When a conference lives up to your expectations (or exceeds them)

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I wonder what it’s like to organize an ELT conference for 300+ attendees. Is it possible to satisfy everybody?

I don’t think we teachers need much to be happy though. Or do we?

1) Of course, we need some interesting content (especially practical ideas for our busy lives).

IMG_20181110_0854502) Also, we like it when we get some free stuff. This reassures us that our money (namely the conference fee) was worth it. Free samples of coursebooks in a nice blue bag will be fine. A raffle will prevent people from leaving earlier and it will keep everybody in suspense until the end of the day.

3) We also need lots of caffeine and some good food.

IMG_20181110_0839474) If we get free access to the internet, wow, that’s super cool.

Although I don’t think it’s an easy task to make all the above work smoothly, the 23rd P.A.R.K. Conference lived up to my expectations, as usual. It actually exceeded them (see point 4 above).

In this post, I’m going to focus on the content though. If you want to see more, check out my Twitter and Facebook pages.

Here goes.

IMG_20181110_092024In his opening plenary called How do we bring authenticity to a world full of screenagers?, Phil Warwick challenged the 20th century approaches to English language teaching. Phil argued that it is no longer enough to teach information. Students can look it up themselves if they want to. We need to be the guide on the side, not the sage on the stage. Phil gave us some tips on practically incorporating authenticity into our lessons. He says that improving our students’ L2 is not enough. Through L2, we need to teach other skills too. Also, an English class is not about the teacher explaining grammar. It’s about the students communicating in English. So, what we really need to stabilize is the communicative skills – through lots of pair or group work. And we should use textbooks that reflect this need. But at the end of the day, we should be checking the operational level of English, not just the language which is in the book.

IMG_20181110_103126The first workshop I attended was called Language Espresso and it was delivered by Bronislav Sobotka. It was very practical and experiential. I’d like to say that I had chosen to see this particular session out of sheer curiosity. My students once told me about a guy who shares educational videos on YouTube. They said they liked the videos a lot and they even persuaded me to play a few of them in class. That’s how I learned about Broňa. When I saw his name on the list of the conference presenters, I immediately knew I had to see him. I had my doubts though; to tell the truth, his online presence had appeared a bit too enthusiastic to me and I wasn’t sure if his enthusiasm was genuine. Conclusion: no, it’s not fake. It’s absolutely authentic! Although I’m not into crazy workshops where adult people are made to stand up and run down the stairs, I was excited. I think Broňa can simply pass some of his energy on to the audience. I’m definitely going to try some of his activities and I’ll share the insights here on my blog.

IMG_20181110_100803I chose the next session primarily by the name, but the content was also interesting. Nikki Fořtová (my former methodology teacher at uni) spoke about classroom observation. At first, she wondered why observation has such a negative connotation. One of the reasons may be that teachers simply panic because they feel they need to give a ‘special lesson’ during formal observation. But then she goes on to say that observation is one of the tools to keep your teaching fresh. Also, peer observation is a cool tool for your school; teachers can share ideas, see students differently, work on weaknesses, develop skills, etc. Pop-in observation (teachers observe each other for about 10-15 minutes), on the other hand, is a great way of working on specific (problematic) bits of your teaching, e.g. giving instructions, TTT, etc. If repeated frequently, it can help to create an overall picture of someone’s approach. It also avoids the one-off ‘special lesson’ syndrome. Nikki gives the attendees a useful tip: using #eltwhiteboard on Twitter to become a fly on other’s classroom wall. 🙂 Finally, Nikki asks if it is helpful to be told everything that could have been done better during the observed lesson. Almost unanimously, the audience said ‘NO’.

