July 2016

July 24 Get-together Reflections


We thought this might be a busy time to have a get-together, but we wanted to try and pull things together from the three previous get-togethers and make some plans for the October get-together and for Creating Community: Learning Together 3 in December. Several people sent their apologies for not being able to attend (Alison Stewart, Jenny Morgan, Martin Cater, Lee Arnold, Masuko Miyahara, Mayumi Abe, and Tim Ashwell). We include here our (= Alex, Andy, Blair, Ken, and Fumiko) reflections on the three main areas of focus of the July get-together – discussions about the get-togethers themselves and Creating Community: Learning Together 3, learner development issues we see as of central interest, and reflections on responding to writing and possible research projects.

Our discussions continued in one group through the afternoon as we explored and talked about various questions around our interests in learner development and in meeting together regularly to talk and learn together. These discussions were lively and wide-ranging and also included an hour-long focus on responding to writing. At the end of the afternoon we came away with a renewed commitment to developing the get-togethers and continuing them in 2017.

Next get-together: Sunday October 23, Otsuma Women’s University

The next get-together will take place in October on Sunday October 23. For the October get-together we would like to ask each participant to prepare – before the get-together itself – a mini-poster (one or two sheets of A3) that highlights key points and raises questions on a learner development issue that interests them.

The focus you take could be on the development of your own learning, the development of your learners’ learning, your pedagogic practices, or your experiences, or on an article, paper, or book that you’ve been reading over the summer and that connects to your learner development interests.

The poster doesn’t need to be ‘final draft’ – the aim is for each participant to prepare a visual resource that can be shared with others at the October get-together for pair and small-group discussions. This can also be used as a platform for running through ideas that you have for presenting at Creating Community: Learning Together 3 on Sunday December 18 – online proposal form here. (The deadline for submitting proposals is October 31st.)

Part One Get-together discussion

Ken: At first it was just a stewing session of us three men, but it turned into a great brainstorming time with Fumiko and Alex joining us. The idea of bringing readings or experiences related to ideas was timely for me as I’m now interested in critical pedagogy and critical literacy. I already have a few readings that would surely spark a invigorating discussion.

Andy: Typical men, the three of us sat in silence and grunted, monosyllabically at first. Social conversation done, we moved on to ruminating about how the get-togethers were going. A few seconds later, we were muttering away. Why had we decided to have a get-together in July? To celebrate the end of the semester? To discuss the state of the world? To shorten the gap between June and October? To have a chance to make some plans as a group for Creating Community: Learning Together 3 in December? Whose idea was it in the first place anyway?

As we talked, Fumiko, then Alex joined us and the five of us discussed why it felt it had become difficult to sustain continuity. By including a workshop in the April, May and June get-togethers, we had originally thought in January and February that this would help strengthen the follow-through from one get-together to the next in the new school year.

The feedback on the workshops by Alison (April: Exploratory Practice, Alex and Caroline (May: Qualitative Interviewing) and Masuko (Narrative Research) had been very positive, and each of those three get-togethers had involved some very lively and stimulating discussions and reflections. But how do we did see the situation now one month on? What might be try to do differently in future? And what exactly were we aiming for with CCLT3 in December? These were some questions that came up for us as we talked.

The three workshops had had a very strong emphasis on sharing of practices, and also involved discussions of different theories and theoretical points. How do people see their learning about learner development? Is it based mostly on experience or reflection? Why? What are different ways in which we can scaffold our own reflections to develop reflective/reflexive practices about learner development? Or are we more theory-driven in our learning, looking for, and reading about different theoretical perspectives, not just within language and literacy education, but from other neighbouring disciplines too such as education, sociology, psychology, politics, and the creative arts? What role does theorising play in the development of praxis, and what role practice? Why? What are different ways in which we see the dialectic between practice and theory and how can we explore those differences together? How can we develop critical reflexive perspectives on our learning and development? Is discussion on its own enough? Why? Why not?

In the first part of our discussion in the afternoon, we raised such questions about different ways of knowing, and explored with each other some of our (epistemological) assumptions about group-based teacher learning.

