Proctoring your online writing classes

So where do I start? Now that I’ve got your attention with a flashy title let’s just start off defining the word “proctoring”. According to the Cambridge online dictionary,  the word “to proctor” means “to watch people taking an exam in order to check that they do not cheat”. I suppose if I leave this in the context of emergency remote online teaching this is easier said than done. Moreover, I’m not sure if this is where I want to take my thinking at all. The first thing that pop’s up in my head is a meme I saw on social media with a child in front of a screen and a mum holding a dictionary under the table helping her son pass the writing test. Personally, I believe that we as teachers are not responsible for just supervising a writing test. This is something that examination bodies should think about now that current trends are moving towards online solutions for examinations.

We as teachers should be thinking in another direction with our writing classes. We should be moving towards the ultimate goal of creating autonomous learners and trying to instil the love of writing in our students so they can feel that writing is a form of expression, a way to express feelings and to portray imagination and creativity. Easier said than done, right? Well, there could be a way to do just that.

Let’s begin. The first thing I want to talk about is writing classes. Due to the coronavirus crisis, we were all forced to teach online. Surely, most of you found ways to go around the hurdle of getting students to write online. Most of you used methods like getting them to write a piece of writing on paper and then sending it as a photo to some sort of communication medium, whether it be an email or a platform like Google Classroom or Edmodo. Some of you got your students to type their writing piece and send it to you for corrections. These methods are perfectly fine, but what was the result? My guess was that most students wrote exactly the same as the would have done in class. Some students excelled, some did ok and others were not to a high standard. What I had in mind for my students though was different.

If we look into the real world, you would all agree with me that most writing takes place in front of a computer screen. Nothing like what is expected of students when in exam classes. So how can we take writing for English lessons out of just writing for the teacher/examiner and make it more meaningful for our students? For one thing, we keep our methodology of teaching writing intact, i.e pre-teach vocabulary, rubric analysis, model essay analysis and the like and but change the way we approach it. Think of ways of putting the burden on the to preparing guided self-paced lessons which could be used in class both off and online. Something that I feel is inevitable too and is my quick and easy take on this matter is to get them to write their composition on paper; in class? at home? Whichever way suits your style of teaching and then just tweaking the correction stages to coaching them to becoming autonomous writers.

So how do we push the scale of creating versions and correction of own mistakes towards our students? Easy, offer them the chance to use a few quick and easy tools to correct their own mistakes and improve their writing. Take advantage of free online writing tools that even professional writers use. Let’s have a look at this idea in more detail:

For one thing, make use of digital material to flip your teaching. Even if you are returning to face-to-face classes, take advantage of the fact that most learners now have access to their own devices getting them to bring it to class. The idea of Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) to class is already among us and is used in some schools around the world already. I suggest creating a digital activity sheet around ready-made and widely available free resources such as youtube videos and self answering quiz, having your students show you when they achieve each task. It could be a grammar point you want them to know before writing or even a vocabulary-building skill. Have a look at the below google doc from a fellow moderator from the Flipped Learning in Langauge teaching EVO 2020 TESOL sessions, Diana K. Salazar is an English teacher in Colombia at the Rochester bilingual school, teaching Writing for 4th grade. She used the in-class approach and wrapped the activity in the form of a google doc (see image below) in an online class as a game board but it could have easily been used for a face to face class too. In-class flip 

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Diana K. Salazar’s in-class flip writing board game.

Just as she mentions in her title, “This study guide aims to prepare you in an interactive, fun and catchy way for the final exam of English Writing”. Let me repeat that, fun and catchy way to prepare for an exam. See, make it meaningful and “wham” they’re engaged. Another reason I really loved this piece and decided to show it as-is is the way this doc was created in a very short time, taking advantage of all those unlimited videos, quiz, and articles without the need of recreating endless pages of own work. My biggest problem before this was if I gave a quiz, exercises or reading pages how could I check that they had completed them. I would have gotten them to create accounts for web apps, like Kahoot, edpuzzle, wordwall, quizalise, quizziz and the list would be endless, and then log in to the each and every dashboard to see if they did them.  Using the in-class flip way, the proof of completion is not in the exercise but in understanding what you have completed. Read these articles and create a graphic organiser to show your understanding. By all means, this isn’t new, it’s just another way to look at what a coursebook would have in the form of columns of information and exercises. Sure beats a coursebook, but also takes advantage of a coursebook too. If you look at the first, bottom left box in Diana’s board game she actually quotes page 68 of her coursebook and gives it to them in digital format to save time.

