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Examining Your Teacher Toolbox

December 19, 2022

At a recent language conference in Quebec (SPEAQ), I was able to connect with teachers from both ends of the experience spectrum. I talked to teachers who have been in the field since the 1980s and some who were just starting their careers. However, there was one thing we all had in common—a thirst for knowledge and a desire to improve.

Perhaps it’s because for many years I taught a specialized language training course with a major home renovation retailer that I keep returning to the toolbox metaphor, but it just seems like an accurate description. As teachers, we all carry around our tried-and-true resources, whether they're digital goodies or that dog-eared grammar textbook that we can't bring ourselves to throw out.

The toolbox we bring into the classroom our first year is fairly light. It’s packed with a great deal of theory and observation. That’s a good starting point. However, observing a more experienced teacher’s classroom is a fantastic way to expand your horizons. It’s a tradition that I wish could be extended past the training period.

Pineapple Charts

Some K–12 schools have implemented the system of Pineapple Charts. For this observation technique, teachers let each other know when they're going to be doing something interesting or innovative in their classroom by adding the day and time of the activity to a chart found in a common area such as the teacher's lounge, copy room, etc. If an activity catches a colleague's eye, they're free to join the class and observe the activity in progress. 

Of course, this approach could only work if there were a way to juggle classroom schedules or arrange a supply teacher, but what an amazing way to share meaningful best practices with your staff.

Pineapple Charts were all the rage before COVID. I'm curious to know if teachers have found a way to continue this virtually, or if they have brought it back into their in-person classrooms.

Sharpening our tools

As we gain experience, our toolboxes expand. We test out some tools, find some that become our all-purpose, go-to resources, and over time, we discard the ones that are no longer effective.

One such outdated tool springs to mind. 

The seasoned teacher might remember the L1 penalty jars. Penalty jars were meant to force learners to use English. Students would have to pay a dime or a quarter if they were “caught” speaking in another language. 

I think back on that approach now and wonder what message we were sending our learners by punishing L1 use. There are more effective ways to encourage use of the target language without having to shame the learner.

My toolbox now includes Microsoft's Immersive Reader, which is available in all of Ellii’s digital reading tasks. This tool enables learners to...

  • use embedded picture dictionary images
  • isolate parts of speech
  • listen to the reading
  • toggle between the target language and their L1

While ultimately the goal is for the learner to not have to depend on a translator, having the immersive reading experience as a set of training wheels can help in the language learning process.

In fact, a recent article on the OnTESOL website states the following:

Research has shown that switching between languages and translation happens instinctively to all language learners, and the L1 is actually an important resource in the second language (L2) learning (Cook, 2001; Woodall, 2002). ... Furthermore, in situations where the students’ L1 was not even allowed in private spaces and there were punishments for using the mother tongue, Goldstein (2003) found that students simply did not speak, used their L1 quietly, and felt a sense of shame when they were punished for using their own language.

What's in your toolbox?

This past year has been one of renewal and hope. I've had the opportunity to overhaul my teaching toolbox and share it with teachers across the country. What are some of your favorite tools? Which ones have started collecting dust (remember the SMART board or “clickers”?), and what tools are you excited to crack out of their clamshell packaging?

Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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