Mindfulness Blog Challenge

IMG_20151028_182534I’m proud to announce that I’ve recently taken part in The Mindfulness Summit, a not-for-profit project with a mission to make mindfulness mainstream.

Now, what is mindfulness and why am I writing about it on an ELT blog? In a nutshell, mindfulness is the practice of maintaining a nonjudgmental state of heightened or complete awareness of one’s thoughts, emotions, or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. Mindfulness is a near synonym of awareness, i.e. knowing and understanding what is happening in the world or around you.

There are two reasons why I’m about to devote a whole blog post to mindfulness. For one, I believe that being mindful (or aware) is synonymous with being a good teacher. In other words, understanding what is happening in the world around you (read: classroom) is fundamental to good teaching practice. Noticing and knowing that a problem or a situation exists is a prerequisite to finding solutions. But most importantly, being mindful is a straight way to happiness.

The other reason why I’m writing this post is the blog challenge I came across earlier today, written by Micaela Carey. In her post, Micaela describes the ways she uses Mindfulness in the classroom and why and she challenges fellow bloggers to do the same:

Whether you’re just starting to practice Mindfulness or you’ve been doing it for years, write a post about it.  Tell us about how you practice, share an anecdote or simply write about why you would like to practice Mindfulness.

So here’s my take on mindfulness.

My regular readers may know that I’ve always been a believer in dogme teaching. To my mind, dogme, a communicative approach to language teaching that encourages teaching without published textbooks and focuses on conversational communication among learners and teacher, closely relates to what mindfulness is about. From my point of view, the relation lies in the fact that both zoom in on the present moment.

As SLA research implies, there’s no point in a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching English; the sequence of acquisition is not identical with the order language items are presented in coursebooks anyway. Thus, it makes more sense to build on what each and every student already knows and can do, and the only way to find out what our students know is to be mindful, i.e. to pay attention to the language they produce at each given moment.

There are many ways of practicing mindfulness with your students. Needless to say, they don’t even need to know about the concept to benefit from the practice. To an outsider, your mindfulness practice will probably look like a cool activity or an effective warmer.

So, here’s what I did with my 13-year-old students the other day. The idea came to me unexpectedly, as most creative ideas do, and that might be one of the reasons why it eventually went so well.

I handed out post-it notes and asked each student to write one thing that was on their mind at that moment. Then I got them to put the post-it note on somebody’s back without revealing the word. Each student had to find out what the word was by asking appropriate yes/no questions.

When everybody finished, I collected all the post-it notes and stuck them on the board. We put them into categories, such as people, pets, problems, the future, the past, the present, etc. Then I, in a deliberately jovial and triumphant manner, gradually removed all the cards with things which didn’t relate to the present moment. For example, most students had thought of their upcoming tests. This, as they admitted, was a rather worrying thought. I said there was no point in worrying about the future – the only thing that mattered was the precious moments we were having together. I told them that from then on we would only enjoy the lesson – every single moment of it.

They nodded in agreement, smiling ….

So, what are your ways of practicing mindfulness? Although this may be the first time you’re pondering this question, give it a try 🙂

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#BlogChallenge: What Did You Teach Today?

20150713_131427This post is a response to a Blog Challenge started by Anthony Smith. This is what Anthony says:

Out of curiosity and intrigue, and as a means of reflection, write what you did in your class(es) today, from checking attendance to giving a test to blowing students minds with the most dogme-inspired, task-based, mobile-assisted, coursebook-free, PARSNIP-full lesson non-plan ever. You don’t have to explain why, unless you’d like. Just give the raw, nitty-gritty details.

Here’s my take:

  • Day: Friday
  • Date: September 11, 2015
  • Number of lessons: 5 (45 minutes each)
  • Start: 8:45 am
  • End: 1:15 pm

Lesson 1 (8:45-9:30):

Context: A group of fairly motivated senior students (18-19 year-olds), most of them around B2 (intermediate) level, preparing for their final exams taking place in May 2016. In the course, we use a topic-based syllabus. No coursebooks.

In this particular lesson, students were asked to produce a text about travelling (the minimum was 120 words). This was a test and it had been announced in advance so the students could properly prepare for it. I handed out A4 sheets of blank paper and bilingual dictionaries. Some students finished in 30 minutes, others used all the 45 minutes. 

20150714_162537Note: Travelling is one of the general topics they need to be able to discuss during the oral part of their final state exam. Altogether, there are 25 topics we need to go through till April, which means that we need to cover 3-4 topics per month. As there are 23 students in the class (an unusually large group), it would be impossible too time-consuming for me to examine each of them individually, i.e. orally, so in order to track their progress, I decided to test their knowledge of the topics in writing.

