600 Seconds That Will Eviscerate Ten Minute Takeaways

Allow me to confess:  I am not so sure all sessions at ELT conferences need to have a practical takeaway for the audience. I realize this might qualify as #ELTheresy but that is what is on my mind at the moment.

All too soon I will be presenting at the  2016 Seoul KOTESOL Conference. The main idea behind my 10 minute talk (I guess the title of the talk is another story for another day) is questioning the need for a huge emphasis on practical takeaways at conferences. The goal of “things you can use on Monday” seems to be unquestioned. I get the reasons for it. I really do. I know people get bored with too much theory and too much abstract stuff. I know attendees don’t like to be talked down to or lectured at. I am the same way. I am reminded of my post from earlier this year, “What Conference Attendees Want“and there seemed to be an emphasis on practical takeaways.

This year the Seoul KOTESOL conference has a strand on ten minute talks. From the material I saw it seemed that there was a strong emphasis on practical activities. I think Seoul KOTESOL should be commended for trying something different and ensuring that takeaways are kept in mind. When I was running a trainer-training course we often used the terms PWBAT (participants will be able to) and PWWAW (participants will walk away with) to keep this idea of takeaways at the front of presenters’ minds.

I suppose I just want to spend some time wondering about the emphasis on super practical takeaways and if it is a viable route. This blog post is an attempt to organize my thoughts and the post itself is a mostly disorganized series of ideas and questions.

mill-208571_960_720

Windmill, image source

Like many, I am somewhat full of shit
Or at least a hypocrite. Let’s get this out of the way early, shall we? As I thought through this topic I realized I have been somewhat guilty of the things I am wondering about. For example, I ran a workshop called “4 Activities I wish I knew when I started teaching at CAMTESOL last year. I participated in the glorious #FlashmobELT movement and even presented on it a few times. Also, one of my first presentations ever was at the KOTESOL International Conference in 2009 and was called, “Some of my favorite Grammar Activities.”

Why (I believe) I couldn’t do a demo lesson recently
I was recently asked if I was interested in doing a demo lesson at a conference. While I loved the idea and found it innovative (and even exciting) I couldn’t get my head around what I might potentially do there. You see, most of my classes at the moment are extremely high level and a large percentage of these simply entail cycles of simultaneous interpretation and feedback and whole class discussion on specific language questions. I couldn’t see how this would apply to the majority of the people in the audience. Some of my other classes (also for future interpreters) are very focused on the language I believe students will need next year (along with confusions they are having) and I don’t do much in terms of actual activities so I was pretty frozen on what I could do at the conference so I decide to pass on the chance.

Is there such a thing as too practical?
I think so.

I usually find the whole theory vs. practice debate boring and overdone. I feel like many potential conference attendees would say there is no such thing as “too practical” but I think it is possible. I can imagine too practical  being related to too prescriptive, too superficial, too limiting, and too specific. I guess these things need not always go together but I can easily imagine them doing so.

I am not sure if I am straying off topic here but… when it comes to talks about a particular tool (especially a digital one) I would rather just get inspired about the tool and see what can be done with it and what issues it can solve rather than get a step-by step tutorial in how to use it live at a conference. If I want to use the tool I think I can figure it out on my own and use the help pages from the good people who made the tool. I don’t need to hear someone tell me this stuff at a conference. I have been accused of being tech-savvy so I don’t know if this is just me but that is my current thinking on this sort of talk.

Is there a shortage of places to acquire activities?
I don’t believe there is. With all the books and blog posts and everything out there I am not sure if we need to go all the way to a place (not to mention showering, shaving, and looking  halfway presentable) just to learn some activities when they are already widely available elsewhere. I think if we are going to gather together the best use of teachers’ time is probably not listening to one person describe an activity.

I do believe there is a shortage of places and opportunities for thinking and learning about how others think . In a previous post (“Confessions of an activity snob”) I wrote “I think there are more than enough places to acquire activities and not enough to acquire insights.”

How many activities do we really need anyway?
This obviously varies from context to context but my sense is that many teachers severely overate the amount of activities they will need to have in their toolkits.

“Do you have something for the 3rd conditional?”
In the comments on my aforementioned “Confessions of an activity snob” post ELT and ELTstew’s Ben Naismith wrote about how he might respond to this questing saying, “Well, what’s the context? Who are the learners? What are they interested in? What kinds of things do they like doing? What have you already covered?” I think these are great places to start and exactly get to part of my issue with the assumption that what works for one group will automatically work for another.

