Reflections of an EFL Learner

English is my second language. I started learning when I was in secondary, and the passion that I developed encouraged me to pursue a BA in Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) and in teaching Spanish (my mother tongue) as a foreign language. In the process I learned French and Italian, and at present I continue to learn Chinese. Learning and teaching language, thus, has become a life style and a way of amplifying my convictions.

Language is more than a collection of vocabulary items, and a system of time tenses, and types of sentences. Language is the tool that allows us to access information and knowledge, and that enables us to contribute to all fields of knowledge. Individuals who attempt to learn a language will eventually face the need of increasing the sophistication of the language they are learning, and to move beyond colloquial conversations.

People can be very fluent in their command of the language for social and communicative purposes, but comprehending and utilizing the language for specific purposes is a completely different universe. This particular asseveration has caused a lot of international schools to support subject teachers to become language teachers, specifically English as a Foreign Language (EFL) teachers.

I have respectfully witnessed how several experts (many of whom are monolingual) provide professional development through which teachers are equipped with a series of strategies to support their students who are not native speakers of English. Nonetheless, these strategies are strategies that future EFL teachers are taught in order to teach learners to acquire the language, and to develop their social language competencies.

As I hear about these experiences, I cannot help but wonder:

  • Will students feel that they are extending their knowledge on the subject by solely doing vocabulary exercises? How can their language experience be maximized?
  • Will teachers develop exemplary language classes and consider the inquiries and content in their subjects as a second priority? How can we find the balance?
  • Will teachers and students shorten the already limited learning time they possess in order to work on language items in isolation?

Clearly not all subject teachers are language (let alone foreign language) teachers; but evidently not all foreign language teachers are subject teachers or possess the knowledge to explain how language is used in all subjects. Added to this, many of the experts that provide support have no idea about how the mother tongue of the learners whose teachers they are training. In brief, the mistake I have observed is that the experts that schools bring with a lot of hope and positivity share strategies that have worked in their context (mostly USA, UK, and Canada), where students are surrounded by the language, and not one in which speaking English at school is the only bubble in which this experience takes place.

I have spent the last 2 years learning about the context of the students that attend the school in which I work. I have spent a considerable amount of time learning about the engagements they can share with their parents in order for home to be an extension to the language learning experience. Likewise, I have been looking into how their mother tongues work. I have been keeping track of the mistakes they make and looked at how those ideas are expressed in their language in order to find ways to help teachers develop metacognitive, linguistic skills in their students, taking into consideration how ideas are constructed in the students’ mother languages. This personal inquiry has helped me to conclude that whatever support will be given to the teachers of specific group of students must take those aspects into consideration, otherwise it will be biased for it was clearly designed for learners in a different context.

Moreover, I have had the opportunity to put into practice the tools I have developed through my investigation in several schools with a similar context as mine: a combination of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and other Asian nationals.  I have confirmed that knowing about how the students’ languages operate has helped me to support teachers design language tools that make sense to students.

Needless to say, my experience as a language learner, not only English but also Chinese- which helps me understand some Japanese, has been key in the design of these tools and approaches to teaching. Likewise, the error analysis protocols that I have created in collaboration with teachers of those languages has helped me to figure out shortcuts whereby students will be able to produce big ideas, and to speak with a sense of ownership.

Below are a few screenshots of the tools I have developed in order to enrich the language experience in a specific-subject-environment.

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An example for Mathematics.

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An example for Biology.

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Excerpt of student’s self-correction tool

To bring this post to a closure, I would like to mention a few of the challenges that I have kept in mind in this journey (the list keeps growing)

  • How to help students formulate statements and questions that can lead to meaningful inquiry.
  • How to translate these activities into learning experiences that extend students’ conceptual understanding.
  • How to guide students to understand the linguistic competencies demands for each lesson. (What do we want them to communicate and how)
  • How to develop students’ competence in communicating new understandings.


Interested parties in learning about the PD I have developed as a result of this research, do not hesitate to contact me.

