Thursday, February 26, 2015

Idea # 5

© Stephanie de Rouge

I can't help, but see opportunities for creating learning activities everywhere I go. Recently I got inspired by Stephanie de Rouge's photography - particularly, her digital story "In your fridge", where people are portrayed next to their groceries. Her grand idea was to literally understand if we are what we eat. It's a philosophical question if you think about it, and I'm happened to be a big supporter of the Philosophy-based Language Teaching (PBLT) that deals with such questions to enhance speaking. PBLT approach (Shahini & Riazi, 2011) introduces philosophical questions to the students to "encourage [them] to think critically and creatively about the world around them" (p. 171) Philosophical question in this sense does not necessarily mean speaking on existential topics or about history of philosophy, but refers to discussing concepts "that are central to our lives" (p. 171) on a deeper level. The example of such topics and questions could be found on In the Shahini and Riazi's study two groups of intermediate level students participated in one semester of ESL speaking class (17 sessions). The group that had philosophical discussions was scored significantly higher on the speaking post-test, than the traditionally taught group. Moreover, the experimental group was so engaged in classroom discussion that even after the semester was over, all students kept emailing the teacher additional thoughts and ideas on the matter being discussed.
I liked the concept and decided to create a speaking activity using Stephanie de Rouge's series "In your fridge". Normally, the topic of food is so predictably boring in language textbooks. At best, during the lesson students get to shop groceries online or read some authentic menus, but often we just stuff them with the textbook reading and traditional cuisine. I wanted to talk about food in a bit different way, possibly with a deeper, philosophical-like idea on mind. So, I printed six photographs from the digital story. Then, I cut each photo in the middle to separate a fridge from its owner and mixed the pieces. The students were invited to work in small groups matching the pieces back to their original whole. Each portrait also had basic personal information on it: for example, Marie, lawyer, Paris - I took it from this Russian website. Of course, the students could only speak a target language during the discussion. 

At the first glance, it is very difficult to understand which fridge belong to whom and provide a cohesive argument. However, I was extremely surprised observing and listening to my students: They figured four photographs out of six! At the end we talked about our own fridges, what we have there and how it reflects our personality. It was very simple - "I don't have any meet, because I'm vegetarian", "I don't cook at home, because I'm a busy person", "I like to try new foods and I have many different items in my fridge. I'm an experimentalist"- but we learned a lot about each other. 

Happy eating and happy teaching!

Gholamhossein Shahini, A. Mehdi Riazi. (2011). A PBLT approach to teaching ESL speaking, writing, and speaking skills. ELT Journal, 65 (2), p. 170-179.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Idea #4

© Steve Harwood via Flickr

The idea is certainly not new: if you google teaching language/culture through movies, you will find an impressive list of academic articles and whole books on the matter. I am a big fan of cinematography, and it was about time for me to start a movie club, or something like that. So, a friend and I come up with the Friday Movie Club idea - for the students, with the focus on providing more cultural exposure through film. 

Teaching culture was always a hot topic in SLA, since there are so many definitions and components of the concept. My understanding of culture has much to do with the Gibson's Cultural Iceberg Model (2002) that includes obvious things, such as food, holiday customs, dress (about 10%) and more complex, hidden things like values, assumptions, notions of "self", etc. (about 90%). You can learn more about this perspective on cultural competence in Gibson's "Intercultural Business Communication".  

According to Gibson, intercultural communication is not an easy skill to master. Movies seem to be a perfect solution, since they are usually very rich in culture (just observing how two people share a dinner can probably provide more cutural information, than a whole book). Students get to watch people in a wide variety of contexts and learn a lot over a relatively short period of time. 

The logical question here is why to organize a club out of something that students normally do anyways at home? Students love movies, they don't really need us for that. Well... We noticed that students either watch the American movies with the Russian subtitles (and, therefore, missing out on the rich cultural load that the actual Russian movies provide) or watch whatever cinematography they find on Netflix/YouTube/online, which does not guarantee qualitative experience. That is why we decided to take it under control (sort of) and started showing one carefully selected Russian movie every Friday after classes. 

