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

My latest guest blogger is Slovakian teacher, Vladimira (Vladka) Michalkova, someone I met through twitter. Vladka works in the lovely city of Kosice and, like my last guest blogger, Ania Kozicka, has been teaching for five years.

Vladka and friend

 

I am Vladimira and I have been teaching English language for almost five years. I am teaching at a state language school in Kosice, Slovakia. My students are mainly adults but I have several teenage classes as well. And even though I feared teaching adults, I found out that teenagers can be a far greater challenge. Teenagers are commonly considered a pretty difficult age group to teach and to somehow keep concentrated in the classroom.

Getting to know your teenagers – through diaries

It’s not about the writing. It’s about the feelings behind the words.Takayuki Ikkaku, Arisa Hosaka and Toshihiro Kawabata, Animal Crossing: Wild World, 2005

Writing, as a skill, is often neglected and avoided in the classroom as many students as well as teachers find it too time-consuming and better as homework. The emphasis in the classroom is put on the speaking, listening, comprehension or training your students’ skill in expressing their opinions.

However, if you find yourself struggling with your class, it may be really painful and almost impossible to get the message across. How can we expect then that they will share their thoughts with us or their peers and speak freely in the classroom?

Teenagers are really an amazing age group. They love to be the centre of attention, yet it is unlikely they will talk about themselves (just because we teachers want them to). Moreover, in the new era of internet and social networking, where they easily lose their identity, it is very difficult for them to cooperate and communicate in a real-life face to face classroom environment.

Some of Vladka's students doing an oral exam

 

I remember a class I had two years ago. There were 25 teenagers in the classroom. Three of them were really interested and willing to learn, a small group of boys were always laughing, one boy was permanently bored and stared at the walls and another one, wearing his eccentric clothes and sunglasses, was always making inappropriate comments or playing with his mobile phone. The rest of the class was, let’s say, easily influenced by what others were doing (or not doing).

I admit I was nervous and sometimes even terrified before the lessons. At the beginning of December, I was completely exhausted and ready to give up on them.

Then I came across the film Freedom Writers, the true story of a teacher in Los Angeles, played by Hilary Swank, who has a class of students described as ‘at risk’ and ‘unteachable’. She tries to help the class express their feelings and frustrations by getting them to write diaries.

Two of the students in the movie Freedom Writers

 

If you aren’t familiar with the film, you can read a plot synopsis here. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freedom_Writers

I decided to give it a try. I asked them to use the time they spend at home during the Christmas holiday writing diaries. We watched the film and then I gave them notebooks with a note for every single student. I asked them to keep writing their own diaries, to write down anything they find interesting or important for them (songs, films, actors, school, anything).

Teenagers are indeed truly emotional beings and I could see that on their faces when we were watching the film.

That was the beginning and I was really surprised by what followed after the holiday. Well, it was not an instant miracle but rather an amazing discovery for me. The students watched more films and wrote their reactions in their diaries.

Most of them watched one of the Twilight movies and the truth is that their first entries were mostly about the actors (namely Robert Pattinson, Robert Pattinson and once again Robert Pattinson), songs and books (and you can guess what names were repeated when writing about books).

Robert Pattinson and friends in the Twilight series

 

Though, this information is not intended to reveal any of their secrets, you can learn a lot about your students.

We had very similar rules like in the film. I don’t read their diaries unless they want me to but I check on their entries regularly. I don’t correct their grammar, their writings, or comment on them.

And it happened that sometime in the middle of February, I was asked to read their works regularly and the content of their diaries moved from describing their heroes to sharing their own personal beliefs, hopes, problems and opinions.

I learned a lot about the people in my class and I believe they learned a lot about me as well. We moved to the next step when they wanted me to comment on their works. Of course, not all the students were writing about themselves, but all of them were writing!

It seemed they found a pleasure in handwriting, they somehow re-discovered the charm of it in comparison to their “traditional” typing on the internet. The whole experience dramatically improved classroom dynamics and the atmosphere in the classroom. I believe it was the fact that all of us shared a sort of “common secret”.

And after two years (I am no longer teaching them) we are still sharing thoughts and ideas, now using their common ground, networking sites.

Vladimira blogs at http://vladimiramichalkova.edublogs.org/

Vladka has also published a guest blog on Lindsay Clandfield’s excellent Six things site, and you can read that here. http://sixthings.net/2010/03/22/six-ideas-and-tips-for-homework/

You can see an extract from Freedom Writers here – http://youtu.be/m0PRB4YsXn4

Comments on: "Guest post 23 – Vladimira Michalkova on getting students to write diaries" (18)

  1. Hi Vladka, very powerful. On another blog, I’m afraid I can’t remember where, there was a clip of the film “Entre les murs”, or “The Class”. I think some of the kids in the film are like yours! Here’s a link to the trailer:
    http://www.allsubs.org/movie-trailer/entre+les+murs/lq5qNzm3w-U
    David

    • Vladimira said:

      Thanks David,
      I have watched the trailer and I really seems interesting.
      I hope the end is happy for the teacher😦.
      Hopefully my students were never aggressive or something like that. I think it was more about the fact that they were surprised that I looked like one of them and moerover, I can’t shout or play the “bad one” and thus they tried to “overpower” me. In my country there is still very few young ELT teachers. The job is not very rewarding so they choose something else. Seems like one needs good nerves and a soul of teacher to do that😀.
      (hope I have them both…cause I really like that job)

  2. Ania Kozicka said:

    Hi Vladka,

    Great post! Inspirational ideas! There’s so much passion hidden between the lines.
    Students write diaries about films/books they like which leads to talking about things they are interested in, their hobbies- tricky and amazing way to get to your students. I think pretty often productive skills are neglected in the lg classroom – it’s great your fighting with it!
    Have you thought of writing the diary too and sharing ‘your’ thoughts with your students? That could contribute to team bonding too.

    all the best,
    Ania🙂

    • Vladimira said:

      Dear Ania,
      thanks for your comment. It was really nice!
      Concerning writing my own diary…well, I am not sure I am brave enough😀
      As I mentioned above I believe they learned a lot about me as well from my feedback notes. I did my best to write something every time they asked me to write them back.
      And I forgot to mention that the boy from the text with eccentric sunglasses became my very good friend (he still asks me to give him advice on his studies or so) and I found out that things are not always as they seem at the first sight.