I hope to achieve a couple of things via this strategy: 1) First of all, students will get lots of opportunities to practise writing coherent texts. Basically, they’ll be required to write one at least once a week. 2) They’ll be forced to recycle vocabulary related to the topics and grammar needed to produce the text. 3) Most importantly, through putting things down on paper, they will sort out and refine their ideas for the ‘real’ exam.

Lesson 2 (9:50-10:35): 

Context: A2 students (14-15 year-olds), started a pre-intermediate coursebook two weeks ago. We are going to cover Units 1-5 this year. Overall, a pretty weak class and not too motivated. Everything always goes slower than I expect.

In this particular lesson, we revised adjectives for personal traits, i.e. mature, polite, rude, confident, etc. Especially the opposites (confident vs. shy) and prefixes (as in immature) appeared somewhat problematic. Moreover, everyone seemed too quiet. I wondered if it was the low pressure or the topic. The other half of the class, who had done the same thing the previous day, had definitely seemed more lively. I must admit that I feel a little obsessed with limited by the fact that I need to cover all the things I do with the other half of the class. In the lesson, I realized that although I had known I will be recycling a plan I had already used with the other group, I had entered the classroom rather unprepared. I hadn’t checked my notes before the lesson and my confusion may have been the reason why students were so quiet.

IMG_20150714_095226Anyway, there was a Bingo game in my lesson plan, which I hoped would lighten up the atmosphere. Each student chose 6 adjectives and wrote them on a piece of paper. Then they stood up and mingled. Their task was to define the adjectives to their peers. The aim of the game was to tick/cross off all the six adjectives, i.e. the first student whose words were all guessed was the winner. Then we did grammar – we contrasted the present simple and the present continuous. Boring. Although I heard students make a couple of mistakes, I decided not to go into too much detail since this was actually a revision from previous years. 

Lesson 3 (10:45-11:30): 

Context: A2 students (13-14 year-olds), a class one grade lower than the previous one and the complete opposite of the previous one. I consider this The Ideal Class – motivated, responsive, always eager to participate.

In this particular lesson, we contrasted ‘will’ and ‘going to’. It may look like another boring piece of grammar, but with this class things are never boring. Students interviewed each other about their potential work experience. They asked each other what they were going to do and what they think it would be like. Then we changed the topic completely and talked about The Iceman. We talked about types of material people had used in the past. This group is into history and they seemed to be enjoying the topic (chosen by the authors of the coursebook we’re using). As usual, students listened attentively to what I and the others had to say, and they responded appropriately. 

Lesson 4 (11:40-12:25): 

Context: A2-B1 learners (15-16 year-olds), just started Unit 6 of the pre-intermediate coursebook mentioned above. One of my favourite groups. Lessons are usually conversation-driven, lively and fun.

In this particular lesson, we discussed social networking sites, which is my favourite topic. The class was quieter than usual (the weather?), but I did my best to keep them engaged. We did some listening and reading related to the topic and then worked on vocabulary. We talked about addictions: Can Facebook become addictive? What about being addicted to smartphones? Is it the same as being addicted to alcohol/chocolate/coffee?

Lesson 5 (12:30-14:15): 

Context: A group of fairly motivated senior students (18-19 year-olds), most of them around B2+ (intermediate) level, preparing for their final exams taking place in May 2016. However, in this course we do not directly focus on exam preparation. They have three more lessons of English with another teacher, who concentrates on exam-related stuff. We’re using an upper-intermediate coursebook, which, by the way, I’m not exactly excited about. Most of the topics are uninteresting and irrelevant, the grammar sections long and too complex to grasp. Anyway, I started teaching this group only two weeks ago so we’re slowly getting to know each other. I was somewhat worried about this particular class before I first met them, but so far things have been going well. As the topics and grammar in the coursebook are challenging, I’m forced to write detailed lesson plans. This is pretty time-consuming.

IMG_20150713_184323In this particular lesson, we discussed some advanced ways of expressing probability. Students practised using these when describing a picture showing a demonstration (the whole unit revolves around the topic of politics and I must admit that I’m having a hard time. I can’t say I’m into politics and it’s not easy to make the topic interesting and relevant to a group of young adults anyway).

After the grammar section, we started discussing nationalism, namely the situation in Ireland. I displayed a map of Ireland on the board and tried to explain, in very simple terms, what the situation in Ireland looked like in the past. I recycled some vocabulary from the previous lesson, such as atheism, patriotism, nationalism, etc. I was surprised that the students had never heard of the IRA, but I soon realized they were too young to know (luckily).  What caught their attention, though, and what I’m definitely going to elaborate on in the next lesson, was the fact that the Catholics never went to the same schools as the Protestants. What immediately occurred to them was the story of Romeo and Juliet. We contrasted the Troubles with other conflicts they are familiar with.

