Why I love the month of Ramadan

Ramadan,
I adore it,
indeed it’s a blessed month,
it teaches me to be patient,
it brings discipline back into my life,
it makes me remember that there’s more to life than eating,
most importantly, it brings me closer to God (Allah),
it re-ignites my interest in the Qur’an,
it reminds me of what I’m so fortunate to have,
it makes me think of those less fortunate than me,
it helps me clear my mind,
it’s a time to contemplate,
on matters more spiritual,
more closer to the soul,
time to reflect on ones role,
to rectify oneself,
to be more in control,
not to fall for fruitless desires
but to do what really matters,
to help those less fortunate,
to be an example to society,
to show what life is really about,
self-sacrifice and service to others,
to bring hope to others,
to be a force for good,
the ultimate aim of course,
is to please the One and Only Almighty.

Thank you God (Allah) for giving us this beautiful month of…

…Ramadan..,
Oh how I’ll miss it when it goes.

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You’re a scholar. You just don’t know it.

Very often, many of us, no matter what our field of specialism, read articles, books, watch documentaries, and hope that we might learn something from them.

There is probably someone well known in your field, someone who is respected, and considered an authority, whom you admire and look up to. For some of us, we’re in awe of these people. Their thinking, their ideas, their creativity. It seems that they’re a million miles away from us in terms of achievement. We’ll probably never hit those dizzying heights, you might think. In reality though, they’re just as human as the rest of us, the only difference being that someone gave them the idea of writing about what they know.

But, what if I said to you, that you probably had something more valuable to add. An angle that has never been explored before, something in your context, that an authority thousands of miles away does not know about? An experience that can’t be had anywhere else, may be an experience or situation that makes a difference?

When I think of my colleagues and the many educational professionals I’ve met over the years, I often wonder what it would be like if they wrote about everything they did. What if they reproduced every lesson plan or every activity they ever did. How successful was it? Was it a total failure? What could others learn from it? I’m sure that you’ve read books and articles where you thought that something wasn’t quite right, may be there was a mistake, or you were left wondering that something didn’t make sense. The reality is, that you can do better. All of your knowledge and experience, is locked away in your brain, destined to disappear with you.  That’s a waste. But what if you decided to write it up, imagine all of those things that you’ve done. It could probably turn into something the size of an encyclopedia. It would have worth and value, because others could learn from it.

I once met Krashen, a well known linguist from the US. He came to talk to us about the problems of over assessment and how it had a detrimental affect on learners and learning. He had (has) a real issue with standardised assessment. Although I could agree with what he said in principle, in the context I worked in, standardised assessment was a godsend. It was an independent measure, that allowed everyone to be assessed on an equal footing. It added credibility to a system that was still going through developmental and growing pains. It added fairness to the system, something that was in total contrast to what Krashen was saying. We can talk about this issue some other time, but the point is, that he did not take into account the context he found himself in. He was in effect repeating what he had been saying, back home.  Great idea, wrong context. YOU know more about your context.

Apologies for going on a bit. You have knowledge and you have experience. These are all valid. Your knowledge and experience is worth sharing. As we continue through life, we accumulate knowledge, to which we constantly make adjustments in order to improve on an idea. Something didn’t work before, we discard it. If something did, we use it again, and modify it if necessary. I’m sure everyone’s doing this in their daily lives.

To cut a long story short, wherever you are in the world, whatever your  field, whatever your language, your experience and knowledge has worth and value. You don’t need to have an amazing, ground breaking idea, it can be something simple. Whatever it is, what you have to say counts. YES, you are a scholar, and don’t let anyone else make you think otherwise.

Please share your ideas with the world, and make it a better place.

The problem with teaching language through integrated skills

Many of the books that we use to teach English nowadays, combine the skills. Although this seems to be in vogue, as someone on the ground, I wish there was more time to focus more on one particular skill.

Although integrated skills are meant to reflect the reality of language use, they fail to take into account a learners trajectory. When learning a new language, it takes time to master a particular skill.

Many teachers are not in control of their teaching schedules, and are likely following one that is centrally produced. My experience has been, that lower level learners are left struggling, and those above do not get enough time to practice. This becomes even more apparent when teachers have a finite amount of time to cover a course, and they are under pressure to keep up with everyone else, especially if they work in a large organisation.

