Imagination in Class

Imagination in Class
The last resort...
Ever had one - or more - of these days when your students are utterly bored and restless? When the sound of grammar exercises or an exam writing task simply ignites raised eyebrows and mumbling at the back and front of the class....

Apart from the bell, there is one thing that can save the day: imagination

Before reading some activities below, allow me to clarify that I understand some educators' objections to using an imaginary world. Their concerns are based on the premise that education should not mislead learners or give them a false idea of the world e.g.  that a fairy godmother will grant all their wishes effortlessly.

Yet, I feel that once signposting the task as fictional by beginning instructions with the phrase "Imagine that...." , we draw clearly the line and stir the class away from the  stagnant waters of daily routine. From my experience, it conveys the message to students that the "English" hour can be a  fun lesson developing creativity, thinking outside the box (lateral thinking) and reinvigorates classes that have reached saturation point by doing tedious, repetitive tasks.

1.  Email from  another planet  ( A1-B2 CEFR levels)

Sick and tired of asking students to describe their daily routine? Do they all come up with identical pieces of writing? Ask them to imagine they live on another, strange  planet.
 "What's a day like on Mars or Venus?" " Do aliens have coffee, milk and croissants for breakfast?" "Do they wake up early in the morning or late in the afternoon?" " How do they go to school?" Ask students such questions to stimulate their imagination and state openly that they should come up with unusual daily routines. Here is a sample of what they may write:

2. My pet monster ( A1-B2 CEFR levels)
Ask pupils to imagine they have a pet monster.  Draw an example on the board ( I usually draw a  cute monster with three heads ,  five legs,  6 arms etc) Ask them to draw their pet monster  on their notebook but they must not show their partner. If you need to encourage writing you can ask them to write a brief description:
Boo is my pet monster. It has got 3 heads and a big smile on the heads. It has also got .....

Then ask them to work in pairs. Student A describes his/her monster and Student B draws it. They are not allowed to look at each other's drawings until they've finished the description and drawing. Then they compare the two monsters. Finally, they swap roles and student B describes while student A draws.
A particularly popular activity among young learners who practice "have got", numbers, parts of the body and colors (if they have colour pencils with them).

3. An unusual job application (B2-C2 CEFR levels)
Students -  even adults - tend to convey a completely misleading image of themselves in a cover letter.  Relying on copying from models, they usually fail to  persuade their potential employers about their motivation and skills. This can result in having their C.V.  rejected without being given an opportunity for an interview.  The following activity can raise awareness:

Show the following clip  Awesome interview in class and pause before the candidate gives unexpected answers. Elicit what a conventional interview would be like and what a prospective employer expects to hear.
Ask students to: " Write an unusual cover letter" Challenge them to write a letter giving all the wrong reasons why they are applying and wrong or irrelevant  skills.
The style and register will have to be formal and they should use their sense of humour.
Once they finish, read or show the letters on the class projector and vote for the most humorous or unconventional one.

Debunking teaching myths and practices with seemingly subversive activities can motivate learners, help teachers shake off the "boring lecturer" label and lead to creative learning paths.
Enjoy the trip!!! :)
Dimitris Primalis


Motivating and involving teachers in applying Project Based Learning

Motivating and involving teachers in applying Project Based Learning

The big decision has been made and three letters are to dominate the curriculum at your school- and your professional life consequently-  in the foreseeable future: PBL

And YES,  project based learning has invaded your and your colleagues' teaching. In previous posts I have referred to the problems one may encounter when integrating it into the syllabus ( Roseli Coffee Desk: Integrating PBL into your syllabus) and how 
technology can help (Boosting PBL with the aid of technology). But another equally important problem arising is how teachers can be motivated and be actively involved in applying PBL rather than shifting into the automatic pilot mode.

Top-down or Bottom-up approach?
Integrating projects in the syllabus can be done either by the school leadership or  by the educators -
top-down approach: D.Primalis 2014
taking into consideration to a certain extent students' preferences and interests and receiving feedback and guidance from the Director of Studies (D.O.S.) or coordinator. The former is a strategic move and ensures relevant uniformity that serves the learning goals set by the school while the latter allows for more flexibility and active involvement of the main stake holders  ( teachers and students).

