In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

October 25, 2014
by annavarna
0 comments

Poetry in class observations

I currently work in a large public organisation with one of the biggest language learning sectors of the world. To give you an idea let me just tell you that we organise language courses for about 12.000 people yearly and we offer as well 3.000 eLearning licenses. We subcontract a small army of 180 teachers and we teach 28 different languages.

One of my tasks in this dream job for any language lover, is to follow the work of these teachers and make suggestions on the methodology used in the classroom. That poses the challenge that I often have to follow classes that teach a language I do not know. This is what I would like to write about today.

Class observation on its own is a very sensitive issue in teaching. I have experienced it from both sides and I would like to share my views. I know that many colleagues feel strongly about it, I have seen very negative reactions toward the observer and I think it is a great pity.

First of all, I hope that you will all agree that when an external observer sees a piece of our work they can have a more objective opinion about it. It could be a dish of pasta, or the cleaning of a room or a short story we have written, it could be whatever. When we are involved in making our judgement is blurred – we are nothing but emotional creatures, don’t forget that. I also personally have great issues when someone “criticizes” my work and if I have cleaned the house for 5 hours, you’d better not tell me that I have missed a spot on the umpteenth bookshelf! I wouldn’t be the Anna you know J. On the other hand I must admit that, I have indeed missed a spot. This is what the other person is telling me, they are not passing a judgement on me, they do not love me less because of it and most of all they do not say that I am a bad house cleaner because of the missed spot.

With time I have grown to see teaching in similar terms and every time I have had someone observe a class or teach a class with me, I have learned great things! I have had nasty experiences of observation too. In one of my first jobs, my boss used to monitor what we were saying via a loudspeaker installation and later she would comment on our pronunciation! Let’s say that this was a negative example of “observation”. But during the best examples of this practise I didn’t feel threatened at all, quite the contrary. Many of my fellow teachers back in Greece where quick to come with the argument: “I don’t want to be observed, why doesn’t the advisor give us a model lesson demonstration instead”. “Who is this person that is going to observe me? Do they think they are better than me?” I think that these are defensive arguments. The person feels threatened and reacts in a “fight or flight” way. That’s why the way the observer is going to proceed with the observation is of great importance.

This is what I have learned these two years I’ve been here and I have been visiting classes: go into the classroom with acceptance and respect for your colleague. Explain beforehand why you are visiting their class and what you want to achieve by this. And afterwards share what you have observed as honestly as you can. This last part may be the most difficult. It’s not easy to say to people that something has gone wrong or that something needs improvement. Going into a classroom with an open mind means that you leave behind your assumptions about what is right and what is wrong. Different personalities have different way of teaching and although we can agree there are some standards that cannot be negotiated, there is also a lot of margin for creativity and differentiation.

mistapes

Anatol Knotek,, a visual poet from Austria. Check his blog:

Time is also important. I remember the time I visited one French class as an observer and the first 15 minutes I was shocked by the attitude of the teacher. “What is this arrogant style I was thinking? Why does everyone seem so frozen in his class? Why does he correct mistakes as if the world has ended?” I could hardly hold myself but I persisted. The teacher relaxed. I could see him changing in front of my eyes. The class was relaxing with him as well. It was like a dance, a mirroring exercise. After half an hour more or less, I could see the real dynamics of the team. The leader had his own particular style, very different from mine, but still very effective and I must say very interesting. What I perceived as coldness in the beginning was only his nervousness because of the presence of an intruder. Because this is what an observer does: they “intrude” a system, a sensitive system and what they observe is never the “real” thing. They are bound therefore to disrupt unintentionally this system.

So these are my formal observations from classroom observations. I’d like to give you some informal ones too. A few days ago I went to a poetry reading organised by EUNIC (European network of institutions of culture) with 5 poets from different countries. We heard poems in three of the languages I speak and two more in unknown languages for me: Turkish and Esthonian. I was so moved by both of them! For the Turkish I also had the translation so you could say that it was the content that did this to me. But for the Esthonian I had no idea what she was talking about. I only knew that the title of the poem was Love. And still I could feel the emotions of this strong woman in my bones.

This is how I often feel when I observe a teacher whose language I don’t speak: I observe the teaching itself, the core pedagogy without being distracted by the content. I can see the movements of the teacher, I can observe the web of interactions that is being developed, I can see in real time what I have been reading about: teachers usually address people who are on their right side much more that the ones on their left. I can see if the teacher is tired, hungry or full of energy. I can see if the teacher feels passionate about his job, if they savour the words of their language. I can see if there is a balance of skills practised, if people cooperate, if they trust their leader. And let me tell you: sometimes it is pure poetry what those teachers are doing!

