Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

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My latest guest blogger is Vicky Saumell, a blog superstar – her Educational technology in ELT blog came in at number TEN in the Lexiophiles Top Technology blogs of 2010, for which many congratulations, VS!

Like many guest bloggers before her, Vicky is someone I discovered via twitter and blog world, having been linked to her blog and finding it really useful, written so that even a techno-duffer like me could understand it.

Vicky was the first twitter-friend I met at IATEFL Harrogate when she walked into Christie’s Bar shortly after I did. Since then, I have been so determined that she should write something for me to post here that I allowed her carte blanche regarding subject matter.

I may live to regret this.

Below you will find a very persuasive set of arguments in favour of abandoning the use of course materials. If this happens on a grand scale, I will of course be out of a job.

Sadly for me and my ilk, these arguments are out there already. I can only hope some of you will be able to say you read it here first…

Do your worst, Vicky…

Daring to move away from course books

I have been a teacher for over 20 years and I have always taught with a course book. In the beginning of my career I taught with course books that were imposed on me by a higher authority or senior teacher who made such decisions. In time I became that senior teacher myself and eventually the coordinator of my school so that course book selection was my responsibility. Indeed I took it very seriously as I understood that the course book had a tremendous impact on learning.

Together, of course, with the teacher.

I work in a school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, a private school with about 1,000 students at all levels, from kindergarten to secondary. Although it is private, it is far from the concept of a bilingual school. It is mostly funded by the state to keep the fees low and our students have only three hours of English a week. This context influenced my selection process in that I needed a book that fitted my curriculum and my teaching beliefs and that was short enough to be covered in one school year and at a reasonable price.

So for the last ten years, I have tried to select the most appropriate course books for my context. I think I succeeded most of the times but not always…

However, something happened two years ago… I started feeling that students, especially teens, were not being offered the best option for their learning for a number of reasons:

  • teachers were under pressure to use the whole course book because we had asked students to buy one and it was a big effort for most families. Therefore, there was no time to do other things, which were more creative or fun or relevant!
  • the course books, however carefully chosen, did not fully reflect the students’ interests and culture or the language we wanted them to learn or how we wanted them to learn.
  • students were mostly unmotivated by the predictability of the course books.
  • the occasional independent projects were welcomed with enthusiasm and offered a more creative output, which resulted in increased motivation for both the teachers and the students.

So I became quite restless and uncomfortable about this situation and I found myself asking the same questions again and again:

What if we did away with course books altogether?

What if we designed our own curriculum and materials?

What if we introduced some kind of choice in the classroom?

What if we tapped into our students’ interests and knowledge to engage them in their own learning process?

What if we started using web 2.0 technologies to break down classroom walls?

Yes! Why not? But there was no way I could do this on my own, so I approached one of my trusted teachers…

“Hi, Pat, I am thinking about doing away with course books and writing our own materials instead,” I said, hoping to get any sign of approval.

“That’s really hard work… but I’m in!”

So last year I finally decided to make a dramatic change in the hope of really improving the quality of their learning.

The result is a new Project-Based Learning (PBL) scheme for grades 6 onwards, launched in March 2010, in which teachers design their own projects, taking into account the needs and interests of the students and the new syllabi. It had first been discussed and agreed on by all the teachers.

We found PBL was really appropriate for our context and our teaching beliefs, closely aligned with Constructivism, Connectivism, multi-literacies education for the 21st century, collaborative learning and the promotion of autonomous and lifelong learning.

A major concern was assessment: we discussed shifting from formal testing to continuous assessment through observation during the project development process and assessment of the final product.

We also held several meetings to discuss the necessary shift from a teacher-centered paradigm to a student-centered one, where the teacher would act as a facilitator. We envisioned the class as a place where students would feel the urge to speak the language, especially by providing real audiences by means of web 2.0 tools.

We created a wiki to be used as a project repository and as a record of which projects were done with which class. The wiki also hosts resources related to project-based learning and technology integration, guides and tutorials for web 2.0 tools and any other material to support the scheme.

It has been only three months since we started and there’s a lot of work still to be done: constant teacher support, periodic assessment of the project’s development and analysis of problems to find solutions and improve the program.

But the overall feeling about the new PBL scheme is really positive.  Teachers are excited about being able to do personalized and creative work. Here are some of their reactions.

“I can finally do drama activities.”

“Working with songs they like is a great motivator.”

