Effective praise in the classroom

Effective praise in the classroom

What is effective praise about ?

We all know that a pat on the back can improve the way our students learn and it is a good way to motivate them and also reduce disruption in class. However, what if our praise is not delivered in an appropriate way or genuine?

1. Why is praise important
Let me tell you a story. A while ago I was teaching a group of young University students about techniques to write short-stories. One of them who wasn’t a straight A student –nor was he a struggling one- read his story to the rest of the class. This naturally shy student had written such a subtle, entertaining and moving piece of writing that I was taken aback.
“Adrian, that’s absolutely brilliant. That was sharp and full emotions.” I said.
I could see a smile on his face but his look showed more confusion than anything else. Later on, while the group was busy on a task, I came close to him.
“ You looked puzzled when I told you your work was great, why is that?” I asked.
“Well, I am not used to praise. My teachers usually tell me what is wrong rather than what is good. So, yes I am not quite sure about my work then.
“Your work was absolutely remarkable. If you don’t mind I would like to keep your writing and display it.”
If Adrian had been in a secondary I would certainly have called his parents or send a congratulation postcard, because praise is a powerful tool that can turn any child and even an adult into a great learner.
I have certainly already told you that story about another student the young teenager Clara that had just arrived in the UK. Her work was spotless and she would always ask for more challenging tasks. I praised her a lot in class but nothing was as moving as her parents crying during a parents’ evening. Those little moments are precious for the learner, the teacher and the parents because all of them play a part in the learning process.

2. What we do wrong
Now, let’s be honest, we don’t always praise students the way we should. We sometimes have bad days and we sometimes use too many “Good work!”, “Well done!” without even paying enough detailed attention to the actual work of our students. What does “good job” actually mean? How do you feel when your boss gives you that kind of general compliment? It is not specific and doesn’t tell you exactly what was actually good. Another thing we sometimes do, especially with tricky students whose behavior or work is not what we are expecting of them, is that we overpraise their work. Expressions such as “Amazing work”, “Fantastic attitude today” tend to be…too much! Young children like praise and respond well to it but as soon as they reach primary school they don’t respond to it so well, especially when they feel that the praise isn’t well earned or in line with the work or effort they have produced. That generally has as a consequence to demotivate them and we get back to the vicious circle of low standard work, low self-esteem, disruption etc.

3. What is effective praise
Fortunately, there are many things we do well when praising our students. This checklist will help you see if you are at the top of the game:
A. Make it personalized. Know your students by their names and use their names to praise their work.
B. Make it real, well-earned and genuine. Your student has to trust you when you praise him. Don’t over praise work or effort that is just standard work but praise any effort in attitude and work. Students have different potential and needs, so praise accordingly to what they can achieve but avoid at all coast any childish praise that would do more harm than good. Focus on the process and attitude towards improving work rather than ability.
C. Make is specific. If you are praising a piece of writing, tell them what it is you think is especially good. Give them tools to reach the next step of their learning as well.
D. Make it short, sharp and immediate. Feedback that comes after the ring bells is too late. When you spot great work, say it, praise it!
E. Adapt your praise. Some students like to show off: a praise in front of the whole class can be beneficial then. Other students, on the other hand, prefer when praise is discreet. Act accordingly, especially with teenagers who tend to prefer quiet verbal praise and silent praise.

As a conclusion, I would say that there are many ways to praise students, but the best is certainly to be sincere and to be well-aware of the praise we give.

The protection of languages

The protection of languages

The protection of languages: a right and a duty

On a Paris-Toronto flight I recently had the opportunity to watch a documentary –or shall I say 6 short documentaries- about Canada and more specifically about Canada’s 150th anniversary of Confederation. Those six short documentaries inspired by Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms taught me a lot about Canadian culture(s) from Indigenous rights, to citizenship, languages and multiculturalism. What I especially liked about it was the short little introductions based on Canadians’ opinions. They had to answer basic questions like. Black or White? Favorite color? Rights or Freedom? Masculine or Feminine? Basic questions but important questions that define who we are. The reflective approach to the project was absolutely beautiful. Self-critical, poetical and heartbreaking. Let me tell you about the documentary called “L’inspecteur” which deeply resonated for me as a language teacher and language lover.