My friends are telling me: “But you know Anna, you have no idea what the teacher is saying to the students in Danish. Maybe she is talking nonsense and she has asked the students to not tell on her and participate by speaking nonsense too”. It is very possible, my friends, but if nothing else it makes a great language lesson!

 

(Extra: In #eltchat the topic was discussed extensively and this what teachers around the world think about it)

What is best practice for observing teachers – #ELTchat summary

(Extra 2: The poem from the English-Turkish poet Alev Adil: Baggage )

June 9, 2014
by annavarna
1 Comment

Exams and why we must revolt

It’s June. For people without kids it’s the time the weather gets better and they can start hitting the beaches of their countries. Or those of their neighbours’. For those with kids under the age of 8 or 9 (depending where you leave) it’s still a good time, enjoy it while you can good people. For the rest of us with kids between the ages of 8 and 22 (depending where you live) it’s that time of the year again. Yeap, it’s exam time. If you come from a country like Greece you have probably been conditioned to talk on the first person plural when it comes to exams: “We have an exam in Ancient Greek tomorrow, so we can’t join you to the beach, sorry”. Even if you aren’t such a helicopter parent, you probably worry about how your children are doing. It is possible also that you like me are fed up with seeing them learn useless things. You may have hired private help to tutor your kids, or may be spending hours helping them to revise for the exams. Whatever is the way you approach this in your family, I am pretty sure you think there is something genuinely wrong with the system.

The last few days, I have been seeing various posts from friends and fellow educators in my timelines. One of them still resonates with me after a few days. He was saying: “marks (at school) can say nothing about a child’s effort, critical thinking, cooperation, curiosity, respect, politeness, ability to love, emotional and social intelligence, honesty and so much more…”  At first sight it seems like a parent’s gentle complaint that his child is not seen as a whole human being at school. But I think the problem goes deeper than that and we parents/educators have a hard time balancing our roles. On the one hand we have to help our kids excel at a system which is far from ideal. And as educators we understand that the system is so outdated, so distorted, so not preparing our kids and our students for tomorrow’s world that sometimes you feel like banging your head on the wall.

At least there are people out there who feel the same and they are encouraging us to do something, to not keep quiet. To scream instead of banging our heads. To talk to our colleagues, to our children’s school directors, to other parents, to our kids, to our students. One such person is Will Richardson. I know Will from twitter and has been following him and his education tweets for years. Two days ago I bought his short book Why School? and I was fascinated with it. I have highlighted big parts of it and at every page, I was thinking, this makes so much sense. Will explains very clearly how insufficient the work that is happening in schools right now is in preparing students for a future world. Things you may have heard from Ken Robinson or Clay Shirky or even John Dewey are summarized in a really lucid way so that I strongly recommend this essay to all educators and policy makers out there.

Why-School

The following extract is the one I originally shared on Facebook and it seemed that many people found it relevant: “ The important irony is that test scores tell us little, if anything about our children’s preparedness for future success in a fast-changing world. A recent IBM survey of CEOs asked them to name the most crucial factor for future success, and their answers had nothing to do with state assessments, SAT scores, or ven Advanced Placement Tests. Instead they cited creativity and “managing the growing complexity of the world”. I can’t find a state or local test currently in use that captures our kids’ mastery in those two areas. You?”

Another extract ”Connecting and learning with other people online, distinguishing good information from bad, creating and sharing important works with the world: None of that (and a whole bunch of other stuff I could mention) is on the test. And sadly, therefore, we don’t value it. It finds no place in our classrooms.”

But of course how can we teachers go on to teach our students these things when we cannot do them ourselves. When we keep on creating tests that are about content (content that is dead, that people can find in 30 seconds) and not about critical ability about cooperation about creation. When we do not ourselves collaborate with our peers in creating new content.

My fellow educators back in Greece, complain heavily and resist the (don’t-know-what-is going-on) government’s efforts to impose teacher assessment. I don’t agree at all with the way this is implemented and I know how unprepared the educational world is for that. But I think the problem is elsewhere: the Greek government as governments all over the world, as the American government for that matter,  insist on trying to make things “better” by placing the blame on teachers, by weakening teachers, by focusing on test results. The point is we have to make things completely differently, otherwise in a few years’ time we will be so obsolete we will disappear.  As Richardson cleverly notes: “In a nutshell, proponents of this view believe that education can be improved by identifying and getting rid of the teachers whose students underperform on the test, by privatizing schools and by “personalizing” the curriculum via computers that deliver content and problems to individual kids based on their assessed skill level.”