“Being able to choose topics that they are interested in has resulted in more participation and eager production.”

But what about the students? From their reactions, they seem as excited about PBL as the teachers. They are motivated to work and really look forward to their English lessons.

Students at Vicky's school working on a voicethread

“We love English classes this year!”

“English is fun now!”

Even those who used to be quite indifferent now feel they can contribute something meaningful and are willing to learn!

“Miss, I have already uploaded my predictions to the Wallwisher. Did you see them?”

Recording the voicethread

I still believe course books are a great solution in many contexts, especially in my country, but I am happy I dared to go against the mainstream trend of using course books. And I know this was possible thanks to my wonderful team of teachers and the school authorities, who worked so hard and believed this significant change was the way to move forward into the 21st century.

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Comments on: "Guest post 18 – Vicky Saumell on life after course books" (53)

  1. marisapavan said:

    Excellent job, Vicky! Congratulations! You’ve managed to motivate your students.
    Even though I work at an Institute of English in Argentina, I know the realities of school as I worked 13 years at a school. My students from the language institute complain about their classes of English at their schools as, in general, they feel it’s a waste of time.
    As to coursebook, I don’t use them with my private students and I know it’s harder to plan classes but the results are that you select what you really find helpful.
    Regards,
    Marisa

    • Dear Marisa,
      Thanks for the comment. You know how hard it is to move away form the prejudice of low standards of English classes in public schools and schools like mine!
      Seeing my teenage students logging in to do do their tasks right after they get back from school is amazing and a great motivation to keep up the hard work!

  2. This is a very interesting post. As a teacher who has been patching up her own coursework for years, though, this seems like a natural process to me. In 1995 I was teaching university classes to students specialised in Physical Education and I dropped the idea of a coursebook in order to use video, conversation and….articles from the International Herald Tribune. I had to make a special trip into town on Monday morning (when sports were the most covered) to get the sports issue! All of that seems prehistoric.

    I do feel, however, that coursebooks are very legit for beginning and lower-level classes. I’m not convinced at all that I can do things better in that arena than someone who has spent years carefully preparing a logical linguistic progression to get started in a language.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      I love and agree with your second paragraph, Betty!

      Actually, I quite like and admire your first one, too…

    • Dear Betty and Ken,

      I also agree with your post! And so much so that younger students (6 to 10 year-olds) are still working with coursebooks.

      Vicky

      • I am surprised that the *younger* students are still working with coursebooks: I would have thought that this approach (i.e. activity-based teaching) was particularly suited to younger learners, where project work is often an integral part of the broader curriculum. I wonder if this is due to parental pressure?

      • Hi Scott,
        We felt the change was too big to be done in only one step… so we decided to start with the older students, who seemed to be more unmotivated and indifferent.

        Although I agree with the fact that activity-based would seem to suit younger learners, they are still doing great with the coursebook and benefitting from the safety that such a structure brings to the class.
        We still have to decide whether to keep things like this or bring the change to them as well…

  3. Hi Vicky!(From another Vicky – ha ha!)
    A very interesting post – and you are so admirable because of this decision and the willingness to put in so much hard work to produce material for the students.
    For the reason that we had our own school in Greece for ten years, we were fortunate enough to always choose coursebooks that we really liked – and even in these ones, we could always skip stuff we did not really find interesting or take something and wind it into something else…we were rather flexible with them.
    But what you did – wow! Thanks for sharing this with us and congratulations on your hard work and to the students for their equally hard work!
    Thanks, Vicky! : )
    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

  4. Vicky, I too congratulate you on your initiative, motivated as it was by the needs and interest of the students. (I also congratulate Ken for providing you with a platform to describe it to us – at considerable risk to his well-being!)

    One question I have: you said that you decided to do away with coursebooks “and write your own materials yourselves”. But what did this involve? Were you actually writing materials (in the coursebook sense) or rather designing tasks and projects – for which the students found or created the materials? It seems to me that there’s quite a difference. On the one hand, writing your own materials is simply perpetuating the exisiting methodology but using homegrown content. Whereas designing a syllabus of collaborative tasks suggests a very different kind of methodology than most coursebooks espouse. I get the sense that you chose this second route (the path less travelled by?)
    Scott

    • Dear Scott,

      As you well perceived, our writing our own materials does not mean writing materials we would find in a coursebook but on topics of our choice. Rather, it was developing a whole new syllabus around tasks and projects based on authentic materials (mostly) , tech integration and collaboration where grammar instruction only comes in as necessary as a means to achieve the task at hand. The focus has shifted quite dramatically to using the language and finding a real audience to make this meaningful.

