I was introduced to the hashtag #1st5days on the first day of the Building Learning Communities conference in Boston this summer. Host, Alan November, challenged delegates to try something new, something different in their classrooms on their return and to write about it, share it, tweet it, blog it and to use the hashtag #1st5days wherever possible.
The idea is simple, yet profound. Alan was challenging us to make the first five days of term a launchpad for a change in our practice, and more importantly to share this phenomenon with teachers and interested others in the online world.
So what could we do back at St Paul’s? We had already committed to using The Flipped Classroom approach with our Year 8 students (more about this later), but we wanted a thought provoking lesson to get our returning students moving quite quickly and to challenge them, and inspire them to look at our classrooms in a different way, and act as a catalyst for the change we hope to promote during this new academic year.
My Head of Department, and BLC colleague Ciara McCoy had already posted on BLC Values Exchange website about the usefulness (or not) of Google Translate in the languages classroom, and remarked that “telling my students not to use Google Translate isn’t working”. I’ve found the same in my own classroom. It’s the easy option for students – paste text into the Google Translate search box, and copy and paste the result into an essay, and hey presto, a perfect piece of work. But Ciara was keen to find out if our students recognised the value of Google Translate, and were they aware of its advantages and disadvantages.
We worked on a lesson plan which would throw our Year 9 and Year 10 students into a lesson where there was little teacher direction, and a demand for collaboration and discussion to meet the success criteria.
You can download the whiteboard instructions we displayed below from here: Year 10 2012 Google translate lesson
The lesson was quite simple. As the students arrived into the classrom, the instructions (in the Word document above) were posted on the IWB. We started a visible countdown clock at 15 minutes and we sat at the back of the classroom, or busied ourselves doing other tasks in the room while the students settled down for the lesson. After the initial arrival noise and the ritual ‘getting the books out on the desk’, the classes started to get quiet and wonder why I (or Ciara) wasn’t shouting instructions and beginning the lesson as we always do.
Eventually (after an average of about two and a half minutes) one of the students read the instructions on the IWB and realised that a task had begun and they needed to organise themselves into groups of three (with extra credit being awarded if their group consisted of boys and girls) and begin a discussion on whether they considered Google Translate a useful tool.
It was fun to watch the penny drop in each class, and amusing (and at times disconcerting) to notice how uncomfortable our students were with this approach. Comments directed to me included ‘Sir, do we have to read this on the board?’, or ‘Do we begin now, Sir?’ even though it clearly stated ‘Time has started’ on the instructions, and the countdown clock was rapidly heading towards zero. The students were more comfortable with being told explicitly what to do from me, rather than having to read instructions and organise themselves.
But once this initial hurdle was overcome, it was very interesting to notice how quickly the students got down to task. They were very comfortable with working in groups, and the noise level in the classroom wasn’t much more than normal for a languages room. I was pleased to see how quickly hands went into pockets and mobile phones and other devices were extracted. There was still a hint of nervousness and a few glances in my direction at the back of the room to enquire if they really were allowed to use them in the lesson – but there was always someone in the group who would say in a loud voice, ‘phones are allowed – it says so on the board’. (To help with the lesson, I set up an ad-hoc WiFi network in the room, and set a password, which I shared with the class. This allowed them to get on to our WiFi quite quickly, and bypassed the usual setup routine which I knew would delay the lesson).
The students were asked to give their thoughts on the usefulness of Google Translate, and to use examples to back up their opinion. Some groups spent most of the fifteen minutes playing with Google Translate on their smartphones and entering examples of words and phrases where they knew already Google Translate would fail. Another group found an Irish-English dictionary in the classroom, and used that as point of reference to compare with the online alternative. One observation that interested me was a group who didn’t use their smartphones or the computers in my classroom, but simply had a discussion and put their thoughts based on their own prior experience of Google Translate (and a host of examples of where they had gone wrong) down on paper.
After the fifteen minutes elapsed, I came ‘back to life’ and began engaging with the class. I invited them to feed back their thoughts on Google Translate and its usefulness and I recorded their opinions on a flipchart. The results were overwhelmingly negative, which amazed me. The students didn’t regard Google Translate as an accurate or a useful tool for a languages students. While they recognised the benefits of checking a single word, they quickly worked out that it was pretty unreliable for whole sentences or phrases. I was impressed by how developed their language was and how refined their critical evaluation skills were.
The highlight of one of these lessons for me was when one student (a Year 9 boy) during the feedback said, ‘We don’t think Google Translate is a useful tool at all. In fact our survey backs up this view. 80% of replies found it a poor tool, while only 20% liked it’. I had to do a second take! ‘Their survey’?
I challenged the student on this, and asked how he was able to carry out a survey in such a limited amount of time. He laughed as he and his group explained that as they were discussing the merits of Google Translate, he quickly sent out of BBM message to all the people in his contact list (over 50) asking the question ‘What do u think of Google Translate? Reply asap – need to no for Irish class’ (I know this was the wording, as several students in the class showed me their phones having received this message during their discussion). It transpired that within seconds, this student had received five replies, four negative towards Google Translate, and only a single one praising it. They quickly ‘did the math’ and presented their findings during the feedback session. I was gobsmacked at how effective their research was, and how quickly it had been achieved. The students in the room all looked at me as if I was possessed – this was something so easy and natural to them, that they were amazed that I would even question how it was achieved.
The lesson above is one of three lessons I’m using as part of my #1st5days back at school. The second lesson invites the students to consider the advantages and disadvantages, threats, risks and opportunities afforded by using mobile technology in the classroom, and the third lesson is designed to consider the responses from the previous lesson with the aim of drawing up an ‘appropriate use’ protocol of mobile technology when the students are in the classroom. I’m hoping the students will draw up their own rules having discussed in depth the benefits and risks of using devices like these in the room.
I’ll blog some more later this week about how we get on with our #1st5days at St Paul’s, and how I’m hoping what we do this week will be a launchpad for continued innovation and better learning in my classroom.
PS – I’m conscious the above blog post reads as if using mobile phones in classroom is the norm in my school. It isn’t. This wasn’t the first time I had encouraged my students to use their own devices in a lesson, but it definitely isn’t common practice. My department is piloting the use of mobile technology in the classroom this term, as we begin a ‘conversation’ with students, parents and teachers about how we use devices in the classroom appropriately, and as we update and revise our Acceptable Use Policy. We’ll evaluate the pilot before Christmas, in the anticipation that our new policy will be accepted and implemented in the second term. You can expect lots of updates about how we work out way through all the issues using smartphones in class will throw up. Wish me luck!
PPS - I was interviewed during #BLC12 about my plans for the #1st5days. You can see a snippet of what I had to say in the video below. Apologies in advance for the dodgy face furniture – it was the summer holidays!