Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label writing. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

TESOL 2015 - Writing Teaching

I had the honor of being invited to take part in the panel “Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: Second Language Writing in Global Contexts” at TESOL 2015 in Toronto, CA. The presenters shared their experiences in Second Language Writing (SLW) practice and research in global contexts including Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Middle East. The presenters discussed best practices in SLW pedagogy and research projects that are influenced by contextual factors such as medium of instruction, culture, and politics. Below I share a transcript of my talk.


Many thanks to Lúcia Santos, Isabela Villas Boas, Denise De Felice and Vânia Rodrigues for this wonderful opportunity of sharing the hard work we do at the Casa.


OUR CONTEXT


I have been at Casa Thomas Jefferson for fifteen years, the last five of which working as Advanced Course Supervisor. Let me briefly describe my context to provide you with some background information that will, hopefully, help you better understand the scope and nature of our work in the teaching of writing, as well as the challenges we face in our educational context.


Casa Thomas Jefferson is a language institute, which, for the past 51 years, has specialized in teaching English as a foreign language. We currently have a little over 17 thousand students, distributed among 6 different campuses, 10 outposts in private K through 12 grade schools, and a select number of corporate courses  in Brasília. Our students have English classes with us twice a week, which amount to a total of approximately 4 hours a week. We are an extra-curricular program, and a large number of our students begin studying with us from as early as 4 years of age, staying with us until they become young adults, teenagers ranging from 16 to 18 years of age. Therefore, the bulk of our student population are youngsters, some of whose parents have been our students in the past, so we do have a reputation of excellence and tradition in teaching English, which we strive to uphold every day.


The teenagers who have been with us since their early years graduate from our Advanced Course, the course which I oversee; these students speak fluent English, and achieve a very respectable command of the language in terms of structure and vocabulary. They can understand spoken and written English, as well as produce the language with a dependable degree of accuracy and fluency both in oral and in written form. That is a result of our skills-based approach to teaching English, adopting communicative methodologies that are informed by highly regarded, pedagogical practices, such as those informed by social-constructivist principles. Another key feature of our methodology is that our classes are taught in English, since we have a strong English-only-environment policy in our classroom.


We adopt coursebooks in all of our courses, which we choose via a comprehensive book analysis process in which teachers, as well as other members of the school Coordination, evaluate and critique several coursebook series before we make a final choice and adopt one specific series. We are, however, very particular about how we need to adapt whatever material adopted to best suit our own context and our students' needs. That is actually one of the major sources of impetus for the ongoing professional development that takes place at the Casa. Course Supervisors, such as myself, are responsible, among other things, for assessing the success in the adaptation process and spotting opportunities for improvement and development, which result in training for our teachers.


So, as you can see, the work has really only just begun when a new coursebook is adopted. And, traditionally, one of the major components of our courses which require lots of adaptation and personalization is exactly the teaching of writing.


OUR METHODOLOGY


Let me now go into the writing teaching methodology we adopt at the Casa. As mentioned before, we adopt a skills-based approach to teaching English. Therefore, writing is one of other skills that we want our students to develop in English. From beginner levels, our students already start producing short texts, and are exposed to tasks which will foster an experience in writing as a process which not only involves linguistic knowledge but also planning and drafting skills. In other words, we expose our students early on to practices informed by the belief that writing is a sociocognitive process, recursive and non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one's voice.


By the time our students reach the Advanced levels, they have developed a repertoire of basic writing skills, as well as some writing metalanguage. They have also been introduced to the concepts of audience and purpose, with some experience with different genres. They have worked with drafts, receiving feedback on their writing by means of comments addressing content, style and organization, as well as indications of linguistic improvements by means of proofreading symbols used by teachers.


In the Advanced levels, our students, who are mostly teenagers going to high school, are asked to focus on a specific genre, namely the academic essay, which they are required to master both for language proficiency and college entrance exams.


THE ADVANCED COURSE WRITING PROGRAM


I would now like to focus on some of the distinguishing features of the Writing Program we develop in the Advanced Course. Our Advanced Course is made up of four semesters. The first two, corresponding to the upper-intermediate level, are critical for the success of the writing program developed during the last two semesters, which correspond to an advanced level of English.


During the first semester of the upper-intermediate levels, students' writing goals are to consolidate and master the writing of paragraphs, following the linguistic and organizational requirements of body paragraphs in academic essays. Now, once they go on to their second semester in upper-intermediate, they will gradually expand on their previous knowledge to learn how to structure a full essay, containing an introduction, body paragraphs and a conclusion. They acquire some basic training and knowledge of the overall requirements of a well-structured essay before going into the advanced levels in the next two semesters.


