Cambridge Academy: Year Four and Five

It’s all coming together. Or is it?

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)
  11. Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap (April 2017)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)
  14. The Academy Fluency Course (March 2018)
  15. Cambridge Academy: Stocktake 2018 (March 2018)

This year was a solid one for the Academy but we definitely had some ups and downs.

Mistakes were made (by me)

Let’s start with the downs: we screwed up badly not just once but twice. The first mistake was getting a bit cocky about the Academy and changing the way we explained it to existing students.

In the past we’d gone into each class with 6th graders in, introduced the Academy and encouraged them to join. Almost everyone did.

Last year, we asked everyone to come to a special explanation session on a Sunday, then asked them to come in again in January and line up to sign up for the days they wanted. Only about half the students joined.

This is a mistake we’ll be paying for for the next five years, as we have a year that is quite a bit smaller than it should be. Looks like we’ll have 22 second-year students next year, spread over three classes of 4, 6, and 12 students. Doubly regrettable because the Academy classes work much better with at least ten students in.

This year we went back to the original, more humble model and right now halfway through the explanations pretty much all our 6th graders have signed up. If all goes well we should end up with 28 first-graders in three classes.

The second mistake was delegating too much. As planned I assigned a teacher to each class, but then failed to monitor them as closely as I should have (in my defence we had some pretty serious issues crop up this year that took a lot of time at first and then burned me out later).

As a direct consequence of me not paying enough attention to how the classes were going, the current first-year classes in particular are not where I want them to be, and all the reading classes have gone slightly off course.

Nothing too serious, but changes will be needed next year.

But lots of good things happened too

Despite the lack of attention from me, the classes mostly went well and students learned a lot. We did Eiken last month at the school, and 78 out of 82 students passed the paper test. Last weekend we did interview practice, and everyone was basically okay to pass. This is very encouraging, as our student body is very mixed and doesn’t just consist of elite students.

We wrote 2/3 of the A3 output course, and it turned out really well. I’m proud of all our materials, but this might be the best one yet. We also finished one year of the A5 advanced course.

Very few of our students quit. We lost a handful to graduation and three quit, but we’re hoping to have a healthy intake and we also had four students join from outside. Hopefully that is the start of a trend 🙂

Student numbers

Junior high school 1: 28? (still in the process of pitching to parents)
Junior high school 2: 22
Junior high school 3: 30
Senior high school entry class (1-2 year students): 10
Senior high school advanced class (2-3 year students): 11

Pretty encouraging. It will be interesting to see how many of the new JHS 3rd years stay on into high school, as they were our first big year.

Also, the mathematically gifted among you will notice that this would give us 101 students, finally reaching our longstanding goal of 100 students in the Academy. Eventually I am hoping we’ll have something like 200 in the program (see below for how this may be possible).

Future plans

We’re going to rent the third unit on the ground floor of our building. This will give us all the car parking spaces (an additional four) plus get rid of the grumpy guy that used to rent it so no one will be complaining about our students going forwards. This extra unit will give us about 280 new class places and allow us to have all junior high school levels of the Academy, plus one high school level, every weekday.

I’m going to be much more hands on with the reading classes next year, and with the junior high school first year output classes. This will allow me to develop them a bit more and address structural problems (as well as train our teachers).

I’m going to take another leaf out of SEG’s book and try to find supplementary reading material for our beginner levels. At the moment the students read sets of readers with CDs, but I would also like to mix in picture books and other reading material that they might find interesting. A big work in progress.

We’ll finish the A3 course and start working on our final level, A4. We’ll also write a second year of the A5 course. This will complete the Academy materials, at which point we might start working on a course for elementary school students.

Outlook

The outlook is good. I am not going to be able to be as hands-off next year as I was this year, but I think the program will get a lot stronger because of that.

We will be in a position to recruit hundreds of new students next year, including almost 100 new Academy students, so we will need to start working on advertising for April 2020 from now. It’s going to be intense but also kind of fun 🙂

The Academy Fluency Course

The Cambridge Academy is a six-year English program for junior and senior high school students at Cambridge English School in Sendai. 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)
  11. Cambridge Academy: Another Quantum Leap (April 2017)
  12. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Mid-Year Update (August 2017)
  13. Cambridge Academy: Year Three Student Progress (October 2017)
  14. Cambridge Academy: Year Three and Four (February 2018)

Background

The fluency course was not originally part of the Academy plan. Originally I wanted to run the Academy purely as an extensive reading course that would supplement what students were doing at school (and cram school/juku). This is much easier logistically and makes scheduling and running classes very simple. It’s also more profitable as you can fill classes with students of different levels.

