I could be here talking to you about so many aspects of teaching a foreign language. In fact, after 15 years in the classroom, a lot has changed for me and my teaching and I could certainly share a bit about what I've learned. But today, I don't want to focus on eLearning, assessment, classroom activities, links for cool tools, Ed tech in general or anything like that. Today, I want to focus on my ideal classroom. Have you ever asked yourself what your ideal classroom looks like ?
For the ones who know me, I am sure that if they think about my ideal classroom, they'd picture it as one full of gadgets, right? In it, there would certainly be high tech devices like cellphones, flip cams (though they seem now to be part of the past), laptops, mics, projectors (do you remember the OHP???), cameras, and more recently tablets... Well, all sorts of flashy screens. Well, I must say that maybe you don't know me that well... Really... My ideal classroom is way more than that. Though my class is made of connectedness, it doesn't depend on tech. It is all about human connections and closeness. Some teachers may even think that they can teach without &quot;emotions&quot; on the way. I come, I do my job. When classes are done, my job is over. Pure illusion.
My ideal classroom is made of joy, of passion-based learning. Can you see those faces? What are they telling you? In a 21st century classroom, engagement, passion,this drive for learning are only possible if we reconsider our roles as teachers. Who is the teacher? Who is the learner here? We are all both! In the networked digital world we live today in which authority and expertise are concepts that are being turned upside down in all fields of knowledge, knowledge itself has been redefined as the product of the network. David Weinberger in his book Too BIg Too Know says that, &quot; The smartest person in the room is not the one standing at the front lecturing us, and isn't the collective wisdom of those in the room. The smartest person in the room is the room itself: the network that joins the people and ideas in the room, and connects to those outside of it.&quot; Every student has talents. Every student is an expert, so I am just one of the nodes in this network with a certain skill and aptitude.
Here's a little story. I had this hardcore teenage group after coming back from a two-year leave from the school I work for. One of the topics of the lesson was skateboarding. At the time, I knew nothing about skateboarding, except the fact that you needed a skateboard to do it! Well, those teenagers were the ones to teach the lesson. Not me. So, I asked them to bring videos facts, favorite skateboarders, everything they could to help me become knowledgeable on the topic. This quiet, very shy girl came to me the following class with her flash drive because she wanted to show me what she had done over the weekend with a friend of hers who was an ace on the skate. I was thrilled when she got to the front of the room talking about the moves, flips, best spots in town where the tribes gathered. It was an incredible collection of photos they took over the weekend to help an old teacher understand their world. And this is just a tiny example of what I learned in that specific lesson. Now, I can talk like a pro about Bob Burnquist and mega ramps!
This story is just an example that EFL books don't suffice in our networked world and my ideal classroom. In fact, they amplify the gap between our classrooms and the learners' world. In their real world, they are accomplished photographers in Instagram, they are Djs in their newest cellphone app, they are movie makers flooding YouTube. So, I want to bridge their digital world and their English classes. I want them to be producers of content to make their statement.Yes, they have loud voices in their world. How come they don't have it in our classes. This might be one of the biggest shifts in my teaching/learning approach. I don't want passive listeners in my class. I want engaged citizens and that's what I plan my classes for.
And when you make this big paradigm shift to a networked world and classroom, the walls break down, just like the Berlin wall in the end of the 80's. It is not simply some minor pedagogical changes. For you to build your ideal classroom, there is suffering, uncertainty, trial and error. The turning point for me was understanding that I was born and raised in a world of atoms. I learned very early in Physics that one body couldn't be at the exact some place as another. Then, along the way in my professional life, I had to unlearn and relearn that YES our process of knowledge building and acquisition is at times a bit chaotic, hyperlinked within our brain processes, non- linear. I had to free myself a bit of my sequenced atomic world to give floor to my students' creativity and voices. Oh no. Don't Take me wrong, though. Understanding that learning is a bit more messy than my past life used to be didn't mean I had to abandon all my pedagogical practices. Not at all! In fact, I work in a place where we have schedules, &quot;content to cover&quot;, tests, grades. And it needs to be that way so that our students have a sense of progression, of advancement in their English studies. What I had to do then was to repurpose my practices and perspectives to achieve pedagogical excellence.