Maybe “Try this. It works!”Could be dangerous
First of all, I am not exactly sure what “works” means here and I think this is an important consideration. Also, as I said in the previous section I think the assumption that works in one classroom will automatically work in another is potentially recipe for disaster.What I really want to emphasize here is the importance of context.

I couldn’t have this subtitle without a mention of friend of the blog Russ Mayne and his series entitled, “Try this it works!” It would not be the first or the last time Russ and I disagreed on something but in this case I think his suggestion is not overly specific and thus probably avoids the kind of critiques I am making here.

Monday morning  is soon!
Maybe I am just a worrywart but it makes me a bit uneasy when teachers immediately incorporate an activity in their next class without (I assume) fully thinking it through. Maybe I am not giving teachers enough credit and I should assume they will always think things through and make sure the activity is a good it for their learners and classes.

Parting shots
I realize I might not have been completely fair to presenters or attendees or organizers here. Sorry everyone. Maybe people are more thoughtful than I give them credit for and all these worries are needless.

Aside from my apologies for not giving teachers enough credit I cannot shake the feeling that I am tilting a windmills here and that the obsession for activities it not going to fade away soon.

Anyway, now that my membership in the curmudgeon club is assured for another year I will get back to working on the PowerPoint for my presentation. There will be cute animals.

Thoughts on “Beyond loop input”at #IATEFL

I had the great pleasure of meeting Gabriel Diaz Maggioli at The KOTESOL International Conference in 2013 and I thoroughly enjoyed his session on “Teacher education at the crossroads: The role of theory and practice. At the  KOTESOL IC in 2014 I unfortunately did not have a chance to see him present because we were presenting at (around) the same time in different strands/rooms at the pre-conference workshops. So when I was deciding which session(s) from IATEFL 2016 to blog about my choice was clear. His talk, “Beyond loop input: teacher training and development outside the box” jumped out at me. You can see the whole talk here. It was an interesting and enjoyable talk and I recommend it. I will not do it justice but I will intersperse some of my own ideas.

I think one reason (aside from the presenter) I was interested in this talk is because of the topic. I am often a sucker for “beyond” anything and in this case it is all the more interesting because I quite like loop input as a teacher trainer. Here by the way is a nice write up on Loop Input for those who might be unfamiliar or interested in a refresher.

Gabriel Diaz Maggioli (hereafter GDM) started his talk by “confessing” that he is a teacher educator and a teacher trainer. Interesting to note the distinction being made here between these terms. He also talks about how becoming a trainer/educator was a turning point for him because it made him as reflective as he could be. This certainly matches with my experience. He then states the important thought of how training and education can impact not only the lives of trainees but also their students, who are mostly “invisible” to the teacher trainer. Speaking from personal experience as a trainer I can say that at times when I considered the future learning of the students I’d never see it was a big motivation to do my best. I think the future students of trainees are all-too-often forgotten because they are invisible to the trainer.

GDM states his affection for and belief in loop input and says that is has been important and helpful for many trainers. He then suggests that the world has changed and maybe there is room for new ideas. Talking about the changing world and changing profile of trainees GDM wonders, “How can I make sure that what I am doing through my careful planning (and my years of experience) … is the best for my trainees?” This sounds like a great place to start. He says that this question always leads us to two variables, which are content and process. He suggests what might be missing, then, is the question of identity.

Next, GDM details different approaches to teacher education (including the classical approach and a process approach that included some awareness raising). He mentions these around the 11 minute mark of the talk before talking about Tessa Woodward and Loop Input.

Bringing it back to the population and profile of trainees, GDM wonders what percentage of them have never studied a foreign language (suggesting this is a very low %).He then dares to question the “foreign language lesson” on the CELTA wondering if it still makes sense in light of the trainees and their experiences. I personally would say that there is still room for this type of thing because the idea is highlighting specific techniques and strategies that perhaps trainees have not seen before and can thus use the experience to reflect on. I’d also suggest that this sort of thing makes sure that trainees have a baseline of experiences to go from. GDM wonders if all this loop input has actually produced more reflective teachers.

GDM offers some high (and deserved) praise to Jerry Gebhard and mentions four kinds of awareness raising activities Gebhard talked about for training. They are microteaching, observation, investigative projects, and humanistic activities. You might be thinking that (just like GDM says) the second two are not as common or widely known as the first two. GDM says these are powerful choices for providing trainees with tools, talents and dispositions needed to succeed in the field.