So break your lesson down into interesting chunks, put the burden on students to prove that they have understood and completed their blocks and get that final composition handed in. Then what? Correct it and give it back to them? I was thinking more of reading over with them, why not getting them to read it to you to check on fluency and pronunciation and then for homework get them to type it up in google docs and use a spellchecker like Grammarly (chrome extension) to self-correct their work. This way, they can spot their own errors and if those errors are fossilized, it might even help them to see those errors in the future. For a final stage get them to share their google doc with you so you can go over their draft and suggest changes or improvements more like an editor rather than a teacher.

One thing I get them to do once they have their final draft ready is to get them to publish it on the internet as an article. We have a school blog which we get our students to use so they can feel that their article is available for all to read. Have a look at our school blog here.

Overall, now that we are returning to our face-to-face classes don’t stop taking advantage of the digital tools we have readily available. Even if you don’t have access to them in class you could still get your students using them out of class. Something very important to me is, always plan your activity to be as meaningful and relevant to your student as possible and try to make it fun too!

Thanking ELTnews and flforum.gr for the invite.

Teaching to a black screen.

Teaching online has its days. Yesterday, in one of my classes, no matter what I tried and believe me it was a well-prepared lesson about ‘famous’ people and most of the class was about how we could charm a somewhat famous person attend a small session with us in our ‘zoomroom’, nothing worked and it was mostly a class of the black screen for me.

I want to talk about black screens today because I believe it is strongly connected to student activation and engagement. Engagement in second language acquisition (SLA) is twofold and not only is it coined as being something your learners should have it they are motivated to learn also it’s about having the will of giving you their full attention and focus. It is often said that this is the new-age type of students. They say that millennials are multitaskers, they can watch tv and listen to music and maybe be active on social media at the same time. This for me however surely means that they share their attention and that basically, they don’t want to give you their full attention. Also, this to me says, “Your not boring, I’m in your class, I got out of my way to attend and I’ll do my share of work, but I don’t want to give you my full focus; I’ve got other stuff more interesting to me than you.”

Most students close cameras on the pretence of being embarrassed, or having a bad hair day or not liking their learning environment or having their little brother with them. Some scholars say that during remote emergency learning we should not pressure our students to open their cameras because they might indeed not be feeling comfortable with their personal learning environment. The truth of the matter is I agree with not pushing too hard for students to open their cameras, but lately, I have been noticing that this state is contagious and that all students are slowly using it as an excuse for not opening their camera.

In a class, yesterday, all my students were reluctant to open their cameras for me.  I did try to convince my students to open, but in a short while they switched off and even though I tried, they won in the end because I was losing time and seeing my objective going out the window. So I did spend time talking things out but ended up going back to the lesson as not to lose their attention completely.  And what struck me, yesterday is at the start of class when I was alone with one student, I got him to open his camera to say hello which he did, and as soon as another student entered the class, he immediately switched off his camera. Another case was after having a conversation on internet bandwidths and speeds of connection, one of my students who always uses his speed of connection as a problem to switch off his camera boasted about how fast a connection he has to all of us. This was actually mentioned to me by another student told him, who said to him, “why do you say that you never have enough bandwidth to open your camera since you have 100Mbps download and 10Mbps upload”, that’s a really fast connection for home internet!

So the truth of the matter is, even though we have our students motivated enough to come to our online class because they could have just say, “online doesn’t work” and that “my parents shouldn’t be paying for these types of lessons”, the fact that they attend without turning on their video is saying that they are just not engaged enough to do so. If your not actively involving them in an activity which needs for them to be seen, then they prefer to do your activities without their video turned on.

This preference is what needs to be discussed. Should we allow this to happen should this be talked out with all students separately and discussed as a prerequisite?  What do you do with the students who genuinely do have problems?

