Two sides of the same coin

This blog post is a result (and a way) of catharsis. Over the past few days I’ve felt a strong desire to withdraw from all social media – especially from Facebook. I felt abused and humiliated. But I’m recovering from the effects of the Aristotelian tragedy and I’m drawing conclusions, shaping morals and making action plans instead of sulking and crying over the spilt milk. 
Tragedy might seem a strong word here. Nothing tragic really happened; only my beliefs and confidence were shattered to pieces and remained so for a while. I realized how vulnerable and hopeless one can feel when they can’t do anything to prevent things from happening – when they can merely observe things rolling on without any power to stop or change them. 
About six years ago my friend, a respected journalist, a music lover and a keen video maker, persuaded me to make an amateur cover version of one of my favourite songs. He also made a video of me singing the song in the beautiful countryside of Moravia, the Czech Republic. It was a retro version, with cool disco effects and me making serious (ridiculous) faces to express the pain. It was fun. The video was primarily made for my friends and relatives but my friend also published it on YouTube, which I had no objections against back then. It got a few hits but nothing huge, of course. I soon forgot about it. 
A couple of weeks ago some of my young students discovered it by chance. They told me they played it over and over again and shared it with other friends. I think they genuinely loved the video (probably because they genuinely love their teacher). But the news spread quickly and soon an anonymous FB user got hold of the video and shared it  (with an uncomplimentary comment) on a notorious Facebook page containing very unflattering content – mostly anonymous comments saying nasty (and perverse) things about my colleagues, students and the school where I teach. 
When I saw the video on THIS particular page (my son had actually told me about it), I panicked. I was aware of the fact that it would only be a subject to mockery here. So as a precaution, I immediately asked my friend to delete the video or make it private. Unfortunately, as ‘luck’ would have it, I couldn’t reach my friend, who was in Australia at that time, in the middle of nowhere, without any internet access whatsoever. I was desperate. The video got more and more views and more and more likes on the FB page in question. I knew that the likes were backhanded. Either they might have referred to the negative comment accompanying the post or the content itself. I felt really uncomfortable but I finally gave up. My true friends and family supported me saying that there was nothing wrong about the video so I should stop worrying. 
As a consequence of this unpleasant experience I pondered the value and pitfalls of social media. I even deleted a bunch of FB friends, those who I’d never interacted with or those who I realized I didn’t know at all. I changed the privacy settings on FB and I hid some posts from my timeline. From now on I’ll think thrice before I post something. 
But then something positive happened. Around that time I had created a secret FB group exclusively for the students of my class. This was supposed to be a space where we would discuss stuff we didn’t have time for at school. And I discovered that the shiest, the most introverted and seemingly least confident students were suddenly the most active ones online; they asked, offered help, reacted to my questions and overall, they were very responsive. 
This discovery finally helped me to get over my bitter disappointment. Facebook can be a good place after all. But the danger of Facebook is always imminent. I’m not really afraid of being hurt by complete strangers – I’m worried about the fact that the deepest wound can be caused by people you know; those you meet every day in the streets of your town or the corridors of your school; those you try to love and teach; those who smile at you and greet you merrily but then they secretly stab a virtual knife in your back. This is what hurts most… 

November 17

It drives me insane that I can never remember anything from my childhood – only fragments which don’t help me to see the whole picture anymore. I only remember flavours, scents, emotions and bits and pieces of conversations I once had or heard. I can also evoke a few very inaccurate mental images. 

