Spring is sprung

March 25, 2011 § 4 Comments

“Because the world is round, it turns me on,
Because the wind is high, it blows my mind,
Because the sky is blue, it makes me cry.”
The Beatles

Spring is sprung, and it makes me feel good. Earlier this week I saluted the equinox. Very soon I will celebrate perhaps my favourite day of the year when the clocks spring forward and lightness suddenly holds sway long into the evening.

On Tuesday I caught my first glimpse of my little pals and gave them a hearty wave, I’d been anticipating their arrival, but no, too soon, and then there they were, little bundles of fluffy white joy, with an occasional black one dotted in for good measure.

All across the British Isles, the blue skies and bright sunshine have been delightful.

Down in the southeast of England, nature is blazing full-steam ahead, and I notice the difference. I was hit by a wall of sweet-scented blossom as I made my way up to the main doors of one school, and stopped to take it in. Back here in the Midlands, up on top of a modest hill, we’re not quite so far advanced, and by the time we get to the lilting accents of The Scottish Highlands, the season is fully a month behind.

It’s like that in every class we ever teach, of course. Learners progress at different rates. My happiest moment of the week was the beaming smiles exchanged between a 10-year-old girl and a teaching assistant. This little lady needs full-time support, so that when her classmates are working with an age-mate, she converses with her adult helper.

Branching words out from each other, as language plants do, means learners are presented with lots of possibilities, and when I model a short, medium and really really long sentence for them, most jump into the activity with gusto. But a fantastic side-effect of branching is that each word has a unique shape and position, and with a colourful veneer to boot, learners can call on intelligences besides linguistic to complete a task.

Time and again, I feel the warm glow from teachers telling me how much more involved were some of the more reluctant ones, the less confident ones, the ones who struggle or who are disengaged. The bright ones, yes, they get it straight away, as one would expect, but what usually tips the balance is them witnessing first-hand a sea change in the behaviour of the ones who most need help.

This is what had just happened here. Our little friend had been able to work out where one of the missing words should go in Puzzle, and had carefully placed it back in on the interactive whiteboard. The joy radiating from the both of them as our most recent language gardener made her way back to her seat was brighter than the spring sunshine outside, and that made me feel real good.

Spring is sprung.

Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none

March 17, 2011 § 6 Comments

“Love all, trust a few, do wrong to none.”
All’s Well That Ends Well
William Shakespeare

Were it not for the sympathetic ear of a daughter, Cintia’s dad’s journey of a thousand miles in English would have ended after the first step. His spirit had been broken, and he needed a hug. This, along with her more recent story about the relationship that unfolded between her and one lone student next to a pile of idle photocopies suggests her natural empathy will guide her well, but for now, she’s grateful to know there are trustworthy hands to hold out there.

Shelly’s Goal 22 is about mentoring.

It’s a long drive to this one school and I’ve been setting off when the little birdies have still been clearing their throats and tuning up. They’re a leading school in the area, and teachers from other schools will be looking to them for ideas on good practice in a few weeks’ time at the Festival of Learning, which I’m privileged to be part of.

I’d done a demonstration day with them a few weeks ago – teaching a number of classes with teachers and teaching assistants watching, but the head and EAL leader had contacted me on Monday to say that the assistants had cold feet. They needed to see me again.

We laughed afterwards as one had flashed glances at me while she was employing techniques we’d talked about beforehand, simple dogme stuff like not fighting against the tide but going with the flow. Last time I was down, a plane had flown past the window. To 6-year-olds, this is nothing to be sniffed at, so they were offered the chance to tell their talk-partners about a time they’d flown, or been on a long journey somewhere. Then back to the whiteboard, their curiosity sated.

I had told the head that I’d like them to cycle by themselves, as it were, with me running after them, holding on to the saddle and letting go once they’d picked up speed, rather than me doing the pedalling. Of course, they sped off straight away, and more often than not I was just a willing bystander. Using Language Garden is easy, there’s a clear focus and engaging activities, and in small groups, learners pretty much direct themselves. Like the lesson I did with Rachel, only more talking in between, and more repetition of the branches.

In another of the sessions, two older children, a boy of Russian and Lithuanian descent, and a girl from Zimbabwe, were amazed at all the connections, history, geography, economics, we’d woven from the following verse from a poem about the market in Zanzibar:

I love the smell of the colourful spices
and the feel of the soft silk from The Orient
in the winding streets of the bustling market
in the old town of the important port of Zanzibar.

We’d taken a short CLIL detour into the long voyages to the spice islands of Indonesia, and the little role play had unearthed “profit”, “cost -” and “selling price”. The assistant positively brimmed with pride during the feedback session when I said I thought it was a perfect lesson. Well it was, replete with language, learning, laughter and love. She’d thought as much. She just needed to hear it from someone she trusted.

