Would you care for an earthworm with your coffee?: Turning language blunders into powerful teaching stories

January 25, 2012

Let’s face it: Language lessons sometimes involve material that is dry or boring. The reality is, it can be hard to remember facts or information. The rules of grammar? Bo-ring! At least, that is what the average person might think. Adult education guru, Stephen Lieb, tells us that adult learners need content that is relevant and useful in their every day live. What can seem less relevant to every day life of working to paying the bills, raising the kids and trying to have some kind of life. Most people just do not see a connection.

Scenario #1: Teaching with examples

Examples provide a method to make the learning concrete and relevant.

Seasoned teachers will have an arsenal of examples of their own students’ grammar and language mistakes. Examples can also be found on Internet sites such as ESL Prof.

“When I was six, I went to primate school.”

Clearly the speaker intended to say “primary” instead of “primate”. This is a classic example of mixing up words with similar sounds that have completely different meanings.

If you were using this example with EAL adult learners, you might make the connection between  language errors and the real world by linking it to employment. You might say that the implication for an adult EAL learner might be that if he or she were to say this in a job interview, it might cost them the job. Though it is not ethical (or logical) some recruitment officers may make decisions about a prospective employee’s intelligence or competence based on their language skills.

That example would provide a real-world context for why it is important to learn vocabulary very well. You have developed a cogent and logical argument to support your point using an example.

Scenario #2: Teaching through stories

Imagine dipping into your own past, experience and heritage to create a story that illustrates the same point. When teaching native Spanish speakers English, I would tell them about my own struggles with language learning.

Setting the stage and the context

“I was so proud to have a native Spanish speaker visit my home,” I would tell them. “We had agreed to do a language exchange and help each other with our conversation skills.”

Providing key detail

“I prepared coffee and baked home-made oatmeal cookies, my mother’s recipe.”

Deliver the punch line

“I asked my new friend, “¿Desea guisano con su café?

The quick thinkers erupt in laughter. Others will puzzle over the meaning until it clicks that what I meant, instead of “guisano”, was “galleta”.

As a learner of Spanish as a second language, I spent years confusing those two words. The result was that instead of offering my guest a cookie (galleta), I had offered them an earthworm (guisano).

To a native speaker, the result is either a turned stomach or comedic effect, or a bit of both.

The moral of the story

I would follow the story by saying this to the students: “My point to you is that it is easy to confuse words in a new language. In fact, it is normal. But be aware that these kinds of mistakes can result in people laughing at you or, possibly even taking you as an imbecile. In my case, I was lucky. My friend, who was both quick witted and gracious simply said, ‘Por favor, una galleta. No me gustan los guisanos‘.” (Translation: “A cookie, please. I don’t really care for earthworms.”)

From a linguistic point of view, the two scenarios are similar. The language learner mistakenly uses one word for another. The two words sound similar to the ear of a non-native speaker. But to a native speaker, the difference in meaning between the two words is worlds apart. It would never even occur to them to mix those words up.

Examples provide logical reasons, whereas stories create memorable moments that connect with human experience and emotion.

I admit that this type of story worked only because I was working with Spanish speakers learning  English. It would not work with a linguistically diverse group.

The point here is to ask yourself, what stories or experiences do you have that can help you make a point and make a connection with your learners at the same time? We all have stories. What are  some of yours?

Related posts:

Share your story, share your wisdom: How to make learning memorable

Storytelling resources for teachers

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


4 ways to engage learners without losing your mind

December 5, 2011

StudentsThere’s no doubt about it. Schools, universities and adult education training classrooms of today look very different than they did half a century ago.

