Thoughts on “Four activities I wish I knew when I started teaching” at CAMTESOL

Many A few people asked me, “What were the activities anyway?” in response to my post on “Activities I wish I knew when I stated teaching” and related workshop at CAMTESOL I will share the activities as well as some thoughts on the workshop itself in this post. But first, here are the PowerPoint slides for the session, which might not be super informative on their own:  Four activities I wish I knew when I first started teaching
(This PowerPoint presentation was described as “the most MG PPT ever” by a person lucky enough to get a sneak preview.)

I attended CAMTESOL in 2013 (here is a review I wrote back then) and really enjoyed and got a lot out of it. I noted there was a lot of interest in and enthusiasm for sessions focused on activities and especially sessions featuring activities which could potentially be used in class immediately. Sessions focused around adaptable activities low on prep and tech seemed to be most popular so I decided then if I came back to CAMTESOL I’d try and focus on the practical (whatever that means really) and share some activities.

Since the workshops at this conference are only 30 minutes I sort of had my work cut out for me by trying to introduce and actually do four activities in such a short period of time. I knew it was somewhat ambitious but I was committed to giving it a try. I felt the experience of doing the activities and seeing how they are set up might be more valuable for participants than simply hearing about activities from some dude who doesn’t even teach anywhere near the Mekong. Conducting four activities in the time frame seemed like a nice and interesting challenge to me.

Please sit down.I have a confession to make.  I have to admit I did not have four activities in mind when I wrote the abstract. I know, sorry. I am not completely sure I even knew the session would be 30 minutes when I wrote it either but I sold myself on the challenge.  Mathologists will know this is 7.5 minutes per activity but this would eliminate introductions, discussions, questions, wrapping up, and all that other good stuff. I figured if I could limit the activities to about 5 minutes each I might have a chance. I didn’t know till the week before the conference which activities I’d choose but I was sure I wanted to be flexible with things while making sure the activities could be done relatively easily and quickly.

Before I share the activities, here I am in the session doing my best Moses impression.
(Photo credit and credit for the previous line to Fiona Wiebusch)

mg moses

The first activity was pretty basic. I just had some true or false sentences about me and the session itself on a slide and participants were asked to determine,  wait for it… if the statements were true or false. The slides are above so you can check make your guesses on these answers in the comments or elsewhere if you wish. I attempted something of a think-pair-share on this but I ended up racing through the answers and not doing much of a whole class share.  I was pretty happy with this activity because it didn’t take up too  much time and because participants got talking to each other. I didn’t love how I raced through the answers. I did like the idea of conveying key information about the session and presenter in a way that asked participants to be active.

The second activity started with me saying, “I know this is a bit crazy with so many people in a small room, but let’s try it.” I placed signs for “Strong Yes” and “Strong No” on opposite sides of the room and then had a series of statements on the PowerPoint slides and participants were asked to move to the area of the room that was most true for them. The first sentence was, “I slept well last night” so those few people who slept very well the previous night went to the “Strong Yes” side and those who slept poorly went to the “Strong No” side while others found a place somewhere between. After placing themselves in the correct position participants were asked to share with those around them the circumstances behind and reasons for their answers. This generated a lot of conversation! In fact, it was very difficult to stop folks from chatting away with their partners. I read a series of statements and repeated this procedure. I was generally pleased with how this went and the energy and excitement in the room was nice to see and feel.

You might have heard of “Nation’s 4-3-2 activity?” It  seems widely known as this in certain circles but I am not convinced it is or was “Nation’s activity.” Here is a brief explanation. The basic idea is to have students talk about a familiar topic for 4 minutes and then 3 minutes and then 2 minutes and watch the fluency gains pour in. In my workshop session at CAMTESOL I had some guiding questions related to the general question “Why are you here at this conference?” and asked participants to talk for 30 seconds in the first round and 20 in the second. This was obviously bending the rules on the timing but I hope it gave people a brief taste of the activity and how it can be done. I called this 3-2-1 and told people to google Nation’s 3-2-1 for more info. It was completely new to almost everyone in the room according to my on-the-spot show-of-hands poll. I was happy about sharing this activity and people seemed quite interested and even eager to try it out.

