The drama of presenting

IMG_20190413_132401I started this blog nearly six years ago. If somebody had told me back then that one day I might present at a conference, I would have suspected they are drunk. Today, totally sober, I can proudly claim that since I started blogging, I have presented at two major ELT conferences here in the Czech Republic. Why is then such an important turning point? Because I believe this blog is the reason why I’ve been offered the opportunity to present. And although I’m not one of those big names, i.e. people who have achieved something in the ELT field and thus are well-known to conference audiences, some people believed in me and gave me a chance of a lifetime.

Both sessions I’ve given so far took place in Brno, at conferences I was familiar with. The first time, I presented at the IH ILC Brno conference a few years back. I could choose the topic but I had no idea how many people will turn up for my session because people didn’t register in advance. I wasn’t too hopeful, but it was the first time so no audience or a very small one wouldn’t have been seen as a professional or personal tragedy, right? Nevertheless, I had chosen a topic I knew would be interesting for the local audience so finally, a relatively huge number of people turned up (38 squeezed into a small room).

The second time was at the P.A.R.K Conference. David Koster, the main organizer of the event, suggested that I should talk about blogging and I almost immediately agreed because that’s the topic which I am passionate about. This time, however, I was a bit more nervous because, well, I had some expectations, but most importantly,  I was not sure how the local audience would accept such a topic.

Anyway, I started working on my talk straight away and it went well. First, I created a ten-page Word document where I drafted some of my ideas, questions and answers. It was an enjoyable process and at that point, I knew I had enough material to make a decent session.

However, at this conference, people register for the sessions in advance – online – so you can keep track of how many people to expect for your talk. And this turned out to be the major problem because in the end, only one person had registered for my session …

I panicked when I first discovered this. I took it personally (which they say you should never do). I suddenly felt like a failure. It was quite de-motivating too. It crossed my mind that maybe the session should and would be cancelled in the end. But what about that one person? It wasn’t fair to them. Plus I had already created my PowerPoint presentation which I was quite happy with. Then I got an e-mail from David who reassured me that even though only one person had registered, a few more people would come, namely him and Rachel Appleby, who had been very supportive on Facebook prior to the conference.

IMG_20190413_083140Well, that was the end of the darkest era but I should be totally honest and admit that I experienced a few more dark moments at the conference itself when listening to all those wonderful talks by Edmund Dudley, Frank Prescott and Philip Kerr. What on earth am I doing here? Look at all those speakers. They know their stuff. I have to speak for sixty minutes. I can’t do it. Then my time came at 13:45 (yes, the graveyard slot!). And you know what? I wasn’t as nervous as I was before the first session I had given two years earlier. I think it’s probably the fact that it’s the very first time and the number of people sitting there with high expectations that send butterflies to your stomach. But this was the second time and there were no people at 13:40 fighting for the last empty seats so I felt relatively calm (this calmness may well have been one of the fifty shades of hopelessness). On a more positive note, just before my session, I learned that Rachel Appleby had mentioned my name in her own workshop. I guess she wanted to do some last minute promotion and I thank her for that!

And then Lenka turned up – the only person who had registered for my session. I was so pleased to finally meet her. I think that with a large audience, you don’t really pay attention to the individual faces but Lenka was very important to me. She was a star to me. The centre of my attention. Isn’t that crazy? Well, not quite. I later discovered that Lenka had chosen the session because she wanted to set up a blog. Wow! I suddenly felt useful – like a real expert.

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To cut the drama short, there were six people in the end. David, Louel Ross Calleja, Rachel Appleby and two of my lovely friends (on the left) joined the session. It was good because they gave me some immediate feedback right after the session, which convinced me it had all been worth it.

To sum it all up, the session itself was OK, I think. The atmosphere seemed relaxing (maybe a bit sleepy owing to the graveyard slot) and I felt it was an informal chat rather than a formal session. When I dared to look at the clock for the first time, I realized that I only had 15 minutes left and felt I hadn’t said anything important yet. But my friends reassured me later it had been just enough information.

Now I feel like Frodo who finally managed to take the One Ring to Mordor.

Am I a drama queen? 🙂

 

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Let’s be honest this time!