GDM goes on to suggest that trainees can be provided with real data so as to aid their reflection. He includes tasks that might be useful as well. These sources and tasks can be seen below.

data and tasks GDM

GDM calls into question the depth of attainment achieved from these tasks, however. He says it is not enough. He says part of the issue might be that we are still tied to a language teacher perspective in our teacher education programs.

He then goes on to detail a fun activity for classroom management where trainees have to keep bouncing balloons up in the air while walking around the classroom (in something of a metaphor for classroom management in that teachers always have to focus on many things.) GDM says that he likes and believes in this activity but wonders how much time to devote to it and wonders how much experience is really needed. As a side note, I thought this was a great moment in the talk. He talked about an activity he likes and does but still expressed his reservations about it. This was great stuff and seemed to me to be a nice window into the thought process of a reflective teacher educator.

Next GDM talks about some procedures that can be used in training rooms (per Ellis 1985).

gdm activities

He also mentions that teaching is an enormously complex skill and that learning how to teach is not a linear process. He then mentioned the impact our previous learning can have on our teaching. I think maybe he takes it a step too far by saying he can tell how a student-teacher has learned based on how they teach. I think there must be some room for teachers rejecting the way they were taught and using their apprenticeship of observation to teach differently. Anyway, I am picking nits here since he makes a great point about the need for teachers to know that the reason they are doing something is because they were taught this way (if that is the case). I think this is supremely important so that teachers can move along and make different choices if they wish. He suggests we need to deal with “the ghosts behind the classroom.”

The next point is about the knowledge of L2 required to unpack methodology textbooks as well as to help students with English questions. He also relates this to the changing profile of trainees (I think suggesting they are at lower English levels in the past which might not be true everywhere).  He also talks about the need for teachers to understand the culture and context they are teaching in. Also potentially overlooked aspects on training courses? He then adds the all important pedagogical knowledge which serves to remind me of all the balls teachers have in the air at any time and how challenging it can be to help prepare teachers for this reality.

A quote  which  speaks for itself that I will just leave out there for readers to consider:
“If there is something that we know for sure about English language teaching it is that there is no best method and there will never be.”

GDM makes a great point that many of ideas in teacher training (and indeed his references for this talk) come from the 80s and early 90s. He laments that “It seems like the profession has not advanced beyond the tried and tested and even though the old-time procedures are good and solid we have new problems to grapple with.” Amen. He then mentions changes in demographics and budgets and the world.

He next mentions his previous work at The New School creating programs for design students and how “design theory” influenced his thinking. The question for him became, “How can I use a design theory to do teacher training?” Designers work to understand what the situation and then observe how people manage themselves in that situation (and this includes extensive research through talking to numerous people). The designers match what people say with what they can observe and eventually try to empathizes with the user. Interestingly, the moment the designer empathizes with the user is when the design process actually starts. The first step after beginning in earnest is to imagine and brainstorm (where the sky is the limit, there are no filters, and quantity is prioritized over quality). The second step is prioritize and synthesize while the last step was synergize (which is pooling together all the resources to see what the group came up with). This opens a lot of different ways to handle the issue. After selecting the best or most suitable idea we can then move on to designing the solution. This is not quite enough because it needs to be tried out (which entails trying to prove you have solved that problem). Even after trying it out the process is not entirely complete. You might be able to guess the missing step. It appears at the top of this chart.

design 2

GDM then details his foray into using the design mind-frame for teacher education. He employed this with both on and offline classes and didn’t notice any differences in terms of how it went over. He talked about how tools and tasks were important for him as he tried to help his students prepare for teaching. He mentioned that instead of lectures or readings he started out by posing a problem or question to his students. He then talked about a process that helped students learn about reflection (as just one example of course content) and what it might mean for them and their teaching (and even lives). The process looked liked this:

gdm process

One of the tasks for the student-teachers was to “catch yourselves thinking” which sounds interesting to me. Some artifacts the students worked with (in addition to their own journals) was journals from previous students as well as journals from students of English. The student-teachers were guided with a reflective cycle to follow. “The idea was that in their interaction with their peers, and looking at the different stories and contributions, they synergized, they pooled all that knowledge.” Students took this knowledge and created little workshops on things like “strategies that I use to reflect” or “moments when I catch myself thinking.”

