Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Positive Psychology applied to EFL

Here I am again to talk about Positive Psychology and its application to our classrooms.  In 2006, a little before I began my Doctorate in Psychology from the University of Brasília, I heard that I should think twice before assuming such a decision because a Doctorate was a long term commitment and that it involved a lot of suffering.  Also, some people would come to me with stories of doctorate students losing hair, putting on many kilos, or even falling into a state of depression. Nevertheless, I was determined to be a candidate and if accepted, to carry on with my goal.
It turned out to be that I was accepted and very soon, I began to feel guilty for not suffering at all. Actually, I cherished every single moment of my being at University, doing research, having contact and discussions with knowledgeable people, and learning, learning a lot. So if you ask me what my story has to do with Positive Psychology, I will tell you that it is the very essence of this area of Psychology. Learning cannot and should never ever be related to suffering. Learning is discovering, expanding, flourishing. Then let´s see how Positive Psychology may be applied to EFL teaching and learning. Below, I will suggest three exercises I have already carried out with success, and I invite you to try with your own classes.
Research shows that gratitude can be trained and increased. Interventions may result in a positive state of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, and energy. So I got my teen students into a circle to discuss the idea of Thanksgiving. Not everyone actually knew how and when it had begun and what individuals did in such a celebration. After showing them a video from YouTube, I asked each one to write a short paragraph about a person who has had a positive impact on their lives and who they were thankful to. When they had finished, I asked volunteers to telephone the person they had written about and to read the exact words on the paper. That´s when the magic occurred. There was a lot of emotion and tears involved. One of the girls preferred to write about a peer who was present in class.  As she read her beautiful and revealing statement, the whole class was involved in a unique and memorable exercise.

What went well ? Living positive education.
General well-being—how much positive emotion, how much meaning in life our students have is fundamental for the generation of success. Learning to value must start early and can be practiced in any educational environment. Students should have opportunities to speak about themselves and to open their souls and hearts to others. It provides synergy among class members a sense of togetherness, engagement and happiness. Finally, teachers should bear in mind that academic success is not only a function of academic knowledge or cognitive processing. Success is a function of the connections to self, others, and the world that shapes our brain.

The magic ball-making compliments
Students should be standing in a circle. Then, the teacher should start and throw the ball at a student and make a genuine compliment at him/her. The students would carry on with the activity until everyone has had the chance to throw the ball and hear impressions and compliments. The activity involves emotional strength, when students recognize the relationships, and applaud personal accomplishment.

So dear teacher, remember that teaching in joyful and supportive ways is the best means to learning. Thus, I am here to invite you to try differently and practice the conditions that nurture strengths that enable students to self-regulate. I invite you to assure students can find their own meaning in learning and distinguish between achievement and accomplishment. Build your students capacity to flourish

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Positive Psychology

Last year I first heard of Positive Psychology during a course I attended at UnB, and believe me, it was love at first sight. Just like its founder, Prof Martin Seligman, I found my motto and what was missing in Psychology. But let me begin from the beginning and explain what Positive Psychology is and is not.

For over 50 years, Psychology has had a pathology- based view on human functioning, which has proved to be really valid. A wide range of mental illnesses have been described and categorized. Psychologists can now not only identify, but treat and even cure one or another mental problem.  And psychologists and other experts have been able to produce a compendium of disorders, now the DSM- V (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders). But it is about time to shift interests and to get away from repairing damage or healing only, to developing positive qualities. What about the positive aspects of human experience? What is right in human beings that promote well being?

Positive Psychology is a relatively new field of Psychology that examines how people can become happier and more fulfilled. It is the scientific study of the strengths that enable individuals to thrive. Human beings want to lead a meaningful life and enhance their experiences of love, work and play. Positive features that make life worth living, such as hope, wisdom, creativity, future mindedness, courage, spirituality, responsibility, and perseverance have been ignored or explained as transformations of more authentic negative impulses. Then positive psychology has been trying to understand and build factors that allow individuals and communities to flourish.
However, it should not be understood as the science of happiness. Nor should it be mistaken with self-help philosophies. It is based on a cumulative body of scientific research. 

