It finally happened

No, I didn’t finally get someone to take that Canadian quarter of mine.

Something just as interesting and unlikely happened, though.

*dramatic pause*

A current student found, read, and mentioned my blog in class. I never thought it would happen in my current teaching world. I would have bet a few coins (Canadian or otherwise) against this. In fact, a few years back I had a very interesting discussion about this possibility with Florentina Taylor (who, sadly, is no longer on Twitter but is featured in an interview on this very blog here). She was surprised by a post of mine where I said the group I was teaching “was probably the nicest collection of students I have ever taught in my nearly 15 years teaching.” Dr. Taylor was concerned that former students would read it and feel bad at not being considered the nicest. My thought different.  I thought since I was talking about a whole range of classes in different departments none of my former (or future?) students would feel slighted at all. I am not sure if I was right about that, to be honest.

One thing I was surely wrong about was that my students (future, current or past) would read my blog. At least one student did.  Let’s call her Melissa.

If I remember correctly, it was after class or during a break. Melissa said something like “I have a question unrelated to our course… I read your blog post about using untrue stories in class and I wondered about something we did last year. In class you had us plan a travel itinerary for your friend who was coming to Korea. So, my question is… was that real?” I gave a somewhat convoluted answer saying was real in spirit and that I’ve had a few friends from high school visit the fair city of Seoul. Aspects of that lesson were untrue in that Jeff was not really coming to Korea soon (and in fact had already been). I think this is the kind of white lie that is worthwhile and reasonable. Perhaps in the interest of full-disclosure I could have said it was not strictly 100% true but when David visited this year the information we gathered was helpful. Regardless of the thruthiness issue, it was interesting to talk about something on my blog with a real-life student.

nobody reads your blog

Again, this was something I didn’t expect to happen. I figured my students would not be interested in anything I’d have to say about teaching  and I also thought they’d be too busy with their own studies to worry about my little corner of the blogosphere. I also thought they’d be unlikely to take the initiate to find my blog without me telling them the exact URL. I maybe had some thought most of them would be using Naver more than Google and wouldn’t be searching for any Michael Griffin related things. I recall in some classes the fact I have a blog came up and some students showed interest and asked me the address. I said something coy like, “I think you can find it if you really want to.” I just didn’t feel like sharing it, especially since I am not in it for the hits.

In not directly sharing my blog with previous students I suppose I was also worried just a little about certain things like being too honest, cursing just a bit too much, not putting my best foot forward , or not quite capturing my own views as clearly as I’d like. I worried I could paint myself in a bad way which could alter students’ perceptions of me. At the same time, I was fully aware that the internet is forever and how anything I write could conceivably be read by anyone.

Now, Melissa is a smart, cool, inquisitive, and understanding person. Hi, Melissa! I was not worried about students like her. I can’t expect all students to be like her. I was (am?) perhaps worried about students who already had an axe to grind using some nonsense I wrote to show I’m a bad person or something like that. As an example, I wrote, “Couldn’t teach today because of Confucianism” a while back and teachers presumably without any reason to think the worst of the author (and presumably with very strong reading skills) read it without the irony intended. I can sort of imagine a student talking about the author’s lack or respect for Korean culture and using this post to show how lazy and out of touch the teacher is.

I suppose this blog post is not really about anything. The title could be, “I finally have proof that the thing which was a distinct possibility all along happened and nothing really changes at all.” That is, of course, not a snappy title.  Ultimately, the realization that Dr. Taylor was right about students reading the blog doesn’t change much. Maybe we’ll see a 12% reduction in F-bombs. I can’t really see any major changes here at ELT RRR.

I should say clearly and emphatically that concerns about students reading this blog were not among the reasons for my slight hibernation ( which are detailed here). It was truly just a coincidence.

In classic “Blog Like a Boss” fashion I’ll go ahead and finish with some questions for the community.