I’ve just read two posts where people described something that had happened a long time ago – they described it in an amazing amount of detail. But my mind is blank. I don’t remember the names and faces of neighbours my mum talks about and I even struggle when recalling names of the teachers and schoolmates I once knew so well. Is it due to my profession; due to the fact that I constantly have to learn new things so my brain needs to select and dispose of old pieces of information? Is it fair then to ask my students to talk about their earliest memories when I myself don’t know what to say? 
At the moment I’m trying to recall what I did on November 17, 1989 – precisely 25 years ago, when the history of our country had taken a totally different course. Unfortunately, I haven’t got a clue when I think about the day. It was exactly one day after my 17th birthday. Damn! I don’t even remember what I did on my birthday. I was only 17 and I wasn’t in love so there’s nothing special to remember. What if the police banged on my door and asked me to remember? What if it helped to solve an important case? The information must be somewhere there at the back of my brain. 
Let’s try again. I was in my penultimate year at the secondary school. I remember that the final year students were in Prague on an educational trip. They were in the epicentre. I don’t know how I actually learnt about what had happened. It must have been the conspiratorial whispers and the frightened glances of the teachers. I bet our headmaster was worried on that day. Some time ago he had punished my classmate Petr for his little rebellion – for inscribing the name of Václav Havel on his pencil case – and now crowds were chanting his name in the capital city. That was certainly disturbing. What my headmaster didn’t know on that day was that a picture of the once despicable Havel was going to be displayed in every classroom soon. 
I remember a meeting in the gym – I’m not sure whether it was on that day tough. It was definitely around that time. It was exciting because we didn’t have regular lessons. We were all sitting on the parquet floor. The atmosphere was full of anticipation. To my mind there were four groups of teachers – the brave ones, the cowards, the angry ones and the neutral ones. The brave ones openly sided with the protesters and thus risked being sacked. The cowards remained silent because they had families to feed. The angry ones were pro-communist and pointed their fingers in a threatening manner. The neutral ones didn’t care or they were just cautious. I don’t blame any of them. I wondered which side our class teacher was on. I thought she was the cautious one. I don’t know now. 
Oh dear, it must have been so difficult for the adults – it must have been the cause of many sleepless nights and the worst nightmares. Nobody knew what the ultimate result would be. Nobody knew whether to speak or remain silent. My father was over the moon though. He had refused to join the communist party despite all the minor threats. My mother had surrendered because she was afraid for her kids’ future. There may have been another reason; her deceased father, my beloved granddad, used to be a big shot in the past. But I know nothing about him. I think he was a director of a big company or something. He died when I was six. I only remember his affection towards me. I remember how much he loved me – his only granddaughter. I remember how he played with me, wearing his funny cap…
Anyway, my parents argued on that evening. My mom was almost hysterical because she was terrified; my father spoke with a victorious intonation. I remember I was confused and felt sorry for my mom. I had never seen her like that. I just wanted her to stop feeling the terror, but not being a mother myself, I didn’t understand anything at all. Oh, and my little brother was probably in bed, dreaming his sweet dreams of ignorance. 
It was one of the least violent demonstrations in the history of the whole world. That’s why it’s called the Velvet Revolution after all. Czechs were ready and ripe to embrace the change. The fact that I don’t really remember much of it proves that luckily, at least for the younger generations, it wasn’t a very traumatic experience. Even nowadays, in the 21st century, there are so many fights and wars small kids will remember for the rest of their lives if they happen to survive, so I’m proud November 17 wasn’t one of those nasty moments in the history of humankind. 

The sweetness and bitterness of professional development

It’s a Saturday and I’m here writing this post. How I envy those of my colleagues who close the door to their staffroom, say goodbye and open their planners and coursebooks or anything related to their content the next day. How I envy those who have their own life and don’t spare a single thought for teaching while they’re off school. These seem to be the most satisfied teachers who have no doubt about how to teach their subject. They are happy with what they know about teaching and that’s why they don’t feel the need to go to conferences, attend webinars or constantly search the internet for brand new, interactive activities. 
While my colleagues are at home staring contently into the fireplace with a glass of good wine in their hands, I do all the professional development. Even my social life takes place in auditoriums and classrooms – either real or virtual – and little energy is left for real entertainment such as the cinema, theatre or dance balls. But I can’t say with an absolute certainty that due to all the sacrifice I actually know more than my colleagues do. In other words, I may be familiar with some ELT terms they have never heard of, such as scaffolding, total physical response, comprehensible input, dogme, you name it, but that doesn’t mean they unwittingly and intuitively don’t apply the concepts in their teaching. Some teachers are better off with their common sense than I am with all my theoretical knowledge.
The more I know about teaching the more confused I feel. I don’t think this confusion shows openly in my teaching but it directly affects the level of my satisfaction (or frustration). I have too many questions and few answers. In the past it was even worse; although I did all the extra PD stuff just for myself, I subconsciously expected that my extra efforts would be appreciated – by my colleagues, by my students and the administrators. I somehow expected that people around would be stunned by my ‘immense’ ELT knowledge and general enthusiasm. No, this didn’t happen. My hard work didn’t result in more fame. In fact, it mostly remained unnoticed. I was but a regular EFL teacher. 
The only person who ever notices how much energy I put into teaching is me. First of all, I feel more tension and controversy in everything I do. It still upsets me, for example, when somebody questions what I do or say because I know better, don’t I? On the other hand, with the new horizons ahead of me comes excitement, and an irresistible desire to explore; something my colleagues don’t seem to feel so intensely. Despite all the frustration and controversy I often experience, I look forward to every single lesson; every morning I wake up I can’t wait to reach school, which most of my colleagues consider crazy. 
I’m not utterly convinced that professional development helps me become a better teacher. But I dare say it definitely turns teaching into an amazing adventure. It makes my own teaching more enjoyable, in spite of all the bitter flavours I occasionally taste at the back of my tongue. I believe my students sense my excitement and I hope some of them may eventually get infected by my enthusiasm.  