GDM notes that the teacher educator was just “lurking” and facilitating the process (and making sure the discussions stayed on track) while all of this was happening. The students were creating tasks for themselves and their peers, including “Pit Stop Tasks,” which were quick tasks focused on looking back in order to look forward. The idea is to bring the learning to the forefront so that the concepts and ideas can be used in the future.

The talk finished with the benefits (including trainee motivation and output) of design theory as students became more engrossed in the process. It is interesting to note that students who participated in this pointed to the connection between theory and practice as a key thing that was learned.  As I hope is clear I enjoyed this talk and found both thoughtful and full of food for thought. It made me wonder if employing design theory is just one example of teacher educators using the metaphors and ideas from other fields and if there might be many more that teacher educators are not yet engaged with.

GDM concluded with a nice quote from a design theorist and I shall do the same.

gdm conclusion

 

A running diary of Scott Thornbury’s #IATEFL2016 Plenary

This is my first post as an official IATEFL 2016 registered blogger. I have followed Scott Thornbury’s tweets with the hashtag #1966andallthat for a while now and only very recently realized what they were referring to. There are lots of interesting quotes and thoughts in those tweets. I suspect we will see some of them in the talk.

Drawing inspiration from Chia Suan Chong, Sandy Millin, and Lizzie Pinard I am hoping to post this very quickly after the talk ends. This is intended to be a running diary where I share what is happening in the talk and my thoughts on it. I will add links when I can. Apologies in advance for typos and half-formed thoughts (as well as any potential misrepresentations of anyone’s thoughts). All quotes are paraphrases or approximations.

30 minutes before the talk
I think it is quite a testament to Scott and his public speaking skills and knowledge that I have seen him speak around 15 times (most recently at #excitELT!) but I am just as excited as I was the first time. He always manages to keep it fresh and interesting. I am excited.
Note: My excitement might be partially due to coffee.

25 minutes before the talk
I guess I will have put myself in quite the predicament if Thornbury is not interesting in this talk.

24 minutes before
Rain in Seoul and snow in Birmingham! Thanks to modern technology I can enjoy the talk from the warmth of home. Thanks to IATEFL and The British Council.

14 minutes before
Oh gosh, I hope this post is not (or is not accused of being) beguiling.

9 minutes before
At the aforementioned excitELT conference I had the honor and pleasure of introducing Scott. This is pretty much what I said:

I first heard of Scott Thornbury back in 2004 on my CELTA course. He was a fresh faced guy challenging assumptions about coursebooks and the need for them. I became a member of the Dogme group on Yahoo! groups immediately and found it valuable. I have been lucky enough to hear Scott speak around 15 times and never once did I wish the intro were longer. So, without further ado here is Scott Thornbury.

I probably could have mentioned what he was talking about in his talk that day,  in hindsight.

Anyway, I remember one TESOL luminary being introduced at a conference in Korea and it being said that he needed no introduction but the person who said that went on to introduce the speaker for about 10 minutes (of a 50 minute talk).

Haha. I just saw this tweet from Hugh Dellar about the expression “without further ado.

3 minutes in
As I scramble to get the live stream here is the abstract:

1966 and all that: A critical history of ELT
In this talk I would like to use the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the IATEFL conference to review some of the major developments in the teaching of EFL since the mid-sixties and in particular the advent of the communicative approach, including the ideological context from which it emerged, its initial promise, its dispersion, its dilution, its normalization, and its discontents. I will interweave autobiographical detail throughout in order to illustrate some key landmarks in this narrative, while at the same time I will challenge the notion of progress and evolution, and suggest that the diversity of contexts, needs, and traditions that ELT currently embraces repudiates the notion of method, and challenges such established orthodoxies as cookie-cutter pre-service training, global textbooks, uniform examinations and even the notion of a standard English itself. I will argue that one way of making sense of all this diversity is to situate ELT within the wider orbit of education generally, which might mean re-configuring EFL/ELT/ESL/TESOL as simply LE: language education.

– See more at: http://iatefl.britishcouncil.org/2016/live-schedule#sthash.G9AQ0DkB.dpuf

8 minutes in
I cannot believe I missed the start after all that talk above.

9 min in
A mention of Grammar McNuggets 

11 min in
Thornbury mentions the connection between his title and 1066 and all that.

12 min in
He explains his hobby of collecting old text books and shares a little library porn.

15 min in
Random and bizarre quotes from a book from the 60’s. Interesting to see the types of phrases someone thought might be useful.