      I´m sure it is the path less travelled by as it took many, many hours of staff meetings to design the scheme structure and to prepare/train the teachers in this new “way”. And, of course, it has only been possible beacause of the tireless disposition and effort of my teachers, who “believe” in what I preach!
      Vicky

      • That’s the answer I was hoping to hear, Vicky! Well done – your school deserves to be nominated for the Dogme School of the Year Award (just joking, Ken!).

        But seriously, this is an initiative that deserves to be publicised widely: it combines the best of innovative, grass-roots, curriculum change with the intelligent use of technology to enable hands-on, activity-based teaching. Fantastic!

    • Callie Wilkinson said:

      Hi Vicky,

      Scott’s question here is exactly the one I was thinking of. I have tried before to adapt, and even create, my own materials, but feel that the end product has just been a ‘reinvention of the wheel’. I am really curious as to exactly how you homed in on what the learners needed/ wanted. I think this kind of insight could work really well with a class of disinterested/ disengaged learners I have been working with lately.

      I really admire your courage in taking this step. Just the thought of approaching my management with such a suggestion sends shivers down my spine. I teach ESOL (which is basically the government-based provision of English in the UK), and am in the process of orchestrating and marking a set of exams which are poorly written and don’t really reflect the learners’ abilities. Nor do they provide a good qualification. I have been thinking a lot about how my learners, who never signed up for an academic course in the first place, would benefit from an assessment approach similar to the one you allude to, whereby they are continually assessed and provided with a summative reference, instead of a meaningless qualification which they have been trained to pass. How did this work when your students progressed in their education/ employment?

      This has given me much food for thought, Vicky, and I am going to spend my summer thinking about taking a similar leap to yours. Although I am slightly concerned I may be more of a ‘one man band’.

      Best, Callie.

      • Hi Callie,

        We do online surveys with each class to find out what they are interested in and we listen to them.

        Although some projects have been designed beforehand on the assumption of a general interest, there is always room for specific, more personalized projects based on these surveys and their continous feedback to the teachers.

        For example, a teacher had planned a project on ancient civilizations to promote the use of past tenses and the students suggested doing something related to the World Cup (you know the importance of football in Argentina!) so she agreed to change it and designed a new project based on their likes. One of my classes suggested doing something realted to songs and music so I’m planning a project on Songs with a Message.

        Hope this clarifies things a bit…
        Vicky

      • Ken Wilson said:

        Callie,

        I can’t believe you used the expression ‘one MAN band’, even in italics!!

      • Callie Wilkinson said:

        It does clarify things, thanks Vicky. I’m guessing you spend quite a bit of contact time with the groups you’ve been pioneering this with? Also, I was wondering what level you think it would be appropriate to start taking this kind of approach with (I am mulling over whether the learners I have in mind would have sufficient language for this to work…). Sorry to be a pain.

        Oh, and Ken, thanks for the heads up. A thoughtless error, indeed. ‘One MAD band’, obviously…

      • Dear Callie,

        We start with 11 year-olds who are roughly at pre-intermediate level. At this level, the projects are more structured or scaffolded than with higher level students. Also there is more need for grammar and instruction and vocabulary development spots along the way.

        Vicky

      • Oops I forgot!
        We only spend two hours and a half together each week… so… not much!

        Vicky

      • Callie Wilkinson said:

        Ok, Vicky, much appreciated. So the fact I spend just two hours per week with my groups wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, but the fact that they are very low ability might be…hopefully they’ll give me the pre-ints next year, then.

        Thanks so much for this fantastic and inspiring post, and for sharing your insight and experience. Long may your success continue…

  5. Great post, Vicky, and I heartily congratulate you on this initiative!

    I managed several schools in Korea, which is a very coursebook-fixated context, and eventually did away with coursebooks for the main core of our programme, replacing them with open-style homegrown books where teachers and learners slotted in most of the content and tasks. It did help to create a really profound change in the way language was taught and learned.