L’inspecteur, mixes up the stories of three Franco-Manitobans women telling their experiences as young students and teachers. The three now elderly women reflected on their past in Manitoba’s education system a couple of decades ago. They had vivid recollection of their school days and especially of the “Inspecteur”. At the time French was prohibited in schools. A law had been in place since 1919 and all education had to be in English. Obviously, Canada had and still has a fair share of Francophones but at that time and until the 1980s all education was supposed to be done in English. The point was to assimilate the Francophones through the eradication of their language. The way these women were telling their stories was absolutely heartbreaking. You could easily imagine them as young girls terrified by the classroom inspector who wanted to break the teacher and detect any possible trace of language speaking. And how about the teacher? How did she feel when being inspected? It was also the story of a community who tried to resist and rebel, the story of a community whose main crime was to hide French books. The documentary mingled humour, a sense of community, and hope. A must-see.

This retrospective made me think about all the minority languages that don’t have their voice heard in the world. Not long in France I was told that people-now in their late 40s- from Brittany were not taught their own language (Breton) as they would have been sneezed at otherwise. How about my own students who speak Quechua but don’t dare to show their language skills because they fear to be laughed at? Languages are all beautiful and they have to be protected a human heritage to preserve cultures but also to give ourselves a chance to understand each other.

Teaching with empathy

Teaching with empathy

Teaching with empathy: Rethinking Education for a more humanity in teaching

We all teach students from different social, economic, cultural backgrounds with different levels, needs, interests and abilities. This can make our lives as teachers a little bit difficult as we need to differentiate the work to personalize the learning of all our students. That is even more tricky when we have 30 kids to teach. But that is what we aim to do. Well, if you want to make it right, whatever the context of your school or class there is one basic rule to follow: empathy and understanding because your students are human beings- yes, they are ! and what they need is teachers with their ears wide open. Sounds easy, right? Well, the reality of a teacher is unfortunately far from being that ideal.

1. What is teaching with empathy
Teaching with empathy means to try to understand others. Understand students’ backgrounds, understand where they come from, understand where they stand and understand their goals. Empathy comes with the willingness to support the other, it is the ability we all have to put ourselves in the shoes of others. So why should we teach with empathy? Because that is the whole point of teaching: trying to reach out the students to get the best out of them so that they can reach their potential.

2. What are the obstacles to teaching with empathy
As teachers, we should always aim at trying to understand the ones we teach. That may sound obvious. But what when we are swamped under paperwork? What when we don’t have time to talk to little Johnny because of a meeting? What when we are just simply exhausted and want to shut down and forget about school? What when we have too much on our plate? We are just human beings at the end of the day and sometimes what we do is not enough but we also need to acknowledge that we did try our best. Teaching in the UK is considered as one of the most stressful jobs. Long hours, huge amount of paperwork, long contact hours, inadequate training, behaviour management issues, endless marking are just some of the complains from teachers. Some of these tasks are necessary but how much time dedicated to these tasks will really improve the lives of our students? How much of it could be simplified to save time that could be redirected to learning for children and training for teachers?
We require teachers to do their job properly and with empathy but their administration is putting so much weigh on their shoulders that many teachers quit the profession.

3. Back to more humanity in teaching
Education as it is, has to change for the sake of kids and for the sake of our future. Schools have to do what they are advocating: putting kids at the center of the learning wheel and giving teachers the right tools to do so.
I am not reinventing the wheel, I am just the voice of my peers who are so dedicated to their students but that are also so overwhelmed with pointless tasks. We need to make time for teachers to get proper training. We need to make time to create valid interactions with students and parents to improve learning and to personalize it. Even if our world is a digital one we shouldn’t put all our hopes in just technology either. We will always need human interactions to improve our learning and understanding of the world. My point here is that tests, grading, paperwork, endless emails that are mainly used for management purposes should shift towards more time devoted to what actually matters: Teaching and Learning. Teachers are the ones on the front and there should be more listening to what they have to say than to political talks. Students are human beings and not money figures.

Growth Mindset Teaching

Growth Mindset Teaching

Growth mindset for teachers
Have you ever thought about the endless possibilities we have in a lifetime? Life is short, they say. But it is even shorter if we don’t try. It is even shorter when we don’t dare because of the fears we have inside and because of all the preconceived ideas we have of our own abilities.
Many years ago, I realized that despite praise and endless encouragements, some of my students didn’t reach their goals. They didn’t reach the goals not because they were unable to, they didn’t reach the goals because they simply didn’t believe they could achieve them.