The more you allow this to happen in your classes the more disengaged learners you will eventually end up with. I believe that this notion should be actively talked about amongst older students and we should reach an agreement towards everyone being actively involved and having their cameras switched on.

For me, in my next lesson, it’s time to redo classroom rules, maybe work upon these rules through a google doc or a collaborative Canva drawing activity. Get them to collaboratively write the rules and to create an infographic of “our ‘zoomroom’ rules”

A good way to create ‘zoomroom’ dynamics and restart my class with a new outlook.

Photo by z yu on Unsplash

Disaster recipe: Collaborative writing online and young teens

They say the older students get the more attention span they acquire. I don’t really know if this is a true fact. Especially now with all my lessons having being moved online, I get to witness even the good students not wanting to focus in on me presenting something to them for even four minutes. This I found out yesterday when I had a group of four EFL students at a B1 level for a two-hour writing session. I had planned to do a writing session with them and planned to make it as interesting as possible, and mind you, even though I should get others to vouch for me, I myself was impressed with my own lesson plan which was quite impressive to say the least.

This lesson plan incorporated a nice warm-up activity to engage my learners on the topic of Mobile phones and young children. We watched a video about the use of mobile phones by young children where brainstormed ideas about the pros and cons of students using mobile phones were written on a padlet wall. Thereafter we reviewed a rubric from a model answer before we started reading and analysing a model answer. Sounds good so far? Well, after getting them engaged in the topic, getting them to collaborate on the padlet and all together read the model essay, which I found went well, all  I had to do after getting their attention was to show them a few key points in the main body paragraphs, giving emphasis to cohesive devices used by the author to link ideas together. (see image below) After at the most four minutes of presenting and underlining I started asking CCQs, that’s when it hit me that one of my students hadn’t been following me. He found my presentation time to switch off and let his mind wander which meant he didn’t pick up enough about how to structure a for and against discursive essay.

At the time, I was pretty disturbed. I found his behaviour upsetting and disrespectful, I put so much effort into this lesson plan and he just switched off. Then I thought, wouldn’t you switch off if you had something more interesting to think about? Especially, being in your own home, in your bedroom with your PJs on? Being honest, I probably would.

So this is where I had to differentiate. What I did for the following write up stage of my lesson is I uploaded the topic to a Google Doc and got them to write a paragraph each. They didn’t know that this could be done so they found it quite captivating. Below is an image which shows my students working on a google doc together. What I did was allocate a paragraph to each student depending on what I thought would benefit each of them. I got the weaker students to concentrate on the main body paragraphs and got the stronger ones to be more creative when writing the introduction and conclusion.

collaborative writing

I put a copy of the rubric in the Doc and wrote the titles of the main parts of the essay of I wanted them to write. After I shared the doc, they opened it on their pc and one of them directly on their mobile phone.

It took them about twenty minutes to complete the task and in the meantime, I had time to scaffold the structure of the main body paragraph to the student that had listened to me in the presentation stage.

The overall outcome was reasonable, and they were actually quite happy to get to write another essay in their own time. towards the end

Finally, I took their essay and plugged it into analyzmywriting.com which measured lexical density and got an average scale of around 50% which I explained that this was reasonable at the B1 Level. They like the idea of analysing their text using tools so I found this a chance to explain some more details about this analysis and promised them that we will do more with this tool in the near future.

lexical density writing

Overall, the practical part of the lesson was really interesting for them, but sometimes if a student wants to switch off while you present something, even though you think it’s very important for them and try to make it as interesting as possible for them, they will. Quickly, when this happened to me yesterday, I had thought, I should’ve flipped the presentation stage of this lesson plan and gave it to them to complete in their individual learning space and at their own pace. That way we would’ve got even more done in the group learning space. So flip it, is what I’m going to do with this for my next class.

What role does pedagogy have on this current digital stage?

*This article is to be featured in an online magazine.

In the days of COVID19 in which governments around the world have required us to work at home to save our lives and the lives around us, we have seen an unprecedented number of schools and teachers transfer their classrooms online. This has brought about tremendous stress on both students and teachers. On a larger scale in Greece, two main factions have arisen, the one says that online schooling should not be done without proper pedagogical insight and the later have started online teaching already. The question that arises amongst those who have opted for online teaching is do they have the proper training to support such an endeavour?