17 min in
Scott shares a quote from Chomsky’s skepticism of theories from linguistics impact on language teaching. I am always curious why some people take Chomsky’s words as gospel but seemingly ignore this.

18 minutes in
I have a dollar that says Thornbury mentions Pit Corder soon.

20 min in
Corder mention! Boom.  He said something like “Language is not knowledge of individual items but it is a set of skills.”

22 min in
Talk about Richard Smith and the history of ELT.

23 min in
The parallels of English teaching beliefs and religious beliefs are mentioned.

25 min in
It is interesting to note the fear of errors all the way back then but perhaps in some quarters this has not really changed much in the world.

25 min in
Pit Corder again! The idea of developmental stages in learning is revolutionary. As is the idea of stepping away from everything.

Scott’s paraphrase of Corder is”Errors are inevitable. Deal with it.”

27 min in
Example sentences from a textbook includes,  “Don’t push that dog.”
Scott suggests it’s not a very frequent expression.

29 min in
“One generation’s heresy is the next’s orthodoxy.” This is a very interesting thought and I think we have seen hints of this even in the last 15 years. Some examples might be L1 in the class and even translation activities or even a more overt focus on grammar at times.

33 min in
We are zooming by. It’s 1972 already.

36 min in
Shoutouts to IH and the Haycrofts.

36 min in
I had some tech problems and missed some jokes and insights.

37 min in
A mention of a textbook without a grammar syllabus (functional) and how this was a game changer. This brought in all sorts of new activities. My thought is that it is interesting to note that most textbooks these days are heavily grammar focused and organized as such.

41 min in
The idea that communicative competence and fluency should be primary. This was 1975. What happened in the next 40 years?

42 min in
Thornbury says these issues were not resolved and there was quite reaction to them. It sounds like the field was on a certain track back then BUT it seems like something happened. What happened, I wonder.

44 min in
Scott says not much has changed since back then and wonders what happened.

45 min in
The ease of testing McNuggets is mentioned as a reason for the continued dominance of the grammatical syllabus.

46 min in
Teachers answered Scott’s survey (“What do you attribute to the persistence of the grammatical syllabus”) with the reason that publishers don’t want to change and students expect grammar.

One answer: SLA researchers are wrong!  Ten percent of respondents thought this. Hmm.

Interesting to note the students are blamed… “But are they ever asked?”

I think sometimes it is far to easy to just say the students want/don’t want something when teachers are lazy or fearful of change. See also: NNS “debate.”

49 min in
Potential reasons for the continual dominance of grammar syllabi are the lack of teacher training/skills as well as the importance of tests.

52 min
Scott implores us to think more about general education BUT acknowledges that all is not well over there either. The idea of teachers as service suppliers and the spread of neoliberalism is mentioned.

56 min in
Scott wonders about the overuse of the word “granular” in the field and relates it back to the idea of (language) McNuggets.

57 min in
Scott says he will offer something hopeful. Good! It was pretty bleak in here.

He offers three paths.
a) The pragmatic route: Just helping students learn to read (for example) and not expecting communicative competence.

b) The dogmatic (dogmetic) route:
Get back to using language communicative in the classroom.
He notes that this might not be a popular option for many.

c) The dialectic route:
Without the teacher…students can learn English (or anything) on their own, maybe aided by “grannies in cloud.” This is similar to what Mitra suggested at IATEFL a few years back.

1:05 minutes in
Scott suggests ideas that combine the above including “language learning in the wild” and Nick Bilborough’s Handsup Project  with students in Gaza.

I enjoyed the video and it was a nice chance to collect my thoughts and multi-task just before Scott wrapped things up with some thoughts of the future.

I enjoyed these examples but find myself wondering how practical they are for others and how different they are from what lots of teachers are doing.

Final thoughts: 

I am sure I didn’t do this talk any justice at all but it was fun to try blogging like this.  And wow I cannot believe those people that get blog posts out immediately after talks. Kudos to them. Kudos to Scott and IATEFL for a great and thought-provoking talk.

 

 

 

 

Do bad students make better teachers?

There are not whole a lot of early 90s Steve Martin movies I’ve only seen once that I think about at least twice a month. Actually, there is only one and it is Leap of FaithIn case your interest has been piqued here is the trailer (be sure to keep your eyes open for future action star and former Belfast pool champion Liam Neeson). I promise to come back to the movie after a sharp turn into the world of teaching and teacher training which will start after the movie poster. It should probably go without saying but there are spoilers for this 1992 movie within the post.