I called the final activity “1-2-3” and it was more of a feedback collection or “exit ticket” than a typical language learning activity.  I asked participants to tell me:
1 thing (anything at all) they wanted to share with me;
2 questions (on anything at all) they had for me and
3 things (anything) they learned in the session.
I often do variations of this in my classes and I love seeing the things learned (or stated as such). It is often facts about the world or classmates and this is more than fine with me. Sometimes it is about the way English is used or certain expressions or strong collocations. I think this is a nice way to take students’ pulse and see what they are taking away from class.  In the workshop it was a bit of quiet time before I shared some final thoughts and tried to answer a question or two and then send people on their way. I was impressed the amount of people who did it and the range of comments and questions shared. I really do wish I’d known about this sort of thing when I started teaching!

As the session finished I had a nice time standing around and collecting these tickets and chatting with people as they departed or hung around. I was glad to have met the mission of sharing four activities but I was not entirely thrilled with the session itself. I am, however, thrilled you took the time to read this far. Thanks so much for reading. Before I wrap up this post I have a few extra thoughts I’d like to share and they are below.

Some additional thoughts:

  • I mentioned a few times during the session that  the adaptation of these activities is very much up to the participants. Again with the time constraints and the choice to actually do the activities I think this was quite reasonable but I also think I could have helped people get a better window into how these activities could be used in their classes or at a minimum give some time to explore this with a partner or group. But again the participants have a much clearer idea of their own contexts and all these contexts entail. I will admit to feeling a bit uneasy about the whole thing of going to a mostly unknown context and sharing activities and leaving it completely up to the participants to think about how they might adapt said activities. I don’t think I’d do a similar session again even though it was well-attended and well-received.
  • As you might be able to ascertain, I am not so happy with this workshop. At the very least my thoughts on it are quite complicated. It was fun and the audience was generally great. I think part of the bad taste in my mouth is that I chose a topic/format based on it potentially being popular at this particular conference but it was not exactly aligned with my beliefs on what makes a good session or would want to do if left to my own devices. Oh well, lessons learned. I think finding a balance between doing something I’m interested in and something potentially popular is a consideration for me going forward.
  • One interesting question resulting from sharing the 3-2-1 activity  was something along the lines of “How do you grade this activity?” I think she might have meant assess more than grade (she didn’t mean it as in “grade one’s language” because I asked about this)  but I didn’t have a chance to dive into the beliefs underpinning this question. I tried to say that I can usually listen to a few conversations at once and that it is also about students seeing where they have trouble and also about seeing their own fluency increases. I didn’t mention how this is not so different in terms of assessment compared to any sustained pair-work activity and the same strategies and challenges would apply.  I did mention how some teachers have students count the words in various stages of this and how this is something I’d like to try this year.  (Update: I have not tried this yet this year.) This was an interesting exchange for me and I wish there had been more time for such explorations. One audience member pointed out that this 3-2-1 type activity could be used to prompt discovery of certain lexis, grammar or speaking strategies before “teaching” and I was extremely appreciative of this mention.
  • This was among the most challenging workshops I’ve ever given in terms of asking people to stop talking and moving on to the next thing. I even whined pleaded “Please stop there so we can move on to the next thing, tea time is coming right up and you can chat all you want then.” I used my “silent animal” system (check out the slides if you are curious) but it didn’t really work well and was mostly ineffective. I clapped. I talked quietly. I talked loudly. I did my best to avoid shouting. I have some ideas I would try in a similar situation next time but, wow, it was not my finest hour in managing such things.
  • On the exit ticket one person was quite complimentary but suggested next time I *should talk about the “‘Why’ these activities are my favorites.” I completely agreed with this suggestion but also realized it would have been impossible with the time constraints and other decisions I made. I don’t begrudge this person’s opinion as I largely agree but I still felt a bit frustrated by the comments because this is something I knew well but decided to go in a different direction on.
  • My usual version of the 4-3-2 activity is a bit different than most I suppose. I ask students to talk continually to a partner for the allotted time and then I give 3 to 5 minutes for further discussion and clarification (and feedback of an official or casual type). I then ask students to change partners each time so they are talking to a new person who will also offer questions and comments. Depending on the class and the position of Saturn in the night sky I might also add some thoughts and reminders of my own on English usage before subsequent stages. At least once I’ve had an extended language focused session between speaking turns for the students. Here is a great post on tweaking/extending/expanding the 4-3-2 activity by Olya Sergeeva.
  • One tip on the exit ticket idea is that students can often tend to get more into it and give better answers over time and as they see the teacher is reading them and responding to them. One thing I mentioned in the workshop is that I sometimes use them at the halfway point of my three hour classes and then go ahead and base a portion of the second half on the muddy points that came out of the question section.
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11 comments