IMG_20181110_085807Sabina Pazderová (also my former methodology teacher) had a keynote speech in the auditorium, called Inspiring Your Learners. Although it happened in the so-called graveyard slot (right after lunch), it was refreshing and energizing, as Sabina always is. Here are some of the bits and pieces that have stuck with me: 1) Sabina thinks that the older one gets, the more difficult it is for them to teach teenagers. 2) Superficial flicking through the textbook happens because teachers sometimes feel ‘behind’. But behind what? asks Sabina. 3) She says that the Comprehensible Input Theory doesn’t work for her because she needs to learn consciously but she adds that it may work for our students. The problem is, however, that elementary authentic materials are seldom interesting. On the other hand, interesting material is often too challenging for students. 4) She also touches upon seating arrangement. How can we teach communication in L2 when the only thing our students see is each other’s backs, i.e. in a traditional seating arrangement? She offers a few alternatives to this, for example, the jigsaw method, chat stations or Round Robin. The overall message of the talk was that we need to cultivate students’ curiosity, give them sense of purpose and satisfaction, inspiration instead of information, including a bit of mystery, suspense or surprise.

IMG_20181110_084218The closing plenary was delivered by Dr Anne Margaret Smith. Dr Smith is a teacher and a dyslexia specialist tutor and assessor. She was recently instrumental in
setting up the new IATEFL SIG: Inclusive Practices and SEN. Her talk was called Reaching out, unlocking creativity. Among other things, Dr Smith says that, unfortunately, syllabi tend to be linear and thus are only easy for those with no learning problems. I was a bit surprised to hear her mention the right vs. left brain hemisphere dichotomy though. I was convinced that this was considered a myth in the ELT field, along with multiple intelligences and learning styles. By the way, on several occasions at the conference, I heard people mention learning styles. Apparently, they are not completely dead. It’s not easy to kill a myth, is it? It has a damn long life and can even turn into a zombie. Anyway, Dr Smith advises us, teachers, to provide our students with multisensory input and practice. Thus we can work on our students’ strengths and allow them to apply their creativity. Drama, art, storytelling and music are highly beneficial in inclusive language teaching. Neurodiverse and the parable of the piano were two concepts I learned during the talk.

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Thanks for reading. To get a better picture of what P.A.R.K. conferences are like, check out my previous post here.

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Don’t know the answer? Ask your PLN to save the day.

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It’s a beautiful day. You are sitting comfortably in a warm classroom, listening to your students reading the answers to an exercise you assigned as homework. It’s one of those somewhat boring phases you need to survive before you can introduce a more exciting activity. Anyway, it’s a pre-intermediate class and the exercise is very short and very easy – it’s about the difference between will and going to. Your students know the rules (prediction, offer, promise, plan, etc.), you know the rules, so everybody is happy.

In the middle of the exercise, you suddenly realize it; once again, the wicked coursebook writers have included a question where no rule can be applied. You start panicking because you didn’t check the answer key. You never do with pre-intermediate classes, not for trivial grammar exercises like this one. The trouble is that both answers seem perfectly ok to you.

We’re going to the Caribbean this year.
a) It will be my first visit.
b) It’s going to be my first visit.

You know what’s going to happen now. It’s not the first time you’ve experienced this so you fully realize the disaster a few seconds before it actually happens: you won’t be able to predict what the answer key says. In other words, you won’t be able to guess which answer the coursebook writers expected the learners to pick.

You wait and hope that something or someone will save you. You could text a colleague and ask her to knock at the door. You could pretend to have passed out. Anyway, when the dreaded moment comes, the student reading the sentence chooses option B. You nod in agreement but hesitate for a second. The girl at the door must have noticed your reaction. They always sense your insecurity, your students. Her hand shoots up instantly as if she could read your mind. You know exactly what she’s going to do. You can predict it with absolute certainty.

“Isn’t A a better option here?”

“Damn it. Calm down. You are the teacher. You know the answer. Come on, there are only two options so there’s a 50% chance you get it right anyway. It’s like a game of roulette. Red or black? A or B? I can’t open the Teacher’s book now. What would they think? They’d think I don’t prepare for the lessons. They’d think I don’t know such a simple answer. No, I can’t check the answer in the key. Not this time. Not now.”