Our vision should be focusing on learning, on preparing students to become good learners, on teaching them how to create their own networks, developing good habits of questioning what is served to them as truth. If you are a teacher, maybe you should start wondering how you can do that in your class. If you are a parent, maybe you should start questioning if this is happening in your child’s classroom. If you are both, you are the first one that has to react.

Courage to all parents, students and teachers out there, going through exam period, one more time. And courage to me who is writing this just to procrastinate from studying for (yet) another French exam J.

For some fun check this test created by a teacher in a religious school in the USA where everything you think you knew would be marked wrong. Because there is hope in this world, the school closed since the test was given due to lack of funding. You can read the whole story here: Science Test

test

May 18, 2014
by annavarna
0 comments

CLIL from parent’s point of view

One reason I haven’t been writing much in this blog lately is that I am quite busy with helping my daughter with her schoolwork. I know this isn’t how it should be and I totally support an educational system where students don’t even have homework.

But life isn’t ideal (except maybe in Finland) and here in Brussels at the European School both my daughter and me we become daily exasperated by the amount and level of homework.

Let me give you some background details: the European schools are organized around the International Baccalaureate system which is a prestigious certificate for secondary education that supposedly ensures access to the best Universities. But the years leading to this certificate are in my opinion exhausting, allowing little time for creativity or emotional development and hardly cultivating a love for learning. One feature that makes education in European schools different from average schools is that they promote multilingualism and that CLIL (Content Language Integrated Learning) is part of the curriculum for most primary and secondary classes.

Maybe I am biased because my daughter has not been following this system since the beginning and now she finds it hard to get accustomed to it. But even for students that have been in it since their first year, I think something is intricately wrong. I will just mention that during both the parent–teachers meet-ups we had , the adage was how difficult it is going to be this year and how demanding it is and how we have to stress to our children to get serious. As if they weren’t serious enough. There was only one (1) teacher who mentioned as her objective “students should learn to love History”.

I am not going to bother you with all the ups and downs we have had this year. I have seen my daughter become a much more efficient learner than she was a few years ago and I thank her excellent teachers for that. But I have also seen her cry inconsolably because she thinks she is stupid and sees no light ahead of her. Now that the summer approaches I try to forget the latter and remember the former.

But I wanted to mention the pros and cons of a CLIL approach from the point of view of a parent this time. And give some tips to teachers who are already practicing it or thinking of engaging in it.

Firstly I must say that I am persuaded that CLIL helps improvement of language skills through the teaching of a different subject. I have read the studies that give the first results and the relevant criticism. What I am not sure myself is how long you have to do it to see these results and what CLIL does to the comprehension of the subject itself.

rock

In any case this is what I think teachers should think carefully of, before starting their CLIL adventure:

-          Make sure the linguistic level of the subject is only slightly above that of the students. If students have to face an enormous corpus of unknown lexis, this really discourages and frustrates them. Not to mention that it sets them back.

-          Don’t take for granted that course materials created for native speakers will be appropriate for your students.

-          Make sure you adopt a cooperative approach in class. We all know the value of learning in teams but in CLIL classes I think it is even more important. Students will feel less threatened when they see that others face the same difficulties as them.

-          Try to explain your concepts in various ways: say them orally, paint a diagram or a drawing, ask students to explain them in their own words.

-          Ask students to reconstruct information. Don’t ask questions that only rely on memory but ones that need some critical ability as well.

-          If you expect your students to do some assignments try to explain these clearly at the beginning. If you think they will have to work at home, let parents know. In general explaining to your parents how you intend to work should be crucial.

-          Explain the evaluation procedure up front. Surprises aren’t always happy!

-          When parents come to see you worried because their offspring is not doing well in your subject don’t be arrogant and don’t try to persuade them that you are doing everything right and there is something wrong with their kid. Even if you ARE doing everything right, dear Teacher. Try a little empathy, as the song says…

Reading back what I have written, which is a compilation of things that went exceptionally well or badly in our situation, I realize that all these recommendations apply for any lesson in any school, not just CLIL classrooms. But there is one more reason that it is imperative to do everything right in a CLIL classroom: your students will already be anxious when they come into your CLIL class, try to remember that. If you, yourself are a native speaker of the language in which you teach, please remember they aren’t. Try to remember that every time you go into the class. Please. I promise you that they will learn more this way!