  1. Hana Tichá

    Hi Mike,

    I sympathized with you throughout the post. It must be challenging to do any session in 30 minutes, let alone share several activities with a group of strangers, even though they’re all motivated, like-minded educators. Also, I can totally understand your initial desire to do something popular. Anyway, I believe you truly inspired lots of people, including me. Although I had been familiar with the 4-3-2 activity before, it was when I read about it here in your post that I really started paying attention to the details. And you made me want to eventually try it out in class. I guess I’ve never done it with my students before because I kind of feared that they may not be interested to do the same thing three times in a row. But I won’t know until I try. By the way, I’m a big fan of Paul Nation, and I adore his book Learning Vocabulary in Another Language, where he shares lots of wonderful (and meaningful) activities. I wish I had known them when I started teaching. 🙂 Here’s a short pdf with some of the activities http://www.victoria.ac.nz/lals/about/staff/publications/paul-nation/1991-Dictation.pdf

    Hana

    • mikecorea

      Hello Hana,

      Thanks for commenting! Like other commenters here you made me feel better about this experience.
      Also, the fact that you might try to the 4-3-2 activity (and shared the pdf you shared!) made it even more worthwhile.
      Perhaps you will share the results of your experiment on your blog someday.

      I am actually doing the 3-2-1 thing with my students tomorrow.
      It is a new wrinkle, though. I asked them to prepare a 3 minute talk on a topic related to Korean culture (from a list but their choice)before class. They have no idea they will be asked to do the same thing in 2 minutes and then 1! It could be a nice challenge.

      I originally considered doing the 4-3-2 (or 3-2-1) thing each and every week but this will be the first time with this group.

      As I think I mentioned in the post, when I do the activity I like to give students a chance to talk things over with a partner before doing another run. I find that it tends to bring out some interesting comments and points.

      Oh and one more thing! I think doing the same thing with a new partner and a slightly changed assignment tends to be motivating for my students.

      Thanks again for sharing the pdf. I will try to make use of it soon!

  2. Zhenya

    Hi Mike

    Wow – those were productive 30 minutes of your life – for the participants/conference attendees, and for you, as I can read from this post (and for me as a reader – because you got me thinking about that session!). Lots of food for thought.

    I had a feeling I was also in the classroom: you described what was happening in great detail. Oh, and I realized that I sometimes write my abstract for a conference presentation before clearly imagining its exact steps or stages (just like you said, not realizing the actual timing might become an obstacle to reach the depth you in mind)

    Agree with Hana that it is a challenge to do any session in 30 minutes, especially the one focused on the practical aspect, or the activities. Having reading your post I got myself thinking that each of the four might be a nice 30 min session with a Q and A at the end (on all those ‘why do you like it?’ and ‘why do you feel you had to know it at the beginning of your career?’, etc.)

    In terms of what else can be possibly done I thought about letting the participants share the activities they like and often do in class – in groups of 4 (that’s how we get the number stated in the abstract) and then your own handout at the end, plus Q and A time. It is still way less practical than what you managed to do…

    Finally, from the picture you shared I see that the room was large, and that there are many people participating. It proves that the topic is popular, and this means it deserves attention. Each of those teachers has different outcome from the session – and even if for some people those four were not revolutionary new, it might have been a good reminder, or a new twist, or just a motivation to try something else? Just a log way to say that it was an enjoyable read!

    Zhenya

    • mikecorea

      Hi Zhenya,
      Thanks for commenting and also for helping me see from another angle that this might have been a more successful 30 min than I thought.

      I think the idea of thinking about exact stages of a session before (or while) writing the abstract is something I might consider in the future. I think part of the issue is that writing so far in advance I don’t tend to think about the stages until my abstract is accepted.

      In this particular case I choose the number 4 somewhat randomly which is also somewhat of a problem or cause of minor problems in this case.

      You wrote, ” got myself thinking that each of the four might be a nice 30 min session with a Q and A at the end (on all those ‘why do you like it?’ and ‘why do you feel you had to know it at the beginning of your career?’” and I think there is something to this idea and it speaks to getting into a bit more depth.

      My mind is going all over the place here but I am thinking the sort of things we might do on a training course like a demo lesson/activity and then processed (uncovered in detail and a focused discussion) by a colleague. I have never really heard of this sort of a thing at a conference but I think there could be something to it. Haha, in 30 minutes it might be tough but it could be doable.