The insights of a regular conference goer

The experience of attending a conference is exciting and intense. There’s so much pleasurable going on – I learn things, meet new ELT people, see familiar faces, win raffle prizes, get stuff for a bargain prize, drink litres of strong coffee, flip through tons of shiny coursebooks and innovative teaching materials, hear different accents and smell hundreds of different scents. Apart from all the general excitement, I also experience what it is like to be on the other side of the barricade – to be the one who is not ‘in charge’; the one who willingly does what the speaker asks the audience to do. For me these are the most valuable moments because they help me see the world from a student’s perspective.
Being a regular conference goer brings about lots of useful insights. First of all, I’ve come to realize that it’s not just in the power of the speaker to engage my attention. It’s not just the quality of the lecture, the interestingness of the materials or the enthusiasm of the presenter which catches my attention. Most importantly, it’s the state of my mind which adds quality and meaningfulness to the experience. In other words, if I’m tired, I switch off, no matter what’s happening around me. Yet sometimes, despite being totally exhausted, I switch on and start listening attentively. Something unidentifiable and inexplicable switches on the buttons in my brain and I get engaged again. It’s not always in my power to control this and it can neither be influenced by the person in front of me. I reckon this is what happens in our own classrooms as well.
Despite being an out-going person, I’m not into the talk-to-as-many-people-as-possible scenario – either in the hall or in the classroom during mingling activities. I do like talking to old friends if I feel there’s something to talk about; otherwise I prefer to listen and observe. To put it bluntly, I’m not interested in talking to people just for the sake of talking or practising the language (or demonstrating an activity), especially if I know I’ll never see them again. It feels fake and shallow and sometimes I can sense that the others can’t wait for the presenter’s signal indicating we can stop and sit down. They’re not interested in me, a total stranger, either. 
I’m not a fan of mingling in general but what I really can’t stand is the type of activity where each participant gets a slip of paper with a piece of information on it and they are asked to work out the whole story (or whatever) or put the information in the correct order by talking to lots of people. This information gap activity looks very lively at first sight, and I used it a lot in the past, but it’s usually just a facade. It’s time-consuming and although it’s quite noisy, the participants speak little. All in all, the gains are minimal and very little is actually done in terms of language development. When I last took part in this type of activity, I only read my slip once and then, observing the chaos around me, I passively waited for the others to do the work (for about 10 minutes!!). That’s why I stopped using this type of activity in my own classes some time ago.
I don’t think I’m a dumb person but as the attention span is said to be very short (between 30 – 90 seconds before you need to switch off for a while), I really need clear and precise instructions in order to know what to do. On several occasions I was totally lost during an activity and when I turned to the person sitting next to me for help, it turned out she felt the same way. Oftentimes students just follow their intuition when completing a task because they didn’t hear the instructions well. They pretend they understand not to look stupid or just because they don’t care. This is what I sometimes do at workshops too if the instructions are confusing. 
Being an extroverted person who likes to talk things through with people, I still need a lot of time to process information on my own. Presenters generally provide little time for the participants to complete tasks, probably because they think it’s not necessary since we are all teachers and we can do things very quickly (or we can guess the point anyway). However, some useful information may get lost in translation if it is regarded as obvious. Moreover, I think that the participants need to be really challenged by an activity and experience it to the core to realize its potential value for their own students. 
I used to think I learn only when I am asked to do something – to speak, write, walk, mime, etc. But now I think I may well learn a lot just by listening to a very engaging speech. I don’t always need to talk to the person next to me to process information or remember things. Obviously, there are times when pair work is absolutely relevant and meaningful, but it may well be redundant. 

