Book review – 50 Activities For The First Day Of School

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50 Activities For The First Day Of School, published by Alphabet Publishing, is, as the title suggests, a highly practical resource book for teachers looking for ways to add some variety to their first day activities. The author, Walton Burns, has created this ebook as a handy guide containing a variety of tasks mainly for lower level learners, although they are easily adaptable for all abilities and ages. In fact, one of the book’s main strengths is the flexibility the activities have, and it’s easy to imagine them being tweaked for use in any lesson.

Walton starts with the most famous of first day activities, Getting To Know You. This is such a classic of English teaching, you could forgive him for a lack of originality. And while he does include familiar tasks like Find Someone Who…, he also includes more unusual tasks like Snowball Fight, where learners write questions and throw them around the classroom, and Time Capsule in which students leave messages for themselves to open at the end of the course (the version of this involving filming interviews with the students which they watch on the last day I found particularly interesting). As a result, I found this chapter to be full of great ideas, ready for use by teachers. 

The second chapter looks at Assessing and Evaluating, and includes ways of encouraging the students to produce in English with whatever they are able in order to allow the teacher to get a sense of their level. Personally, I’ve never done specific activities with this in mind, preferring to get a sense of the students’ level over time, but I enjoyed these tasks and I think they have a lot of potential, particularly with lower levels.

The final chapter contains 6 activities for setting the tone in a course, a crucial and easily underestimated part of a first lesson. While I enjoyed the activities he included, I felt that this chapter could perhaps have been expanded to include a greater variety of tasks.

This minor criticism aside, the book is a very good resource for teachers, particularly those in the first few years of their careers, looking to add some variety to their lessons. It’s always a good idea to have a suite of activities to rely on, but these tasks can easily become stale. Walton Burns book is a great help in keeping your first day activities fresh and motivating for your learners.

The ebook is available here. It is accompanied by a support website containing online resources including printouts. Find out more about the author Walton Burns here.

Songs In The Key Of ELT – New York I Love You

It’s time for the third part of my extremely occasional series of lesson ideas based on songs, especially the kind of songs that don’t usually appear in coursebooks. Here’s a track by one of my favourite bands of all time…


Artist: LCD Soundsystem
Song: New York, I Love You But You’re Bringing Me Down
Written by: James Murphy

Lyrics:

New York, I Love You
But you’re bringing me down
New York, I Love You
But you’re bringing me down

Like a rat in a cage
Pulling minimum wage
New York, I Love You
But you’re bringing me down
 
New York, you’re safer
And you’re wasting my time
Our records all show
You are filthy but fine
 
But they shuttered your stores
When you opened the doors
To the cops who were bored
Once they’d run out of crime
 
New York, you’re perfect
Don’t please don’t change a thing
Your mild billionaire mayor’s
Now convinced he’s a king
 
So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect
In the neighborhood bars
I’d once dreamt I would drink
 
New York, I Love You
But you’re freaking me out
There’s a ton of the twist
But we’re fresh out of shout
 
Like a death in the hall
That you hear through your wall
New York, I Love You
But you’re freaking me out
 
New York, I Love You
But you’re bringing me down
New York, I Love You
But you’re bringing me down
 
Like a death of the heart
Jesus, where do I start?
But you’re still the one pool
Where I’d happily drown
 
And oh.. Take me off your mailing list
For kids that think it still exists
Yes, for those who think it still exists
 
Maybe I’m wrong
And maybe you’re right
Maybe I’m wrong
And maybe you’re right
 
Maybe you’re right
Maybe I’m wrong
And just maybe you’re right
 
And Oh..
Maybe mother told you true
And they’re always be something there for you
And you’ll never be alone
 
But maybe she’s wrong
And maybe I’m right
And just maybe she’s wrong
 
Maybe she’s wrong
And maybe I’m right
And if so, is there?
 

Handout: here
Level: Intermediate / Advanced

1) Ask if any of your students have been to New York. If they have, ask them to share their experience (if they haven’t, skip to 2). Make a note of any descriptive language the student(s) use to describe the city and put it on the board when they’ve finished. 

2) Ask the students to write down as many words and phrases as they can to describe New York. If you have students who have been there, you can ask them to add to what you’ve already written. If they haven’t, elicit a few suggestions and put them on the board first before asking them to add to them.

3) Collect their suggestions and go through them, making sure the meaning is understood and the students have an idea of how they are used. A quick online search brought up these suggestions, although if you have students who are this good there’s probably not much point teaching them!


