Friday, 24 October 2014

Exploring España: Consuegra

If you've heard of Consuegra, you'll know that it is home to some of the windmills made famous by Cervantes in his novel Don Quijote. But did you know that the town is also home to the world's most expensive spice? Or that it holds a festival dedicated to the same? Nope. Well, until very recently, neither did I...

One evening last month, when I should have been finishing off my lesson plan for the next day, I found myself making a list of the places I'd like to visit this academic year. With much of my disposable income, er, already disposed of, I decided to focus on day trips rather than weekends away, and that was how I came to consider Consuegra.

I first heard about the town ages ago but, having seen the windmills at Campo de Criptana, I didn't feel the need to hot-foot it to Consuegra for more of the same. Now, with Consuegra back in the picture, I started doing some research and soon discovered that the best time to visit the town is in October when the saffron fields turn purple. When looking for some images, I learned about La Fiesta de la Rosa del Azafrán. And I was sold.

Lovely landscape of La Mancha

I work every other Saturday so the very second I got my timetable, I checked to see whether I was a green (first) or yellow (second) Saturday. If I was green, I would have the whole weekend off whereas if I was yellow, I would have to choose whether to go on either the Friday or Sunday. Argghh! Of course I was yellow. Nonetheless, I was determined to see at least some of the festival.

The next problem was getting there. Unless you have a car or are prepared to rent one, you have to go by bus. The name I'd been given was Samar, seemingly the only company covering this route. Unfortunately, the bus times were all but useless. Convinced that it had to be possible to arrive in Consuegra before 13:35, I did some digging which turned up AISA. And thus I found a bus leaving Madrid at 09:30 from Estación Sur (aka Méndez Álvaro) and arriving in Consuegra at 11:30. Let the fiesta begin.

Or not as it turned out. Despite several sources on the internet saying otherwise, the fiesta would not be starting until the following day, and I would be at work. So there I was, two hours south of Madrid for a festival that wasn't. With nothing else to do, I spent a couple of hours getting acquainted with the windmills instead...

Having scrambled up a grassy hill, the first windmill I reached was Mambrino

High above Consuegra, rising up from the plains of La Mancha, stands the Cerro Calderico ridge, and running along its spine are the windmills made famous by Cervantes in his iconic novel, El ingenioso hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha (The ingenious gentleman Quijote of La Mancha). Originally there were 13 windmills; today, there are 12, all modern-day reconstructions that have been christened with names taken from the Don Quijote.

Map of the ridge


Mochilas (left) and the aptly-named Sancho


Up close and personal with Sancho
 
 
Sneaking through a gap in the wall


Vista Alegre

Halfway along the ridge is La Muela, a 12th century castle. Built on the remains of a 9th century Arabic fort, the castle was alternately occupied by the Moors and the Christians from 1083-1183.

In 1183, the castle was back in the hands of the Christians, and King Alfonso VIII (r. 1158-1214) gave it to El Orden de los Caballeros del Hospital de San Juan de Jerusalén (The Order of the Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem), who turned it into a Grand Priory. Over the years, the castle underwent several restructures before falling into disrepair in the 19th century. In 1985, it was finally restored and today it's open to the public.

Standing near the castle looking back towards Vista Alegre


The 12th century castle

From the castle, it's an uphill walk to the other seven windmills. When you think of Consuegra, it's these particular mills that come to mind, probably because almost all of the photos on Google images feature this group. Having seen these from the road on the approach to Consuegra, I couldn't wait to start exploring...

What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster?


Seven of Quijote's 'giants'


Sunlight behind one of the mills


Looking back towards the castle

Thanks to some very poor bus times (the ONE bus back to Madrid leaves at 15:15!), I only had a couple of hours to spend in Consuegra. Obviously, I would have loved to have seen the fiesta I'd gone all that way for, but there are worse ways of spending one's time than wandering around the windmills. It was a gorgeous day, the landscape was stunning and the site was surprisingly tourist-free. Three hours, twelve windmills and three hundred photos later and I was ready to call it a day. Consuegra, done!

Monday, 20 October 2014

Delta Diary: Drafting my LSA

It's 02:30 and it's just dawned on me that I have had my first taste of life as a Delta trainee. I have literally spent an entire three-day weekend in hibernation. And by hibernation, I mean chained to my laptop. No, really. I only left the house twice and that was to buy chocolate.

I've been talking about the Delta for so long now, I figured it would be nice to actually get started. That is, until I started. Since Thursday evening I've worked my way through about eight books and three articles, and ended up with information overload – memories of my dissertation came flooding back – but rather than take a break, I stuck with it.

