Looking back on 2018

I love year-in-review posts. They’re often a tad more personal than the usual ELT blog post in that they touch on areas of life outside of the classroom, which I always enjoy reading about. I’ve been following some folks’ blogs long enough to feel as if I know them in real life, so it’s great to read about their successes and challenges, and how they overcame/are dealing with the latter. Year-in-review posts can also be a useful reminder of things people have previously shared on their blogs or social media, but with the flood of news out there it’s often easy to overlook/forget bits of pertinent information.   

The idea for this post came from Sandy Millin’s blog, where you can also read which other posts inspired hers. I’ve adapted it a bit because a) it’s not December anymore, b) if I wrote about 31 points this would be completed in June, and c) I have nothing to say for some of the prompts, so I left them out.   

Your favorite activity from 2018

I haven’t taught offline much for quite a while now, so I’m going to go with an online activity which isn’t from 2018 but remains one of my favorites: the anonymous peer review. I wrote about how it’s set up in my course and which tweaks have been added over time in this post.

Most memorable story from 2018

This would have to be my visit to Athens in the spring. I hadn’t been to Greece before and it was great to have the opportunity to spend a couple of weeks there. One thing I’ll definitely remember the visit by is meeting one of my PLN in person – thanks for everything, Christina! Proof that the ELT world is indeed a small one is that in the brief time while I was in Athens the sixth BELTA Day took place and Christina was a presenter, so I was able to reminisce about the lovely BELTA people and previous BELTA Days without – hopefully – sounding too nostalgic.

the moment in 2018 you felt proud as a teacher

This isn’t classroom related but I’ve been adjuncting at the University of Zagreb since 2008, and a couple of years into this I was expected to qualify for the title of lecturer, which is the educational title lowest on the scale in the Croatian tertiary education system. Once you qualify, you hold this position for five years, after which you can go for re-election or try to move a step up the ladder. Last year I qualified for senior lecturer, which sounds grander than it is (especially if you’re still adjuncting – I expect I could soon be setting some kind of record), but was a bit of a proud moment nevertheless.

A new idea you implemented in 2018

The idea isn’t new but I finally got around to trying out badges. I’m still planning to create two more – for which I’ve more or less defined the criteria – by the end of the semester.

Your favorite teaching aid in 2018

A reliable board marker that doesn’t die on me halfway through the class.

The moment in 2018 when you felt proud of your student

There was definitely more than a single moment/student, but one that readily comes to mind is when a wonderful, very motivated and hardworking student – who recently graduated (or is almost there) – got a job at a place that inspires job satisfaction and looks good on their CV.

Your favorite teaching website in 2018

I don’t really have one. My favorite resource for everything teaching related is Twitter and I follow up on interesting info I come across by clicking through to whatever resources the person tweeting has linked to. These are, however, far more often blogs than websites like Edutopia or Teaching English. A quick look at some of my recent retweets suggests that I may have visited the EdSurge HigherEd website pretty often and I think this is explained by the fact that they cover topics of relevance both to my non-teaching (but still in the education sector) job and tertiary ed topics.

The person who inspired you in 2018

Some of my coworkers. I won’t single anyone out just in case someone from work ever reads this, primarily because many people there have been inspirational in a number of small (and not-so-small) ways and I don’t want anyone to feel left out.

Your greatest challenge in 2018

Overcoming impostor syndrome. Changing professions/working environments after such a long time did leave me with nagging doubts as to whether I was doing a good job, even if objectively I knew I was coping at least satisfactorily. Before I always used to be the one who had been doing that job forever when a new coworker came along and it was a challenge to be on the other side.  

Your strongest point as a teacher

Modesty dictates I say my students should be asked about this. But now I think about it, this really is a tough question. I’ve been teaching for 20 years so there are probably few things I’m hopeless at (apart from teaching YLs and teens, which I’ve never done). I hope I’m good at making students feel confident about their language skills. Let’s put it this way: I would be happy if that was how students felt.    

Your favorite teaching application in 2018

Definitely H5P, which I’ve written about here and here. I’m planning to try out more of their content types this year.  

The best CPD book you read in 2018

Readers of this blog know I occasionally do translations, so I think I’m justified in choosing this as a CPD book: Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything by David Bellos.

Your greatest frustration in 2018

Probably the fact that I wasn’t sure if my non-teaching contract was going to be extended, as a result of which I thought it would be prudent to hang on to any work I’d been doing previously. This included proofreading/language-editing/translation work and online teaching, so I worked almost every evening and weekend for the first half of the year. Luckily, the contract was eventually extended.

