An interview with eltforum.sk presenter: Vladica Rakić
An Interview by Lynda Steyne
In recent years, there’s been a major push in Slovak schools, and in English programs, to teach using CLIL (Content and language integrated learning). Vladica Rakić comes uniquely qualified to speak on the subject and we’re thrilled to have her this weekend at ELTForum.sk in Bratislava. Read on for more on CLIL and Vladica’s other passion: formative assessment.
SCET: The school where you teach is primarily about using CLIL. How did you get involved in that?
Vladica: Karlovci Grammar School is a special philological school with two departments, modern languages (7 including Chinese) and classics. In our school, CLIL is part of a comprehensive system of ‘sabotaging’ the obsolete compartmentalized structure of the official curriculum and syllabus. In many aspects, the educational system in Serbia has been lagging lamely and lamentably behind the requirements of the 21st century. What it still stubbornly imposes on schools is the concept of dividing knowledge and skills into separate little ‘drawers’ (subjects) and keeping them there. Very little overlaps and gets internalized by students as part of the interdependent accumulation of applicable knowledge and honed skills. So CLIL has elbowed its way into our school, along with cross-curricular and bilingual teaching and has proved to be an effective tool for loosening the constraints of the traditional teaching and learning.
As for me, CLIL gives me an invaluable opportunity to collaborate with my colleagues who teach other subjects. We’ve discovered that CLIL is a perfect ‘bicycle built for two’. So we brainstorm, construct and assemble, despair and dismantle and re-assemble again my/our CLIL lesson plans together, enjoying the ‘ride on the tandem’ immensely! And that joy is felt and reflected in what we get as a result in the classroom. In other words, CLIL works!
SCET: Knowing what you know now, would you do it again?
There’s a thrill of venturing into the (half) unknown and learning the content again with the students that makes CLIL so attractive to me. So, yes, if I had known what I know now, I would have become a CLIL teacher. Definitely.
SCET: CLIL requires a lot of different strategies. Where did you find the ideas that you use in class? Or those that you train your teaching staff to use?
Vladica: Where do we find ideas? Oh, dear! When you have a staffroom with a ‘nest’ of 17 English teachers plus 43 teachers of other languages plus an additional 25 teachers of other subjects( and only about 500 students!), it’s hard to walk across the room to the coffee table without tripping on at least a couple of great ideas in various stages of development all presented to you by excited, gushing voices and gesticulating hands!
It all started some 15 years ago during the Milošević regime when we had strikes that lasted months. We sat there in empty classrooms day after dreary day and, to maintain our sanity, we concocted all kinds of plans and projects together. And the synergy we generated then produced the Interdisciplinary Teaching Project for which we got a World Bank grant a few years later!
Since those days, whenever anybody has had an idea, it’s immediately ‘on the dicing board’ for analysis and discussion. Very few of the ideas end up ‘simmering in the cauldron’ in their original forms. Each of us adds some new ingredient or some seasoning. For example, an English teacher and a History teacher will select CLIL topics together and combine reading comprehension strategies, decide upon ways of promoting higher order thinking skills, and other strategies. Sometimes a Sociology teacher can’t help but to throw a ‘juicy morsel’ into the brew. So, if the famous estate agent mantra is ‘Location, location, location!’, ours is ‘Collaboration, collaboration, collaboration!’
SCET: You told me you’re very interested in assessment, but formative rather than summative. Can you explain what you mean by that? And why do you think it’s so important? How can it help the learning process?
Vladica: “Kids are not interested in learning. All they care about is getting a good grade.” This teachers’ complaint echoes everywhere.
Kids are presented with content, then it is practised (or not) at school or at home and then they are supposed to sit a test or exam and, as a student of ours said, regurgitate it. Then they are given marks as an award or punishment for what they have done. In this way, the mark or grade itself is the goal, not the knowledge or skill. Kids have developed an automatic clean-slate wiper for the content which is activated the moment the test is over. Not to mention the sophisticated cheating techniques they come up with. Although assessment of learning is unavoidable and has its practical purpose, it has been abused so much that it has become one of the main causes of the lack of motivation among students.
Our state school authorities refuse to acknowledge that we don’t need just good students with good grades but more importantly, good (life-long) learners! They generally fail to realise that if your assessment is for learning, it shifts the focus from the end result to the ones after consecutive legs of the (learning) journey. You don’t give marks to your students; you help them learn to make notches on the scale of their own achievement. The level at which a notch is at any given moment indicates the effectiveness of the learning method and strategy applied so far and allows reflection on what should be done (and how) to get to the desired level. And to quote our student again, “It’s about digesting the knowledge, not merely regurgitating it.”
SCET: You also told me your school is part of a special project. How did you find out about that project to join it? What exactly does that involve? In your experience in Serbia, how well do schools and English teachers in particular network and cooperate with each other?
Vladica: Oh, yes, it is our most recent project that we are very excited about. We didn’t find it; it’s just that projects seem to have a way of finding us!
A month ago we had guests from Zagreb, Sarajevo and Belgrade. They were teachers and students from grammar schools who teach either all subjects or some subjects bilingually. They all stayed with us for a week, guests students attended our classes, participated in workshops and guest teachers taught our classes. It was wonderful!
One of the things our colleagues from the region liked most about our school was our programme of teachers’ professional development and peer-teacher training. And again, it was over a glass of our famous local wine that somebody was struck with the idea for Karlovci Grammar School to be a regional teacher training centre for cross-curricular, bilingual teaching and CLIL. Before we knew it, a declaration was written and signed by the three directors and ‘blessed’ by two ambassadors and a minister. Now we have several joint-irons in the fire!
The fact that teachers from ex-Yugoslav republics are working together is something that makes us all very happy and I’m happy to say that the cooperation among teachers both within Serbia and within the region is getting better and better!
Vladica Rakić teaches English, English Literature, Translation and Civic Education at Karlovci Grammar School, Sremski Karlovci, Serbia, where she is also in charge of the Interdisciplinary Teaching Project, bilingual teaching and CLIL. As the official educational reference centre, the school has an important role in disseminating good practice throughout the country. Vladica heads a team of 17 English teachers (out of more than 45 teachers of various languages at the school) who are engaged in peer-coaching within the school and with coaching undergraduate English language students from the University of Novi Sad. She has also given lectures and short seminars at the British Council, Belgrade and Cambridge University Press annual seminars for English teachers in Serbia.