Friday, November 19, 2010

An Xtranormal Experience with 7-year-old kids

Technology is like electricity: it is pervasive, boundless, it is everywhere… it is useful. We teachers ignore it at our peril. We would never expect our pupils to use typewriters or read by candlelight. Equally, we should be encouraging them to use the tools they have available, the tools with which they are familiar if we are to ensure they remain engaged and motivated.

I had longed searched for a tool with which students could work collaboratively and have fun at the same time. Xtranormal (www.xtranormal.com) entitles itself as a text-to-movie website which allows teachers and students to create short films with their own scripts by using clever text-to-speech technology. This means students write a script and then feed in into Xtranormal to produce films with characters dramatizing it.

My pupils, 7-8 year olds are rather motivated learners and loud as any kid their age. Needless to say they are crazy about technology and a simply coming to the board can turn into great excitement. They were first introduced to Xtranormal, a webtool with which they were not familiar yet, at one of our regular classes. I have created a short version of myself teaching and saying their names thus quickly managed to engage my students’ attention: it soon transpired that this was an activity they wanted to do. With a few jaws almost touching the floor I said the magic words: “You are going to create animated videos like this one!” – They were amazed and could not wait to start.

I allowed my students a few minutes to brainstorm dialogues they wanted to transform into animations. In small groups they came up with simple chunks of words in accordance with what they had previously studied. The most creative dialogues among the groups was the one chosen to be featured in the short-film. While they were in charge of creating the dialogues, I was on the computer editing the video according to their like. And then, our first animation was born. Once they were all satisfied the script and the editing were finished to the best of each pupil’s ability, they were then set the homework: bring in more ideas for dialogues for the next videos. And ideas poured in the following classes. They wanted to create a video every class. It was difficult to tame their incitement.

Some teachers have reported problems during the implementation due to parental authorization. I, myself, strongly believe that in such cases not only the kids should be engaged in the project but parents too! Having the support of parents by adding a little note with the link to our first video on the institutional letter helped me get going with the project. Great Slander once taught me: "Should any problems with parents arise; I would try to convince them by showing how powerful the experience is, provide them with examples and explain how safe the kids will be."

My conclusion is that the upshots of this project could not have been any better. Using this tool has enabled my students to revisit vocabulary and structures, thus contributing for their learning and comprehension of the language as a whole. I was very happy myself with the feeling of accomplishment we had.

I would surely do this project again without any changes since it has helped me realize the importance of the role of technology in current education. Paraphrasing Shelly Terrell, we should use technology not only because our pupils use it or will be expected to in their careers. We need to use technology to tear down our classroom walls. We should use technology to show students that their voices can travel the world just like ours do when we tweet, blog or update a status on Facebook. We need to use technology to motivate students to continuously research and to show them that their work transcends beyond the class syllabus.

 Wordle: xtranormal


Saturday, November 6, 2010

Poetry makes kids think out of the box

I have to say that Valeria França's mentioning about poetry in class came to me as a surprise and a big coincidence. At the beginning of the term a fellow teacher asked me if I had some ideas on how to work poetry with her class. When I finally found something worth sharing, I myself felt tempted to try it out. And so I did.

First of all, the use of poetry in an EFL classroom can be a great motivator. After all, they are authentic texts. Moreover, poems are rich in cultural references, and they present a wide range of learning opportunities. However, I am no expert in literature – let alone English Literature – thus my aim was not to teach poetry itself, but English through poetry.

The big day had come and I was very anxious to see how the lesson would go since most of Brazilian students tend to regard poetry as something tedious and irrelevant. So, I tried to do something a little different from what the lesson plans I had at home, something that would turn dullness into excitement. Thus I decided not to present any poems in advance and not to mention the words poetry/poem before the correct moment.

The attempts were made with two distinct groups: a Basic compound by teenagers ranging from 11 to 13y.o and a Pre-intermediate compound by teenagers ranging from 11 to 12yo. I started by playing some classical music for them to set the mood.

While the Basic students were listening to Bolero by Maurice Ravel - a very dramatic piece of music - I asked them to close their eyes and think of a landscape, a color, a felling and emotions that they would associate with it. After that they should look at the two paintings I had previously put on the IWB. They were Narcissus and Medusa by the Italian Baroque painter Caravaggio. So I asked: “What do you feel when you look at these pictures? Apprehension? Fear? Solitude? Anger? Love? Happiness? I told them to focus on the music and on the pictures as well.

