Reggio Emilia – Dogme for YLs

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I came across the following after clicking on a link on a parenting blog.  It discusses curriculums in the Reggio Emilia Approach :

“The topic of investigation may derive directly from teacher observations of children’s spontaneous play and exploration. Project topics are also selected on the basis of an academic curiosity or social concern on the part of teachers or parents, or serendipitous events that direct the attention of the children and teachers. Reggio teachers place a high value on their ability to improvise and respond to children’s predisposition to enjoy the unexpected. Regardless of their origins, successful projects are those that generate a sufficient amount of interest and uncertainty to provoke children’s creative thinking and problem-solving and are open to different avenues of exploration. Because curriculum decisions are based on developmental and sociocultural concerns, small groups of children of varying abilities and interests, including those with special needs, work together on projects.

Projects begin with teachers observing and questioning children about the topic of interest. Based on children’s responses, teachers introduce materials, questions, and opportunities that provoke children to further explore the topic. While some of these teacher provocations are anticipated, projects often move in unanticipated directions as a result of problems children identify. Thus, curriculum planning and implementation revolve around open-ended and often long-term projects that are based on the reciprocal nature of teacher-directed and child-initiated activity. All of the topics of interest are given by the children. Within the project approach, children are given opportunities to make connections between prior and new knowledge while engaging in authentic tasks…”
(Reggio Emilia Approach)

This is what I feel Dogme for YLs looks like.

- Teacher as co-learner

- Focus on interests and needs of the people in the room

- A focus on social concerns.

- Spontaneity and flexibility integral to curriculum extension

While the current curriculum I work in is quite rigid, I always work to create the types of environments above whenever possible and constantly seize on opportunities to take lessons in interesting directions based on learner input.  The result is often very chatty and engaged students :)

Does anyone work in a program like this?  What results have you seen?


“Teacher, Johnny hit me!” – Not My Problem

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How often do we hear a littany of complaints from our young learners:  “Teacher, Johnny hit me!”, “Teacher, Emily took my pencil!”, “Teacher, Billy isn’t paying attention!”?  When I first started teaching young learners, my immediate reaction was to be the problem-solver, to fix the situation for the students.  Luckily, I worked at a daycare with some great teachers who always had a saying, “I’m sorry.  I don’t listen to tattling.  Why don’t you talk to Child about how you feel?”.  Many children use tattling as a form of attention-getting, revenge, or a way to assert power over another, none of which foster a caring and supportive classroom.

That’s why, these days, when a child tells me another child hit him/her, I say, “Not my problem.  You deal with it.”  Just kidding :) .  But I definitely don’t solve the problem for them.  I think it’s so important for children to learn conflict resolution skills at an early age.  Helping children to deal with difficult situations, control their emotions, and communicate effectively will serve them well for the rest of their life.

Instead of being the problem-solver, I simply act as a mediator.  I help the children openly discuss their feelings with each other and encourage them to look at the situation from the other’s point of view.  I then encourage them to discuss solutions.  This process isn’t always easy and children will need lots of support, but the pay off is more than worth the time and investment.

Do you have any personal success stories using this type of mediation?  How effective is it in your classrooms?  Do you have other preferred methods of conflict resolution with young learners?

Related Articles:

Conflict Resolution with YLs

Making the Most of Observation Feedback

Image courtesy of WLC Feedback

Dave Dodgeson had a post a little while back on the benefit (or lack their of) of observation feedback.  As a trainer and manager, I also often wonder about its efficacy.  These sessions can often be charged with tension or result in few changes if not approached or conducted in the right way.  I’m sure we’ve all seen that teacher storm out of the feedback session in anger or tears.  However, observation feedback can be a fantastic tool for professional development, so what are some ways to make the most of it for both teachers and trainers?

For teachers:

-  Be open to the feedback.  Approach it as a discussion and opportunity to develop rather than as an argument.  I have experienced teachers that argue about every little thing.  The point of the feedback is to look at what worked and what didn’t, not necessarily the reason it was done.  Feedback is also not about being right or wrong; it’s about what we do with the information that helps us improve.

-  Seek to understand.  If you are unclear or disagree with a piece of feedback, try to understand where the trainer is coming from before getting defensive.  Asking open questions will help a lot here.

