Thursday, 30 July 2009

Networking for Language Teachers : Sharing to Grow

My Twitter Social Ego Networks

I was delighted to be invited to guest blog by Ken Royal on his blog, The Educators’ Royal Treatment. I chose to blog about “Sharing to grow” as I have found that the concept is always a lot harder to sell to colleagues than expected.Teaching is after all an essentially individual activity-it is about you and 30 children, isn’t it?

As we all know, it is and it isn’t. As an individual activity, it is easy to rely on habit, recycling activities that we feel work in the classroom. However, with educational technology developing at high speed, the life-cycle of classroom activities seems to be getting shorter and shorter, with more and more needed to get that “wow factor” out of classes.
This is when networking is turning from an optional extra to an essential way to ensure we remain fresh and creative in the classroom…

In addition, languages have been put under even more pressure in England since 2004 , when they were made optional post-14. In the face of competition between schools and leagues table, languages have always come out looking like the poorer relative. Severity of grading in languages is well-known and as more emphasis is being put on raw exam results, a lot of schools have been put under pressure to downsize their languages departments in favour of more “student-friendly” non-academic subjects. Student engagement is now linked with subject survival and as a consequence, networking to share ideas and resources can be an effective way to deal with those added pressures and keep teachers’ morale up.

However, there are quite a few barriers to developing the “Sharing to Grow “ Approach:
*”This takes too much time. I am better off carrying on with what I am doing” This is not an option! Time investment does not have to be huge. The most effective way is actually to make it gradual to ensure that the changes are embedded and hopefully supported by the Faculty/department. If only a minority embraces change, the impact will be minimal.
*”I don’t want to take the risk to give and not get anything back” You always get something back, but it is often not ready to use. There is no “One size fits all” in teaching and resources are only as good as the way they are adapted to different groups of students and delivered to them.
*”I may not like what I get back”
The actual resource might not suit you for different reasons, but the idea is there and it is always better to start from something rather than nothing.
*”What I do might not be good enough to be shared” A resource might look good but how it is used is what makes it effective. It is very hard to assess how good a resource is as what works great with one group might be a complete fiasco with another. We have to make the necessary adjustments-that is why we are the professionals!

Sharing to Grow can be done Face-to-Face, locally or online using a variety of tools. In fact, I have found mixing online and Face-to-Face gives more value to the time spent networking and can focus face-to-face conversation as a little is already known about other people’s background.

What is a friend?
Check out your local networks (SLN) and subject associations-like ALL in England.
It is also worth looking at subject association worlwide to see how they promote languages and the kind of activities they have. I have found some good downloadable resources from Australia and New Zealand in the past and was always very interested to read about “language advocacy” in Australia and the United States.

I am an avid Diigo user and I have found Diigo groups a very good way to keep updated with new tools and sites of interest. I set up my own Diigo group, “Resources for Languages” in an attempt to enlist more language teachers worldwide. I also feel it is important that EFL teachers should mix with MFL teachers as we are all language teachers with common methodology and ideas that can easily be transferred from one language to another. There is also a wealth of EFL resources and methodology available worldwide which would be foolish to ignore.

I love Ning groups and the way they are very user-friendly to exchange news, ask questions through the forum, share pictures, videos as well as to upload resources to be shared. They are also quite reassuring for beginners as they can be closed as well as moderated to avoid spamming. I have set up a Ning to support our local languages network but a brilliant example is the Talkabout Primary MFL Ning, the first Ning I ever joined, which focuses on Language learning and Teaching in Primary schools.

As language teachers seem to spend a disproportionate amount of their time looking for suitable visuals, opening a Flickr account and connecting with colleagues is an excellent way to share resources. I am also a member of several languages Flickr groups and I have encouraged my colleagues to join as well as take pictures when they go to France or Spain.

MFL resources
This website and yahoo group is great to liaise with other language teachers, whether you need to buy new textbooks or discuss the latest National policies. It is perhaps more useful for UK-based teachers but I am sure that the resources posted and the ideas discussed would be of interest to the vast majority of language teachers worldwide.

Twitter is a great way to connect with other teachers but it does not work for everybody as it can take some time to follow a group a people you can really connect with. Some people are also put off by the Twitter mix of professional gems and personal trivialities.At the end of the day, it is always easy to unfollow somebody if you feel you are not really sharing anything meaninful with them-if that is your aim when using Twitter. I have found Twitter to be one of the most fertile source of ideas and links to CPD opportunities and I would really encourage anybody to give it a go. And no, it is not about celebrities or navel gazing… Although it can be if that is what you are into…

Last but not least, video conferencing is a great way to link with a wide range of colleagues that may not be living locally. The success of the recent MFL Flashmeetings set up by Joe Dale are proof of it and I am hoping that local networks will pick up on the idea and open up their meetings to other people. I also feel Skype has a lot of potential for training, contacting colleagues abroad or keeping in touch between meetings, with the flexibility of the msn-like chat, video calls, access from mobile phones-all for free…


ajep said...

I agree completely and will share this with my colleagues here at school. Thanks!
Building my network has provided a wealth of resources and connections to people in all parts of the world and provided new ideas and the inspiration / motivation to try new things. As a result, I feel like I am a better teacher.
Andrew J

Graham Davies said...

Isabelle, you have given a very good overview of the use of social media in the context of teaching modern foreign languages, and there is a growing band of teachers who are making good use of social media. I a number of discussion lists, blogs, wikis and social networking sites, including several language teachers’ personal blogs here in Section 12 of Module 1.5 at the ICT4LT site:

A key question that has been raised recently is: To what extent are students at school and in higher education making use of social media for learning? My personal experience as an evaluator of a major HE initiative in the UK is that students make extensive use of mobile phones, PDAs and social networking sites such as Facebook, but they have not seriously considered such tools and Web 2.0 tools in general as offering opportunities for learning. This is a barrier that we still have to overcome.

See the ICT4LT blog, where I refer to an article by Gregor Kennedy et al., "The net generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies: Preliminary findings", ASCILITE 2007 Conference, Singapore:

The 2008 CIBER project report, “Information behaviour of the researcher of the future”, dispels a number of myths concerning the Google Generation. Research carried out by the CIBER project team claims that:

• young people rely too heavily on search engines,
• they view rather than read,
• they do not possess the critical and analytical skills to assess the information that they find on the Web,
• they find it difficult to assess the relevance of sources,
• they spend too little time evaluating information.

Regarding the information resources that young people prefer and value in a secondary school setting, the report also states that it is evident that young people consistently value teachers, relatives and textbooks above the Internet (which is comforting to hear). It also states that the impact of social networking is not as great as might be expected, at least when it comes to looking for information, and while younger users are keen consumers of user-generated content sites like Wikipedia and YouTube, there is a marked age difference between these younger consumers and the older people who actually create the content. The report also claims that over-65s in the UK spend around four hours longer online each week than the allegedly always-on 18-24s.

Graham Davies
University College London, CIBER Project, School of Library, Archive and Information Studies (SLAIS) (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future, CIBER Briefing Paper: London, University College London. Available at:

Graham Davies