This first iteration of the Academy did not work well. We found that without help it was difficult for students to learn English just from reading. We also found that students did not form a social bond with the school or their peers and thus missed out on motivation. Some students did well with the ER-only model, but many did not.

The second iteration of the Academy imitated SEG in having reading classes and communication classes. For the latter we used commercial textbooks. This worked better than ER-only, but there were problems with the tone, content, amount of material, and amount of repetition in the textbooks. The classes also worked well if run by an experienced engaged teacher but less well with less experienced teachers.

In order to deal with these problems, we created the Academy Fluency Course. It was written from scratch, extensively trialled with our classes here, and is designed to provide students with huge amounts of repetitive practice in reading, speaking, listening, and writing. Fluency is gained by repeating tasks you can already do, and the goal of the Fluency Course is not to teach students new language (although they do encounter huge amounts of new vocabulary and grammar in the course) but rather to allow them to practice enough to internalise some of the language they know and become fluent in using it.

The Cambridge Academy now consists of 140 minute classes: 20 minutes of workbook/school work/individual study, 60 minutes of input (extensive reading and listening), and 60 minutes of output (fluency course).

The Academy Fluency Course

Junior high school 1: Year One (these materials are in beta and are described in detail below).
The theme for this level is the students daily and school lives.
Junior high school 2: Year Two (these materials are in alpha).
The theme for this level is Japan. Students read and talk about different areas/aspects of Japan.
Junior high school 3: Year Three (these materials are not written yet).
The theme for this level is the world. Students read and talk about different areas/aspects of the world.
Senior high school initial course for first and weaker second years: (these materials are not written yet).
This level will provide a transition between the junior high school materials and the advanced course below.
Senior high school advanced course for stronger second and third years: (this is being written now).
This level is based on the PDR method and involves students reading, thinking, discussing, and writing about topics each week.

In 2017 we ran classes using the Year One materials. Halfway through the year we started writing the Year Two materials with the second and third graders. The plan is to write Year Three this year alongside the advanced high school course and to use them with the third year JHS and our advanced high school class.

Fluency Course Year One

The first year of the Fluency Course is based on the first year junior high school textbooks and has the following student components:

  1. 12 4-week student textbooks (April to March) with a total of 512 pages and 84,249 words
  2. a 48-unit student writing workbook
  3. 12 monthly reference sheets with questions and vocabulary
  4. 3 4-month student record sheets

There are also reference/class/teacher components

  1. 240 index cards with questions and answers (you will need one set for every two students in the class for pair work)
  2. 48 verb exercise answer sheets (you will need one for each student in your largest class)
  3. 48 Quizlet vocabulary and question datasets (available through the Quizlet website)

The main component is the student textbook, split into twelve montly booklets. It provides the vocabulary and questions for all the other components. The April book is slightly different from the others because it provides a gentle introduction. Each book contains the following:

Week One and Two
Vocab quiz (15 items from the timed reading texts, previewed by Quizlet)
3 timed reading texts with questions (April 45 words, May-July 60 words, August-November 80 words, December-March 100 words)
Verb conjugation table (to be read aloud -one verb per week)
Timed verb translation (30 items)
Example dialogue for reading and memorizing (April-July 3 exchanges, August-November 4 exchanges, December-March 5 exchanges)

Week Three 
No example dialogue. Instead students write their own (length as above).
April has example dialogue.

Week Four
Instead of three short timed readings, there is one reading with three times the word count.
Teacher corrects and chooses the best student dialogues, then prints them for students to practice with.
April has example dialogue.

Results

The Fluency Course depends somewhat on the fact that students are also learning English at school. It is designed to cover the gaps in students learning, mainly speaking, reading, and writing exercises, and particularly drilling these.

So far results have been very encouraging. Our students are not all particularly academic or motivated, and it has been very encouraging to see all of them improve and succeed using the Fluency Course. More able/advanced students are able to challenge themselves within the course, while weaker ones can support themselves and keep up.

I will write a description of an output class in a future blog post.

Three Types of Teachers

Perhaps more like three tendencies of teachers

I’ve been thinking about teachers a lot recently, and my own teaching experiences.

I’m starting to believe that there are three teachers archetypes. Few teachers will embody just one of them, but rather will be a mix of the three in different proportions. Maybe something like the introversion-extroversion scale.

So I believe there are ineffective teachers, individual-focused teachers, and system-focused teachers. Each of the points of the triangle above could be labeled with one of these, and all teachers could be shown as a dot inside the triangle.