    Interestingly, however, at the very same time I was actually making a major commercial coursebook series for Pearson! Some of the concerns you mentioned about finding appropriate material for teenagers were taken up by me in that series and in my most recent blog post:

    http://jasonrenshaw.typepad.com/jason_renshaws_web_log/2010/06/where-the-twain-shall-meet-my-first-major-coursebook-series.html

    I agree with Ken that for lower levels, coursebooks can be a really important introduction to the language, and these days I have a sort of hybrid attitude to coursebooks (I think teachers can and should move away from them more, and/or I think publishers need to change the way they put coursebooks together and distribute the content to schools).

    Anyway, excellent post – really enjoyed reading it!

    All the best,

    - Jason

  6. Mariel Amez said:

    Congrats on the initiative, Vicky, and on such a thorough report! Congrats also to all the teachers who are making it possible, even though they presumably have to juggle with 2 or 3 different positions, and commute in the process!

    I suppose the second year will pose even greater challenges, as avoiding overlapping of materials and activities becomes necessary. Are you (teachers and sts) keeping journals? They would surely prove useful to yourselves and could be also used to write a report that the TEFL community would certainly welcome.

    Mariel (Rosario, Argentina)

    • Dear Mariel,

      On the subject of following up next year, we have created a wiki to share the projects and to keep track of what has been done with each class, year by year, to avoid this overlapping.

      Also there is a wiki page for each project where we post all the materials and the teachers can comment on the success of the projects, difficulties, possible solutions, things they would change, etc.

      This is the hardest part!
      Vicky

  7. Vicky, Ken, Scott, thank you for bringing this fascinating, important account to our attention. I shall pass on a link to various lists. Dennis

  8. Ken Wilson said:

    I wonder if any passing teachers reading this blog so far would like to comment on this thought:

    Imagine you were teaching in a school, and happily using a course book with your students, supplemented of course from time to time with your own material…

    How would you feel if the director of the school announced that from next term, we won’t be using course books any more, we’re going to devise our own material?

    Just a thought :)

    • In response to Ken’s hypothetical proposal here (that your school has announced that there will be no coursebooks next term), I would encourage “teachers in passing by” to consider the following.

      There are two (of several) potential ways to look at this situation.

      1. This means you (and the other teachers) are going to have come up with your own materials. It’s going to mean a lot of extra work and stress, most probably without any extra pay.

      Nobody who is currently familiar with the deplorable state of most EFL teachers’ wages and working conditions could blame teachers for having a negative reaction to this sort of proposal.

      BUT, I hope you may consider the fact that the assumption the teachers now have to make all the materials is rather representative of the members of Sir Ken Robinson’s audience over the age of 25 who still wear wristwatches. They take this for granted, and cannot see there is no longer any logical or practical reason to wear a wristwatch in a digital age now where the time is all around them…
      This brings me to option 2…

      2. This means the learners themselves can be asked to bring relevant materials that they find or create into the classroom, and they can also play a major role in deciding how, why and when they will be used for classroom language learning. In essence, the learners themselves will have to do more of the work that was previously provided and pre-set by a coursebook – which realistically knows almost nothing about their genuine needs and interests.

      The only genuinely hard work involved in option 2 is to change the way you and your learners perceive language learning and your roles and potential within that process.

      And if anyone – especially a publisher or coursebook writer – states or otherwise insinuates that removal of coursebook materials automatically translates into you the teacher having to do tons of extra work and provision of content, you should consider the potential that they are wristwatch wearers who want you and your learners to remain wristwatch wearers in an age where – let’s face it – wristwatches are just no longer necessary!

      • Ken Wilson said:

        I still think this wristwatch analogy is bogus. There ARE still times when they’re useful.

        When we go for a walk in the country, Dede & I leave our phones in the car (to make sure we’re completely cut off, but also to stop me tweeting along the lines of ‘Oh birds! Oh trees!’)

        However, even in this timeless bucolic setting, we still need to be a LITTLE aware of time, so what do you suggest – that I work out the time from the position of the sun?

        No, I wear a wristwatch. Dede does too, when she hasn’t taken it off and left it next to the wash basin in the bathroom.

      • Dear all,

        I do think it is a matter of shifting the paradigm to one where students do most of the work and teachers become facilitators. This, however, implies training the teachers on how to do it effectively…this has taken up most of my staff meetings´time!

        In practice, whenever I can I provide a stimulus (which has a clear linguistic benefit), but then leave it to students to choose what to do about it (with my guidance of course). The possibility of choice has been greatly appreciated by the students and results in more and better work!