  • Do you think about students potentially reading what you write?
  • Would your writing be different if you were sure students would never read it?
  • Have your students ever talked about your blog with you?
  • Have you ever heard of a teacher getting in hot water with a student based on what they wrote on a blog?
  • Do you have guidelines for yourself or from your institutions about what you can and should write about on blogs or elsewhere?
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A Post on World Suicide Prevention Day

It was just around a year ago. I’ll never forget it. I got the message on Facebook through a mutual friend. I was told my friend passed away unexpectedly. No details were given. I was asked not to tell anyone else about it. I wondered what happened but decided it was best to respect the privacy of those more closely involved.  After a month or so I pieced things together and figured out my friend had taken his own life. I don’t actually know the specifics and I wouldn’t really wish to share them here anyway.

This post is not about my detective skills. It’s not actually about me at all even if I thought it was or in some ways wanted it to be at certain times. When I heard the news I jumped to thoughts like, “What could I have done?” and “Is it somehow my fault?” “Was it my sins of omission or commission that caused this?” Intellectually I knew it was not about me but I couldn’t help but wonder, “What if I’d emailed him in August just to check in as I’d planned?” and “What if I’d never encouraged him to change jobs?” and “What if I’d made more time for the coffee and chats we’d scheduled and rescheduled and put off till a better time?” Again, when I step back I can see that these thoughts are somewhere between pointless and silly and that they don’t really help me or anyone at all.

Pushing myself out of the equation, I still found myself wondering about various other “what ifs.” For example, “What if he’d  been more aware of how much he was loved and respected?” And, “What if he knew more about the resources (I presume) are out there?” To be honest, I have no idea how aware he was or wasn’t about the resources, help, and organizations out there. Below I share some links on the chance that someone reading this is unaware of what is out there. I’d invite comments with additional links and resources.

To my mind and experience, mental health is stigmatized and not talked about much in professional circles. There are some notable examples were this trend is not followed. Here are a few examples that jumped out to me:

I truly hope that sharing these might be helpful.

In some brief research and checking my memory I found Innovate ELT, and Gangwon KOTESOL included topics related to mental health in  their conferences. I think that is a positive step. I wonder if this is something that is generally not seen as part of professional development and thus not featured at conferences?

I hoped to include some links and suggestions for people in Korea who might not speak Korean well enough to talk about such things in Korean. Here are a few:

This is, I think, an incomplete list but I thought it could be a start. If anyone has any additional suggestions I will gratefully add them to the post.

I hesitated about writing this for ages as I worried it would be something like fishing for sympathy or something like that. I worried that I couldn’t capture the nuance I wanted. I feared I wouldn’t share my thoughts in an appropriate way. Today I finally decided to write it in the hope it might be helpful for someone. The fact today is World Suicide Prevention Day gave me the final push I needed to post it.

But what if we’re wrong?

Well, everyone knows extensive reading is the best way to acquire vocabulary. What this post presupposes is… maybe it isn’t?

eli cash

Please note this post has little to do with extensive reading. It’s more about beliefs and changing beliefs and temporally suspending our beliefs or imagining we didn’t have them or had different ones.

Teachers have their beliefs and presumably (but of course not always) take actions in accordance with these beliefs. I think teacher beliefs are a good thing. I think talking about them is a good thing. I also think it’s always worth remembering that they are just beliefs. I feel like acknowledging our beliefs as just beliefs (and not facts) is a useful tool when thinking about our teaching..

My sense is teachers are not often asked to consider or articulate the beliefs they have. In Designing Language Courses: A Guide for Teachers Graves notes, “Most teachers don’t have opportunities make their beliefs explicit  because the institutions in which they work do not generally ask them to articulate their beliefs not do they place a value on such articulation.” (p 26) I wonder if this sounds familiar or matches your experiences, dear reader.

I think giving time to discuss, revisit, and evaluate our beliefs can be an important and valuable step in professional development. Graves suggests it doesn’t happen often in workplaces and I would also suggest it doesn’t happen often in face-to-face professional development meetings like conferences. either. I could be wrong but that is just my sense.

I feel like in workshops and the like it might be a good idea to give participants a chance to consider and articulate their beliefs while creating non-threatening chances to consider, reconsider, and evaluate those beliefs. Of particular importance, I think, is creating an atmosphere of discovery so people don’t feel pushed to change anything at the risk they might become even more entrenched in the beliefs. Even though they are “just beliefs” it can be hard to let them go without a fight. My idea is that giving people a place and space to explore teaching beliefs (whether or not these beliefs have been articulated previously) can be helpful for teachers.