In my experience most teachers (whether they are effective or not) tend to be individual-focused. They tend to think about the learner or relationships with learners. A few teachers are system-focused. They tend to think about curricula or classroom management.

The best teachers, the most inspirational, the ones that change lives, are highly effective individual-focused teachers.

The teachers that impact the biggest number of learners are highly effective system-focused teachers.

If I had to put myself on the triangle, I’d probably put myself here:

(the top point is individual-focused, the left ineffective, and the right system-focused)

After 17 years as a teacher I like to think I have become more effective, and I have definitely been drifting down and to the right recently.

I’ve been lucky to work with a highly effective system-focused teacher, Dan E., for the last few years. I’ve learned a huge amount from him and am still in awe of his skills and experience.

We’re currently working on a new project for junior high school students that is the most exciting thing I have ever done. I’ll be writing about it more as we get closer to completion.

So what do you think? Have you noticed the three types of teachers? Where would you put yourself in the triangle?

REVIEW: Mr. Men and Little Miss Books

Really great. Much better than I expected!

I got these two boxed sets recently to add to our library at the Cambridge Academy. However, before I could use them with our students my granddaughter got her hands on them and insisted I read them all to her first -they are now her favorite books by far.

I’ve turned into a big fan too. I’ll run through what I think of each set briefly, then talk about how they might be used in a program.

The Mr Men My Complete Collection box contains 47 paperback Mr Men books in a very cool box.

The books are a bit hit and miss, but most of them are really entertaining.

My personal favourites are Mr. Tickle, Mr. Greedy, and the surprise hit Mr. Dizzy. We loved Mr. Dizzy because it contained several riddles aimed at young children, and Alyssa was thrilled to be able to answer them.

In fact, all the Mr. Men and Little Miss books are aimed at children, introducing slightly more adult vocabulary and frequently speaking directly to the reader, encouraging them to interact with the books. They also contain little moral lessons, but this is not too overwhelming.

The Little Miss My Complete Collection is similar, consisting of 35 paperback Little Miss books.

To be honest, I was a bit worried these would be very dated, or sexist. So far that has not been the case. We’ve only read half a dozen of these, but already I’ve found a couple I love: Little Miss Magic (where Mr. Tickle’s arms get shrunk) and Little Miss Hug.

In fact, I think the Little Miss books might even be better, because they tend to feature other characters and integrate them into the stories. Somehow they work really well.

From an ER library perspective, word counts and YLs for both the Mr Men and Little Miss books are in the Tadoku Kanzen Guide (with just a couple of exceptions for each box -the newest books). There is no audio, but I am planning to record our own -this would be a ‘two birds with one stone’ situation, as I could then give a copy to Alyssa too 🙂

The books are all YL1.5 or so, and 500-800 words, with simple stories and occasionally challenging vocabulary or grammar. The language is slightly old-fashioned, and some of the character names don’t mean what I originally thought they meant. Mr. Dizzy, for example, is actually stupid rather than off-balance, and Mr. Mean is stingy rather than bad-natured.

Here are a couple of pages to show the kind of language used:

Still, for the beautiful artwork and the wonderful stories, I really recommend this series. I can’t wait to introduce them to our students, and am even looking forward to making the audio for each one.

Does anyone else have these books? Anything to add?

Cambridge Discovery Interactive Readers

Great news

cambridge discovery interactive readers

Last year I took another look at the excellent Cambridge Discovery Interactive Readers (full review coming soon) and was disappointed to see that a lot of the content was set up to be accessible to a single user for a limited time. It seems the publisher assumes they will be bought by individuals and used as a kind of textbook.

Of course, this is very different to how ER program administrators look at books.

For me, I am not interested in the interactive questions or even videos (although it would be nice if they were on a public site accessible by anyone), but I am very interested in having the audio files available so I can make CDs for our students.

I reached out to our local Cambridge University Press rep, who is a very thorough and approachable guy, and told him I was very interested in having access to the audio files. He asked some questions about my teaching situation, I answered them, and he said he’d talk to the main office.

I assumed that would be the end of it. Few publishers understand ER as practiced in Japan (particularly with regards to the importance of word counts, etc.) and I wasn’t expecting much more than ‘sorry, we can’t do anything at this time’.

This morning I was proved completely wrong. I received an email telling me that the audio files for the first couple of levels are online and can be freely used by teachers and students. Apparently the rest of them will be going up soon.

This is great. I’m really happy to see a big publisher listen to local teachers and help them with their teaching situation. Big kudos to Cambridge for making this change -I hope you’ll check out the series and download the audio. Positive reinforcement works wonders!

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