 

 

 

 

March 11, 2014
by annavarna
0 comments

Ever wondered how people learn?

learning

Picturebook by L.C. Perry

This blog has been inactive for a long time for various reasons that have to do with work, work and work. But I have been writing a few things lately (for work) and I thought I could share one of them. There are about 30,000 employees in the European Commission (my current workplace), most of them what we call knowledge workers and as you can imagine the issue of how they learn and how best they can share their knowledge is crucial. This is a short piece I wrote for the internal publication, “Commission en Direct”,  summarizing what I have learned the last years about learning itself. I am not in a position to give a comprehensive bibliography and I was restricted to use online resources and books I could find in our internal library. Still I think the indicative titles can give you a starting point.

Here it is. my take about how people learn. I hope you won’t be alienated by the serious writing style :)

People have been trying to understand learning for well over 2,000 years. However, today’s developments in neuroscience, cognitive psychology and the use of technology are shedding new light on how our brains work and what this means for our personal and professional learning.

The importance of learning in the professional – or on-the-job – context is undisputable and it may be what makes the difference between successful and unsuccessful businesses. As the researchers Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robert Mason (2002) have noted, “an organisation’s human capital – the knowledge, skills, competencies, relationships and creativities invested in its people – has emerged as a key competitive factor”.

In this introductory article about how people learn, we look at some of the key ideas about learning nowadays and their implications for our professional lives.

Learning and our brain

We now know that our brain has a quality referred to as ‘plasticity’, which means that it keeps changing even at a very old age. Contrary to what was believed in the past, brain development is lifelong, and not predetermined at birth or within the first three years. There are periods of our life that are critical for some kinds of learning, but in general, as [Paul Jones (2009) states: “throughout life, the brain is plastic and its connectivity, functionality and even structure are influenced by experience, including educational experience”. Learning changes the physical structure of the brain through the process of continuous interactions between the learner and the external environment.

Contextual learning

The influential Lev Vygotsky was one of the first scientists to develop the idea that all learning occurs in a cultural context and involves social interactions. Now, we know that learning is a process of drawing connections between what is already known or understood and new information. Thus, prior knowledge is important to the learning process. People make connections and draw conclusions based on a sense of what they already know and have experienced. This means that in order to learn anything new we have to anchor it to something we already know. Teachers, trainers or our peers can help us to make sense of information by providing conceptual maps.

Mistakes’ added value

Mistakes are essential when it comes to learning. They mean that we act, experiment and evolve. As the American organisational behaviour specialist David Kolb says, essentially all learning is relearning. Of course, it all depends on how this culture of experimentation is supported at work. “Organisations that allow failure also provide the conditions necessary to support natural learning and innovation”. (Reynolds, Caley and Mason 2002).

Social and informal learning

Much learning occurs in groups and among individuals engaged in tasks together. People learn from each other as well as from experts. Learning opportunities in social contexts enable people to learn together and retain more of what they learnt. One noteworthy find of various studies is that “70% of what people know about their jobs, they learn informally from the people they work with” (Cross, 2007). Marcia Conner also mentions that “most learning doesn’t occur in formal training programs. It happens through processes not structured or sponsored by an employer or a school. Informal learning accounts for over 75 percent of the learning taking place in organizations today”

Learning with your heart 

Both thoughts and emotions shape the learning process. Metacognitive skills —being able to think about and monitor one’s own thinking — enable learners to manage their own learning process, to learn difficult new concepts, and to problem-solve effectively. Emotions also play a role – when we are anxious, depressed, or distracted, we cannot focus to process information. Therefore creating emotionally safe learning environments can enhance our learning experiences and improve our retention.

To sum up, contemporary learning theories – influenced by new developments in neuroscience and cognitive psychology as well as the use of new technologies – recognise the role of experience and reflection in the development of ideas and skills. Different objectives require different kinds of learning. As a result, the role of teachers is changing and, to be successful, individual learners need to take greater ownership of their own learning. And this is also in organisations’ interests.

Resources:

Marcia Conner, http://marciaconner.com/resources/informal-learning/

Jay Cross, ‘Informal Learning’ (2007)

Linda Daling Hammond, Kim Austin, Suzanne Orcutt and Jim Rosso, ‘How People Learn: Introduction to Learning Theories’ (2001) http://www.stanford.edu/class/ed269/hplintrochapter.pdf

Eleanor Dommett, Ian Devonshire & Richard Churches, ‘Learning and the Brain’ (2011)

Paul Howard Jones, Neuroscience, learning and technology (14-19), Becta, (2009) (http://www.bris.ac.uk/education/people/academicStaff/edpahj/publications/becta.pdf)

Kolb, D.A. (1984). Experiential Learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall Inc.

