Friday, 30 January 2009

They all have Facebook accounts, but are they able to talk about it in English?

Just a short comment this time. I was just surfing the Internet and on my search for interesting ideas to bring back to the classroom next week, I came across a lesson plan on BBC World Service which is called "Facebook". "This is just what I need!"I thought, and it is. This is not an article which discourages people from joining social networking websites, quite the opposite actually, but here you find a short text to listen to and various vocabulary exercises and questions for discussion. I must admit that I have not taken the time to read through it all, but I do believe this is the kind of activity that can come in handy whenever you have 20-30 minutes to fill.

Native Americans, Glogsters and "The Bottle Queen"

New week, new topic. This week: Native Americans. I really needed some activities this week which would make the students work without me hanging over their shoulders. I had promised them discussions in smaller groups this week (more discussion on Obama's inaugural address), and I could therefore not be in the classroom with the others all day. My solution was to provide various sources on Native Americans and to ask each student to make a glogster on a topic related to Native Americans. Returning to the classroom after approximately one hour, I found all the students busy creating their own digital posters; they were eager to share ideas about how to make interesting posters with pictures, text and videos, and asked for more time because it was funny. Running out of time and wanting to spend some time on factual texts and literature, too, I have therefore asked them to finish their glogsters at home and to publish them on their blogs. If you want to have a look at some of the results, you can visit Henrik and Caroline's blogs.

Working on Native Americans, we have also used a couple of text which we found on the internet. "The end of the Native American way of life" is a text from the BBC pages and tells about how the US government defeated the Indians, whereas in "Native American Voices" you can read about indigenous peoples in all parts of America.

I find it useful to use short stories or extracts from novels when teaching the various topics. This time we plan to use two short stories by William P. Kinsella, "The Bottle Queen" and "Panache". In between parent-teacher meetings, correcting papers and fighting the flu, I have not managed to get around to all the details on how to use these stories yet. It probably will not be all that revolutionary anyway, but hopefully both stories will provide food for thought and discussions with the students. Time will show.

Friday, 23 January 2009

"I get by with a little help from my friends..."

You may have noticed that I very often use phrases like "we decided that...",
"we asked the students to...", etc. This is not because I like to use the "royal we", but because I, 95% of the time, work in a team with my colleagues. This year there are four of us at my school who share the same course in English. We each have groups of 30 students, and we spend a considerable amount of time planning our lessons together, so that the students will be dealing with roughly the same things in the different groups. I really like this way of working. I am not left all to myself when it comes to coming up with ideas for project, texts and topics, and it is nice to know that there are other teachers around who can share their knowledge, experiences and thoughts. I do know that not everybody appreciates working in teams like we do, and I am aware of the fact that not all teams are working as well as ours. Therefore, I would like to say thanks a lot to my team mates this year and those I have worked with the previous years. I really appreciate our cooperation!

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

"Let it be told to the future world..."

Today our main focus in class has been on President Obama and his inaugural address. Obama has promised change, and during his two first days of presidency he sure has made it clear to the world that change will come to the US. I decided to show the entire speech to my students, and although they had some problems understanding all that Obama was saying, they still managed to come up with interesting responses to the speech. "It just gives me goosebumps," one of the girls said, and I totally agree. This man is powerful; he is eloquent and well-spoken; he brings vitality and life into American politics, and might be the man to get the US back on track.

When planning this lesson I found some useful resources online. The New York Times had ready-made lesson plans on the inauguration, and I decided to use some of the questions from their material. I also found an article which summed up the inaugural speech and gave some comments on the day. I guess this article can help some of the students understand the speech a little better. Two of my colleagues came up with more questions to Obama's speech and a list of difficult words and phrases. This all resulted in this google document which we gave to the students.

I must admit that I had serious doubts before presenting this lesson plan to my students. Many find politics to be boring and cannot understand why they have to learn about political life in other countries. My impression after class today is, however, that most of them actually found Obama's speech interesting and that they could see the importance of this historical moment.