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Finding treasures in the learning journey


Sometimes I have the feeling we are living in a new era of exploration. Nonetheless, the geographies we explore in this search have deep connections with the roots we grow in the places that make us feel that we belong, with the bonds we build with the people with whom and from whom we learn, and from the promise that is made with those with whom we collaborate in an attempt to improve an aspect of our present. In this post I want to feel like Ibn Battuta, and explore a very specific latitude of learning: the kind of learning that were we find the treasures.

What could educators possibly want to find as he explored the geography of their school?

What could qualify as treasures?

I want to claim that the ‘treasures’ educators want to find is a collection of experiences that serve as evidence to prove that all members of the community are making sure the school’s Mission Statement is brought to life.

As I stated in one of my blog posts about advisory: A school’s Mission Statement is a declaration of the principles that exist in the school’s learning culture, and should serve as a guide to inform the community about the skills, attitudes, and values the institution is equipped to instill in each learner. Thus, teachers should be used to planning following these precepts, and they’d better make sure they do for the many affiliations the school has will eventually demand to see how the school does it.

In the IB world, it is a common practice to invite students to embrace and demonstrate attributes of the IB Learner Profile by carrying out certain tasks and showcasing some specific dispositions. However, very rarely have I witnessed how teachers and administrators engage students in dialogue about what the school’s Mission Statement expects them to be like; and about whether they know what character they will have to show in order to demonstrate the necessary attitudes to fulfill the school’s Mission Statement.

IMG_6123I started playing around with this idea in October 2016. So I decided to use the secondary assemblies as a venue not only to expose students to the core values of my current school’s Mission Statement, but also to allow them to see how each value was exemplified through cases I presented. Thus, I would start these assemblies by informing students what core values of the Mission Statement would be addressed.

As the year approached its culmination, I thought it’d be a good idea to ask students to join my exploration journey and see whether they could find treasures in their own learning experiences. Therefore, in an assembly, I asked students to collaborate with their grade peers in identifying which of activities they did this academic year represented the core values of the school’s Mission Statement. After sharing with everyone, they were just informed that they had the last month of school to individually look back at their journeys in school (including curricular and extra curricular work), as well as those engagements they are part of after school, and identify an experience for each of the values of the school’s Mission Statement.

Below, dear reader, you will find three testaments that have allowed me to see that an appropriate collection of learning scenarios to bring the school’s mission to fruition was created. However, most importantly, you will be able to read a curated series of choices students made about what mattered to them in this last academic year. Clearly, we are using the school’s Mission Statement as filters, but the amount of personal insights that is now hosted in the collection of journeys students shared provide us with the opportunity to design future learning scenarios in which we capitalize on students’ strengths, and move away from designing learning scenarios that lead us to think of deficit.

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Transition in the right hands


When learners join a school/program, they arrive as a plant arrives in a garden: with the hope to grow roots; looking forward to belonging; aspiring to blossom in splendorous ways; with a strong desire to be part of a symphony of colors, and shapes; and trusting that [edu]carers will create a safe space for them to be who they are, and not who some people may want them to be.

At school, teachers, administrator, parents, and every member of the community witnesses the learning journey students undergo as they develop and practice attitudes, as they understand and comply with rules, and as they work hard towards fulfilling the standards of any given program. I have experienced how many teachers are always happy to talk about these ‘transitions’, but very few times have I witnessed teachers dialoguing about how we all, at different stages, contribute to the construction of character in individuals as learners and as human beings.

I love transitions, but I have a particular fondness for the transitions that concentrate of building a long lasting, deep bond. I love transitions that focus on building relationships founded on trust, on conversations about the language of kindness, of respect, of embracing different views, of celebrating diversity, of valuing efforts, and contemplating different ways of doing things. I value transitions whose dialogue about self-actualization, ownership, and personal growth occur over and over again.