LeapOfFaith

In my previous job as a teacher trainer for in-service Korean teachers of English there were plenty of “aha moments” for me. One of them was talking to a teacher about her students back at school and how surprising it was for her that many students simply did not care about English or her English class. I think she found this unfathomable. You see, she was always among the smartest and hardest working students in class and always did her best. I guess she found it so challenging to deal with students who didn’t care at all about school because it was so far from her experience. I think it was important for me as a trainer to understand where she was coming from. Still, I found her surprise surprising.

As a teacher, I have no problem empathizing with and understanding students who give absolutely no shits about school. I was that kid. I have memories of biology class my junior year where all my classmates were scrambling to hurry up and complete their homework, mostly by copying, just before class. I just sat there with no homework and no desire to even copy from my classmates. My decision not to copy was not based on any sense of morality, I was too lazy to even copy. I didn’t care about the assignment or my grade enough to copy. I spent the few minutes before class just chillin’ (like a non-villain but not like a hero of any sort). When it came time to hand in my homework I just said, “Sorry I didn’t do it” but I guess I wasn’t all that sorry because I wouldn’t end up doing my homework the next time either.

Back in high school (and even earlier) I had no motivation for schoolwork and just went through the motions and did the bare minimum required to pass. I don’t remember exactly but I think I mostly somehow managed to get Bs and Cs along with the occasional D. I don’t think I ever got an F in anything except handwriting in around 5th grade (some might say I was divining the increased importance of personal computers and the internet in the future). I do know that my parents and teachers were not exactly thrilled with my academic performance. I am not really sure how I passed because I didn’t do much of anything in terms of assignments.

I often wonder if my poor performance as a student is actually an advantage as a teacher because I can better understand slackers or if it is a disadvantage or of no meaningful advantage at all. I wonder what other people think on this one. I’d appreciate any thoughts or comments on this, especially including personal experiences. My opinion at this moment is that being a “bad” student in the past is not a real advantage but it is generally advantageous to understand students and their motivations (or lack of motivation) but being a crappy student earlier on in life is not required in order to do this. Again, I’d love to know what you think.

Perhaps you are wondering how or if this ties in with the movie mentioned above. Well, there is a scene in the movie where the preacher played by Steve Martin is confronted (you might be “taken” by surprise when you see who does the confronting) for being a fraud and a criminal and not the clean and righteous preacher he has been pretending to be. He turns it around by stating he is better prepared to serve his flock because he has not always walked on the straight and narrow. This scene (which can be seen starting at around the 2:45 mark and truly picking up around the 4:40 mark) comes to mind when I consider teachers who have always been angels struggling to understand students who are far from that.

I can almost imagine giving an impassioned plea if for some bizarre reason training course participants took exception to my less-than-stellar high school transcript. I might say “If you wanna learn how to motivate the unmotivated who you gonna talk to? Someone who has always been motivated and at the top of the class or someone who struggled to be motivated in school?” before going on to explain how I am uniquely positioned to understand students who lack motivation. I have been thinking about this blog post for years (and the movie for even longer). Perhaps writing about it will help me exorcise my demons. Thanks for reading.

 

How a little democracy brightened the atmosphere in a challenging class [Guest post]

Mike says:
After my recent post on asking students to make decisions about the class Stewart Gray (whose biography is at the end of this post) got in touch with me on Twitter and said he tried the idea and it worked out for him. I asked if he might be interested  in writing something up to be posted here. He kindly accepted my offer and the below is from Stewart, for which I offer my sincere thanks. I hope readers will enjoy it as much as I did.

I have this one undergraduate class these days; 9 am Monday morning, three hours straight, twenty guys studying to be hoteliers and chefs, some mightn’t even be doing English at all if they really had a choice. Even in the first class, I could feel things were not going to be proceeding as I might wish. The first thing that really struck me about them was that, more so than any class I’ve had in a long while, they didn’t respond well to instructions. I’d start giving instructions, and many of them wouldn’t seem to feel any pressure to pay attention or take action. I’d ask them to make teams of three say, and after a couple of minutes, teams still unformed, I’d find myself stepping in to try and make it happen by sheer authoritarian force. Also, they didn’t find much to like in the sorts of speaking-focused activities I was offering up; perhaps it was the early morning, the long distance a lot of them had to travel, a lack of interest or confidence, or maybe what I was offering just wasn’t up to scratch, but these guys ventured a disconcerting number of audible sighs whenever I asked them to do something. By week four of the course, my nerves were really starting to fray; I was starting to behave quite disagreeably and sternly towards inattentive and late students, to my regret afterwards. I came out of class feeling like I’d been in a bad argument, and the following weekend I realized that I was absolutely dreading going into work on Monday.