Reading strategies

I guess we all apply various reading strategies as we read, whether the text is a factual one or just for entertainment. In school we should make the students aware of this and teach them various strategies they can use when reading new material. On Cappelen's web sites there is an 11-step approach that can be used when dealing with unknown factual texts. I have tried this reading strategy with my students a couple of times, and believe it is an all right approach to texts that are a bit complex. Some students do not see the benefit of this way of reading, of course, but sometimes I think they can be encouraged to try something new and different. Check it out; it is worth a try.

Photo: "Love read"

Rabbits, whales and indigenous people

Our curriculum says that the students are to "discuss literature by and about indigenous peoples in the English-speaking world." As I have said earlier, we put focus on the Aborines and the Maori last year when we did the "hole in the wall"-project. So far this year, we have also focused on these two groups of people, but in a different way. I have realised that the students have limited knowledge about indigenous people in general, and just a few of them have heard about how these peoples have been treated by the Europeans and their present governments. To me it was important to rise the students' awareness of the "stolen generation" in Australia, and to make them understand that this is something that happened in our recent history, not way back in time. As our point of departure, we read a factual text about the Aborigines which tells about the history of the people, their meeting with the Europeans and so on. On the BBC pages we found an article called "The Anguish of the Stolen Generation", which tells the story of the stolen generation first hand. Although the language of the text was a challenge to some of my students, the text still worked well to illustrate what has actually been going on in Australia. We also spent time watching Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology to the Aborigines, and finally, we saw the film Rabbit Proof Fence with our students.

Our next stop was with the Maori of New Zealand. Again we read a factual text about the people which we found online, and then we turned to the novel and the film Whale Rider. We have, in other words, watched two long film about indigenous people in this part of the world. Is that too much? Has my focus been wrong? Should more time have been spent on other indigenous people, on other parts of the curriculum? I am not sure. What I know is that very few of my students would have seen these film on their own, and I believe it is one of my tasks as a teacher to present to the students other films than just Hollywood-movies.

One final point about how I have worked with this topic: our curriculum says that the students should "discuss social conditions and values in various cultures in a number of English-speaking countries." I found some facts about the social conditions of the Maori on Wikipedia which I presented to my students, and I also gave them some questions to discuss. I split the class into groups of five, and asked all of the groups to discuss these questions for 15 minutes. The students did great! Many of them were also quite active in the class discussion afterwards, and some of those who had never said a word before suddenly presented good arguments and were very talkative.

Almost five weeks' work on the Maori and the Aborigines will end this week with the students writing papers on the topic. I will come back to the essay topics and some comments on how the students did later.

Saturday, 17 January 2009

Obama vs. McCain - Election 2008

I guess most of you have covered the US Election '08 this year, and that you have done so in various ways. Even though our curriculum does not specifically say that the students have to know how the political system in the US works, I do believe that some knowledge of this is important. After all, we are heavily influenced by the USA here in Norway, and we cannot be indifferent to what is going on in the political life "over there". As an introduction to the topic I therefore asked my students to read a text called "13 questions on politics in the USA", and tried to tell them something about how the political system in the USA works. I also found various webpages that explained the election process. I deliberatly gave the students several texts on this topic, and made sure the texts had different levels of difficulty. One I found on, another on (believe it or not!), whereas the last page is totally meant for kids, but nevertheless working quite well with my 16 year olds.

Together with my colleagues we also decided to do a project on the two running presidential candidates, Obama and McCain. My two classes were both split into seven groups and each group got one key topic from the campaign that they were to present. The assignment was that the groups should find as much information as possible on these topics, and present the candidates' point of view. We also wanted them to tell why these issues were so central in the campaign, the historical background, etc. It was important to me that the presentations should be more than just a presentation of the two candidates, and I think most of the groups did quite well. I had also encouraged the groups to chose other ways of presenting their material than just using power point presentations. I must have done something wrong here, however, because only one of the 14 groups I listened to had chosen to do something different. This group had made a role play in which they had a television debate. This was entertaining and fun for the others to watch, too. I also found that they had managed to find quite a lot of material to present, and that they used a language that was adapted to the situation and to the audience. What about the other groups? 13 power point presentations, some quite good, others just boring... Anyway, at the end of the project I asked all of the students to write a closing argument for one of the candidates in which they commented on all of the seven topics that had been presented, and it turned out that most of the students had actually learned quite a lot from working on this project.


