Where the Grass is Greener: How to Learn Anywhere (A year of inspired insights #9)

July 24, 2012

Don’t you just hate being cooped up in a classroom during the summer?

When I teach language during the summer months, I often take my university class outside to sit on the grass. We take our textbooks with us and do our lesson sitting in a circle somewhere quiet outside. For the most part, I try to stick with the lesson that we have planned for that day. It makes me sad that much of my teaching career has been governed too heavily by a curriculum that dictates what we must learn on any given day.

Every now and then, I rebel. The results are as inspiring as they are effective.

Once I told my students to forget about the textbook. I said, “Much of the real world vocabulary that we need to know is not in the textbooks. And a lot of what is in the textbook is not really useful in the real world. Look around. What are some every day items that you do not know the names for? Point or use the phrase we have learned in class for “How do you say…?”

We spent the entire hour learning vocabulary of every day items that were all around us.  We spoke only in the target language. Students learned to be resourceful with their body language to point, shrug and use facial expressions to express what they wanted to learn.

The students were engaged and energized. They were learning words that made sense to them in a real-wold context. They also realized how much they did not know… and how much they wanted to learn.

We not only said the words aloud, we made lists of the words. I spelled the words out using the alphabet. This encouraged them to listen closely and practice using the alphabet to spell out words.

Once we had a list of forty words or so, we began to categorize them. We came up with categories together that included: “nature” (grass, trees, etc.), “buildings” (library, student centre, etc.), “structures” (bench, stairs), “art” (poster, statue) and “other things you find outdoors” (bus stop, garbage can, etc.)

We not only learned vocabulary, we practiced spelling, listening, non-verbal communication and critical thinking skills to group the vocabulary words in a logical manner.

Often, finding inspiration in a textbook is difficult. But learning, that can happen anywhere.

5 Strategies to Learn Anywhere

1. Ditch the textbook. It may not be possible to avoid using a textbook most of the time, but every now and again, a teacher’s creativity, experience and wisdom are enough to shape an effective learning experience.

2. Involve the students in the learning design. Ask them what they want to learn. If you are using a “learn anywhere” approach for a second language, challenge your students to communicate using the target language. Also, have them tap into their inner resilience and problem-solving skills to use body language and gestures to communicate.

3. Incorporate scaffolding. In the activity I shared with you above, we looped back to the alphabet they had learned some weeks earlier. They had to work hard to remember it and use it again in an authentic context. As you incorporate previous knowledge and skills they have learned, you encourage them to internalize them even more.

4. Create order from chaos. After we did some brainstorming and generated numerous vocabulary words, we began to categorize them. This helped the students organize the material they had just learned in a meaningful way. The idea is not to impose order, so much as create it. The students had a say in the categories we developed. There is nothing wrong with random learning, but organizing the new material can help some students make sense of it.

5. Relate your learning to the real world. There is no point of learning in the real world if it is just an academic exercise. Get students to think about how and when they would use what they have learned. Link something as simple as learning new vocabulary to real world skills such as learning how to ask the names of things. This builds their resourcefulness and problem-solving skills.

Learning is a lifelong process. The opportunity to learn new knowledge and skills are around us every day. I love books, and I also believe that there is as much (if not more) to be learned outside books, as can be learned from inside them.

Go outside and learn this summer.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #8: A language teacher’s legacy

A year of inspired insights #7: What to do when a student hates technology

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #4: How teaching Spanish to a deaf multilingual student opened my eyes

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

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Share or Tweet this post: Where the Grass is Greener: How to Learn Anywhere http://wp.me/pNAh3-1su
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.


A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8)

March 24, 2012

The phone rang in the Halifax apartment that I shared with my university roommate. I answered it and heard the voice of my favorite, cousin, Brian. He was calling to wish me a happy 22nd birthday.

Brian was not only my cousin, he was a lifelong mentor and personal hero. He was the first person in my entire extended family to have ever earned a bachelor’s degree. He had a degree in French. Not only did he have a degree, he had a degree in a foreign language. He also spoke Spanish and had travelled throughout Latin America and other parts of the world.

