My British Council Comenius Assistantantship teaching English (TEFL) in a Greek high school

me with some of my pupils
me with some of my pupils
me teaching
me teaching

The following report is a description of my time as Comenius Assistant at Xylokastro’s 2nd Junior High School. I have described the experiences I have had of teaching here and the various approaches to aiding students in the acquisition of the English language that I have used. For each one I have reviewed how effective the methods were for the students learning, and how I felt about using them.

Upon my arrival in the school I gave a presentation on Scottish culture and traditions. Topics covered included music, dancing, food and sports. The interest from the students was very encouraging and they asked many questions on diverse aspects of Scottish life. This event also gave an opportunity for students to share information on Scottish traditions and culture, which they had previously researched and prepared. I found that students gained a lot from this event as it gave them an understanding about another culture and an opportunity to interact in English by asking questions to a native English speaker. I enjoyed this experience as I gained confidence from the practice in preparing a presentation and interacting with a large group of people. The informal environment was good for encouraging interaction between my-self and the students.

The first activity I did with the students in class was an activity entitled ‘guess who?’ which consisted of myself providing a description of a famous person (singer, actor, writer, politician, sports personality etc), and the students trying to guess who this person was from the clues I gave, (This activity corresponds well with the activity in A book, unit 4 p45). I found this a very useful teaching technique as it worked well regardless of English abilities as some clues were understandable by all. For instance, naming pop songs, films and sports teams helped to include people who were not as familiar with English vocabulary but recognised the names. Students were also interested with the subject matter as they have a genuine interest in pop culture and famous people! I found this activity encouraged inclusion and co-operation of the whole class in every case, and I gained the skills of being able to use a topic which interests students in order for them to learn. I carried this activity out with all classes of all levels on a number of occasions and found that their interest did not waver, but remained high and constant.

Another activity which proved quite popular was the Nessie activity. I adapted this for different classes according to their abilities. In the first activity ‘Nessie’s Diary of sightings’, I prepared a print- off of the sighting of the Loch Ness Monster. I asked for volunteers to read the sightings and then discussed what the class had understood from each particular sighting. I also took the opportunity to teach the students new vocabulary by asking which words they were not familiar with. I found the students really enjoyed the unusual nature of this activity. They got very much involved in discussion about Nessie- particularly wanting to know if she exists! The second lesson was a compilation I had made on facts about the Loch Ness Monster. Again, students took it in turns to read and the information in the text was discussed. This lesson was based upon much simpler English language, and the text was a lot shorter. It worked well as it met the students where they were at their abilities while still providing stimulating subject matter. These lessons provided the students with a break from the normal text book based lessons and they got very much involved in the topic. I think they genuinely found the subject interesting and refreshing and this lead to a positive learning environment and an opportunity to build the interest as well of the confidence of the students in communicating in English. I particularly enjoyed these lessons and was glad I could use something of my own culture to inspire the students to learn and take a genuine interest in the English language and Scottish culture. I learned from these lessons that students respond well to unusual and strange topics which capture the imagination. I will definitely use these when teaching in future.

The following week I did a lesson with all classes on the ghost hauntings of Scotland. Another weird and wacky subject the students really enjoyed! I started this lesson with a listening exorcise on the history of reported hauntings in Scotland, including the history of Edinburgh Castle and the Dungeons where prisoners were kept. This provided the students with an opportunity to listen to a native English speaker talk for a part of the lesson. I also taught the classes some new vocabulary from this. I then asked the students to come up with their own ghost stories in groups, which included the guideline questions of: who the ghost had been before they died, where they died, how they had died and what had the haunting been like. I found that students responded very well to the activity and the opportunity to describe something gory and horrifying! The stories were very imaginative and descriptive, and the vast majority of students got involved in some way. From this activity I learned how to carry out group activities within the class, and how to effectively manage time in the classroom when doing activities like this. I enjoyed the enthusiasm of the students in applying themselves to this task, and once again noted the importance of interesting subject matter.

I found the use of media very useful in encouraging the interest of the students in learning and applying what they learned in English lessons. I used a clip from the popular ‘Friends’ series to teach the B and C classes how to listen for specific information, and also how to intimate information from a given context, such as behaviour. The students were presented with questions on the clip they were shown ‘The one with the chick and the duck’, and asked to find the answers from the clip. Even in instances were the students did not fully understand the conversation of the characters in the clip, they could make good guesses from watching what was happening in the clip. This was a useful activity as all students were able to answer some of the questions from what they had observed, and thus all could get involved. The students also responded very well to the humorous nature of the clip and thus enjoyed the activity. Thus I learned that using learning aides, such as media was a very useful way to gain the interest of the students and to promote interesting conversation. This was also a very good opportunity to teach new vocabulary, as the students had a visually memorable context for remembering it.