By the end of Friday, I had written the introduction (all 200 or so words of it) and almost finished the Analysis and Issues (another 1,300 words). For some reason I decided to check the Delta Handbook, just to see if there was anything I was missing. Ooops. Turns out there was. I may have completed the Analysis and Issues section, but I'd done so minus any actual analysis. So Saturday was devoted to redrafting the whole damn section – a real FML moment if ever there was one.

Today (now yesterday), I sacked off a meet up with a friend in favour of kicking this thing into shape. But the only thing being kicked was me. First, I lost a key quote. Well, I had the quote, I just couldn't for the life of me remember where I'd read it, and no source means no use. So I wasted a hell of a lot of time skimming seven books in search of it. No luck. Time for a tea-and-toast break.

At this point I need to say that eating toast while sitting on one's bed is a BAD idea. Yep, I dropped the bloody toast on the duvet. JAM SIDE DOWN. And if that weren't bad enough, mere minutes later, I knocked over a carton of orange juice. Have I said FML yet? Live it, learn it. For the rest of the day, I could be found hunched over my desk, which is probably where I should have been in the first place. Jam and juice are a whole lot easier to clean off smooth surfaces.

My weekend summed up

So after hours and hours and hours of reading and drafting, re-reading and re-drafting, I've got 1,550 words written – over half the assignment. In between time, I managed to do my laundry, take the rubbish out, mark some homework, and plan five of the week's lessons. Now, if only I could remember where I put my life...

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Delta Diary: Post-lesson reflection and action plan

Following the diagnostic observation, candidates are required to get some feedback from their tutor and then write 800-1,000 words reflecting on their beliefs and practices, strengths and weaknesses as a teacher. Candidates also need to choose 3-5 weaknesses to work on and explain how they intend to address these issues and evaluate their progress.

In order to write the reflection, I first needed to think about what my beliefs are. And it quickly occurred to me that I didn't know. I have opinions on things, of course, but how does one go about turning those opinions into a well-written reflection? I honestly had no idea where to start. But start I had to, so I (mentally) filled out a beliefs questionnaire I found in one of my books.

When in doubt, read!

Sceptical though I was, it actually helped, and before long I'd put together a fairly passable 'reflections' section. I'd highlighted some strengths and weaknesses, and thought about the reasons for them. And I'd managed to do it all in less than 500 words.

Next came the action plan. This bit was even harder than the reflection because whatever things I chose to work on, I'd be stuck with for the duration of the course. And not only that, but for everything you choose, you have to find ways of addressing it and evaluating your progress. It was the evaluation that got me. If I couldn't figure out to how to evaluate something, I wouldn't be able to put it in my action plan.

In the end, I chose just three things to work on – teacher talking time (TTT), giving feedback, and personalised teaching. I even figured out ways of evaluating my progress. And then, having written and chopped and changed my document so it fit within the 1,000 word limit (997 if anyone's interested), I drafted an email to my tutor and nervously pressed 'send'.

Today, I got my feedback. And it was all good. There were some brief comments on the document, but the overall message was, "More than fine. A good start". So now all I have to do is source/design some observation tasks and student feedback forms to put in the Appendices, and Stage 2 of the PDA is complete. Onwards and upwards!

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Meeting my Saturday classes

Like last year, I am working the split-timetable, which means that I teach Monday to Thursday every first week, and Monday to Thursday plus Saturday every second. Today was my first class with the Saturday groups. Last year, I had two FCE groups; this year, I have a Level 2 (Pre-Intermediate) class and a Level 3 (Intermediate) class.

At 08:30, I walked into the classroom to find just two students. This wasn't too unnerving as there are only four on the register. I introduced myself and got them to introduce themselves. Naturally, the very second we'd finished a third student walked in. So I got him to introduce himself and then I set up the next activity.

Saturday classes are shared between two teachers, so these students had already met my colleague and done one 'getting to know you' activity. I wrongly assumed that it would be the one with the M&Ms so I chose another standard. Turns out that was the one my colleague had used! The students seemed rather unimpressed to be given the same thing twice in as many weeks, although as I pointed out, the information was teacher-specific so it wasn't exactly the same activity. Hmmm...

I hurriedly moved on to the lesson proper, which involved a reading and exchange of information. Just as the activity was coming to an end, the last student walked in. I got him to introduce himself while the others finished the task.