-  Discuss the observation in question and don’t take it personally.  For a particular piece of feedback, some teachers will say, “Well right, I usually do that, but when you were watching me I didn’t”.  You’re not discussing your lessons in general, your discussing the lesson that was observed and in that lesson you did not do X.  The fact that X wasn’t done well does not mean you are a bad teacher, it means, for that lesson, X was not done well.  As a trainer, I think the greatest potential for conflict in feedback comes from this tendency to take any criticism of a lesson as a personal attack on general character or ability.  Try keeping things in perspective.

-  Focus on what you can do to improve when dealing with corrective feedback.  One of my favorite phrases is “reasons are not justifications”.  Sure, Johnny may be really loud and obnoxious.  That’s your reason for giving him less attention in the class.  However, it doesn’t justify the fact that he’s receiving less opportunity to develop compared to others in the class.  We often have a strong tendency to use reasons as excuses to not make things better.  Instead, think about “what I can do better”.

-  Take notes or request a copy of the feedback if one isn’t provided.  Refer to these notes the next time you plan a lesson.

-  Ask for specific examples on how to improve.  If a trainer says, “You should encourage more student talking time”, make sure the trainer provides you with examples.

-  Create a simple action plan.  Choose three things you can improve starting from your next lesson and determine how you will implement those changes.  If you walk away from the feedback without making any changes, what was the point of doing it?

For trainers and managers:

-  Ask lots of open questions.  Let teachers uncover the feedback on their own rather than delivering it to them.  They will be much more receptive and the process of reflection yields much better results in terms of implementation for future lessons.  A skilled trainer can actually get the teachers to find all the highlights and criticisms on their own.

-  Prepare.  Before you meet with the teachers, sit down and think about what you will focus on and how the conversation will progress.  Think about how the teachers will react.

- Stick to the facts.  State observations and results rather than opinions or judgments.  You can’t debate or argue a fact.  For example, “I noticed you interacted with Johnny much less than with the other students.  As a result, he only produced 3 sentences the entire class and there were fewer opportunities to assess his level or correct his language.”  The teacher can make all the excuses they want, but that doesn’t change the fact Johhny was not interacted with and produced less than the other students.  It’s also not something open for challenge whereas a statement like “you need to engage the learners more” is.  This also avoids the huge pitfall of pronouncing judgment on a teacher as in “You’re not showing any improvement”, which will create large defensive reactions.  Instead try, “In the past 3 observations, I have not seen improvement on X.”  Notice how that statement sticks to the facts, localizes the issue, and focuses on what you have seen rather than on what the teacher hasn’t done.

-  Be specific.  Vague feedback is the worst.  Things like “that was a great lesson” or “you should be more clear” are extremely unhelpful.  What was great?  When and how should I be more clear?  When observing, make a note and then make sure to note down the details of the situation or exactly what was said.

-  Be flexible and adapt to the situation.  Sometimes teachers just need to hear the positives to help encourage them to continue. If a teacher had a really bad lesson, they probably already know it.  There’s no need to point it out.  On the other hand, some teachers won’t show improvement without additional pushes.

-  Give feedback as soon as possible.  It becomes less likely to have an effect the longer you wait.  Scheduling the feedback session along with the observation time is a good way to do this.

-  Keep it simple.  While you can discuss a number of points if you want, the meat of the feedback should stick to 3 highlights and 3 areas to improve.  Anything more and the conversation will lose focus.  Teachers are much less likely to make changes if there is too much as well.  They could become overwhelmed or they could focus on the least important areas.

-  Always finish with an action plan.  Ask the teachers what immediate changes they will make regarding their planning or teaching after the session is finished.

-  Follow up.  Make notes on what should be improved and then check in with teachers to make sure they are following up.  Also, by noting down what your teachers are great at, you know who to send people to with questions in a particular area.

Do you have any other tips for either teachers or trainers when it comes to observation feedback?

Related Posts:

Observation on Observation

Getting Classroom Observation Right & Misfires in Classroom Obs (6 parts)

A Personal Misfire as an Observee


Nurture Learning, Not Activities

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Sometimes we teachers have a habit of preparing a lot of activities. We all dread that moment when we have ten minutes left in the class, but realize we don’t have anything else planned. So what do we do? We plan a bunch of extra activities just in case.

