Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap

The Academy Fluency Course

JHS 1st-year class doing verb exercises

We’re into week three of the new academic year, and we’re starting to see the results of the changes I wrote about in the previous update.

You can read previous Academy posts here:

  1. Extensive Reading for Secondary Students (April 2015)
  2. Six Months In (September 2015)
  3. Year One (February 2016)
  4. Looking at Year Two (March 2016)
  5. Stocktake (March 2016)
  6. Shadoku explained (April 2016)
  7. Some improvements to the curriculum (April 2016)
  8. December 2016 update (December 2016)
  9. Cambridge Academy: Year Two and Three (March 2017)
  10. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2017 (March 2017)

Our new reading classroom (the second)

I have to admit I was a bit jittery before classes started on April 1st. I was nervous about the new materials for the output classes, I was nervous about teaching six nights/twelve hours a week, and I was nervous about the larger class sizes.

It’s looking like I needn’t have been 🙂

New Materials

We’ve been working on the Fluency course for about a year now. We have year one in draft form, and will be using it with the three classes (28 students) of JHS 1st years we have this year as an alpha trial.

If anything, the materials work even better than I had hoped. Students have responded extremely well, they are visibly improving already, and the classes are just fun to teach.

The course is based on the New Horizon content, but vastly expanded and designed to get the students speaking, reading, and writing fluently. The first year of the course is 15,000 words long (three times the amount in all three years of New Horizon) and students explicitly study 720 words in the 48 lessons.

Students do speaking and writing practice, speed reading, verb/pronoun exercises, and memorize and write dialogues. They are constantly working for 60 minutes. It’s a beautiful thing to see and teach.

We also use Quizlet (search for CA OUTPUT 1 to see our lessons) to preview and practice vocabulary and questions for the class, and students do Duolingo as optional language practice.

This year we will write the second year of the course, and next year we’ll have a beta of the first-year course at Cambridge and at another partner school, while we do the alpha of the second-year course at Cambridge.

Teaching Six Nights/Twelve Hours a Week

This also went way better than I had expected. I didn’t intend to teach six nights a week, but we had so many students wanting to join that we chose to add another day (Mondays), as well as increase class sizes (see below) to accommodate them.

The classes are fun, and even with the extra preparation needed for the first couple of classes, have so far not been too overwhelming. I have an assistant in each class but, to be honest, haven’t really needed them so far.

Larger Class Sizes

This might be the best thing of all. Up until this year, all our classes had a maximum of six students in. This year due to unexpected demand (we were expecting up to twenty JHS1 students: we actually got twenty-eight) we increased the class size to ten.

I was expecting it to be more difficult to teach. I was also expecting the parents to be unhappy.

The thing is, with our new fluency course, it’s easier to run the class as students need less individual attention. The atmosphere actually improved with more students in the room. In fact, I think this will work equally well (or better!) with twenty or thirty students.

Parents haven’t complained. In fact, many of them have told us their children are really enjoying the classes.

So if we can secure a larger space I will try to increase class sizes to twenty next year 🙂

Extensive Reading Rant

My first video for the iTDI Making ELT Videos course

 

The second week assignment for the iTDI Making ELT Videos course was to make a video. Here’s my sad attempt 🙂

It was rushed, shot on two devices, edited with Windows Movie Maker (which in my opinion is complete garbage -need better software). No music, had real trouble putting the screenshots in (hence the messed up audio from halfway through), didn’t do proper lighting, forgot to add links and a call to action…

BUT, I learned a huge amount and had fun. Looking forward to doing a better job with the second one.

 

Making a New JHS and SHS Curriculum

Fluency Practice and Clarity

fluency

This year we are creating a new curriculum for the Cambridge Academy output classes. I’ve written (and thought) a lot about the Academy reading program input classes, but over 90% of our students also take an output class.

Output classes are small group (up to six students) communication classes focusing mainly on speaking and writing. This year I am taking a closer look at these classes because I have noticed that they may be far more important than I realized.

I believe the reading program delivers most of the benefit to our students. Extensive reading and listening for at least an hour a week is going to complement everything else they are doing at school and outside and give them the amount of input they need to start internalizing the language. However, in our input classes students work alone reading and listening to texts. They don’t necessarily notice the progress they are making, nor do they form emotional connections with their classmates or teachers.