Teacher authority (3)

That weekend, as it happens, I read a blog post here by Michael Griffin, in which he recommended giving students choices about their course, and that this would provide them with a great opportunity to talk. I immediately thought “I don’t need them to talk, so much as to study at all without me being all overbearing,” but nevertheless it sounded like a good idea to be more democratic. When Monday morning came around, I arrived at class with a plan, and no PowerPoint. From the very start of class, I wrote a list of class contents from previous weeks on the board, and I told the students “We’ll soon be voting on what we’re going to focus on first. Think about what you might need to review.” After about thirty seconds or so, I asked for a hands-up vote, and the students selected the topic from the previous week. I then immediately wrote two more options on the board: Writing or Speaking? Again students voted, and selected speaking, so I outlined a simple speaking practice activity and they went to it. And so it went for three hours, following a rough plan but with a student vote at every step. For instance, where I would normally have played them a listening file, I asked them if they wouldn’t prefer to do it as a partner-reading, as all the listening scripts are in the back of the book. They voted for the second option, and began to read aloud contentedly in pairs. It was at about this moment I realized I was hearing the sound of students studying away without my intervention for the first time since I had begun teaching that class. When it was all over, I gave the students my exit quiz, and a number of comments praised the voting approach. There was even one comment that included those all-important, beautiful words: “It was more fun than last time.”

Needless to say, I’m going to be planning my classes as democratically as I can from here on out. In theory I’ve never really believed in authoritarian teaching anyway, but I suppose it’s sometimes necessary to be reminded to dial back one’s forcefulness and listen to the students. My thanks to Michael for the inspiration, and helping to restore my peace of mind with regards to this class.

About the author: 
Stewart Gray is an English teacher living in South Korea. He currently teaches undergraduate classes, while doing research on ways to include critical thinking in English classes for young learners. He is also the current organizer of the Seoul KOTESOL Reflective Practice SIG

 

Follow the Money: What I Learned from “The Wire”

When I heard the 2016 TESOL Convention was to be held in Baltimore my first thought was, “Wow, they are holding it in the hometown of baseball legend Harold Baines! Nice.”

BAINES

A pure hitter.  

My next thought was, “Yeah, cool, but Seattle sounds like a better location for me” (partially because I have never been to the Pacific Northwest and because I already half-promised Laura I’d try to make it in 2017).

My third thought was, “Hey, Baltimore is the home of The Wire.” I will always remember when my brother (a big Harold Baines fan, by the way and for the record) sat me down and insisted I watch the Wire with him (for what was his 3rd run through). I was immediately engrossed and I’ve always appreciated him insisting on this and for teaching me the true meaning of binge-watching. This is actually not the first time The Wire has been mentioned on this blog. A previous post entitled, “The Wire, Twitter, and Reflective Practice” mentioned my love of the show. In case you are curious, my cousin, Peter Griffin, accurately summed up my views on the best TV shows ever (with apologies to Seinfeld.)

My favorite character on The Wire was probably Lester Freamon (with apologies to The Bunk). One of the reasons I liked Lester so much was because he did his job as best he could without paying much mind to the empty suits above him (spoiler alert: he paid some costs for this). I also appreciated his dogged pursuit of criminals through atypical means all the while proving himself not to be a “hump.” I feel there is a lot one could take away from Lester’s words and actions.

lester-freamon-512x512

Natural police.

I think Lester proved some of his wisdom here when he waxed poetic about life to Jimmy McNutty, saying, “A life. A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It’s the shit that happens while you’re waiting for moments that never come” and telling him, “The job will not save you.” I don’t want to take things too far here but perhaps there is some good advice there for teachers overly focused on their lives within the classroom and the field. Maybe some of us feel like we are waiting for that parade for a class that was sooo sweeet everybody just had to get together and talk about how brilliant the teacher was. It could just be me.

One of my biggest takeaways from Lester was his exhortation to “follow the money.” This phrase comes to mind frequently as I read various things in our field. It is like a filter that helps me to make sense of some of the things I see.

follow the money

Good advice. 

