In last wednesday's ELTChat 'How do you teach writing? And How do you mark it', I vaguely accepted / was cajoled into accepting the task of putting together a challenge for fellow ELT Bloggers.

The idea was to do this in a similar way to Jason Renshaw's recent 'Wondrous WhiteBoard Challenge', asking people to blog abou the different ways they teach writing, and, perhaps more specifically, how they correct, or comment on their students' writing.

Alas, I'm afraid that I've struggled to mount any kind of challenge whatsoever! However, I am going to talk about a writing-leading to-feedback lesson in this post, so maybe this will end up as a kind of a writing challenge after all. What I really want to do with this post is use my description of the last couple of weeks' worth of lessons to really emphasise the value of abandoning the coursebook in favour of a organically-grown, collaboratively co-built course with teenagers.

As I have documented, my desire to move away from the coursebook was borne out of a growing feeling over a number of years that a wider variety of tools, especially web 2.0 tools, could be of great benefit to learning as long as they were integrated effectively into the classroom as a way of enhancing motivation in young learners. This feeling, coupled with a long-standing urge to release the weight of responsibility to use whichever poor, unfortunate, over-priced book my students had sitting in their bag led me to finally abandon the confines of the traditional 'unit / page such-and-such together with its accompanying supporting worksheet' approach to teaching that I had for so long relied upon. I moved into the unknown and what was, for me, uncharted territory. 6 months on and I never want to go back to using a coursebook again.
I believe that my attitude towards teaching & learning has changed a great deal and that a lot of what I was doing as a teacher in the few years prior to this one was gradually moving away from what I think of as a kind of 'dot-to-dot' mentality towards teaching. I have always wanted to give good classes, as I think every enthusiastic teacher wants to make his / her lessons as good as possible every time.
However, when the starting point for the preparation for this 'great' lesson is the coursebook, the problem is that, however well the lesson goes, it is still only expanding and elaborating on the syllabus laid out in the book. Normally, the teacher has taken full responsibility for making that lesson great; (s)he has made the extra materials and taken the listening or reading off the page to try and make it more relevant to the students' lives. My issue here is that there is very little room for the students to express themselves. Lessons become precious to the teacher and maybe learning goes on, but is it really the learning that students want, especially when the teacher with the fabulous lesson, has possibly not considered the students wants or thought about using them as the main resource?
I bet that if you thought about all the lessons that went really really well, they would be the ones that you hadn't forseen as being great. More than likely, the reason the lesson went so well was because the students were engaged, and the activities went on longer than you anticipated because the students wanted a bit more time to finish.
When that happens, it's a great feeling because the responsibility for learning has suddenly been shared. The students have become co-creators, willing to play a very real part in the direction of their learning. For those moments, there is a kind of harmony within the classroom and you know that something good is happening.
This happens more frequently as a result of putting a coursebook away and tailoring a syllabus specifically for the students in the room.
These are some of the other things that happen:
  1. You start noticing the students more.
  2. You pick up on the activities you did with them that they liked & did well in and look at ways to use those activities again.
  3. You start to talk to them in a more natural way, because the lessons feel like a two-way thing, not you teaching & them learning.
  4. You begin to notice the mistakes they made - both common ones and ones specific to certain students.
  5. You start to think about ways to help them improve their language in these areas and plan lessons that actually helped them do that.
  6. You start noticing that the students arrive on time (or in some cases simply arrive).
  7. You spend as long as it takes for them to really understand a language point because you don't have to worry that it's Christmas time and, horror of horrors, you're only on unit two.
  8. You look at learning as something more than a fixed time in the classroom + homework
  9. You start to bring the real world inside the classroom, thereby making learning real & valid.
  10. You begin to take the students' learning outside the classroom through the use of blogs & wikis, thus allowing their learning to have a place ourside the classroom.

These factors and more go a long way towards creating the right environment for a co-operative and relevant approach to learning.

Ok, so to highlight some of the stuff above, I'll very quickly run through my last two classes:

A couple of weeks ago, we were discussing inventions in class, one of which was the internet.

Having put the different inventions into the order that they were invented, we discussed a number of different follow-up activities that the students could work on, with a final decision to be made by taking a vote.

Out of the different options, the majority of my students decided they wanted to write a 'for & against' essay on the use of the internet. (this is the bit that made me think about making this post about writing)
Firstly, the class divided into 2 and brainstormed different good & bad aspects of the internet.
They then used the ideas they had brainstormed to individually go and create a post for our class blog. Some did this & some posted onto their page of the wiki.
Between classes, I marked their homework using Jing (a screencasting tool) and pasted a link underneath their writing on the wiki so they could listen to my comments.
During the following class, we did a short error correction exercise, in a similar style to a grammar auction where students decide if a sentence / expression is correct. What emerged from this activity was that none of my 15 students knew very much about relative clauses. Additionally, there was a clear indication that sentence patterns using gerunds & infinitives needed some work.
We discussed this in the class and agreed that in a subsequent lesson it would be useful to focus on these areas of language.
Following on from this, students in pairs went off to different classrooms and listened to the comments I had recorded previously about their homework . The task was to create a copy of the original composition and, using the screencast, create a second, corrected version of their essays.
It was a hugely simple couple of classes, but what I really liked about them was that I sensed a certain flow of motivation throughout the class. A lot of language was generated and lot of language work was done. And most importantly, there wasn't a coursebook in sight.
Anyway, I suppose the challenge, then, is this...
Write a post, or send me a post that describes how you have used a writing activity recently and the correction techniques you used.


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