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You know, I really, really, really love my job. But why do I absolutely adore my job while other teachers and colleagues maybe don’t? Is it because I’m an exceptionally enthusiastic person and see teaching as a calling rather than a job? Maybe. But let’s be honest this time. There are other reasons too. Some of them have more to do with outer factors and the situation I find myself in:

  1. I’m an English teacher and teaching English is fun. It’s gratifying because you mostly chat about stuff you and your students are keen on.
  2. Point 1 implies that most students like English (or at least don’t hate it). This is the default state and we English teachers just take advantage of it.
  3. The groups of students I teach are smaller than in other subjects. While a traditional class consists of 30+ students, I teach 14 -19 max. This makes a huge difference: less noise, more one-to-one contact, better classroom management, more opportunities for fun activities as well as less/easier preparation and correction.
  4. Being proficient in English means that apart from teaching it at school, I can do other things: I can take part in international exchange programs, have classes outside of my regular timetable, translate, interpret, you name it. Not that I do all of these, but I know I can and this gives me an immense sense of freedom.
  5. I teach at a secondary school (combined with a grammar school). This means that the students who come to our school are mature and/or talented enough to be able to follow me. This makes my work much easier and my classroom management skills rock.
  6. Related to that is that fact that there’s actually not much work left for me; the students learn English on their own, mainly through watching English movies and listening to English songs; I only watch their progress. If a student is exceptionally talented (read: done a lot of work on their own outside of school) and wins a competition, for example, I’m the one who is given the credit.
  7. My students’ levels of proficiency range from A2 to B2. So if I make a mistake or don’t know an answer to a tricky question, there’s still a chance I will get away with it. As far as the C1 learners are concerned, if I don’t know an answer, I ask them to help and everybody is happy. Alternatively, we go on Facebook where I ask my PLN. This looks really cool because we take advantage of technology to learn. Aren’t we fabulous?
  8. The fact that I have many English-speaking friends (mostly online) who I can always ask for help makes me look even more professional (I think).
  9. I can share stuff about my job in English and thus reach a bigger, international audience. I’d say that the ELT community is probably the biggest online international community of teachers you can think of. I don’t think there are as many connected biology teachers, for example, as there are English teachers. This makes me feel safe and really proud of my job.
  10. Finally, I can blog about my job and my international audience helps me reflect on it. This form of therapy is one of the things that really keeps my head above water. Also, the fact that I blog in English proves I really know my stuff, right?

🙂

 

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Taking shortcuts and reflective practice

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When you teach kids, especially in a relatively high stakes environment, you need to be prepared that they will tend to take shortcuts sometimes. I’m not saying that kids are cheaters or lazy per se; it’s just that they are often under too much pressure and taking shortcuts may lead to saving some energy for later when it will be most needed. There’s no need to be too judgmental but you do need to tell them that taking shortcuts is not always helpful – it may even be the wrong way.

What am I driving at? Well, I’ve just corrected a pile of book and film reviews. The students (B1-B2) were supposed to write about their favourite book or movie. In one of the lessons before the exam, we studied a couple of templates in their coursebooks. During this stage, I told them what language I expected them to use in their reviews but otherwise, there were no restrictions – not even a strictly given word limit. I encouraged them to write a draft; at this stage, they were allowed to use the Internet to look up all the information they needed.

The students did a great job and most of them got decent grades. One student, however, gave me a hard time; when I was reading through her writing earlier today, I realized that to a large extent, she had copied the text from the coursebook. She’d changed a few things here and there but otherwise, the texts were identical. At first, I wanted to give her a fail grade but then I realized that I hadn’t told the students explicitly that they should not write about the movie/book that is in their coursebook. I supposed that it was obvious. But was it?

The Reflective Questions for Teachers may come in handy now (credits to Andy Hockley and to ILC IH Brno Conference 2019).

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What happened? 

My students were encouraged to use specific functional language in their book/film reviews, namely the opening sentences of each paragraph. This language could be found in example reviews in their coursebooks. One student, however, used a substantial part of the text found in the coursebook to write her review. In other words, her other sentences, as well as some of the facts, strongly resembled the ones in the coursebook.

What possible explanations are there for this event? 

Unlike the other students in her class, she hadn’t prepared well, i.e. she hadn’t written the first draft, so later she probably didn’t know what to write about. Thus, she chose the easiest way out – she read the text in her coursebook right before the lesson and used what she remembered to write her own review. Since I hadn’t told the students not to write about this particular book, she actually didn’t break any rules. I hadn’t told them because I thought it was kind of obvious. Moreover, during the prep stage, when they discussed their favourite books/movies, nobody mentioned the one in the coursebook so it didn’t even occur to me somebody would write about it in the exam paper.

Having reflected upon the action, what will I do next. What will I do differently? 

I haven’t graded her review and I probably won’t. She will have to write a new one. Next time, I will explicitly say that they must not write about the book which is in their coursebooks because it’s difficult to prove whether the text the student wrote during the exam had just been inspired by the text in the coursebook or whether the student had actually plagiarized it. Also, before the exam, I will make sure, again, that nobody is actually going to write about that specific book. How? I will ask. During the exam, I’ll monitor and peek at the students’ writings, at least at the very beginning, to check that nobody is writing about the book in their coursebooks.