Thinking ahead to Creating Community: Learning Together 3 on December 18  (the online proposal form is here, and the deadline for submitting proposals is October 31st), we then brainstormed different issues that we see as informing the umbrella (but somewhat diffuse) field of learner development:

  • autonomy
  • collaborative learning
  • content-based learning
  • creativity
  • critical pedagogy
  • Exploratory Practice
  • goal-setting
  • identity
  • interview-based research
  • L1-L2 use
  • learner histories
  • literacy
  • motivation
  • multilingualism
  • narrative research
  • pedagogical practices
  • (critical) reflection
  • self-assessment
  • self-evaluation
  • self-directed learning
  • student research projects
  • teacher learning, and so on
  • (learner) use of technology
  • visualizing learner development
  • ….

Alex:  What LD SIG get-together meetings mean to me

While I was late by half an hour to join the get-together (got on the wrong train), I made it just in time for a lively discussion on LD SIG get-together efficacy and efficiency. Along with other participants (Andy, Fumiko, Ken and Blair), I expressed my thoughts on the raised question. In particular, I elaborated on the efficacy and efficiency of the get-together format and routines.

While I was away in the UK from 2012-2016 (February) to pursue my doctoral studies, I had no opportunity to teach at a tertiary level. Therefore, having attended three get-together meetings provided me with an opportunity to catch up with latest trends/puzzles/quizzes in teaching English in Japanese educational settings. In addition, I had a chance to read some academic articles suggested by Alison Stewart and Masuko Miyahara. The readings have kindled my mind and expanded my future research interests in regards to critical pedagogy, and its accompanying quizzles (quizzes + puzzles) as well as using narratives in qualitative research. I have enjoyed attending the April, May, July 2016 get-together meetings where I was able to discuss a variety of issues with other teachers. I was able to receive constructive feedback from other colleagues and share my teaching experiences/challenges with other peers.

Personally, I think that the LD SIG get-together provides us with a friendly environment where like-minded novice and professional teachers can share their expertise and experiences with each other. It is a great platform for professional development and an opportunity to expand one’s knowledge on a practical and theoretical level. For example, Andy suggested a possible idea of sharing our knowledge with others on a read academic article by giving a short presentation at the get-togethers. While this was just a suggestion, I think it has a potential of attracting members’ interest in following up upon the idea.

Andy: It’s good to re-confirm sometimes what we are doing as a group, why we are doing it, and what our hopes are in taking part in get-togethers. This part of our discussion helped us voice our different interests and perspectives and move between ideal, real, and critical positions about the get-togethers.

One of the questions that I come back to often is about ways of knowing and learning together within a professional group for teacher-learning, about our students’ learning, our own learning as teachers and learners, and our learning individually and collectively as a group. What ‘tools’ do we use for our learning, and what tools might we use that we don’t use? Why?

An interesting part of our discussion was about learning from and reflecting on experience, and learning from, and reflecting on,  theory in the form of shared readings of articles or books – and/or student work too.

I tend to feel that the ‘reflective practitioner’ paradigm takes us towards the experiential and affective dimensions of our practices and lives as teachers and learners, and downplays the role that theory plays in helping us to analyse in different ways the practices, puzzles, quizzles, and tensions that we notice in our focus on learner development.

A counter-example would be a ‘benkyo-kai’ approach where we might read books or articles between get-togethers and then share our understandings at each get-together.

I wondered if we could merge the two approaches in some way, and this brought us to the idea of trying mini-posters at the October get-together …

Fumiko: At first we had a talk about what we have learned from LD-SIG. These are my comments. I teach at my English school just as before I left a graduate school. Even if I know the importance of knowing the current EFL/ESL study, it seems hard to keep in touch with the improvements of its study. During discussions at the monthly meetings, I hear the names of books or authors that they have read and all those cultivate my research interests. And also a plenty of time to discuss gives me cues to go through the difficulties and problems in my teaching. I have learned how their learning circumstances affect their motivation. That sort of discoveries is very different fruit of this group. At LD-SIG, I think more on guiding their autonomous learning. So I hope more junior and high school teachers and cram school teachers join this group. I want younger students enjoy learning English not only for passing the exams. The December conference will be a good chance.

Blair: Although originally we felt a bit down about the prospect of the LD Get-Together this month becoming just an elongated meeting about the next few events, it turned out to be a valuable reflection on what these meeting mean for us as individuals. Having the chance to discuss the past few meetings in small groups, it helped us all reflect on how we thought these meetings were received.