I put on a thoughtful expression and I tell the students that both options look acceptable to me. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem the option they expected to hear. How come there are are two possible answers here? It’s all very suspicious. Oh dear, my reputation has been ruined. They will never trust me again. Or … they are never going to trust me again?

But then it dawns on me. There’s still a way out of this mess.

“Ok. Let’s ask fellow teachers on Facebook. Let’s see what they think”.

The students’ faces lighten up. Hm, this sounds interesting. Plus they can have a break. Yeah, let’s go and ask on Facebook.

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Výstřižek

From now on quite seriously. 🙂

Luckily, almost instantly, people started responding to my FB post. The good news is that the comments I got were quite varied. Most teachers found both options perfectly acceptable and some even came up with new, better ways of expressing the same thing. I made the post public so that my students could read the responses later. And they did!

In the next lesson, we had a nice discussion about the post. I think it was quite interesting for them to see that I can ask about a linguistic problem on social media and that people from all around the world will respond. The guilt was gone. I realized that if I had checked the answer key prior to the lesson, we would have never had such a nice exchange about a grammar point. Well, sometimes it’s better to be underprepared. 🙂

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To monitor or not to monitor

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Monitoring the class while the students work in pairs or groups is one of the classroom management techniques every teacher is expected to do. In a language classroom, we usually monitor activities to listen for the learners’ accuracy and fluency and also to check if everything is going according to plan.

However, I’ve recently realized that when I am in the role of a student/trainee/attendant of a workshop, a close physical presence of the teacher (or the presenter) is not pleasant to me. From this perspective, I often find monitoring distractive and intrusive, especially if the presenter is somebody I don’t know well. I simply can’t help the feeling that sometimes it’s as if the presenter is only pretending to be interested. The questions addressed to us sound like a small talk you have with strangers in the street – nice but totally pointless. It’s as if they knew that they are expected to be monitoring and that’s the only reason why they are doing it. I understand that sometimes they just need to blow off steam and thus they pace the room, distracting the attendees.

I prefer it when during pair work, the teacher/presenter stays in their default position, getting ready for the next stage of the lesson/workshop, for example, rather than monitoring us by closely listening to what we are discussing, occasionally asking a redundant question or giving unsolicited advice. I know I’m being harsh here but that’s how I see it now. 🙂

I mean, monitoring can and should be done only if it’s natural and absolutely necessary. I know that even adult learners like to have somebody nearby who they can ask a question if they come across a problem. However, I prefer it when we discuss the problem in the pair (that’s what we were asked to do after all) and we ask for clarification later – when we share the insights as a whole group and everybody can a have a say. This is what autonomy means to me. And if we believe in sharing and the benefits of peer work, i.e. we don’t do it just because it’s cool, we should simply leave the students alone. Thus, they can better concentrate on their tasks. I believe that the time during pair/group work should be the students’ private space, safe from the prying eyes (and ears) of the teacher.

I know there needs to be a certain amount of trust between the teacher and the students. If you believe your students will go on Facebook instead of doing the assigned work, you’ll probably need to monitor them every minute of every practice activity. And let’s be honest, we teachers are suspicious creatures. However, if you believe they can do well without the teacher being around all the time, you can relax and eavesdrop monitor from a distance.

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Don’t ask questions you don’t want to know the answers to

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The trouble with ELT is that it’s all too personal. To practise the present perfect you ask questions such as What’s the most embarrassing moment you’ve ever experienced?. To recycle vocabulary you ask: How are you feeling at the moment? Are you a hard-working person or are you lazy? To teach ways of expressing the future you ask your students about their ambitions and future plans. All in all, we interrogate and/or eavesdrop all the time. We think that to meet all the communicative goals and aims we simply have to do this. But what if we ask questions or set tasks and we are not prepared to hear the answers/outcomes.

