In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

May 18, 2014
by annavarna

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.


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!





May 1, 2012
by annavarna

Norwegian Schools: A trip to the future

Since October 2011 I’ve been participating in a European Comenius multilateral project called CORE (Clil Objectives Resourcekit for Educators). As its name suggests it’s a project about CLIL implementation and our main objective is to see how CLIL theory is applied in various educational systems, as well as create a resourcekit for any educators that might be interested to give it a try. There are seven partners from five countries in the project and there is a lot of diversity regarding our experience in CLIL. Our Spanish partners for example are already practicing CLIL in their settings, and Victor Pavon our Cordovan partner is an academic whose main focus is CLIL and bilingualism. On the other hand our Norwegian partners are very new to exploring the possibilities of CLIL and so are we, the Greek partners. Nevertheless this diversity is one of our strong points as a team.

So now that I have explained the basics of our project I’d like to describe my experience in Norway where the second meeting was held, and in particular my impressions from visiting two schools in the area of Karmoy.
The first visit was at Holmen school. This is an alternative school in the area of Karmoy. There are very few students and they are pupils that had serious trouble to follow the “regular” school program or children who dropped out of school so this is their final effort to graduate. They do the usual school subjects but they also do a lot of practical work, like bike repairing, painting, cooking and such. When the first school opened some 13 or 14 years ago one of the educators had the brilliant idea that if they wanted to keep the students in this school they had to give them a dream. And the dream they decided upon in this beautiful fishing town of Karmoy was to build a ship! We are talking about a real 15m long ship that will be able to sail and not a sorry model.
12 years ago they started building it, along with their teachers, little by little every year, working hours and hours, and studying all kinds of theory in order to learn how to do it. Combining science, mathematics, shipbuilding skills, and whatever else necessary now it is almost ready. In about a month she will go into water.
When our group went into the school , the head Johanes, briefed us into the story of the ship. But no briefing could have prepared me for the beauty of the vessel, its size, the kind of work that went into it and the pride of the students working on it. We met three of the students working there and they were all smiling, clever, polite boys who seemed to work with earnest love for the boat.
Talking with the teachers was enlightening as well: “There have been many students who have worked on the ship over the years. We show them that if you are patient you can achieve something big. But you have to wait. So this might help them when they go back to regular school and they will have to be patient in order to see the results of their efforts”. How true! How many times have we had students who don’t see the meaning of trying hard and working diligently? I’m sure if you have worked with adolescents you will have encountered situations like this pretty often.
Another thing that amazed me with the whole project was how few students were there. The three alternative options of Karmoy school system are the Holmen, Tarnet and Botoppen schools. All in all they must deal with no more than 40 students. But people there do not see it as an awful lot of money for so few students. They see it as an investment for the future: if they manage to keep these students at school they are convinced their investment will pay off and in the long run it will come cheaper than if these adolescents were lost in the forests of juvenile delinquency.
The second school we visited must be one of the flagships of Norwegian education. Mykje Skole on the outskirts of Haugesund is a school taken out of the Fairy Tale Schools book. We arrived there on Friday morning and we experienced the Friday assembly. In a beautiful hall (Scandinavian Design at its best) candle lit, and with music played the 300 students gathered in a most ordered manner, quiet, wearing their clogs or their socks, they sat down next to their teachers and they waited until everybody had sat. Our mouths had already dropped because everything was being done so quietly and peacefully. The music teacher announced the program which included a song sang by the school choir (I think this was done for our sake, but maybe not), some presentation about traffic safety, awarding the most careful students of the week wishing happy birthday to the people whose birthday was that week!
When the choir sang “California Dreaming” I think I started crying. Whoever has tried to teach children a simple (monophonic) song will know what kind of work it takes to achieve such a result. I am sure you will agree they are simply fantastic!

But our visit had just started. As soon as assembly finished we were assigned two student guides (who spoke excellent English, as well as all the other Norwegian people I met) who would take us around the school and explain everything. What can I say? That the facilities are of the highest standards? That classrooms had no doors but that there were specially designed rooms for group work? That there were computers and interactive boards everywhere? I think the point isn’t to describe facilities. What I saw was a school where children are free to work on their own, where there is a lot of peer learning and teaching (like in the music room where there was no teacher but the students taught each other how to play the cello), where teachers cooperate to teach a class. I saw a school where students and teachers are respected and they are given opportunities to take initiatives and create and be innovative. I saw a school where I would like to teach, and in which I would love my child to attend.
The following night we were invited to Holmen School again. This time a teacher of the school, who is also an accredited chef, would cook for us and two of the students would help in the kitchen and with the waiting. Again we experienced this look on the eyes of the students that talked about the pride they took in their work. And I couldn’t help wondering how often we give opportunities like that to our students.
A huge thank you to our Norwegian hosts who organized this visit and gave us the gift of getting to know from up close such marvelous education system. Thank you Britt-Mona, Per, John, Helga, Jane, Johanes! See you in Greece in autumn.

Here you can find the set of images related to these two Norwegian schools:

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