After getting his degree in French, Brian went on to teach English as a Second Language teacher at a CEGEP (college) in the small community of Rouyn-Noranda, Québec, Canada. As a language teacher, Brian was my first professional mentor. He knew that from an early age I wanted to be a teacher too and he encouraged me to pursue that dream.

A taste for adventure

Brian was a much-loved character in our family because of his adventurous nature, his playful sense of humour, an insatiable curiosity about the world around him and most of all, his willingness to try new things.

My mother once told me the story about a time she and might Dad had an argument. My Dad went out to clear his head. Brian happened to call and my Mom told him about the fight. He said, “I know what will make you feel better! I’ll bring over a pizza!”

Brian arrived some time later, with a fresh, hot pizza. As they sat down to eat it, Mom said, “It tastes funny. What’s on it.”

Brian grinned and said, “Octopus!”

Without thinking, she gagged and spit it out. Even though it was the 1970s and my parents did their fair share of experimenting, the idea of eating an octopus was too far out of her comfort zone.

Offended at what he perceived to her ingratitude for the delicacy, and lack of willingness to try new foods, Brian stood up, slammed the pizza box shut and then tucked it sideways under his arm as if it were a book and said, “There’s more to the world than pepperoni!” He too, then took his leave.

But he was easily forgivable and won others over easily. I often wonder if there is a gene in us that predisposes us to be willing to try new things. Like Brian, I have tried my fair share of exotic foods… everything from deep-fried Guatemalan ants to Alberta “prairie oysters” (bull testicles) and cajun alligator. I don’t mind octopus either, if it’s cooked properly.

A deadly secret revealed

Something in his voice on the phone that day didn’t sound right. He was serious, and Brian was almost never serious. “I know it’s your birthday,” he said. “And I am calling to wish you happy birthday, but I have to talk to you about something.”

“O.K.,” I said, sitting down.

“I am HIV positive.”

“What?” I asked, stunned.

Even though Brian had never officially “come out”, he had also never had a girlfriend or a wife. His private life was never a topic of conversation. His numerous trips around the world provided more than enough fodder for entertaining stories. His most recent trip, however, combined with his overly free spirit were to be his demise.

“Are you sure?” I asked, trying to process what I had just heard.

“Yes, I wouldn’t be calling you if I wasn’t sure. The test results are certain. I got it when I was in Thailand. I was stupid. I had unprotected sex.”

The conversation went on from there. It was the early 1990s… We knew about condoms, but their use was not as widespread as they are today. I had never met anyone before who was HIV positive or had AIDS. We cried together on the phone that day and promised to stay in more frequent contact.

Brian’s legacy

Our phone calls increased in frequency from a few times a year to once a month. There were no “phone plans” then. Every long distance call cost money. Brian knew I was a student, so he often initiated the calls. Nevertheless, I did not want to abuse his good nature and spent a fair amount of money on long distance calls, too.

A year later, I started teaching Spanish. I had no formal training as a teacher. I was a Master’s student and had been awarded a “Graduate Teaching Assistantship”. In the department where I studied, that meant I was given a textbook and a list of my students and told, “Go teach”.

In the first year of my teaching career I struggled to plan my lessons and engage my students. I often found myself at a loss for teaching activities that were interesting and purposeful. The textbook we used was not bad, but it contained only one or two activities for key concepts. My students needed more practice.

During one of our regular phone calls, I lamented, “This textbook we are using just doesn’t have enough activities. Do you have any ideas on how I can teach these basic language concepts?”

Brian replied with, “Sure I do! Don’t worry, textbooks often lack either activities or explanation. You get to fill in what the textbook lacks. That’s the fun part! I’ll send you a few ideas…”

The next week, a package arrived in the mail. Brian’s version of “a few ideas” was 75 or so exercises that he had created himself throughout his teaching career. Every activity included annotations about how what parts of speech it focussed on, how to set it up, how to lead the activity, how to evaluate it and how to connect the activity back to the language concept it addressed and how much time to allow for the activity in class.

