Confessions of an activity snob

If you’d like to skip the angsty self-analysis please jump to the second section where I talk about something interesting and new.

The present author as an activity snob

I don’t usually think of myself as a snob. It is quite hard to do so with this wardrobe. There are, however, a few instances where a bit of snobbishness can creep up on me. In terms of whole ELT world one thing I have snobbish tendencies about is activities.  I am simply not interested in going to presentations about activities. I generally don’t read blog posts focused entirely on activities. I am not really interested in presenting about activities either. I once toyed with the idea of a blog post (or even a presentation?) entitled “I don’t want your stinkin’ activities.” The gentler version was something like “Insights not activities, please.”  I think at this point a sympathetic reader could say, “That is fine, it’s a matter of personal choice, Mike. You are not such a bad guy or snob.” I would appreciate the support of this reader but I think they’d be wrong. My distaste for activity spreading occasionally goes further than simply articulating a personal choice. I have been known to judge activity dealers and collectors, saying in my mind and even to trusted listeners that such teachers who collect activities are misguided and think they want activities but what they likely need is a sense of perspective or a deeper understanding of their teaching. Or somesuch shyte. Sorry everyone. Really.

Now that I have revealed myself as a snob, and a self-loathing one at that,  I would like to say I think there are actually some compelling  reasons behind my  stance. In my experience, many teachers tend to hunt for mythical Perfect Monday Morning Activity but when Monday rolls around there is a the pull to carry on with the same old same old. I might be wrong on this, and I sort of hope I am (and I am sure there are plenty of exceptions to this) but it is a story I have heard numerous times. I think in such cases the teachers  are missing the necessary nudge or push to try something different and then the push for activity collection ends up not changing their practice.

Another potential problem I see with activity collection alone is that many activities are not generalizable to other contexts and thus don’t get easily adopted. Maybe this is where “it wouldn’t really work for me syndrome” rears its ugly head.  What works from someone is not likely to simply be imported to another context. I think it this is often another part of the lack of implementation touched on above.

My potentially extreme view regarding activities is that teachers often overrate the importance of them. I sometimes sense the idea that one good activity will save the day, make teaching easier and more efficient and wipe away any and all problems. Fine, that is a generalization but I do often get the sense teachers overestimate the impact of an activity or two on their teaching.  This is when I truly feel the powerful pangs of snobbery, as I feel reasonably satisfied with my toolkit but I realize there are teachers who don’t share the same confidence.

I guess the other thing that puts me off activity collections and collecting is how there are so many activities around already from books, blogs, and buddies in the staffroom.  Again speaking just for myself (and trying to limit the snob factor) while not begrudging activity suppliers in the slightest way,  I think there are more than enough places to acquire activities and not enough to acquire insights.

6979916400_4023a000c9_o

A flashmob in action
(Photo by artberri on Flickr)
(http://www.flickr.com/photos/artberri/6979916400/sizes/o/in/photostream/)

Something interesting and new

Considering the above, it might sound odd for me to participate in or be enthusiastic about anything overtly focused on activity collection and sharing. Yet, I think #FlashmobELT is something different. It is not “just” (there we go with the scare quotes and associated snobbishness, Mike) another collection of activities. It is a place to share. It is a place to pick up and idea with the added nudge of actually trying it out and reporting it to the group.

What is #FlashmobELT? You can read about the inception of the group here. It has been very exciting to be a part of this movement.

I loved Anna’s whole post, which is linked above, not to mention  the ego boost associated with her mentioning my activity idea. I also liked the comments from Tyson who said, “I love the idea of crowdsourcing activities that are general enough to use across contexts in a pinch.” It was like he was reading my mind. This was like the articulate version of what had been swimming around in my head for a few days. Maybe now I could support, like and even love a collection of activities? Tyson also added the idea #flashmobELT having some built-in accountability for actually following through and trying the activities suggested. He also mentioned the difference between “simply sharing our activities” and implementing them and I think this is a key point and one that attracts my interest.

In one of my discussions with Anna about “The Movement” I wondered if we needed some rules for the type of activities suggested for the #flashmobELT Lino Wall. Yes, regular reader, I was as surprised as anyone to find myself in the role of suggesting rules. It happens, I guess.

