unchallenged and stifled is surely going to lessen their enjoyment of the language which they have perhaps chosen because their primary schooling experience of it lit a fire and excitement in them. As language teachers we yearn for that enthusiasm from our students! On the other hand, those who are new to the language also seem to feel pressured to ‘hurry up’ so that the class can move on. And that is also less than conducive to their feelings of enjoyment and success in language learning. We did not all learn our first language at the same rate…

With the Australian Curriculum’s focus on differentiated teaching and learning, the time is ripe for us to come up with some alternatives. I know other schools stream their students into classes for those who have done the language before and those who are new to it. While this means students can start from 2 different points, it doesn’t ultimately overturn the idea that the whole class moves together. Nor is it possible in all schools, for multiple reasons ranging from student numbers to timetabling issues.

What if my student ‘stream’ was allowed to flow more like a stream in nature? I am far more excited by the idea that if students understand something, they should be allowed to move on to the next thing. For others who need more time they should be allowed to take it, to have more practice and to keep refining their skills and knowledge. I have begun working this way with my Year 9 students. The digital tools we have available to us mean that students can learn about different language structures at their own rate. Today I assessed them with a quick test, they marked the answers for each other and then those who clearly understood how the grammar and vocabulary worked sat together and worked through the next thing using a YouTube clip I’d made and helping each other piece the steps together. Those who needed more time to review, question, relearn, and think differently through the material in the test sat together and did just that. Tools frequently used for the flipped classroom are coming in very handy and students can access them at their own pace. At different points I think we’ll all come back together and students will not always be in the groups the were in today. They will change direction and pace as they hit the ‘rocks’ along the way, but ultimately we’re all heading down the same watercourse.

It’s not streaming in the traditional sense, but perhaps this way of thinking about catering to multiple pathways in language subjects is more realistic and learning centred. If we follow this thinking through, can we better cater to the very mixed experiences in our Year 8 classes? Can we use podcasts, screencasts and other online tools to allow the students to begin at a number of points and thus value their prior learning and help them move forward rather than tread water for a semester? It will likely be far from straightforward or easy, but isn’t the learning the key here?

I would love to hear how others manage the transition from primary to secondary school language programs and the ‘mixed ability class’ in general!

Timely reminders

With the start of the new Australian school year well and truly off and running, I’ve been reminded of a couple of things that I enjoy most about my work. I’ve also realised I need to make a time to blog every week or two, or it is the first thing that will be put on hold!

1. The less I do and tell, the more the students do and learn

I have two great Year 9 classes. Many of the students I taught last year and we had a great time exploring and learning together and it looks set to continue. These students responded with energy and enthusiasm when I told them I wasn’t going to tell them about Japan’s food culture and they weren’t going to read about it in their textbooks. Instead we came up with a list of things they thought they knew and things they wanted to know. I then set them to work finding things that would help them answer their questions. Having the students themselves find snack food advertisements on YouTube taught them far more than me telling them what Japanese kids snack on or me finding the ads for them! They were in the driving seat of their own exploring and learning.

Today we set ourselves up for the new term then onto reviewing what we could remember from last year. To finish the lesson students split into 2 teams ready for a game. I absolutely love that there was an uneven number of students – it meant they could take turns calling out the Hiragana characters the rest had to try to find amongst the cards on the floor in a ‘fruit salad’ style game. I sat back and occassionally reminded them that I did not want to fill in incident report forms and that knocking out their opponents with a hip and shoulder was not ok. But the language and revision was all from the students!