I have to admit that when we originally started planning workshops as a part of the get-together, I was a bit worried that we would lose our personal focus as teachers and researchers. I have always enjoyed sharing ideas about learner development and teaching in small groups with no particular focus. However, after attending the last two meetings, I am happy to admit that I was completely wrong. Instead, I have found this new approach much more academically motivating, as it reviews and introduces topics and discussions that I haven’t really been exposed to since finishing my MA a couple of years ago. I hope that in the future we can continue to expose each other to both theory and practical applications, and that we can discuss topics as a larger group that I haven’t necessarily been researching on my own. I look forward to broadening my understanding of both research and practice in future get-togethers.   

Part Two  Responding to the Writing Discussion

Alex: A very thought-provoking activity was prepared by Andy, where each of us had to address an issue of responding to students’ writing. In particular, questions raised evolved around the ‘how’ and ‘why’ we would respond to students written product. Andy provided us with a student’s work and we had to provide our thoughts on the said questions.

While I have re-started teaching academic writing to first- and second-year university students in Japan, providing students with constructive feedback is of particular interest to me. Therefore, I was very interested to hear other teachers’ ideas/thoughts/experiences/current practices on this skill. Andy’s questions posed some salient factors that we as teachers should focus on when thinking about teacher-student-teacher provided feedback. I have never thought of it in such a fine-grained-analysis style, however, it has for sure captivated my attention.

I also raised a question of students’ responses to teacher-provided feedback, i.e., how and if our students act upon the feedback. Do they actually find it useful/efficient/helpful/motivating/demotivating? There are so many questions and factors coming into play when we think about these questions. I learnt a lot from Andy, Ken, Blair and Fumiko as to how and why we should provide students with constructive feedback. I would like to explore this pedagogical quizzle in more detail.

A thank-you note to all! I have been meaning to express my thanks to all LD SIG get-together organizers (Andy, Blair, Ken) and participants. I appreciate your time and support and dedication to bringing us all together. I look forward to meeting you all in October 2016. I hope to continue learning from you and with you in the months to come. Meanwhile, wishing you all happy summer holidays dear friends and colleagues.

Ken: I think the notes I wrote regarding this got collected and deposited in one of the LD bags while I and Fumiko had to excuse ourselves to meet my 4th year seminar student so I’ve written this from memory.

I recall when I read this student’s visual report, red flags were raised in my mind as I viewed it very critically unfortunately. I should have been more generously mindful as a teacher of 1st-year students’ writing. I also teach a class in which students create their manifestos and present proposals for change based on the values of their platforms. I was in the mindset of a tired teacher of this manifesto-based class (my students don’t seem to understand the importance of documentation). Also I was looking at this as a graduation thesis supervisor who’s been occasionally burned by students who write their theses with the apparent effort of one-month’s writing with undocumented sources and visuals. This year I have 3rd year students who also desire to write a graduation thesis this year since I’ll be away next year. So that’s why I may have seemed unduly critical of this student. However, if I were Andy, I would be defensive of such criticism of a student who presented a great individual effort of presenting visuals as evidence linked to a social concern.

Had time presented itself, I would have expressed my particular concern that students develop a sense of responsibility and professionalism, being aware of my sister’s work (as a graphic director of Hollywood movie posters, she has told me that if I want to use visuals for my research, I have to pay for them instead of taking from free domain sites). I want my students to be aware and responsible for their inclusion (write in the citable details of the source) to mitigate the use of visual material and to fend themselves from charges of plagiarism. And should they want to include images from professional sites, they should inquire the site creator for permission of use. I had one student take the trouble to request and hers was granted.

On reflection, Andy’s project of having students research a real-world issue and back it up with visual evidence has given me ideas of furthering students’ writing in my 1st year writing class beyond that of summarizing readings from a textbook.

Fumiko: In the second part of our discussion we saw a short paper written by Andy’s student. (S)he is a freshman and it was their first paper after one-month study. (S)he jumped from the introduction to the conclusion however it was truly amazing and wonderful. Most of all Japanese high school students have never written any paper all in English. Yes, there was a composition class that it was like to write 10 or 20 sentences, one or two paragraphs. Most of English learning is filled with translation, fulfilling blanks, finding the correct answers and so on. They have, through my and my students’ experiences, no chance to write their own interest or voice in English. The student wrote the paper based on his or her own interest. That was great and I was happy to read it. I believe (s)he would have liked to write more and more precisely so if students can get a chance to write in Japanese and English, it may be helpful.

