A Letter To My Younger Self

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This post is part of a blog challenge created by Joanna Malefaki in which we write a letter to our younger teaching selves. To read more posts in the challenge, click here.

Hi James,

So you’re just about to give your first lesson, armed with nothing more than a few pages of interview questions and a whole lot of curiosity. Before I give you some advice, you should know that I’ve teaching English for 9 years now and you have no idea about the places I’ve been, the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen. But you’ll discover all of that in time. Here’s what you need to know right now…

  • Teaching is all about people being together and sharing. Your job as an English teacher is to make sure that your students have the language ability to have these conversations. You teach adults, so there’s no hierarchy, and they don’t expect you to be some great authority on the English language. Engage with your students, and engage them with each other, and the rewards are huge.
  • Remember, and I can’t emphasise this enough, that the lessons do not belong to you, they belong to your students. What you are in doing in the classroom is nowhere near as important as what the students are doing. Stop thinking about yourself, and start thinking about them.
  • You’re going to meet a lot of very interesting people because of this job, so learn from them. Make sure they know that you are genuinely interested in their lives and professions and you will learn as much as your students.
  • The quicker you can learn about the language the better. At this time, you don’t really know anything. If you don’t believe me, then tell me what a preposition is. Trust me, in a few months that will seem like the most basic of terms. Spend some time learning how English works, you’ll make my life much easier now if you do.
  • Right now you are all potential. You have no experience and no qualifications (English being your first language is not a qualification!), so stay humble, be grateful for the opportunities you’ve been given, and learn quickly.
  • Really pay attention to your colleagues and what they do. You can learn a lot from watching other teachers, and not just the things they do better than you, there’s a lot to learn from people’s mistakes too.

That will do for now, I don’t want to overwhelm you. You don’t know it yet, but this first lesson is the start of something life-defining, so enjoy yourself and work hard. The rewards are yet to come.

Yours,

You

 

Photo credit: Photo taken from https://flic.kr/p/6ohrWx by insEyedout, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license, https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/ 

A Distraction of Collective Nouns

The best thing about living in Costa Rica is the nature. A narrow country with an Atlantic and a Caribbean coast, and a spine of volcanoes down the middle, it is host to an amazing array of natural habitats containing more biodiversity than North America and Europe combined. And my favourite aspect of that environment are the birds.

I liked birdwatching as a kid, but like many of these things, the interest wanes. Then one day something sets you off and a long forgotten passion is rekindled. For me it was an 8 hour birdwatching walk in the Monteverde cloud forest that was arranged as my dad’s sixtieth birthday present.

While I’m sure my Dad enjoyed it, I loved every minute of it, all 8 hours, and I found it to be a surprisingly peaceful and reflective experience. There’s something about standing still, listening intently only for bird song and the rustle of branches, with barely a word passing between you, that is both meditative and requires a degree of mindfulness that I find otherwise almost impossible in my daily life. There’s no conversation, no listening to podcasts, no homework to review, no emails or messages to reply to, nothing. And of course you get to look at beautiful creatures like these.

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And as an English teacher, not surprisingly, I also have a keen interest in the English language. I’m fascinated by its quirks and eccentricities. In other words, the things that make it so damn difficult to learn.

So you can imagine my joy at coming across this book on my last trip to the U.K. A Conspiracy of Ravens: A Compendium of Collective Nouns for Birds* is a simple compendium of collective nouns for birds, accompanied by beautiful wood carvings from 1743 by the artist Thomas Bewick.

a conspiracy of ravens cover

There’s something immensely pleasurable about these phrases. Take a gander at this one:

a runcible of spoonbills

As if the word ‘spoonbill’ wasn’t enjoyable enough, you also get to luxuriate in its collective noun, ‘runcible’. Go on, treat yourself. Say that coupling of words, bound together by an article and a proposition, out loud five times. Let the syllables swim around your mouth. You’ve had a long day, you’ve earned it. And now try this one on for size…

a murmuration of starlings

and this one…

an orchestra of avocets

Which, in a roundabout way, leads me to thinking that ELT really needs its own set of collective nouns. Why restrict them to the animal kingdom alone? Here are my nominations, if you’ve got any suggestions of your own, drop them in the comments below and I might do a follow up post with the best ones.