Another lesson involving media which went interestingly was a clip of an interview with the rapper Eminem which I made a fill in the blank activity for the students to fill out based upon the answers Eminem gave to questions the interviewer asked. The students were given the fill in the blanks exercise to fill out to familiarise themselves with the required information before watching the clip. Many students responded well to this by answering some of the questions, but the greatest opportunity to learn came from the discussion prompted by the important social issues which were raised in the video. The C classes which did this video benefited from discussion on poverty, single- parent families, bullying and racism. I was actually surprised by some of the issues that they picked up on from watching this video and would be encouraged to use this type of teaching aid again, as even though some of the students struggled to fill in the blanks, all got involved in the discussion topics, taking a very genuine interest in social justice issues.

I carried out an activity with C class which involved presenting information on famous people as part of the ‘Teen Idols’ unit (Unit 2). This was a fill out the blank activity on information passages I had compiled on the actor Leonardo DiCaprio and the singer Shakira. This activity contained the missing words in a box at the bottom and students had to guess where words belonged according to the context of the sentences containing the blanks. I found this activity was very useful in teaching the students to use a context to figure out where a word belongs, and thus to actively engage in understanding the English language. I did encounter a bit of confusion during the classes, regarding where each word was supposed to go, as some could go in more than one place. I have learned to control for this by making sure that words can only fit in one place to minimise confusion. Again I feel that students enjoyed this activity as they found the subject interesting, and would use this type of activity in future.

I did a very interesting activity on ‘Weather’ with one of the A classes, corresponding to p51, Unit 4 of the A class workbook. For this lesson I obtained a map of Greece and made some weather symbols. I then asked students to take turns at giving a weather forecast by placing these symbols over certain parts of Greece. Needless to say, Xylokastro was warm and sunny every time! This was a good chance for students to become actively involved in using and interpreting the vocabulary they had learned from that section of the unit. It was also an enjoyable activity, and a refreshing break from using the textbook- though it was a covert way of teaching from the book! Students had fun making in snow in strange places and giving neighbouring areas of Greece rain and strong winds very often. We then went onto have a discussion about the weather of different countries and what they understood about the occurrence of natural disaster and the implications of weather for the lives and wellbeing of people in other countries. From this lesson I learned how discussion in English benefited the learners and how it built their confidence in using English.

With one of the Classes I taught from p46 of the Student book, which was a lesson on clothing as a form of communication. I used this opportunity to make an unusual activity part of the lesson. I brought my sari from India, as well as an Arabian head scarf and a set of catholic rosary beads and took volunteers out of the class to have them dressed in these. They then went back into the class, and students had to guess things about the person they were portraying according to what they were wearing. This was a fun activity that the class really enjoyed, and something a bit different and memorable. We had discussion on what other types of dress sense said about people, such as Goths, rappers, Chinese people etc. I gained an understanding of how students respond well to creativity and ‘thinking outside of the box’, from this lesson. It is also a fond memory of my time at the school.

With another of the C classes I prepared an activity for the ‘body talk’ section, p40 of the Student Book. Once the students had been taught some vocabulary on body language such as hand signals and facial expressions I placed a pile of folded up pieces of paper on the desk which contained instructions of a scenario to act out. The people who volunteered were not allowed to tell the class what they were trying to express as the class had to guess by describing the body language vocabulary they had learned. My favourite was, ‘you are being chased by a big scary bear and you are scared.’ I learned from this lesson that providing a learning outcome and then an applied opportunity to use it is a very effective way to teach and learn. The students were very motivated in their efforts to use the vocabulary they had learned, and they all enjoyed part- taking in the game.

A game I found most beneficial was a game I played with one of the C classes. In the activity called ‘Through the open door’, students were asked to describe an imaginary adventure they had had through walking through a door while not knowing what was on the other side till they got there. I asked the following questions: What did you find when you went through the door? How did you feel? What did you do? Did you see anyone/ anything? How did it end? Did you get out? The students gave a really good effort in doing this activity and came up with some very impressive stories. The vocabulary used was very diverse and highly descriptive. Even students who were not very confident in their skills got involved and excited about the activity. I learned that this kind of activity is quite a useful one for targeting students of different capabilities as they all knew some describing words they could use such as the size and colours of things and how they felt. They could also name rooms of the house and say if they saw a man, woman or animal. This added to the sentences I had written o the board, e.g, “I saw…”, “Then I…”, “I felt…” “I ran/ walked/ fell/ screamed etc”, made it an easy exercise while also being a wonderful example of how to practise grammar, vocabulary and speaking skills.

I have noticed through my time at this school that creativity is the best way to get students actively involved in their learning. When an activity is a bit unusual and interesting students are relieved from workbook stresses which may leave them feeling a bit overwhelmed and unconvinced about their abilities to do well. On the occasions where workbook activities where combined with new and creative activities students took very well to the activity and seemed more inclined to give it a try. I can identify with this from my learning of French when I was at school. I always felt grateful for a break from the textbook as it seemed over- whelming at times. It is very important to stick to the textbook the majority of the time though, as it provides an important structure and sense of continuity for students, however, adding an enjoyable twist to learning activates the imagination of students, and in this case I think it worked very well.