The student is at the center of the process” often runs the risk of becoming a cliché, as do differentiation or growth mindsets for that matter, because it’s jargon that is cool to utter in the presence of educators; and because the absence of observable experiences through which this ideal becomes evident makes it hard to believe for some.

I have vastly experimented when creating PYP-MYP transition scenarios. From organizing a learning carousel at International Academy Amman in Jordan, to running a series of  workshops about learning skills (Workshop 2) at Ecole Mondiale in India. However, it wasn’t until now that I have walked the road with 6th graders in PYP (last year), and in their grade 7 journey in MYP (this year), that I am fully convinced that students are the best people to talk about what this transition feel like. They have lived it, so they know what took longer to understand, what was the hardest thing to embrace, and what is still difficult to attain. They walked the path that was designed for them and, therefore, they are the most appropriate people to provide feedback on it, to suggest ways to prepare for it, and to make recommendations on how to improve it, we just need to allow them to do it.

Phase 1 of this student-led transition was the ATL-Museum.

Thus, with my grade 7 students, we have taken advantage of the end of the year energy to reflect on what is important to tell, to share, to modify, to improve, and to eliminate. I solely served as a moderator in a conversation in which they brainstormed about what new MYP students should know; I only became an observer of how they prioritized the topics that were worth choosing; and I only served as support with the logistics, making sure there was coordination between the two programs. Each of them took charge of their topic and prepared an information session.

Today we had our preparation meeting in order to see what needs to be improved for the actual PYP-MYP transition fair next Monday. I was not impressed by what I saw my students had prepared- I knew they could do it. However, I was happy to see how they were able to speak about their topic with authority, candidness, and certainty. Most importantly, I was happy and proud to observe the smart choices they made in curating what was worth mentioning, reminding, emphasizing, and differentiating. I was delighted to see how they had prepared to contribute to their peers’ character and readiness for the new program they will join this coming August.

If one has not witnessed the power of inquiry, the value of student-led projects, the meaning of student voice, or the impact of students’ actions, the dedication in students’ gestures for others, I would dare to say that maybe the scenarios for these behaviors to happen have not been generated. How can we possibly expect this from a quiz, from a lecture, or from a learning relationship that is encapsulated within four walls?

Since I can remember, I am an educator who has always been on the side of the learner. I follow the student; I enjoy students’ stories; I try to learn from their dreams; I nurture my views of the world from theirs; I embrace the challenge of teaching individuals whose world moves far more rapidly than mine. When talking about education for these young learners, many people tend to think about their future and how we should make sure we allow them to have a good one, but I insist that we should not deprive them from their present.

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When Demonstrating Skills Becomes a Habit: The Snowball Effect

What happens when schools create a forum to talk about the *invisible curriculum?What happens when schools stimulate students to consider learning that happens in scenarios other than the classroom?
What happens when schools devise time for students to speak about how they are learning?
What happens when schools create opportunities for students to contribute to the most significant learning experiences that could be lived at school?
What happens when students, slowly but steadily, commence to use their voice to share their learning, to make proposals, to contribute to others’ plans, and to lead?

I believe that witnessing these behaviors is an indication of students being the center of the learning process, and evidence recognizing their strengths and how they enjoy learning.

As I described in my previous post about our ATL-based advisory program, at my current school we wanted our mornings to be opportunities for students to begin to design their learning plans and, therefore, we created a space in which we could address as many aspects of holistic learning as possible. The planning that advisors/mentors took part in had one goal in mind: design scenarios that can serve as activators for students’ strengths and passions; devise opportunities for students to employ their skill toolbox; consider situations in which students will use their voice to contribute to the co-construction of experiences. And I am happy to observe that I feel we have done an excellent job.

The reason why I state that we have done a great job is because while students initially had the role of participants, gradually, as the year progressed, they were showing initiative to take responsibilities in the process: they started proposing ideas; they followed up by volunteering to lead an activity (individually or in groups); they began to encourage others to join their efforts; and so on. In a few words, their desire for being in charge had become contagious.