Can I draw a general conclusion from this? 

I have to be clear when giving instructions. The assumption that something is obvious will only get me into trouble. In fact, I can’t really punish students for taking shortcuts – they may not even realize they are shortcuts. It’s my responsibility to prevent this type of behaviour and educate students about plagiarism. However, the student in question should and will get feedback from me on this. And next time, I will not tolerate this and I will definitely take appropriate action, i.e. I will give her a fail grade.

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No-prep activity bank: Lost in translation?

picture-frame-3042585_1280In this post, I’d like to share an activity I’ve tried in class several times this week. It was inspired by Daryna Luhovska‘s idea I had learned about at the ILC IH Brno Conference. I’d tried a few variations of the activity (including the original one Daryna demonstrated in her workshop) until I finally found the ‘ideal’ version which I believe perfectly suits my students’ needs and my teaching context, i.e. the number of students I have in class and the seating arrangement we are used to.

Stage 1: Students (the green and yellow circles below) are sitting at their desks (the blue rectangles) facing each other. The Greens have pictures in front of them on their desks. The Yellows can’t see the pictures. The Greens have two minutes to describe the pictures in detail (hence the speech bubbles). The Yellows are listening, trying to remember as many details as possible.

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Stage 2: The Greens turn the pictures face down. The Yellows (the inner circle) move one seat to the left as indicated by the arrows. The Greens stay put.

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Stage 3: Now, the Yellows have one minute to talk about the pictures they have just heard about, i.e. the Yellow Student Number 9 is describing picture number 9 to the Green Student Number 1.

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Stage 4: After the Yellows have moved one chair to the left again, the Greens are describing the pictures they have just heard about from their previous Yellow partners. I found it very handy to give the Yellows slips of paper with numbers on them. Each time they finish the description, they hand the number over to their partner (sitting opposite them). This makes the activity more transparent and everybody knows what they should be doing. In other words, if you are holding a number, you are talking about that particular picture.

 

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There can be as many rounds as you feel is suitable and meaningful for your class. If it’s too long, though, it gets boring and frustrating since it inevitably gets more and more confusing with each round. Also, students have less and less to say. Nevertheless, try to stick to the one-minute limit.

Regardless of how many rounds you decide to go for, you must always stop the game after the Yellows (the inner circle) have listened to the Greens (the outer circle), not the other way around. It’s simply more practical (you’ll see why right below).

If you wanted to wind up at the stage depicted in the diagram above, for example, the student who has listened to the description of picture 1, stands up and finds the student who originally described picture 1. So, The Yellow Student 9 (who has just heard about Picture 1) goes and sits next to the Green Student 1. Now the Greens turn the pictures face up again and listen to the ‘original’ descriptions. The Yellows can’t look at the pictures at this stage yet. Be prepared that these will not really be the original stories but only leftovers; they will be way shorter (sometimes hardly a couple of sentences) and lots of details will have got lost (“in translation”) or changed completely. But this is partially the point. Students are forced to be creative along the way – they need to change the wording, correct mistakes, simplify, elaborate, etc.

Finally, I ask the new pairs to sit next to each other and write everything that was correct. Expect this to be just a short piece of writing – from 20 – 60 words. It will probably only take 5-10 minutes. At this stage, however, I strictly focus on accuracy. Phrases like there is/are, in the background/foreground, etc. are something I expect to be used correctly.

In the end, I always juxtapose this activity with the way gossip and fake news come to existence. People simply hear what they want to hear and/or they deliberately change stories to make them more exciting.

P.S.: You can use stories instead of pictures.

Also, I very proud of my diagrams. 🙂

…. and this is Daryna Luhovska’s blog on Facebook in case you want to join her there. 😉

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Some of the tangible outcomes of my professional development

Professional development means learning to earn or maintain professional credentials such as academic degrees to formal coursework, attending conferences, and informal learning opportunities situated in practice. It has been described as intensive and collaborative, ideally incorporating an evaluative stage.

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The last conference I attended got me asking a few burning questions concerning professional development. Although I believe I already have an idea of what professional development means in the ELT world and I engage in it whenever I can, I’ve never really thought about the tangible outcomes of my PD.

I imagine that at every point of our career, we teachers find ourselves at a certain stage of development. This means that we are aware and capable of things while unaware and incapable of others. For example, on the way to the conference, my friend was reading through the programme when she suddenly asked me, looking pretty frustrated: what the hell is emergent language? And what are infographics? I helped her with the former but had no idea what the latter meant. So, at that particular moment, we had no knowledge of some of the concepts mentioned in the programme. This doesn’t imply, though, that my friend was unable to deal with emergent language in class or that I had never worked with infographics before. The obvious conclusion would be that one of the outcomes of professional development is facts and knowledge. But, although knowledge is precious, it is by no means all-powerful.