One thing you want non-teachers to understand

That it’s normal for teachers to be on the lookout for things that will make their job easier. People in other professions do this too. It’s great that there are teachers who enjoy being immersed in PD opportunities 24/7 and who will always take the more challenging route, but that works for them and shouldn’t be seen as the norm every teacher should necessarily aspire to.

Your most memorable teaching experiment in 2018

This has got to be the workshop on academic writing I delivered for my coworkers. I asked for my PLN for ideas and input in this post and would like to thank everyone once again: I thought the workshop turned out pretty well. There was some talk at the time that we might have more frequent sessions for those interested, and not only on academic writing but other aspects of language, but that hasn’t yet come to pass, primarily because I haven’t done anything about it. I didn’t want to commit to something I might not have the time and energy to do properly.

your personal success in 2018

I’m not sure if the “personal” is meant to stress that I see this as a success only I contributed to/brought about (as opposed to being part of a team), but I’m going to interpret it as also referring to team successes. I wrote about being involved in AMORES project here and here. The project ended three years ago but in 2018 articles describing project results were published in two books. It’s great to see the project living on!

One thing you plan to change in 2019

If I were the least bit confident that there was a chance of this actually happening, I’d say I’d do more exercise. 

Your greatest discovery in 2018

I know this is going to sound ridiculous, but you know the timer app on your phone? Oh, okay, I know, Google Keep. ILovePDF? Nope, nothing revolutionary.

Thank you for reading! I hope it’s not too late to wish you a great year ahead and please let me know if you’ve done a year-in-review post – I’d love to read it!

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Reflections on reflective writing

Photo taken from ELTpics by Ian James, used under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Often when I’m writing a blog post I realize there’s something I could go off on a tangent about and then I vaguely decide I’ll come back to that in another post, which I don’t very often do – I guess this is due to my irregular blogging habits. This is one of those other posts: when I blogged about our introductory campus sessions earlier this semester, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to say a few words about the learning journal component of the course, or more specifically, about reflecting on learning in an online environment and possible attendant issues.

A learning journal can be very helpful in a semester-long asynchronous course. Apart from giving students an opportunity to think through and reflect critically on the material they’ve covered, it gives the instructor an insight into how everyone is coping in a different way than student assignments do. I might find out, for instance, how students feel about the time they have available to complete tasks, what they find useful about the feedback they receive, or what they think about task types that perhaps aren’t very typical in their offline courses, such as peer review (which I wrote about in more detail in this post). If the course were held on campus, I would probably be able to find much of this out in class.

The course has included this component since I first moved it online and has undergone a couple of tweaks in the meantime. Initially, the students had complete freedom re what they chose to reflect on after each unit, in that there were only some broad suggestions on the type of information they might want to add. The problem with that, it soon transpired, was that although some students clearly did not lack inspiration, there were others who found reflecting challenging, felt they didn’t have much to say or failed to see the point of the activity. Whatever the reason, students in this category wrote exceedingly brief comments whose sole purpose, I suspect, was to tick the “post a reflection in your journal” box.

At first, I tried to address this by posting questions on these students’ entries, hoping they would respond in greater detail, which met with varying degrees of success. After a couple of semesters, I added questions that could serve as writing prompts after each unit. Looking back, I have no idea why it took me so long to do this – I guess it was probably because I thought these were questions students should actually be asking themselves and they needn’t be the same for everyone. I still think so, but learning journals aren’t common practice in the Croatian education system and given that I was aware of this from the start, I’m surprised it didn’t occur to me sooner that students might find model questions useful. The semester I introduced questions student journals became noticeably more focused overall.

Some time after this, I began covering reflective writing in the introductory face-to-face sessions as well, the idea being that this would help students see the learning journal as more than just an afterthought. I begin by explaining what this component entails and show the students a sample journal from an earlier semester, to illustrate what the final product looks like. I choose one at random, although I think I’ll have to start checking with ex-students if I have their consent, on account of GDPR. Afterwards, we take a look at one of those exceedingly brief comments from one of the early iterations of the course, discuss what seems to be lacking at first glance and how each point could be expanded on. This is followed up by a few general good practice suggestions on reflective writing.

What I try to do in the session before this one is set aside 15 minutes for students to answer 2-3 questions of the type they will be addressing in their learning journal entries. This can be at any point during the session. I simply ask them to answer the questions however they think they should best be answered in the next 10 minutes or so. At this point I don’t want students to think about reflective writing as a genre, so there is no guidance nor are there any constraints apart from the time they have available.

I collect these and in the next session, after we’ve talked about how a very general comment can be made more specific, I show them a few examples of how this has been achieved in the pieces of writing they handed in in our last session. These are anonymized but I hope people recognize what they’ve written and that it has a motivating effect. Some terms are marked in red because they are still a little vague and we discuss how these parts of the text could be rendered more specific.