Jake Reynolds, Lynne Caley and Robin Mason, ‘How do people Learn?’ (2002)

Lev Vygotsky


 

October 6, 2013
by annavarna
1 Comment

Cold feet, RSCON4 and other things

Today was the day that I worked most on my presentation at the RSCON4. The 2013 Reform Symposium for education is an online conference that will take place next weekend (11-13 of October). Some of the most important educators are taking part in it. They come from all fields and not only from English Language Teaching. And it is completely free, you can attend it without spending anything, wearing your pajamas or your high heels, eating pop corn or drinking coffee!

A few years ago I had tried to participate again but because of professional overload I backed out. Then the next two years I was in a turmoil involving big changes in professional and personal life and somehow lost it. This year, Shelly Terrell, one of the most active educators I personally know, motivated me to apply again and here I am, getting ready to do it.

I have a confession to make: this morning at about 10, I had worked a bit on it (I had started preparing a Prezi a few days ago) I was reading the checklist the organizers sent us and I got cold feet. “it’s too much”, “Why are you doing this? Isn’t your life full enough already?” and the scariest one “Nobody’s gonna be interested in what you have to say” the voices inside me were telling me. And I knew that I could find a credible excuse (too much work, which is true but didn’t keep me from applying) and that there are so many presenters, no one would miss me especially.

But then I dealt with my fear, I spoke to it and I told him (Fear is male in Greek): Hey, you’re trying to keep me out of this, because I haven’t done it before and it needs work. But what’s the worst that can happen? That I give this presentation and only my friend Olga is there. So what? I have survived much worse than this!

A few minutes later the above mentioned Olga called, and told me about a beautiful speech by the mayor of Thessaloniki talking about his own fears and how he fought with them and I felt I was now obliged to go on. Once I finish this project I will volunteer to translate the video in English because it is really worth watching it no matter what you do and where you are from. Mr Boutaris is an iconic mayor of Greece and one of the few political personalities we still believe in…

Back to RSCON4: My biggest fear comes from the fact that for the last year and a half I have been so much out of my comfort zone, doing things so different from I was doing until then that sometimes I feel totally out of my league. This time I don’t have a specific classroom project to tell you about. I’m not even in the classroom anymore. But I thought that telling you a bit about what it is like to work in a team that coordinates language teaching for about 12,000 people every year, who learn 29 different languages, using three different modes of learning (classic face2face, blended and eLearning) might be of interest to you.

On top of it I wanted to tell you about how going back to the classroom to learn (or rather relearn) a language changes my perspective towards teachers and learners every day. Back at school I had learned French and even have the necessary certificates to prove it. But only when you go into a professional meeting with French speaking IT specialists designing a new LMS do you realise how much you have forgotten and how imbecile you sound and how much embarrassed you feel, and how much you identify with all your students back home… And you embrace yourself and start studying “La Subjonctif” again…

restecalme

These are more or less the things I’m going to talk about on Saturday. I’ll throw in a few things about where language learning is going, the added value of Cultural Institutes and how finding new identities for ourselves can help us face our fears. If you want to learn more about all these, connect to your laptop or tablet or PC, on Saturday 12th of October at 18.00 CET. But even more important, try to catch as many of the presentations of the other educators who will be talking to you for three days. Because we still believe in education and we think that we can make a difference!

April 1, 2013
by annavarna
0 comments

Είσαι νέος το ξέρω…

Μια ανάρτηση στα Ελληνικά. Αφιερωμένη εξαιρετικά στους μαθητές που με άκουσαν σήμερα :) 

Είναι ένας χρόνος σχεδόν που έφυγα από την Ελλάδα για τις Βρυξέλλες. Στη νέα μου δουλειά ασχολούμαι και πάλι με την εκμάθηση των γλωσσών αλλά όχι από τη θέση της δασκάλας πια αλλά από τη θέση της συμβούλου, της συντονίστριας, της παιδαγωγού. Αν και η λέξη παιδαγωγός δεν ταιριάζει και πολύ γιατί ασχολούμαι με ενήλικες. Όμως στα Γαλλικά, pedagogue, είναι κάτι σαν υπεύθυνος σπουδών, υπεύθυνος για το περιεχόμενο των μαθημάτων και την ποιότητα τους. Αυτό κάνω εκεί.