When we look at online schooling, it is not about knowing how to use digital tools that are needed to conduct such lessons. It is a whole lot more and is mostly about how you as a teacher can keep the teaching style that you have in your physical classroom before the coronavirus outbreak and instil them in your digital classroom. 

How do you support your teaching style in an online environment? 

This is where your knowledge of what can be done online and what not is most valuable. This expertise can be attained by either your personal learning network (PLN) that you already have or through a plethora of online sites giving you such information. Sure, one solution is to gather your students online and do your lessons. Saying that you could also do your lessons online without trying to use any of the available features of these such tools like breakout sessions and the use of the digital whiteboard. Sure it is ok not to find other digital tools to create engaging activities for your students as the core of your lesson plan or even as warmers or fillers, but how engaging and effective will that be for your students? Will your students’ motivational levels be high enough to keep them engaged in your lesson? Will you tap into their higher-order thinking skills by following the coursebook page by page (This applies to both online and off). How will they feel when you are at the centre of the classroom all the time and not them? If that is what you do anyway in your physical classes, then that is what will happen to your digital classes, but if you want to have that same magical effect you have when you are in your physical classes and keep your teaching style the same both online and off, then you have to be a lot more prepared when you get online. 

What methods of delivery do we have for online teaching?

Pedagogy is the science of teaching and is the method or approach we as teachers adopt for the delivery of our instruction. In practice, there are a variety of strategies to deliver instruction, whether online or offline; here a few strategies that teachers look at in the service of digital and blended learning environments. 

For one thing, teachers use flexible grouping strategies in their classrooms and commonly decide on who will sit with whom before class. In general, ‘flexible grouping’ is used to differentiate instruction to cater to all levels of students by grouping them into small groups, pairs or using the whole class instruction model. This strategy gives us the chance to focus on certain issues some students might have in the use of certain skills by differentiating instruction. Thus, keeping this strategy for your online classes is very important too. 

Typically, online you can achieve flexible grouping by using breakout sessions. Most serious online synchronous meeting tools do have this option. One example where you could apply flexible grouping is the think, pair, share routine in which you pose a question to your students, get them to think about it for a few minutes, having them take notes, and pairing them into breakout rooms to discuss and document results for about 7-8 minutes. Upon their return, they will be asked to share their discussion with the rest of the class. Indeed, you can not view all your breakout sessions at the same time. Yet, because this routine is known (or at least easy to teach) and you have planned your staging, your students will not let you down. Not to mention that you could always call on the option of popping in on them or adding an element of competitiveness to your task by getting them to police each other while in pair mode.

Also, taking advantage of collaboration strategies in your classes will work towards maximising your class time and eliminating the ‘one hand at a time’ discussion. This is even more prominent in online lessons where ‘one hand at a time’ becomes even more tiresome which adding to poor quality of internet connection could involve ample time loss. To plan collaborative tasks you might have to take advantage of a digital collaborative tool for a class discussion which could maximise class participation even to 100 per cent. This would even allow students who are not comfortable engaging in physical class discussion the opportunity to be heard.

Thereafter, there are other strategies that one could use to apply to online learning but these also apply to physical classes. There are options like Project-based learning (PBL) or Inquiry-based learning to choose from, but again choosing these methods boils down to the teaching-style you have in physical classes. One choice that is more of an approach than a structured method is the use of Flipped learning strategies for language teaching. This approach relies on the notion of saving valuable class time by taking out the teacher ‘chalk n’ talk’ time from the group learning space putting into the individual learning space or in other words the students own time; taking advantage of the group learning space to make use of more collaborative and communicative tasks. This by nature will get students using the language for extended periods of class time resulting in the reduction of students passively listening to the teacher.

No matter which pedagogy you apply or which strategy you embrace for your online classes, the most important thing you should keep in mind is that you could get away with not adequately planning your lesson in your physical classes and improvising your way through, due to experience. In online classes, there is a big chance that you might not only lose a noticeable amount of time due to technical issues but because of a lack of preparation, this time might multiply and lead to your students becoming disengaged resulting to loss of focus and connection.

Photo by Vincent Ghilione on Unsplash