First, I understood that in order to build those bridges with the classroom and the outside world, I had to connect myself to other educators. I was connected to the ones in the teachers' room, to my dear friends, during coffee time. But it was not that... I had this urge to meet the world out there and to see what other educators around the globe were doing. That's when I decided to attend my first international TESOL conference in San Antonio, Texas. That's when I met a group of amazing educators, the WEBHEADS, who were all for networked classrooms in which teachers are lifelong learners together with students and they harness the power of technology to connect, interact, share and collaborate. My teaching world was turned upside down in irreversible ways. Certainly for much better. From connecting myself, my class became a project-based hub and whenever possible we had those projects which I could finally see the true meaning of contextual i zed and authentic language production. In this image you see, this group discussed issues related to stereotypes, then they produced presentations, videos and blog posts to demystify myths about Brazil and our culture .
As I told you before, my ideal classroom is not about geeky stuff as many might think (including my kids!). Sitting on the floor using real scissors, not our digital cut and paste, format layout for the more advanced users, is really part of my ideal classroom. We are the designers of the learning experiences and we need to make those experiences unpredictable, enjoyable,with little nice surprises. We need to have some serious instructional thought on how to promote that. Not something that my husband keeps telling me, &quot;why after 15 years, do you still need to prepare classes? Just do like this: open your books to page 5, practice in pairs.&quot; NO! Even the more fluid, messy, project-based classes that seem &quot;unprepared&quot;, have lots of planning behind the scenes. Yes! In my ideal classroom, there is a lot of space for language emergence and production coming authentically from learners, which doesn't mean it is going to take away my role of planning the learning experience.
And now, more than ever, I've felt the need to go a step beyond in my preparation for the ideal classroom. I've felt the urge to supplement what I've learned for those years in the classroom by studying and testing not only successful methodological approaches, but also to immerse myself into the realm of neuroscience, reading, learning from a friend, and even presenting about it, for only when we have a better understanding of how our brain works will we be able to significantly connect to every single student we have in our class and be able to reframe our classes as needed for even more significant learning moments. Do you wanna know one thing that I am even more aware than before? The need for attention hooks around every 10th minute. That's right! Our brains cannot have a focused attention for more than 10 minutes. So, what should we do? Change gears. Ask students to stand up or sit on the floor. Or maybe tell a story. Oh, this is not new, right? Sure. We've read that in methodology books, but now neuroscience is giving us more clues than ever to open different pathways to enhance learning. My advice? Start with the James zull's book, &quot;The Art of Changing the Brain&quot;.
In my ideal classroom, pencils are of different colors and for different purposes. In fact, my learners' new pencils could be a tablet, a camera, a cellphone. There is no limit to imagination when it comes to student production. And I don't expect everybody to be using the same pencil. One might be writing a sentence, another might be typing it, and the other could even be taking a photo and sending it to his notes in Evernote. Wouldn't our classrooms be more colorful and lively this way. Oh, I know what you might be thinking... Ok, fine. Ideal, but not real. It WOULD be great to work like that, but do you know my students? Those little devilish kids of mine. But my question for you is, have you ever tried to let your students decide how they want to annotate, to practice, or even to write their homework? You might be surprised with the results.
In 2005, life changed for me and my students. We opened our closed doors to the world. We spent a whole year collaborating with college students in Arizona. The result? True communication, cultural exchanges,lots of blog posts. Do you know how many computers I had at that time in my class? None! Sometimes we had the chance to go to the computer lab, but most of the times? Well, at that time, I'd print the posts for my students to reply on paper, for I didn't want to lose momentum. That special timing to get a nice reply back and keep the conversations flowing. Here you can see one of the postcards we got in a lovely package that arrived in our class straight from Arizona. You can't imagine my students' faces reading all those paper postcards...priceless. I could then get a feeling of a closer connection between my students' world, our class and the digital sphere.