If you want to, you can go into some quite detailed language work at this point. If you think the learners would benefit from this kind of work, I say go for it.

4) Tell the students they will hear a song about New York. Ask them to listen and think about the singers opinion of the city. Take feedback as a class. They will probably only have a rough idea of what he is singing about, but hopefully the tone of his voice should suggest disappointment. They may also understand the idea of ‘bringing me down’. Or they may just hear “New York, I love you” and not hear the rest of the line. Either way, it’ll be interesting.

5) Looking at the words to this song in the Oxford 3000 text checker, there are very few individual words that I think the students would find difficult, but together as phrases, I think it becomes a lot more tricky. 

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For example:

shuttered your stores
 
New York, you’re perfect
Don’t please don’t change a thing 
(he’s being sarcastic)
 
So the boring collect
I mean all disrespect 
(there are many boring people now in the city, he knows this sounds disrespectful and he doesn’t mind)
 
There’s a ton of the twist
But we’re fresh out of shout
(there are plenty of good things, but there are a lot of bad things too)
 
Like a death in the hall
That you hear through your wall
(a reference to New York’s small and intimate living spaces, it means that you know bad things are happening even if you can’t see them)
 

There’s a lot of ambiguity, double meaning, irony, dark humour and cultural referencing here, so I don’t think it’s worth spending a lot of time on the vocabulary. You can explain some of the phrases if you wish, but I don’t think the students need a detailed understanding of the song, rather they should use it as a springboard to reflect on the complexity of living not just in a big city, but anywhere.  So next I’d give them the handout of the lyrics and play the song again, asking them to underline any phrases that demonstrate how he feels about New York.

6) After listening, I hope they would notice the following phrases:

bringing me down
wasting my time
freaking me out


Those are the ones I think are particularly worth talking about with the learners.

7) Ask the students what they think he means by the phrase

But you’re still the one pool
Where I’d happily drown


(But despite everything, he knows that NYC is the only place where he can live. Also notice how he sings “Maybe I’m wrong” and “Maybe I’m right”, which suggests that he can’t make up his mind.)

8) Ask the students if they identify with the singer when they think about where they live. Ask them to divide a piece of paper into two columns, and write 5 things they love about their city / town / village etc in one column, and 5 things they don’t in the other.

9) Ask them to share with a partner and discuss the similarities and differences. When they’ve finished, put all their ideas on the board, also in two columns, and together identify the recurring themes.

10) Put students in groups of threes or fours (not including their previous partner) and ask them to discuss the issues raised by these lists. Do they think there is anything specific that can be done to improve the negatives and maintain the positives? You could extend this into a project where they identify problems where they live and suggest a plan of action.


To see more of my Songs In The Key Of ELT, click here.

Book review: Punctuation…? by User Design

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Readers of this blog will remember a previous post in which I argue that punctuation errors by students shouldn’t be ignored…

There is a temptation to ignore (punctuation errors) which must be resisted, I think. It’s very easy to think that the priority must be the vocabulary and grammar, and while I would agree with that, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of form. If the students are writing in the first place, they need to understand that in a professional capacity, which is how most students will use their writing abilities in English, poor writing can create a lasting and damaging impression.

So you can imagine how pleased I was when I had the opportunity to get my hands on the book Punctuation…? by User Design. The book is a handy and accessible guide to the rules of punctuation, accompanied by witty and original illustrations.

Each chapter describes how different punctuation marks, from the often confusing apostrophe to the underemployed semicolon, are used in text that clearly and directly explains the rules. As a teacher, I particularly appreciated the straightforward nature of the descriptions and in this respect the book is an excellent resource for teachers who wish to have a quick and easy reference for checking students work and explaining the functions and use of punctuation marks to their students.

I also enjoyed some of the more esoteric punctuation marks described. These include the pilcrow, guillemets and the interpunct. Admittedly, these aren’t very useful for your everyday teacher, but if you’re a bit of a word nerd, you’ll find them interesting.

What sets the book apart from other reference books are the illustrations. Each entry is accompanied by a series of humorous drawings which provide the reader with an amusing visual representation of the rules and examples in the text. I especially enjoyed the apostrophe snakes and the colon footballers, but any of the David Shrigley or Spike Milligan-esque figures with their long noses and longer limbs are a part of the unique look of the book.

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All in all, I’d recommend Punctuation…? as a handy guide for teachers who need a convenient guide to that most underrated aspect of English writing, punctuation.