        Vicky

      • I think the situation you describe is perfect for wearing wristwatches, Ken, because as you so clearly state – your whole idea is to make sure you are completely cut off.
        :-)

      • Mark Furr said:

        Aloha to all,

        There are so many issues relating to this thread that I could write a short book trying to just sort out my thoughts on even the most basic of them. However, I will add one dimension that I have yet to read in any of the comments here.

        I think that the crux of the matter here may have more to do with the project-based learning that was introduced in Vicky’s school rather than whether or not one uses coursebooks in the classroom. PBL provides far more continuity and depth than “typical” coursebook-based classroom instruction, and, at least in my experience, PBL tends to provide learners with a real purpose for communicating in English. However, this is not to say that PBL and the use of a coursebook are mutually exclusive.

        I taught in Japan for a number of years and discovered that PBL was the most successful pedagogy that I could bring to the classroom; however, in most instances, I found that I put in a substantial number of hours preparing for each classroom “project.” I was lucky enough to have a full-time position as a university teacher, so I had sufficient time to prepare for my classroom projects. This, of course, is not true for many EL teachers.

        It is true that there was a great deal of learner autonomy in my project-based classes, and the students did a great deal of work, but like most things in life, the classes were successful and the students were engaged and willing to do the work because I had first put a great deal of thought and effort into setting the projects up beforehand.

        Many of my colleagues were interested in my PB work in Japan, and this interest eventually resulted in the publication of a “non-coursebook coursebook,” the Bookworms Club: Stories for Reading Circles series by OUP.

        The classroom-based book clubs represented in the OUP series are just one of the PBL activities that I used in Japan, and many of the PBL activities that I developed were used in conjunction with a “standard” coursebook.

        Without a very supportive school and highly-trained teachers (who also have the requisite time to work on PBL materials), I think that simply chucking out the coursebooks for PBL would result in a nightmare for many teachers in many teaching environments.

        I am not writing here as an apologist for coursebooks or their authors–honestly, there are very, very few coursebooks that I actually like; however, I think that unless a school, department or even an individual teacher is willing to expend a considerable amount of time and effort in developing PBL materials, the results will most likely be quite inconsistent at best.

        Coursebooks can provide a structure around which one can supplement with a good number of “mini-projects.” I think that teachers who are interested in PBL should certainly learn more about it and try it in their classrooms, but from my experience in Japan, I can say that it took me at least three to four years (100s of hours) before I had enough quality, pedagogically sound material to dispense with coursebooks all together (which I eventually did!).

        Oh–I just looked down at my watch, it’s time to start dinner. :)

        Mark Furr
        Hanalei, Hi

  9. Emma Herrod said:

    Hey Vicky – firstly, congratulations on such an inspiring post – I’ve heard wonderful things about it and now I have ten mins with a cup of tea, I just had to come and take a look myself.

    Ken you’re last question is a good one and I’m full of (kind) envy that all Vicky’s teachers seem to have been behind her. A testament to her work I don’t doubt. I couldn’t help thinking myself that this would not have gone down well at all in the schools I have worked in (which have been in the UK). I think teachers would have thought it too much hard work and “will I be paid for the extra meetings?”. I’d like to point out that this wouldn’t be my opinion but I have heard these mutterings in staff rooms when people were asked to attend one staff meeting, let alone uproot and reconstruct a school syllabus!

    That I admire what you have achieved here can’t be said strongly enough. But for me personally I am really fascinated by the dynamic you appear to have in your school. Would you mind shedding a little light on that – or maybe another post (???) – it can’t simply be a case of you having ‘lucked out’ with a team of supportive teachers. This goes much deeper than that and I’d love to hear some of your experiences.

    Congratulations on what has clearly been a hell of a lot of work and I wish you and your team of wonderful teacher a very successful and rewarding year.

    Best wishes,
    Emma

    • Dear Emma,

      This is the story… I have been working in this school since 1993! I started as a teacher of lower secondary school classes (there were two other EFL teachers for the upper classes). There was no English in primary school at that time.

      In 1998, there was an educational reform in Argentina, bringing foreign language instruction as a compulsory subject from age 9 onwards. So the school asked me to design the implementation project for this huge change…which I did. Then they asked me to teach some of those primary classes and they created the English Department Coordination for me too!

      So after a few years, I managed to convince them that we should have English classes starting in Kindergarten from age 4. Another change! By this time, I had had to put together a team of about 7 to 8 teachers for the whole school. Some of those teachers are still working with me after 10 years! So their present support has really been built over the years through mutual respect and consideration. And the school authorities have probably seen this and that´s why they still listen to me and believe me!