Maori, Aborigines and a hole in the wall

I guess many teachers have experienced that when we talk about cooperation and projects, we think of something completely different than our students do. Time and time again I have seen that in a group of four they quickly split the given assignment into four parts, and that each of the group members work more or less on his/her own finding the information required. Is this cooperation? In my opinion, it is not. Most of the time the students do not have a clue about what the other group members are talking about during their group presentations, and if one member is missing on the day of presentation, the remaining members are not able to fill in for the one absent.

Inspired by Dr. Sugata Mitra's project "Hole in the wall", my colleague Ingunn suggested that we allowed only one computer per group in a project on the Maori and the Aborigines. In this way the students were forced to cooperate, and the result was that what they presented to the others in class was known to all group members. Personally, I found this to be quite a success. Most of the groups worked well together, and there were many discussions in the classroom about which articles they should use, how they needed to structure their work when the access to computers was limited, etc. This project also made me aware of the fact that it is not necessary for all of the students to have their own computer in front of them all the time, and I try to keep this in mind when planning my teaching.

When planning this project we also decided that the time frame would be quite strict. It is my belief that we often tend to give the students too much time for group works and projects, and that the more time they have, the later they start working. We therefore said that they could only have approximately five hours for the preparations, and that they were to present their products at the end of the second day. Again this worked well; most of the groups (all teachers know that getting 100% of the students to work really hard all the time is impossible) started working at once, and the products were ready by deadline. It was actually quite impressing to see how much they had managed to get done in such a short time, and we had some very interesting and humorous presentations.

You can read Ingunn's reflections on this project here, where you also find some responses from the students. If you want to learn more about the project, have a look at this google document.

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Loving Hearts?

The aim of this blog is to share some of my experience in the classroom. I would not, however, have had this experience without having spent endless hours in the reading rooms at the University of Oslo. I graduated from the university in 1998 with a Cand. Philol. degree in English. My main focus during the final year at the university was Charles Dickens and three of his novels. I do not see myself as a person who brags a lot about my own achievements (if you do not get me started talking about my two precious princesses that is...), but I must admit that I am still quite proud of my thesis, called "Loving Hearts?", almost 11 years after I completed it. Therefore, I just felt the urge to write a very, very short summary of my thesis here.

The aim of my study was to highlight some of the differences between psychoanalytically and reader-response oriented readings of father-daughter relationships in Dickens's novels Dombey and Son, Little Dorrit and A Tale of Two Cities. It makes sense to apply psychoanalysis to the study of literature, because the reader of a narrative can be seen as doing a job similar to that done by a psychoanalyst in the meeting with a patient: both reader and analyst have to make sense of experiences retrospectively. However, psychoanalysis has its limitations when it comes to the study of literature. It simply cannot be applied to all kinds of narratives. In my opinion, reader-response criticism is a more general applicable approach. This school focuses on the process of reading and on the psychology of the reader. Reader-response critics are also eager to highlight aspects in the texts which guide the reading experience.

Much of my study was a response to Dianne F.Sadoff's reading of the father-daughter relationships in the three novels mentioned above. Heavily influenced by Freudian psychonanalysis, Sadoff sees Florence Dombey as a "dangerous daughter" wishing for her father's death, and as a girl killing the people who love her with her love. Sadoff sees the father-daughter relationship in Little Dorrit as incestuous, claiming that Amy Dorrit's ministering to her father is an expression of sexual desire. I, on the other hand, see both Florence Dombey's struggle to win the love of her father, and the care Little Dorrit shows the "Father of the Marshalsea" as love. I also believe this love is what saves the fathers.