He also included hand-written file cards as examples to use with the students. The activities included personal annotations such as, “This activity is good when students are low on energy.” or “Don’t use this one unless they already understand verbs in the preset tense.”

It was a treasure trove of knowledge, practical activities, insights and wisdom.

When the package arrived in the mail I called him and said, “Wow! This is incredible!”

Brian replied with, “Good, now try them and let me know how they work.”

“I do have one question though…” It seemed like an obvious question to me, but I needed to ask it. “You teach ESL. I teach Spanish. How are these going to work for me?”

He chuckled and said, “Some of them apply only to English, but most of them will work for any language. I learned some of them from my French professor in university. Try them. You’ll see…”

I put the activities to use immediately. Brian was right. The students responded well and the activities provided solid learning in an entertaining manner. I was thrilled.

Eventually the envelope that the activities had arrived in became tattered. I took the individual activity sheets, 3-hole punched them and put them into a binder. I still have that binder. Over the past 18 years of my teaching career, I have used every single activity at least once. I have used some of them so many times that I no longer have to refer back to the activity sheets. I just “know” them.

Brian passed away in 1995 from AIDS-related causes. His language learning activities became a staple resource for my professional teaching practice. As a young 20-something, it did not occur to me that he was leaving me his legacy. I was trying to navigate a new professional landscape. Brian not only gave me a map, he bestowed upon me a whole survival toolkit.

Inspired insights

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyThe older I get the more I understand the importance of sharing what we have learned with those who are new to the profession. I have learned that excellent learning activities can often transcend individual languages. What works in ESL worked just as easily in Spanish (and apparently in French).

Too often, we divide ourselves professionally by the languages we teach. I have often wondered if this is due to language teachers’ own comfort speaking in the language they teach. Let’s face it, it is easier for native Japanese teachers to get together and do professional development in Japanese than it is for a number of people with a variety of languages to get together and share ideas in a common language (which is often English).

While I absolutely think it is important for language teachers to develop professionally and socialize in the languages they teach, I see no value in doing so at the expense of learning from other professionals who might teach a different language.

It is foolhardy to dismiss the validity or discount the wisdom of other teachers simply because they do not teach the same language as us. We have much to learn from one another as language teachers across the entire profession.

5 strategies to leave your own professional legacy

Ask yourself this: What legacy am I leaving? What have you learned over your career that could help others? Here are some simple strategies to capture those ideas, insights and activities.

1. Share your activities with other teachers.

The format is less important than the act of sharing. Whether they are hand-written notes, computer-printed worksheets you have created or digital activities, they are valuable and worth sharing.

2. Relate the activity to learning concepts.

An activity may be fun and engaging, but unless it relates in a functional way to a particular concept or language function, it has little pedagogical value. Help new teachers understand the “method behind the madness” by  making links between your activities and the language functions they support. Activities need to make sense and have clear links to content.

3. Add personal notes.

Have you ever seen a recipe book that is full-handwritten notes from the cooks who have actually tried the recipes? Maybe you have one of those cookbooks yourself. These notes add to the overall value of the actual step-by-step instructions because they share “insider’s tips” and knowledge that is only gained by actually going through the process yourself. Adding the notes personalizes the experience and helps others learn from what you yourself have lived.

4. Include ideas for evaluation or reflection.

In addition to knowing how an activity relates to a learning concept, it is also helpful to share ideas for evaluating it. Not every activity needs to be evaluated with a formal test or quiz. You can still increase a learner’s self-awareness of their learning with a simple reflection at the end of the activity. Sharing your ideas on how to effectively assess or reflect on a particular activity can be very helpful to others who are less familiar with the activity.

5. Share the best of your tried-and-true experience.

How many times have you tried an activity from a textbook and asked yourself, “Did the authors of this book even test this activity before they put it in their book?”

Leaving a legacy isn’t about sharing what you think would work. It is about sharing what has worked — and passing on the wisdom of what you learned from it. If you haven’t personally tested it, leave it out. Let someone else who has tried it share it. Your legacy is about sharing your authentic, lived experience and wisdom.

What are you leaving to the next professional generation?

 Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #7: What to do when a student hates technology

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

_____________

Share or Tweet this post: A language teacher’s legacy (A year of inspired insights #8) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1jZ

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


What to do when a student hates technology (A year of inspired insights #7)

March 6, 2012

Gabriel sat there with his arms crossed on the first day of class. A third-year undergraduate student, he had not enrolled in my Effective Learning course by choice. The course was mandatory for students on academic probation. Enrolling and passing the course were among the conditions students had to meet in order to be allowed to stay at the university for one more semester.

Every student had their own story and their own reasons for being on academic probation. While their stories were unique, they shared a common sense of resentment and distain at the idea of being forced to take a class on effective learning. My job was show them strategies and tools they could use to improve their success at university and ultimately, to help them get off probation.

Rather than starting with the idea that the students were somehow deficient and needed “fixing”, I used a strength-based approach to learning and study skills. I started with the assumption that they were all talented, smart and capable. We were going to uncover their strengths and then leverage them to help them succeed.

A rebel without a cell phone

Like his classmates, Gabriel did not particularly want to be there. Unlike his classmates, he was reluctant to explore the idea that he had strengths. He was quietly rebellious. He had hobbies outside school that inspired and energized him, but he could not make the mental connection between the skills he used in his hobbies and the skills he would need to succeed in school and in life. Though his outward appearance did not scream anarchy, it was clear that part of him rejected mainstream culture. He secretly enjoyed the idea of not being part of the status quo.

As part of his desire to express his individualism, he renounced technology. In fact, he started the semester by declaring, “I hate technology. I hate computers. I don’t own a cell phone. I don’t text. I barely check my e-mail. And I especially hate social media! We should learn with books and pens and pencils!”

Being the techno-geek that I am, his words were like fingernails down a chalkboard for me.  I thought to myself, “Great. Just great… I have the only 19-year old Luddite on the entire university campus in my class.”

A strength-based approach to learning

I challenged him, but not on technology. I challenged him to re-examine himself and his skills not in terms of what he didn’t like or felt he was not good at, but rather in terms of his strengths. “So, tell me what you’re good at,” I said.

“What I’m good at?” He looked perplexed.

“Yes. You’ve just said that you’re not a fan of technology. So what are you a fan of? What are you good at?”

“Well…” He thought for a few seconds. “I’m good at public speaking. The art of rhetoric and oratory dates back to the Ancient Greeks. That, to me, education. The Greeks had it right. I think we need more face-to-face communication, not more technology. We need more contact with each other as human beings.”

Gabriel couldn’t help but turn his thinking back to what he didn’t like.

“OK, so forget about technology for a minute,” I said. “Tell me more about public speaking. What makes you good at it?”

He went on to talk about how he loved to stand in front of a crowd and give a speech. Gabe certainly did have “the gift of gab”. He could pontificate on any subject with no preparation. He rambled in a stream-of-consciousness manner and his speech craft needed work, but he was articulate and not at all nervous about speaking up.

I challenged him to explore the art and science of persuasive speaking and to refine his presentation skills. He seemed pleased that I had not pushed the technology issue. He agreed to explore the idea of deepening his public speaking skills.

Assignments using technology and social media: a pedagogical rationale

Throughout the semester, students had a number of assignments that involved technology including learning how to post to a class discussion board and an assignment that involved them using Twitter. This meant opening a social media account, learning how to post, use hashtags and interact with their peers in a meaningful manner.

Gabriel was not happy about these assignments. “Why do we have to use social media?” He growled. “It’s evil.”

“Hhhmm, I’m not sure evil is a word I’d use, but I get that you are not a fan of it. We are using it in a short assignment because learning how to interact effectively with others is an important skill that will serve you both inside and outside the classroom. When you are looking for a job after university, having a sense of what effective digital citizenship is may be helpful.”

He still didn’t like it, but since the assignment was required, he did it.

A strength-based approach to assessment – With digital and analog options

Instead of a final exam, I arranged for the students to do a strength-based assessment of their learning. Their learning portfolio was carefully explained and students were given a grading rubric so that they would clearly understand what constituted a highly successful – or not-so-successful – learning portfolio.