Έχω μάθει πολλά πράγματα αυτό το χρόνο που είμαι εκεί. Έχω μάθει πως λειτουργεί μια τεράστια δημόσια υπηρεσία στην υπηρεσία του πολίτη: κυρίως με πολλή διαφάνεια. Έχω μάθει τί είναι σημαντικό όταν κοιτάζουμε τα βιογραφικά των ανθρώπων που θα προσλάβουμε: κυρίως αν αυτά που γράφουν είναι σχετικά με τη θέση.  Έχω μάθει τί προσέχουν όταν προσλαμβάνουν νέα παιδιά για τα τρίμηνα ή εξάμηνα stage: οι γλώσσες και η συμμετοχή σε σχετικές με τη θέση δραστηριότητες. Έχω μάθει τί έχει σημασία όταν βγαίνεις να δουλέψεις σε άλλη χώρα και μάλιστα σε ένα διεθνή οργανισμό: η προσαρμοστικότητα περισσότερο από τα πολλά πτυχία.

Και όλα αυτά που έμαθα ήθελα να τα μοιραστώ με αυτούς που νομίζω ότι ενδιαφέρουν περισσότερο. Με αυτούς που σε λίγα χρόνια θα είναι υποψήφιοι για stage στην Ευρωπαϊκή Επιτροπή, για μεταπτυχιακά ή για Εράσμους. Με τα παιδιά που είναι σήμερα στο Γυμνάσιο και το Λύκειο.

Ευτυχώς εδώ στην πόλη μου, οι περισσότεροι φίλοι είναι εκπαιδευτικοί. Η φίλη μου η Μαρία, από το Γυμνάσιο Πλατυκάμπου είχε πρώτη την ιδέα να μιλήσω στους μαθητές του Γυμνασίου στα πλαίσια του Σ.Ε.Π και η φίλη και διευθύντρια του 3ου Λυκείου Λάρισας, Μαρίνα Κολλάτου ενθουσιάστηκε επίσης με την ιδέα. Οπότε σήμερα μίλησα ζωντανά σε ένα κοινό απαιτητικό, 60 περίπου 16χρονοι, γεμάτοι ζωή και απορίες. Είπα τα τρία πράγματα που ήθελα να πω, εκείνοι με άκουσαν και με ρωτούσαν ενδιαφέροντα πράγματα. Οι πιο εσωστρεφείς ήρθαν και με ρώτησαν κατ’ιδίαν στο τέλος. Οι υπόλοιποι ελπίζω να διαβάσουν αυτή την ανάρτηση.

Εσείς μπορείτε να δείτε την παρουσίαση!

 

December 19, 2012
by annavarna
0 comments

Farming Style and how to bring it in the classroom

This is for all my former colleagues in Karditsa and Larissa

In 2005 I first arrived to work in a school in rural Karditsa. I am not at all a city girl, I grew up in various little places with many different accents, from mainland Lamia and whereabouts to Rhodes with its characteristic singing intonation and Italianati diction that so confused me when I was a kid. But nothing had prepared me for the first day of assembly and common prayers in Karpohori, that small village of 1000 inhabitants: The first time I heard a kid saying the prayer, I thought someone was kidding me. I was looking at the other teachers waiting for them to stop the kid telling her to start again this time with all the vowels included. But no. This was it. Welcome to Karditsa!
TO learn to pronounce the name of that village, the name its inhabitants had been using since 1700 before the Independent Greek State gave it something sounding a little more Greek and less Turkish, was a challenge too. Try saying Gerbesi without the vowels and you will have an approximation!
But anyway, that year I was so happy to be working as a permanent teacher only 80klm from my home (the previous year I had been working somewhere near the borders with Turkey, 650 klm away) that nothing could curb my enthusiasm. The next year I went to a different village, this time with a pretty easy-to-pronounce name, Itea, which actually means Willow tree and I was even happier. The friends I made in that school, will be forever, no matter where we are…
And since 2006 until May 2012 I was working there. Oh boy, the things I learnt about agriculture and tractors and tools and animals. My posh friends in big cities, laughed at all the cute pictures of ducks and turkeys and cows and sheep I post on Facebook, but secretly I think they envied that every day I had the chance to get out of my ugly city and go to the countryside and enjoy glorious landscapes and endless skies!
One of the highlights of my time there was when we opened our first student e-mail accounts and I encouraged them to write to me. That was pre-FB times when people sent e-mails to each other! So the first e-mail my student Kostas sent to me was this: “Hello teacher. How are you? My favourite tractors are John Deree tractors. What are yours?” As you can see my education on tractor makes had already started!
Back to the present. It’s the year 2012 and Gangnam style has gone viral and is being danced by teenagers and serious eurocrats alike. And my friend Monika sends me this link with a parody of the song.

