A little *thank you*

I’ve recently learned from my WordPress statistics tracker that the largest proportion of visitors on my blog is based in the Czech Republic. This discovery was a big surprise for me because most of the interaction that happens here is initiated by teachers outside of the Czech Republic. Apparently, Czechs like to be what I call ‘bystanders’ – they visit my blog but rarely feel the need to leave a comment.

 

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The little orange spot in the middle of Europe is my native land

 

The truth is, though, that I’ve lately had several face-to-face conversations with fellow teachers, friends, and former students, who told me that they visited my blog regularly. I was really excited to hear this since I gathered that my blog was exclusively read by my online community and complete strangers.

However, this finding also had an unusual effect on me – I suddenly felt more responsibility for the content of my blog. I mean, these people know me personally so what if they feel my writing doesn’t quite correspond with reality or with what I actually do. What if my posts give the wrong impression? Or even worse, what if something I share offends somebody? The thing is that I sometimes exaggerate and overstate to make a point so my articles may not always be interpreted correctly.

Nevertheless, I was very pleased the other day when a colleague of mine described how she felt after reading one of my somewhat controversial posts. Her description perfectly matched the effect I had intended when writing it. She uncovered all the layers, appreciated the humor but the overall impression, as she put it, was sadness. Then she gave me some valuable feedback and asked me lots of questions, such as how long it usually takes me to write a post or if I consider it a kind of therapy. Needless to say, she hit the nail on the head; blogging is a wonderful way of relaxation.

So, it seems there are two types of interaction here on my blog – with the people who drop a line now and then and with those who talk to me in person. Both audiences are very dear to me and this post is a way to thank them for being here for me and with me. Finally, I’d also like to thank all those ‘invisible’ viewers, who I only know about from my statistics tracker, and who, for whatever reason, took the time to click the link …

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Learning more than the content ….

20160928_113031This is an ordinary post – no point, no climax. Just a description of what happened in class.

The other day my youngest students were doing a project called My Favourite Animal/My Pet. I asked them to include lots of text and some hand-made illustrations or other visuals. I handed out two types of bilingual dictionaries and I also encouraged them to feel free to come to my table and use my PC if they struggled to find some words in the paper dictionaries. On the computer, I opened two tabs – a bilingual dictionary and Google.

Very few actually ended up using the paper dictionaries; there was a long queue in front of my computer instead. I noticed that some of the students had trouble working with the online bilingual dictionary so I tried to help whenever I could. For example, I showed them that they can listen to a word’s pronunciation and thus remember it better. Honestly, I had assumed that they were familiar with such things already but apparently, I was wrong.

One girl wanted to find the English equivalent for a Czech word (a name of an animal). We used all the bilingual dictionaries but found no entries of such a word. Then I revealed a trick I sometimes use with names of animals and plants – I look up the Latin expression first and then it’s much easier to find the English one. With this method, we finally managed to find the word okapi.

Some students used the Google option a lot, mostly to look up pictures of animals they were planning to draw. One boy, however, came up with a tweak. He opened the Google Translate tab to look up longer expressions. The thing is that I’d forgotten to tell the students that it’s difficult to find two-word expressions in a bilingual dictionary so some of them ended up a little confused. However, the boy immediately gave a hand to everybody who’d failed to find a phrase or a longer expression. Ironically, this boy is often criticized for using his mobile too much – during breaks as well as in lessons. The truth is though that he proved to be more tech savvy than the rest of the class, which, of course, is the result of him spending a lot of time online.

So apart from practicing their English, especially their writing skills, the students hopefully learned some other important skills, which they can use later in the course.

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My hopes and fears

Some of you may know that I’ve recently posted this on Facebook:

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I was astonished by the enormous support I instantly got from my PLN and friends from all around the world.

Strangely enough, it was not long ago (precisely October 28) when I wrote about the reasons behind my refusal to become a conference presenter. In today’s post, I’d like to share some of my fears and hopes I have now that I’ve finally accepted the offer. So here goes.

What if …

my topic is not interesting enough to attract an audience? I’ve been attending local conferences for some time now and I know that their regular attendees have already heard and seen loads of interesting stuff. Also, the teachers come on a Saturday, many of them from far away places, to be inspired. This obviously makes me feel a lot of responsibility.