Despite the fact that all the students are the same level, there's a huge variation in ability. Two of the students are very quick off the mark. They are also good at self-correcting, suggesting that they do actually know the correct word/tense, they just slip up occasionally. Of the other two, one is very keen to learn but lacks vocabulary, while the other is just slower than slow. He barely managed to answer a single question all lesson. That said, come the end of the lesson, the students seemed quite happy with the morning's work. Apparently, the "class is funny". I'm not sure if they meant 'funny' or 'fun'. No matter, either is good by me.

All prepared and ready to go

With the students gone, I went back to the teachers' room where I spent my ten-minute break chatting with friends. Then, it was back the same classroom for my Level 3s. All nine seats were filled and the once ample-sized room felt almost claustrophobic. I introduced myself and got the students to do the same. Well, I tried to. Honestly, for intermediate students they were pathetic! All I got was their name and age. I had to ask them questions to keep them talking – What do you do? Why are you learning English? Do you like it? What do you find most difficult? And even then it was like pulling teeth!

Having dragged the information I wanted out of them, I gave them some home-made dependent preposition dominoes to match. According to the teaching record, they had seen these last week, but judging by the problems some of them had with the task, you'd swear they'd never seen them in their life.

One day I'll get a laminator; until then, it's cut-up paper all the way

I moved on to echo questions. Amazingly, they understood this far better than my weekday class did and it wasn't long before I had them all doing the associated communicative activity. Having failed (yet again) to photocopy a particular worksheet, I simply got the students to write six sentences about their lives and get their partner to respond with an appropriate echo question.

With ten people crammed into a small space, the room began to heat up, so I wasn't surprised when someone asked me to put the air-con on. No sooner had I switched it on, someone else (already wrapped up in a coat and scarf) started moaning that she was cold. Ummm... there are nine other people in this room, you know. I told her as politely as I could that we would cool the room down a bit and then I'd turn it off. She stared balefully at me, but chose not to argue. However, she did sit there hugging herself and rubbing her arms. I turned my attentions elsewhere and pretended not to notice. Ten or so minutes later, I stuck to my word and turned the air-con off. Instantly, the room became a furnace, but no matter. As long as one of us was happy, eh...

Before long it was break-time and I sought refuge in the teacher's room. When I returned to the classroom, someone had opened the window (yes, the one with the sign that says 'do not touch'. In Spanish and English). Fearful of feeling the wrath of Cold Girl, who was sitting right under it, I got the offender to close it again, the compromise being that a little later on, I would switch on the air-con. But only for ten minutes. Jeez! Never mind Cold War; I was caught in a Hot and Cold War!

Time for the second half (and the homeward stretch). This segment related to best friends. As a brief lead-in, students had to define the term 'best friend', which turned out to be a spectacular failure. Despite three – yes, THREE – students explaining to the class in Spanish what I wanted them to do, half of them still misunderstood and started describing their best friend. FFS. Are these people wilfully stupid?! I wrapped the activity up quick-smart and moved on to question formation. Which turned out to be too difficult for them. We'll say nothing about the fact that my 10-year olds do a similar task on a regular basis. FML. Let's just do the listening. Of course that was too fast, and they didn't understand the vocabulary. Jeez! And to think I was considering using this group for my Delta observations. Ummm, no. Just no.

Half the class couldn't identify an adjective. Even though the word is practically the same in Spanish. And when I gave them a matching task, they wanted me to translate all the adjectives into Spanish. How exactly did these people get to be intermediate level?

Fortunately, the pronunciation activity was a hit. Or maybe they realised it was the last thing they were getting. I set some homework, which no doubt some of them will struggle with. And then it was day done!

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Turning worksheets into works of art

This year, I'm making a lot of my own resources, the idea being that if I have the same levels next year, I'll (finally) have a bank of digital resources to draw upon. I find this really useful with the kids as their text books can be a bit light and require a fair amount of supplementing.

A couple of days ago, I showcased some pictures of the files I was making. I was super-excited about the kids' file and, in particular, my family tree worksheet. But I had never envisaged it turning out like this. Not only did C, in my Monday/Wednesday class, complete the task, which was to write in the names of her extended family, she spent an age colouring it in. My family tree, which was the model, was transformed into autumn, while hers was summer.

C is for conscientious...

Although my worksheet needs some modifying to make it more user-friendly, I loved, loved, LOVED the effort C put into creating a stunning piece of work. Next year, I'm going to be colouring one in, which will hopefully inspire more kids to do the same.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Organisation for the disorganised teacher

In my first academic year of teaching, my ADoS mentioned that every year she set herself a challenge. After all, when you've been teaching for a while, it's easy to get lazy, easy to stick with what you know. So, inspired by her, each year I have tried something new, much of which has involved teaching new classes. This year, I'm trying something a little different...