An anarchy of prepositions
A lateness of homework
A saviour of resource books
A tiredness of students
A whinge of teachers
An underuse of interactive whiteboards
A relief of break times
A desperate why of phrasal verbs
An if of conditionals
An Adobe of webinars
A decline of vocabulary notebooks
A tote bag of conferences
A mandatory of training sessions
A crutch of coursebooks
An Amazon** of handouts
An obligation of exams
A straitjacket of syllabi
A pressure of parents
A tsunami of blogs
An abandon of cd-roms
A graveyard of student notebooks***
A distraction of collective nouns

By the way, I’m not really as cynical as these suggest, but negative ones are so much more fun to write! I just wish I had a set of appropriate wood carvings to illustrate them.

* Full disclosure: if you buy the book via this link, I get a tiny amount of money and you pay the same price as you would have anyway. This is as close as I get to making money from this blog. Amount of money raised thus far: £0.00.

** This is not another plug for the website I’m referring to above, it’s a plug for the forest.

***Hat tip to Michael Lewis Swan for this one. I read somewhere that he referred to students vocabulary notebooks as places ‘where words go to die’ or something along those lines. Any link would be gratefully received.

Think! – Learning From Carl Sagan

Back at the end of 2012, I had a bright idea for a new blog. Taking inspiration from culture and the sciences, I would write about the intersection of these areas with language teaching and learning. I posted a few times, but as happens in life other things come along and the project drifted away.

However, I wasn’t happy to let these few articles drift away into lonely isolation, so I’ve dusted them off and resurrected them here on my regular blog, where hopefully a few more people will actually read them! The first post talks about how my main inspiration as a teacher is my favourite scientist, Carl Sagan.

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Starseeds © Jon Lomberg – Inspired by Carl Sagan’s Cosmos

One of the joys I have found in my new interest in science is that it has brought me into what was a previously unknown world of inspiration, enlightenment and influence. As I am exposed to the likes of Neil Degrasse Tyson, Richard Feynman, and Richard Dawkins, I’m gratified that I have been able to bring their wisdom and intelligence into my life, and hopefully just a little bit will rub off somewhere. But one name sticks out above all others. In the last few months, I have been watching the finest television series I have ever seen, a source of wonder and learning for me which I cannot believe took so long to become part of my life. This series is Cosmos, presented by the legendary Carl Sagan.

I’m still struggling to comprehend how I wasn’t aware of the show before now. I’m a culturally aware person, but somehow it passed me by. I guess jokes like this just went over my head:

In each programme he leads us on a personal voyage through the history of scientific discovery  and the universe, known and unknown. The show is aimed at viewers without a scientific background and not only explains the cosmos around us, but also the achievements of the great thinkers of the past, such as Copernicus, Brahe and Kepler.

So as a result of watching the show my knowledge of the universe is increasing, but I’m no cosmologist and I can’t claim to understand everything. But there’s a lot we can learn from a programme like this even if we don’t understand particle physics or string theory. Essentially, in the show, Carl Sagan is a teacher and we are his pupils. Watch the video below to see what I mean. As you watch, you can try and learn about Flatland if you like, but mostly I want you to pay attention to what you can learn from him as a teacher.

If you were one of my students, it is at this point I’d ask you compare your observations with a peer. This time however, we are both learners, so you can compare your notes with mine:

  • He’s explaining a difficult concept, something many of the viewers will be unfamiliar with. Despite this he isn’t at all patronising, treating the audience with intelligence as he diligently and precisely explains the concept.
  • He displays an in-depth knowledge and is not shy about you knowing that he is an authority figure when it comes to this subject. In other words, he is clearly the teacher and we are definitely the learners.
  • While he treats the subject seriously, he is not without humour. He is very effective at breaking up the moments of seriousness with moments of levity. He handles the tone of the discourse beautifully.
  • He is clearly spoken and precise in his language. His ability to deliver a complicated concept in an economical way makes it easier to comprehend.
  • He uses practical and clear demonstrations to illustrate his point, again making the idea easier to understand. He’s not afraid of being very explicit in explaining what his point is.
  • His use of language is particularly interesting. He speaks beautifully and yet you never feel that he is talking ‘over you’. In fact, I love the mixture of registers he uses, ranging from “the universe is finite but unbounded” to “the only conclusion is that he’s gone bonkers”.
  • His body language is open and inviting. He frequently smiles, and you feel more like you’re being led on a journey of discovery by a wise uncle then bewildered by overly serious academic.
  • He occasionally uses aphorisms, for example “If you want to know what it’s like inside a black hole, look around”. They act as a form of punctuation, summarising the key points that he has just stated or asking the main questions that need to be emphasised. Phrases like this are memorable for the learners, and will enable them to recall key concepts at a later date.