Heck, they look different than they did 20 years ago. Twenty-first century learning is all about “engaging” the learner. What does that mean, exactly? There is not a single, concrete definition (at least as far as I have found). Here are a few common characteristics:

  • The teacher’s authoritative role is downplayed. Teachers are expected to be guides and collaborators, rather than the “ultimate authority” on a subject.
  • The “lecture” style of teaching is considered ineffective. Instead, group work and models that involve learners interacting with each other are preferred.
  • Students are encouraged to share their own ideas and opinions, not just regurgitate information. In an ideal situation, students also learn to back up their arguments with data and research.
  • Students discover meaning for themselves (often through a process guided by the teacher).
  • The one-way transmission of the teacher imparting knowledge and the students madly writing down everything the teacher says in order to absorb it all, is considered outdated and ineffective.

Let me be honest about my bias and say that I believe whole heartedly in engaging learners in this way. However, this way of teaching requires a substantial “re-wiring” of an instructor’s brain. If you were raised during a time or in a place where teachers could — and did — use the strap or a ruler to discipline students who misbehaved, you know what I am talking about. When I went to school, the strap had been outlawed, but rulers were still used.

Certain nuns in my school were particularly fond of whacking a ruler on a desk to grab the attention of a student who was daydreaming. Instantly, 25 students felt fear rush through them. I may be dating myself a bit here, but really, I am not as old as that statement might lead you to believe I am. My point is that education has changed dramatically in the past couple of decades.

The problem for many people like me is that we find it hard to reconcile 21st century ways of teaching and learning with the model that we know. Not only do we know it, it is all we knew growing up. Teaching in a way that supposedly “engages learners” seems “airy fairy” or “a waste of valuable classroom time” to some people. Some of those same people are very well educated. They have taken years to develop their expertise and they know their stuff darned well.

The problem is that no one really cares what teachers know any more. The whole concept of “teacher” has changed. Now, the person leading a class guides their students along a learning journey that neither begins, nor ends in their classroom. The model is unsettling and uncomfortable for educational professionals who feel that their worth and value as teachers is undermined unless they are imparting and actively transmitting their knowledge they carry within them.

So, what is the solution? Here are some easy ways to begin to transform your teaching practice, while still being true to who you are:

1. Start in the hallway. This may seem counterintuitive, but if the classroom is your sacred space where you teach and students learn, then acknowledge that bias and begin your exploration of new ways in a more neutral setting. Instead of rushing from your classroom to the teacher’s lounge or your office right away after a class, linger in the hallway. Ask students what they thought of the class today. Ask them how they might apply what they learned in the real world. Engaging students in these kinds of conversations gives you insights into your students’ abilities to engage in reflective thinking. It will also give you an idea of how they are making sense of what they learn.

2. Temporarily relinquish control of the chalkboard. Traditionally, the chalk board or white board is where the teacher writes down the information they want students’ to copy into their notebooks. It is part of the teacher’s “sacred space”. Traditionally, a teacher’s desk is located in front of the chalk board and there is an invisible field of authority around this space that includes the chalkboard or white board. Try this review activity in the last 20 minutes of class. Ask students to form teams of 4 or 5 students. Give the teams 2 minutes to write down the 10 most important aspects of the lesson. Draw vertical lines down your board so that the number of columns equals the number of teams (5 teams = 5 columns). Give each team a piece of chalk or a white board marker. Have them simultaneously go to the board and write down their 10 points. Then, have them find the common denominators among their lists. Talk about why those points rose to the top as being the most important. Then, review the points the teams did not agree on. Do all this while students are gathered at the front of the classroom in front of the board. At no point in this activity does the teacher write on the board. Let the students do the writing and circling of common denominators.

3. Include a group “discovery” or “creativity” project or activity. The project should not include going through a rote set of exercises and coming up with standardized answers. Instead, choose an activity that forces students to think “out of the box” and use their resourcefulness to create something new, using what they have learned. For example, in a foreign language class, group work might traditionally be done read through a dialogue. Each student would read the part of a different character. Together, students figure out the meaning of the conversation and answer standard questions. Instead of that traditional activity, an alternative would be to give students a list of key words or phrases in the chapter they are studying and have them create sentences using their new words. Groups trade copies of their work with each other and correct one another’s sentences. The teacher used to traditional classroom instruction needs to be aware that this type of activity will take much longer than a traditional group activity. A brief verbal survey after the activity is over will let you know which type of activity the students prefer more. Encourage them to articulate why they prefer one over the other.

