An Expe[r]iential  Activity (and additional thoughts)

Hello there. Let’s try something different. Okay. I am going to ask you to write something but first I want to give you a chance to think about the topic.

Assuming you are involved with teaching (if not thanks for reading and sorry you ended up here or, Hi mom). I’d like you to tell me about your plans for professional development for the rest of the summer (with the additional assumption that such things as seasons are still relevant). What are your plans for your development as a teacher? If you don’t have any (which is completely fine), why not?

Ready? There is just one catch. I’d like you to write your response without using the letter “R”. Please give yourself a maximum of 10 minutes to answer and try to write a paragraph or two about your summer plans, especially as related to professional development. Again you cannot use any words that contain the letter “R” which means you might need to find some other ways to say things. I know it’s not so easy. Good luck! Go!

How was it? How did you feel? How did you handle this arduous task?

I borrowed/adapted this activity from a course that I have been working on for around two years. The course, Content-Based Instruction, is offered to teachers around the world and funded by the US State Department as part of the OPEN program.

On the CBI course this task comes in Module 1 and participants are asked to write (without the letter R) about their personal goals for the course. It’s intended to give a meaningful experience and a reminder of or introduction to cognitive load. Participants are then asked to reflect on the experience. They are asked how the awareness gained from the experience can help us be better CBI instructors. They then are also asked to share their personal goals with the group without “the” R restriction.

Many participants report that they felt frustrated and stressed while doing the activity. Some suggest that more scaffolding would make the task easier. Some mention that it gave them powerful insights on how to change the assignments they give students. Some participants say the task gave them empathy for students.

The general consensus from course participants tends to be that the task is awesome and memorable. I also like this activity very much. I do. I think it’s a nice chance for participants (who are generally very strong in English writing) to experience a challenge like this and to be given a nice example of cognitive load. I also think the activity can serve as notice that this course might be a bit different than previous courses (with the emphasis on learning from experience and reflection on that experience).

Somehow, sadly, this activity reminds me of a workshop when the presenter asked us (mostly L1 users of English) to fill our mouths full of candy before delivering a self-introduction in order to replicate the challenges our students might face. Aside from being a choking hazard something felt very off about this activity and I am sure I didn’t gain the intended insights.

As above, I like the “No ‘R’ quiz.” But, at the same time, sometimes participants’ response to it gives me a tinge of discomfort. Let me try to explain why.

Sometimes participants will highlight the quiz as one of the most important and eye-opening experiences on the course (fine so far) and will then say something like, “I cannot wait to do this with my false beginner middle school students studying general English!” I think the quiz is great for teachers who are already good at English and might forget what it’s like to be faced with such high cognitive load requirements. I think it’s not so great for the majority of students who know all too well that it can be a struggle to write in English.

I find it a bit challenging at times to try to dampen the enthusiasm for this particular quiz with its particular rules because I want participants to value the experience and keep it in mind for their own teaching. What I truly want is for participants to think about what sort of experiences they could embed in their courses and classes that are tailored to their own students’ levels and needs.

When participants seem very (or indeed in my eyes overly) attached to this quiz I try to help them consider why it was noteworthy to them and how it might just be another hard task in a long line of hard tasks for students. I try to highlight how the intention behind the quiz was to give a clear example of cognitive load and to provide fodder for reflection. I argue that while their students might not know the term cognitive load they are likely intimately familiar with the concept. I sometimes mention that the early placement of this activity early on in the course and the fact it was quite novel add to it’s perceived importance. I suggest this is something they can keep in mind for their own classes.

Even though I’d prefer that participants not over-generalize the value of this activity I feel a bit like a wet blanket when I try to help them see my perspective that while it was a useful activity in this context it might not be so in others. How might you handle this?

Thanks for eading!

My workspace “practicalenglish” is inactive, and is scheduled to be reclaimed

Do you even PBworks, bro?

Apparently, I’ve been in the PBworks game for about 13 years to varying degrees of success. I thought such wikis had great potential and I was quite sure they’d be a big part educators’ toolkits for a while. It seems like that didn’t really happen or at least didn’t happen as widely as I expected.