A nice, if not particularly new place (and if you have another suggestions I’d love to hear them) to get started on thinking and talking about beliefs is this questionnaire adapted from  The ELT curriculum: Design, Innovation and Management by Ronald V. White:

  1. Language is a system of grammatical rules.
  2. Vocabulary is the most important part of a language.
  3. Language is basically establishing and maintaining social relationships. Language learning is best promoted through using the language in authentic situations in the classroom.
  4. Meaning is best conveyed through translation between the target language and the mother tongue.
  5. There is no transfer from one skill to another when learning a language.
  6. Language learning is best when the focus is on something other than the language itself.
  7. A syllabus should take students’ wants and interests into account even when these are different from their needs.
  8. A syllabus should be based on known areas of difficulty in grammar and pronunciation.
  9. A syllabus should be based on the students’ communicative needs outside the classroom.
  10. The teacher must teach to the test since exam results affect students’ future choices.
  11. The teacher must encourage collaboration to help facilitate learning.
  12. The teacher must correct students’ errors at all times.
  13. The teacher must remain in full control of the class at all times.
  14. The teacher must avoid deviating from the syllabus, the lesson plan, or the textbook.
  15. Students need to be kept active and interested by the teacher.
  16. Students usually do not know what’s good for them.
  17. Students achieve best in a competitive atmosphere.
  18. Students pick up mistakes from one another, so all language in the class must be controlled and checked by the teacher.
  19. Spontaneous interaction helps students to learn to communicate.
  20. Students in a language class feel very vulnerable and sensitive.
    (pp 158-162)

I think we can expand on and enhance discussions of our beliefs by considering what it would mean for our teaching  if we didn’t have the beliefs we have. Even further, to the extent that beliefs can be “wrong” what if our strongest held beliefs are found to be “wrong?” What would be different? What if we wake up tomorrow and it’s discovered, for example, Learning Styles are (or are not, I guess) really a thing and our teaching should (or shouldn’t) be guided by them? How would your teaching change? What would it mean for your classes? What would it mean if suddenly your beliefs were the opposite of what they are now?

I think this type of examination can lead to some powerful insights. As luck would have it, this very topic and mental exercise will be the basis of my upcoming session at the KOTESOL RPSIG Day of Reflection” on Sept 30. It promises to be an interesting and insight producing day, so if you have a chance, I’d recommend coming along.

Day of Reflection 2017 Poster  iv.jpg

 

Finally, here is my abstract in case you are into that sort of thing.

But what if we are wrong? 

Uncovering beliefs, articulating them, reflecting upon them, and considering how they (or how they don’t or might better) translate into action in the classroom can be extremely valuable for teacher development. In this interactive session, we will explore and consider some of our more tightly held beliefs. Part of this exploration will be bringing our beliefs to the light of day and examining where they come from and what purpose they serve. Part of this exploration will be to imagine the beliefs we hold dear are simply “wrong.” What would that mean for us? How might our beliefs being “wrong” be impact our classroom practices and ourselves as teachers? These are the types of questions that will be considered and discussed in the workshop. Participants can expect to walk away with a better understanding of their beliefs or a sense of confusion and a series of questions to consider.

And yes, the title was totally “borrowed” from Chuck Klosterman’s book of the same name. I’d say this book is worth reading.

Review of Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond

It’s September (already!?) and lots of people are starting new terms and school years. It’s a good time to think about icebreakers and also consider stepping away from the same old first day of class ideas. I find it very easy to get stuck with such activities but also feel rewarded when I try something new or return to something I haven’t done in a while. The new book, Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond by Walton Burns from Alphabet Publishing could be a useful one for teachers in the same situation. Please find my review of the book below below. 