Here’s the problem though, a classroom isn’t about doing activities, it’s about learning. A successful lesson is defined by the amount and quality of the learning that occurred, not by how many activites were completed. Sometimes it’s a good idea to step back and look at our lesson and our lesson plans. Are they just a series of activities or can we visualize the learning occurring? Is our goal to take up space in the lesson or maximize the quality of the education delivered?

The next time you plan an activity for your class, take a moment to really look at it. Is it just a space filler or is something really valuable being done?

The Number One Priority

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As a learning director of a private language institute, there is one question I ask myself over and over again every day: “Is what I’m doing right now the best thing I can be doing to help our students learn?”. It’s such a simple and obvious question, but I’ve found that we don’t ask it nearly enough.

I have tons of competing priorities every day. Often I have to make a choice between such things as supporting an upset teacher, helping a learner whose parents lost their book, cleaning up a classroom, or filing some paperwork every ten minutes. When all these issues constantly crop up at the same time, I just ask myself that simple question and make my choice.

This question doesn’t just focus on the students though, even though at first glance you might think that. It encompasses every choice and action throughout the day. Should I spend extra time planning my lesson or use that time to read a research article on teaching? Is complaining about my day making anyone else feel better about being here and will that in turn help the students in all of our classes? Is staying out for that one or two more beers going to affect the quality of my lessons tomorrow? Will going out of my way to welcome a new teacher have a positive effect on their teaching?

As a teacher, and especially as a manager, we affect the quality of learning at our school far more than just in making choices involved in lesson planning and delivery. Every choice we make at our school whether it affects other team members, the students, or even the cleanliness of the school all contribute to creating a quality learning environment for everyone. Often, even many of the choices we make away from our schools affect the quality of learning, too.

How do you prioritize your day? How do you make choices between all the competing demands on you? Do you always make the choices that benefit your students?

Learning is Messy!

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What’s your vision of the ideal classroom?  Is it a classroom where every learner sits calmly and quietly?  Do students always raise their hands before talking?  Are they always focused on their task?

In my experience, this is what’s passed down to us as the ideal class.  But whose ideal class is it?  The teacher’s of course.  The teacher is the one who wants all the students sitting quietly and listening only to them.  They don’t want the chaos of 20 students all talking at once.  Every student should be focused on their task whether they find it interesting or not.

My classrooms rarely fit this vision because I think learning is loud.  Learning is messy.  I try my best to make learners interested in my lessons.  They don’t sit quietly because they aren’t going to get a sticker, they’ll be put in time out, or I’ll yell at them.  In fact, they generally don’t sit quietly at all. :)

When young learners are engaged in a lesson, they’re excited; they want to shout and move around.  A loud classroom means that they’re really happy and enjoy what we’re doing, which will make them feel positive about English and learning.  What more could I ask for?

It’s also great practice.  Sure, I could have students raise their hand before speaking, but then only one student would speak and they’d only say one sentence.  Letting them all shout out the answers, or shouting to be chosen next, or shouting to say what they want to do next is great.  Sure it’s loud and chaotic, but not only are they getting tons of practice, they’re using English to express themselves.  To say what they want to say and to get their desires and interests across.  They’re speaking in their own voice, and not just when the teacher says it’s ok.

I also love projects and tasks and role-plays where all the learners are trying it together.  Will some get side-tracked?  Of course, they’re only 5 years old.  But what would they be doing otherwise?  If you only have one pair of students at a time do something, then the others will simply be bored in their chairs and not learning anyway.  At least if they all participate, they’ll work with each other.  And the surprising thing is, most of them will do the activity to the best of their ability.  Even better, they’ll start teaching each other.  There’s nothing cuter than seeing a five-year-old teach another five-year-old how to buy fruit in English :)

Yes, my classrooms are loud.  Yes, learners are often moving around and may get off task.  But they’re also learning to express themselves.  They’re learning to take responsibility, share, and help each other too.  Learning may be messy, but there sure is a lot of learning, even if it’s spread all over the classroom floor :)

Who’s Responsible for a Child’s Education?