Also, positive psychology is not only about thinking positively. To think so is really naive. Part of the misinterpretation comes from the book titles on happiness. According to Dr. Seligman, “a complete science and a complete practice of psychology should include an understanding of suffering and happiness, as well as their interaction, and validated interventions that both relieve suffering and increase happiness— two separable endeavors (Seligman et al., 2005).”  

Then how can we apply it to EFL? It is well known that a positive school climate predicts both the teacher and student satisfaction. If the teacher invests in positive psychology, he/she will have students in class who have a positive outlook, try hard, and help others, present fewer negative behaviors and greater motivation. So positive psychology teaches social and emotional learning skills that change how much -- and how well -- students learn by changing how they feel. In my next post, I will be describing a few exercises that teachers could do in the classrooms.

Patrícia Villa da Costa Ferreira-PhD

Monday, October 26, 2015

Tips for Helping Adult Students Blossom in the EFL Classroom

It is our role as teachers to instill a fruitful learning atmosphere. However, how can we build a learning environment in which adult students will lower their affective filter, generate rapport and blossom? Here are my top beliefs. 

1.    Personalize your classes by giving examples using what you know about your students. Instead of saying, “John wakes up at 7.00”, why not change John for the name of a student in class? Much more meaningful and inductive, besides showing they are important for you.

2.    Believe your students can be fluent. They are there because they believe and when they believe they work harder. So do you. When you believe your students can make it, you will start thinking of ways to help them improve their learning process and this might make them trust you.

3.    Provide students with meaningful feedback on how they can improve their English or the best practice for them to be a successful language learner. Show them you care.

4.    Praise your students even for little achievements. Show them you’re taking their improvement into account. Tell them you know they can do it, and when they get there, make sure you point it out. This way they will see that you are attentive to their progress.

5.    Be a Role Model for your student. Students usually look up to the teacher, so don’t speak Portuguese. The moment you resort to Portuguese to explain something, you’re allowing them to do the same. Challenge students to understand and communicate using the English they have.

6.    Sympathize with your students. It’s not easy to learn a new language at adulthood. It takes a long time for you to be in control of your life, and then when you start learning a language, you don’t have a voice. How frustrating is it? Show understanding and encourage them to keep on track. 

7.    Share your story too. Let your students know about yourself. Illustrate an explanation with examples of your life too. They want to feel you are approachable and, luckily, there can be some interaction too.

8.    Value their expertise – let your students show their expertise in their field. It can be something simple like explaining how easy stand up paddle is, for example, but let them feel valued and show they can collaborate too.

9.    Lighthearted classes are fun, time flies and you want to be there again. Make your students have a good time with the right mix of responsibility and humor. A friendly atmosphere engages learners.

10.  Add your tip here so we can make 10.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Speed Friending

For our 4A course, there is a lesson about speed-friending (Unit 1, Lesson A), which is an event where people have just a few minutes to ask and answer questions before moving on to the next person, if one finds another they would like to get to know better, they can contact them after the event.

Teacher Danilo came up with an idea which we executed together: We both had 4A groups and organized ourselves in a way in which we would have both our classes take the same lesson on the same day and decided to host a speed-friending event among our students.

The way we did it was to number them from 1 to 32 (total number of students – we printed the numbers and had students tape them to their clothes) and give them slips of paper with the questions suggested by the book, ones that people usually ask in such events. However, they were not told what the event was.

The eight questions suggested are:
            1 – How do you like to spend your free time?
            2 – What music are you listening to these days?
            3 – What was your most valuable possession as a child?
            4 – Can you say no to chocolate?
            5 – When did you last stay out after midnight?
            6 – Who’s your favorite celebrity?
            7 – Have you ever won a prize or a contest?
            8 – What word describes you best?

Students were told to go downstairs, where chairs had previously been arranged in two circles, facing one another. One group would sit in the inner circle and the other in the outer circle.

We gave each student four of the eight questions (the first four to my group and final four to Danilo’s group) and told them they would have two minutes to ask as many questions as possible, and take notes of the answers along with the number of the person who had answered them so they could keep track of who said what. After they finished, they went back to their classrooms and answered questions like “Do you think that was enough to get to know the people you talked to?”, “Who do you think you would like to talk more and maybe be friends with?”, “Have you ever imagined this type of event?” – only then would they be told what speed-friending is.