Personally, I've always preferred the second one as it:

A bottom-up approach: D. Primalis 2014

1. Stimulates creativity and involves teachers
2. Focuses more on the classes' needs and lets teachers personalize parts of the project  
3. Encourages collaboration between staff
4. Allows directors of studies and coordinators  to have a "bird's point of view" and guide, facilitate or modify when necessary rather than carrying the heavy workload of designing everything.
5. It is more flexible and does not exclude alternatives or optimization.

Who leads the way?
"Debates, blogs, videos, webquests ???!!!" "Who on Earth is gonna do all these with scores of grammar exercises awaiting to be done?" this could be an original script from a staff room dialogue when teachers are asked to design a syllabus incorporating projects.
In that spirit, it is highly unlikely that any teacher will expose herself to friendly fire by proposing anything innovative or out of the ordinary. Who is going to show the way then?

A dedicated colleague, Vassilike Koutsioukis, once expressed the best practical advice I'd ever heard, condensed in a few words. "Don't merely suggest. Do it with your class and share what and how you

have done it". It is only natural for most  teachers to play it safe rather than venture into unknown -often shark-infested waters. Once shown though, they can build on the original idea and help it take off!

Working with teachers of other subjects
Having a busy schedule, very often it is quite difficult to come across teachers of other subjects if you work at a primary or secondary school. Misunderstandings, delays and lack of communication can occur very easily in cross-curricular projects. I found the following tips useful and I feel they made my teaching life much easier:
1. Meet at the beginning of the year to define goals
2. Give them time to express their goals, the anticipated problems and the restraints they may have in terms of time and resources
3. Be less ambitious in your goals
4. Be more flexible when choosing topics. Luckily, language is involved practically everywhere.
5. Keep in touch - even through emails- re the progress of the project.
6. Allow and encourage observation of lessons. Feedback can be valuable and it helps everybody grasp a better overall picture of the work done.
7. At the end of the year,  assess the projects and decide on the modifications necessary for the following year.
8. Discuss any issues arising on the spot rather than letting them augment or stall the project.

Rewarding and acknowledging
PBL requires a lot of extra work that in most cases is not rewarded in terms of money. Acknowledging effort and praising both students and teachers is a "must" if a school wants to continue on this path. Otherwise, the effort will soon fall flat.
Organizing a mini project exhibition at school can give the opportunity to students and teachers to get to know and appreciate the work that has been done and gives the opportunity for creative discussions that may lead to even more productive and successful projects.

Does uniformity have to be achieved?
Uniformity can kill creativity and motivation. Gone are the days (are they?) when students had to produce an identical piece of writing to the one in the book or recite a whole text without deviating a single word from the source. “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice” stated a long time ago, Deng Xiaoping, a Chinese head of state. As long as basic learning goals are achieved, it does not matter if there is  a diversity of versions.

If you are a coordinator or director of studies, you may find the following helpful:
1. Give the guidelines but be flexible
2. Allow variations of the main theme from class to class
3. Encourage originality as long as it serves some educational goals
4. Encourage cooperation between teachers and classes for a project of a bigger scale. They are both likely to benefit from being exposed to different teaching and presentation styles.
5.The most impressive project is not necessarily the most useful in terms of learning. Ensure that it is within the students' linguistic and schematic (knowledge of the world) range.
6. Contact parents and explain what benefits you expect their children to reap e.g. Learning how to search for data and synthesize instead of copying and pasting. Clarify that you expect their children to develop these skills and not the parents. Therefore, there is no point in them doing the projects of their children. On a humorous note, warn them that if they are so eager to do project work, you can assign them a special project exclusively for parents.

Implementing Project Based Learning is definitely not a stroll. Yet, once it gathers pace, it compensates both teachers and students for getting out of their routine and makes learning memorable, fun and an activity everyone is looking forward to!

Dimitris Primalis