It is vital that we, not just as language teachers but as educators in general, are prepared to look outside of our immediate circle to find influences and heroes. We have much to learn from Sagan and his like and we should not be cowed by his intellectual might and obvious gifts. Rather we should look to his example and and attempt to his follow in his footsteps with a ready heart and an open mind, although, as Sagan himself famously said (or did he?):

 

To read about more ‘outside influences’, head over to the iTDi blog:

 

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Why Is ELT Politics Free?

P - Pizzeria

On a recent trip back to the UK, I met up with an old friend of mine who works as a lecturer at a university training new primary school teachers. I asked him about learning styles and its place in the current training of teachers, and what struck me about the conversation was not so much his thoughts on the subject, but rather how politically he viewed it.

When I say politically, I mean Politics with a big P. His discourse on the the subject was framed within the context of what the current and previous Education Minister was in favour of, government education policy and the current political climate. As someone who works in an education system that is constantly having to reflect, deal with, resist and manage these things, this is quite understandable. For me, as someone who works in a very different educational setting, it was fascinating to observe.

Rarely in the world of ELT do we have to face up to these things, it seems. Some of us definitely like to talk and write about what you can call small p politics, whether that’s the topics we can discuss in the classroom, such as the environment, homelessness, consumerism etc*, or the issues that affect our profession, including the situation for non-native teachers, gender, and racial inequality. But from what I’ve observed, whether that’s on blogs, social media, presentations, conversations at conferences and so on, Politics seems to be almost completely absent.

The most obvious reason why this is the case is that ELT is a global industry and private language schools are generally quite disconnected from the state system. This is problematic for me because the vast majority of people learning English today are children studying in schools, firmly within a government run education system, and it seems to me that the our profession is over-represented by a minority of teachers, like me, who don’t have to engage in the big P politics. The reasons for this misrepresentation are numerous I’m sure, and I’m not in a position to speculate why, but I can’t help but feel that as a profession we need to engage more with the majority of our colleagues and learn from each other.

How this is done is another matter, and I’m not sure what the solutions are.* I’m also assuming that our state school colleagues actually want to be part of it, which may be a big misunderstanding on my part, I really don’t know. What I do know is that unless we widen the scope of our conversation, we will continue to be disconnected from the majority of our peers.

Does this sound representative to you? Obviously not every country is the same, and perhaps your situation is quite different. If so, I’d love to hear about it.

*For some excellent lesson ideas for some of those small p issues, take a look at the IATEFL Global Issues SIG website

*One possibility is for local teaching associations to make sure that local teachers are aware of them, and at BELTA we are working very hard on this. It’s easier said than done though.

*Just as I was about to post this, the most high profile example of ELT and small p politics I’ve ever seen was posted on the Guardian Facebook page.

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Click here to read more.

Update

Thanks To Mike Harrison for pointing out the work of English For Action, who provide ESOL courses for adult migrants in communities across London.

Better Charts and Graphs

If you’ve ever trained someone for the IELTS test or had a business English class, there is a good chance that at some point you’ve had to teach the language of describing graphs. There’s also a good chance you taught it only because you really had to, and unfortunately both you and the student found it a bit boring.

Luckily the Internet is here to help you and now you can find a whole range of interesting and funny graphs to make these lessons more interesting. As you can see from the selection below, you can use graphs which describe classic literature, relationships, morality, migration, and less serious subjects like the distribution of pizza slices and how often various social networks have been mentioned in rap songs since the dawn of the Internet.

As it’s the ability to describe trends that the students need to work on, not the content, you can really use any graphs and charts you want. It should make your classes much more interesting as a result, which is good news for everyone!