Once they get to their third semester in the Advanced Course, they'll get plenty of practice in the four-paragraph academic essay. They will be provided with practice in a variety of writing strategies, producing expository and argumentative essays, for example. In other words, they are learning a specific rhetoric and genre that will benefit their writing skills in and outside of our English classroom.


At this point, it's appropriate that I mention another aspect of our educational context. In Brazil, they way our teenagers are taught Composition in their K through 12 schools, more specifically in grades 10 through 12, is fundamentally different from the experience with Composition they have with us at the Casa. A vast majority of Composition teachers in Brazilian high schools adopt a product-oriented approach, where writing teaching means correcting students' mistakes and grading essays against college entrance exams parameters. There is emphasis on neither the cognitive nor the social dimension of the writing process, which relegates writing to being an end-product, resulting from the mechanical replication of models, which is ultimately a score on a life-changing exam for these teenagers, the one that will get them into a good university as soon as they leave high school.


Back to our English teaching context, in the Advanced Course, teachers are required to use a set of writing worksheets which will serve as the basis for their pre-writing lessons. The writing topics are adapted so as to become appealing to our teenagers, and are chosen in order to fit the subject-matter explored in their coursebook units. Students are assigned their writings at the end of a unit, after they have had plenty of opportunities to explore a given topic. In the case of the Advanced Course, pre-writing lessons are preceded by a Reading lesson, which will serve as an entry point to the required writing for the unit.


Now, keeping in mind that we have approximately 100 teachers working with a population of a little over 2000 Advanced students, we need to adopt instruments that will ensure the quality of every lesson, be it a pre-writing, or any other type of lesson. So, we try to select and adapt topics that we believe will entice our teenagers, stimulating their creativity and willingness to voice their opinions and feelings. We also adopt the use of writing scoring rubrics to try to minimize subjectivity in the feedback process, as well as to provide students with a set of clear expectations for their work. Our students need to know how their writing will be assessed by their teachers.


A pre-writing lesson will typically contain the following stages: think about and discuss the writing topic, brainstorm content, outline ideas, study and analyze a model and focus on specific language strategies to convey meaning. Once students have had their pre-writing lesson, they produce their 1st drafts, on which they'll get feedback from their teachers regarding several aspects of their writing: content (their ideas), text (organization, genre, style), and language (grammatical accuracy and word choice). Students may also get feedback from peers and from one-on-one conferences with their teachers. They are then asked to produce their final drafts, whose grade will be considered for evaluation purposes, together with the other grades they have as part of our course.


We have also been adopting a Portfolio approach, in which students are encouraged to reflect on their overall development through the semesters as Casa Advanced students. One of the strategies we want our students to learn with the collection of a portfolio is to identify areas for improvement and establish goals for future assignments.


Now, the use of portfolios in the Advanced Course presents challenges. Brazilian students, coming from the background they have in their K-12 school culture, do not seem to value their own writings. That is understandable, given the mechanical production of essays for college entrance exam prep. By implementing writing portfolios, we are trying to foster a sense of value regarding writing as a means of personal expression.


Another challenge we face is a certain level of resistance to adopting peer revision, which I personally believe to be a natural fit to a portfolio approach and a writing teaching pedagogy based on socio-constructivist principles of learning.


Another challenge worth mentioning has to do with time constraints and teachers' workload. It is no easy task for teachers to do the necessary planning and keep up with the drafting process, providing the necessary support and the high quality feedback our students need to succeed. One major adaptation we've had to implement is that of bringing the number of drafts from three to only two. That means that teachers now provide feedback on content, organization, as well as language use upon correcting students' 1st drafts. Teachers are also instructed to grade 1st drafts so that, should a student fail to produce a final draft, that student already has a grade for his writing work, even if he or she do not follow through with the entire drafting process.


To the effect of tackling those issues involving time constraints and handling logistics (turning in assignments and providing feedback in a timely manner), we have started experimenting with a digital alternative to the physical portfolios. We are experimenting with the affordances of Google Classroom for the development of our Advanced Writing program. We are still in a piloting stage, having invited a small group of about ten teachers who were eager to try out this new tool with their Advanced students. We hope that, by making the handling of logistics simpler and paperless, students and teachers might find ways of managing the process more rapidly and more conveniently. And of course, that is not to mention other possibilities of sharing content, communicating, and classroom flipping that we have just begun exploring with this tool. Digital portfolios and the possibility of showcasing students' writings to a real audience online are what's next for our students' writings.


