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Linking Your Classroom to The Wider World

shutterstock_247739401In this blog, Patrick Jackson shares his experiences of learning as a child.  His insights illustrate some important elements of engagement and motivation that often get overlooked in the day-to-day busy classroom and curriculum.

What do you remember from your school days? Forty years on, I can remember:

  • Some of the faces
  • Many of the feelings
  • Much of the fun
  • Very few of the facts
  • The times the wider world came into our classroom
  • The times we weren’t actually at school

As a teacher, I’ve learned to incorporate those early memories of school into my own teaching. I’d like to share some of those lessons learnt with you.

Lesson #1: Exploit opportunities that you can build a lesson around.

My first experience of education took place in a wonderful Montessori school that occupied a room in a local racecourse. In return for allowing the school to use the room, the students had to pick up the litter on a Monday morning after race meetings. We loved collecting the colorfully numbered betting tickets that littered the ground. One day, a student found a pound note. That led to a discussion as to what should be done with it. In the end, half went to charity and half to a bag of sweets for the whole class. I’m sure that this early experience led to my lifelong interest in litter picking although you won’t find many pound notes these days. I can’t remember much of what happened in the classroom but I do remember how much we’d look forward to those Monday mornings

Lesson #2: Bring the outside world into your classroom

The clearest memories are of the days when we escaped from the classroom or when the wider world came to see us. We had a teacher who brought his Labrador to school every day. It would sit under his desk. One morning, a pigeon flew through the open window and flew around and around, to be eventually caught and released accompanied by much barking and excitement. There was the day we received a package from a school on the other side of the world. It was full of stickers and interesting snacks. We were fascinated. There were the happy days when a visiting speaker would come and talk to us about something wonderful and different and new. Those were the best days. When something different and new happened.

Lesson #3: Take your class out into the world

Then there were the delicious days we spent away from school – the trips off campus. There was the day we went to Stratford Upon Avon and the theatre had to be evacuated because of a smoke alarm (nothing to do with us, promise). There were museum trips where invariably somebody would get lost and we’d all have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point. There were nature field trips, and visits to the local old folks home where we would sing the residents Puff the Magic Dragon and songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most heavenly of all was the annual three-day trip to an outdoor activity centre where we would rediscover our true calling as children – to get wet, dirty and exhausted. Outside.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go off topic

In the classroom, more than any syllabus or curriculum, I remember the red herrings. By that I don’t mean smoked fish. I mean the times when we could distract our teachers to tell us all about their favorite things – those lovely moments when they would drift far away from the task in hand and enthuse about their own interests. Those were the teachers we loved the most and the teachers I can remember now. There was a Mr. Green who supported Derby County Football Club and would always tell us in detail about the previous weekend’s match. There was a Mr. Sanderson who loved Motown and could never resist playing us one or two of his favorite tracks. There was a teacher of some forgotten subject who had a collection of ceramic owls in her classroom. It wouldn’t take much to get those teachers started talking about their pet passions and a good red herring could last to the end of the lesson.

Lesson #5: Share your passions

There was a history teacher who came into class one day with a silver spoon. He held up this spoon for the class to look at. It was an antique Georgian Irish Silver ladle. He started to talk about it, full of enthusiasm. I am ashamed to say that my friends and I sniggered at the back of the class. But the more he spoke about his spoon, the more we became engaged. He told us about how the spoon had been passed down through his family. He enthused about the design of the spoon, about the elegant curve of the handle, about the process of making a spoon like that two hundred years ago. He passed the spoon around the class so that we could all see the little silver marks on the underside of the handle. He taught us how we could identify the maker, the date and the place where the spoon had been made. He spoke of the type of home that this spoon was used in in Georgian times. I can’t remember the rest of that lesson. To be honest, I can’t really remember the teacher that well but I can remember his spoon.

I am very pleased to invite you to join my webinar this month. Together, we will look at some ways in which all teachers can create links between the classroom and the wider world. By opening up to our students and opening the doors, windows and hearts of our classrooms, we can become more memorable and more effective teachers.

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9 Questions for iPad Party Poopers

Potato Pals tablet in schoolPatrick Jackson, author of the popular Potato Pals series, questions the assumption that there’s an app for everything – especially where young learners are concerned.

My son Kai went for a sleepover with his best friend Aedan last night. As we were packing his bag, he asked if he could take his iPad with him. We said he couldn’t. “You’re going to play with Aedan. You don’t need an iPad”. Shock! Horror! As far as Kai is concerned, we are totally wrong about this and have done him a great injustice. He reckons that it’s just another toy and playing with an iPad with Aedan is just like playing with Lego or running around in the garden. I think not. I even rang Aedan’s mum and asked if Aedan was going to be using his iPad. I was delighted to hear that he had already been banned for a week for some unspeakable and unnamed crime earlier in the day. I didn’t ask what. I tell you – digital parenting in suburban Dublin is a mine field!

Thank goodness technology has not yet managed to replace most of what happens in old-style play. Where it replicates it we have a poor cousin to the real thing. There are apps that you ‘run’ on and apps that you ‘paint’ on but unless you are stuck on a long car journey, neither will be as fun or valuable as the real thing.

There are well-understood reasons why kids need to play ‘naturally’. They need to socialise. They need to move. They need to be creative. They need fresh air. They need to communicate in the wonderful way that kids do when they are playing and they need to get dirty. They need to be dancing to their own wild inner drums and until the unlikely day that technology catches up with the ‘real’ world, Kai’s iPad is staying on my desk (where I can play with it) for most of the day and particularly when his friends are around.