The Economist – Facebook

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economist1

Information is Beautiful – Facebook

informationisbeautiful2

informationisbeautiful1

Graphs.net – Facebook

Infographicsbygraphs

The Friday Chart – Facebook

thefridaychart

Last Week Tonight – Facebook

lastweektonight

Genius.com – rap stats

rapgenius1

rapgenius2

Graphjam

graphjamcom

The Bold Italic

thebolditalic

Reddit – Funny Charts

redditprocrastinationpiechart

Truth Facts

truthfacts

Doghouse Diaries

doghousediaries

PhD Comics

phdcomics

Google Ngrams

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Spurious Correlations

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Do you know any more interesting websites for graphs and charts? Leave a comment below and I’ll add them to the list.

To see some of my ELT graphs, click here.

Two Little Letters

It’s amazing how much of a difference two letters can make…

I love technology in my personal life and I’m open to it in the classroom too. It’s part of my principled eclecticism approach to teaching, my own personal grab bag of techniques and concepts that inform what I do in the classroom. Forgive the simplistic examples, but while I love to unplug, at the moment I use a coursebook, I love to be as communicative as possible but I’m not averse to drilling, I love to treat language lexically but sometimes will go into the grammar, and I love technology but spend most of my time getting students to use their notebooks while I use the only the whiteboard. It’s messy but then so is language learning, so its suits me, at least until I decide that I was wrong about something and try a different way, which does happen fairly regularly.

So before you read on let me emphasise something for you:

And just in case you’re still in any doubt, click here and here

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…and here and here.

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Which might make you think that this infographic would be right up my street.

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The infographic is based on a blog post by Carl Hooker, a US educator who describes himself as “a part of a strong educational shift with technology integration since becoming an educator”. I think it’s interesting example of how a well-intentioned teacher (and please don’t think this critique is in any way a criticism of his intentions) needs to be careful about how they promote the use of technology.

I’m writing this because there was something about the infographic, and the blog post to a lesser extent, which really got on my nerves. There are a few reasons why it set me off.

Firstly, it’s that some of them are shallow and pointless. What does it actually mean to “integrate selfies in your classroom” or “perform a lipdub video”? Are we supposed to just use whatever trendy thing our teenage students are into at the moment because memes? Did teachers in the 1980’s build a curriculum around Cabbage Patch dolls and Rubik’s Cubes? Of course they didn’t. Just because everything is now technology based and that trends exist doesn’t mean that we should use them. 

lipdub

I understand that the writer is trying to get his students to engage with their learning, but I don’t believe that our students are so shallow that they require gimmicks. They can also see right through it and they know what’s going on. The medium might be different, but this is still work, and the students who don’t like to work aren’t suddenly going to become swots overnight because of augmented reality.

Perhaps the most shallow example of this is number 15, “Perform in a LipDub Video”. The description below, taken from the original blog post, has nothing to do with education and everything to do with messing about on camera and ‘going viral’. If at any point in your life your objective is to ‘go viral’, you need to have a serious talk with yourself.

This can be either a solo project or for even greater effect, tie in your parody song (#3) and have your students act out their learning throughout the video.  Don’t forget to hashtag it. Bonus points if said video goes viral.

As Cristina Milos says in response to the infographic…

And I’d like to add…

what's the point

Seriously, I think it’s great that these kids raised money for charity, but how much time went into this?:

If they did it in their free time, that’s fine, but if they didn’t, I can see no educational value in this whatsoever. But at least it went viral, right?

But I have to say that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use these tools and ideas if we think there is a sound pedagogical reason behind them. The tools are the point of this infographic rather than the outcomes, and anytime we find ourselves thinking “how can I use Pinterest with my class?”, we are in trouble. In the accompanying blog post, the writer describes using Pinterest like this:

Pinterest is a great visible way to curate resources but why not create a class account that has a different board based on projects throughout the year. Add students as collaborators and let them post their projects to the board. You could also have a board on gathering resources and information for a topic which would be a good time to mention what is and what isn’t a valid resource?

Which isn’t a bad idea at all. If the thinking behind this is “I want to create a means by which my students can collect and share information and resources. Pinterest is a quick and easy way to do this” then I’m all in favour of it. Unfortunately, what the infographic seems to be saying to me is “Are using Pinterest? What do you mean you’re not? What’s wrong with you? I guess that means you’re not a 21st century teacher…”, which is a shame, because I don’t think that’s what he really wants to say.