I'd like to share a quote by Professor Ken Hyland in his book Second Language Writing, which I feel synthesizes our efforts towards an effective writing teaching pedagogy:


"In practice this (an effective methodology for L2 writing teaching) means a synthesis to ensure that learners have an adequate understanding of the processes of text creation; the purposes of writing and how to express these in effective ways through formal and rhetorical text choices; and the contexts within which texts are composed and read and which give them meaning."


We choose to teach writing the way we do because we believe that effective, communicative writing can and should be taught to our English learners. We believe that the very development of their writing skills directly impacts their cognitive and expressive abilities, empowering our teenagers as they exercise and get to know their own voices.

Clarissa Bezerra













References:


HYLAND, Ken. Second Language Writing. Cambridge Language Education series (Editor: Jack C. Richards) Cambridge University Press, 2003.


VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Stepping Stones for Successful Writing. In: VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras da Universidade Federal de Goiás, 2006, Goiânia. Anais do VI Seminário de Línguas Estrangeiras - UFG, 2006. p. 453-464

VILLAS BOAS, I. F. Process Writing in a Product-Oriented Context: Challenges and Possibilities. Article based on part of the Doctoral Dissertation entitled A Contribuição do Processo de Ensino-Aprendizagem de Produção Textual em Língua Inglesa para o Letramento do Aluno,  presented at the School of Education, Universidade de Brasília, 2008. In: RBLA, Belo Horizonte, v.14, n.2, p. 463-490, 2014.

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Google Classroom - The New Classroom

In the first semester of 2014, Casa Thomas Jefferson gained access to Google Apps For Education (GAFE). In August, 2014, Google released the Classroom App as part of GAFE, and so our journey began. 

In the month following this release, we started phase 1 of our New Classroom project. With the help and support of our EdTech Department Head, Carla Arena, and her team, we began using Classroom in two of our Advanced Course groups. We decided we would have our Advanced Course teenagers use it to write their compositions throughout the semester. Once the semester came to a close, we sat together and shared our experiences. We decided it was worth continuing the project the following semester, so we thought about getting more teachers involved and using Classroom. 

Phase 2 of our New Classroom project has been named 'Classroom Gurus' project. One of our goals for this next stage is to create and strengthen a core group of teachers who will become multipliers of the knowledge and skills they will acquire during their engagement with their students, using Google Classroom to optimize the writing process that Advanced students engage in throughout the semester. 
Our first Classroom Gurus meeting

A group of fourteen teachers were invited to join the project this semester, and just yesterday we had the chance of sitting together for a couple of hours to launch phase 2 and get the "Classroom Gurus" inspired and motivated with the project. Our main goal was for them to get a feel for the platform, the new possibilities, the challenges and opportunities ahead through a change to a paper-free paradigm for the compositions students write in the semester with a focus on feedback rather than on the bureaucratic aspects of the writing process, as now this is going to be taken care by Google Classroom. In the platform, much of the back and forth of papers are automatically handled by the system with the automatized creation of students´ papers in Google Docs and the creation of folders for each assignment.






Here are the teachers´ first impressions:




It is a brave new world ahead where we know adjustments, failure and new learning will take place as we move forward. We feel, though,  that it is time to experiment and move on. Another point of the project is to value the human resources we so highly consider in our Institution, Casa Thomas Jefferson. We have a very potent humanware, educators who are ready for the edgy jump into pedagogical innovations when they are recognized, treasured and supported in new edtech endeavors.

Last but not least, there´s the learner spectrum. By promoting a new type of process not only are we reaching them in different ways, but also helping them enhance their own digital literacies that will be so essentially demanded from them in their educational and professional contexts. We, as an educational institution, feel responsible for students´ success in their language learning and life in general.




Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Seven Basic Steps to Write a Good Essay



Have you ever asked yourself why it is so difficult to make students interested in writing? Don’t you sometimes feel demotivated by the boredom you see on students’ faces when you announce a new writing task? So, why is it that students never seem to be in the mood for writing? If you ask them, you may get several different reasons, which will vary from the most vague ones to a few honest answers. In fact, quite a few may be related to the fact that students may not really know how to write and essay: how to plan it, how to start it, and what steps to follow. Therefore, take some time to show them how the work should be done. It is a matter of showing them that they can do it right. So have your students bear in mind that when it comes to writing an essay, seven basic steps will allow them to achieve the best outcome.