Students were given the option of choosing their own format for their portfolio. A traditional binder with pages inside divided into sections was one option. An e-portfolio was another option.

The archangel of surprises

To my amazement, only one student developed an e-portfolio: Gabriel.

While the other students were keen to use technology to text their friends or check in on Facebook, when it came to using technology for learning, they opted not to.

It was Gabriel who chose to develop his own website using Google sites, and add pages and entries to create a digital learning portfolio. He also used his digital camera to document the entire process of the creation and wrote reflective journal posts about the process of constructing his e-portfolio.

In his reflective online journal posts, he discussed the method he used to create his site, the process he went through to conceptualize what his e-portfolio should look like and how it should be organized and how he went about curating and including entries.

As a tech geek, it thrilled me to bits that my self-proclaimed technology hater was the only student in the class to choose the digital option for his final assignment.

As a teacher, what impressed me the most was the depth of his metacognitive and self-reflective process as a learner that he invested into the project. It was evident that he did not do it as a slap in the face or some kind of bizarre act of defiance. It was not a case of, “See? Any idiot can do tech!” Instead, he demonstrated a sincere willingness to step out of his comfort zone and try something new.

He engaged deeply with the assignment and used self-reflection and analytical thinking to drive his learning process.

I reflected for some time on why Gabriel may have chosen a digital option for his final assignment. While it was true that over the course of the semester we’d had some good conversations and he was doing much better in his studies, I was not convinced that alone was enough of a reason to make him to a technology-based project. He was not just using technology to consume information — searching web sites and reference articles on line, he was using technology to create something that was entirely his own.

I was so happy I wanted to cry, precisely because I knew that this was a really, really big deal for him. He was willing to go out on a limb and try something that three months earlier he had been dead-set against.

Here’s what I learned:

7 Tips to deal with a student who is resistant to technology

1. Allow critics the right to their opinion

This creates a mental and social space for dialogue to occur. Aristotle said, “It is the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.” If you are a tech supporter, are you really ready to entertain the thought that technology is a turn off for some people?

2. Be an advocate, not an antagonist

If someone really, really hates technology then you saying, “You MUST do it this way!” does little to inspire them. Instead, try engaging the learner in an open dialogue about why they feel that the way they do. The point is not to try and change their mind (antagonistic), but to allow the other person to be heard, and ensure that you are heard, too (advocate).

3. Provide logical reasons for what you are doing

If you incorporate technology into your classes, be very clear about you are doing do. Do not go high tech simply because it is fashionable. Ensure there are sound pedagogical (or at least logical) reasons for doing so. Be able to articulate those reasons to your learners. Even if they do not agree, they are more likely to respect you as a professional for being able to explain why you are using technology in a particular way.

4. Focus on learners’ strengths

Just because a learner may not like technology does not mean that they lack talents, skills and abilities. If tech is not their strength, find out what is. Help them identify and cultivate what they are really, really good at. Make it about them and their learning journey, not about prescriptive course content or worse, about using technology simply because you say they have to. Students do not have to be “fixed” and they will not suddenly become complete and whole human beings as soon as we stuff them with the right knowledge. Start with the idea that they are strong, capably and perfectly OK they way they are. Build on what they are already good at.

5. Earn, then develop learners’ trust

When you help learners shine in a way that makes them feel comfortable and safe, they are more likely to trust you. When students trust you, they are more likely to allow themselves to be vulnerable when they are around you. When they allow themselves to be vulnerable, the are more likely to engage in new acivities or tasks in which they have lower levels of confidence or engagement.

6. Let learners adopt technology at their own pace

Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, presenter, keynote, technology, social media, Calgary, Canada, educator, education, professional developmentNot everyone is an innovator or an early adopter. That is not only OK, it is a scientifically proven phenomenon, as evidenced by Everett Rogers in his 1962 Diffusion of Innovation theory. People adopt new innovations at a variety of rates. Some people lag behind others. There is nothing wrong with that. Let them be a little reluctant. It’s who they are. Gentle guidance is more effective than pushy insistence.