4. Incorporate metacognitive activities. One aspect of creating “engaged” learning is challenging students to become more self-aware about their own learning process and increase their levels of personal responsibility. In order for this to happen, learners must become aware of the processes involved in acquiring new knowledge. Then, they can determine which methods are most effective for them. An example of how to do this in a language classroom would be to give pairs or small groups of students an assignment asking them to determine what is the most effective method to learn new verb conjugations. This activity begins with the assumption that there is more than one method. Students then embark on a journey of discovery to determine what those methods are. Part of the assignment might include testing a variety of different methods to determine which they feel works best. Then, they must use analytical thinking and research skills to determine which method is most effective. This not only helps them learn their verbs while focussing on the effectiveness of their method, it also increases their awareness of themselves as learners.

Evangelists of 21st century learning will tell you that traditional ways of teaching are bad and that your methods are arcane and do nothing to help students learn.

There may be some truth in that, but if you have been raised and trained to think and teach a certain way, becoming a 21st century teacher is not something that happens overnight. If you are interested in learning what will keep your students engaged, incorporating small, incremental changes to your teaching practice might be the most effective way to go. You don’t have to throw away everything that has worked for you over the past ten, fifteen or more years. Take stock of what you do very well and take pride in it. Incorporate new strategies slowly, in a way that makes sense for you. Observe how your students react and most importantly, if they are learning and absorbing new material in an effective manner.

Personally, I believe that most teaching methods have some merit. Certain methods work better with certain students. There is no absolute right way. Having said that, the teaching profession has changed… and continues to change. Our students and our world have changed. If we are to be not just teachers, but also role models, it is up to us to challenge ourselves to try new ways of doing things, too.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop (either live or via webinar) contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


Best of Social Media Resources & Guidelines for Education, Literacy and Other Non-Profits

May 18, 2011

Over 20 Resources to Help You Develop Your Own Social Media Protocol or Policy

If you’re with an educational or non-profit organization that is new to using social media, you may find it helpful to establish your own Guidelines, Protocol or Acceptable Use Policy. Here’s my “best of” list of resources and guidelines to help you get started.

ABC LifeLiteracy Canada’s Social Media Guidelines (.pdf)

Social Media Governance Site – Over 170 sample social media policies and guidelines from non-profits and governments all over the world

Red Cross Social Media HandbookLinkedIn logo

NSW Social Media Guidelines for Teachers on Scribd

Creating a Social Media Policy for Your NonProfit

57 Social Media Policy Examples

Sample Nonprofit Policy on Social Networking by Blue Avocado

Social Media Best Practices and Guidelines by Tuft Unviersity

5 Simple Ways Non-Profits Can Measure Social Media ROI (Return on Investment)

What Non-Profits Need to Know about Social Media

How Non-Profits Can Maximize Engagement on Facebook

10 Must-Haves for Your Social Media Policy by Mashable

How to Write Your Firm’s Social Media Policy

Penn State’s College of Education’s Social Media Policy

Improving Your Social Media Policy

Ontario College of Teachers’ Professional Advisory on Social Media

Social Media in Plain English – A brilliant short video (3:33) to help you understand social media

Facebook for Educators by Linda Fogg Phillips, Derek Baird, M.A., & BJ Fogg, Ph.D.

Lake County Schools – Guidelines for Employee Use of Social Media Networks (.pdf)

The Principal’s Partnership: Research Brief: Social Media – Developing an Acceptable Use Policy

Social Media Acceptable Use Policy for Schools

Is there a great site that’s missing from my list? If so, leave a comment and let me know. I’ll be happy to add other great resources to the list.

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If you are interested in booking me (Sarah Eaton) for a presentation, keynote or workshop contact me at sarahelaineeaton (at) gmail.com. Please visit my speaking page, too.


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