One of the points has already been addressed.
Activities are ideally generalized enough to various contexts and teaching situations.

Some other (interrelated) points that came to mind:

Activities ideally don’t involve much in the way of prep.
Activities ideally don’t involve much in the way of tech.
Activities are ideally easily modeled/explained/used with students.
Activities ideally can be completed in a short amount of time.
Activities are ideally not focused around a certain text
Activities ideally can be easily changed/adapted.
(This means, for example, they are not tied to specific lexical/grammatical points)

These are just my own personal ideas and this is just the beginning of the movement. What other ideal qualities of activities would you suggest? Any other thoughts, suggestions, confusions ideas? Random ideas and movements you’d like feedback, publicity for and incubation are also accepted.

Thanks for reading and for maybe even participating!

Links and More:

a. Kevin Stein, hat wearer, post-it note lover, team player, and all around good guy  blogged about using a #flashmobELT activity here.

b. Here is Anna’s experiment with another one of the flashmob activities.

c. Coming Soon: My reflections on using a #flashmobELT activity on the morning of Wednesday November 27th, 2013 

evening of Wednesday December 4th 2013 (or muchhhhh later).

d. This genre busting work of genius came to me via email and I was allowed to repost it here.

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18 comments

  1. Rob Dickey

    Thanks Mike,

    I agree that there are many ardent activity-collectors out there that sadly confuse activities with Tasks (that’s not my thrust here) and seem to conflate activities with some holy grail anti- Teacher Talking Time (and, God-forbid, lecture about language???) Beaucoup Activity-based Language Learning Method. (the Babl method 😉

    It’s like the 1990s-era RSA/CELTA design that suggested you were a bad teacher (or at least lazy) if you spent too much time with a single textbook — no, we all worked in schools with ARELS-registered photocopiers and/or classroom sets of textbooks, so we should use activities and minimal TTT to enable students to acquire English.

    Not that this doesn’t work in the right context with the right students.

    • mikecorea

      Rob,

      Why did you have to get me all bent out of shape at nearly 1 am about the differences between activities and tasks? Why? I am just kidding. Pretty much.
      (and it also got me thinking about the differences between Task Based Teaching and using tasks (activities?) to teach, but that is probably a story for another day

      I think you make a great point here about activities being seen as some sort of holy grail that will “solve” all the “problems” like TTT.

      I am now trying to think about what else feeds into the cult of activity collection?
      Conferences and the like?
      I won’t deny that it might be a natural instinct for teachers, especially beginning ones. Lots to think about. Thanks for commenting and getting me thinking even more.

  2. Rose Bard

    “I think there are more than enough places to acquire activities and not enough to acquire insights.”
    I really like this statement.
    A colleague of mine was telling me something around the same line this week refering to activities and he mentioned that in every workshop or teachers meeting where activities are shared, he will take note to show interest and being polite, but he won’t ever use them. He said that to show that students usually have the same attitude to read-made stuff. He said that he prefers to put effort in the things he does. Funny enough it resonated with me… but not because I don’t care for the activities, but because the stuff I usually collect/save for later are the ones I rarely have the time to go through. I have quite few books with tons of read-made activities, but everytime I get them off the shelf is to read once again te theoretical explanations. Sometimes colleagues share with me activities and games they have used with the coursebook lessons with instructions to what lesson to use it and etc. and I rarely use them too. I wonder why now I do that.
    As for #FlashMobELT what I find really appealing in this movement is that it nudges us not only to give it a try but to reflect on the experience, to share. This is really inviting for me. Now my next objective is exercise my brain to think of something I have used myself or maybe a new idea that fits into the suggested rules.

    • mikecorea

      Rosie!

      Thanks very much for the thoughtful comments. Much appreciated. I think you make a great point here about saving activities for later but then not using them. This sounds just like me. I might love something and think I will be sure to try it some day but that some day might be in the very distant future.
      I really appreciate your ideas here about why we as teachers might not take the plunge to try a new activity that sounds great to us at first and I think you touched on some of the key points. I think maybe the nudge factor here with the flashmob thing might be just the small push some of us need to try something new and expand our repertoires. Maybe. 🙂
      I am looking forward to sharing ideas with you on this and other things!