Apps are all around though and aren’t going anywhere soon. Parents, teachers and educational administrators are dealing with these issues all over the world. In our home, we deal with it with a sophisticated and continually negotiated system of time limits, rewards, checks and balances. We hardly even understand the system ourselves.

To make it more confusing, we distinguish between educational apps and those that we consider to be a pretty good waste of time or ‘just fun’. There are many that are virtually impossible to distinguish. We are totally aware that we could be wrong about many of the calls we make. We may indeed be denying our son a future in a world where a key skill will be catapulting different types of birds at distant pigs. Anyway, our current rules allow Kai a 30-minute iPad session in the morning before school during which he is allowed to do creative or educational things. Then he gets 30 minutes of free iPad time after his homework when he can do whatever he wants. The only things we forbid completely are games that show graphic violence. Incredibly, that is not the case for all of his classmates.

For language educators, apps are a hugely valuable resource. They will increasingly become part of how languages are learned. We are now just at the beginning of the mobile age in ELT and, for better or worse, it’s only going to become a larger part of what we do. Being able to sort out the digital chaff from the grain is going to be a key skill for the language educator. Knowing when to say “No. We can do this activity better in the real world” will be important.

The danger is that educational systems will err by replacing real world activities with cheaper, cleaner, more addictive tech alternatives. The irony is that in many cases in the ‘developed’ world, giving a classroom of children more time on tablets will save the system the time, money and the trouble of organising and cleaning up after real play while creating the illusion that this is preparing them better for the 21st Century.

We need to be able to recognise when an app can do the job better and in a more compelling way, and when it can’t. Some apps definitely enrich and support learning in a valid way. Some are really just addictive eye-candy or one-offs without any real lasting depth.

So what questions should we be asking when we look at an app? What should app authors and developers be aiming for as they work on the latest educational apps? What should teachers and administrators be asking as they make these important decisions?

I’ve found myself asking a few questions while working on an app for young learners that’s just arrived at the big party going on over on the App Store.

Does this app allow students to interact with the target language in a way that would be difficult or impossible to replicate in traditional ways?

Does the app offer students opportunities to communicate with friends and family beyond the classroom using the target language; opportunities that would not exist otherwise?

Can the app deliver authentic language in a more efficient way than by traditional methods?

Can students use this app to create personalised learning that puts them at the centre of the target language and helps them to tell the story of their own lives?

Is the app going to support home study and take-home sharing, building a bridge between the classroom and the home?

Will this app develop student autonomy; helping them to take responsibility for their own learning?

Does this app deliver existing materials in a more efficient or more compelling way and does it supplement and enrich those materials?

Is the target language delivered through the app in an integrated and linked way?

Does the app use a good variety of skills and engage those skills meaningfully?

It’s great fun at the app party now but it’s wrong to believe there’s an app for everything. As parents and educators we need to be able to think clearly; know when to be party poopers and know when to jump in and join the fun.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author and teacher. He is author of the popular Potato Pals series, which has just been released as an app for iPad. You can download one story for free from the Apple App Store, with the option to purchase 6 more stories from within the app.


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Three Question Interview – Patrick Jackson (@patjack67)

We’ve asked top ELT authors the following 3 questions:

  1. What’s your favourite ELT book?
  2. What or who has had the biggest impact on ELT in the last 25 years?
  3. What do you wish you’d known when you started out in ELT?

Here, Patrick Jackson (and his dog Frosty), author of Potato Pals, Stars, and Everybody Up, answers these questions in a short interview.

Patrick Jackson is an ELT author interested in the use of songs, stories and real world connections to motivate learners. He believes that the classroom should be an enjoyable, happy and stimulating place for students as well as teachers. Passionate about Linked Language Learning, he is fascinated by the way technology, and especially social media, has the power to transform the teaching and learning experience. He is also interested in the ways in which we can help our students develop creativity and real confidence. Patrick spent 13 years in Japan teaching learners of all ages but is now based in Dublin, Ireland. He is the author of Potato Pals, Stars and Everybody Up and blogs at patjack67.com.


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Going with the Flow

Children running in the playgroundAhead of his talk entitled ‘Linked language learning’ at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton, Patrick Jackson –  co-author of the forthcoming Primary course, Everybody Up – tells us why children are naturally hard-wired for learning.

As part of a recent talk to teachers of young learners in Taiwan I asked participants to complete the following sentence: ‘Children are…’ The idea was to identify some natural characteristics of children which we might consider to bring out the best in students. My overall goal was to explore ideas around the topic of making teaching more real and relevant.

So, what would you have written had you been there? ‘Children are…’

In Taiwan the most popular answers were ‘energetic’, ‘curious’, ‘creative’, ‘friendly’ and ‘playful’. To be totally honest, there was also a smattering of ‘cute’, ‘lovely’, ‘naughty’ and ‘monsters’ but I think that’s the subject of another post.

So does this help us at all? Does the best language teaching take into account the nature of children? Do good lessons for young learners mirror these characteristics?

Good language teachers certainly harness children’s boundless energy by including plenty of movement and action through songs, TPR activities, games and role plays. They also build connections to the wider world and to school subjects, thereby satisfying children’s natural curiosity. Their lessons are full of surprise and wonder. It’s not just about English but ways to use English. Good teachers allow space for creativity, giving students plenty of chance to contribute in a personalised way. They build a community in and beyond the classroom that nurtures children’s friendly nature and they build a supportive environment for learning. This can be done through stories and a values program that models the thoughtful behaviour we seek. Finally, the best teachers allow for playfulness, both for the sake of fun but also because they understand that that’s the best way for children to learn about the world around them.

In nature, most things that are fun are fun for a very good reason.

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