The big thing I'm doing is, of course, the Delta, which will improve my skills and give me a chance to experiment with my teaching. But I wanted to focus on something else, namely organisation. Every year I tell myself that this is the year I'll finally get my sh*t together, and every year I fail miserably. This year, I am determined to break the habit of a life-time, and get and stay organised from day one. Here's how.

LESSON-PLANNING

I intend to do ALL my planning at the weekends. I will look ahead and plan the week's lessons – all ten of them. I have a separate notebook for each level and I fully intend to keep them up-to-date. That way, exam classes aside, if I have the same levels next year, I can simply re-use or tweak my existing plans.

One of my lesson-planning books, with a two-week overview on the left and a lesson plan on the right



SELF-MADE RESOURCES

As a former graphic designer, I love making my own resources. I sometimes even re-make existing ones because, ummm, they aren't aesthetically-pleasing enough. Yes, I did just say that. Anyway, having been teaching for over four years, I should have a bank of resources, right? Ummm, wrong, because I have either lost or thrown out the hard copies and deleted the electronic files. So this year, I am building 'unit files' in Word to accompany each unit of every book I teach from. That way, instead of having to trawl through six million billion gazillion files, I will be able to open a single document and access every resource I used for that particular unit. Pretty cool, huh? Here's a sneak peak of my L92 (10-year olds) file.

I can't wait to re-use this file


Oh go on then, if you insist... here's one more page


CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT

It's fair to say that I pretty much suck at classroom management, especially when it comes to teaching teens. Fortunately, this year I've been given younger kids to teach, but I want to get – and keep – them under control. So, when I was in the UK, I bought a service bell, which I'll use as a 'stop' signal, e.g., stop what you're doing; stop talking; just freaking STOP already! – you get the picture. The kids were super impressed when I showed it to them in the first class. Hopefully, it will do what I want it to.

A service bell, also known as a 'STFU bell'

Another way of keeping kids focussed is by giving them classroom duties, which is something the school routinely does with the youngest children. I've decided to keep that going, but the last thing I wanted (former graphic designer, remember?) was some tatty old A4 with some equally-tatty scraps of paper blue-tacked to it. Hell no! I was going upmarket. Literally. I went to El Corte Inglés, where I bought a wipe-clean board and pen (€3.80/£2.98/US$4.76) and a permanent marker (€2.20/£1.72/US$2.75). The horrified assistant told me I couldn't use permanent marker on the boards. I smiled and told her I wasn't going to, even though that was exactly what I was planning to do. In any case, being an English teacher I already know that if you accidentally write on a board with permanent marker, you can remove it by covering the writing with a normal board marker. My Spanish isn't good enough to explain that one though!

Back home, I carefully calculated the number of lines and spaces I needed, then got to work. And here it is, the finished piece. I think it looks pretty damn awesome, even if I do say so myself.

My little masterpiece

So that's what I'm up to this year. All of these goals are achievable, and I'm going to be doing my best to, er, achieve them. Which means that I should probably get off this blog already and get back to lesson-planning. Six down, four to go.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Meeting my classes

This week marked the start of the academic year. Like last year, it was a short week. Monday and Tuesday were holidays, and it wasn't my Saturday to work so I had an easy two days. Well, once I'd gotten over my initial nerves, that is. Even now, as I enter my fifth academic year of teaching, I still get nervous about meeting new classes.

DAY ONE

My first class comprised seven 10-year olds. As soon as they bounded in, I realised that half of them were D's kids from last year, including the three VERY chatty girls, L, T and P. Other than that, there was I, super-smart and well-behaved, C, a shy new girl, and two boys, V and H, both of whom declared an instant dislike for English. Having played a name game, we got down to deciding on some class rules, and then the children chose one rule each and made a poster of it.

With the hour up, I had five minutes to get to my next class, an FCE group comprising six teenagers – four boys and two girls. The girls were participative from the word go, the boys rather less so. As I took the register, I realised from one boy's surnames that I had taught his younger brother, J, last year. J was fantastic at English, which meant that he finished his work super-fast and then devoted his energies to distracting his classmates. Four years older, his brother seems a lot more mature so hopefully I won't have any problems. Actually, if the first lesson is anything to go by, I imagine that my problems will be getting the class to participate rather than getting them to shut up.