I should mention, in the interests of full disclosure, Walton sent me an advance copy of his book and asked me for comments. He is also a nice guy, a passionate educator, and a fellow Nutmegger. 

walton book.jpg

I once worked in a language academy where first day getting-to-know-you ice-breaking type activities were not allowed! It was always a bit strange to me to just jump into the grammar or whatever without students learning each others’ names or anything about each other. I never liked that rule but I think it came from students’ complaints about teachers wasting too much time on touchy feely, fluffy, mindless activities unrelated to learning or class content.  I wonder if things would have been different if we’d had access to Classroom Community Builders: Activities for the First Day & Beyond, a helpful book published by Alphabet Publishing, which shares a variety of useful activities. The book is well-organized collection activities for teachers interested in incorporating community building into their classes.

Burns states in the intro that he wanted to get away from “empty” and meaningless ice-breakers and instead focus on activities “relevant to the content of the class. Rather than choosing between teaching our subject or doing community building activities, we need to find activities that do both.” This is a noble goal and I’d say it is achieved. Throughout the book is a clear emphasis on collaborating, creativity, community building and fun. I also like how many of the activities have students get out of their chairs and work in different ways.

I especially liked the Book Scan, Syllabus Scavenger Hunt,  Classroom Rules Negotiation activities because they seem like they could “kill two birds with one stone” by addressing typical first day of class information while keeping the focus on building a community. I feel like this speaks to the concerns the Director in my previous job where these activities were banned. It be easy to forget about the content when aiming to break the ice and I think it can be important to keep them both in mind.

I also like the way the activities handle potentially challenging topics (like classroom rules)  by giving students a chance to think and talk about them rather than listen to edicts from the teacher. Of course, this can also add to student buy in and can help students feel they have a voice in how things will go in the course. I think this is a nice and useful angle. I think the nuanced approach to these conversations and decisions would be very helpful for teachers who are not so comfortable with such things.

If I had to criticize anything it would be that I feel like I have seen (or done) a version of many of the activities in the book. That said, I think it’s nice to have everything in the same place, right there in this handy book. Also, even though I was familiar with many of the activities variations and wrinkles are provided and this adds a new level to activities I’m familiar with. As an example, I have done Sentence Auctions numerous times but seeing how it is detailed step-by-step here was still helpful for me. I tend to play with slightly different rules so it was worthwhile to reflect on why I set up the game in the manner I do.

Additionally, variations on many activities are suggested and these could surely spice up teaching routines for activities that teachers are already familiar with. There are also extensions and suggestions for additional sources. I can imagine these suggestions and additional links being very helpful for a teacher who would like to add a new wrinkle on activities they are already comfortable with.

Also provided is a list of materials needed (often including the materials themselves) and the steps to take for each activity which could also be helpful information even when we have done an activity a few times already. Example sentences and texts are supplied and these could act as support for a teacher interested in making their own or could simply be printed off and used as is. In any case, the examples provide a firm basis for teachers to try out the activities.

An interesting aspect of the book is how tried and true activities (like sentence auctions or cloze paragraphs) are categorized as community builders. I think simply shifting how we think of these from say, strictly a grammar activity to a community building activity is a useful mental exercise that could potentially yield even better results. This was a helpful reminder for me and something I will try to keep in mind this autumn term and beyond.

I found the book to be personal, thoughtful, and engaging.
I’m looking forward to trying out a few activities in September. I will be sure to try out Follow the Directions in the first few weeks of class.  Thank you for reading and thank you to Walton for sharing the book with me (and for writing it).