      Cheers and abraçãos,
      Mike

  3. Ben Naismith

    Love the article Mike, and I’m definitely an activity-snob too. I always feel uncomfortable when someone in the staffroom asks me ‘do you have something for the 3rd conditional?’ – 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? It probably doesn’t help matters that I teach very material-light, and rely on student output and tasks to determine language focuses.

    Will check out flashmob as I like your list of criteria. I might also add ‘Activities are meaningful/require use of cognitive processes’

    • mikecorea

      Hi Ben!
      It is very nice to know that you read this and even nicer to see you connected with it. Your example regarding the activity for the 3rd conditional really helped me put my discomfort into perspective. I feel like I have been in that exact situation many times. In the past I probably felt as though I had the perfect activity without considering the questions you mentioned. That is discomforting as well. THanks for the suggested criteria and thanks in advance (if I might be so bold) for adding something to the flashmob board!

      See on you online soon and maybe even in person soonish!

  4. Tyson Seburn (@seburnt)

    I like activity-sharers on blogs, particularly concise ones. I can choose to read them or if crap, go somewhere else. I don’t often go to workshops based on activities either, though this is because I rarely find them something as wonderful or imaginative as made out to be. That’s not to say I wouldn’t (or don’t) lead workshops that suggest activities, because I have found that many conference-goers here are, in fact, looking for that practical use-in-the-classroom-the-next-day type session.

    You’ve aptly mentioned that I like the idea of this “flashmob” sharing and the blog challenge that goes along with it. I already admit, unfortunately, that I haven’t done any of them and probably won’t have a chance until after January comes (my last classes for the term ended on Tuesday). I am and will continue to enjoy reading the posts I notice from those who have chosen and activity and run with it.

    One small consideration though: I know the value of marketing an idea well enough that people look up from their bubbles and check it out, but my nose crinkles up a little every time I read the term ‘movement’. There are embedded characteristics to this term that I wonder are actually applicable (yet). Is there something revolutionary, viral or enduring? I’m not so sure.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Tyson,

      Nice comments, thanks!

      Last things first-I think you make a great point here regarding the word “movement.” I think it is important to think about how certain words are taken. I don’t want to speak for Anna (and I am not actually sure who used it first) but I personally feel there was a bit of a tongue in cheek usage of the word here. Unfortunately this might not be clear to others. Actually, when I was talking about “the movement on the #KELTchat FB Group (https://www.facebook.com/groups/KELTchat/) the other day I felt some compulsion to explain the word movement in this context. I think part of the reason I (we?) used the term movement is that we were talking about ways to spread an idea and how to create a movement, partially based on this TED TALK http://www.ted.com/talks/derek_sivers_how_to_start_a_movement.html (Derek Sivers: How to start a movement). I can now see how this cheeky bit of terminology within a few people might look different and cause nose crinkling to others.

      Thanks also for sharing your thoughts on activity sharing in blogs and presentations. I suppose I’m more inclined to prefer it on a blog because I am easily get out of it if I don’t think it going to work for me. I think presentations are different as there can be the feeling of being trapped. But, on the other side of things, it seems to be something conference goers are really interested in. One of my first presentations was titled something like “My favorite grammar activities” and I was shocked by the interest. So yeah I don’t want to say that I haven’t or wouldn’t lead activity focused presentations or workshops. [Quick aside—Non-Tyson people reading this might enjoy his recent post on interactive conference sessions: http://fourc.ca/conference-session-types/ ] I feel like I have learned a lot in sessions where activities were not the primary focus but were used for another purpose.

      Since we are admitting things I have to admit that I wasn’t able to keep my vow and use one of the activities this week as I said I would.. It will have to be next Wednesday or it won’t be for a while. I feel the need to come clean in the post itself.

      Thanks again for the comments and the chances for me to think a bit more about this and to clarify some of my thoughts!

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  6. Kathy

    I have quite a collection myself and have only used a few of them. Some reflecting on why this is so (in my case):

    – Many activities require preparation, aren’t flexible, etc. (per your excellent criteria above!).

    – Early on (when I built most of my collection), I didn’t have a good sense of what teaching/learning purpose many activities served, and so didn’t know how to blend them into my lessons meaningfully. BINGO seemed, on paper, like a vocabulary game but I learned (from trying it) that it’s also great listening practice, and it can be good speaking practice if you let the “winner” call the next round. If learners demonstrate a listening/pronouncing problem (example: 14 vs. 40), I may trot out BINGO. All you need is a bunch of stickies. Bottom line: it’s good to know various learning needs an activity could serve. Blog posts that share activities embedded in reflection are very helpful for this, so I look forward to reading everyone’s posts.