And games brings me to my second reminder…

2. Students are never too old for games!

With the pressure of getting through the curriculum and preparing for the exam, it is all too easy to get bogged down in ‘serious’ work with senior students. I met my Year 12 class today. They are excited and eager, having just returned from the school trip to Japan over New Year. After the usual “this is how the assessment is broken up” spiel I told them we are not having weekly Vocabulary and Kanji tests this year. The assessment board does not want to know about them and the marks are purely formative. They were delighted, then they heard my ‘but’. Every Friday is a competition and there is only 1 prize. The vocabulary list or kanji set will be the focus. They were ecstatic! Learning to do better than their classmates even when the stakes are only as high as a lolly pop is far more motivating to this group than learning for a test that doesn’t count. We then went on to play a game using soft balls, throwing them at the kanji around the room. They left happy and with brains reconnecting old character knowledge. I could have made them write them all out over and over, but how much more motivating for me and them to learn through play!

Australian Curriculum: Languages – Changes in a Nutshell Part 2

Understanding ‘Understanding’

In my previous post I explored the way language content is outlined in the Chinese and Italian drafts for the Australian Curriculum. As explained in the Language general draft Curriculum Architecture and Content Structure, the content is divided into two Strands, Communicating and Understanding. My reflections last post were only related to the Communicating aspects. I am far more overwhelmed by the Understanding component.

The terminology in itself does not relate to understanding in the way we as language teachers have used it in the past. To us, understanding has been largely concerned with the comprehension of texts in the target language, either real and live or adapted and recorded for language practice purposes. True, in recent years we have seen analysis of language added to senior curricula requirements around the country and have had to work at building towards these skills in the middle years. In the ACARA document, however, Understanding has nothing immediate to do with general comprehension of key concepts, ideas or messages within written or spoken texts. That is all covered under the Communicating umbrella.

Understanding now relates to how and why language is used, how language varies, how the target language is used in our local communities and globally and how language and culture are reflected in each other. It’s all well and good in theory and is in keeping with the ever present calls for students to be taught ‘higher order thinking skills’, but…

Some of the Content Descriptors take an adult language and culture geek quite a lot of thought and reflection! While I gather the discussions, exploring, teaching and learning around all of this can/will take place primarily in English, I have a number of related concerns. I have looked over these parts of the documents for the past 2 weeks and still feel much of it is beyond my students, even with carefully guided questions, modeling and the like. Why?

Firstly, the time factor. How can we cover this deeper level of language analysis in the time we already have? I can see it is possible to cover the Communicating side of things – we are pretty much doing that now. But while the Australian Curriculum gives so called ‘Time on Task indicative hours’ for subjects, it does not mandate the number of hours for each subject, nor in our case can I find any mention of Languages becoming compulsory to the end of Year 10, as implementation and provision decisions are left to schools. Looking at the indicative hours for the 7-10 Sequence, each Level (2 school grades) is 160 hours. So each year is assumed to be 80 hours. I am currently covering my course with slightly more time than that, without the heavy going of this Understanding. Of course we talk about these types of things as they come up, but in reality not all students are interested in things far outside their own experiences.

My only solution so far is to adopt aspects of the flipped classroom idea. In 2012 at my school we trialled it at various points by using podcasts and screen casts to explain and illustrate grammar and students were able to ask question and submit work via Edmodo. The pay off was more time for actual practice of the communication using the language introduced. My Year 8 and 9 students (we don’t yet have 7s) have 3×50 min lessons a week, a single and a double. They get homework both days. By using one homework slot for new language and the other for reflection on the language and tying this to student blogs, perhaps I can get through some of this new content… I am keen to hear from teachers in other subjects who have used blogging with their students!

My second concern though, is harder to fix. I can ‘do’ understanding systems of language, the building blocks (yes, these now come under understanding) but exploring how the target language is used by our local community, how it features in local media etc is far more difficult. If a school is in the city, it is plausible. If the language taught is connected with the heritage of a majority of the local population AND still used by them, it is plausible. But for many country schools, this will present a difficult challenge! In many a school the language program taught has depended solely on teacher availability.

So where to? My first step will be to explore blogging with my students in English about the target language and culture. If I pose some questions and engage them in these thoughts, are they able to think that far? If Chinese and Italian teachers give feedback that affirms the draft or if little changes in the final version (I said in my first post about the Curriculum that change can make one cynical… Now is one of those times) then we will all just have to get creative with how we use our time and build these skills up gradually right from the start in partnership with our colleagues in junior years!