I think PBworks seems a bit ancient by now, in internet terms. In the interest of full disclosure I will say I had an active Pbworks page from 2010-2019 so there is that. I started it in 2010 and just kept adding to it because it was easier than moving it. Okay, it was two pages to 2019 but that was all, I swear. This is how to go from “a man ahead of his time” to a “dinosaur” in just 11 quick years.

Not a lot of people know that my first ever rejected conference proposal was about using wikis with students.

Now that all the background info is out of the way we can get to the main point of this post. About 28 days ago, I got the following message from the good people at PBworks:


We noticed that you haven’t used your workspace named: practicalenglish for over 11 months.
As you may have heard, we reclaim workspaces that have fallen into disuse (PBworks Spring Cleaning).

Reclaiming these idle workspaces frees up thousands of potentially useful URLs for people who will actually put them to use. We’re planning to reclaim your workspace in 30 days.

If you want to keep your workspace, click here. If you’re not currently
logged into your PBworks account, you’ll be asked to log in. You’ll know that your workspace has been removed from the deletion list once the warning message disappears.

If you’re truly no longer using your workspace, simply do nothing, and in 30 days, we’ll delete the unused workspace and reclaim its URL.

The PBworks Team

While I might say that July is not really spring by my definition (but this year who knows) I appreciated the message PBworks. Frankly speaking, the last time I thought about that page/space was last year when faced with the same question. At that time I mindlessly clicked to keep my workspace even though I suspected it was rarely visited and I had no real intention of doing anything with it. This year, on the other hand, I decided to milk it for some sweet sweet blog #content. This year, on the other hand, I thought I would take a look and really see if it is worth keeping.

Looking at the space with fresh eyes was an interesting experience. The first thing I noticed was how hideous old-fashioned it looks. I guess a lot has changed in 12 years. Nice to know that my lack of ability with layout and design has continued on.

Poking around the space, a few things caught my eye. The first is the title of course, “Practical English” which I was always a bit unsure about. I guess it was supposed to be the sort of English you’d need if you were in an English speaking country, something like “Survival English” at a more advanced level. I feel like many of the instructors, myself included, sort of invented their idea of what practical English could and should mean at the higher levels (at the lower levels as I recall there was some sort of general English textbook that seemed far from practical to me at the time).

It looks like there was info or input on 4 different topics. They were job interviews, health, travel, and directions. It feels like that was not a whole lot of topics for 10 weeks. Maybe we dove into them in great depth. The input for each section was mostly just examples of language. Not bad I guess.

I feel like there was more (or could/*should have been more) of a wiki feel with students making edits and creating pages and such but perhaps that was a different wikispace. Maybe I am misremembering or imagining I was more of a 21st century educator than I truly was.

When I take a close look at the mundanely titled page, “sentence meanings” I can see that the last edit was made by a user named “Beststudent ever” so there was some editing from students going on. I also found examples of students asking questions and clarifying grammar points and such.

Looking back through the space something I appreciated was my attempted bribe of students to find and fix typos. Bravo, 2008-2009, Mike.

Something else that piqued my interest was what seems to be follow-up notes I gave based on a commencement address I gave at the end of an intensive English program. I can’t believe my penchant for giving goodbye speeches goes back that far (here is a link to a goodbye speech I gave in 2013 in a completely different context but also in Korea). I don’t have vivid memories of giving the 2009 speech but damn there was some trite stuff in there. Einstein and insanity? C’mon! At the same time, I say good on me for mentioning podcasts as a learning tool 11 years ago. Graded readers too? Not bad. I am really not sure what I think anymore about this “think in English” business. Actually, I am not really sure what it means for everyone. (I blogged about the advice in the 2009 speech here back in 2016 and you can click through to see my 2016 annotations on the 2008 speech.) Lots of time travel in this post, I know.

I do distinctly remember that the “Now is the best time to be happy” thing mentioned or used in the speech was something I heard and borrowed/stole from Tim Murphey. It’s funny how an idea can take root in your practice and later just fall by the wayside. (The basic idea as remember from Murphey was that anytime anyone asks “What time is it?” everyone has to answer, “Now is the best time to be happy?”) I found it really fun and I think students did too. I also found it to be a nice way to switch gears and find a moment to pause and think.

Back to the wikispace. The sidebar looks pretty sad. Not at lot of great stuff there. I am not sure if those links were really the crème de la crème of sites for students in 2009 or I just shared whatever was handy. I will, however, give 2008-2009 Mike some credit for sharing corpus links with students.