    – I don’t have “productive recall” of the many activities in my collection. Similar to when my learners struggle for a word they “know”, I can’t often think of an appropriate activity at the moment of need. For my learners and me, use and reflecting on what happened shifts the new (word/activity) to the “ready when needed” state. Another pointing favor of the flash mob!

    Kathy

    • mikecorea

      Hi Kathy!
      Thank you very much for the comments. I loved your thoughts here and I think they really pinpoint the blocks that can prevent us from becoming activity users instead of collectors.
      (and to be fair being a collector is completely fine…though I suspect “just” collecting is not what people have in mind when they start their collections.)

      I think my collection really increased from working with other teachers and seeing (hearing) how they did certain things. Perhaps the FlashmobELT can use that same spirit of sharing.

      I like your points about “productive recall” and activities being accessible (or not) when they are really needed. I hope this “movement” will be helpful for this as well. I still have yet to write about an activity I have tried…which hopefully I will be able to do soon. I’d love to hear about your experiences.

      Thanks again for reading and commenting!

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  8. Justin Evan Trullinger

    “Whoso would be a man, must be a nonconformist.”

    Maybe you’re just being a real man, Mike. Cause this is a really non-conforming attitude in my recent experience.

    I’ve recently led/organised a three day conference at a small regional university in Ecuador. The premise was simple- a three day conference which, if students (most participants were students in the college English education department) wanted to receive academic credit for it, they had to follow up with a distance project. Three days of workshops, scheduled so each participant could attend 8 different ones. Workshops were of a variety of topics: Some quite reflective/insightful (classroom culture, learning-centeredness, action-research) and some were purely activity based (How to teach pronunciation, how to teach listening, activities with no-materials.)

    Afterwards, as part of the distance project, I had the pleasure of reading lesson plans based written by 91 workshop participants. (The assignment was to write a lesson plan based on a new or interesting idea from the conference which you want to use in your teaching.) Though half of the workshops had no activities included at all, the overwhelming majority of the lesson plans (79 our of 91) were based on activities from workshops that offered them.

    In written feedback collected on the last day of the conference, the same pattern more or less held- praise for the “activity-full” sessions outnumbered praise for the “activity-free” sessions by about 5 or 6 to 1.

    Interesting, no? I’ve got some theories on reasons, but does this line up with experiences of others? ARE activities the most popular thing you can give teachers?

    • mikecorea

      Hey Justin,

      Thanks very much for the comments. I think your experience here offers a lot to think about.

      I think the story is very instructive. I suppose the question that comes to mind is about how easy it is to incorporate (and explain/quantify) non-activities into a lesson plan like that. Perhaps that is part of the allure of activities in that they seem readily adaptable to lesson plans. Perhaps other ideas/sessions/whatever don’t seem to lend themselves to this so easily? Just a thought. What is your theory?
      (I’d also suspect that teachers are not often trained or expected to account for and think about how these non activity things could actually be manifested in the teaching or lesson plans.)

      The numbers on the feedback you mentioned are startling.
      It really got me thinking. Thinking about a lot of things including if as presenters we *should do more to talk to the activity collectors and through that try to get to a “higher” level…rather than the reverse.

      You asked if activities are the most popular thing you can give teachers. I think my experience shows that the answer is yes. In what might be an offensive metaphor to all, I also think candy is among the most popular thing you can give to children. That doesn’t mean it is what helps them grow strong bones. 🙂

      Finally, 1 thing that caught my attention and is sort of off track of what we are talking about here (a bit!) is that you made a distinction (quite rightly I think) between reflective/insightful and activity based sessions. The thought that comes to mind is that I have learned some nice activities or at least ways of organizing things from the more insightful/reflective ones. Does that make sense? I mean, the ones that used an activity to get to a point seem to be the best for me these days.
      That said, I am thinking of just giving up on my snobbishness as a presenter/workshop leader sometime and just making an activity explosion. Maybe.Just a thought.

      Thanks again for all the food for thought.

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