Australian Curriculum: Languages – Changes in a Nutshell Part 1

Right upfront, I should clarify that I teach Japanese and German and that my understanding of Chinese and Italian is limited to a couple of words. So why have I even bothered looking through the drafts of two languages I won’t have to implement in the classroom? Well, I have never liked the feeling of being unprepared and figure these two drafts, written mostly in English, will contain some information and clues for all languages as to what we can expect in the drafts of the language specific documents yet to come. I’m going with the “forewarned is forearmed” line and have already taken note of some of the things I need to think through and work out a way to introduce or adapt. Admittedly I have focused my attention on the 7-10 Sequences of both and only the Second Language Learner Pathway for Chinese. From my quick look over the F-10 documents, I believe my assertions outlined below apply across the board.

Will the language content change?

On the weekend I went to see Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific at the Lyric Theatre in Brisbane. If you’re not familiar with it, there is an old but still good film version. At the start we see Nellie Forebush, an American nurse, in the home of Frenchman and plantation owner Emile De Becque. He asks if she learned French at school to which she is happy to answer in the affirmative. “So you can speak French then.” She gives a nervous little laugh then says, “No, but I can conjugate you a few verbs!”

Obviously Language education has already made considerable progress from the time when success in language studies could be guaranteed with rote learning of vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and definite, indefinite and posessive article declension. We’ve been through the translation approach, into the communicative approach and seem to have been there for a while now. Even so, our idea of content has tended to be defined by topics. Take a look at the Senior Secondary curricula around the country and you will find content divided into prescribed Themes (eg The Individual) under which are listed Topics (eg Personal Identity) with which we find Suggested Sub-Topics (eg Family, friends and relationships). These are usually accompanied by a list of expected grammar and script characters where applicable. Look at the majority of textbooks commonly used for junior and middle school classes and they are divided into chapters which are built rather neatly around lists of vocabulary for a specific topic with grammar thrown in to make use of the vocabulary.

When you look at the ACARA documents you won’t find listed topics etc and it can be rather overwhelming when that’s what you are expecting. I started looking at the Scope and Sequence documents which are in table format, rather than the longer, wordier Sequence. If you haven’t yet looked at them, I suggest you ignore the urge to take the quicker table option and go straight to the Sequence. You’ll save yourself minutes of panic and doubt. Rather than just containing the Content Description in point form, the lengthier document fleshes each one out with extra detail and examples, as well as Band Descriptions and a full Achievement Standard description in paragraph form. The extra details immediately put my mind at rest that the language elements covered and the level of language expected of my students is not terribly different. (Please note though that this relates only to language – more on culture later.)

The difference is that in the Australian Curriculum: Languages, content is described as how the language is used. In fact, each of the Content Descriptions begins with a verb! Interact, Describe, Express, Write and so on. There is also an increased focus on collaboration and “with others”. We will also need to provide ample opportunity for our students to be creative with the language and to use digital tools for this purpose.

So while the topics we have previously used to direct our thinking and planning are still there, they are less a focus than the USE of the language. This is not a bad thing, but will require a change in thinking by many of us as ‘knowing’ language is overtaken by ‘doing’ language. And isn’t that a good thing! We’ve always known we were teaching a practical subject, now we get the chance to prove it to everyone else!

Next post: Understanding… What it means in the new curriculum and why it is already changing how I plan to have my students use class and homework time

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Australian Curriculum: Languages – a first impression

The introduction of new curriculum requirements always involves a time of uncertainty, adjustment and reworking. Changes are not always easy to accommodate and cynicism can set in about the writers of the curriculum and how far removed they may be from the day to day experience of the classroom. The publishing of the draft documentation for the Australian Curriculum is likely to be no different.

When I first glanced over it the day after its release, I must admit to feelings something akin to panic and dread. How on earth can we manage to have all students achieve that?! What must be expected if the glossary alone is 15 pages?! If that’s what they think Second Language Learners of Chinese can do I dread to think what the Japanese draft will look like…!