First of all, choose a topic you feel like writing about and brainstorm on it. What do you know about the subject you have chosen and its relevance to your audience? Make sure your choice is related to a subject which you are familiar with. The more you know about your topic, the better your essay will be. So, be assertive. Your readers need to trust you and to believe in what you write. In short, they need to feel like reading your text.
Secondly, designing an outline will help you make sure your text has unit and coherence. Don’t start writing your essay before you have ordered the principles of your text. Ask yourself what kind of essay it is going to be. Think of an effective thesis statement for your introduction, and also a topic sentence for each body paragraph. After that, make sure you have enough ideas, examples and facts to support your topic sentences, and come up with a good way of concluding your text. By organizing your ideas before writing your text you will more successfully tend to follow your original thoughts and the principles of your essay.
Also, make sure you share your piece of writing with a classmate. Revising your own text may be tricky. Even though it is imperative that you read your text a few times before posting, publishing, or turning it in to your teacher, having someone else read it will provide you with impartial feedback. Having your work read by a peer may allow you to see details you miss as you write your first draft.
Finally, you should always revise your text in detail and proofread your second draft. After you’ve had a peer read your essay and give you feedback on it, you are cleared to give it a second look and do your best to fix and enrich it. That’s the moment at which you should consider the suggestions given and improve your production. Writing a new version of your essay will have you check whether you have succeeded in being clear and making your point.

As you have seen, writing an effective essay takes nothing more than 7 simple steps to be followed. In brief, think before you write, organize your ideas and reasoning, and ask for a second opinion on it. In other words, just stick to the recipe and add your talent to it. So choose a topic you are familiar with and that you know in detail, and believe you are able to do it.

Friday, February 14, 2014

On Wearing Two Hats: Teaching & Responding to Writing


This morning I had the opportunity of engaging with quite an interesting and energetic group of bright individuals as part of our institute's training of newly-hired teachers. The goal was to discuss the teaching of writing to our EFL learners, what it is that an effective pre-writing lesson should entail, as well as ways of responding to students' writings. It was a hands-on session, with some initial discussion and brainstorming of lesson stages with a specific writing prompt in mind, which was then followed by their response to and correction of an authentic writing sample. The idea was to familiarize teachers with the kind of response to writing that we believe to be in keeping with the principle that writing is a recurrent process, non-linear in its creative nature, and the very expression of one's voice.
Roll up your sleeves and let's get down to business
Teachers worked in smaller groups and were asked to respond to and provide corrective feedback to a first draft sample of a five-paragraph essay written by an upper-intermediate level learner. Along with the sample, they received a copy of our correction and proofreading symbols, as well as a scoring rubric by means of which they'd grade that first draft. They immediately set out to accomplish the task, industriously reading the piece, red pens in hand, and... Stop. Wait a minute. Do you feel an urge to begin crossing out and underlining spelling mistakes and wrong verb tense use? You do, don't you?
Step away from the red pen
Before you unleash your full corrective-feedback-giving potential, put on a different hat. Be a reader. Respond to your students' content and ideas as a real person. Familiarize them with that sense of having an audience. We use language to communicate, be it in spoken or written form. Let them know that you are truly listening to them. Try to find at least a couple of aspects in their writing that are worth a compliment. Relate to their ideas, share a little about your own experience by commenting that maybe you once felt the same way as they did facing a certain situation in your own life, and that you know how wonderful or how difficult it must have been for them to go through it, as well. Empathize. Connect. Engage. 
Respect individual stylistic choices
It's always a challenge to provide corrective feedback without stifling the writer's voice. What I mean is, are you (over)correcting to the point of forcing the student to write as you would have if expressing a similar idea in written form? Of course there are instances of L1 interference that must be addressed, such as word order issues to name one, but we teachers walk a fine line between pointing our students in the right direction and simply imposing our own style on them. Keep an awareness of the fact that your students are experimenting with language (a foreign one, as a matter of fact), and that they are, knowingly or not, in their own quests to finding their voice. Cherish. Allow. Enable. 
Sounding curious as opposed to judgemental
Instead of saying something like "this paragraph is too short. Please develop your ideas here." how about offering something more in the lines of "I wonder if you could tell me more about this experience/situation." or even "how did you feel?" and "what did you do next?" The point is that by asking a simple question, you may elicit just the response you want from a student, instead of making a direct comment that might come across as judgemental, in that it is an affirmation made by you, the teacher, who is supposedly the knowledge authority on all subjects language-wise. Don't point fingers. Ask more questions. Provoke. Entice. Foster.
This set of guidelines sprang up from this group's engagement and reflections during our training session, so that gives you a pretty good idea of how lucky we are to have gathered such a great collection of curious and avid learner-teachers. Thank you all, Casa newbies, for inspiring me to write this piece.
Welcome aboard, guys!