Basically, as a practitioner, I believe that the introduction of integrated skills should happen at a later stage when learners have a stronger foundation in the new language.

This is no sentimental hark back to the past, it’s a genuine concern of someone who is teaching day-in-day-out.

Is anyone listening out there? What do you think?

The Scientific 7-Minute Workout

Declaration: The article below is not mine, and is taken from:

http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/05/09/the-scientific-7-minute-workout/

by Gretchen Reynolds

However, it’s a great up-to-date topic to discuss with your students when discussing health etc. I also want to reveal that I’ve put it up here so that I can keep referring to it! Even old fogies can dream! Let’s get the Play Station generation up and about!

This column appears in the May 12 issue of The New York Times Magazine.

Exercise science is a fine and intellectually fascinating thing. But sometimes you just want someone to lay out guidelines for how to put the newest fitness research into practice.

An article in the May-June issue of the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal does just that. In 12 exercises deploying only body weight, a chair and a wall, it fulfills the latest mandates for high-intensity effort, which essentially combines a long run and a visit to the weight room into about seven minutes of steady discomfort — all of it based on science.

“There’s very good evidence” that high-intensity interval training provides “many of the fitness benefits of prolonged endurance training but in much less time,” says Chris Jordan, the director of exercise physiology at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla., and co-author of the new article.

Work by scientists at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, and other institutions shows, for instance, that even a few minutes of training at an intensity approaching your maximum capacity produces molecular changes within muscles comparable to those of several hours of running or bike riding.

Interval training, though, requires intervals; the extremely intense activity must be intermingled with brief periods of recovery. In the program outlined by Mr. Jordan and his colleagues, this recovery is provided in part by a 10-second rest between exercises. But even more, he says, it’s accomplished by alternating an exercise that emphasizes the large muscles in the upper body with those in the lower body. During the intermezzo, the unexercised muscles have a moment to, metaphorically, catch their breath, which makes the order of the exercises important.

The exercises should be performed in rapid succession, allowing 30 seconds for each, while, throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10, Mr. Jordan says. Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant. The upside is, after seven minutes, you’re done.

A version of this article appeared in print on 05/12/2013, on page MM20 of the New York edition with the headline: The Scientific 7-Minute Workout.

What is the purpose of classroom testing, assessment and evaluation?

When we think of testing, we often think of TOEFL or IELTS. These high stakes exams, with their potential to help make or break futures, are what many think of as the typical exam.

In classes across the world, teachers emulate these exams by using the same question types e.g. multiple choice questions (MCQs).

Often, testing, assessment or evaluation is reduced to a quiz of some kind. Students get a mark, and that’s the end of the story.

At the same time, people in the testing industry, who are mainly involved with the big examination bodies, cannot understand why teachers cannot grasp the ideas of validity and reliability.

I think that unless ‘testing people’ are not teaching themselves, they will never be able to understand class dynamics, and thus why there is such a gap or disconnect between those with testing knowledge, and people who want to assess in the classroom. But is it really up to people who are testers? What about teachers? What’s their take on this? Are they worried? Are they also unhappy about testing in their contexts?

In the Middle East, there is a tendency to reduce the role of teachers to just receiving centrally written quizzes and tests. In reality this reflects the lack of confidence in teacher testing ability.

There are a lot of issues.

I think we need to simplify things and create a take-off point, from which teachers can move forward in terms of their testing knowledge. Let’s keep the testing and assessment jargon to one side.

What I’m proposing, is that we start off with a simple question. The question being. “What is the purpose of classroom testing, assessment and evaluation?”

Once we have the answer to this, we can then take the discussion further. I have my own answers, but if you are a teacher, who teaches a language, what in your view is the purpose of a test?

Once you have an idea of this, it’ll open doors, and hopefully result in an innovative movement in testing, although it’ll be a tough job to convince those who see testing as merely a score producing exercise. But the point is, that we need to look at the classroom as a different context, and study it’s dynamics. The classroom is a learning environment. The role of testing has to be seen as something that contributes to this. Unless we start looking at testing in this sense, it is difficult to see how large numbers of teachers will see tests as anything beyond the merely producing a score.