Before the conference, and specifically before Daryna Luhovska’s excellent workshop called A New Life for Speaking Tasks, I thought I was familiar with ICQs. Instruction Checking Questions are used after a teacher has given instructions to make sure students have understood what they need to do. I was convinced I used these questions in class effectively. However, it was not until I had put myself in the students’ shoes in one of the activities Daryna was demonstrating when I realized the real impact of well-structured ICQs. I came to the conclusion that when introducing an activity with many complex rules and restrictions, it’s sometimes better to switch from affirmative sentences or imperatives to simple questions. So, now your partner is going to retell the story. Ok? Can you speak or are you just listening to your partner? The latter is definitely more powerful at this point because the question virtually drags your out of the semi-passive mode you probably find yourself in while listening to the teacher’s multiple instructions. So, my knowledge and the assumption that I had used that knowledge in my teaching effectively shifted a bit after this workshop; it evolved into a precious realization that ICQs are not just a CELTA thing (yes, you can immediately tell who has gone through the CELTA experience) but that they are actually quite useful.

One thing I’m not very proud of is the fact that my short-term memory is really short. My 10-year-old son will always beat me in a game of Pelmanism. This weakness of mine was ultimately proved during Andy Hockley’s workshop on reflective practice for teachers (and managers). It’s not just Andy’s fault, though, this is one of the things good presenters love to do to us, teachers. You know, I could swear that I pay 100% attention to the talk but I’m totally lost when the speaker asks: Ok. Now, what has actually happened in the past 25 minutes of this workshop. Let’s recap it step by step. I usually remember the first step and the last one but I only have a vague memory of what happened in between those stages. I mean, and this will sound pretty irrational, I’m sure that the vague part is lurking somewhere in my short-term memory looking for its way to the deeper structures of my brain and it’s probably doing what it should be doing – it’s changing my mindset and turning me into a better professional. That I’m sure of although I have no proof. The thing is that I just can’t remember the details when I’m asked. Well, I said it before: knowledge and details are not all-powerful, right?

Tomorrow, when I’m back at school teaching my teenage classes, I’ll see how my newly attained knowledge and the eye-opening realizations will be put into my teaching practice. I’ll certainly try out some of the activities. But I’ll probably try to incorporate new techniques into my reflective practice too, such as spending 20-30 minutes a week (preferably not on a Friday afternoon) reflecting upon my teaching, as suggested by Andy Hockley. For starters, I’ll ask myself these 3 questions: What happened? What possible explanations are there for these events? Having reflected on the action, what will I do next? Emergent language is another area I’d like to work on more. For example, I’d like to play with the idea, suggested by Neil Anderson in his workshop, that emergent language can, to a certain extent, be predicted. Since I only teach monolingual groups of students, with whom I share the same L1, predicting problems should be much easier for me. I think I already do this type of fortune telling at a subconscious level but I’d like to make it a bit more conscious and systematic.

These are some of the tangible (and potential) outcomes of my professional development at this particular stage of my career. Let’s see where this takes me next.

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Little work left for the teacher

img_20181128_122621I still haven’t found out whether grammar is the backbone of language learning or if it is overrated. One way or the other, in my teaching context, I need to teach grammar whether I like it or not. Over the years, I have presented the same grammar rules a hundred times. So if you wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me to speak about question tags, I will do so without batting an eye and then I’ll peacefully go back to sleep.

Having said that, finding new ways of presenting and practising grammar is becoming more and more difficult for me. Gap-fills, drills, multiple-choice quizzes, translation, and games seem all a bit boring after so many years of my teaching experience. So from time to time, I love to try out a new technique. Here’s an activity I did with my students the other day. I found simple and useful.

The present perfect is something Czech learners often struggle with so a bit of extra grammar practice is always to the good, especially before a unit test.

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On YouTube, I found this 6-minute video tutorial on how to use the present perfect. The commentary and explanations are in Czech, but there are lots of examples in English. Their L1 equivalents are provided too. Before the lesson, I took all the Czech translations of the example sentences from the tutorial and wrote them down (see below).

I gave each student a handout with the 17 Czech sentences and asked them to translate them into English. When they finished, I simply played the video and encouraged them to make any adjustments to their original translations.