12 Reasons Why

Twelve Potential Reasons I Haven’t Been Blogging Much Lately

  1. I am typing a lot of other things so blogging sort of gets de-prioritized all the time. Too much typing is not good for my soul. I’m doing a fair amount of work online and there is always something else to do so I can’t really find the mental space to blog. I guess my mind gets focused on the other work and deadlines. Perhaps my brain is not allowed to wonder  and wander and conjure up blog posts as easily as in the past.  These days, I’m doing a fair amount of work online and there is always something else to do so I can’t really find the mental space to blog. This is too say that my mind gets focused on the other work and is perhaps not allowed to wonder and conjure up blog posts as easily as in the past. This point (with mental space and time) might actually be two points but let’s not worry about that.
  2. I have been rubbish responding to comments lately so I feel guilty writing something without responding to previous comments.
    I have just now decided to once again grant myself amnesty on previous comments. In the future I might end up not having comments for certain posts or time periods. I enjoy and appreciate comments but can never find the right time to get back to people and I think it’s poor form not to respond. In fact, assuming I’ve done it correctly, this post is not set up for comments.
  3. I’m sort of sick of sitting down so much.  I don’t think it was so great for my health back in the day so I try to limit my time sitting. As they say, sitting is the new smoking.
  4. My work on editing and curating the New School MATESOL blog takes away from time I might otherwise spent on my own blog.
  5. Working on work for the ELT Workshop is something else that takes some time between classes and everything else.
  6. Nomentum. I think it’s one of those things where getting started and having a bit of momentum is the best way to stay with it. After a few months off it can be hard to start. One might think the first post after a hiatus should be a great one or perfect or something like this. I am happy to re-start my posting with a lazy listicle post such as this.
  7. Back in 2012 and 2013 there were lots of folks in Korea blogging and it was just a little bit like Christmas to wake up and see what people were writing.
  8. Much of what I wrote in the past was based on my time as a teacher trainer and I have not been doing much of this face to face lately.
  9. Looking back on my prime blogging era of 2012-2013 I had a lot of rants and ideas built up over time that were percolating for a while. I have been in my current main job in Seoul for about 7 years now and things are somewhat settled there in the work. There are of course interesting moments and questions and ideas but it’s not quite as dramatic or drastic in my mind.
  10. I am not as much of a maniac about trying to present as much as I can. Back in the day I’d try to present at least 10 times a year and this fed right into the blogging.
  11. My home country is, ahem, destabilized. It’s sometimes hard to prioritize blogging. I find it difficult to, say, dive into the intricacies of ICQs when my home country’s political situation is so chaotic. It’s sometimes hard to muster the outrage of a good rant when the news provides an excess of outrage.
  12. It’s totally fine not to blog and no big deal if I don’t. That said, I enjoy/enjoyed blogging.

I fully realize some of these might sound like weak excuses or something similar. They are just a few thoughts that came to mind as I stepped back to think about my blogging habits this year. Interestingly (?) I started this list at some point in July and finally got around to posting it now early in September. I also want to be clear that I’m not blaming anyone else! When I re-read point 9 I worried it might sound like I’m blaming others which is not at all the case. I believe it’s not about blame but rather some factors that when all added together help explain the relative lack of action here in ELT Rantsland.
I won’t make any promises but please stay tuned as their might be more on the way soon. Thank you for reading.

 

On tall tales in class

This is how I started class the other day:
Hello folks, good morning! I hope everyone is doing well. It’s 9 so let’s get right into it. Today’s start is a bit different as I’m going to ask you for some help. Maybe you don’t know this but I don’t have any classes tomorrow. I’m actually giving a talk at The Asia Society, on the topic of North Korea.  For some reason. I am far from an expert but I was asked to talk to a group of American businesspeople about this topic. I am quite worried because of my lack of expertise but also because I am not accustomed to giving long speeches like that. I’m also worried that my style is a bit too informal or off-register for the setting. Again it’s a group of American businesspeople.  I think they are quite unfamiliar with Korea and North Korea and the whole issue on the peninsula. By the way, the Asia Society is an NGO that is focused on promoting mutual understanding between the US and Asia. I have this big fancy talk there tomorrow.  I’ll wear a tie and everything. I guess it’s a big deal. Can you help me with my intro? Thank you! I’ll read what I have so far, and please let me know if there is anything I should make more formal. This is what I have so far…

mg trumpIt was pretty fun and my students (who are future interpreters) did a nice job finding examples of extreme vagueness as well as things that were off-register. They helped me rework my intro. It went pretty well and I was happy to see what they changed and how they changed it. This process brought up a whole new batch of issues and questions. I was generally pleased with the idea and execution.

An interesting part of this activity was the students uncovering my lie. As you might have guessed by now there was no talk. As the questions mounted and it became more clear there was no talk, one student asked, “Was anything you said true?” Another asked if The Asia Society exists. It does. Another student asked if I was going to wear a tie the next day and I informed her this was extremely unlikely. I will admit to basking in the glory of being praised for my acting ability and lying skills.