I did a number of listening activities with the different classes in the school, including student book ones and my own listening activities on the Loch Ness monster and the hauntings in Scotland. I feel that students gained a valuable experience from these in listening to a native English speaker. I noticed that over time the students seemed to have a better understanding of what I was saying . I think it is important for the student’s acquisition of English that they hear native English speakers talking, whether in-person or on television shows, listening recordings etc.

Extra participation

I was invited to take part in an Ancient Greek class where I was taught about the battle of Marathon by the students who had translated the text in their books into English to share with me. I really enjoyed this lesson and the opportunity it presented for me to learn about Greek history. I appreciated the effort the students had put into preparing the materials to recite to me. I was very interested in the way that Ancient Greek is taught by combining the history and language by presenting historical documents in ancient Greek. I think this is very useful for students and it taught me that this kind of applied manner of learning is very useful for teaching any subject, but especially a foreign language.

I took part in a Home economics class in which I was asked to inform the students about the life of their Scottish peers. This was and dynamic and interactive lesson where the students asked me questions on many aspects of school, family and general teenage life in Scotland. Students showed a sincere interest in learning about another culture and where genuinely curious as to the kind of lives teenagers in my home country have. I answered questions concerning family sizes, the roles of men and women, typical teenage hobbies, relationships between teenage boys and girls (off course!) and the lay-out of the regular school day and week. Students were very surprised that the Scottish school day is longer and a bit jealous that they get to go into town and have lunch with their friends between classes! I very much enjoyed this interactive session as it gave me an opportunity to talk freely with the students and to relate to them more, while learning a lot about the differences they communicated about their culture and my own. I gained from this experience the ability to relate better to the students and to adapt on a greater level to the equality between teacher and students that I have learned about in my assistantship. I came to understand more the benefits of this type of approach as I could see that genuine progress in the students opening up to me was happening. This is something I have grown in through my placement in the school, and I will use this in future situations when I am teaching in an environment that allows for this level of co-operation and to encourage a collaborative atmosphere.

In the careers classes I participated in I taught the students about the Scottish education system using a presentation I had prepared. This included the levels of education in Scotland, subjects taught and qualifications/ career routes. The students who participated in these classes were very interested in the Scottish education system and asked many questions on a variety of aspects of my native school system, such as the choices students had regarding the subjects they studied, methods used to teach and progress in careers and employment after school. I feel the students really enjoyed these sessions as they seemed very eager to learn more about how a school student’s life differs in another country. There was never a quiet moment as the questions kept coming. I gained the ability to relate to the students a lot better due to this experience, as it meant communicating with most of them at some point and finding different ways to explain things that they found difficult to understand when there was not someone present to translate. I enjoyed the co-operative nature of this learning environment and I appreciate the opportunity it gave me to prepare a presentation for teaching with. I found the practice at preparing teaching materials very helpful.

In addition to my time working with the school I am placed with I also have had the opportunity to visit 2 other Junior High Schools. In these schools I worked with a number of classes where I spent some time answering the questions they had for me on Scottish culture and teenage life. I also enjoyed watching some presentations that the students in one of the schools had prepared for me describing the local area. I also had a chance to play fun activities with these students, such as the ‘guess who’ game and the game where students have to take it in turn to come up with a word beginning with the last letter of the previous word another pupil has just chosen. I very much enjoyed my opportunity to take part in the English classes of these other schools as it gave me more of an insight into the Greek education system and I feel it is something the other students sincerely enjoyed and where excited by.

I would very much like to take this opportunity to thank the staff at Xylokastro 2nd Junior High School for their welcoming and positive attitude to having me work alongside them in the school. I have very much enjoyed the opportunity to learn from the highly skilled and experienced staff I have worked with including especially Rania, Aliki and Athina. It has been a privilege to work with you and to learn from your examples in the classroom, in teaching methods and responding to students various needs. I have benefited greatly for the observance of your approach in teaching and will remember these when working with students in the future. I would also very much like to thank Sofia Smyrni for inviting me to conduct my Comenius Assistantship in the school, and for her constant support and commitment to making my stay in the school, and town an enjoyable experience. Thank- you to all the staff and pupils for giving me this valuable opportunity to learn how to be part of a school which highly prizes educational opportunity and an equality of respect and co-operation between staff and students.

With warm regards and sincere thankfulness to you all,

Fiona Higgins.

(Comenius Assistant to Xylokastro 2nd Junior High January 2011- June 2011.)

Xylokastro coast line
Xylokastro coast line
Greek Orthodox Church in the Corinthian mountains
Greek Orthodox Church in the Corinthian mountains
Corinthian mountains
Corinthian mountains
Xylokastro town square with the Agyious Villasias Church at the center
Xylokastro town square with the Agyious Villasias Church at the center
Greek monopoly!
Greek monopoly!
Greek Orthodox Church in the Corinthian mountains
Greek Orthodox Church in the Corinthian mountains
The Corinthain mountains
The Corinthain mountains
Palm trees :)
Palm trees :)

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