7. Give learners options

Acknowledge that while technology is an important aspect of twenty-first century learning, it is not the only way. As human beings, we were perfectly capable of learning before the the personal computer was popularized in the 1980s. We can train our brain to be curious even if there is no technology around. We can also develop critical and analytical thinking skills without sitting in front of a computer. By giving learners options in terms of how high-tech they want to go, we keep the learning focussed on the student and their lifelong journey as learners.

Inspired insight: As an educator, I have biases too

Every now and then, a student with a completely different way of thinking and looking at the world may open themselves up to try something new. We lead by example when we  as teachers, allow ourselves to look at the world differently, too — even when it makes us uncomfortable to do so.

While I remain a huge advocate of technology and a techno-geek, I also realize that this  is a bias in my own personality and teaching. As teachers, we all have biases. I am openly biased in favour of using technology for learning. There are those who are biased against it.

There is value in recognizing and questioning our own biases as educators and as human beings. When it is helpful for our students, being able to set aside our biases and focus on what helps them learn in a way that makes sense for them is one of the most difficult — and most productive — skills we can learn as teachers.

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #6: You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

_____________

Share or Tweet this post: What to do when a student hates technology http://wp.me/pNAh3-1it

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week(s) (Feb. 23 to March 4, 2012)

March 5, 2012

I am behind with posting some of my favorite resources. Here are my favorite resources of the past couple of weeks, curated from my Twitter account.

Ed tech resources

Technology tools for Education Majors – Prezi

18 Free Screencasting tools to Create Video Tutorials – Web Design Blog

Seriously good resources for Screencasting – Timo Ilomäki ‘s Library

How to Build Rapport With Online Teachers – by Jennifer Williamson

Fluidsurveys – Online survey tool

7 Resources for Teaching and Learning Anatomy & Physiology – from FreeTech4Teachers

7 Strategies to Make Your Online Teaching Better – Inside Higher Ed

Literacy and languages resources

Teacher resources – Noodle Tools

The Best Apps for Learning a Foreign Language – Mobiles Please Blog

The 100 ‘Greatest Books for Kids’ – USA Today

Spark Enthusiasm – Movie and video resources for teaching Spanish

Livres audio gratuits à écouter et télécharger – Free audio books for teaching French – http://www.litteratureaudio.com/

English as a second / additional language (EAL) and related resources

Canadian Newcomer Magazine – Lots of resources and info for New Canadians

Understanding Different English Accents – Daily English Activities Blog

General education resources

40 Alternative Assessments for Learning – by Charity Preston

Differentiated Instruction – Teachers Offer Help and Resources – Teachers.net

30 Online Multimedia Resources for PBL and Flipped Classrooms – 21 Century Ed Tech

Social media resources

TweetChat – An easy way to follow Twitter chats

Related posts:

Dr. Sarah’s favorite news of the week (Feb. 6-12 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Jan. 30 – Feb. 5, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Jan. 23-29, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Jan. 16-22, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Jan. 9-15, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Jan. 2-8, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Dec. 25, 2011 to January 1, 2012)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Dec. 18-24, 2011)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Dec. 11-17, 2011)

Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Dec. 4-10, 2011)

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Share this post: Dr. Sarah’s favorite resources of the week (Feb. 27 to March 4, 2012) http://wp.me/pNAh3-1hD

Update – January 2018 – This blog has had over 1.8 million views thanks to readers like you. If you enjoyed this post, please “like” it or share it on social media. Thanks!

Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


You can raise me up: The lasting impact of a teacher’s words (A year of inspired insights #6)

February 20, 2012

I had been teaching for about three years when Bob came into my class. A retired engineer with a gentle personality, Bob had been to Mexico several times and wanted to learn Spanish.

As language teachers I think we are sometimes drawn to those students who show a natural affinity for the language. We praise them to their faces and quietly marvel at their skills in the staff room when we are talking with our colleagues.

Bob was most definitely not that student. Bob was highly intelligent. Before retirement, he had been a successful engineer for several decades. When it came to Spanish though, it was like his brain functioned in slow motion.