I like the section where I answered (to the best of my ability) the grammar or usage questions that came up. I especially like this because I think a few students probably had similar questions so it was nice to address them there. I think it was also interesting that I said (for some reason) who the questions came from. I like the idea that students could feel (and see) that their questions can and will be answered.

As I scan through the commonly confused words section I can see words that I heard Korean students confuse for ages after writing this. I wonder if I was primed to hear such confusions. I also wonder if I felt the need to hammer home such distinctions because the students were already at such a high level.

I am honestly not sure what such a page would look like if I made it today but I keep coming back to the thought that the space was mostly (from what I can see now) just a way for me to deliver info and not really so much of a space for collaboration.

When considering the decision to keep or set the site free, I don’t really feel bad about hogging the name “Practical English” on PbWorks. I don’t imagine there are groups of students who will be deprived of the name because of my selfishness. I am leaning towards keeping the page active because I don’t see any harm in doing so. It’s not exactly an internet hot spot but maybe some student somewhere will get some benefit from me leaving it up. I have a few more days before I need to click to ensure the site’s survival for another 11 months. Any thoughts or votes?

Long time no listicle

  1. Long time no post, too. Well here I am posting after avery long lay-off. Let’s just get right into it.
  2. I hope, dear reader, that things are going well or as well as possible for you.
  3. I am doing very well considering *gestures* all this . I’m fine and good.
  4. There is so much happening in the world which makes what I might want to write on this blog feel extremely trivial.
  5. Listicle is considered a spelling mistake by WordPress or Google or whoever I’ve got doing the spellchecking here. You can probably guess the first suggestion. If you can’t guess all I will say on this very clean ELT blog is that it’s more like testes than tests.

    Get it? Because it’s an ELT blog I mentioned assessment.

    Perhaps I erred. It seems like the first spelling suggestion is legalistic. Anyway.
  6. This one of the worst listicles ever because there is not even a theme.
  7. I think I once told a friend that the key to getting back into blogging was to just post something and build the momentum from there. I suppose this might contain some truth. Let’s see.
  8. Point 4 is something of an excuse for this long layoff from blogging but not a particularly interesting or compelling one.
  9. But I mean, really, does anyone care about what I think about the finer points of pre-teaching lexis in a reading lesson?
    (Rhetorical question).
  10. While I have not been blogging here I am the editor/curator of the New School TESOL blog, Uncharted TESOL, and there have been some great posts there lately (with more to come, in fact).
  11. This new “block” business on WordPress sort of sux takes some time to get used to. This is not an excuse for not blogging at all. Just an observation.
  12. I wrote/revised three abstracts for a conference today. That seems like a lot. I didn’t see anything about a maximum on the website.
  13. It might eventually turn into a blog post someday but I was 0/2 for this same conference in terms of acceptances last year. To be quite frank it was a bit of a blow to the old ego as I’d been on a nice streak of acceptances.
  14. I get the sense that the conference organizers for this particular one want super hyper practical stuff and I guess that is not really my interest at the moment, especially in terms of sharing some hot new idea and then giving participants a chance to practice or something like. No disrespect or shade to the organizers or those who are into that sort of thing.
  15. I had a look at the page on this blog where I listed the sessions and workshops I’ve done and realized a) that page is outdated b) there is not so much practical stuff there. If I squint I can see a trend sort of getting away from practical sessions. I wonder if this is common.
  16. Note to self: Go ahead and update that about page soon, big fella.
  17. This is the sort of hard-hitting breaking news you read this kind of a post for. Only two abstracts are allowed to be submitted for that conference and now I need to decide which one to cull. That was fun.
    (I had a feeling only two were allowed and I was feeling sort of unethical about sending three anyway.)
  18. I am thinking that I will cut the abstract that seems least fun to me and least like the one I want to do. Uncoincidentally, I also think it would be the most likely to be accepted.
  19. You might have been wondering about all the above business about a conference and thinking I am confused, foolish, or overly optimistic. This conference is scheduled to be in Vietnam and that is where I am now. This article from the IMF explains how Vietnam handled/is handling things with the virus. Also, this piece from an American English teacher offers a more personalized view.
  20. Depending on how you count it, in the past few weeks I had my 20th anniversary of being in ELT.