      Vicky

  10. lclandfield said:

    Pleasure to read this, which looks like a very successful example of a post-coursebook world! I’m also happy to see that it isn’t simply a case of photocopying bits from many different coursebooks as is the case in other schools that proudly proclaim themselves “non-coursebook” only to use bits photocopied from a whole bunch of published books! Well done to all involved.

    Ken, if this continues then I’ll see you on the dole line! :-)

  11. Hi Vicky and Ken,

    This iniative sounds great. I think you deserve an award, Vicky. Well done! You said that you had the support of a colleague. How many others were active in helping produce materials?

    I love the idea but I think Ken has a point. I work as a language assistant in a state school and I can’t imagine this working. Why? well, the parents, the kids and the teachers.

    This kind of change requires a lot of work and time. I personally think that if you said this in my schools there would be rebellion. It’s a great idea but you need a lot of imagination, time and resources, experience and more things I suppose.

    How would I feel if my boss told me that we weren’t going to use coursebooks? really well to be honest not PC of me but I’d laugh. I can’t imagine finding and preparing exciting dynamic and truly different tasks for all of my classes.

    I like the direction that coursebook gives. I like to have it as a base and I think that like many have said throwing the coursebook away and making your own variety is just more of the same. Would love to see some examples of Vicky’s dogme style approach. Thanks very much for the example of how to go coursebook-less!

    Sounds very interesting but not without difficulties…. I have to say you will see me next year with my coursebook under my arm… Ken and Lindsay your jobs may still be secure for now!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Leahn,

      thanks for the vote of confidence! At times like this, Lindsay and I can feel a bit surrounded by hostile forces. :)

      I just checked on your blog and you appear to be a primary teacher in Spain. Is that still correct? I think it helps the discussion if we know the working circumstances of people who are contributing. If you pass this way again, could you confirm that?

      If you ARE still working in primary, then this supports the arguments expressed so far that primary pupils and their teachers are better served by using a book.

      But with the development of interactive whiteboard material, which I have seen evidence of children enjoying a lot, for how long, I wonder?

      • Hi Ken,

        Yes I teach in a primary state school and whilst some teachers would like to ditch the coursebook the majority of colleagues and people who attend training courses are ‘happy’ with using coursebooks to some extent and are more concerned with activities and ideas to use with the coursebook. I dread to think what parents would say if we burnt those coursebooks!

        IWBs are becoming more and more available but we are still a bit lost as how best to use them!

        Thanks Ken and Vicky

      • I agree. While parents are the ones whose preferences are catered to in any academic system, and while there continues to be distrust of teachers and even of and from the learners themselves (to make their own decisions and explore their own directions and instincts), coursebooks are likely to remain in demand.
        :-)

        - Jason

    • Dear Leah,

      Thanks for the comment and it has been really a long process and a great effort.

      As you well point out, I do not think that this is the way to go for everybody. Course books are still the best option in many contexts. And I do not presume to convert you all! I simply thought it would be worth sharing the process, which has worked well so far in my particular context. The hardest part is to keep it going…

      Vicky

      • Thanks for sharing and for the very interesting debate and Congrats once again! Food for thought on a Wednesday. That’s why this blogging stuff is great.

  12. I have been teaching in China for 3 years with no text. Mostly I teach graduate students who are at the so-called intermediate level-nothing((text) is really appropriate for them or the expense is outrageous. Always open to suggestions for the next academic year though.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks, Betsy – a really useful observation.

      Could you tell us more about what kind of grad students you are teaching? And are they in a large conurbation like Beijing, or somewhere smaller?

  13. Hi, although I am at present (mainly) a materials writer, I’m writing here as a teacher – of adults and older teens – and ex DOS. I’d like to go back to the points being made about teacher workload. I think the bulk of the work goes on in the classroom – not preparing materials beforehand – helping and supporting learners in choosing and exploiting materials – training them to be noticers and autonomous learners – helping them decide what they want, showing them the range of possibilities out there to choose from. And for those teachers who are daunted by this role – which may be a new and alien one to them, then the workload should shift to the managers, the DOSes and the trainers to give clear, accessible, step by step models of how it’s done. Or point Ts in the direction of blogs and webinars that show the way. Just as you have done here Vicky.