Thanks Rachel!

March 11, 2011 § 9 Comments

She’s only just moved in next door has Rachel, a friendly 18-year-old with Owen, her bonny 6-month-old baby with a smile that makes even the sternest of them go googoogaga. Within just a day or two of moving in, she’d dropped round with a bunch of flowers to introduce herself.

Today I found out that she’d come third a few years ago in a national design competition at school. She’d asked if Language Garden was patented, and used the more legal, but much less common pronunciation – “pat” rather than “pay”, unusual, I thought, for someone to say such a thing, one thing led to another, and I learned about her intriguing 3-D cup-holder puzzle.

She’d just popped by to say hello. I’ve got wires and leads everywhere at the moment, various audio contraptions, I’m making screenshot videos to guide people around Language Garden. I’ve had in mind for a while to record learners and me talking, with viewers being able to see what’s going on on the screen. Rather obligingly, Rachel agreed to be a guinea pig.

It’s lesson material, if you’d like. Chat about pastimes with them, then just play the video, learners would gain a lot from listening and watching, I’m sure. Then Puzzle, which you can all do yourselves as well. Level? Ooh, elementary, post-beginner with more support.


March 8, 2011 § 4 Comments

“Perfection is achieved,
not when there is nothing more to add,
but when there is nothing left to take away.”
Antoine de Saint-Exupery (1900 – 1944)

Diarmuid has been posting frantically of late, fewer words that say more, as the Tao might soothingly whisper. We witness this in Alan’s minimalism, while Jason sees value in this too, stripping down his blogs to the bare bones. And we can all picture blackboards full of genius hunting out the elegance of E=mc2.

It seems that people are giving up clutter for Lent, and I am wholeheartedly in favour of this.

Shelly’s Goal #20 asks us to share our favourite resources and ideas.

More and more, I incorporate learning my learners’ languages in my lessons. I don’t have fixed classes, instead working with schools who are interested in becoming language gardeners. Just the other week, I gave each teenager an A3 piece of paper on which to map out a language plant in the language of their choosing, in pencil, I implored. Arabic, Dutch, English of course, French, Tigrinya, Urdu all spread out like ivy, and were proudly pronounced when I happened across them.

My inquisitive mind searched for meaning and rules which my little teachers were sometimes able to enlighten me with and which they sometimes weren’t. Their initial brave attempts were often messy, and my questions were the first steps to decluttering. Pencils, you see, can be rubbed out.

I had introduced this activity by teaching them a bit of Swahili, a lingua franca of the east African shores whose heritage stems back five hundred years and mixes local languages with Arabic and Portuguese. I could denude the interactive language plant by clicking words on and off, so that individual sentences stood bold and bright. I invited them to repeat, jumping between

I love Kenya – ninapenda Kenya
I love (the) people – ninapenda watu
I love (the) animals – ninapenda wanyama

The little, faded, patient connective “na” was spotted by one Somali girl who had lived in Holland, and I waited with bated breath as she correctly stated how she loved people and animals.

I clicked on the other little word, “wa”, that means “of”. No need of course for me to ask or elicit or urge, for she stuttered:

ninapenda watu na wanyama wa Kenya

Say it again, I heralded. Stand up. Tell your friends that you love the people and the animals of Kenya. Take a bow. You speak Swahili, and the others wanted the same feeling too. Look how the words bend and twist, how by doing this we can make lots of different sentences with a minimal amount of words. Look at the simplicity of the design. Now it’s your go. Anything you like. Any language. Teach me. Teach each other. Teach yourself, I entreated. I’d probably been reading too much of the Tao. And then we can put them up on the whiteboard for all to see, and that’s exactly what happened, give or take a little bit of elbowing.

Guest Post by Magpie Moments

March 4, 2011 § 2 Comments

Here is my first guest post, by Anna of Magpie Moments, a wonderful new blog full of classroom experiences. She came across Language Garden, and then a day or so later in class, when writing on the board, the concept – removing redundancy – just clicked with her, and she started making language plants on the board. Well, you can imagine how impressed I was, and just last Monday, she used Language Garden interactive materials, which you can try yourself, by clicking on the links in the text. Here is how it went…

Well what a great addition to my collection. My first Language Garden lesson also happens to be the first session I’ve ever delivered 100% with ICT and nothing else. So… I was a little nervous on Monday morning as I’d deliberately not planned anything else so as not to have a get out clause!

However, I didn’t need to worry… the students loved the session. I chose to do a poem from the Language Garden called The Village Elders.

Lots of my learners are Pakistani and many of them come from villages so I thought this session would interest them.  The great thing about the site is that there are loads of different activities, lead ins and ideas for how to approach the material  and you can just pick and choose how much or little you want to use it.
We started with a chat about bravery and what that means… some difference of opinion here but ended up with a definition that incorporated warriors as well as ESOL learners choosing to join a class for the first time!

