Experiential EFL learning in Greek public schools: can I make it happen, or not?

Can we really expose Greek EFL learners in public primary schools to experiential EFL learning (learning by doing and making meaning from having a direct, personal experience)? I couldn’t really answer that by saying just a ‘yes’, or ‘no’. We work in public schools with outdated and or inadequate facilities, we only have 3 45-minute sessions with our learners per week at best, transporting learners to the appropriate place for experiential learning to take place costs a lot … I could go on forever, but would I only be making excuses?

Last night, while I was ‘visiting’ various ELT blogs, I came across ( at Task-Based Language Teaching blog) a very inspiring, influential presentation by Diane Laufenberg (TEDxMidAtlantic, November 2010 presentation, “How to Learn From Mistakes”). It presents what experiential learning is all about and it exonerates learners (and teachers!) by saying that it’s through mistakes that we all learn. Here is the presentation (take some time to view it, it’s REALLY worth it)!

When I finished watching this video, I found myself standing in front of the computer screen for some minutes, brainstorming, self-evaluating, being carried away by the enthusiasm and excitement of this teacher, Ms Laufenberg, thinking about her learners’ idea of school compared to mine. And I still couldn’t answer the question: Can we really expose Greek EFL learners in public primary schools to experiential EFL learning?

To begin with, there are so many projects suggested by our materials that invite learners to discuss, make decisions, solve problems, take action, but do we really involve learners in an experiential nature of learning? Speaking experientially, there have been some projects we have worked on in my schools, like the one in the 5th grade, that encourages learners to think and decide how they can help poor children spend Christmas almost like they would (they organized a Christmas bazaar selling things they had made), or another one that invites them to work on an evironmental project (they created recycling bins with cardboard, we cleaned up the school yard and the surrounding pavements, they gave out leaflets written – unavoidably – in Greek), but, aside from making them better citizens, better people, there was not much actual experiential EFL learning (most of the decision-making – problem-solving part is performed in English, but there have been instances where they thought and decided something during the break and came to the teachers’ office in excitement to let me know).

This seems to be mainly owing to the fact that we are asked to link EFL learners with a community that speaks their native and not the target language. Creating a leaflet in English with information regarding recycling, or other environmental issues could be experiential in the sense that it is actually distributed to english-speaking people in the community, getting immediate feedback on their work from them. A school trip linked to a school project would more likely evolve with the learners employing their native language, rather than the english, in order to collect the information required for the project.

So? What is there an EFL teacher can do? Is experiential learning only a non-subject-specific teacher’s priviledge? Well, linking with colleagues from other countries is all I can come up with, not being though so certain that this is the actual answer to the question! At my school, we exchange english school papers with other European schools and this allows learners to write and read with a real-life purpose. But, how about speaking, or listening? Could we connect with other learners, work on joint projects, have our learners discuss, brainstorm, solve problems and take action along with learners coming from other countries? A positive response or perhaps a nodding of the head may come instictively, but there are always administrative, time management and facilities issues.

With regard to the first obstacle, well, I have been incredibly lucky to have cooperated with encouraging and supportive management so far, so, owing to lack of experience in the uncooperative/negative/leave-me-alone ‘field’, there is not much I could say to English teachers who are not even allowed to use the photocopier (a colleague shared this experience with me and I still can’t get over it!), or exploit the technology available! As for the last two, ‘evelikti zoni’ and cooperation with the Technology teacher sound and have proven to be valuable for EFL teachers working on projects. Or maybe I’m just romantic, I wouldn’t know! All I know is that I want my learners to feel like Ms Laufenberg’ learners!

I always look forward to seminars, they can be enlightening, eye-opening, inspiring … Today I attended the PEKADE event in Larissa, which was related to ‘Facing Greek School Reality’. I had never attended a PEKADE event before, mainly owing to distance issues, but this time, Larissa was less than an hour far!!! And, although it was a day with heavy rain, there were many colleagues there and the room was almost full.

The first speaker was Ms Anna Varna, an EFL state school teacher. It was great to see her again after two years that she visited Volos as the eTwinning ambassador (she actually gave a 4-hour afternoon seminar and managed to inspire us and open our eyes). Her presentation was about “A day in the life of a connected teacher”, and she had a lot to say about facebook, twitter, blogging and their benefits in the life of an educator. Eye-opening once again, her presentation was great, attracting everybody’s attention! So, the day started with an experienced speaker who passed on her message efficiently, with a lot of sense of humour and a great video she will upload on her wonderful blog.

