My 3rd P.A.R.K. ONLINE Conference notes

It was an immense pleasure to take part in the 3rd PARK Online Conference here in the Czech Republic. I was really looking forward to this event because the line-up of speakers was truly promising, as usual. I also appreciated the range of topics.

The conference kicked off with an interesting presentation called Teaching Humans by Johanna Stirling. As the title and the annotation imply, the topic of the talk was the everyday struggles of us – teachers. Johanna’s mission was to share some techniques and activities teachers can use to embrace all kinds of human foibles, whether in class or remotely.

The thing is that we teachers often have meticulously planned lessons but sometimes they just don’t work. Who or what is to blame? Sometimes it is the technology, especially these days, but very often it is the students who throw a wrench into our plans, so to speak.

Here are some of the obstacles we often come up against:

  • Students refusing to write.
  • Students refusing to do their homework.
  • Students texting under their desks.
  • Students refusing to take part the teacher’s given them in a role-play.
  • Students clowning around making the others giggle.
  • Students refusing to speak English in class.

Johanna encourages us to realize that we are all humans after all and that there are many reasons why we fail to accomplish things. It’s not always just about laziness; it may be the need for instant gratification and/or respect; our students simply want to be liked and they have delicate egos, so they don’t want to come across as awkward. What’s more, people don’t come to our classes as blank pages; they bring to class all their baggage (their own priorities, fears and emotions). Unfortunately, our education system often de-humanizes the learning experience (rows of desks).

Another problem Johanna mentioned is the abundance of distractions our students have to grapple with in class, such as smartphones and social media. So it is important that we fade the distractions and place something else in the foreground. In her lessons, for instance, she uses mini whiteboards which keep everybody busy. In an online environment, the substitutes can be breakout rooms, the chat box or the opportunity to share screen.

Johanna showed a lot of sympathy for us humans. To illustrate the point that nobody is perfect she brought up The elephant analogy. This analogy shows that there are two parts to the mind – the elephant (the unthinking, automatic part, your intuition) and the rider (the conscious rational thought which acts as a guide). The rider sitting high up guides the elephant and can see the future. A conflict arises when the rider and the elephant want different things.

Johanna went on to argue that students need to set their own targets and we teachers must customize our targets. We also need to give our students choice. For example, they can make their own questions which, in return, generate more interesting answers. We should also give our students responsibility. Here’s a specific example she used: in a group of 4, students give themselves numbers 1- 4, later on the teacher reveals what each number is for, e.g. number one takes notes, number two makes sure everyone speaks English, etc. Finally, at the end of the lesson, it’s a good idea to ask questions such as: What have you learnt in the lesson? How are you going to remember this? When will you be able to use this?

In the next talk, Carol Read spoke about the importance of teaching values in an English classroom. She argued that values are the heart and the soul of education and that values education is especially important in these volatile times.

In the first part of the presentation we got acquainted with some basic theory behind values. Aparently, there are three dimensions of values: cognitive, affective and behavioural. They overlap and influence each other. The spheres of values relate to: self (perseverance), others (control, respecting others), and the environment (recycling, kindness to animals). Children learn values through socialization, modelling, thinking and acting, and through the language of values.

Here are some simple, practical examples of how the language teacher can incorporate values education into a class:

  • Students brainstorm positive team values, then they choose one value and make a poster, they decide on a name (=value) for their team. This reinforces the sense of community.
  • Rhymes and values: “Let’s work together, let’s co-operate”, …. + clapping hands
  • Songs and values: “I can do it if I try …. Yes, yes, yes!”
  • Stories to explain what certain words mean, e.g. selfish
  • Poetry: identifying adjectives and opposites in a poem, making a list of more adjectives, …
  • Discriminations activities: letters of the alphabet – each letter = one type of food, then students circle healthy food, unhealthy, etc.
  • Card games with a values focus – adjectives with positive connotations: helpful, kind, supportive, students make sentences about themselves or people they know. What does it mean to be helpful?
  • Role-play and drama – the teacher invents a values based situation, children prepare and act out the situation. This way they also develop problem solving and critical skills.
  • Content-based learning – climate emergency: before students watch a video (environmental issues), they can predict what the video is about, then they can present the issues through mime.
  • Storytelling: teacher shows children a picture from the middle of the story, they then predict what happened before and after the point depicted in the picture, then tell the actual story, and finally, compare the story to the predictions.

Carol points out that value learning takes time and that the values need to be repeated again and again through age-appropriate activities. Also, it is important to let students discover the values for themselves. In other words, it’s not advisable to be too quick to reveal the point/moral of an activity/story. Our role is to encourage children to notice and be aware of values. We should help them understand and reflect on the values. Last but nost least, we should provide them with opportunities to put the values into practice.

In the third talk of the day, Alex Warren presented us with the concept of visible thinking routines. i.e. mini-strategies that deepen students’ thinking. The problem with thinking is that although it is key to all aspects to learning, it is invisible for the most part. So to maximize the learning outcomes and benefits (i.e. deeper understanding of content, greater motivation for learning, enthusiasm and engagement, more communicative classroom), we teachers need to make it as ‘visible’ as possible.

These are some of the examples of how we can incorporate visible thinking routines into a language class.

  • The 3 whys:

Before introducing the topic, ask:

  • Why might this topic matter to me? personal level
  • Why might this topic matter to people around me? local level
  • Why might this topic matter to the world? global level

It’s good to start with the personal because youngsters tend to be ego-centred. The global may be too distant and thus uninteresting.