Also, the time slots where nothing happens because the presenter’s mike stopped working or when he must adjust the PowerPoint settings are not embarrassing. These moments don’t spoil the presentation, as one might think. On the contrary, they give the listener time to think and predict what comes next. Thus there’s no point in feeling desperate if this happens to a teacher in a regular lesson.
I remember workshops where I was sitting quietly, dreaming, doing my own stuff, simply paying little attention to what was being said (something I persistently prevent my own students from doing), yet it wasn’t boring at all. The people around me, nodding in agreement and responding eagerly, were an irrefutable proof that it was engaging. It was only my problem that I wasn’t listening; it had nothing to do with the content or the quality of the lecture. On the other hand, I remember presentations which I didn’t find very interesting, yet I enjoyed being there – with the presenter and the participants – and learning eventually occurred despite me being fairly uninterested. 
Conferences are a great opportunity for our professional as well as personal development. After years of experience we may easily lose touch with reality. Thus it’s good to put on our students’ shoes from time to time to see things more clearly – to realize that we’ll probably never please everybody. The way our students perceive our teaching is relative to many factors which we can’t influence, such as their personality and the current state of their mind.  

The dangers of multi-tasking

Earlier today I was correcting a pile of essays written by a group of young learners. Essays isn’t actually the appropriate word – it was more of a project piece of work in which the students were encouraged to use coloured pens, highlighters, stickers, pictures, 3-D embellishments etc. When teaching writing, I always allow my students to start with very short stretches of text and lots of visuals, and as they become older and more proficient in English, I require more words and fewer images. 

The theme of the assignment I was correcting was My Family. The purpose of the writing task was to get the students to use new vocabulary and grammar items they had encountered in the previous lessons centred around the given topic. Family is always a sensitive subject; I never know how the kids feel during the personalization stage, when they are asked to talk about their own families, using words such as divorced, single-parent, step-mother, old people’s home, and so on. So I tread very carefully when setting a group discussion or when eliciting questions from the class. I’m always surprised how open the kids are and I feel truly relieved when I hear that they love their step-sisters or that their parents got divorced yet they’re good friends and everything’s fine.
I had lots of fun when correcting the projects. This is a great group and they’re really good at English, and amazingly creative. So apart from real people, their family members were ghosts, animals, even coconuts. I should stress that I always allow my students to write about imaginary, invented characters if they want to. This evokes their imagination and boosts their creativity and also allows for more variety in vocabulary. More importantly, it enables them to circumvent matters they don’t wish to talk about openly. This time, however, most of them chose to describe their own family members and came with really honest and detailed descriptions. Judging by their enthusiasm and the creative spirit radiating from every word, I would say that the kids find writing enjoyable. 
Obviously, apart from enjoying the content and adding smiley faces all around the project, I feel obliged to provide some sort of formal feedback too. In other words, I also need to concentrate on accuracy. Although it was generally a nice read, I must admit that gradually it got somewhat monotonous for me to plough through the endless lists of uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces and nephews, their dates of birth and names of pets they own. Thus, in a rather robotic manner, using a pencil or an inconspicuously coloured pen, I added articles, changed the word order, corrected spelling and underlined inappropriate vocabulary items. 

It amazes me that how automatic I sometimes become. Although I do have fun when reading my students’ written production, I think that on a very subconscious level, I still perceive the text as a piece of assignment which needs to be corrected and marked. With a simple piece of writing like this you don’t really need to pay too much attention. And after so many years of experience, I’m really good at multi-tasking; I can talk to my colleague, drink coffee and think about lots of other things, not just about the assignments I’m grading. 

You can imagine how tricky this approach can get with such a personal topic. To put it simply, the consequence of my multi-tasking is that my pencil is sometimes quicker than my compassion. So while reading this bit My parents were got divorced when I was a baby. My mother died two years before ago. Now I‘m live with my father, my step-mother and my two step-sisters I automatically correct the errors and a second later it strikes me how insensitive I can be. In other words, the realization of the seriousness of the message comes a second after the realization of the incorrectness of the sentence. 
At such a moment I always ponder my role as a teacher. I wonder what I should do in a situation like this. It would be odd to leave the bit uncorrected while I correct the other parts normally. This is the language this particular student will probably need and use a lot in the future because it describes her life – it’s the reality she may want to communicate to people around her. I may well avoid dealing with these sensitive matters in class completely but again – this would ultimately mean avoiding topics some students consider important. Why demonize something the student doesn’t see that way at all? 