Andy: The piece of writing in question was the third draft of a ‘Global Issues Visual Report’ written by a first-year student in a Research and Writing course with a global issues content focus. ‘Visual Report’ means that the student needed to include a maximum of four visuals in their report as ‘figures’, and provide the reader with a signpost to each figure, include the figure itself, and add an interpretative commentary about the figure. The student’s report that we looked at focused on food banks in general, narrowing down to food banks in Japan. The student had never written reports in English before taking this first-year course, but had now done self-directed research in Japanese and English on food banks to produce a 800-word Visual Report.

One point I noticed in our discussion was that, as teachers, we wanted to give positive feedback to the student writer about the general quality of the report, but as readers we would first question, as Alex and Blair pointed out, the writer’s reasoning in places and engage with the writer’s ideas and understanding (rather than the language). It was interesting for me also that Ken identified different ‘reader positions’ that he took in responding to the writing. On a personal level, the Visual Report evoked memories for Ken of his mother working for a Board of Education in the US and wanting to give to the homeless in the neighbourhood food that had not been consumed. However, despite his mother arguing for serving the food to the homeless, her appeal was turned down and she was required by the administration to destroy the unused food every day. Ken also responded as a ‘critical reader’ and focused on ‘gaps of credibility’ in what the writer did at different points in the text by appealing to the senses or appealing to logic. Finally Ken voiced his response as a ‘graduation thesis supervisor’ and invoked standards of performance that a fourth-year student might be expected to meet. The three positions that Ken took enabled him to differentiate his feedback with detachment.

Fumiko argued that 子食堂  are expected to meet different goals. She mentioned that food banks tend to use manufactured and processed food only. Why? Why do most people think food banks are necessarily a good thing? What might be some alternatives? The 子食堂 that Fumiko has worked with involves preparing fresh food, talking, cooking (and eating) together, developing life-skills, and relating the preparation of food to income and budgeting.

In contrast Alex wanted to ask the writer how they would engage further with the issue of food banks in their own community, while Fumiko felt that the student writer would like to write much more about the issue, but was not able to do so in English. In response to Fumiko and Alex’s further responses to the student writer, I wondered if the writer might extend their Visual Report by writing an additional commentary in Japanese about what they wanted to say but hadn’t been able to say in English. Such a combination of writing in English and Japanese might be empowering for writers as they develop their academic literacy.

I learnt a great deal from considering the richness of views that people shared. In the following class I talked with the student writer about whether she would, were she to continue and extend her research, research food banks in her local community and visit them to find out about how they work, and why.

Looking back now as I write these interpretative comments a few weeks after the get-together, Ken’s memory of his mother advocating for the homeless remains a very powerful ‘small story’, as do Fumiko’s critical reflections on the activities of the 子食堂. They encourage me, as do Alex’s and Blair’s responses about reasoning and doing local research, to see advocacy and public awareness-raising as a creative and critical way for students to mediate their research and writing into global issues in different genres and connect to ‘actions of change’.

Blair: Just like the first part of the meeting, I found this discussion regarding the written “visual report” from Andy’s student particularly meaningful, as I happen to be teaching a similar course on global issues at the same institution this term. As a matter of fact, Andy and I were even contemplating whether or not we both had been teaching this student, because I had a student with a similar topic; however, after reading the contents of the report, I was led to believe that these were indeed two different students.

Anyway, being familiar with the capabilities of some students at this institution, when I was asked to consider what kinds of things I would comment on, I personally don’t focus too much on the language details if it is comprehensible, but one of the first things I always look for is that any statement of belief is actually presented with some kind of supporting information that is referenced in some way. In my own classes, I always recommend that when a reason is written, then they should always aim to support that reason with either statistics or supporting narratives that they can reference. In this way, the students get into a habit of solidifying their work in a larger field of research. Also, with first year students, it helps make them more familiar with the process of academic writing, even if the topics are of a more popular nature.

Anyway, that was my take on this paper Andy shared with us. I was glad Andy shared this, as it has inspired me to similarly prepare for our next meeting with copies of student work to discuss with a group. I would love to get the take of other teachers on how they would evaluate student work and provide feedback. I would also love to get feedback on my own approaches to dealing with student work. I look forward to a similar opportunity.