In small groups students were subsequently supposed to create a mind-map with feelings, emotions, colors, objects, names etc that would link with the music and the pictures. After doing that, they were asked to select one of these items and write about. At this time I first mentioned the word “poem”. This way I feel I could water down their anxiety and provide a propitious environment for writing. And oh boy, they wrote like crazy! Especially because they were told to work collaboratively. Each member of the group would be in charge of a verse. Here are the results:

As for the Pre-intermediate group, I wanted to turn their emotions and perceptions into something a little calmer. So, I played As Bachianas Nº5 by Villa Lobos and the pictures were Woman with a Parasol and Cliff Walk at Pourville by the French impressionist painter Claude Monet. The results followed the idea of calmness, quietude and inner-peace as you can see:

In another opportunity I will have them recite the poems, record and upload it onto Youtube and finally create a Glogster.

My conclusion is that poetry can serve as a great stimulus for EFL students since it can provide great opportunities for personalization and creation. This means that communication is genuine because they are talking and writing about their own perceptions and feelings. They are engaged and motivated which helps making the lesson, the language and poems memorable. As teachers we should not neglect the benefits literature offers. During this simple activity I was able to introduce them to a new world. Some of them had never heard of Villa Lobos. Some thought he was Portuguese. And I dare say that never had they paid attention to classical music and to paintings as they did.

For me, there is no greater reward.

P.S I’ve posted the students’ original piece of writing so as not to hinder the outcome of this project. Later on I corrected them and gave feedback.


Thursday, November 4, 2010

Vocabulary - How do you talk to your kids?

While reading some blogs it dawned on me how much we are used to water down our language just for the sake of adapting our vocabulary to our students. And this is so sad! Why treating kids as if they were idiots? (sorry for the word). I vividly remember my mom telling me off because whenever we met a baby I was all about "Gucci, gucci, baby - ne ne ne" and she used to say: "The baby is not an idiot. Talk to him normally" I never quite understood why. (!)

Look around and you'll see how poor kids language inventory is. How many "but" and "ands" and "whiches" and "sos" do you have to face in a daily-basis.

Maybe we are the ones to be blamed. Either for not giving proper instruction or for not talking them into using more sophisticated words and estructures. Students nowadays may have their language repertoire

Children learn the best from what they see and hear from their parents, teachers and important adults around them. Modeling behavior and using appropriate vocabulary will help children learn and grow. This is true for children at all ages. Working in early education, I feel it's important to speak to even young children with respect for their intelligence. Children love to play with words, and they usually remember more than we do.

For this, I would like to share with you some food for thought extracted from a video (embedded below) by Stephen Fry

"For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones do not enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic form of movemement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but WORDS"

This reminds me of Cecilia Coelho when invited to write a guest post on Ken Wilson's Blog she got us thinking about the difference between "Listen" and "Hear".

"Hearing is about perceiving the sound whilst listening is about paying attention to what you hear, decoding it. (...) When it comes to your students' efforts in using English to express themselves - be it orally or in writing - do you listen or just hear them?"
Great, isn't it?

Finally, I would like to share a great tool I've found to teach vocabulary in a very dynamic and fun way: www.languageguide.org. It aims to develop 3 types of resources:
Pictorial Vocabulary Resources - which contains image based pages as well as complementary pages with adjectives, verbs, and expressions. Where you can place the cursor and listen to the words.
Interactive Readings - which help develop comprehension skills and build vocabulary.
Grammar Guides - which are experimental introductory grammar guides for French, Spanish and English

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

When a student says a teacher is a pair of glasses...

Yesterday an eleven-year-old student came to me and said she had finally figured out the meaning of the word 'half'
She'd said she's a great fan of the sitcom Two and a Half Men but could never grasp the meaning behind the series' name. It may seem pretty obvious for us. Not only because we are fluent in English but also for the set of images and the plot of the sitcom - two guys and a teenager trying to live under the same roof. However, for those who don't understand the language these inputs may never be perceived.

Curious as I am, I asked her how she had figured it out (fully aware of the answer, obviously). And then she started: "Well, teacher* remember that last class you taught us how to tell the time? - I was kind of in doubt on how to use the word 'half' but when I saw the sitcom I realized the real meaning of it. Now I know! It means 50% because half an hour is 50% of an hour and half a man is a child."

I was amazed by the strattegies she used to understand it. Nevertheless she went even further: She said she felt that only now that she's learning English she could actually SEE the world.
See the world? At the this time I was thrilled and dying to know what had gone through that little mind. - Then she added: "The only one time when I felt the same way was when I had my first pair of glasses. I could actually see the world and realize how blind I was."

I bet you can picture tears rolling, uh? OMG... That was such a moment and provided me plenty of food for thought.
We, educators are being compared to glasses. We can make people see through different eyes. We can enhance their vision of the world. Change the way they see things. I mean not only physically but also psychologically.
That's how I feel: changing people's lives. Breking long-term mindset and helping them discover a new world.

I hope my students regard me as 3D glasses :-P

* In Brazil, people are culturally inclined to use the noun 'teacher' as a vocative. I am aware that in English it is not, however I let them call me teacher because it evokes a more intimate relation than calling me Mr. Andrade :-)

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