Clarissa Bezerra

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Compositions and iPads in the Classroom

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http://www.flickr.com/photos/smemon/
I would like to start by pointing out that this post does not refer to essays, since they are too long and it would take forever to type 5 paragraphs on an iPad (at least for an old dog like me). However, if we are dealing with single paragraphs or shorter compositions, it works brilliantly. 

Let’s take the first composition topic of 3B, for example. The students are supposed to write about a place that they would recommend to tourists. The example in the book is the Great Wall of China, but students can choose any place they have visited, be it in Brazil or anywhere else in the world.

After handing out the iPads, you could start by asking them to find a picture of that place (using Flickr – creative commons pictures, for example). After that, they can start writing their paragraphs. They can check spelling and find alternative words using a Thesaurus dictionary. Also, they need to write about the history of the place and give suggestions to tourists. This could easily be done with the travel apps that we already have in our iPads, and/or with the help of Wikipedia.

In the end, they can send their final product straight to your email account. This activity will keep the students focused and they will have fun doing it. What a great way to refute the students’ preconception that compositions are boring.

By teacher André

Friday, November 16, 2012

Writing - From Dread to Love

http://www.flickr.com/photos/perfectsonnet/2344595296/


Being a writer used to be one of my greatest passions when I was a child. I always looked forward to having writing classes at school and put great effort on the stories I wrote. Unfortunately, as I grew older, things changed. As pressure over writing became greater and greater, my willingness to write dwindled. Matters became worse when I was asked to write essays in English, for I had never really had a formal education on how to write an essay in that language. As a result, I gradually stopped practicing and, consequently, I found writing to be my weakest skill to the point of feeling really insecure. That was until I took the Teachers Development Course – Writing (TDCW). Taking that course brought my confidence back and taught me much more than I had expected. Reasons for that abound, but I will focus on the ones I consider to be the most important to me.
                
When people take up the TDCW, they expect to be writing a lot during the course, and that is precisely what happens. Part of the learning process is made through extensive writing, which makes people feel more comfortable and the process more natural. Much of my insecurity came from the fact that I had never really taken the time to practice my English writing. Once I started making that a routine, writing started to become a familiar process until I was accustomed to the methodologies. Moreover, I was taught the nuances and peculiarities of the different kinds of essays, which refined the various aspects of what is expected from a good writer. Therefore, through continuously writing, questioning my results and rewriting, I was able to polish and strengthen my skills.
                
Since the course is aimed to teachers, one of the most important aspects of the subject is peer correction, and I do believe it to be one of the most amazing facets of the TDCW. Peer correction in writing consists of students reviewing their classmates’ essays and giving suggestions and advices to the writer so he can improve his work. This is such a phenomenal way of learning, for you not only practice through your own essay, but have the chance of reading different styles and points of view on a similar subject. Also, you are able to check your peers’ content and structure, which allows you to work on your teaching skills. Hence, being able to analyze other essays is a superb manner of enhancing both your learning and teaching skills.
                
This course played a pivotal part in my personal development for so many other different reasons. Being in a blended course, I had to learn how to be more inquisitive and question the subjects I learned instead of being a passive learner who just received the information the teacher gave me. Self-study was essential for me to learn about independence and responsibility. I learned that writing is a personal process, there are different ways of generating ideas and I can find the best way for me to produce my work. A well-structured course and a present teacher who always showed commitment were essential for my development.
               
It is interesting to notice how my points of view changed in so little time. Two months in the TDCW were enough for me to realize how writing can be a very pleasing experience. I started the course feeling insecure and uncertain of how my development would unfold. I thought I would have so many overwhelming problems and difficulties. I am not saying that I have learned everything. I know that if I want to keep growing, I will have to continue practicing. For this reason, I have recently decided to start my own blog, where I can write about my work and other subjects that I find dear. That was the approach I found to do something that gives pleasure and, at the same time, learn and develop my capabilities. There is still a lot to learn, but there is no fear anymore, only enthusiasm.