As students carried on with their conversations, we monitored and timed them. This activity worked well as it provided them with real-time interaction as they got into it and became more comfortable as time went by. Later, they all said what a fun day that was.

This lead-in activity introduced students to the concept of speed-friending and made for a much more interesting class as it got them excited and interested in the other exercises in the book, like when they were asked to come up with questions that they thought would be interesting to ask in such an event. That was a speaking exercise that really worked well and got them engaged into discussing the topic at hand.

All in all, students felt good with this unusual class and practiced and learned something different culture-wise.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Of Tigers, Strippers and Communication

Once I asked a student to explain what a tiger is, I couldn’t help laughing when I heard “A tiger is a big car with strippers”. My poor student, let’s call him David, was only trying to say “stripes”, but he mixed-up the spelling and that was the result, followed by a funny explanation of what a stripper really is, which made the class laugh quite a lot. This memory is a good example of a student that is not afraid to speak and make mistakes, and this fearlessness is a key point when learning another language.

The fact above happened in 2006 in Brazil, and David had been my student for a little over two years then. He used to be very shy, afraid of speaking and making mistakes, which would drive him to avoid chances of expressing himself, as he would try to analyze everything he wanted to say in his head beforehand. A mistake like the one mentioned above would make him feel terrible. I have always told my students that it is important for them to speak their minds, to participate in speaking activities, regardless of mistakes made. Above all, they should focus on achieving communication, and if there are grammar errors, that is what I am there for, to polish their use of English as they make use of it. David had heard this speech many times before, but could never really grasp the concept that when students concentrate more on the message and less on grammar, it helps them produce more English and, therefore, feel more confident about doing so. However, in spite of my constant attempts to try and make him speak more freely, the results were unsatisfying and David’s progress was slow.

Salvation had come in November the year before; his boss asked him to go to Washington, the capital of the United States, to participate in a conference and people from all over the world would be there. Of course, David couldn’t say no to this chance and I encouraged him tremendously. I later learned that he was so nervous about not being able to rely on Portuguese, his mother tongue, to talk to people in the conference that he was shivering as he boarded the plane.

Now this is interesting… how afraid a person can be of making mistakes. David wasn’t nervous about going to a different country, thousands of kilometers away from home. He wasn’t nervous about reporting the conference data to his boss. He wasn’t nervous about dealing with different weather and culture. What made him shiver was the fact that he was going to have to speak English! That’s how much making mistakes affected him.

When he came back to class after his trip, he was a whole new person. He was speaking his thoughts as naturally as he did in his first language. It’s not that he had mastered the use of English in the fifteen days that he was in DC; he simply overcame his fear of speaking. The fact that he was forced to handle himself in English because of the conference is irrelevant. He still made grammar and vocabulary mistakes, but he did not fear them anymore, and that did wonders for his learning progress.

David later told us that he made mistakes when he was in Washington, but he had no choice, he had to speak to people. As the days went by, it dawned on him that he was communicating very well with other English speakers, and he began to relax about his conversation skills and stopped worrying about eventual grammar mistakes. He started learning, by himself, strategies for communicating or figuring out vocabulary, even if it meant making mistakes like saying tigers are giant cats with strippers. He learned not to dread his errors, but to see them as an opportunity to learn new things and, why not, have fun with them. David leveled up his English amazingly, simply because he was now focusing on getting his message across more than using good grammar, which improved naturally.