BUT having had time to give it some proper attention (what else was I to do as a passenger across the Hay Plain?! Not the best area for playing ‘I Spy’…) I am now much more optimistic and looking forward to the documents for my particular languages so i can delve into the detail. While I still have numerous questions and concerns, there is much I approve of within the Languages general documents, particularly the Preamble, Rationale and Aims.

Firstly, the document recognises and values ALL languages. At a time when some languages are disappearing from focus very much due to political and economic trends, the ACARA document validates them and the benefits any experience in a second language and culture brings to the overall education and well-being of our young people. By insisting on language specific documents rather than just one or two (alphabetic and non-alphabetic as in the past in some States) the ACARA document recognises that each language and culture has similarities and yet differences, for which a curriculum must cater specifically or allow for variations by the language teacher.

Secondly, I like the statement on Page 3 that “it is not the case that the relationship between the two languages is ‘one plus one’, where each language stays separate and self-contained”. The learner’s first language, and any others they have experience in whether at school or home, are now seen as coming with them into the classroom and adding value to their learning experience, rather than needing to be shut off in favour of the target language. I know in some circles this will be seen as a move possibly leading to reduced use of the target language, but as a learner of 3 languages, I know I move constantly between them, learning more about each because of connections I make with the others.

On Pages 4 and 5, in the section entitled “Diversity of language learners” and in the Rationale, are a number of points about the changing face of migration and our indigenous students. They have not been interconnected in the document, but I believe the arguments and key points for one support those for the other and support and validate the work and passion of language teachers in general. The document states in one section that there is an increasing variety of linguistic and cultural backgrounds and proficiencies in Australian classrooms and follows in the next with the centrality of language and culture for the learning and identity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students. I would argue that language and culture do this for all our students.

“…learning their own language is crucial to their overall learning and achievements. It enables them to achieve a secure acceptance of their own identity and helps them develop a widerrecognition and understanding of their own language, culture, land and Country. This contributes to their well-being.”

This statement is specifically included for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, but I believe applies in general. Our education system has a responsibility to nurture and develop the first languages of all our students, regardless of what those languages are, whether an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language, Vietnamese, Greek, Hindi… The list goes on! If we don’t work with families to build literacy in the first language these students risk becoming semi-literate. If we don’t build on their understanding of the place their culture has within their identity, we devalue it and by extension them and the contributions they make to our society and culture as a whole. Thus, there is material in the new curriculum document to support language departments which may be having to justify the continuation of some language programs which may be at risk given the focus of funding, and therefore in-school support, likely to switch to the ‘big 4’ following the recent White Paper.

Finally, for now anyway, I am grateful that the draft of our new curriculum allows for teachers to make adjustments to the learning programs of individual students to support their needs, whether students with disabilities of any degree or students identified as gifted and talented. It also notes that our classes are likely to consist of different learner groups and that individual schools and teacher will still retain autonomy as to how to implement the curriculum and design our programs. Importantly it does not yet state the Achievement Standards as being fixed, required outcomes but rather as “learning that students are likely to demonstrate at particular points. This is important given that, for a few years at least, many of us will have students on both the F-10 sequence at the same time we have students on the 7-10 sequence in the same class. For those of us in States where Year 7 is still in primary school, we will have the added challenge of playing catch up, given that most primary school language programs have less contact hours than those of secondary schools.

So why, on the whole, am I positive? In my experience so far, language teachers are passionate, energetic and willing to share their experiences, ideas and resources not just within their individual language communities but between them. The Australian Curriculum: Languages encourages us to continue to advocate for the need for Australians to broaden their horizons, to explore ways of thinking, being, doing and expressing. With the new curriculum pushing us for more creative use of language and authentic audiences and interactions for our students, we will need to draw on and build our existing networks, and that can only be a good thing for us and our students!

More in future posts, I’m sure…