Monday, 10 November 2014

Let's work together!

I am honoured to have been asked to be the keynote speaker at the Network for Languages East Midlands Primary Languages Conference, which took place today.  Here is the script for those of you who missed it.  I also did my mini-book thing in one of the workshops.

Let’s Work Together

My languages journey

I am a Languages teacher.  I'm in my twentieth year as a Languages teacher.  I spent fourteen of those years in secondary schools, flogging away with French and Spanish at GCSE level.  The last six of those years have been in primary schools, altogether a very different experience. 

Younger children ask lots more questions.  “Can I go to the toilet?” “Is it lunchtime?” and let’s not forget “Are you from France?”  My particular favourite question was “Madame, you know the Eiffel Tower, is it in Sunderland?”  One of the most common questions, however, is "How do you know Spanish?"  

My answer is that I learned at school, the same as them, and then went to university to learn some more and lived in Spain for a while to learn even more.  I tell them that they have a head start on me as I didn't start learning Spanish till I was 16.  They are lucky to start learning when they are 5.  But then I also say that I am still learning.  I learn new things about my languages and other languages every day.  Languages adapt and morph on a daily basis, and you never finish learning them.
So I am not only a Languages teacher.  I am also a language learner.  I would say that I am in my 38th year as a formal language learner.

I started to learn French when I was seven, at middle school.  I grew up in Surrey, where there was at the time a three-tier system.  We changed schools at the end of what are now Years 3 and 7.  My learning of French in the first year of middle school (equivalent to Year 4) comprised writing out lists of things like numbers and months and colours, and sticking them on the inside of our wooden desk lid so that we could see them each time we lifted it up to get something out or put something away.  We were given a French name and a number.  I was Denise and my number was dix-neuf.

Then in the second year (Y5 equivalent) we went to the new building and were allowed access to the specialist French teacher, who we shared with the private girls’ school in the next village.  I can't remember exactly what we did, but there was a lot of chalk and talk and grammar drills, and the filling in of the little booklets which I think were Éclair.   There was certainly no technology involved.  In fact, there wasn’t any technology to be involved!   We only learned one song - Savez-vous planter les choux? - and didn't play any games.  There was no role play and certainly no pair or group activities.  

However when I left middle school in 1981, aged nearly 12, I knew avoir and être, the present tense of regular verbs, and had started the passé composé.  I knew and could explain why boys said ma cravate and girls said mon chemisier. 

Then I went to secondary school, which in this three tier system we started in Y8, and started French again, from scratch.  After half a term we moved house, to the other side of Guildford.  I arrived at my new school after the October half term holiday.  My year group was coming to the end of a carousel of second language tasters.  I did 2 lessons of Spanish and had missed the German and Latin.  The following week we had to choose our second language.  I opted for Spanish as I'd tried it and because I have a Spanish godmother. 

I was put in the Latin group.  Initially I was disappointed, but in retrospect it’s the best thing that could have happened!  Latin has been immensely helpful to my knowledge about language, to my French, my Spanish and my English.  It also helps to make me unbeatable at certain quiz games. 
Meanwhile I was continuing with French and another new teacher with whom, again, the class was starting again, but at least this time it was with Le français d'aujourd'hui and the Bertillon family. 

I remember telling my mum that I found French boring.  I fell out of love with languages for a while. 

I kept the same teacher all the way through secondary school, for all of the four years.  Gradually it dawned on me that, far from being boring, she was amazing, and had us (admittedly the top group) ready for O level at the end of the 3rd Year (Year 9).  We spent the next two years practising, learning the past historic and writing countless 100 word essays (we did the AEB board), enjoying the challenge of trying to cram in all the great structures we'd learned.  I have spent many an idle moment trying to pin down exactly what her secret was. 

So that's my language learning journey from the late 70s to the mid 80s.  Very traditional, but it suited me and I learned a huge amount.  I went to France for the first time – on a school day trip - when I was 14 and was quite happy to have a go with the speaking.  However this way of learning didn't suit everyone. 

One of my friends was in the same set as me for French, and she also was the recipient of an A grade at O level.  She also had done Latin and so had a fair understanding of how language worked.  She should have done A level French but the thought of having to speak the language terrified her.  It was something we had hardly done in 4 years, apart from answering the odd question in class, and so the O level speaking exam with a visiting examiner was a bit of an eye opener.