Earlier today, when introducing the concept of stereotypes in an intermediate class, I gave my students the following task: I gave them cards with expressions on them, for example, a typical Czech teenager/pensioner/teacher/student/mother/man/etc. Their task was to describe these categories using sentences such as I usually sit in the park feeding pigeons. I am always short of money. The other student in the pair had to guess. Then I got them to share their answers as a whole-class activity. I was particularly curious to hear what they think about a typical Czech teacher. This is what one student came up with: I yell at my kids all the time. They don’t like me and they laugh at me when I’m not there. I do the same work over and over again and I’m badly paid. I have two months of holiday…

Although the student was allegedly describing a primary school teacher, all of a sudden, I desperately wanted to defend my job and tell the students that by no means do I feel this way. It eventually turned into a fruitful discussion but still… It got me thinking. Should we ask questions like this.? I mean, in fact, it wasn’t personal. It was me who made it personal. But you never know what to expect so you’d better be prepared for the worst case scenario.

In the same lesson, we read an article on how foreigners see a typical Czech. It was a tongue-in-the-cheek blog post (not the most recent one, by the way) and in one paragraph, it described how a typical Czech woman dresses. For example, it mentioned spray-on jeans and big cleavages. It was a group of 17-year students and at some point, it got a little embarrassing for me ( I felt the blush on my face) when one boy mentioned the cleavage thing and then inadvertently looked at me (mind you, I was wearing a regular T-shirt!). I know it’s a very natural reaction; when talking about hairstyles, you will probably look at the other person’s head. Anyway, to make things worse for myself, I realized I was wearing tight jeans (as were many other girls in the group). What I mean is that sometimes, things can get a bit embarrassing in an L2 classroom no matter if somebody’s remark is meant as an insult, which is a rare case, or if it’s totally harmless. You simply have to develop a thick skin.

Once a teacher trainee I had observed was quite sad after the lesson. Her question “Are you bored?”, addressed to a teenage boy, was rewarded with an instant answer: “Yes”. I later explained to her that she shouldn’t take it personally (yes, I of all people!). If a student is bored, it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a boring lesson. Plus I reassured her that he probably didn’t even mean it. Either he might not have wanted to elaborate on her question or he did not understand. Or he was just being very insensitive. I didn’t tell her that she shouldn’t have asked the question in the first place.

To sum up, being in a language classroom is pretty dangerous sometimes. And the ones in danger are not only the students but the teacher as well. 🙂

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Survive!

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What do you do when you unexpectedly have to stand in for a colleague, and you only learn about it a few minutes prior to the class? Do you have a versatile ‘survival kit’ to use in such a situation? What is it or what does it consist of?

In my case, it’s definitely graded readers. They come in handy whenever I have to cover a lesson, particularly in a group I don’t normally teach.

There are many things you can do with graded readers. This is what I’ve tried so far:

  1. You simply tell the students to read a book of their choice (or the book you give them) and go about your business, such as paperwork walk around the room and monitor. You can ask them to write a review afterwards. The trouble is that you should read the reviews and give some feedback (don’t bother the teacher whose lesson you are covering!). This is time-consuming so think twice. 🙂
  2. You can ask them to read a part of the book and then they should predict what happens next (if they do it in pairs/groups, you’ve just created an opportunity for them to practice speaking). Later or in the next lesson, they finish the book and compare their endings with the real one (more speaking time!).
  3. If you have the recording too, you can play it in class. The students listen (with books closed or opened, depending on what you want them to practice/focus on). There don’t necessarily have to be any tasks. Sometimes we just listen to something for pleasure. Period. However, you can have a short discussion afterwards.
  4. You can play a chapter (books closed) and then the class reads the next chapter (with no audio on). Then you push the play button again (don’t forget to skip the chapter they’ve read silently).
  5. If you only have one copy of the book, you can ask a student to sit at the front with the book opened, and as the class listens, the student puts some useful/unknown language on the board. After some time/ a few pages, it’s another student’s turn. You can discuss the words on the board after each pause or at the end of the lesson.
  6. With Romeo and Juliet, for example, I only have one copy, so I scanned the pages and projected them on the screen as we were listening. It’s a play (very low level), so it was feasible.
  7. Having said that, my favourite graded reader is Survive! It’s very simple in terms of language and you can either use it with small kids, who just enjoy reading it silently or build a nice conversation lesson with an intermediate class.