MYP and DP start each day with in ATL-based advisory program in groups. As a whole (secondary) school, we culminate each week with an assembly, in which we bring to life the IB LP attributes by acknowledging fellow teachers or students for their work; in which we engage in brief discussions about the key values in our mission statement; in which we look at outstanding examples of learning; in which the student council share initiatives; and in which we collectively reflect on how our learning process is changing us. The power of forums like this should not be underestimated, because this is a space where every voice counts.

The day that I received a message from a student asking for a time slot to share an initiative with the whole school I knew she was about to start a revolution. Confirming my guess, the following week a couple more students requested an opportunity to share the work they had done in a unit, which they were proud of; and after that, students asked me if they could use a few minutes to invite people to a club they had started. Now, most of the time is occupied by students, and there is very little that I have to plan. I do not doubt that eventually I will be sharing the organization process with students, and eventually letting go of it completely.

The journey that I am describing in this reflection is a demonstration of the way Approaches to Learning breathe and come to life in a school. More than ever before, I am fully convinced that mapping ATL skills in a document is solely a piece of paper with words in a specific format if there is no attempt to live the experiences in that plan; if there is no desire to engage in dialogue about how those experiences shape us; if there is no evidence of how we are allowing ourselves to be changed by these experiences, these discussions, and everybody’s contribution.

So far these are a few of the student-initiated activities, which found their birth in the secondary advisory/assembly forum that we created:

  • QAIS Ambassadors– A group of students that represent and lead activities based on personal passions. The following can be mention; Animal Rights Ambassadors; Well-being Ambassadors; Intercity Sports; Les Artistes.
  • QAIS student’s passion club: An after school activity organised and run by students
  • The Mix: a student founded story that operates during lunch time
  • The ATL Museum: MYP Student-led introduction to ATL skills in the PYP exhibition.
  • Beyond the walls and fences: A student-led club that focuses on outdoors life.
  • QAIS Community & Service Group: A student-led initiative to use existing skills in specific scenarios
  • Learning Buddies– MYP students supporting literacy and numeracy in PYP.

Below are a few images of the activities mentioned:

Approaches to Learning experiences should enable us all to reflect on the kind of intellectual and socio-emotional software that governs our schools; they should be a dynamic framework that invites us to revisit how we, as a community, are growing and evolving because of the learning that is happening in our environment. Most importantly, they should be a testament of how we have decided to make the most of the learning opportunities our school allows us to have… We must recognize that and own its impact.

Once upon a time, when it was an Area of Interaction, ATL were the ugly duckling. Luckily, it has become a swan; the backbone of the MYP; and the beating heart of our lives as learners.

The screenshots below show excerpts of the planning advisors/mentor collaborate in.

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*Invisible curriculum= that powerful collection of learning experiences that emerges from the unique scenario that is created in a school due to the learning and community spirit: the evidence of learning that was neither included in the written curriculum nor considered as the curriculum was taught.

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Gamified Reading: A transdisciplinary strategy

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Image taken from:

I was excited to when Cecilia Flores, our PYP3 teacher, invited me to collaborate with her in the transdisciplinary unit “Sharing the Planet”. I never turn down an invitation if it means using my imagination; if it includes envisioning creative scenarios; and above all, if it involves opportunities to listen to students making meaning and taking charge of their own learning.

Cecilia revealed the following to me:

  • The key concepts considered for this unit were responsibility & reflection.
  • The PYP Attitudes she wanted students to demonstrate were independence, appreciation , and commitment.
  • The central idea was “People make choices to support the sustainability of Earth’s resources”.

The invitation was formulated as follows: “can you help me write a story that integrates mathematics, science, geography, and a variety of ATL skills other than literacy skills? I looked at her and said, “ Don’t you know, I always look forward to challenges like this?” [Fill this space with a series of lines describing an exchange of looks that try to suit the feeling of looking what to say next] We proceeded discussing different scenarios that students would enjoy, and as I was about to leave her classroom, she said: “Oh, and I want students to think they are in a video game”.