Your language learning journey will have been different, and it may or may not have suited you.  Many methods have come and gone, and in some cases come again, since then.  The way languages are taught in primary schools now is worlds apart from the way I was taught in 1978.  The methods we use now suit the many different learners that we have in our classrooms, and we have many more exciting tools with which to bring the language alive.

Children learning together

One of our main aims is to get the children involved in their learning.  They are no longer the passive recipients who sit silently in rows and then complete pages of exercises in their books.  We know that children learn best when they have the opportunity to help, support and explain to each other.  They learn best when they take part in an activity that they perceive to be fun, interesting or different.  They learn best when they have the opportunity to do the things that young children like to do: singing, dancing around, playing and laughing.

Confucius said:
I hear and I forget.
I see and I remember.
I do and I understand.”

which is further clarified in the words of this Native American proverb:
“Tell me and I’ll forget.
Show me and I may not remember.
Involve me and I’ll understand.”

Both sayings emphasise the importance of children’s participation and involvement in their learning.
When I was a secondary teacher, my colleagues and I had preconceptions about primary classrooms.  We thought that children were always up and down and out of their seats and unable to sit and listen.  It’s how we used to account for Year 7’s fidgeting and neediness.  But now I know differently. 
Primary children work collaboratively, in pairs and in groups.  They change activities frequently to keep the pace going and to maintain interest.  Seating patterns are important and there is also a strong culture of helping others.  Much primary learning is characterised by active learning.  Children read, talk, write, describe, touch, interact, listen and reflect.  They learn by doing, thinking and exploring through planned and quality interactions.  The child is not a passive observer, like these ones.

So what sort of activities and materials should we be aiming to include in our language lessons?  The learning set-up is a bit different to other subjects as the children rely more on the teacher as the source of knowledge than maybe they do elsewhere.

Let’s start with flashcards.  Of course they are very useful for the teacher when presenting new language to the class, but once the teacher has finished with them, they can be handed over to the children to help them to practise the new words and phrases.  Children are very good at thinking of ways to practise new language in pairs or groups with sets of small cards.

Dominoes are a pair or group activity ideal for revising prior learning or indeed for practising new language.   There is the possibility of matching up words with pictures, words with words or even words with numbers.  How about matching up the two halves of a sentence?  There are many possibilities, all of which require the children to discuss the answer together and arrive at a decision.

Moving on one step from dominoes are shape puzzles, or Tarsias, as they are now more commonly known.  Each side of each shape has a word or picture that needs to be matched with another word or picture so as to create the final shape.  When the Tarsia is finished, it can be used as a reference tool, stuck down on sugar paper and added to.

Sorting activities like Trash or Treasure or Venn diagrams oblige children to work together to find the links between words and phrases.

For practising structure in writing try a game of Showdown.  Each group of children has a set of cards with phrases or sentences in English or in picture form that need to be written in the target language.   The group captain chooses a card and puts it on the table for the rest of the children to see.  They each write on their own mini whiteboard the phrase or sentence that the card requires.  When they have all finished, the captain says “Showdown” and all members of the group show what they have written.  They discuss, looking at the evidence they now have, what the correct answer is.

For another way to practise structure, use dice, multi-link, Lego or paper chains.  Each number or colour relates to a part of a sentence or an individual word.

There is even something as simple as giving each child a post-it and asking them to test each other on the words you have been learning.  Everyone will be busy, it will only be a short activity, and there won’t be lots of children sitting bored while the teacher has to go round testing individuals.  When the class is playing a game like Chef d’Orchestre or Hide and Seek they will be enthusiastically speaking the language, but not thinking about it – the language is the means of winning the game or helping a classmate to find the answer.  And going right back to basics, every time the children repeat a word and perform an action to go with it, they are being active learners and involving themselves in the learning.

We can't underestimate the impact on children of learning alongside children in another school, whether that other school is in the UK or in another country where the language is spoken.  It is motivating and makes them feel important.  Currently the children I take for Spanish are working collaboratively with a school in the east of Madrid, but also with one of our nearest primary schools in Sunderland.

Teachers helping teachers

We know that it’s important for children to help each other and to learn collaboratively.  It’s equally important for their teachers to do the same.  For many primary teachers, Languages is a new subject. 
They are going to need help and support to assist them in their day-to-day teaching of languages. 
But let’s not forget that they also have something to give. 
I am willing to share my language expertise.  In return the primary teachers can share their expertise as classroom practitioners.  We all have something to offer and we all have something to learn.

I have already described my language learning journey.  I also have a sharing journey. 

In 2004 I uploaded for the first time a little website called MFL Sunderland, which I had put together as one of my targets as an Advanced Skills Teacher. 