David’s story is the one I like to share with my students to help them realize what he did: That being unafraid of mistakes makes them happen less and less frequently. The “perfect” use of grammar that my students keep trying to reach will come naturally from all the practice they will get exercising how to exchange ideas. After all, studying any language is about, first and foremost, communicating.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Let's Make the Horses Drink : Bloom's Taxonomy and the App internet

Let's Make the Horses Drink

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink [proverb]

         Or can we?  This little proverb seems to be an underlying reality in our experience as TESOL teachers nowadays.  It is well known that new technologies and new communicative tropes, mainly social media, have impacted our world and, consequently, teaching in current times has had an enormous amount of technological tools developed for that end.  However, there is also a constant feeling for many teachers that most digital work seems ''pegged on'' and basically an afterthought, focusing more on entertainment or as an ''extra'' to enrich the classes.  Additionally, the perception that students don't really engage with our extra-class work is also a common thread in conversations among teachers.  The experience I'd like to share with readers is one in which such technology is not simply complementary but actually an essential part of teaching and/or building rapport with students.  Engagement was my focus (to varying results) but much was learned about the process.  So, this article might help a novice teacher as a backdrop when planning a more digital-focused class, while the experienced teacher would benefit from reading this essay and contrasting their teaching with other points of view, thus also enriching their teaching experience.


            One of the most powerful mental frameworks in our profession as educators is Bloom's Taxonomy of Learning in Action.  A taxonomy is basically an organized structure in which a hierarchy of cognitive processes is ranked and expressed through measurable (assessment-prone) verbs which indicate optimum cognition processes.  It was developed by Benjamin Bloom and a committee of educators, and has served as a compass in teaching ever since.  It places the educators' objectives within a frame of work in three domains:  cognitive, affective, and psychomotor.  From there, it details the kinds of objectives and actions that could guide our teaching, and logically, our assessment of students' learning. 

            It needs to be stated that a more holistic approach to teaching includes work within all three domains; however, this article focuses on the Cognitive domain due to the nature of our most immediate work as TESOL teachers.  I do recommend, however, a deep reading of the other two domains, for their contribution to the learning process is essential and need focus, too.   Yet, for all intents and purposes, the cognitive domain is made up of six skill levels that the teacher needs to consider when planning the blending of digital and traditional teaching.  Being a hierarchy, these skills are ordered from lowest to highest order of objectives, and it is important to realize that there is a certain amount of skill required in the lowest order to move up to the next order less problematically.

            The cognitive domain is formed of the following six skills: 

  • knowledge of specifics (memory of learned materials)
  • comprehension: demonstrate understanding of facts and ideas by organising, comparing, translating, interpreting, giving descriptions, and stating the main ideas
  • application: using acquired knowledge by solving problems
  • analysis: examine and break information into parts by identifying motives and causes
  • creation/synthesis: builds a structure or pattern from diverse elements
  • evaluation: present or defend ideas by making judgments about information  

            These skills build upon the previous, as can be inferred from their nature.  Thus, we can immediately notice that our digital tasks must know very well what they're there for.  The skills needed have to flow hierarchically and not leave any step empty, for they build upon the other.  Each skill brings with it a series of "verbs" which are better suited for the processes that need to be developed and/or acquired, so using the proper ''verb'' (i.e. command/task) is essential.  One common mistake that is made in developing digital activities is skipping (or not considering) one of these rungs in the ladder, and asking students to perform tasks that are not naturally conductive to proper learning.  Therefore, a more attentive reading of the taxonomy (especially its more contemporary remixes) is fundamental. 

Figure 1: Categories in the cognitive domain of the revised Bloom's taxonomy (Anderson et al. 2000)

Tools and Instruments

            The simplest dictionary definition for "tool" reminds us of what we are working with:  a TOOL is anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose (in:  This very simple line is the essence of this article:  the tool is a MEANS and not an end in itself, which has been one of the most common siren-call in our field.  Many unsuccessful teachers attack the tool (digital landscapes) as the end in itself, and not as means to get to the end (learning).  This has probably contributed to the amount of horses that refuse to drink the water, once led to it.  Many tasks designed by these teachers lack a reason to be; they are simply spaces to work, without much of a purpose, basically colourful animated nothings therefore missing their main goal, the spirit that would animate the learning in such spaces.

            Having said that, and keeping in mind that it its the purpose that animates the tool, the teacher may then analyse what are her options when it comes to digital work.  Granted, there is an infinite number of apps, sites, and programs which can be used to foster learning, but one doesn't NEED to use everything, but whatever tool is chosen must be in synch with the proposed task and level of learning.  There is a diversity of tools for us teachers, and any teacher who feels the urge to go digital will find their favourite tools.   In my experience, a very good starting point is the Google suite, as used by educators.