When it comes to A Tale of Two Cities and the relationship between Lucie and Alexandre Manette, Sadoff's reading did not differ radically from my own. This relationship is a less promising hunting ground for Freudian interpretations, and this fact seems to leave Sadoff with no theoretical underpinning at all. Her reading of A Tale is also an illustration that psychoanalysis cannot be applied successfully to all kinds of narratives.

So how is this useful for me in the classroom of 2009? One of the things I stress the most is that the students have to meet literary texts with an open mind, and that there is not one correct reading of literature. We all meet a short story, a novel or a poem with our own frame of reference, and therefore we also understand the texts in our own ways. This can cause debates and discussions in the classrooms, and that is what we want, is it not?

Photo: Wikipedia

Just for fun!

I believe laughing is important, and I sometimes like to show my students videoclips just for fun. One of my favourites is this one from the Norwegian TV series "Team Antonsen". Enjoy!

Buddha, Bowie and Suburbia

In September 2007 we were going to put focus on multiculturalism in England. As our point of departure we chose an extract from Hanif Kureishi's novel The Buddha of Suburbia. The text deals with clashes between different cultures in England, and also clashes between generations. As an appetiser to the text, we found a video with David Bowie's song from the TV series which also includes some glimpses of the protagonist of The Buddha, Karim. We also watched an interview with Hanif Kureshi that was given when the TV series was to be broadcasted in Britain. Unfortunately, I cannot find this interview on YouTube at the moment, this is of course a weakness of some of the resources you can find on the internet, but there are several other interviews and videos out there which can be used when introducing this text/topic. The students seemed to like the two videos because they gave them something visual that could be linked to the text, and I believe some were a bit curious too having seen Karim's father upside-down, in the nude, practising yoga...

Anyway, some of the students found the extract we had chosen for them to be quite difficult, and I believe an easier text could have presented the conflicts of this novel just as well . We therefore decided not to put this text on our reading list this year. Maybe the text would have worked better if the students were older, and also if we had read the whole novel, not just a few pages. Talking about The Buddha of Suburbia we also have to keep in mind that this novel portrays multicultural London in the 1970, and that a lot has happened since then. My point is, however, that using videos from for instance YouTube can serve as an introduction to various topics we all deal with when teaching a foreign language like English. I am 100% sure that the introduction to the novel that Hanif Kureishi gave in the interview mentioned above is a whole lot better than any introduction I could have given.

The Road Not Taken

About a year ago I set up my first blog, Serendipity, because one of my colleagues suggested we should start blogging with the pupils in school. Since then blogging has become a central part of my everyday life. I have tried to update my blog regularly, I have managed (or perhaps forced is a more correct word) to make my pupils write their own blogs, and I read various blogs everyday about all kinds of topics. For some time now I have wanted to set up a new blog in which the focus is on English teaching only, and here I am.

In August 2006 I started teaching English and Norwegian at Sandvika Videregående Skole. The school was brand new, and our school was to be different. All our students have had their own laptop computers from the first day, and the computers are central in our teaching. I therefore had to change my own teaching. Ever since I started teaching, the textbooks available have decided which text we read and the topics. We were now asked to make our own "digital textbooks". I must admit that it has been, and still is challenging working this way, but after working without using an ordinary textbook for roughly 2 1/2 yeards, I do not regret taking up this challenge.

So to the name of my blog and the title of this entry, "The Road Not Taken". Why did I chose this as the name of this blog? First of all because this poem is one of my favorites and a poem I believe everybody should read. Second, I chose this title because I feel that the decision I made in 2006 was a choice to take the road "less traveled by". I left a well established school which had a lot of good qualities, and started working at a school where not even the classrooms were ready when the first pupils came. I left the "ordinary" classroom, traditional teaching and textbooks, and began teaching differently. I left plans and outlines set up for me by others and started with a blank sheet. I left all that was known for the unknown. To me, "that has made all the difference", and I have not regretted this for one minute!