Let’s say a famous guru in the field has nothing but sweet and flowery things to say about about a seemingly horrible and potentially evil testing program from a big publisher with a fat wallet. Following the money might help us make sense of where these comments are coming from.

Maybe a friend goes on and on about how great their MA program or CELTA (or equivalent!) was. Now, I don’t want be too cynical but perhaps a small part of this enthusiasm is motivated by a desire for their training to be a good investment. I think we need to at least consider this possibility if we want to have a clear idea of things. When I read this post about DIPTESOL’s my mind immediately assumed a lot of DELTA force folks had a financial reason for their opinions. Follow the money.

Perhaps some coursebook authors vociferously advocate a certain approach to teaching English. Sure, it is of course possible (and maybe even probable) they deeply believe in it but I also think we need to at least consider the possibility there are some potential financial gains from this stance. Personally when I keep the “follow the money” mantra in mind it helps frame things and gives a reasonable excuse to those who seemingly blindly clutch certain beliefs.

Sometimes when native speaking teachers focus on the perceived downsides of  NNS teachers I have to think these native teachers are considering their “corners” and are not basing their statements on logic or student learning but on the potential state of their bank accounts if they get crowded out of the market. Following the money might give us a different perspective on someone’s views.

Just to be clear,  I am not saying that everyone is a money grubbing demon (and I think #iTDi is a notable and welcome example of the many groups and people who are driven by more than money). I am simply saying thinking about the money angle helps make a bit of sense of what can otherwise seem very confusing. I am also not saying those motivated (whether consciously or not) by financial gain are bad people. I am just saying this can happen and as readers and it is probably helpful to keep in mind. The next time you are faced with statements that don’t completely make sense you might want to follow Lester and follow the money.

One weird trick that will get your students talking

As English language teachers it seems like we often go to great lengths to concoct scenarios and role plays that will give our students chances to speak English. It is all the better if we can make up a seemingly authentic situation in which students are compelled to use English. In this quick (well for me anyway) post (that I have no doubt will go viral) I’d like to suggest one weird, wild, and wacky idea that will be sure to get your students talking.

reeves whoa

Whoa!

The idea is simple; you can just turn over some of the classroom choices to students and ask them make a group decision on a particular issue. In today’s class I asked my students to decide what time we will start class next week and when we will have our midterm exam. These issues generated a lot of discussion and gave students chances to express their feelings and try persuade each other as they tried to reach a consensus.

I do realize my situation is potentially rare in that I have the flexibility to schedule the exam whenever we decide and I don’t feel bad or nervous about skipping 10-15 minutes of the three hour class. Yet at the same time I think many teachers have at least some room for flexibility on different issues. It could be which activity to do first or which topic to cover in greater depth or any manner of possibilities. I also realize that some teachers might not feel comfortable turning the power over to students or admitting that the teacher doesn’t really care about when class starts or whatever other detail is up for negotiation. I believe that these fears can be partially allayed when we consider the benefits.

In my “Professional Communications”class today (after recently working on the language of meetings and negotiations) I told students  we have some important business to discuss and then said students could choose among 8:50, 9:00 (the usual and official start time), 9:10, and 9:15 as times to start class next week. I also mentioned the day of the midterm exam was the second item on the agenda and I gave a range of days including the original date of the exam.

I asked one student at random to chair the meeting and they were off! Students debated and shared their thoughts, experiences, schedules, commutes, hopes and fears. They actually ended up settling on the original start time and the original date for the exam. I thought it was a great use of class time and a great chance for me to see how persuasive and clear they could be.

I honestly didn’t care either way about the choices they made because all the options within the range I gave were fine with me. I think giving students this choice was valuable in a few ways. The first is based on students making a real decisions and being responsible for convincing others to go along with their views (there was a fair amount of mind changing throughout the process). Lots of language was generated as well. One bonus reason I think this worked well is that it  gave students a chances to hear the views, concerns and goals of their classmates. One student seemed legitimately shocked her classmates were so interested in studying English and that they were not as keen on an extra ten minutes of shut-eye as she was. I cannot be sure but she might have assumed for the whole term that everyone had the same perspective as her if not for this discussion. I thought this was a nice chance for students to see how their classmates felt. Of course, I could be wrong and the students could have simply chosen the same start time next week and the same day for the midterm because they were worried about hurting my feelings. In any case they talked for a long time and practiced their negotiation skills and I didn’t have to make up any elaborate scenario. I hope this weird trick can be helpful for you.