The day continued with the inexperienced speaker, meaning myself! The presentation was related to “Creating an English school newspaper with a real-life purpose” and, given that it was my first time in front of a crowd, I can only say that it felt good and there were many colleagues that had a nice thing to say about it! The most encouraging aspect was the fact that there were people who had more questions to ask during the break and wanted to try this project at their schools! That’s what this presentation was all about anyway!!! However, there was something that got me thinking how lucky some of us can be to have been working with cooperative Headteachers and, while recommending a project like that one should not take some things for granted: One of my colleagues there suggested the introduction of an English school paper at her school and all she got from the Headteacher was “What kind of mal …ies is all that?”! How disappointing and discouraging can that be? And of course the school wouldn’t fund her project, so she had to give it up! To refer to the presentation again, I hope everyone there understood how passionately and enthusiastically I have been working on this and what a funfilled, enjoyable, creative experience it has been both for my learners and I. This is the slideshow of the presentation:

Then, it was time for Mr Eleftherios Avramidis, an EFL state school teacher as well, to talk to us about a pilot study related to “Strategies employed while learning a foreign language”. It was a very interesting study, indeed, referring to the strategies employed by fifth grade learners while writing in the target language.

Ms Marina Kollatou is the State School Advisor for Karditsa and she was the following speaker. She had prepared a wonderful presentation on “Differentiated instruction: a challenge and a necessity” and had a lot to suggest regarding teaching mixed ability classes, presenting useful theoretical insights and more practical aspects on dealing with this issue in class. She is going to upload her presentation on her blog soon.

After the break, it was time for Ms Marianthi Kotadaki, the State School Advisor for Achaia, and her wonderful presentation! It had to do with the exploitation of YouTube videos in the EFL classroom (“You Tube for English? Connecting the Senior Secondary classroom to the real world”). The best part of the presentation was the fact that we had the chance to stand on our learners’ shoes and somehow feel what they would feel like during a well-organised, enjoyable lesson that included YouTube videos! A wonderful, exciting way to teach, presented very inspirationally by Ms Kotadaki!

The following presentation was about ” Using the video to improve students’ listening skills”. Ms Maria Stefanidou, an EFL state school teacher, presented the theoretical background underlying the exploitation of videos in the classroom. We also had the chance to watch a video on the use of the mobile phone and social networking by teenagers.

Ms Maria Mintsidou and Ms Katja Korpinurmi, EFL State School teachers, presented “Alternative ways of approaching the teaching of English at technical vocational schools through the example of the 2nd Technical Vocational School of Karditsa”. Contrary to what the majority of people assume about technical vocational schools, these two colleagues showed that there can beautiful things going on in these schools, with the wonderful Comenius and other projects they have been working on with their learners. Ms Korpinurmi is actually an assistant teacher from Finland, who now cooperates with Ms Mintsidou, the EFL teacher of the 2nd Technical Vocational School of Karditsa. So, we were all informed, that anyone who applies for a Comenius project related with ELT, can ask for an assistant teacher, who will assist, bring his/her cultural background into the classroom and make the learners communicate in the target language with a real-life purpose!

The last presentation was that of Ms Apostolia Tsipra, who is also an EFL state school teacher working on her Master’s degree. Her interesting research was related to “Innovation within innovation: using a Task-Based approach to train Greek EFL teachers in the implementation of DEPPS principles”.

The PEKADE event ended with a round-table discussion concerning the activities of the Union, its quarterly magazine “Aspects Today” and its suggestions to the Ministry of Education regarding main concerns, we, EFL teachers have in the public sector.

Although this day was moody today weatherwise, it actually evolved as a great opportunity to develop as a teacher, broaden your horizons, contact with colleagues (or ‘connect’, as Ms Varna pointed out in her presentation) and share ideas! Congratulations to PEKADE for this great, well-organised event! I personally look forward to the next!!!

H Πανελλήνια Ένωση Καθηγητών Αγγλικής της Δημόσιας Εκπαίδευσης θα πραγματοποιήσει ημερίδα με τίτλο: “Facing Greek School Reality”. Η ημερίδα θα πραγματοποιηθεί στο LARISSA IMPERIAL (Φαρσάλων 182, Λάρισα), στις 19 Φεβρουαρίου 2011, ημέρα Σάββατο από 9.00-14.30.

Την ημερίδα καλούνται να παρακολουθήσουν οι εκπαιδευτικοί ΠΕ06 της Α/θμιας και Β/θμιας Εκπ/σης. Για τα μη μέλη της Ένωσης, η συμμετοχή είναι 10 ευρώ. Όσοι συνάδελφοι δεν είναι μέλη της Ένωσης μπορούν να πραγματοποιήσουν την εγγραφή τους την ημέρα διεξαγωγής της ημερίδας.

Μετά το πέρας των εργασιών της ημερίδας θα δοθούν βεβαιώσεις στους παρευρισκομένους. Για το πρόγραμμα της εκδήλωσης, κάντε κλικ εδώ: PEKADE event – Facing Greek School Reality – Programme.
Περισσότερες πληροφορίες θα αναρτηθούν στην ιστοσελίδα της ΠΕΚΑΔΕ (www.pekade.gr). E-mail επικοινωνίας: info@pekade.gr

Πηγή: www.pekade.gr