            Google has developed a large number of instruments which can be used by a teacher when properly developing digital activities for her learners.  All of the elements in the Google environment are free and the only necessary item in using them is a valid e-mail account.  Thus, here is step zero:  make a Google account for your teaching.  The reason for this is that in current times a teacher must take into account all the elements of privacy and personal-life representations.  It has been my experience that keeping things separate (you, the teacher, and you, the human) allows for more control of your work elements and also for your own privacy as an individual.  One does not need to adopt a robotic stance in the ''teacher'' profile, but the possibility of controlling the registers is a very welcome element on the long run.

            From their Google account, teachers are able to use all the elements of the suite in an organised and centralised "drive" (= a virtual disk drive from where all the work can be sent and to which students' work gets sent).   Also, the Google account (expressed mainly via a Gmail address) allows the teacher to integrate all the Google suite elements almost seamlessly, making it easier and quicker to navigate through many different tools without the need to input passwords at every turn).  The Google suite allows teachers and students to share written texts (Google Docs), spreadsheets (Google Sheets), photos (Google Photos), presentations (Google Slides), videos (Youtube), etc.   As they are integrated in one domain only, our work as teachers gains a multitude of directions which otherwise would take loads of work to make it proper were we using different programs or sites to switch from one aspect of the task to the other.  So, it is essential that a teacher who wants to digitally seduce their horses into drinking be aware of all the underlying work that must be done beforehand.  I'd actually consider this step one:  build and familiarize yourself with your Google Account.


            The real challenge for teachers, thus, is to use these aforementioned tools within the teaching/learning praxis in a way that fosters the development of the learners' process.  To do so, the teacher needs to take into account a variety of elements, of which the most important ones are: 

·      what do I need to teach? (syllabus, point in the course, topic)
·      which taxonomical steps will I ask students to perform?
·      which instruments are better suited for this?
            We can clearly see that when one is about to go digital for a task planning is the most essential step.  The teacher must know fully well what she is going to do, how she's going to reach that goal, and which instruments are the most suited.  Not doing this will reduce the impact of the task, and will basically leave students with the impression that they are just doing more of the same, albeit digitally.  There is much more to digital work than simply the content, as it has been made clear.  At this stage, the teacher must reflect on what Kathy Schrock points out as an essential point in task design:  how much are we really ''going digital'' and is this digital approach really diverting from the traditional approach?

            However, there is a constant in any kind of digital work:  even though the first step seems a bit obvious, there is a twist to it.  Bloom's taxonomy is one of skills, which see content as a vessel for the development of said skills.  So, at this point of the planning process, teachers must have this detail very well established in their strategizing.  The "learning" of facts (aka remembering/recalling) will always be the first rung of the ladder.  So, most, if not all tasks will start there.  Identifying and interpreting will be at the start, and one should never ignore this one fundamental step.

            Ms. Schrock has also developed an excellent table of resources for various Apps (all systems), Google Apps, and Web 2.0 Apps that work in tandem with Bloom's taxonomy.  For the intents of this article, I focused on the Google Apps, for the reasons previously listed.  Her table was my main compass in navigating these waters this semester.

Blooming Google in Action

            At this point of the article, I believe the best strategy is to bring forth a couple of examples of my working with these concepts in order to make it clear to the reader that this approach in no way brings any kind of difficulty of extra work to the educator.  The digital approach was certainly very successful when dealing with these cases.