1. What is fixed mindset versus growth mindset?
There is nothing as powerful as our mind. What we tell ourselves or things we believe about what we can achieve can actually prevent us from getting where we want or they can allow us to reach our goals. Carol Dweck who is a well-known researcher at Stanford University defines the fixed mindset vs. the growth mindset as this: Students with a fixed mindset strongly believe that they are born with certain abilities, talents and intelligence. For them, these are just their natural traits. On the contrary students with a growth mindset understand that their talents and abilities can be developed. Good teaching, effort, perseverance will help them to grow.

2. Are you holding yourself back because of your own beliefs?
Well, most of the time we are our own enemies. I am no exception. I am the typical language teacher who would naturally say “I am not a math person”. This belief is something that I have developed from a young age and simply because I had no special interest in the subject I just dropped it. That is the same for our students. They come to our classes with the strong idea that they can’t speak languages or that it is too difficult. By having fixed mindset we teach our brain that we actually can’t do things even before having tried them. Even if our family and friends try to convince us that “When there is a will, there’s a way”, changing our perspective is a pretty hard task. So, how can we turn ourselves in better learners? By trying. We keep telling our students “Try! It’s ok! Don’t worry if you make a mistake” but the truth is, this a belief that has to come from them.

3. How can we move forward and change our beliefs?
Willingness to do so first. If you think that there are things about yourself that you should change for your own good, do it. Do it one step at a time. Set yourself some little goals to achieve. Small repeated actions will help your brain and body understand that “Yes, it is possible.” That is something you can use in your daily teaching life as well. Start with small goals, give yourself time, celebrate your achievements and move on to the next step. Isn’t it what we tell our students?

Celebrating Thanksgiving

Celebrating Thanksgiving

Celebrating Thanksgiving in class with respect and gratitude

Here comes that time again where our classroom’s walls get filled with beautiful displays about Thanksgiving. Here’s the time again when our students get their hands dirty while preparing turkey handcrafts and while writing messages and poems to show their gratitude. We all know that it is a precious time in our busy schedule, but it is also a time when we need to reflect on our actions and more than anything else it is when we should acknowledge with sincerity the American History.
As a language teacher, I truly know the importance of communication and the importance of including everyone in the learning process. Thanksgiving is a good starting point. While we wish to celebrate the symbolical and historical meaning of Thanksgiving we also need to do so by teaching about the impact of the new settlers on the American Indians.

1. Teach about the most important values of Thanksgiving: Sharing and showing gratitude
Celebrating Thanksgiving should go beyond the cutting and pasting aspect of handcrafts. It surely is an important part of the festivity, which I am going to talk about in a minute, but time should be taken as well to think further. Get your students to sit quietly in a circle and close their eyes. Ask your students what they are thankful for. How about their family, friends and ancestors? How about the food and clothes they get? How about education they receive. Ask them to think about the things that really matter for them. How about being grateful for all those things? Your students will enjoy the quiet atmosphere and they will enjoy that quiet sharing time with others. Tell them to think about positive thoughts, wishes and hopes for their loved ones but also for the strangers they come across everyday in their neighborhood. A little “Hi” or “Thank you” can change many things.

2. Teach about otherness
We tend to celebrate this holiday from a European point of view. We celebrate the deeds and achievements of the Pilgrim Fathers who fled England to find a place for religious acceptance. What the Pilgrim Fathers accomplished was incredible at that time and they were driven by their hope for a better world and life. However, even if we teach about Squanto, the Native who acted as a guide, translator and advisor for the Mayflower settlers we don’t usually spend enough time on the Native point of view. An idea to use would be to read the students some stories related to the Native Americans. Find historical narratives or fictional ones that describes how they perceived the new settlers. Encourage your students to ask questions and to put themselves in the shoes of the Native Americans. Have them to use their critical thinking skills: What would you have done back then as a Native American or as a new settler? This question can be tricky and it can generate about some debates in your class, which is good, but it also has to be dealt with mindfulness. Empathy is what we should teach and learn with Thanksgiving. We should take that precious time to emphasize the importance of tolerance and peace among people. Get your students to create mindful displays showing the values of respect, gratitude and empathy.

3. Teach about respect
Teaching about Thanksgiving means teaching about respecting each other’s beliefs and cultures. We need to try to understand others and to embrace their differences, that’s my message for Thanksgiving. Let’s dig our knowledge about the first settlers but also about the Native Americans. They are part of our past AND modern history. How many tribes live in the US today? What do they believe in? Ask your students to make some researches on the topic. Have them to present their findings in class to share this knowledge. Let’s create a world of empathy and respect to pay tribute to all of those who have paved the way to our societies. That’s my message for Thanksgiving. Have a lovely Thanksgiving, wherever you are.