That’s where the output classes come in. Students do pairwork and communicate through speaking and writing. If they enjoy the output classes they will be more motivated and have a positive view of our school.

In a way, the output classes are the heart of the program.

Which is why we are trying to improve them this year. Last year the output classes were a bit of an afterthought, and did not produce the results or the atmosphere we wanted. This year we are shaking things up with some major changes.

No homework

Two things prompted this: I read some articles about how homework doesn’t do much for students and they really resonated with me, and we noticed that only about half of our students were actually doing the homework we set.

Now, I think the benefits of formal homework could be debated, but for us the negative aspects of students not doing homework were far more important. First of all, it was very disruptive to have some students do the homework and others not. We had to take class time to help them catch up at which point that students that actually did the homework got annoyed. Asking/nagging students about homework also created a negative atmosphere in the class, and made some students not want to come to class merely because they felt bad about not doing the homework.

This is why from this month we will not be setting formal homework in our Academy classes. Students have self-study they can do (extensive reading and listening, vocabulary study with Word Engine, listening practice with elllo) but nothing compulsory.

The no homework policy is going well so far.

Fluency practice for speaking and writing

This came from reflecting on university classes based on the PDR method, as well as Yuko Suzuki’s take on shadoku. I have come to believe that our students need fluency practice, ie doing relatively easy linguistic tasks in order to acquire automaticity. What this looks like in practice is doing question and answer drills, timed writing, and repeating speaking activities multiple times.

Again, based on a couple of weeks: better atmosphere, happier students, more satisfied teachers. We’ll see how it goes as students get over the novelty and potentially start getting bored over the next few months.

The Longterm Plan

In the longterm I would like to create an original curriculum for junior and senior high school students that doesn’t require commercial textbooks, based on the principles we are exploring in our output classes. Such a curriculum could be useful not only to Cambridge Academy, but potentially to other private language schools and even junior and senior high schools interested in running a communication class once a week.

More details as this project progresses.

Japanese High School Students’ English

Unsurprisingly similar to junior high school students’ English

1604 school English proficiency

Following on from the report on Japanese junior high school student English proficiency, I saw this article today about high school students (also this better article with the percentages for each prefecture in Japanese). Miyagi sadly is below the national average for both junior and senior high school.

I don’t think the results are very surprising.

I do wish they would use better tests to set targets, as in my experience it is possible to pass Eiken with relatively poor English skills if you are lucky or prepare for the test format. I would prefer to see a test with separate scores for skills rather than the catch-all pass/fail STEP Eiken.

Also the root of the problem can be seen here: poor English teacher language proficiency. It is incredible, given how much effort and resources Japan puts into English education, that people with insufficient practical language ability are employed to teach it. It should be a huge priority to encourage and help English teachers in junior and senior high school improve their language skills, and to make practical language proficiency a firm requirement when hiring new English teachers.

And of course, everyone should be doing extensive reading and listening 😉

10 Ways to Prevent Aging/Burnout

A nice cheery topic for you all today

head in hands

It’s been a tough ten years.

It’s been a wonderful ten years as well in many ways, but working two or three jobs, six or seven days a week for years on end takes its toll.

Some days I just want to give up.

A few times I have felt completely crushed and unable to teach.

Burnout is real, and is a major danger to teachers as teaching is one of those jobs that you can’t stop at 5pm and leave behind at the office.

Right now I am enjoying myself again, but it was a close thing a few times.

As far as I can tell, there are a few ways to reduce the chance of burnout. Coincidentally, all of them are likely to make you happier too 🙂

10 Ways to Reduce the Chance of Burnout

  1. Autonomy -the more control you have over your work, the more you will enjoy it
  2. Collaboration -working together with others on projects
  3. Comrades -working with people you respect who are easy to work with
  4. Growth -your job changes as you get more experienced or your interests evolve
  5. Health -exercise and good food
  6. Purpose -if you believe in what you are doing it is more satisfying
  7. Rest -having some time off regularly, preferably one or two days a week
  8. Results -seeing results makes it all worth it
  9. Rewards -financial or otherwise, being rewarded for your efforts makes a big difference
  10. Sleep -getting enough every day, not just recharging at the weekend

One of my major goals this year is to work on these for myself. There is no point in succeeding at work if it destroys your enjoyment of life.

How about you? Are you heading for burnout?

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