  14. Randi Harlev said:

    Hi Vicky,

    Amazing! Stepping back for a minute from the actual project work and from the change you’ve created in your school (let’s call that the ‘product’ for this discussion), I’d like to relate to the ‘process’ you and your staff are going through, and why, in my opinion, it is successful.

    You are championing something that you believe in and that you are daring to do despite any fear of the unknown that you may have. As a leader, you have inspired others, who are perhaps less confident, to follow you and share that adventure.

    But just as importantly, you’ve provided the safety net for your tightrope walkers as they do their best to – at least in some cases, I have no doubt – suspend their own disbelief and move perilously forward. You’ve done that by creating a culture of support; a culture in which all are partners in a process that none of you are expert at. By recognizing the difficulty you are all facing, you provided the ‘scaffolding’ that your staff needed to succeed.

    Why not make this into an action-research project and document the cycles of change that you are your teachers are all a part of? You’re doing the work anyway. What an interesting piece of research that would be!

    Thank you so much for sharing, Vicky – your experience is inspiring.

    Best,
    Randi

  15. I have to admit I haven’t read ALL the comments here, but I’ve been pursuing this same line of reasoning in my study of Arabic. I have claimed that we can mount an Arabic course with a teacher informant, students who agree to speak only in Arabic, and a recording device so that students who would like to take the classroom dialog home with them can. My latest Arabic teacher is Abdul Kitaab, slave of the coursebook, because every time students try and take the conversation to their own interests she finds a way to turn it on a grammar point, bring it back to the course materials, and stifle the free flow of conversation. I really feel the pain of students in this situation. Constructivist creativity is where it’s at. Whose learning is it anyway? Come on teachers, let go!

  16. Peter Whiley said:

    A coursebook is like a noose around a teacher’s neck.
    Parents and School authorities are the ones who’ll remove the gallows chair you are standing on, and leave you swinging, when it so pleases them.
    Students are like Americans – coursebooks are like the guns they think they should possess for their security.
    Those who advocate the removal of coursebooks are seen as ‘loose cannons’. How dare they suggest such a thing!
    Meanwhile, teachers are paid less and less, and told more and more what to do!
    I want to be a materials writer – to earn some money.
    Yeah, let’s write a coursebook – long live the coursebook!

    Removing my cynicism for a moment….
    Long live the Vicky Samuells of this world for being the gems that they are! Scott T. is truly proud of you…and so am I!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Peter,

      whilst I like the tone of your comment, I do rather baulk at leaving the, shall we say chauvinistic remark about Americans in. I will anyway and people can make up their own mind about it. As you know, I’m married to an American with a very large extended family, not one of whom feels the need to own a gun for his or her own security.

      There, I’ve put in my six penn’orth in favour of some Americans, at least…

  17. Peter Whiley said:

    Ken, I didn’t mean to be chauvinistic at all! I like Americans…some of my best friends are Americans…..Really!
    When I was in the USA, some did, however, appear to view having a gun as a necessity. I stayed in the homes of such people, lovely people, who feared they would be burgled and attacked in their homes. I’m glad that Dede and your relatives are different in that respect.

    Anyway, I was simply drawing an analogy between students feeling the need to have a coursebook, and the gun ‘concept’ appeared to be a good lyrical choice, tying in with the ‘loose cannons’ and noose ‘weaponry’ references. I was thinking linguistically, not in any other respect. Creative juices can get the better of one! Thanks for the sixpenn’orth in favour of Americans, Ken.

  18. Hi Vicky, I applaud you on your move away from coursebooks. Very good to see another school actually putting its students at the center. I did something similar with my school not too long ago http://turklishtefl.com/2010/02/19/crazy-or-enlightened/

    The move away has been fantastic and while many worry that students will revolt, I’ve found the exact opposite to be the case. Again and again I’ve seen how after just a couple weeks with personalized lessons tailored to students’ needs and interests how they get upset when teachers DO use a coursebook as the primary mode of instruction. You get the odd dissenter of course, but a face to face chat explaining the reasons for things almost always does the trick and if not, they can go to a course that uses Headway and good luck with that:)

    To Ken’s hypothetical question: instead of a year, let’s try a month. The unhypothetical answer is that teachers get nervous. But this is easily counteracted by getting them all onboard before making the change, providing lots of training and support, allowing use of coursebooks during the adjustment period, etc.