You are in a small plane, going across the Rocky Mountains. Suddenly, the engine starts to make strange noises… Soon you are alone, in the snow, at the top of a mountain, and it is very, very cold. Can you find your way out of the mountain?

Výstřižek

The great thing is that it’s an interactive type of reading. It’s quite similar to what you experience when you play a computer game, which is why it’s so popular, I guess. As you read, your decisions lead to certain consequences and in the end, you either survive or die.

Today, I had to cover a lesson for a colleague of mine and I learned about it a few minutes prior to the class. So, I gave each student a copy of the Survive! book. First, they read it silently completing the tasks. Meanwhile, I put some functional language on the board. When everybody finished, I pretended to be the captain of the plane going across the Rocky Mountains while the students were my crew. Suddenly, the engine started to make strange noises… I asked my crew what we should do. I elicited some answers. After demonstrating the activity with the whole class, I divided them into 3 groups of 4. I told them that they were in their small private planes and that they had to make some decisions again, but now they had to discuss all the pros and cons and agree as a group before taking a step. Surprisingly, it didn’t matter that they had already gone through the whole thing. It panned out really well and some students even turned it into a drama worth filming. 🙂

Meanwhile, I put some more functional language on the board (mainly modals in the past).

Finally (and this was inspired by the Mutiny on the Bounty movie), I asked them to explain/justify their bad choices, in hindsight. They could also say what had gone well and why. This time, I pretended to be a judge. I expected sentences like:

We shouldn’t have turned left. It was a really bad idea. Also, we shouldn’t have eaten the fruit. However, it was clever to go down the mountain because… 

Anyway, I think that as a teacher, I survived too!

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All the different combinations of formal observation

IMG_20180817_131315_969I’ve written about formal observation here on my blog a few times before but don’t think I’ve ever considered all the different types of observation a teacher like me can experience based on who the observee is and what the observer is focusing on.

So far I’ve encountered the following situations:

  1. I observe my colleague (as a colleague).
  2. I observe my colleague (as her immediate superior).
  3. I observe an outside worker (as her mentor/supervisor/trainer).
  4. I am observed by a colleague.
  5. I am observed by my administrators/boss.
  6. I am observed by an outside worker/teacher trainee.

The above six situations can be combined with the following:

A) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching a random group of learners. Such a group of learners can be specifically chosen/created for this purpose, for one semester only, for example. I experienced this situation during my internal teaching practice at uni.

B) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching her own class. The observer doesn’t necessarily know the class (this is usually combined with points 1 or 2 above).

C) The observer zooms in on the observee teaching the observer’s class (this is usually combined with point 3.)

D) The observer zooms in on the class rather than the observee – either out of curiosity or because there have been some issues and the observee needs help (this is usually combined with points 1, 2 or 5).

My favourite type of observation, which, by the way, I’ve recently experienced for the very first time, is observing an outside worker teaching my own class. The fact that I consider this my favourite type of observation is pretty egoistic if you think about it because the observee, as well as the class, are at a disadvantage. The thing is that it’s likely that the observee doesn’t know the test subjects learners very well and the class may feel nervous since they don’t know what to expect from the new teacher. Plus I am there to rule watch them all.

