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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Meet My PLN (Personal Learning Network) Series: Part 3

As part of this series I've interviewed Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, a teacher of English currently living in Kitakyushu, Japan. She´s taught English as a second language for a little more than 20 years and she´s a valuable member of my PLN. The following are her replies:

  • Why have you decided to start the teaching career?
Barbara: I never actually wanted to be anything except a teacher. Even as a child, when we played school I was ALWAYS the teacher--I'm sure it was quite annoying for my sister and friends. To be perfectly honest, there was a two week period in junior high school when I wanted to be a flight attendant. We'd gone on a field trip to the airport and I thought it would be lovely to have a job where I was paid to travel. Unfortunately, I realized that I'd never reach the minimum height requirement, so I happily returned to wanting to be a teacher.


  • In your opinion, what are the advantages of using technology in the classroom?
Barbara: There are times when technology can improve on what you are already doing. For example, having my students write their own alphabet book helps them "own" their learning. Typically, they would make a page for each letter, and add words that begin with that sound. In the past, I would make a copy of the book for each student, and that was the end of the project. This past year, however, I added a technology twist to the project by using Voicethread for their book. Each page was uploaded as a separate slide, and the children recorded their words as comments on that "page". The advantage of using technology was that it allowed other people to collaborate on the project by adding their own words to the letter pages. The volunteers included native and non-native speakers of English from around the world, so that my students understood from a young age that English has many varieties, and that all speakers don't sound like me. A first grade class in the US adopted my students' alphabet book as their project too, and added words. My students were surprised to learn that children in the US were learning the same thing that they were, and impressed with how many words those children knew!

I could download copies of the book for my students, so they could watch and listen at home, and students were able to share the link with friends and grandparents. Since the book is online, other classes can use the alphabet book or continue to add words--it's an ongoing, global collaboration.

In this case, adding technology improved on what I'd be able to do in class without the technology. That made it worth the additional time it took for me to learn how to use the tool, and for my students to use it. Everything has a learning curve, and I have to weigh that cost against the benefits. I only have a finite amount of time with my students, and I want to make the best use of it that I can.

  • As you see it, what factors determine that a class has been successfully taught?

Barbara: If my students leave knowing something they didn't know when they arrived at class, if they leave feeling more confident in their skills as language users, if they are happy and excited to return to class the following week--these are my signs that things went well.

  • Is there a teaching method you favour? If so, which one?

Barbara: I don't really favor one method over another. I'm more of a "whatever works" kind of teacher. I believe in learning as much as I can about many different methods so that I can pick from among them depending on the needs and personality of each class.

  • What technique do you use to correct your students' mistakes?

Barbara: I use a variety of techniques, depending on the age, skill level, and personality of my students. I'll often shadow my students, repeating what they were trying to say (correctly) or I'll do a quick mini-lesson focusing on a mistake that several students have been making. I try to focus on errors that interfere with understanding rather than correcting every mistake. If I focus on a few important corrections each class students stand a better chance of remembering (and changing) than if I try to correct too many things. I also try to use humor in error correction, partly because it makes students laugh and reduces their feeling of being criticized and partly because it makes the correction easier to remember.

  • Should technology be present in the students' assessment? In what way?

Barbara: I think it depends on the class, of course. If technology is used throughout the course, then it makes sense to assess students the way they've been taught. However, I think there's a risk that you might end up testing their ability to use the technology more than their understanding of the language. I think it's important to be sure that you're actually testing what you intend to test.

  • What is an effective way of assessing students?

Barbara: The most effective way I've found is informal--I keep notes about student progress, problems, areas to strengthen, and preferences. I'm not currently teaching in a formal school setting, so my assessments are simply a way for me to improve my own instruction or to give suggestions to parents who want to include additional enrichment at home. Several of my students have recently decided that they'd like to take a standardized English test that's popular here in Japan (Step Eiken) so we've been including practice for test-taking skills in class. What's interesting is that the test is not really serving as an assessment as much as it is providing another topic for our lessons. I'm looking forward to hearing their feedback about the test after they've taken it.

a final question, What is your recommendation for new teachers?

Connect. Join a teacher's group in your country, go to conferences and attend workshops. Join Twitter and/or online groups for teachers. There are so many fabulous, experienced teachers around that there's no reason to try and figure everything out on your own. Ask questions and ask for help--I can guarantee that there is some teacher somewhere who has been in a situation similar to yours, and you'll discover more support and experienced advice than you could ever imagine! Even after you've finished your formal training, continue to learn as much as you can about methods, philosophies, techniques, and materials so that you can choose what will work best for your students. And finally, (my personal motto!) always try new things :-)


Thank you very much for your time, Barbara! And thanks for sharing your expertise with all us.