    And to Peter, as we all very well know owning a gun is the unalienable right of all Americans just in case the Queen of Britain decides to try and invade again. Certainly a worthy reason if I ever heard one :).

  19. Hey Vicky,

    I’m a trainee teacher, who’s finishing her last year at TTC, and working in a private school at the same time. I simply think that you are the future.

    When I started working, I felt a huge pressure between the material I had to use and the boredom and unmotivation of my students. I thought to myself, let’s just work with videos and songs, and cool projects they could be more interested in, but I realised (or rather, they made me realise) I couldn’t make that decision. I had to stick to the rules, and if my students misbehaved or were bored, was my lack of experience and control over them.

    I thought to myself, schools are not what I want to do in the future, because I really want my students to learn, to make it meaningful, and I cannot change the ways things are. That’s when I read about your and your project. Wow! You have the will and the means to go for it. It’s just amazing. What you’re doing is what’s going to be every day life in 5 years time, or less, hopefully. Unluckily, It’s much more hard work than to plan your lessons following a coursebook, and teachers in Arg are overloaded with work, and doing it under low salaries. But, sooner or later, we will become aware that changes are inevitable, and our students are way ahead from what we are dealing with now. You’ve brought hope to my heart. Thanks. More people like you, that’s just what we need.

    Cheers,

    L.

    • Dear Luz,

      Thanks for the reply… I feel really overwhelmed by the many positive comments!

      As to the issue of it being really hard work, of course it is, specially this first year. But we expect to gradually build a bank of projects that can be re-used or adapted so that it is not necessary to plan/write all new projects every year. That’s also why we are keeping track of what projects are being done with each class.

      Vicky

  20. Patricia del Castillo said:

    Hi everybody! I’m one of Vicky’s supporters in the “project campaign”. I have been working with her since 1999 sharing new ideas every year.
    Regarding our new way of working at school, I daresay that it IS complex but very creative at the same time. First of all, the class is not teacher centered, my role there is just monitoring, guiding their activities and clearing up doubts. Projects include a variety of strategies to keep students engaged. I feel that, in this way, skills are more integrated and it is easier to bridge the gap between what is being taught and what is already known. Students feel more motivated and confident to express themselves. It happened in 2nd year (14 years old). There´s a boy named Nicolás (you know who I’m talking about Vicky), who is never interested in any subject. He’s nice but he doesn’t like studying, so poor grammar and less writing. But,…my first project with them was about the novel “A Christmas Carol”. They had to investigate on the characters, how the main one changed in each chapter and analyze those changes. But the whole group wanted to dramatize the novel, wearing customs and preparing their own scripts. I thought it was a fantastic idea so I agreed.
    Well, this boy, NIcolás, performed the best play!!!! He was so motivated and happy that I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him acting and using the language in an appropriate way.
    I hope not to be a bore. I just wanted to give you an idea of the way we work at school and as Vicky says,……we don’t want to convert anybody; sharing new ideas is what matters.

    Pat

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Good morning, Pat, and congratulations on appearing to be the 110,000th visitor to this blog! :)

      This is not a boring story at all, in fact we need more information. You talk about the class investigating the characters, analysing the changes etc – how does this take place? And when and where did they write the scripts? In class?

      If you come back, tell us more about the process.

  21. Susan Hillyard said:

    Hi Vicky, Ken, Scott etc….
    This is it! True interactivity with nobody getting in the way
    (sorry Ken!). I believe Dufeu has a lovely diagram about this but I’ll have to find it…..ah yes….Teaching Myself,
    (rather a misleading title, I feel) OUP 1994 Pg 3.
    Great work, Vicky! You did it and you are reaping the rewards from those that matter….the students and the teachers in your dept. I am sure you will inspire others to follow suit.
    Our English in Action project with SEN Sts is following a similar path in the city of Bs As and although we have been ALIVE for only the same length of time as you, we can see positive results ……..and we hope to further the cause through the belief that it is the relationship and dialogue of those in the room that matter.
    On with the faith in PEOPLE!
    Susan H

  22. Shelly Sanchez Terrell said:

    Vicky,

    Sorry for the late reply. I love your post and the brave step you made and the fantastic results you encountered. I think the key is to have willing and open teachers who are committed to the students’ success. It sounds like you have such a wonderful staff that is willing to put in their own creative juices and time to developing great curriculums and making the step towards student centered classes. I think they are fortunate to have someone like you who understands how to use so many web 2.0 tools creatively and productively.

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