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Perhaps an obvious question, but one I find is not often thought about. As teachers, there are a lot more people involved in the education of a child in our classrooms than just us. Education has many stakeholders. Perhaps the most important are the learners themselves and, in YL classrooms, the parents. Then you have the teachers, the administrators, and the curriculum developers as well.

We don’t teach in a vacuum and, as teachers, to do the best we can for a child, we need to align all interested parties. We may think we teach the best way, but if the parents don’t believe it, they won’t support you at home. If an administrator doesn’t believe it, you’ll face a lot of conflict in the school. If you don’t believe in you’re curriculum, you won’t be enthusiastic about the material you teach.  All these people want what’s best for the learners.  Everyone will have differing ideas on what that is and part of our job is to foster cooperation and support so that children can get the best education possible.

As a teacher, how do you involve others in the lives of your learners and your classrooms?  Could you foster more learning by thinking about the wider circle outside your classroom?

Let the Children Speak!


Courtesy of Public Speaking for Kids

Two dialogues from classrooms with very different learning environments.  Can you guess which one allows for more learner autonomy, emergent language, and student participation?

S: Ehm, how old is your father?
L: My father is forty years old. And how old is your father?
S: Fifteen years old.  How old is your mother?
L: My mother is thirty-nine years old.
S: How old are you?
L: I’m twelve.  How old are you?
S: I’m eleven.  What are your foreign languages?
L: My foreign languages are Sport, Textil.  What are your foreign languages?
S: My foreign languages are Biologie, Textil and German.
L: Ehm.
S: Oh, ah how ah how ne, what is the name or your father?
L: The name of my fater is Felix.  And what is the name of your father?
S: Ehm, the name of my father is ah Bernd, ah.
L: What’s the name of your mother?
S: Ehm, ah, my mother’s name is Maria.  And your mother’s name?
(Legenhausen, 1999:  166-167)

L: What should we talk about, Claus?
C: I don’t know, we could talk about our music group ‘Big Engine’.
L: Yeah, that’s a good idea.
C: I think it’s fun.  Now we have to play, ah , record our tape.
L: Yeah, the first time.
C: Yeah, it’s very exciting.  I have made a cover to our tape at home.
L: That one you showed me?
C: Yes.
L: The only thing it’s beautiful.
C: Beautiful?
L: Yes.
C: It’s lovely. (Laughing)
L: I think it’s good, too.
C: Yes.
(Legenhausen, 1999:  167)

In the above two dialogues, the students were put into pairs and given the very basic task of simply talking to each other in English for a few minutes.  The dialogues are from two classrooms of the same level and age but different countries with different learning environments.  Which one do you think comes from a classroom where children are given their own voice?

The first dialogue is from a German classroom where children learn from a textbook and follow a fairly prescriptive progression of learning targets.  The second dialogue is from a Danish classroom where learner autonomy is encouraged, the voice of the learners is listened to, and choice is an integral part of the learning process.  In the words of Legenhausen,the researcher who conducted the study, the Danish learners “do not construe a contrast between authentic and didactic tasks” (Legenhausen, 1999:  181).

This was a post I’ve been yearning to write for a while and Dave Dodgson’s recent post told me the time had come.  Dave reflects on why, after years of English language instruction, learners still have poor communicative ability.  As Dave hints at, I think the key lies in the contrast we see above.  Text book type teaching and prescriptive curriculums simply don’t engage learners.  Further more, the English language becomes only something used in the classroom; it’s not seen as a part of who they are or connected to their life.  For language to be truly internalized, it has to become part of a learner’s identity, not something done to them at school.  What do you think?


Assessment – What is it Good for?

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In my last post I talked about throwing exams out.  In this one, I’ll discuss how to use them.

I believe the greatest mistake made with assessments is that they are viewed as an indicator of worth, either the student’s or the teacher’s.  An assessment does not tell you if a student is smart, a hard studier, or good at English.  An assessment does not tell you how effective a teacher is or how much they should be paid.  Tests should never be used in the sense of pass/fail for either teachers or students.  Using tests in this way ignores the realities that most tests are not designed well, don’t necessarily measure what we want them to measure, don’t take into account the level and needs of the students, and don’t encourage mistakes or skill development.