The whole activity took about 20 minutes. The students were active all the time, while me, the teacher, had an opportunity to observe how the students were doing. All the explanations in the tutorial are very clear, so in the end, there was no work left for me. I only answered some additional questions afterwards. In other words, the revision was done efficiently without me having to interrupt whatsoever. The best thing was that the students got immediate feedback. What’s more, my students left the classroom with an extra piece of material to study from for their test.

If you teach a monolingual class like me and come across a suitable grammar tutorial, why not use it this way. It’s a nice tweak to your class routine and with a little bit of preparation, you won’t need to do a lot. 😉

  1. Podívej, koupil jsem si nové auto.
  2. Já jsem svoje auto koupil v roce 2010.
  3. Už jsem s ním mluvil.
  4. Mluvil jsem s ním před 5 minutami.
  5. Letos napsal mnoho článků.
  6. Loni napsal mnoho článků.
  7. Vynalezl jsem něco zajímavého.
  8. Einstein přišel s teorií relativity. (introduce)
  9. V kolik hodin jsi ji vyzvedl?
  10. Dal jsem gól. (score)
  11. Viděl jsi včera ten sci-fi film?
  12. Ne včera ne, ale už jsem ho viděl dřív.
  13. Už jsi obědvala?
  14. Ne, neobědvala.
  15. Zatím to pro mě není moc dobrý den.
  16. V Londýně jsem byl třikrát.
  17. Do Londýna jsem jel v roce 2010.
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How to teach a 45-minute lesson totally unprepared

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You know the situation: you have to deal with something really urgent/challenging/stressful during the break and then the bell rings and you have to go and teach a lesson. You only have enough time to grab your stuff (let’s not take it to an extreme here; let’s presume that at this point you know which class you are going to teach and what materials, i.e. coursebooks, you need). You enter the classroom and…

The first thing that captures your attention upon entering the classroom is the fact that your students are conspicuously quiet, busily studying something from their workbooks. You stop and think. It suddenly dawns on you. You promised a short vocabulary test in the previous lesson. Hm. You obviously forgot about it and made no copies. You must never break your promises though. Keep pretending that everything is under your control. With a poker face, get your students to take a piece of paper each. Don’t forget it is you who is NOT prepared; your students should not bear the consequences of your mess. Thus, make the test as student-friendly as possible. Most students prefer a simple L1>L2 translation test (you dictate the Czech expressions, the students write the English equivalents). It’s not ideal, but it will do for now. Next time, you can make something more sophisticated and meaningful.

Although the test is very student-friendly, unfortunately, it’s not very teacher-friendly – this kind of format doesn’t allow you to gain time. Anyway, you can gain 5 more minutes by asking the students to do a peer correction. My students are used to this so it’s usually very quick and efficient. In the end, ask your students to put the vocabulary items into sentences/context. Alternatively, you can work on the pronunciation for a bit.

At this point, you can’t tell your students to take their coursebooks on page x because you can’t remember which page it is. You have a couple of options:

A) Ask your students to look out of the window and describe everything they can see. B) Ask them to take out their mobile phones and describe a picture they recently took. C) Ask them to tell their partners about their last/upcoming weekend.

Meanwhile, open your coursebook and try to figure out as quickly as possible which section you worked on in the previous lesson. At this point, things may a) get back on the right track or b) they may not.

In the worst-case scenario, when the students finish the assigned speaking task, do the following: Ask Anna, for example, to summarize briefly what you did in the previous lesson. Then, to be absolutely sure everybody is on the same page, metaphorically speaking, ask James to tell you which of the exercises/points you worked on he found easy/difficult? If it’s a grammar point, give the students some extra practice, such as a few sentences to translate. If it’s a reading or listening task, ask them to summarize the text in pairs. If you are an experienced teacher, you’ll certainly come up with a few more follow-up questions. If not, ask the students to create some.

Now, you can ask the students to pick up where they last left off, or, if you have already finished the whole section/unit in the book, start a new one. Fortunately, each unit/section usually starts and winds up with a speaking task. At this point, while the students are working, scan the page quickly and decide what your next steps will be. I usually manage to create something on the spot, such as slips of paper for a mingling activity. These can contain vocabulary items, questions, tasks, etc., related to the topic.

If you find this way of teaching too uncomfortable or confusing, ditch the coursebook completely at this stage. Instead, get your students to write something related to the topic. This may be the question already discussed during a speaking activity or something new. Give them a time limit (which will coincidentally equal the time you need to cover the rest of the lesson). 🙂

This may eventually be a totally rubbish lesson or it may well turn into something quite valuable. You never know. To a great extent, it depends on your teaching experience and the group you are teaching. I’d like to stress that I believe that this can happen to anybody, regardless of how well-organized they are. Don’t blame yourself too much and for too long.

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