Brno, Czech Republic
It was a real pleasure to be the conference reporter for the 22nd P.A.R.K. conference for English teachers in Brno. What I most loved about my role was the fact that I was free to choose how to go about things. This was motivating as well as liberating. Thank you, David. 🙂
Prior to the conference, I had the following plan:
- Mission One: to tweet from the plenaries
- Mission Two: to post some informal stuff on Facebook
- Mission Three: to interview some of the presenters/attendees
- Mission Four: to write a blog post where I’d share some details from the three sessions I attended
Mission One: I did tweet from both plenaries under the #PARKconf hashtag but it turned out a bit trickier than I had anticipated. The worst and the only enemy was the Wi-Fi. Unlike the previous year, I did manage to get the Wi-Fi password and connect but I didn’t expect it to only work in some parts of the venue. If you think about it, it’s not that surprising; it’s a huge school building after all. I guess the organizers have no control over this because they only rent the venue for this occasion. As a result, I got no signal in the classrooms where the workshops took place, and just a little bit of signal in the hall, especially at the bottom of the auditorium, where I had chosen to sit for the first plenary. So after each session, I literally shot out of the classroom to send a tweet. I must have looked like a social media addict to people who had no idea what I was doing. The irony of all this was that both plenaries were about incorporating technology into the language classroom.
Anyway, this precarious situation made me resort to a combination of methods; I tweeted and posted on Facebook during the plenaries and the coffee breaks but I used the good old pen and paper method to take notes during the other sessions. By the way, I realized I couldn’t do both at the same time. I guess I’m old for this type of multitasking. To be honest, I could concentrate much better without any technology available. The thing is that while struggling with the Wi-Fi connection during the first plenary by Saun Wilden, I missed some parts of the talk. Fortunately, my three guardian angels, Petra, Markéta, and Vendula, were sitting right next to me so they could always fill in the slots. The fact that as a reporter I felt a lot of responsibility and I really wanted to get things right made me realize that if you want to share information on social media in real time, you need to listen very closely. In other words, you can’t switch on and off, which you normally do as a regular conference attendee. So at the end of the day, my friends were tired but I was totally exhausted.
Mission Two: I’m quite happy with the stuff I have posted on Facebook. This was mainly photos from the coffee room and the school cafeteria. I remember my first P.A.R.K. conference some years back when I hadn’t ordered lunch and then I nearly starved to death because there was nowhere to grab a bite. There were only a couple of coffee machines scattered around the building with endless queues of teachers waiting for their daily dose of caffeine. This is ancient history now. You can buy some really tasty snacks and get beverages and coffee right on the spot, at any time. I don’t know how they do it but they are never sold out.
Mission Three: This was a tricky one and I didn’t really get down to this properly. Let’s start with the excuses. Firstly, there was not enough time to interview people because the breaks were short and I really needed coffee and the restroom. By the way, another thing that the organizers have no control over are the queues outside the restrooms; at an event where the majority of the 300+ participants are females, there are never enough toilets. Secondly, I needed to switch off now and then and catch up with friends since I really wanted to enjoy the event to the fullest. Finally and most importantly, I just didn’t feel like bothering people who were either having fun chatting with their friends (the attendees) or were busy running around trying to make sure everything was all right (the conference organizers and presenters). The truth is though that I’m too shy and not suited for such a role (yet?). On the bright side, I did manage to talk to some people unofficially: I talked to David Koster for a bit (David was in charge of the organization and he was the one who’d actually asked me to do this), and just upon leaving, I also bumped into Mike Astbury (Mike was one of the presenters and he’s a fellow blogger).
What I did quite thoroughly though was that I unofficially interviewed my three guardian angels: Petra, Markéta, and Vendula (I call them this repeatedly because they also drove me to and from Brno, in a VIP car, as they called it). The girls work in different sectors and at different levels of education in the Czech Republic and each of them has a different amount of experience (18, 22, 6). This makes them a perfect sample of participants to interview, I guess. I found out that Petra and Markéta had attended the conference for the 10th time at least. That’s pretty amazing! They also told me why they keep coming back to this particular conference (to get inspiration, learn about some teaching tips and acquire new techniques, get useful links to teaching websites, improve their own English, meet friends). They shared with me how they choose the sessions (based on the content, not the names or the speaker’s mother tongue). The most interesting insight I had is that they don’t really care about the gender of the plenary speakers. Having two male plenary speakers is not a problem for them. To the contrary, since most teachers in the primary and secondary sector of Czech education are female, they welcome the opportunity to listen to a male speaker. They looked surprised when I explained the controversy behind this.