Lastly, we mustn’t forget our most important stakeholder, the student. After all, they are the ones directly affected by all of this.

Until next time..

Teaching very very weak students how to write

picture source: emiller27.wordpress.com

How many times have you ended up with a class of students who seem to be well below the level required for a particular class?

They cannot seem to comprehend what you say (listening and vocabulary knowledge?), and are unable to respond when you speak to them. They seem to lack basic words, and yet you have to teach them how to write a 5 paragraph essay!

You have a course schedule with a number of units to cover within a finite period of time. You cannot at this point resort to teaching them grammar and improving their lexis.  Admittedly the latter is easier to do than the former.

They also seem to have a problem when it comes to brainstorming, and seem to lack ideas. May be the ideas are there for a restricted list of topics, as they have probably not had to talk about societal issues. I’m assuming that if ideas exist, they are unable to convey these as those ideas can only be conveyed in their L1.

Strategy so far

I’ve been focussing on ensuring that the students internalise the framework of an essay. What I mean is, the idea of having introductions, body paragraphs and a conclusion, and the sub-levels for these important pillars of an essay, e.g. a hook, thesis statement and supporting ideas.

In every class, we have a new topic or topics, and a brainstorming session. This is followed by trying to fit the ideas into the framework. Which of course is then followed by adding meat to this skeleton. This is a good way to introduce new vocabulary. Throughout this period, I’ve been acting ‘all enthusiastic’ as if I’m some kind of football team manager/ motivator.

In addition to the above, I’ve come to the conclusion, that in order to get the attention of the students, we need to brainstorm topics that they can relate to, or are close to their hearts.

I’ve covered topics like ‘finding a marriage partner’, ‘why a certain famous person is famous’ and even how to make ‘rice and meat’ also known as kabsa! I’ve been amazed at the attention the students give, and how familiar, interesting topics engage them. You can see their eyes light-up and of course the smirks when I try to introduce some ‘silly’ topic.

How are we progressing? Well, the prognosis is, that irrespective of how well the student understands the framework, or likes the topic under discussion, if the message cannot be conveyed, which requires a reasonable level of language, then the chances of success are low. Ultimately, the reader needs to understand the message being conveyed. Being able to piece together accurate sentences with appropriate vocabulary is a necessity. Even part accurate will do. But we are even below that. You know how serious word order problems, along with inappropriate vocabulary can just totally confuse the reader.

I’m sure there are ways that others deal with such difficulties, but when you are teaching a 2-3 credit hour course over a semester, it can be difficult to do anything extra. I have asked them to revise certain tenses they may have studied as part of a grammar course in the past. But should I be following this up? There’s little time.

All of the above obviously brings up issues relating to teaching, learning and assessment issues. Issues that I’ll try to discuss in the future. My final thoughts link in to these issues.

Final thoughts: Who let these students pass the previous courses? They could not possibly have passed looking at their current performance. What were they being taught before and how? What kind of assessment was going on, and using what standard? Is the context a major problem, and do we need to take a closer look at this?

All the best.

From sentence to paragraph to essay – Teaching paragraph writing in Saudi Arabia

After having taught in Saudi Arabia for around 8 years, it is only now that some aspects of what makes Saudi students ‘tick’ is making me re-think my preconceptions of why students struggle to write.

During a recent writing course I was teaching, the best student in the class made me aware that he and the other students had never been taught how to write paragraphs at school. “We were just told to write”. So that’s what they did – write.

They were not taught to:

  • Plan
  • Write an outline
  • Brain storm
  • To write their ideas in any particular order
  • Or to write with any kind of interconnectedness
  • Or to summarise their ideas

There were told “just to write”.

This information is important, as what this brief piece of information reveals, is that students lack basic cognitive/thinking/learning skills, and that in the EFL classroom in addition to worrying about language, a great deal of time needs to be spent in just developing these more ‘lateral skills’.

If anyone knows of any traits within Arabic writing that might help us understand the Arabic writing/thinking process, then could they please share their experiences?

It’s not an Arab problem, it’s a Saudi problem. I say this, as all Arabs tend to be boxed into one category, but as experience shows, cultural and experiential factors play a significant part in how learning and language skills develop. We certainly need more research in this area.