The question starts

  • Why?
  • What if?
  • What if we knew?
  • What are the reasons ..?
  • Suppose that …?
  • Think, puzzle and explore
  • What do you think about the topic?
  • What questions or puzzles do you have about the topic?
  • What does the topic make you want to explore?
  • 3-2-1 bridge

What are the initial responses to the topic? (3 thoughts, 2 questions, 1 metaphor)

After reading and discussion, new responses to the topic (3 thoughts, 2 questions, 1 metaphor)

  • Think, pair, share

Thinking time decreases the pressure.

  • Words I know, think I know, don’t know (This reminded me of Nation’s Vocabulary Level Test)

Here are some post-reading topic routines:

The 4Cs – provides students with a structure

  • Connections – between the text and your life
  • Challenge – which ideas from the text you want to challenge
  • Concepts – what key concepts are the most important
  • Changes – How does the text influence you? What are the changes of attitudes?
  • 3-2-1
  • 3 things I find interesting
  • 2 things I’d like to know more about
  • 1 thing I’d like to fact check
  • Stop, think, discuss
  • Compass points (E- excited, W- worrisome, N- need to know, S- stance)
  • I used to think/Now I think (At the end of a unit, for example.)
  • I see, I think, I wonder

And finally, David Crystal. With no offence to the other presenters, it was crystal clear that this was meant to be the highlight of the conference – the proverbial icing on the cake. And I think David Crystal did live up to everybody’s expectations. Not only is he a renowned linguist but he’s also a master of storytelling. Every sentence and every word he utters is a pure gem.

He began by sharing some thoughts on why it took him so long to write the book Let’s talk: How English Conversation Works. If I got it right, it’s not easy to analyse natural conversations because a) acoustic-wise, they must be well-recorded and b) there are simply too many contexts in which people talk.  

Throughout the talk, David Crystal touched on several ELT topics. The talk was perfectly cohesive and coherent – it had both structure and flow. He went smoothly from one topic to another and I admit I sometimes lost track in an attempt to meticulously record everything he was saying. This is to say that I’m afraid I can’t translate his perfect performance into a piece of blog. So, forgive me if my notes will be somewhat random.

First of all, David Crystal mentioned the authenticity of conversations in coursebooks. The problem is that they are too structured and impeccable. This is not how people speak.

There are several myths regarding what we do in conversations:

Laughter: Why do we laugh? Because somebody said something funny? Not really. People normally give a sympathetic/empathetic laugh. I’m showing interest – I’m listening.

Interruptions (not in plays or textbooks): Interrupting is considered rude but naturally, people do it all the time. In everyday conversations people chip in because they want to add something. Chipping in is a positive thing – it triggers a new line of thought.

Talking at the same time or discussing different, unrelated things is also common in everyday speech but not reflected in coursebooks.

The structure, which is so apparent in coursebook conversations, dissipates in natural conversations.

People use filler phrases, comment clauses (mind you, trouble is, as a matter of fact, to be perfectly honest…)

You can say ‘you know’ in many different ways: at beginning, in the middle, at the end of a sentence, with different intonation > different meanings.

What about the nonsense words (the thingy, the whatsits) and hesitation noises (erm)? Shall we teach them?

Changes: coinage of new words related to corona (social distancing). “I’m having a ZOOM conversation”.

The differences between a ZOOM and real conversation:

ZOOM conversations feel artificial because there is no simultaneous feedback, you need a fast internet connection, but there’s always a lag which makes it so strange.

Online lectures are lonely and extremely tiring if you are not used to them.

The afternoon chat

Drip-drip-drip approach to learning a language, plus the aspects of natural speech should be introduced as early as possible.

The cultural aspect – in Manchester everybody talks at the same time (says Iain Saunders), giggling in Japan expresses embarrassment, silences are usually uncomfortable and we tend to fill them with speech, but in Japan it is normal to be silent.

Changes? David Crystal has recently had to watch his vocabulary due to various sensitivities in certain areas of life.

Online communication doesn’t allow for all the nuances, e.g. Twitter.

Has the internet influenced English? Vocabulary: not much. Grammar: not at all. Punctuation: some of it. Overall: a small number of changes, but they are in front of you, so that you notice them.

New families of words have emerged: blog – blogger – blogging – blogosphere

How can we keep up as non-natives? We should try to keep pace as best as we can, at least with the generation of students we are teaching.

When adults steal young people’s slang, it’s not cool anymore. 🙂

It’s very easy these days to introduce your students to varieties of the language – because of the internet.

It’s important to introduce the challenges of vulgar language, too (Ofcom).

An incorrect structure is one that NOBODY uses. Otherwise it’s inappropriate, not incorrect.

The more styles (formal, informal) you know, the better prepared you are for different situations – the wardrobe analogy.

Will English lose its position after Brexit? Context: 2018 – 2.3 billion people speaking English, the language is continuing to increase but not as rapidly as before, are we reaching a plateau? So, English will continue to be used inside the EU (the expertise would be difficult to replace in such a short time), and if the EU wants to talk with the rest of the world, it will still be useful, so it will keep its important role.

Czech English – there are not many differences between the englishes used all around the word, especially in terms of grammar. There are not that many differences between the American and British English either. You can easily handle them in the classroom. Students will figure them out.

If you are unsure about the artificiality of the grammar you are teaching, use corpora but remember that exam boards are enormously conservative 😉 Tell your students: Your way is not incorrect but inappropriate for this context.

Which rule seems the most ridiculous to you? Preposition at the end of a sentence: The prescriptivists would say even Shakespeare got it wrong. 🙂

Lower-case – misspelling is common on social media but it is important to get spelling right (job application). There is a great amount of variation in spelling (hyphenation).

CONCLUSION: Trying to control a language is like trying to leash the wind. 🙂

David Crystal’s blog: http://david-crystal.blogspot.com/

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Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages and levels for almost 30 years. You can find out more about me and my passion for teaching here on my blog.

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