Mission Four: Here I am, writing the post. As I said before, there were two male plenary speakers, both native speakers of English. As an attendee, you have no control over this. As for the other sessions, I didn’t plan to make a choice based on the speaker’s gender or their mother tongue, but after reading the workshop annotations, I was pleased to see that I’d picked three female presenters (one North American and two Czechs).
Petra Kacafírková’s topic was Leximapping – How to teach through mind maps. Now that I’ve seen the session, I realize that it was more interesting than the title had originally implied. I had expected to see a very practical workshop where we’d be shown different kinds of mind maps and techniques of incorporating them into an L2 classroom. This, I had thought, would come in handy in my teaching context. To my surprise, Petra grounded her assertions on some theory on how vocabulary is learned, which convinced me that she knew what she was talking about. I was impressed when after mentioning names such as Michael Lewis, Hugh Dellar, and Andrew Walkeley she added that “their approaches cause a bit of controversy these days but that she likes them anyway”. However, I sat up and took notice when she claimed that when we are being creative we use our right brain hemisphere. I really loved her PowerPoint presentation, which, in fact, was an interactive mindmap itself. I’d like to learn to design such a slideshow some day. Anyway, she introduced a couple of areas I’d like to further explore:
- Tony Buzan – the inventor of mind mapping
- leximapping.com. Unfortunately, as I’ve just discovered, you can only access the website if you buy the book. This is something that always discourages me.
You can access Petra’s conference material here.
The next session I had chosen to attend was called Mooveez: Teaching speaking made easy. Mooveez, the winner of the 2016 ELTon award for Digital Innovation, is an app for teaching English (and some other languages) through movies. This, again, was a bit of a product placement strategy, but I don’t really have a problem with it if it’s clear and obvious from the start. You can always choose not to go after all. The app looks cool at first sight and I’m definitely planning to explore it in more depth because I teach teenagers plus I believe that one can learn a lot through films. The only thing that discourages me is that the app is not designed for desktop computers – only smartphones and iPads (I think). Also, once you get the license, you can only work on three different devices. Thus it’s probably suitable for one’s personal use and/or 1-2-1 teaching but not for a regular L2 classroom. Although it’s not free (the club subscription costs 900 Czech crowns per year), there’s some stuff for a free trial. I know we teachers can’t expect to get everything for free but we celebrate if we do and we are disappointed if we don’t.
There’s a little anecdote I’d like to share here: at the beginning of the session, the presenter, Jane Mataruga, asked if there were any native speakers of English in the room. Jane thought that if there weren’t, she could speak Czech. However, a couple of hands went up. At first, I thought that maybe she wasn’t too confident in English. Obviously, I was wrong because she immediately continued in her flawless English. I considered it a nice gesture from her to offer to speak Czech in a room full of Czechs. On the other hand, many teachers come to conferences to listen to ‘nice’ English, as they put it, so they might be a little disappointed if a speaker opted for Czech.
The last session was delivered by Christine Thompson and it was called What not to correct (or when to just leave well enough alone). I liked Christine’s talk a lot. Instead of summarizing it, I’ve decided to write a list of questions we discussed during the workshop because a good question is worth a thousand words:
- What constitutes an error?
- Why do we correct errors?
- Is error correction good for our students?
- Does error correction eliminate errors?
- What particular error/area drives me crazy?
- What makes an utterance wrong?
- What are the good reasons to correct?
- What are the bad reasons to correct?
- How would I feel if I was corrected?
- Will you correct this? Won’t you? Why?
- How can we define standardization?
A personal conclusion I made for myself after the session:
We should be careful about how much and how often we correct. The more resolute we are in this respect, the more rigid our students will be in the future regarding the incorrectness of other people’s englishes. This is not a good approach in the days of the rise of English as a global language.
Thanks for reading!
See you again in November.