Assessments are merely a tool like any other in the teacher’s toolbox.  If used correctly, an assessment can show you where students are struggling and what areas were not taught well.  If the class average is 80% and Jimmy only got a 20%, it’s  a good bet he needs some extra help.  If everyone got that question about the present perfect wrong (not that anyone ever really understands the present perfect :P ), it’s probably because it wasn’t taught well.

The greatest value of assessments come from the practices we put into place after viewing the results.  Assessments should help us determine where to go next.  If Jimmy is doing so poorly, we now need to find out why and come up with a plan to help him to better.  If none of the students understood the present perfect, we need to find out where they are confused.  We then have to look back at our lessons on it and determine why we failed to create the conditions for learners to grasp the concept.

Assessment doesn’t just tell us what went poorly, it also tells us what went well.  If all the students got something right, it must have been taught effectively.  We should ask ourselves how we can use elements of that lesson to help teach other aspects of the course.  It also tells us which students are up for more of a challenge.

What do you do with the information you learn after giving an assessment?  Does it influence where your attention is focused, the direction you take, the amount of material you cover, what you review?  If not, maybe you shouldn’t bother giving the test in the first place :)

Related Posts

Assessments – A Look Back at Getting Rid of Them

Crazy or Enlightened

Joe Bower- Why Do We Give Exams?

Assessments – A Look Back at Getting Rid of Them

Courtesy of Zhi Shan’s Blog

If you’re a long-time reader, you may remember that at my previous school I threw out exams.  Students moved up or down levels based completely on mutual decisions between the teacher and student.  If you’re in a position to do so, I highly recommend giving it a try.  Below I’ll share some of the feedback I received from teachers and students.

Feedback from teachers:

- Some teachers felt it would be difficult to determine what level a student was and especially whether or not they were ready to move up.  My answer to this was that we had small classes.  Teachers should be informally assessing their students at all times.  Want to know if your students have a decent understanding of past simple?  Ask them what they did yesterday.  Simple as that.

- Without an exam, some teachers weren’t sure what the goal posts were and where they should be headed with what they were teaching.  My answer was to ask the students where they wanted to go.  Additionally, assess their needs and fill in gaps by creating lessons that use what they know, but challenge them to take themselves to the next level.

- Some teachers liked that fact that they were be able to take the lesson in any direction they wanted without having to tailor everything to an exam.  This was a key reason for my decision to remove exams.  There would be no more teaching to the exam and no more limiting of what was learned simply because they wanted to focus on what students would need to pass.

-  One thing teachers really liked was that students focused on improving.  Beforehand, many students would do nothing, but then cram for exams in an effort to pass.  Sometimes students might pass an exam even though there general language ability was clearly far below what the exam indicated.  Students saw that improvement was dependant on them and came down to how much work they put in.  Once students realized this, they became much more engaged in lessons and focused much more on self-improvement.

From the students:

-  They thought it took a lot of pressure off.

-  They liked having a say in whether or not they were ready to move up.

-  Some students felt uncomfortable about not knowing whether or not they were making progress.  They felt they couldn’t see results.  This sometimes had a negative effect on motivation.


When I first talked to the teachers about trying this, I wasn’t sure it would work. After doing it for about 6 months, it was clear that it was working.  Students no longer felt the need to take formal exams.  Especially helpful was the larger amounts of feedback teachers started giving students in one-on-one discussions.  Students and teachers also became much better at consistent informal assessment.  I also felt that teachers really became more aware of their students and they needed to really look at how their students were doing to help plan the next lesson or set overall directions for a student or course.

In addition, like I mentioned above, we stopped having students that would slack through courses only to try and pass desperately at the end.  They realized they both needed to actually improve and to prove that they had improved to the teacher in order to advance.  I think this is one big reason students started to rapidly advance through levels.

Well, that’s a decent summary of some benefits and potential hiccups to eliminating exams.  At my current school, I am back to adminstering exams.  Most teachers the world over have to adminster exams, so, with that being the case, what’s the best way to look at exams and how should teachers use them?  Find out what I think in next week’s post.

Related Posts:

Assessment – What is it Good for?

Crazy or Enlightened

Joe Bower- Why Do We Give Exams?

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