PS.: What I did was that I finally corrected the wrong grammar but I also added a comment: I’m sorry 😦 to show sympathy; to show that apart from noticing the errors, I received the message. I felt her honesty simply deserved some genuine reaction… 

Domestic linguistic landscapes

Whenever I start thinking that finally I can easily navigate through the ever expanding ELT terminology, I stumble upon a term I’ve never heard of before. Everybody is talking about it and everybody knows the ropes while I’m lost. The thing is that ELT terminology can be pretty tricky – you can scrutinize and analyze the familiar sounding words backwards and forwards but sometimes you won’t be able to figure out the meaning of the technical term until you look at the definition and some background information. This happened to me recently when I came across the term linguistic landscapes. It was when #KELTchat announced the topic of the 2/11 chat.  Obviously, I was familiar with the literal meaning of both words – linguistic and landscape. What I couldn’t figure out was what exactly the term has to do with language teaching. I managed to resist for a while and racked my brain before I finally clicked a few useful links, such as this or this, to find out what I was actually dealing with.

To put it simply, linguistic landscape is the written language which surrounds us in the streets of towns and cities, for example. This language can be in the form of signs, advertisements, graffiti, etc. Studying linguistic landscapes helps us understand the language all around us, especially its power and influence, which expands far beyond the literal meaning of the words themselves.

When I learnt about the upcoming chat I immediately started to rummage through my PC files in an attempt to find lots of pictures showing bilingual and English signs I had found while wandering the streets of my town. To my amazement, apart from this one on the right, I didn’t find any at all. Actually, I found this particular sign on the wall of the underground railway tunnel in the village where my parents live, not where I live.

I’m sure I’d have taken pictures of interesting English signs had I ever seen any. The question is why I hadn’t. I think because I live in a small town where people don’t feel the need to use bilingual signs. Šternberk is not a very busy town – tourists occasionally come to see those few sights we happen to have here but these are mostly German speaking tourists. Oh, I’ve just remembered this trilingual peeling sign I once took a snap of (on the left).

Obviously, if I went to a bigger city such as Brno or Prague, I’d be more successful. But I don’t have to because I get exposed to this type of language elsewhere anyway. Two of the most obvious places are TV and the internet, of course. I don’t know whether these can be considered kinds of linguistic landscapes but I’m sure for some people these are the only landscapes they see.

Anyway, when pondering the term linguistic landscapes my eyes landed on the remote control my son was using while watching a cartoon and I thought of another type of surroundings, full of linguistic food for thought – the home. The remote control we have has buttons with English signs such as play, stop, pause, on, off, etc. My six-year-old boy doesn’t speak any English but he knows that to watch a cartoon he has to press the play button and when he’s done he needs to hit the off button. Apart from English, he also gets exposed to lots of other languages every morning when he eats his cereal – the box is full of colourful, unfamiliar words saying how great and healthy the food is.

Intrigued by the idea of linguistic landscapes I decided to take my camera and went exploring into my son’s bedroom. And I found these:

Now, although my son lives in the Czech Republic and doesn’t speak a word of English, he’s accepted the fact that English is part of his little world. His mum teaches English and many things have English names. He occasionally asks what this or that means and I patiently explain but he mostly uses the words automatically, with a vague idea of the actual meanings.

The big question is how to turn this irrefutable proof of the dominance of the English language in a clearly non-English speaking environment to our advantage in ELT. Well, our students can either go out into the busy streets and look for bilingual signs. Or they may well stay at home, in their bedroom, and just look around. I’m convinced they’ll find hundreds of language items to learn and study. As teachers we can start with what they bring into the lesson, either in the form of photos or verbal notes, and later expand on it. Thus, an expression road to victory can be a springboard for other useful expressions including the word road and we can also play with parts of speech: victory, victor, victorious vs. win, winner, etc. We can look at how spelling is changed to make the product more interesting. The sky’s the limit!

The thing is that the language the students will bring is their own language – not something the teacher or the coursebooks dictate. The language can be found at their place, on items they own and use – toys, bed linen, food, electronics, cosmetics, books, etc. This, I believe, is a sort of personalization; we’re making learning more relevant to their needs and interests. Thus learning will ultimately become more enjoyable, up-to-date and meaningful.