1.  Advanced/Vocabulary/Technology

            In one of my advanced groups, the theme of the unit was technology and its impact on people's daily lives.  Having presented the vocabulary in the book in a more traditional way, I wanted the students to be able to incorporate that vocabulary into a more sophisticated analysis of the theme.  I first prepared a small vocabulary "quiz" online using Google Forms, the results of which I used to assess if students were at least aware of the vocabulary (I worked in a posto avançado, which meant we didn't have immediate online access, so this was done at home).  This took care of the ''remember'' skill level.  From there, students were asked to choose one of the words/concepts and try to read more about it from Google News (or just a plain Google search, organized by date).  After this step, I asked students to write me an email or a Google Doc on how they felt that technological element would impact their lives in the future.  This allowed me to assess their writing and their argumentative skills.  I also asked them if I could share their writings with other students.  Due to the fact that I didn't have Internet access in class, I printed a few copies of a few of the writings, and used them in class to spark debate.  I was impressed at how natural the vocabulary arose in the speaking moment in the classroom.  A simple task was able to incorporate many of the skill levels posited by Bloom, and the fact that student generated content was the backbone of the class not only made the debate lively but more importantly sparked students' interest in participating when I did this the second time.  The rate of participation in the second attempt at the activity was 150% larger.

2.  Teens/ Vocabulary/ Structure/ Disasters

            I had a teens group who were studying natural disasters as their theme.  As homework, I told them that they had to watch a Youtube video (immediate glee) and write down on paper all the vocabulary words they had studied and that they could hear in the video.  We checked it in class, went over the vocabulary once more, and then focused on a disaster that is familiar to us: floods.  The follow up piece of homework had them searching online (in Google/Google news) for information on floods in Brazil.  I asked them to find information on the year, number of victims, and where it had happened.  From there, I asked them to draw (on paper, or digitally) the images we would use in a newspaper report about a flood.  Each student would be responsible to come up with an ''interview'' with flood victims.  As a group, we came up with the questions (I made an offline Google Doc with their questions as they generated them, and then I proceeded to send the said Doc to the students for reference).  They used the target grammar structure both when building and when answering the questions.  After that, we wrote a ''report'' on a flood in Brazil, with images and all.  It was interesting to see and be able to assess students individually, as they each produced English in different levels, and were not hidden by their classmates' performances. 

The Engagement Issue

            The point that seemed as the most challenging one was:  I'm offering all this, why aren't they participating with the enthusiasm I imagined?  With time, and with some reading, I was able to understand a few points related to that, and they are mainly divided in two fields:  relevance and representation.

            Relevance comes from the points that I have espoused throughout this post:  what exactly are we doing? Are we going truly digital, or are we just using technology to substitute paper and pencils?  You see, there's an enormous difference between these two points of attack.  Simply transforming strips of paper into digital equivalents is a waste of potentials, but it its perhaps our first approach with technology.   Going digital implies more than just substitution, for it brings other praxes to the table, and we don't really work digitally as we work manually.  Students are highly sensitive to this, and they KNOW how it works.   There is nothing inherently ''wrong'' with using technology as a substitute, but the teacher must have it clear in their minds that what they're doing is this, and they should be forthcoming when that is the case.  I worked with "this is nothing different than what you've done before, but with technology" at times.  However, there were lots of moments where "this is something you wouldn't be able to do in class before" and THOSE were the moments they treasured.

            The second point is one of representation:  there is a natural rejection of students to anything that remotely smells of school (attention: this is true mostly of teen students due to the fact that adult learners of TESOL have different motivations and goals, making them less reactive to the homework/life dialog).  When a teacher thinks she will get full engagement because students LOVE gadgets, apps, sites, etc., she might be in for a unpleasant surprise: they will not come if you build it because IT LOOKS LIKE SCHOOL.  Here is where the "cool" factor comes to play.  Teachers can't simply have the luxury of not being actualised.   Teachers who work digitally must be prepared to awe students, surprise them and even give them memes, songs, virals and videos WHICH HAVE NOT REACHED THEIR PEAK YET.  For example, working with a 2 week old meme can actually smell of pre-history for these youngsters who are online all the time.  I, particularly, try to imagine what things will my students WANT to share with their friends and classmates.  Therefore, being current (actually, avant-garde) when it comes to memetic trends is of utmost importance. 

            In students' digital ecosystems your work cannot standout as something stiff and school-like.  It must integrate English into their ''timelines'' naturally and with relevance in order to foster sharing and pride.  Just imagine what your students would be willing to place in their Facebook timelines as a current measure, and you will start to find your way in the forest of digital TESOL.  In other words, our work manifold, but our Mecca is that ONE ''Facebook post" students would be proud to have in their timelines.   With that in mind, your students will certainly Bloom into English.