So far we have been running our Friday Movie Club for a month, and that is what we learned:

1. Reminders! There should be multiple reminders in all kinds of formats (posters, flyers, emails) to gently navigate the perspective audience to the right location. Students do forget what is good for them :)
2. Snacks help. We try to have some typical Russian snacks around (кукурузные палочки, for example) to attract hungry tired spectators and compliment the experience with an authentic touch.
3. Subtitles in a target language is a must. Although it's virtually impossible to find a Russian movie with the Russian subtitles, it's mush more engaging for students to watch movies this way. 
4. Feedback. We thought we know everything about our students' preferences and picked action and triller movies for the first two weeks. Then, we decided to ask students' opinion and found out (to our big surprise) that our audience loves romantic comedies! 
5. Timing and complexity. Long movies in a foreign language (or very complex ones) are just too much. We try to select light and funny films with a lot of details of everyday life and a grasping dynamic visual.

Ideally, we would like to have an after-movie discussion and ask simple questions, such as: What was you favorite character and why? What unusual or interesting details did you notice in people's everyday lives: apartments' layout, restaurant etiquette/ transportation? What moments of the movie did you like the most?

But, honestly, right now our movie club members are just too exhausted to stay for a discussion after a long day in school + a movie. It might be a good idea to run such a club on a weekend!

Happy watching and happy teaching!

P.S.: If you are interested in language teaching through movies, the Berkley Learning Center (BLC) has a large collection of film clips (BLC Library of Foreign Language Film Clips) that is solely meant for language instruction. The access is free, but your institution has to sign a contract with BLC. Here is a workshop, where the BLC Associate Director Mark Kaiser explains how the library works.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Idea # 3

© Julia P via Flickr

Once upon a time I had to take GRE that stays for the Graduate Record Examinations. Besides a mildly intimidating math portion of the test, I had to tackle "the Verbal section". I'm not sure what ETS means by "verbal", but I've never seen words like that before. So, I had to learn about a thousand new lexical items... in two months. And here the Mnemonic Dictionary came along. I loved it to death! Moreover, I got completely hooked on creating my own mnemonics. Five years later I still remember many of those GRE words AND the mnemonics I made for them.

In case you don't know what mnemonic is and too hesitant to ask, look it up here - :) For the rest of you: mnemonic is a memory shortcut, a clever/funny/crazy way to remember something. For instance, to remember the names of the Great Lakes, you can take the first letters of the lakes' names (Huron, Ontario, Michigan, Erie, Superior) and make a word out of them: HOMES. Certainly, for the language learners the goal will be to memorize foreign vocabulary. For certain languages with a limited number of cognates and not very transparent morphology/etymology, mnemonics could be the only way to learn new words.

There are many books written on mnemonics (my favorite is "Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything"). In SLA mnemonics are known as the Keyword Method (KWM). There is also a beautiful story of how the technique was invented (the Simonides Memory Palace and the method of loci) and used by many Greek philosophers. The main idea is that you create a powerful visual or acoustic image that would trigger a right association and deliver a desired item from the memory storage. 

As always, my concern was how to use mnemonics in the most effective and systematic way with my students. Ideally, I would love to create an online mnemonic dictionary for the Russian language - similar to this. To do that, however, one should know how to code. Unfortunately, programming is not my strongest skill ( I'm learning), so I decided to set up a simple blog, where each post - created by me - would announce a current topic and then students would come up with their mnemonics in the comments section. To give it a slight push, I assigned it as a part of the homework: while learning new vocabulary at home, each student had to come up with at least one mnemonic and leave one comment on somebody else's mnemonic. The amount of amazing mnemonics students created was just shocking! My forever favorite is a mnemonic for the Russian word "истребитель" (istrebitel' = a fighter plane) that was successfully remembered as "Easter beater" (a crazy flying monster that destroys Easter eggs, according to the students). 

By the way, the current research says that it's not necessary to create your own mnemonics - one can benefit from pre-made mnemonics just the same... And no, KWM doesn't cause the chronic misspelling syndrome, as some teachers believe. Students perfectly understand that "Easter beater" is not exactly equal to "истребитель". 

Mnemonics can be used for grammar, phonetic rules, and other difficult concepts to remember. When my students struggle with a new thing - an especially long word or a challenging conjugation pattern, we brainstorm it together and often come up with a great mnemonic that serves us well the whole year (for instance, did you know, that the Genitive plural ending -ов is just the Russian version of English "of") .  