I was pleased with how things went but had an ever so-slight bad feeling about the subterfuge which lead us to the (imo) useful practice. They seemed so excited about my talk and perhaps a bit let down that it was not happening. I can’t say for sure but maybe a few of them felt like they’d devoted their energy for something completely made up. At the same time I don’t really feel too bad because it was useful practice any my tiny little lie was helpful to build up motivation.

When I think about teachers fibbing, I’m always reminded of David Deubelbeiss who suggested in his “7 Sensation Sins of Great English Language Teachers” that a great teacher tells tall tales and spins yarns in order to motivate. He writes, “A great teacher twists the facts of his life and gets the students interested in ‘the story.’ When teaching, I would tell my students fantastic stories of my day, my life. I kept them engaged with the language, who cares if it wasn’t ‘fully’ true? A great teacher lies — tells their students things to motivate, damn the truth! Think about it – we do this, so let’s admit the sin and come clean.” Please be sure to check the link above for the other 6 “sins” as that post is well-worth a read.

And, in typical blog post fashion, let’s finish with some questions:

  • Do you ever feel bad about telling tall tales in class?
  • If so, how do you justify it in your mind?
  • Under what circumstances would you feel uncomfortable selling tall tales?
  • Do you see any downsides to such fibbing in class?

Kudos to KOTESOL

Sometimes I catch a vibe that I’ve developed something of a reputation in certain KOTESOL circles. Perhaps I’m seen as a bit of a thorn in their side. Or an outspoken critic. Or a family member who airs dirty laundry without going through the proper channels. Or a whiner who complains without doing anything (probably by those who don’t know or care that I was Associate Editor of “The English Connectionfor nearly 3 years and co-founded one of the more successful and active SIGs). Or a keyboard warrior with grudge. Or someone who doesn’t appreciate all the opportunities I’ve been given. I don’t think of myself as any of those things. I think I’m just a straight-shooter who calls ’em as he sees ’em.

I believe being a straight shooter means not always saying positive things. I think here on this blog (as opposed to at the pub) I’ve attempted to be as fair possible. My most critical piece was posted as a page and not a blog post so as to only share it with just those who would have an interest (and not the wider ELT blog world). I even typed the org’s name as K0TESOL a few times so as to prevent my less positive pieces from appearing in search engines.
*Waits for applause*
*Bows*

I am not saying I’m a hero. But, like, if you said it I might not disagree too strongly. Anyway…

Last year on this here blog I got myself in some lukewarm water when I wondered if KOTESOL, and the whole field in general, was too focused on practical takeaways. I fear my message was slightly misconstrued as being an attack on a specific strand at a particular event. It was not intended as such. I think 10 minute talks are a wonderful thing and to be quite honest I think I prefer them to longer ones. I guess lately, in general, I haven’t enjoyed just sitting and listening to someone talk for an extended period of time. It could be my decreased attention span (damned smartphone) or my desire to talk and learn with others rather than just be talked at. I’m not sure how many 50 minute plenaries I will attend in the near future.

Speaking of the near future, the main point of this post was to share two cool (IMO) things happening in KOTESOL this year. The first is actually this weekend. Seoul KOTESOL is hosting an Un-Conference, which sounds fun, interesting and exciting. The write-up states, “The idea of the Un-Conference is to give voice to participants by exploring their ideas, concerns, and suggestions in various small groups that each have a different focus.” I think it sounds great and hope this is a trend that picks up some steam. It is nice to such innovations trying to meet the needs of members. Bravo.

The second thing that caught my eye in KOTESOL channels lately was a line in the Call for Presentations for the 2017 International Conference. In that document, a new session type was listed, the Dialogue. Here’s what is said about this session type:

 

  • This is a peer-to-peer discussion about a hot topic or question relevant to ELT.
  • The facilitator should have a strong knowledge of the designated topic and be able to engage the audience in the discussion.
  • Audience participation in the discussion is expected.

This sounds both interesting and exciting. I like the emphasis on discussion and the idea of learning from peers. I hope these will be successful and a model for future conferences. Hooray.

I don’t want to read too much into these two things but I feel like these sessions could be harbingers of a more audience-centered world. Am I too optimistic? Am I too simplistic to assume more audience interaction is necessarily a good thing?