I don’t appear interesting enough to attract an audience? Well, I may be the same old face on social media but that doesn’t mean that local folks know my name. So while some of my PLN would definitely turn up (out of sheer curiosity or to support a newbie presenter), the people who attend this conference may not feel like wasting their precious time listening to some secondary school teacher slash blogger.

things go wrong? I’ve been a teacher for more than two decades so I know all too well that there are lessons which go wrong for no specific reason. It just happens and it always fills me with bitter disappointment. Surprisingly, this sometimes happens when I ovedo it or when I overprepare. By the way, as this is my first workshop, I’m definitely planning to go low-tech. And I think I’ll actually go very ‘light’ in all respects.

my timing is all wrong? The workshops last for an hour. This may turn out totally unimportant, but over time, my brain has adjusted to slightly shorter units – of 45 minutes. Also, as I have no idea whatsoever how many people will finally turn up for my workshop (the attendees don’t register for the individual workshops in advance, which, by the way, I always considered an advantage), I can’t tailor make the content to a specific number of attendees. This leaves me with a number of unknown variables, such as the number of photocopies, the number of chairs, the shape of the seating arrangement and the shape of the activities themselves (pairs, groups, mingling, etc.). This may easily disconcert me and eventually add more pressure or even cause some confusion during the workshop.

I make mistakes? I know this sounds almost ridiculous, but yes, this is also one of my concerns. The sky won’t fall in if you make a mistake in a regular class (your mischievous students will let you know instantly anyway), but it must be terribly embarrassing when it happens to a conference presenter (cause conference presenters are supposed to be flawless, right? 😀 ).

Anyway, I’m an optimist and I think I can make it because

  • I have plenty of experience with classroom management and teaching in general so I can improvise and multitask.
  • Conference audiences are usually very enthusiastic, compassionate and understanding. (I’m convinced that teenagers, for example, are much more challenging).
  • I know the place very well and I know how things work there – at least from the outside.
  • There will be lots of familiar faces, which is one of the highlights for me.

What do you think? Are my concerns justified? Did you feel the same before your first workshop/webinar? Thanks for reading and all the support.

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Upgrading my writing skills

img_20151002_082919The other day I was reading somebody’s blog post when I realized that there are certain words I never use when I write. The word that first caught my attention was whereby. I went over to my blog and used the search button to see if I had ever used this vocabulary item in any of my posts. At that point, my blog turned into a little corpus for a while.

My suspicion was confirmed – no hits whatsoever. So I started playing with some other words for the sake of comparison. As it turned out, I have my favorites and there are words which I know but constantly avoid using.

Why is it so? Well, to be honest, I often catch myself circumventing expressions I’m not absolutely sure about. Obviously, coming up with an alternative is just a safe way out but doesn’t result in much learning.

So, I’m up to a little experiment. From now on I’m going to have a list of words I wish to incorporate into my writing always near my laptop. These items will be anything interesting I come across while reading stuff – single words, collocations, or grammatical structures. I know all too well that just jotting something down into a notepad and staring at it won’t necessarily enrich my writing. So I will only allow myself to cross a word off of the list once I’ve actually used it.

If this strategy works for me, I’ll recommend it to my students as well.

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Uncovering linguistic layers

From time to time a student composing an essay asks: “Shall I write in the street or on the street?”  As I don’t want to disturb the others by long lectures on prepositions, I usually say: “You can use both. Just choose”. I know it’s not quite accurate but I don’t think it’s a big deal either, at least at lower levels of proficiency.

As far as I remember, the way I learned this piece of lexicogrammar at school was something along the lines: in the street is mainly used in British English and be on the street(s) means be homeless. Let’s have a closer look.

First of all, it seems that there is some difference between the phrase including a singular noun (street) and the phrase including a plural form of the noun.

Regarding the phrases including the singular form of the noun, in the street, according to the first graph below, was more frequent till about 1980 but then on the street, which, by the way, was almost non-existent back in 1800, started winning the race. I learned this by checking out Google Ngram Viewer (thanks, Sandy Millin, for sharing this). Anyway, after a rather sharp decline around 1945, a sudden increase in the use of on the street can be seen, precisely around 1965. One wonders why; has the issue of homelessness become more pressing recently ?

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Now, looking at the phrase including the plural form of the noun, I can see that in the streets has consistently been more frequent than one the streets. Like on the street, on the streets was almost non-existent in 1800 (see the second graph 2 below).

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If you look at some concordance lines of the chunk on the street(s), you will discover that, indeed, it is often related to homelessness.

  • She spends several years on the streets.
  • To fear being thrown on the street?
  • The average person on the street are not scientists
  • She was better off on the streets.
  • Will they sleep on the streets tonight?
  • A young girl who lives on the streets.

Things shift a bit if you add a little function word, though. If you search the phrase in the streets *of*, the most frequent right collocates are usually (and quite obviously) places/towns. The same happens with on the streets *of*. When studying the concordance lines, I didn’t discover any difference in connotation between these two chunks other than the number of hits per million. The chunk on the streets *of* is more frequent than in the streets *of*.

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What is interesting though is that the preposition *of* strips the phrase on the streets of its exclusivity related to the connotation of homelessness. In other words, it seems to me that it brings closer the connotations of in the streets and on the streets, i.e. the preposition simply doesn’t matter anymore.