      Thanks so much for the thoughts which pushed me to new ones!

      Cheers,
      Mike

  3. ljiljana havran

    Hi Mike

    The four activities you chose for your CAMTESOL session are great, and I enjoyed your very detailed description and thoughts about the session.

    I think your main point in the post is that you “chose a topic/format based on it potentially being popular at this particular conference, but it was not exactly aligned with your beliefs”… and so you don’t think you’d do a similar session again even though it was well-attended and well-received. I’d like to know a little more about your beliefs about what makes a good teacher training session (e.g. having more time for discussion/questions/swapping ideas, I guess).

    I agree with you that activities are over emphasized in teacher training workshops, and that there is a widespread belief that learning and collecting activities is the key to being a good teacher. IMO training sessions/workshops should be designed in such a way that much more attention is paid to practising how to reflect on teaching/learning, how to conduct observation and give feedback, how to avoid or manage conflicts and stressful situations, etc. BTW, I can remember a very useful workshop on avoiding and managing conflicts (with relaxation exercises) at a Serbian ELTA conference a few years ago.

    Thanks for a very interesting and thought-provoking post. 🙂

    • mikecorea

      Hello Ljiljana,

      Thank you very much for your comments!
      You wrote, “I’d like to know a little more about your beliefs about what makes a good teacher training session (e.g. having more time for discussion/questions/swapping ideas, I guess” and I think your guess is right on. Also some more time to think about “why” and “how things might be adapted” aspects. I don’t know maybe I was feeling disappointed with things but now with some distance I am thinking maybe a 30 minute investment to learn and experience a few new activities is not so bad.

      Thanks for the question and comments. This was helpful for me.

  4. Sandy Millin

    Hi Mike,
    It’s been very interesting to see the process of this workshop unfolding on your blog, both before the conference and now it’s over. As we discussed, I’m an activities type person, though I believe it’s important to know how to set them up and when to use them too, so I think I’d respond well to this session, especially as it makes a nice change to all the theory that’s often bandied about at conferences.
    I liked your choice of activities, and like Hana, I’ve never actually tried the 4-3-2 activity, but will probably give it a go now, if and when I ever teach ‘real’ students again 😉
    Next time I’m stuck for something to present at a conference, I hope I remember that activities are a good way to go!
    Sandy

    • mikecorea

      Hi Sandy!

      I am glad that you found this process interesting. I am also glad that you might give the 4-3-2 activity a try. I am a big fan (literally and metaphoricaly) of this activity so the fact that you might try it out makes blogging this worthwhile. By the way I think there is a quite a nice article that mentions the article here: http://koreatesol.org/sites/default/files/pdf_publications/TECv15n4-11Winter.pdf (it starts on page 6).

      Regarding presentations, I can’t disagree that activities might be a good way to go but I think I might be done with this topic for a while myself personally. I thank you again for the comments and for helping make me feel a bit better about a session I wasn’t really so thrilled with.

  5. Karina Thorne

    Hi Mike,
    A bit late in posting a reply, but I just wanted to thank you for sharing your four activities, and indeed, sharing the whole emotional process of selecting them, setting them up and carrying them out at CAMTESOL. I feel I was on the rollercoaster with you! As others have hinted at above, you did the best you could in the time alloted. And the fact that you took time to reflect on the whole situation, i.e., here, in your post, means that you got just as much out of it as the participants did.
    Quick news: I have been invited to ‘advise’ on some Teacher Training here in the Middle Kingdom. Typically, the requirements are vague/non-existant, but one can assume ‘fun activites’ will be on the top of the roster. I plan to nab/adapt your ideas, and probably mix in some from an excellent free online course with Open2Study called Teaching Adult Learners: https://www.open2study.com/courses/teaching-adult-learners. If/when this does happen, I will surely let you know how the activities were recieved.

    • mikecorea

      Hello Karina! Thank you very much for the comments (which are perfectly timed!). I am glad you got something out of reading this. It is one of those times when I wasn’t really sure how interesting it would be for others but people said they took something away from it.

      The course/opportunity you mentioned sounds interesting! Please do keep me updated on how it goes!
      You might have seen me mention “Flashmob ELT” in previous posts. This page has more info: http://annloseva.wordpress.com/flashmobelt/ and there are lots of activities there.

      Thanks again for commenting and best of luck!

  6. Pingback: 600 Seconds That Will Eviscerate Ten Minute Takeaways | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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