More than two years ago, when I was still working in India, I wrote about the gamified readings I was creating for my MYP Spanish students. Those readings focused on developing language skills, and to create an unusual scenario in which students had to use a variety of strategies to accomplish the mission in the story. This time, the challenge was that there were specific concepts to address, specific mathematics and science concepts to practice, and, most importantly, it had to fundamentally have a strong relationship with the central idea.

For challenges like this, having navigated the worlds created by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, Terry Pratchett, Tom Holt, Andrzej Sapkowski, Michael Ende, and Amish Tripathi helped considerably.

Connecting children’s reading experience to play is not a new concept, and there are many examples of game elements in print books, such as in Edward Packard’s “Choose Your Own Adventure” series published in the 1980s and 1990s. Likewise, movable books, including pop-ups, are hybrid formats that elegantly fuse educational elements with play.

I am aware of the fact that technology enables the use of gamification to motivate people in different manners. It is argued that new ideologies on digital reading are the best way to motivate readers—especially reluctant readers— because they blur lines between books and games (Martens, 2014). However, Cecilia and I wanted more than blurring the lines. We wanted students to be able to make this story theirs and eventually tell it as if they had lived it. We wanted them to feel the journey as they travel back and forth in the story. Also, we wanted them to feel the tension of discoveries and use all of their senses to express how that made them feel. In other words, we wanted the story to awaken the need of dialogue with others.

One negative aspect of gamified reading is that it can easily lead to commodification of readers and the reading experience, turning an imaginative experience into an endless quest for rewards. For this reason, as I was writing the story I placed paid special attention to the socio-emotional aspect of the plot, making sure there were sufficient situations that invited students to act empathetically.  Besides the images that accompanied the text, I also prepared a collection of sounds to accompany students’ reading of certain chapters; videos that represented a series of “mirages” that appeared in the story; as well as a series of puzzles.

In this collaboration, we wanted students to have an experience that meant more than simply completing a task. We wanted them to touch, to feel, to hear, and to scratch their heads when situations became difficult. We wanted them to understand how even though the journey was individual, everyone was in the same situation and, conversely, was automatically a resource.

The video at the end of this post provides a quick look at the journey. Yet, what is impossibly to capture in a video or in a photo is the excitement in children’s journeys and in their eyes; the way in which they use the power of their imagination to solve overcome difficult situations; the profound connections they make with characters; and the way they transfer experiences to their lives.

Every time I went into the PYP3 classroom, I came into a room that hosted 13 universes, each of these universes being a child. Witnessing how they were truly living their story allowed me to see how any possible struggle (either reading or writing) simply became a challenge they were ready to embrace because the journey was theirs. And to be honest, I feel lucky to know they let me in their world every time I asked them a question about where they were. Isn’t this the best gift a teacher can have?

When young children are given a world, they populate it with stories, with dreams, and with possibilities. We should never let our adult hopes and views of the world to terminate the amazing potential they have to bring to life learning journeys, and experiences that, possibly, we, adults, have lost sight of.

Martens, Marianne (2014). Reading and “Gamification”. Children & Libraries: e Journal of the Association for Library Service to Children 12(4), 19-25.

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A forum to design and experience learning

Last year, as we reflected on our teaching and learning practices, we identified that it was important for our community to articulate the dialogue teachers and students had about the way they learn best. We also identified that we needed to find different means to support students in developing the confidence to speak about what works for them. Instantly, we turned our attention to ATL skills. We began to reflect on what we were doing to make them an active part of our learning experience, and to move away from only using the jargon to convince ourselves that effective learning was happening.

This reflection triggered the revamping process for our advisory program in secondary. Therefore, with the help of group of dedicated colleagues, we designed a set of goals that would enable us to transform the beginning of our days into positive forums to start the learning journey; to turn our mornings into opportunities to support students’ skill development to talk about their own learning. Essentially, we wanted these mornings to be opportunities for students to begin to design their learning plans.