When it came to speaking, I wondered how a Canadian could seemingly gain a southern American twang when pronouncing Spanish. It was like fingernails down a chalkboard.

Sarah Eaton speaker presenter keynote education literacyWhat Bob lacked in natural talent, he made up for in tenacity and enthusiasm. Like Kyle, he won my professional heart with “do or die” attitude. His homework was done every day. He made up his own flash cards. He practiced the dialogues. He got extra tutoring. Bob decided that this his thing and there was no stopping him.

He’d come into class and tell me about the move he watched in Spanish over the weekend or the audio book in Spanish he had found at the library. He found the stores in town that carried Latin American products and not only did he become a frequent customer, he got to know the staff. His passion for the language and Latin American culture was effervescent and contagious.

Bob passed his first course and his second, and then a third. He spent the summers in Mexico taking immersion programs. He progressed but very slowly. The twang and choppiness of his spoken language always sounded a bit like fingernails down a chalkboard.

After Bob had made it through his basic level classes, he had a choice of what classes to take. He came to me for advice. Part of me wanted to say, “Look, amigo, you are wasting your time and your money. Seriously, you just don’t have any talent for this stuff…” but something stopped me.

I dreamed a dream

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, education, literacy, Calgary, CanadaMy mind went back to my high school years. I had a full slate of courses, was actively involved in student activities and had a part-time job. Some students worked so they could buy more fashionable clothes than their parents could afford. Some of the boys wanted to buy a car. Most of us socked away a few dollars to be able to go to the movies. But the thing I really saved my money for was singing lessons.

I loved to sing. I never had much confidence when it came to singing, so I never tried out for the school musical. Instead, I worked behind the scenes on the set so I could still soak up the experience. I really, really wanted to be on stage, but it would be a cold day in hell before you would ever get me up there, singing in front of people.

I knew that if I took private voice lessons and worked hard, I could do it. My plan was to take singing lessons in grade ten and eleven and try out for the school musical in grade twelve. Even back then I was a long-term planner.

I started with one lesson a week and then moved up to two lessons. I would go over to my singing teacher’s apartment, where she would sit down at her electric piano and proceed to engage me in my favorite learning experience of the week.

I was especially thrilled because she taught me songs in Italian and German. I adored learning to pronounce words in other languages. I learned how to form different sounds in my mouth, to breathe from my belly and project my voice. Those two hours were the highlight of every week.

I would go home and practice in between lessons and my confidence slowly increased.

Every year, Wanda held a recital for her students. The first year we agreed that I was not ready to participate. I still had stage fright and though you’d never know it today, the thought of being in front of an audience caused me so much stress I almost vomited.

By the second year though, I was bouncing off the walls with effervescence. I was ready. I was going to do the recital and that would help me to get ready for the auditions for the school musical. When it came to singing, a child-like delight not only filled my soul, it ran through my veins.

Sarah Eaton, Sarah Elaine Eaton, speaker, keynote, presenter, language, literacy, education, Canada, AlbertaThe day of the recital came. I had rehearsed and felt nervous, but ready. I got up in front of the audience I channeled Giordani’s “Caro Mio Ben” in such an inspired way, you would have thought I was lip synching to an archangel. It was brilliant. I was so happy I cried.

At the beginning of my next voice lesson, Wanda said we could do whatever song I wanted. Filled with confidence, I was already thinking about the school musical. I chose “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” since I thought I might be able to use it for my audition.

She ended the lesson a few minutes early in order to debrief the recital, “So, how do you feel about how it went?” she asked.

“The practice paid off,” I said. “I wasn’t perfect, but man, it was really the best I have ever done.”

She looked me square in the eye and, “Sarah, it has been two years… I know you really want to do this…” She then said words I have never forgotten, bullets that ripped through my heart in an instant, “I think your energies are best directed elsewhere. You’ll never be a singer.”

Stunned, I asked, “What do you mean? I thought I did OK…”

Wanda replied, “I don’t really know how to say this kindly. This is our last lesson. You will never learn to sing. It’s time for you to go. I have another student coming.”