Even my tried-and-tested 'getting to know you' activity fell flat. And it involved M&Ms! I have never known a class NOT appreciate M&Ms before. It's not all about the chocolate of course; some language input is required. For this activity you need a bag of M&Ms (but you wouldn't have guessed that, right?!), some pre-determined categories, a whiteboard and some board markers.

Recreated at home

For the uninitiated, M&Ms come in six colours – red, orange, yellow, green, blue and brown. You write the colours up on the board and assign each colour a category, e.g., red = family, orange = friends, yellow = hobbies, green = work/study, blue = travel, brown = miscellaneous (you need to explain what that one means, or you could choose a different category). Students then take three M&Ms each and in pairs come up with a question for each one. So if you got red, and two orange ones, you'd need to write a question about family and two about friends. The idea is that they then ask you these questions. Later, they swap partners and ask each other the same questions. Oh, and of course they get to eat the candy. But this class declined to do so, preferring instead to consign them straight to the bin! Seriously, WTF?!

The FCE class was followed by a CAE one. There were four students on the register, but five in the classroom. I assumed that one had registered late. I assumed wrong as I soon found out.

I started the lesson with some introductions and a 'getting to know you activity'. I then moved on to talk about the exam because I wanted to know who was interested in taking it and what they knew about it. Having given them some brief information, I started to set up the first activity only to be stopped in my tracks by one of the two teenagers in the class, who demanded to know why I was talking about the CAE exam. I managed not to say, "Ummm, because this is a CAE class, you dumbass", and instead tried to reassure her that the first day was always a little strange, and that I would be explaining more about the exam in time... She cut me off to inform me in a panicked voice that she didn't want to do the CAE exam, she wanted the FCE. She was practically hyperventilating at this point so I decided to go and get some advice from my DoS. And thus we discovered that the girl was sitting in the wrong classroom. She was supposed to be in Room 6 with the FCE class, not Room 1 where I was attempting to teach CAE. Doh!

After she'd left, the classroom felt a whole lot calmer. Well, until the only man in the class went on a major rant about Catalunya's "illegal" bid for independence. Unable to shut him up, I politely asked if perhaps he too would like to go to the FCE classroom. He took it in good humour, and gave someone else the floor.


DAY TWO

Today, I started at 16:00. First up was a Level 2 (Pre-Intermediate) class. There were three students on the register, but when I walked into the room, there was just one very nervous, older man. I recognised him immediately because I had taught him once last year when I covered a class for a colleague. He seemed oblivious to the fact though. I don't know whether he really didn't recognise me or whether he was simply too panicked to acknowledge it. Thanks to a lack of practice over the summer, he had forgotten much of English, and his nerves weren't helping matters. To put him at ease, I asked him questions and then wrote them on the board so he could read and mentally translate them to Spanish. This seemed to help and by the end of the lesson, he was a lot happier, and he'd even managed to speak quite a lot of English.

I only had five minutes between that and the next class, and since I was teaching kids, I went straight to my classroom to set up. I wrote the date up, and my name, moved the chairs a little and sat down to wait. A line of children was ushered in, and yet again, I recognised them as being D's from last year.

As with yesterday's class, I played the same name game. It's called Catch my Name and all you need is a small, soft ball and some students! First, you ask everyone's names so the kids who are new to the class or school get to hear them at least once. Then, you choose one child and say, "[your name] to [student's name]", and throw the ball to them, e.g., "Bri to Rafa". That student then has to then choose another child, say, "[their name] to [chosen student's name]", e.g., "Rafa to Paula". And so on. It's a great way of learning students' names and the children loved it.

Ordinarily, this class would be followed by a one-to-one lesson, but as that student isn't starting till next week, I had an hour's break, which I put to good use by stuffing my face with M&Ms.

For my last class, I had a Level 3 (Intermediate) class comprising eight adults. At this level, they should have more than enough English to be able to express themselves clearly if not correctly. But when I asked them to introduce themselves, they looked at me in horror as though I had asked them to recite the Old Testament. In English. Jeez, people! You are here to learn English. How about, er, trying? I told them that I wanted them to introduce themselves, tell me about their work or studies and why they were learning English. Every single person said they were learning it for their job, and only one admitted to actually liking English, which makes my job ten times harder.

Somehow we survived our first lesson together and having said my goodbyes, I wiped the board clean, shut the computer down, donated my leftover M&Ms to the DoS and the receptionist, and took off running. With my two-day work week done, I was off to meet some friends for much-deserved drinks...