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).
2) 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.
4) 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.
In 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.
The 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.
I 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’.
Sabina 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.
The 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.
Thanks for reading. To get a better picture of what P.A.R.K. conferences are like, check out my previous post here.