Shell shocked, I left. In that instant, my confidence vaporized. My enthusiasm for singing would never be the same, knowing that the teacher whom I idolized had banished me. I never tried out f the school musical. Never went back to church choir. For many years, I wouldn’t even sing the national anthem at public events. I was ashamed to open my mouth. The effects of that one day lasted for decades.

The circle of life … and learning

I looked at Bob and said, “Amigo, what class inspires you the most?”

He looked at the calendar and said, “I think this course on Mexican poetry…”

“Then take it,” I said.

Bob went on to take exactly that course, followed by many other courses. He told me once that he spent four hours a day learning Spanish. He travelled throughout Latin America, taking great pleasure in planning out each trip down to the last detail.

He lived and breathed Spanish. Spanish was to Bob what singing had been for me. Even though I had been tempted to tell him that he really didn’t have any natural talent for the language, I didn’t. I knew that what mattered most to him was the joy he got out of learning what he loved.

There can be miracles when you believe

Bob and I have kept in touch over the years. Several years after he had been a student in my class, I was walking down the hallway of our department and I heard Bob in another professor’s office, talking about an upcoming trip to Mexico.

I stopped and listened. He spoke in simple, but grammatically flawless sentences. The words flowed into sentences and the twanginess had all but disappeared from his speech. You could tell that he was not a native speaker, but it was no longer painful to listen to him. “Bob,” I thought to myself, “Happy retirement, amigo. Way to go. You’re living the dream.”

As teachers we are influenced by the idea that those with “natural talent” deserve most of our attention and admiration. We focus a little more on those people who somehow inspire us by their facility to pick concepts up easily and master new skills effortlessly.

Every now and again, you will get a student whose passion for the subject matter fuels their discipline and dedication, as they put in endless hours of practice. We can forget that as teachers, the influence we can have over our students can impact them in ways we can never imagine.

I am quite sure that my signing teacher barely remembers me. If she does, she may just roll her eyes and think, “Remember the girl with that awful voice… poor thing…” I am sure she has no idea that I sobbed for weeks and that despite a secret desire to take more singing lessons again, I have never tried. That day, I was quite literally, shamed into silence.

If I could reach higher (as a teacher)

Our job as teachers is a complex one. At the beginning of our careers we think it is about the subject matter and getting the students to learn the content. As we progress through our careers, we begin to really understand the complexity of what we are doing.   No matter what subject we are teaching, every single one of our students comes to us with hopes and fears, as well as different levels of interest and engagement.

I admit that I my own experiences influence what I say when I assert that an important aspect of our job, is to help students tap into that part of themselves that fuels their drive  and to never, ever tell them they are not good enough. Not every student is going to be a phenomenal prodigy but that doesn’t mean that they can’t be an exemplar of enthusiasm combined with disciplined practice. Being a lifelong learner is not about being sensational at everything we do. It is, in part, about having the belief that what we are learning is worthwhile and that we ourselves are worthwhile.

Sarah Eaton, keynote, speaker, presenter, education, languages, literacyIn one sentence, we as teachers can either raise our students up, or beat them down. The impact and influence we have on our students can be greater than we ever imagine. What about you? What words have teachers said to you that have stayed with you for years to come? Were they encouraging or devastating? What have you said to your own students that you think may have influenced them years after they left your class?

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.” As teachers, part of our job includes giving students the tools they need to build their own dreams.

And just for the record… Today when I am driving alone in my car with the windows up and the radio on, I don’t sing songs, I own them. In my little blue Mini Cooper, I am a rock star. I can almost see it, that dream I’m dreaming...”

Related posts:

A year of inspired insights #5: When reason falls on deaf ears

A year of inspired insights #3: Servant leadership in the scullery

A year of inspired insights #2: Conversations change everything

A year of inspired insights #1: There’s a silver lining in every ambulance

My 2012 resolution project: A year of inspired insights

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Sarah Elaine Eaton is a faculty member in the Werklund School of Education, University of Calgary, Canada.


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