The Peterson brothers made their version of the song that has gone viral and they hit a nerve! What I like is that they take pride in their work, they talk about it as the most important job on earth and they aren’t wrong. As I remind my daughter every day the person who is putting the food on the table is the chief.
Into our classrooms now. This is a song I would bring in my classroom. I would talk about agriculture with the experts, that is my students, and would discuss what the brothers are doing. I’m sure they would have lots to teach me! Plenty of vocabulary opportunities there. I would also discuss how fresh food is hardly featured in the video. At some point when they are singing about providing food they show a table full of cereal boxes and no fruit or vegetable whatsoever. Plenty of opportunity for critical thinking there and discussion about cultural differences and similarities. With some older classes I could even discuss GM food and the differences between European and American legislation.
And of course there would be lots to discuss about different makes of tractors people!! But even if not much of a conversation in English could take place I am sure we would enjoy the movements.
Now it’s Wednesday morning and I’m getting ready to cycle to work. No teaching for me this year, only observing teachers, designing eLearning courses, checking the quality of courses and so on. But if any teachers out there are inspired by this and they go on to try it I’d love to hear from you people and feature your work here!
Happy Holidays!

November 24, 2012
by annavarna
2 Comments

Critical Thinking and How to Dance it (the making of… )

Last April I started following an online course on Critical Thinking with the University of Oregon and professor Sherie Henderson as our basic moderator. The course opened up a whole new world for me, the world of Critical Thinking and involved a lot of thinking as you can imagine. At times I really struggled to follow it, mostly because it coincided with my relocation to Brussels, with the first month of changing everything: job, city, country. But I survived and learned a lot.

At about that time I was also trying to come up with an idea for a proposal for the 31st TESOL France Colloquium which takes place every year in Paris in mid-November. I had been accepted as a speaker there the previous year as well but hadn’t been able to go due to personal reasons. This year, with Paris being just an hour and a half away I was determined to make it.

So, before long, I put the two together and proposed a talk about how to promote Critical Thinking in the classroom. Little did I know that it would take me months of thinking, tens of books and hundreds of articles and many many hours of tinkering with Prezi to prepare for this presentation. It was the third one in an international Conference and I must say it was the one that tired me most, mostly because it was a vast topic and I was feeling inadequate to handle it. But I dived into it, anyway, like I usually do :) Here is the result:

What I wanted to say was that: We, educators, have the duty to train our students to think more critically, to become good thinkers, to seek reasons and become reflective. It is OUR mission to do so, whether we teach English, Maths or Physical Education. It is not easy but it CAN be done. I hope that with my talk and prezi I have helped a bit to show you where to look for ideas and inspiration.

I would like to take this opportunity, to thank the fantastic team of TESOL France, Bethany Cagnol most of all, but also all the other educators who were there and with their ideas and enthusiasm keep the fire of education alive. Thank you James Taylor, Mieke Kenis, Ellen de Peter, Jurgen, Tyson Seburn, Vicky Loras, Sue Lyon Jones, Elizabeth Ann, Heike Philp, Eva Buyuksimkeysan, Julie Raikou, Vladka Chalyova, Chuck Sandy, Tom Farrell, Chia Suan Chong, Brad Patterson, Fiona Mauchline, Divya Brochier, Jeffrey D0onan, Dimitris Primalis, Nick Michelioudakis, Elinda Gjondendaj and all the others!

P.S. Don’t forget tomorrow morning to attend the brand NEW BELTA’s inauguration webinar! Click here for info http://www.beltabelgium.com/p/events.html

 

 

November 10, 2012
by annavarna
0 comments

Critical Thinking and How to dance it in Paris

It’s Saturday morning here in Brussels, it’s rainy as always and a woman is sitting on her couch with a cup of coffee (the second one) and various books and magazines open around her and tens of windows open in her task bar.

This is how I feel right now

Wouldn’t it be better if she stood up grabbed her raincoat and walked to Place Flagey to taste organic breads and confitures and then enjoy a glass of champagne and a plate of moules?

No, no, this woman is determined not to lose focus this Saturday, it’s her last Saturday before she has to take the train to Paris. Oh, la la, Paris…..

I’m diverting again. So, next Saturday, I will be in Paris to participate in the 31st Annual Colloquium of TESOL France. I have to finish my presentation tomorrow at the latest but this is much harder than I expected. Mostly because there are so many good ideas and I have to trim and trim.