Let me know, if you have any ideas on how to record and work with mnemonics.

Happy remembering and happy teaching! 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Idea # 2

© Jessica Whittle Photography via Flickr

There are, certainly, tons of ways to review new vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are only so much fill-in-the-blank exercises students can take before they start throwing rotten tomatoes in you. That is why, once in a while, when I need to focus on specific lexical items in a discrete kind of way and check the spelling, I come up with various games. From time to time I write crosswords that are based on the vocabulary of the lessons and give them to my students. You, probably, know how addictive crosswords are - it's very hard to stop once you get into the groove. That is why I don't have to make it a mandatory task, students beg for more crosswords once they get hooked! 

Now, the technicalities. It takes exactly one minute to create a beautiful crossword made of any words you want. I use this Russian website, where I just type all my words in a window and hit "Create" ("Создать") to get five beautiful crossword shapes. I pick one and save the empty structure to my computer as an image. There are many other websites that offer a similar service, such as Cross.Highcat or Crossword Puzzle Maker on The Teacher Corner page. 

Once you have a puzzle structure, you have to write the clues. I write mine in Russian for an extra challenge and a touch of authenticity, but you can write them in students' first language as well.   

Here is an example of one of the crosswords I created:

Happy solving and happy teaching!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Idea # 1

© Timothy Takemoto via Flickr

If you ever taught a foreign language, you know how challenging listening can be for students. I found that books on a general ability to listen are surprisingly helpful to address this question: for instance, "Listening Comprehension? What's that?" by Cynthia Banks and "Listening: The Forgotten Skill: A Self-Teaching Guide" by Madelyn Burley-Allen. Although these books are meant for people who want to become good listeners in their first language, many strategies from are perfectly applicable for foreign language learners.

Strategies are great, but everyone can use a bit of practice, or actually - a lot of it. Since it's difficult to deal with authentic audio materials on the beginner level and textbook stuff mostly sucks (at least, in Russian), I decided to spice things up and start a podcast channel. Using an audio social network called AudioBoom I share stories, talk about local news and interview my fellow teachers - all within 10 minutes recordings. Students listen to the episodes that come out every few days and respond in comments. The easiest way to set up your own channel like that is to sign up with AudioBoom (it's free) and ask your kids to follow you.

What is exactly AudioBoom? It's a very user-friendly platform that allows you to broadcast any audio content as long as it fits the 10 minute limit (you have to pay for more time). There is also an app! Just like you, your students can create audio clips and send them to you and each other via AudioBoom messages or upload on their channels. Before, AudioBoom (it's used to be AudioBoo) had this wonderful feature, when users could actually leave a voice comment to your audio clip. Unfortunately, this feature is not available anymore, but you can always ask students to send you their audio responds via messages.

I usually use the description portion of the post to write a question or a task to make listening more purposeful. You can also use this space for giving a vocabulary list.

If you are already using AudioBoom with your students, I would looooove to know, what you are, guys, doing with it. Otherwise, feel free to ask any questions below!

Happy broadcasting and happy teaching!

P.S.: By the way, to create a picture for this post I used: 1) Flickr for an image (if you click "Creative Commons Only" under "License", you'll see only photographs you can use without breaking any copyright rules), 2) Canva to put text over the image (it's a free design program that helps to create all sorts of images for social media with the minimum effort).


Sunday, February 1, 2015


Let me just say, I love, love, love teaching. Sometimes, I think - it's unfortunate, since, you know, it's not the quickest way to become a millionaire and permanently move to Fiji. But could be worse - I could love, love, love spinning yarn or something weird like that.

Anyways, back to the topic. I get lots of energy and good vibes moving around the class and communicating to my students. I teach about 1000 hours per year (yeah!), and by now I collected so many ideas on how to present and practice language-related material that, honestly, the stuff is spilling out of my eyers and I can't hold it anymore.

So, I decided to start a blog. For me, it's mostly for the sake of keeping everything in one place and get some space for reflection... by if it gets any interest of yours, you are welcome to join the discussion: share, comment and use it.

I'm planning to write about various activities I have created and actually done in class. So, you'll see all my handouts and worksheets. Most of it will be in Russian (since that's what I teach), but I will translate and explain things, so, it's usable and useful for other languages as well.

Happy reading and happy teaching!