I had the privilege of visiting Bro Edern school in Cardiff last week. I’m not going to lie, as I was sat in the school reception it did cross my mind ‘what on earth’ was I doing as my heart began to race. I’m a linguist and very proud of it. That said, sadly, one of the languages I’m confident / fluent in isn’t Welsh. So it’s fair to say I was ever so slightly anxious about the day ahead.
Having been greeted by the reception team so beautifully in Welsh how was I going to be able to understand what was happening and communicate when asked a question or spoken to? I felt out of my depth and very much like a fish out of water. As a confident / competent polyglot this feeling is peculiar not least because we can always ‘get by‘ using knowledge of other languages to be understood but I knew it wasn’t going to happen at Bro Edern.
I remembered the wonderful site manager, originally from Bermondsey, had kindly collected me from the hillside car park, said in his broad non-Welsh accent to ‘not worry’ and ‘it’d be an interesting experience’, smiling throughout. He’d explained how he loved his job but hadn’t yet managed to find the time to learn Welsh other than a few words to help him through his school day. He clearly loved it here and wouldn’t dream of departing this great school nor the city that was now his beloved home. What a star he was for detecting my lack of Welsh and concerns evidently furrowing my brow.
My reasons for visiting to Bro Edern school were tri-fold;
- To place myself in the position we often place our learners in, expecting learners to cope and respond positively and accurately (lets also not forget confidently) in lessons bursting in target language
- To see and experience how an iPad school works (that’s right no exercise books!)
- To head to the Languages team to discuss all things MFL
I’m very grateful to the team who despite; the two week notification of Estyn’s arrival at the school (good luck!), the imminent arrival of Minister for Welsh alongside two great Welsh poets, and not forgetting the BBC, had welcomed me with open arms to their school three days before the end of term. It was just another day at Bro Edern and every teacher I saw took the numerous visitors in their stride, doing what they do everyday, nothing different. It is such a pleasure to visit another school to see their daily goings on, their practice, to feel the ethos, to meet the students and ultimately to experience how things are done to challenge or reinforce my own mindset, strategies and ways of doing things.
After a full day of observing language lessons in German and French and speaking with the MFL team I’ve come away with a few things to consider for my own classroom, department and practice notably:
- iPad usage in my classroom and across the department – how can I get my hands on some for the team to facilitate further quizzing and gamification of key vocabulary and grammatical terms to enhance and deepen students learning whilst extending breadth? We have worked hard to update vocabulary and grammatical phrase learning and usage within our MFL team so Edtech usage with iPads could further embed this across the department. We are seeing the fruits of our labours but I’m always looking for another way to support students progress and development through interleaving and spaced practice. That said, currently we do not have iPads so this would be a new venture for us in to Edtech but an exciting project for sure.
- Creating booklet based resources and activities in place of KS3 text and exercise books. At Bro Edern, French and German are taught through the medium of Welsh and funnily enough resources in Welsh to teach both languages are few and far between (though where there are some they are very costly indeed). Each student does have an iPad and this can be used to create a log of learning through apps like book creator which I observed. The MFL team have worked hard to create colourful unitised booklets to support their learners which develop reading, writing, comprehension, vocabulary and translation skills. These also serve as a glossary of key vocabulary and phrases too. Huge emphasis is placed upon speaking in the target language so I saw lots of active learning, recall and repetition and students using the target (foreign) language in classrooms.
- I’ve been a strong advocate of eportfolios for a while where students can upload a range of tasks specifically created and set by the teacher to collate work, and evidence that supports progress in understanding and skills as well as to practise language skills. Eportfolios provide teachers with opportunities to set a range of tasks that aren’t just worksheet or text book based reading and written tasks. Of course uploading opens up the idea that this task has been published and teachers can use this as a positive strategy to encourage students to ‘go for it’ and aim for excellence. I’m very aware that ICT infrastructure and use of personal digital devices differs significantly across schools according to policy and institution so this could be a challenge, one which I’m sure could be overcome with a meeting or two with the ICT manager, clear guidelines and understanding of use. Also we need to ensure safeguarding of online student activity and the protection of these eportfolios in these digital times.
- How we make students feel in our lessons everyday. I’m reminded of the famous quote from Maya Angelou. I can’t underestimate the impact and depth of feeling that my visit to Bro Edern has evoked; placing myself in a situation of a student, a complete and utter novice, where 100% of the language used I couldn’t access nor understand had my anxiety levels peaked. I recall at university our French lecturer arranging for an amazing Urdu teacher to visit a session who proceeded to teach us in Urdu. None of us could speak Urdu. This visit, rather like the Urdu lesson, served as reminder to truly know your students, before planning learning outcomes and lesson activities, know what they can and can’t do; plan purposeful activities to welcome and ease students in to your target language lesson so they can achieve success unrestricted by anxiety or insecurity because they aren’t sure what’s going on or because their brains are still functioning in English or their native tongue. We need to make sure learners aren’t anxious, as I was, about language lessons in order for them to achieve success! Of course we need to immerse learners in to the target language, I’m not saying we don’t, but we do have a responsibility to walk them in carefully and with compassion so students aren’t anxious nor stressed in MFL lessons (or indeed in any lesson) and can access the learning, recall and build on previously learned knowledge and make steps forward in understanding, knowledge and skill development also building in confidence and trust. We know that anxiety and excessive cognitive load profoundly impacts upon progress and confidence as well as student wellbeing ( let’s not forget attitude to learning and behaviour) therefore knowing your students is vital if you are to help them grow and achieve success.
I had a great day and was made to feel very welcome by all who work at Bro Edern, so MFL specialists who fancy a challenge, do head to a Welsh medium school and put yourself in the place of a complete and utter beginner; it’s non-stop target language and a brilliant experience. It absolutely does put you in the place of our students when we insist on 100% target language so will make you think I’m sure. I am pleased to say that I understood the German (though rusty) and the French but as for Welsh, well let’s just say I’ve a long way to go on that learning journey!