This in combination with the questions to reflect on after each unit generally produces good results. There are still students each semester who struggle with what to write about but after they’ve received personalized feedback on their first reflection, suggesting how they could expand on areas that may be overly general and thus possibly not so useful, their reflections generally become more detailed and specific.

One thing I’m not as happy about is the fact that since the questions have been introduced, the majority of students rely on these and rarely choose other aspects to reflect on, even though the instructions always stress that the questions are only there to provide inspiration and don’t (all) *haveto be answered.  This tends to make the reflections a tad predictable in structure, and to an extent in content. 

Another thing I sometimes feel I could use some help with are the questions themselves. I tweak them most semesters, adding new ones and removing those which don’t seem to have been helpful or produced much engagement. If you know of any resources that provide suggestions on how to structure reflection questions or which aspects of learning to target, they would be much appreciated!

Collect them all!

Greg van Brug: badges (CC BY-NC 2.0)

I’ve been wanting to add badges to my course for a couple of years now, but somehow this always got relegated to those optional activities I’d maybe introduce next year. To be perfectly honest, I was skeptical for quite a while if university students would even want to be awarded badges; I guess I thought they might consider them too frivolous. I think I even had a vision of students chatting about the course over coffee, “Did you get one of those badges? Like she seriously thinks we’d care about something like that?!” I’m guessing I may have been too optimistic in thinking student chats over coffee ever involve the course. 😛

Some time ago I came across this post by Maria Theologidou and decided I would definitely try to introduce badges, then last year I saw them used to good effect in the project I was involved in at work. I thought I’d write up a brief post on which badges I eventually settled on this semester and how I planned to have them awarded, as this turned out to be a little more complicated than I’d initially assumed. At this point I still have no feedback one way or another on how the students feel about them, so this remains something to investigate in more detail towards the end of the semester.

I think it could be quite easy to get carried away with the visual appeal of badges and you suddenly find yourself creating a whole raft of them, thinking you’ll find a way to work them into the course. For experimental purposes I thought three would be more than enough, so that’s how many I actually ended up with, although there’s one more I’m toying with and think I’ll probably add.

  1. The extra mile badge – this is for students who’ve taken part in an optional discussion, which requires them to do some extra reading as well. The discussion is quite early on in the course, so the idea is for the badge to provide some extra encouragement. I award this one manually, although now I think about it, I could specify in the settings that it gets awarded on completion of that activity, since everyone who took part in the discussion got the badge. In case you’re wondering, that’s five students out of this semester’s group of thirteen, which, on reflection, is a number I’m pretty pleased with in an optional activity.
  2. The halfway there badge – this is for students who’ve completed all the compulsory activities in the first half of the course more or less on time. We’re actually halfway through the course now and I’m planning to award these in the next couple of days. Initially, I specified in the settings that this badge would be awarded on completion of a bunch of activities by a certain date (more than one date), but this turned out rather less straightforward than I envisioned it. It looks really easy; all you need to do is tick the activities and set the dates, but some activities require the students to mark the completion themselves – if they don’t, the system doesn’t recognize they completed it – and, more importantly, it suddenly hit me it might not be completely fair to extend the same treatment to a student who was a day late with one or two activities and one who only logged on to the course twice in two months. Neither would get the badge if the criteria were set up this way, so I got rid of the dates in the settings. I’m still going to be requiring that the activities be completed but will be relatively flexible regarding the dates and will be awarding the badge manually so I can check if the students have completed those activities they don’t automatically get ticks on. Ultimately, I’d like the badges to be motivating and the criteria probably shouldn’t be too restrictive.
  3. The exam candidate badge – this is for students who’ve completed everything they needed to in order to qualify for the exam. I haven’t designed this one yet, but I still have time as I won’t be needing it before January. At this juncture I think I’ll set up the award criteria in the same way as for badge no. 2.
  4. The online star badge – this is the one I’m not sure about yet, including the name. I thought it could be for those students who’ve done excellent work throughout the semester, maybe demonstrated great patterns of online interaction or put in consistent effort with their learning journal, or something like that. I’m still trying to decide. I’ll definitely be awarding that one manually and I don’t think dates will figure in any important sense.

I’m sure there are lots of options available for designing badges but I’ve used Canva for these, mostly because I’m familiar with it by now. I should probably add that I had to find a workaround for the fact that you can’t download an image with a transparent background in the free version of Canva, which is a problem because you’re downloading a square image and the badges are round. I used LunaPic to switch to a transparent background and then added them to Moodle.

If you teach online, have you used badges? Have you won any for taking part in a course yourself? How motivating do you think they are/could be? Thanks for reading!