Anyway, there are some benefits too. For one, I can help the observee by giving her tips – prior to the lesson or afterwards – because I know my class like the back of my hand. I believe that if she is a regular teacher, teaching an unknown group of learners may help her see what she does with her own classes. Some things are better seen from a distance after all. For two, and this is the selfish part, I can see what my students are like from a totally different angle – virtually and metaphorically. For example, as I usually sit among the students, my physical perspective changes a great deal. Also, I can see the impact the observee’s teaching has on my class because at last, I have an opportunity to go through the whole process together with the students. It’s even more authentic if the observee doesn’t show me her lesson plan in advance. Thus I can tell how clear her instructions are and/or how motivating the lesson is overall. Actually, the observee is like a mirror I’m looking in: her mistakes and achievements may in effect reflect all the things I do in class myself.

And the most desirable outcome is when I can happily exclaim: “Heureka! My students did really well in your lesson (secretly thinking: … because I did a good job as a teacher)”. 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

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L1 in the L2 classroom – a waste of time?

youtube-2617510_1280.jpgAfter so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage. My doubts have been around for a long time and they probably stem from my conviction that if English is the only means of communication, students will learn best. In other words, only-English-no-Czech has mostly been my default mode of teaching. Unfortunately, I’ve never been able to test my hypothesis about the effectiveness of this approach to the fullest because, with a few exceptions, I’ve always had monolingual classes and I simply had to use Czech in some situations. The thing is that if you don’t share the same L1 with your students, it’s quite natural to speak English all the time, no matter what, but I’m not that type of teacher who will only reply in English when a student stops me in the corridor and asks where the toilet is, for example.

Anyway, I imagine there are situations when the teacher can take advantage of the fact that they speak the same language as their students. I mentioned one example in my previous post; you can tell an interesting story in L1 to motivate your students to share their stories (in L1 or L2) and this way you can get a richer content to build on in L2.

Also, take listening, for example. I don’t know about your classes but normally, we watch a video clip in English and we discuss it in English. This seems to be the only logical procedure; it’s an English class after all. But if you think about it, it’s probably the least authentic option; a group of Czech students watch a clip in English (so far so good) and then they discuss it in English while their Czech teacher of English is listening and responding in English (weird). Putting aside the fact that this approach has some pedagogic values, such as that the L2 input from the listening is likely to be used as an L2 output, where on earth (other than the classroom) will such a situation occur? I mean, how often do your students go to an English speaking country to discuss English stuff with their English-speaking buddies?

I believe that in my students’ context, there are much more authentic possibilities than this:

You watch a Czech clip and then discuss it in English. I remember many occasions when I wanted or needed to tell my English speaking friend about something that had happened to me in a Czech context. It’s always a bit more challenging that retelling a story which you have come across in an English newspaper, for example, because in a way, you have to translate from L1 into L2. Since there is no L2 input to rely on, you need to search for it in your ‘language inventory’ or sometimes even coin new language. Thus, due to cultural and linguistic barriers, the output is not always as accurate as you wish it to be so lots of negotiating for meaning is likely to occur in such a situation.

You watch an English clip and then discuss it in Czech. Discussing something in Czech seems to be a waste of time at first sight but sometimes it can be very useful. If the L2 content is too complex and challenging, you may need to allow your students to switch to L1. From the pedagogical point of view, it’s quite valuable because the scope of a student’s L1 output may tell you how well they understood the L2 input. Based on my experience, some students have a lot to say but since they are not too confident when using English, they prefer to remain quiet during discussions. If you ask them to use Czech to tell you what they think, you may be surprised how much English vocabulary from the listening they know in comparison with the most enthusiastic speakers who always volunteer to respond in English.

Finally, what about watching a Czech clip and discussing it in Czech first? Well, I’ve never tried this option in class but I guess there are some benefits too, especially if it’s the first step towards something more complex. Plus it’s not really inauthentic either. I mean, I watch a Czech movie at home, discuss it with my son, sort out my ideas and then I may want to share this experience with an English speaking friend or on social media. So, why not?

Well, after so many years of experience in English teaching, I’m still not utterly convinced that sharing the same L1 with my students is an advantage, but I’m slowly getting there. 🙂

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