      I hope I didn’t sound too complicated😛

      Thanks again Ania!

  3. Thanks for bravely sharing the fear you felt at times. How wonderful though, that you didn’t give up on the teens, but that you kept seeking a solution which worked so well – you allowed them to tap into their interests. Congratulations, and may the Muses be with you.

    • Vladimira said:

      many many thanks for your wish🙂
      Well, I am not perfect and I feel a big responsibility for my classes…that’s why I was nervous. I was desperately seeking for something that would work.
      Thanks!

  4. Hi Vladka,

    Like the others who have commented have said, this is a wonderful thing. For me it’s interesting how something really quite simple not only made your students want you to comment on their work, but also helped improve the classroom dynamic.

    This is something I am thinking of doing with one of my classes, but I’m still not sure exactly how to manage it. But now I have read your inspirational blogpost, I think I will give it a go!

    Thanks so much for sharing =)

    • Vladimira said:

      Hi Mike!
      Yeey, I am happy to see your comment🙂.
      Well, to be honest I was really surprised as well that it worked so well. The fact that from the very beginning they knew they had to write because I checked on their progress created something like a routine… and later they were probably tired of writing same things about the songs or actors so they changed that step by step.
      And I have to admit that some entries were very personal and it changed the way I saw them.
      BTW, the following year I tried the same with adults! That was not because of the discipline problems but more to boost their confidence in using English. Same rules (no correcting grammar, just feedback)!
      That was fun as well!

      Thanks again Mike for your comment!

  5. Hi Vladka!

    I really enjoyed reading about your experience. Trying to improve my students’ writing is my main focus these days and like Mike I have thought of having them write journals/diaries (something I had to do as a high school student in the US) and never really did know how to do it. I found your post (and experience) inspiring🙂 thanks for sharing!

    • Vladimira said:

      Dear Cecilia,
      I am happy you found my post useful. I hope you will enjoy it like I did.
      I also forgot to mention that with adults I used reward stickers from time to time (usually after really good writing or so) and they really enjoyed that. Later they started to collect the stickers so they were writing even more🙂
      I like to use “typical” young learners techniques with adults and they usually appreciate that – different attitude.

      Vladka

      • Ken Wilson said:

        Stickers with adults, eh?? Brilliant idea – although I agree with people who say that they aren’t as great an idea with children.

      • Dear Vladka (and Ken),

        I use stickers with my adult students too…they usually pretend to have a problem with it (“That’s for little kids”, yadda yadda) but then they let go and enjoy it. Using some of the techniques I use with younger learners with adults is usually a successful approach. I have had the occasional grumpy adult who won’t take it, but he’s usually easily convinced of the teacher’s intentions with some effort from the teacher herself😉

        Are your students mostly beginners or more advanced speakers? Because I think that makes some difference in how they take these things (originally) meant for younger learners…

        ~Cheers
        Cecilia

  6. Vladimira said:

    Yes, I admit that might sound crazy but they really like it. This year my adult students are in upper-intermediate level but I started with the majority when they were beginners. They got used to that. One of my “trademarks”🙂 is surprise during the course. I also remember they were a bit confused when I brought a ball to classroom to revise vocabulary and after the lesson one student said how funny it had been.
    And from time to time I also change the seating arrangement (U shape change to circle for example).
    …and I don’t have any children courses right now so I give the stuff to adults😀

    Thanks for comments!

  7. Hi Vladimira,

    Being a writer myself and journalist I always had my students keep daily journals in the class. I felt a definite bond with them over the years and I found it helped me understand behaviour issues as well. The key to student diaries isn’t always worrying about the errors but to also have them so students practice writing and also get to express themselves. I did this in the US with English language learners from over 12 countries who were borders and away from their families. I found it really helped them with assimilation in the new culture. Thanks for your post!

    • Vladimira said:

      Thank you very much Shelly for your comment.
      As I mentioned earlier writing diaries do creates a sort of common secret and that really helps to improve the whole atmosphere in the classroom. I can’t explain why exactly but there is something in it…🙂

      I am happy you liked it🙂

  8. Hi Vladka

    I’m not sure I’m going to be able to add much more meat to these comments! What an inspriational post. Thank you for the clip for “Freedom Writers” – this will go on my ‘films to watch really soon’ list. I have “The Class” waiting on Sky+ for me to watch – I’ve also heard very positive comments about it.

    Perhaps it’s time to give the journals another go in my classroom.

    Thanks again!
    Emma

    • Vladimira said:

      Thank you Emma for the nice words!
      I am happy you found it inspirational.
      I also plan to watch The Class very soon.

      Vladka

  9. Dear Vladka

    Thanks for sharing the link with me today. I liked the perseverance that you’d shown in getting your students write over a period of time. And once they got hooked to it I can see there’s no turning back.

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