Just about every resource that I have made since then has gone onto the website.  Over the past 10 years it has undergone many changes, not least, most recently, a change of name.  From small beginnings it has become one of the well-known languages websites, and it remains free of charge to users.  It has over 5000 resources and is nearly 2GB in size.  It has its own blog, its own Twitter account and its own Facebook page.  All of this was inconceivable to me 10 years ago.

I am committed to sharing, not only to sharing resources but to sharing ideas and knowledge as well.  I blog and tweet as a professional, to share what I know with other professionals.  But I wouldn’t do it if I couldn’t take as well as give.

Why should we as teachers share what we have and what we can do? 

Let’s say I make a resource or have an idea.  I think “Mr X in the class next door is doing the same thing at the moment.  He might like this to save a bit of work.”  So I give it to him and to other colleagues, actual and virtual, who might find it useful.  Then I have another idea, and share it in the same way and for the same reasons.  And so it goes on.  The others end up with a pile of new resources, and I have none until I have another idea or make a new resource.  So I get drained and annoyed and sad.

This would be better.   I have a resource or an idea.  I think “Mr X in the class next door is doing the same thing at the moment.  He might like this to save a bit of work.”  So I give it to him and to other colleagues, actual and virtual, who might find it useful.   The other colleagues have a resource or an idea, and they give it to me as they think I might find it useful.  And so it goes on.  Everyone ends up with a big pile of resources and ideas to help them to move onwards and upwards, and to make their working lives easier.

This is my definition of sharing in this context.  It might still need a little tweak, but that’s the essence.

The day-to-day life of a teacher is not an easy one.  Particularly if you’re a teacher who has to add another subject to their already busy planning and teaching schedule.  It’s easy to get stuck in a rut where there are no fresh ideas, where you can’t think round a problem to find a new way of doing it that is just right for your class.  And how many times have you spent ages on a resource only to find later that you have in fact reinvented the wheel?

Remember - as they said in High School Musical, we’re all in this together.  Whether we like it or not, whether we are prepared to admit it or not, we all face the same challenges and the same pulls on our time.  We’re working towards a common goal but we all have different tools at our disposal.  We have to support and help each other.

The year before I became an AST I did a “Becoming a subject leader” course.  It taught me that I didn’t want to be a subject leader, but it did teach me some useful things too.  Like how important it is to create a culture of sharing and networking amongst your colleagues. 

Start small.  Schedule meetings where each colleague brings along a resource or an idea that has worked well for them, or a web link that they think is particularly interesting.  It may be hard to win people round.  For some reason some colleagues are very protective of what they create and are very reluctant to share.  Is this insecurity?  It’s worth stressing again that everyone will have something worth contributing, whoever they are and however much experience they have.  I have learned as much from NQTs and Foreign Language Assistants as I have from more senior colleagues.  Everyone has their own ideas which will stimulate an idea in or interest someone else. 

Share resources or links informally via email, or via the school VLE or a shared Dropbox folder.  Create some folders on the school network where everyone can save a copy of each resource that they make or use.  That way everyone will know what’s available and won’t spend ages making something new when they could have adapted something that was already there.  Set up a blog or wiki to serve as a central point that you can all access from home and from school, and that you can all contribute to and put ideas on.  It takes a bit of effort on everybody’s part, but the rewards are more than worth it.

If you want to share with a wider audience, there are different forums and other online “outlets” that you can access.  For example there is the TES Forum, where you can discuss languages and their teaching, although the Modern Languages forum isn’t half as busy as it used to be.  If you prefer an email forum, sign up to the CfBT Primary Languages forum.  I can’t recommend Twitter highly enough for keeping you up to date with the cutting-edge ideas and for the camaraderie.  If you follow my Primary Languages UK Twitter list, you can keep in touch with and get information from over a hundred primary languages teachers (specialist and non-specialist) as well as organisations, publishers and suppliers.  If you are a Facebooker, there is the Languages in Primary Schools group, which has over 700 members.

There has not been much money forthcoming for the majority of primary teachers who require upskilling, so the arrival of the Association for Language Learning’s network of Primary Hubs has been a godsend.  They exist all over the country so find one near you.  They are free of charge and allow you to link up and meet with other professionals who are in the same boat as you. 

We need to work together to ensure that Languages in KS2 works this time round.  And we need to ensure that the children are involved in high quality learning experiences to further their knowledge and understanding, as they begin their language learning journey.  Build your network, get sharing - Let’s Work Together!

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