In my ideal classroom it is always time to review concepts and move on. So, I love to try out and embrace new approaches as Bloom's taxonomy revised in which creation has its place. Playing with language and its beauty through all these projects and collaborative endeavors and with new tools, always mean new possibilities. In fact, there are tons of digital tools to help us work on our students' creative veins. Every day, there is a new startup with a wonderful idea that we test for our educational purposes. But there is one that even being around for some years is high on my list and that is....
Voicethread. Yes! I think it has many of the features we look for in a class digital tool. It enables student recording. It is like a conversation. You can add images, videos, docs, slides. You can doodle on it as you speak. In sum, it is an educational tool that i' ve tried to use in many different ways. But I'd like to point to one little project specifically. My students were practicing relative clauses and I told them I had a group of international friends willing to learn some words in Portuguese, so their job was to choose the words they wanted to teach to my friends. They would say those words in Portuguese, but they needed to explain their meaning in English. They wrote their sentences. We checked to see if they were correct. Then, I handed in my flipcamera and in a matter of minutes, the videos were done. We uploaded them all to Voicethread, but they were still a bit skeptical about those friends of mine. Were they real? Where we're they from? Well, I tweeted to my network, inviting my friends to learn some words in Portuguese and practice their pronunciation. The following class when I showed them all the international recordings they got, they were in awe, all exhilarating, trying to understand the reach of what they had done. They asked me about those people and we went on a bit of cultural exploration. Oh, can you imagine why I really love Voicethread?
An ideal classroom cannot go without the power of storytelling in all its forms. Can you see those faces? Do you realize that the teacher is reaching students in very peculiar ways? The girl in the teacher's right seem to be interacting with the frog. Can you imagine what goes on her mind? Look how attentive the boy in blue surfer bermudas is. Can you say that there is engagement or boredom taking place there? Right. Storytelling taps into imagination, creativity, transformation. And these are elements we want to have as an integral part of our classes.
In my ideal classroom, there is flow. Oh, yeah, flow. That's a word I love. That feeling that is just atemporal, that we immerse ourselves in learning. It is that feeling of enjoyment, fulfillment, like swinging with our feet away from the ground, of just feeling plain good about being in class, interacting with classmates. Why sometimes do we so easily miss that?
We know that a teacher's job is never done when classes are over and it has been like that for as long as we've had schools. However, nowadays, our work has been amplified in so many ways because of digital tools that the simple past is simply impossible in a teacher's verb tense conjugation. There can even be some perfect and continuous tenses, like I am teaching a class, but simply &quot;I taught a class, that's not possible.&quot; in my ideal teacher's world we find then proper balance of being connected and unplugged and we help our students' develop their sense of community to rely on one another in a way that not all conversations should be moderated by teachers. No! Students connect and talk to each other beyond the classroom walls in a way that the lessons are constantly being reviewed, so the it just doesn't make any sense to say &quot;I taught a lesson&quot;.
And we can only find this balanced approach to teaching if we rely on each other and if we harness the power of collectivity through collaboration, sharing, and mentoring. We need to connect to alleviate the burden of the lesson planning and teaching routines. My ideal classroom is full of network nodes that help me keep sane in my daily job.
And again, for the ones who know me, I feel that more than sharing is giving credit. We really need to acknowledge those who made our jobs easier. Those who generously make their works available under creative commons.
I asked my FB friends what their ideal classrooms look like and I got tons of philosophical, poetic, single-worded definitions of their ideal classrooms. They are green, with engaged and motivated students, fluid, flexible, a welcoming place for explorers and designers. And they go beyond by saying the ideal classroom is a place to understand and see the world from a different perspective, a place of mutual trust, where time flies by and people feel energized. Now, think for a moment. What's your ideal classroom?
Now, don't get this whole thing wrong. My ideal classroom IS NOT a dream classroom, for most dreams seem out of reach in the present. My ideal classroom is a work in progress, always evolving, but still with flaws. My ideal classroom is what I try to make out of it every single day when I am in class or anywhere, for I learn from my students, from co-workers, from my online friends. My ideal classroom is everywhere, it is within my network, it is this room. Thank you.
My Ideal Classroom By Carla Arena, July 2012 BrazTESOL