But in any case, right now I was reading a beautiful hymn to grammar, yes, grammar that part of Language Instruction that seems to be the scapegoat for all problems in classrooms since the beginning of time. I’ll just quote an extract from this defense because to me it’s like poetry: ” The inner theme of grammar is simplicity, even unity. This is the subtext of the rules: Let all in the sentence be one, let it be clear and agree that the center of the sentence be seen. The works of the sentence must move in harmony, like the wheels of a clock. The subject and the verb must be in agreement, the pronoun and its antecedent must be in agreement, the tenses of the verb in the sentence must be in agreement with each other. Everything being in order, the sentence can depict a truth” (Michael Clay Thompson, The Journal of Secondary Gifted Education, Vol XIII, No2, Winter 2002, pp 60-66).

Doesn’t it remind you of John Lennon?

Next Sunday at 10.00 in room B316 at Telecom Paris Tech, we will ponder on ruminations like this and  we will discuss and maybe debate how to best teach grammar and vocabulary to our students and at the same time promote Critical Thinking.

I can’t wait to meet all of you new friends and see again some ones from the past!

Now, I’m feeling better

 

 

June 8, 2012
by annavarna
0 comments

ROMA or not, React!

A few months ago, when I was still living in Greece and working as a teacher, there was a big upheaval caused when ROMA segregated schools were closed overnight and their population was asked to “integrate” in “normal” schools. I was appalled, furious and totally disillusioned by how our educational authorities handled the issue, but even more so by how my fellow teachers refused to go to work, or send their kids to the schools where ROMA students would go from the next day. Back then I chose not to write anything about it because I was so angry and so disappointed I was bound to be unfair.

My friend Nikos, a really  Brave Teacher, was not at all hesitant in speaking out and even writing a heated article about it, but I’m not sure whether it was published after all. Local societies have the means to preserve their own and they wouldn’t concede even to listen to different views. Fortunately there were calm voices too and their scientific and sound arguments were expressed.

And then I left, and amid all the personal struggles to relocate to a new country, a new job, a new culture, far away from family and friends, I lost track of the case. But loose ends follow you wherever you go and as the poet has said no matter where you travel you will always get off at the same stop, at the same city..

So yesterday I was invited to an event about ROMA integration. There were some serious presentations about the work of the Commission on the issue and some very passionate people spoke. There were also some very talented young people of ROMA origin, from various countries, who shared their experiences. Some stories were cheerful, some humorous, some haunting…There was an energetic young woman, a stagier in Brussels, and one of the creative minds behind this site.

Somehow she reminded me of  little V a student of mine, back in Greece, in Itea. V and her brother and sister , of Roma origin, came to our school last year. Not everything was ideal from the beginning and even recently you could occasionally hear prejudiced remarks. But the truth is these kids were so cheerful, so happy to be going to school, that I think they won us from day one. I remember very well the first day they came to school and how disappointed I was (again) by some of my fellow teachers. But we talked about it. We argued, we even fought with some. And gradually, I think we won. Not only did the kids stay at school but they were fully accepted too. Earlier this year I remember we were doing an exercise about different languages and V mentioned that she could speak her own language a little. For a moment I held my breath because I was not at all sure how the other 9-year-olds would react. But they reacted as all children in their age: with honest curiosity!

All three siblings were exceptional however. A, the younger sister is an adorable child with the highest degrees of social and emotional intelligence, clever, sparkling eyes, cuddly and confident at the same time. N, their brother should be given a prize for the student who loves school most, cause he is the first boy I have met who cries when he can’t come to school. His special abilities and speech impairment do not prevent him from becoming part of our small school community and he has such a sense of humour, he kept impressing his teacher, Ms Helen almost every day. Special mention for this Special Education teacher here, who is such an assertive person, a teacher who stood for her students  every day against all odds, against all the prejudices of a small rural society!!! Three cheers for Helen. All the teachers who were involved with the kids were fantastic in their approach, Christos, Kostas, Andreas, all of them played their role in helping the kids to become part of the group as smoothly as possible.

So last night, I was listening to these beautiful young men and women speaking about their history and their origins and I couldn’t stop thinking of V. I am pretty sure that if she is given a chance, first by her family and then by our schools, one day she will be talking at an auditorium in Brussels too!

Big thanks to my new friends here who invited me to this even and gave me the chance first to meet all these interesting people and secondly to reminisce about my students and appreciate once more what a unique educational group I was part of, before I left. But of course you have to take your distance to understand that…