I wrapped up the day with the most challenging class and not the most intriguing topic, but I felt happy and relieved that things had gone well that day.

Blogging habits

Being a blogging addict, I can’t but take up another blog challenge, this time coming from the mind and pen of Zhenya Dnipro. In her recent post, inspired by Vedrana Vojkovic’s questionsZhenya planned to reveal some of her blogging rituals, and she invited other bloggers to do the same. I immediately fell in love with the idea and left a lengthy comment on Zhenya’s blog, thinking I was finished. However, later I discovered that Ljiljana Havran and Sirja Bessero had shared their blogging habits in more detail on their own blogs, so I thought it would be a good idea to give it a try as well. So in this post I’d like to address some of the questions I came across in the aforementioned posts, plus I’d like to answer my own question too. 

The first question that comes to mind is: What is blogging for me? It’s definitely an activity pursued outside my regular occupation which I engage in primarily for pleasure. However superficial it may sound, I consider blogging my hobby. But it’s more than just an activity that occupies my spare time – for me it’s an object of an intense desire and enthusiasm. In short, blogging is my passion. Unfortunately, like most hobbies and passions, blogging is terribly time-consuming and thus inevitably gets on other people’s nerves. It eats into my family time and I confess that sometimes I lose control over my passion completely. Despite all this, it’s also a kind of therapy for me, so my family will have to endure this whim of mine from time to time, I’m afraid. 

I should stress that by blogging I mean the highly stimulating process of writing a post but also reading other people’s blogs and leaving comments on them. This is an equally fulfilling activity which I love as much as producing my own blog posts. I believe that commenting and replying to other people’s comments can sometimes be more interesting and challenging than writing up a post. Taking part in the dialogue created between the blogger and the readers requires responsibility, diplomacy, attention, focus, empathy, and lots of other skills. You can edit and delete anything on your blog, but it’s not so easy to withdraw a comment once submitted. Also, when reacting to somebody’s ideas, one has to make sure that their reaction is clear and unambiguous. It took me some time to learn to interact with fellow bloggers with confidence, so I believe that this is something that can and should be learned.
I’ve come to realize that apart from refining my communication skills, blogging is a good way of polishing my writing skills. I’m not only talking spelling, grammar and vocabulary now, which are obviously areas I practise a lot through frequent posting; I’m talking about the way a coherent piece of writing comes into existence. The need to come up with a suitable opening paragraph, a good title, or convincing ideas helps me refine my thinking skills too. The mental exercise I take every time I write a post keeps my brain sharp, which definitely comes in handy in my challenging profession.
Regarding my writing techniques, unlike many bloggers, I never take notes when an idea springs to mind. If I feel a flash of inspiration, I simply sit down at the computer and write and edit. If I’m not at my place, I try to retain the idea in my memory and come back to it later when I’m home. Sometimes I have no clue where I’m headed, but I usually manage to get to the point that was hidden somewhere at the back of my mind. A lot of my posts are inspired by what I read on other people’s blogs, and some of the inspiration comes from my own teaching experience. I usually have a single idea which I kind of wrap up in context or the other way around; I have the context and analyze it in an attempt to get to the core. 
The opening and final paragraphs are the most challenging parts for me. Maybe it’s a myth but I heard that it’s not good to mention the title in the very first sentence, and this is a rule I try to stick to, if possible. A friend of mine, an amazing discourse analyst, who occasionally reads my posts and gives me feedback, always reminds me of the fact that a powerful conclusion is the key to a successful piece of writing. I try to keep her advice in mind, but I suspect that this is one of my weaknesses – after getting things off my chest I impatiently hurry to finish off, and I hit the publish button despite having that nagging feeling that something is still missing. 
As far as the structure of my posts is concerned, I like to keep the paragraphs approximately the same length; I feel that this visual symmetry makes reading easier for the visitor of my blog. Whenever I’m not sure if the paragraphs are logically connected and thus my post appears somewhat incoherent, I try to imagine the classic exercise where students are asked to put the jumbled paragraphs in the correct order. I always keep in mind that each opening phrase should have some logical connection to the previous paragraph, and thus the order of the paragraphs should be clear and possible to work out.  
And finally back to the general; I’m happy if my post is between 800 to 1000 words long. To me, this seems to be an ideal number of words for posts of this kind. I believe that my regular readers are used to seeing posts of a certain length on my blog, and thus (perhaps subconsciously) I want to fulfil their expectations. As a rule, I always include an image. In the past, I used to have more visuals in my posts but now I think one is enough. Words have probably become more important over time. Anyway, the images I choose always relate to the key ideas of my posts, no matter how remotely. I consider them to be metaphors rather than direct representations, though.
 