I also take issue with the notion that all students are the same, which I think this infographic simplistically suggests with its “these things are guaranteed to work!” zeal. If you’d asked me to leap around my school while miming to some dreadful pop nonsense when I was teenager (which would have been the opinion of this oh so indie kid), I would have opted for the ‘drop out of school and live in a cave’ option. Not all students have the same interests and the desire to sing, dance and share everything with everyone else, and not a single one of these ‘things’ has any obvious connection to studying. You know, the kind of studying where you have to sit down and read a book in order to learn things, or is that old hat now? I think that suggesting that we need to adopt all of these gimmicks in order to connect with our students is patronising to them and to their potential.

We also have the matter of the time. The idea that a teacher has a schedule which allows for the amount of learning, training and management involved to implement these tools has got to be ridiculous. If you have the time, then I encourage you to never quit your job because you’ll never find a better one.

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There’s also the amount of digital literacy required. You can argue that teenagers already know how to use these tools, we don’t need to teach them how. But there’s so much more to digital literacy than knowing how to utilise the settings. Our students need to know what is happening to their data, who has access to it and how it can be used by the corporations that own these services. They need to know about appropriate ways of conducting themselves, something their parents might not be able to teach them. And crucially, they need to be able to know which sources of information can be trusted and which can’t, and how we find this out. All this time adds up.

And if our students are adults, it may take even longer.

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But then you might agree with Carl Hooker:

Sure, this might take more time than it’s worth academically, but the collaborative sharing and engaging aspect of producing such a thing can be a positive.

I’m sure you can work out where I stand on that.

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And then there’s the assumption that all classrooms have all these resources to hand. Imagine the vast majority of other countries in the world and how remote and disconnected from reality this infographic would appear to them. Those teachers could quite fairly ask “Is this what you think it means to be a teacher?” 

But I think more than anything, it’s the use of the word ‘should’ in the title that bothers me. It suggests that if we don’t use these tools we’re negligent and/or out of touch with modern teaching. I teach in a school with no interactive whiteboards, limited opportunities to show videos or images on a larger scale, and a flakey Internet connection. However, my students all have smart phones and reliable 3G connections. This means that there are some things I can’t do, and some things I can. I’m aware that I have access to more resources than most teachers in the world, but reading this infographic makes me feel like I live on another planet.

But wherever I teach (and I have also taught in countries and schools with considerably greater resources), I find that what I really need, more than anything, is a board and for my students to have notebooks. I don’t feel in any way disadvantaged, for me it’s always a case of adapting to the environment and the possibilities it allows. I don’t need any more than the basics to be an effective teacher, but if I’ve got it, sure I’ll try it, but only after I’ve considered its value as a pedagogic tool in helping the students to advance in their learning.

I don’t think I’m the only teacher in this situation. Globally there are many of us, but there are even more of us who have access to nothing more than a board, and maybe not even that. Try telling them that they ‘should’ be using these tools. Perhaps it would have more tactful and appropriate to suggest that teachers ‘could’ try them, and the tiny proportion who can try them all can have fun having “a “no tech day”, just for nostalgia’s sake” (number 6 on the list). 

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The trouble with infographics is that they tend to be a shallow representation of what can be a deeper issue. This can lead to the nuance and suggestion being removed, as it has to a degree in this case, where information aimed at teachers seems to have little to do with teaching and learning, and everything with trying to be the hip and trendy teacher that the students love (and seriously, is there anything more embarrassing than that?).

cool teacher

To be fair to @mrhooker, he has written his blog post with all the right intentions and he deserves praise for what is clearly a genuine attempt to engage students. Unfortunately he has fallen into the trap that many proponents of technology, and not just in education, have ended up in. I have no doubt that technology offers teachers many wonderful new opportunities to do their job, but as the best advocates know, you’ve got to back it up with a sound pedagogy. If you don’t, you risk gimmickry. 

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As I said on Facebook when I posted the infographic, I love technology and would encourage teachers to use it with their students where appropriate, but 95% of my lesson time involves pens, paper, talking and a whiteboard. I feel no need to apologise for this and start making lipdub videos.‬

If only he’d changed those two little letters, and written ‘could’ instead of ‘should’…

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ELT in Graphs

The amount of time spent with published materials

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 How writing homework gets handed in

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The first activities done with a new class

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Students and their vocabulary notebooks

photo 4 Giving feedback during speaking activities

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