I can’t help feeling that I’m only moving on the surface of the problem and that there’s much more behind it. Some of my conclusions may even be inaccurate and incomplete. Still, it’s a great adventure to slowly uncover the linguistic layers. What’s more, I’m learning a lot along the way.

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Small things matter – some insights from a conference

20160423_121915On Saturday, I went to another ELT conference here in the Czech Republic. I saw two outstanding plenary speeches and attended three workshops, of which I probably liked most the one done by Hana Babincova.

Now I wonder why this particular experience was so refreshing. In other words, what are the essential ingredients of a successful workshop? I’ve decided to write this up partly because I think it will help me improve my regular teaching. Here are some of my insights:

When I entered the room about ten minutes before the workshop started, the windows were wide open and it was freezing in there. Having spotted the attendees’ desperate expressions, Hana quickly explained that she had opened the windows to let some fresh air in (I sometimes use this euphemism to actually say ‘Sorry but it was terribly smelly in here’). 🙂 Anyway, this was a good move I think since later on, it didn’t get stuffy but pleasantly warm.

Hana had prepared some of the board work in advance so upon entering the room we could easily predict what the workshop was going to be about. In more sophisticated words, we could already activate our schemata. However, I later realized that she hadn’t given it all away, which was clever of her.

I was particularly pleased by the seating arrangement Hana had chosen – two desks pressed together for us to sit in groups of four, i.e. two pairs facing each other. Thus I had plenty of space for myself (unlike during the previous workshop when we were sitting in a horseshoe arrangement without desks and as it was quite a small room, I was literally squeezed between two other participants).

The number of the attendees was reasonable; I don’t feel very comfortable when the room is crammed as I tend to feel claustrophobic. However, a small number of participants would make me feel uncomfortable as well, probably because I’d fear that the group dynamic may suffer a bit.

The topic of Hana’s workshop was Flash Fiction, which is virtually my cup of tea. During the hands-on activities, I was cooperating with two other ladies, both of whom were very friendly and communicative. Having enthusiastic people around is another aspect which makes any workshop a successful event. Sadly, this is something beyond the presenter’s control so I can say I was lucky.

The content of the workshop was engaging plus the timing of the activities was perfect; we had plenty of time to complete all the assigned tasks (which is not always the case). Hana was patiently eliciting ideas and we ended up sharing some truly original interpretations. There are no wrong answers is a strategy I like.

Apart from the presenter (or teacher) being well-prepared, intuitive and spontaneous, I think there are other little ingredients which can positively affect the quality of an event, such as a suitable time of the day, the quality of the previous workshop (class), i.e. how high (or low?) the metaphorical bar is, how enthusiastic the participants (students) are, etc.

All in all, throughout this workshop, I didn’t feel the need to look at my watch and when it was over, I caught myself disappointed by the fact that time had flown so quickly. 🙂

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Disappointed

Apparently, my blog has recently turned into a diary where I’ve been recording and sharing some of my corpora-related observations.

Here’s another anecdote in the series of posts: Yesterday, in class, we dealt with adjectives of feeling and emotions and the prepositions they take, such as angry with, depressed about, proud of, etcetera. As you know, some adjectives are quite tricky since they can take more than one preposition while the meaning stays roughly the same. One of the notorious ‘troublemakers’ is, for example, the word disappointed. 

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I mentioned to my class that this adjective is usually followed by with, by or in. One of my students curiously searched the internet to finally confirm my conclusion. He came up with this page, which explains the slight shifts in meaning when different prepositions are used.

 

Disappointed by usually indicates that somebody has done something specific to cause you to be disappointed.

Disappointed with implies that the cause of the disappointment was something basic about the nature or attributes of the thing.

Disappointed in usually indicates a deeper level of disappointment with the nature of somebody or something, or repeated problems with them, and often indicates that the speaker has lost faith in someone’s ability to do what’s expected of them.

Although the author did his/her best to help the puzzled learner, it’s still a bit complicated, at least for a B1/B2 learner of English. So I’ve tried to figure it out for myself by looking at sets of concordance lines in BNC. Here are the most frequent collocates of the phrase disappointed + by/with/in (from the perspective of the MI index):

1) One can be disappointed by (the) lack of sth., failure, response, elections, results, decision 

2) One can be disappointed with results, players, performance, result, (the) lack of sth., decision, way

3) One can be disappointed in one’s expectation, love, (not) having …, me, you, him, her …

A closer scrutiny of the concordance lines prompts the following conclusion:

  • No1 > some external factor/situation caused my feelings of disappointment.
  • No2 > I’m not happy with the quality/state of something. Note: It seems that no1 and no2 can be used interchangeably with certain collocates with the meanings remaining very close.
  • No3 > a way to express disillusion or reproach.

 

 

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