I believe that to become successful, a writer/blogger needs this innate ability called talent. However, writing skills can undoubtedly be improved by lots of practice. Maybe it’s also useful to read those how-to-become-a-great-blogger tips from time to time, but the truth is that too much of a good thing is not always to the good. As blogging is primarily about interaction, one needs to attract visitors, those who will take the time to read, comment and promote the blog on social media. I’m grateful and happy to have so many amazing readers who visit and come back, willing to support me and my passion for writing and communication. They are one of the main sources of my motivation. Thanks to them I’m writing this post and I hope I will write more. 
 
 

 

One word for 2015

All the challenges currently going on in the bloggosphere are dangerously contagious. So it’s only understandable that I can’t resist the temptation to follow the example of other bloggers. Recently I’ve read a number of posts about people’s New Year’s resolutions, and I’m tempted to come up with my own take on the topic, but for now I’ve decided to take up another challenge, or a variation of it – the One word for 2015 challenge. The motivation comes from two amazing ladies and experienced educators, who handled the topic with bravura. Vicky Loras’s post about her one word was thoughtful and heartfelt, as usual, and Theodora Papapanagiotou came up with a playful and energetic post here.
I hadn’t had to rack my brain for two long to come up with the word that I would like to represent me in this New Year. It came out of hiding unexpectedly, in a triumphant manner, but I think it had actually been brewing and lurking within for a while. It started to emerge some time around Christmas, when I was keen on reading books describing amazing spiritual journeys and adventures. Although I don’t remember where exactly I read this or that, some of the most interesting quotes still ring in my ears, such as the one concerning wishes, which said something along these lines: if you wish something and would like it to happen, visualize it and write it down. 
So every night before I went to sleep, I spent some time contemplating and reflecting. My aim was to invent something I could wish and visualize, and then piously wait for it to happen. Surprisingly, despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to come up with a sensible wish. I mean, I wasn’t able to come up with something I needed because I already had a life in which all my dreams had come true. Obviously, I could have asked for an infinite continuation of the satisfactory situation, but it somehow didn’t seem an appropriate wish; to me it felt like an attempt at clinging to something, not wanting to give it up or let it go. What if I would like to let it go some day? Wishing loads of money, being famous, or having a dream job appeared childish and trivial, and I didn’t want to squander the potential God’s gifts. Sometimes I felt like the main character in the story about The Three Wishes. 
And then it came to me one day. I realized that what I needed most to be happy and live my life to the fullest was constant CHANGE. Not that I felt I needed to change anything particular – anything already existing; I said that basically I was happy with the way my life had shaped itself. I didn’t long for a sudden, dramatic change or something like that. Actually, change has many meanings, such as to make or become differentto be transformed or converted, to give and receive something in return, to pass from one phase to the following one, to alter one’s attitude or opinion, etc. For me change is the law of life. It is life. It is progress.
Now, to be completely honest with myself, I mostly crave change for selfish and superficial reasons. I’m a person who loves to watch the seasons change and I never want a summer to stay longer than it is supposed to. I love it when autumn finally comes and I can smell the wet leaves on the ground. Also, although I can enjoy the moments of repose, to be truly and utterly happy, I need to keep myself entertained and mentally challenged. At the end of each academic year I yearn for holidays and at the end of August I can’t wait to start teaching again. As far as my profession is concerned, I’m not someone who recycles the same lesson plan every year. I don’t store grammar sheets in a huge, well-arranged file so that I could use them again at some point in the future. If I do keep them for rainy days, I rarely use them when the days come. I like to elaborate and innovate. 
To sum up my scattered thoughts, in 2015 I wish to stay open to new ideas and to be ready to change my view whenever it’s to the good. I want to be prepared to shed my old skin whenever I feel it is too tight because stubborn clinging to old habits and ideas means stagnation. By seizing every opportunity to change some of the unhealthy mindsets I struggle to get rid of, and giving up my bad habits, I hope I will gradually change into a happier human being. 
Overall, I wish for new, exciting experiences which would open new horizons for me and keep me moving on. I guess my mind is like a shark that can never stop swimming, otherwise it would die (well, it’s probably a myth but I like the metaphor). Anyway, here’s one of my favourite songs. 
 
 
And now that I’ve written it all down, it will certainly happen 🙂