We then did Branches, listening to the text while they watched the language plant unfold. They were slightly confused at first but soon got into it! We listened a few times per verse. The other lovely thing about this is that you can click on the leaves for key vocab and a picture appears.

So it was great to elicit meanings from them but also be able to show them the image at the end. A big sigh of relief especially from the lower level learners to have it so clearly displayed.

It was also really nice for my Eastern European learners as they have been struggling with some of the listening tasks we’ve done previously. Being able to watch the text literally grow before their eyes really helped them I think.
Once we’d done all three verses I split them into groups and they tried to remember as much about the three different men as they could. Kind of like a dictogloss but I didn’t follow it through to the stage of them reproducing the text themselves.  What was interesting was how much they could remember of the text and how distinct in their minds the three different characters were.

We then had a go at Puzzle which totally freaked them out at first… but I asked them to think about it quietly for a few minutes and gradually they started to make (accurate) suggestions of where the words should go. They were coming up to the board and showing me where to place the words. (Made me think how nice it would be to have a smartboard in there) 15 minutes later and between them they had done it! They were so pleased with themselves it was great 🙂

Another activity we had a go at was Paint Words, painting parts of speech. They don’t actually need to know adjs and nouns etc.at this level but they caught on really quite quickly. So quickly in fact that I’m going to do a follow up session on adjectives next session. It’s amazing (and quite scary) how my conception of level puts a limit on the language I allow them to explore.

Finally they produced some descriptions of their own using the “New Topic” as a guide. I think I could have done more with this. However, for this session it was more than enough!

Their feedback on the session was that it was “hard but good”…'”challenging” another said…”like life is a challenge” said another. My feedback is it was nice as a change to have a whole lesson there and ready. I felt like there was a lot more I could have done with it myself in terms of adaptation but haven’t quite managed to come up with what yet.

What’s really exciting is that apparently there will soon be a plant maker available free for teachers to use to create their own online plants. I think it might well become the new Wordle.  I’m very much looking forward to playing with it and have loved playing around with the already existing, extensive and exciting lessons on this website.

Thanks again to David for letting me explore the site 🙂 … and thank you Anna, for writing so passionately.


March 1, 2011 § 4 Comments

“The soil does not stay the same but, like anything alive,
is always changing and telling its own story.
Soil is the substance of transformation.”
Carol Williams

It was the British Council ELTons last week, and I met some wonderfully engaging, knowledgeable, transformative people, including Shelly. Meeting as we did led to Goal #17 “Help them shine”, and reciprocating this is a post inspired by Goal #18 “Share a story”, which includes the quote above about soil.

The story I’ll share is how language plants got their name.

There passed many miles of walking and thinking and staring at bare branches in the winter and their adornments in the summer before I was satisfied enough to name them “language plants”. I wanted the metaphor to hold water, so to speak, as streams and rivers share a similar dendritic pattern. But it’s the organic, lifelike properties that I wanted the name to capture. Languages, after all, are born, grow, evolve and die, a centuries-long life cycle that the snowdrops and daffodils in the garden on this first day of spring accomplish in a couple of months.

Language, too, is a discrete combinatorial system, like the DNA of plants and animals which, in contrast with the blending systems of colours and clouds, retains its (discrete) individual elements – phonemes and words – when they join (combinatorial) into ever-more complex wholes (system).

With language plants, the branches are obvious; they’re the words.

Language, a piece of written text, including a language plant, only comes alive when it is read, and interpreted, by a person. Hence the term “dead language” to describe Latin and Sanskrit, ones with no native speakers. I imagine language growing in a mind like a plant. These words you’re reading now are growing in your mind, an individual interpretation of the meaning they hold, and will continue to exist while they are in your active memory.

This plant is rooted in soil, your knowledge and understanding of the words and the world.

When it’s dinner time and our thoughts turn to our tummies, the plant dies. But all is not lost. Soil, after all, is the accumulation of years of decayed plants, humus and nutrients which are eagerly absorbed by the latest youngster to sprout up on the patch. That’s how an expert on a subject can understand a complex text which a beginner just cannot get to grips with. The beginner’s soil, her knowledge of the topic, just isn’t deep enough for the language plant to successfully grow.

It’s why the metaphor “written in stone” is so utterly wrong if ever used as an analogy for knowledge. Soil gets eroded, information gets lost. It’s why revising and recycling language in various guises and activities, and why coursebooks or worksheets that give space for learners to interact with the prescribed language and add their own, like Jason’s, and why looking at old notes or diaries or lesson plans like Cecilia has done is all invaluable. Fruitful, one might say.

“If you have a garden and a library,
you have everything you need.”

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