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As a result of evaluating the structure of our learning community, the way we explicitly taught ATL skills and the extent to which we were complementing the sense of individuality and uniqueness in each student, our ATL-based advisory program was born. In order to make the program work we identified roles that would enable us to move forward. Therefore, advisors became the agents that would lead our advisory program. Mentors, on the other hand, would be in charge of providing personalized guidance to individual students, in order to support their personal growth.

To make this program happen, advisors/mentors meet periodically to strategize and plan our learning mornings one week in advance. Some of the insights advisors bring to the planning forum are:

  • Observations of the learning climate in the school. This helps us identify what kind of support is needed.
  • Students’ proposals and opinions. This is a reminder to keep students at the center of the process.
  • Ideas and strategies to implement.
  • Suggestions about literature that is worth reading as a group in order to create learning experiences that reflect innovative practices.
  • Samples of student work. This is a task to identify possible trends and collect data on how we can engage the whole staff in enriching our approaches to teaching.

In other words, this planning process is what allows us to create our learning strategy toolbox.

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A school’s Mission Statement is a declaration of the principles that exist in the school’s learning culture, and should serve as a guide to inform the community about the skills, attitudes, and values the institution is equipped to instill in each learner. Therefore, the ATL-advisory program we designed is both a reflection of our school’s Mission Statement, and a forum in which we bring the mission to fruition.

Another important feature and target of our ATL-based advisory program is that we wanted to have another way to collect data about the learning explorations that were taking place in the school. We wanted to have an additional record of the initiatives we were promoting and putting in place to support students’ holistic development, besides the explicit teaching of ATL that occurred in each unit, in all subjects.

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Screen Shot 2017-05-06 at 1.37.22 PMIn a future new post I will share some examples of how this model of ATL-based advisory gave way to promoting student agency and leadership.

You may be interested in reading about what has been going on in my current school as a response to our ATL-based advisory program.

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The ATL Skills Museum

Every morning, throughout this academic year, our advisory program has engaged students in talking about learning.

MYP students have watched inspirational videos and expressed their opinion about them; they have also looked at a variety of Global Issues and have commented upon them; they have engaged in the study of specific skills they have to develop; they have collaborated in summarizing their learning in a variety of ways; and, most importantly, they have become aware of how the learning tools they have around them.

For the last weeks, MYP2 (grade 7 students) have been collaborating in the design of posters through which they presented the most salient aspects of:

  • Collaboration skills
  • Organisation skills
  • Communication skills
  • Reflection skills
  • Information literacy skills
  • Media literacy skills

There was no better way to put their discussions and social skills in place than by preparing a museum of their ATL journey for PYP students who are about to embark on their exhibition journey. Thus, grade 7 students curated an ATL gallery for PYP students, and they were some very committed ATL museum guides.

Our grade 7 students know what it takes to be successful in the PYP Exhibition, so they customised the presentation with a focus on the exhibition. Thus, recognising the role research has in the exhibition, we went back to basics and decided to take a close look at the way we can interact and learn from different printed sources.

Having a book in their hands, exploring their sections, understanding how each section in the book is a learning tool, students added a new element to their presentation: guidelines on how to look at different types of publications.

Therefore, when the presentation date arrived they “gave PYP6 students a tour” of their ATL Skills museum.

Grade 7 students had clearly developed confidence in their presentation skills, and they also demonstrated how they had mastered the ‘learning’ they were passing on to their PYP peers. Nonetheless, the highlight of this collaboration is the extent to which they related to which PYP6 students needed, hence making this experience a very relevant one.

We cannot be prouder of our grade 7 students for demonstrating that when Approaches to Learning are part of daily dialogue one can truly augment the meaning and value of learning; opposite to  just having a dead document with a set of skills hat nobody bothers to look at at.

ATL Skills are flavours that one needs to savour, not jargon that one should regurgitate.

The journey does not end there- this was just a rehearsal!

Their job now is to refine their communication skills and the quality of their presentation in order to educate parents into the art of ATL skills.

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