To find out more about Punctuation…? click here to go to their website where you can see more images and find out all the places it can be bought.

Think! – It’s All In The Mindset

In this follow up to my earlier post on mindsets, Carol Goodey reviews Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential by Carol Dweck. In my original piece, I reflected on an infographic which described an open vs a closed mindset, and laid out some ideas for how a teacher could encourage their students to adopt the former, with the aim of helping them reach their language learning objectives. Now Carol reviews the book that inspired the image, and gives us a more detailed look at how it can affect us as educators.

mindset book cover

 

In James’s earlier post, he shared a graphic of the two mindsets identified by Stanford University psychologist Carol S. Dweck Ph.D in her research. The graphic is a succinct summary of the two sets of beliefs about learning. I’ll quickly reproduce that information here before going on to highlight some implications for learning from the rest of Dweck’s recent book: Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential – a book that I had coincidently started to read before James published his post. This is not a weighty, academic book, but the ideas in it are based on years of academic research and it serves as a good introduction to these.

So, looking at the graphic, we find out that people with a fixed mindset believe that intelligence is static. This belief leads to a desire to look smart and therefore a tendency to:  avoid challenges; give up easily; see effort as fruitless or worse; ignore useful negative feedback; and, feel threatened by the success of others.  By acting on the belief that our qualities are fixed, people are less likely to reach their full potential.

Opposite this, we see that the belief that intelligence can be developed underlies the growth mindset and leads to a desire to learn. There is, therefore, the tendency to: embrace challenges; persist in the face of setbacks; see effort as the path to mastery; learn from criticism; and, find lessons and inspiration in the success of others.  Because of these tendencies, people are more likely to achieve higher levels of success.

Dweck found that very young children already displayed beliefs related to one mindset or another. In one study, four-year-olds were offered a choice between redoing an easy jigsaw puzzle and trying a harder one. Some chose to play it safe and not risk exposing themselves to failure. Smart kids “don’t do mistakes” they said. The other children couldn’t understand why they wouldn’t try to do the harder one. Dweck found that “children with the fixed mindset want to make sure they succeed. Smart people should always succeed. But for children with the growth mindset, success is about stretching themselves. It’s about becoming smarter.” (Dweck 2012 Ch.2)

From an early age, we are continuously interpreting and making sense of the world around us, attaching meaning to what people say and do, and forming beliefs about our and other’s abilities. These beliefs can have a huge impact on our actions and the lives we choose to lead.  Mindsets, according to Dweck, are an important part of our personalities, but just as intelligence is not set in stone, neither are our mindsets. We can change our mindset, even if temporarily. So, assuming that the growth mindset is most conducive to learning, what can we, as educators, say and do to influence our learners.

Tell them about the growth mindset

As James suggested in his post, we can share what we know about the mindsets. Show them the graphic. Dweck claims that “just by knowing about the two mindsets you can start thinking and reacting in different ways.”  Even if someone generally has a fixed mindset, this doesn’t mean that they will always be in that mindset. Dweck found in her studies that they were able to put people into a growth mindset. “We tell them that an ability can be learned and that the task will give them a chance to do that.” (Dweck 2012 Ch.2) So, we can let people know about the mindset, and we can also highlight how we expect activities to help them learn and develop. (We can then ask them to reflect on whether they think we’re right!)

Tell them how learning can affect the brain

Dweck and her colleagues developed a series of workshops to teach students about the growth mindset. In it, students find out how the brain develops when people practise and learn new things.

“When you learn new things, these tiny connections in the brain actually multiply and get stronger. The more that you challenge your mind to learn, the more your brain cells grow. Then, things that you once found very hard or even impossible—like speaking a foreign language or doing algebra—seem to become easy. The result is a stronger, smarter brain.” (Dweck 2012 Ch.8)

On learning about the brain in their first workshop, one disengaged student asked emotionally “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” Following the workshop, his teacher reported that he was putting a lot of effort into his homework, where before he didn’t submit any, and as a result of this increased effort improved his grades considerably.

It may be important to note here that growth-minded people don’t believe that anyone can become anything, but that a person’s true potential is unknown and unknowable.

Help them identify strengths and weaknesses

Dweck quotes Howard Gardner who concluded in his book Extraordinary Minds that very successful people have “a special talent for identifying their own strengths and weaknesses.” This, Dweck remarks, is a talent that people with the growth mindset have.

We can help people identify what they need to learn, and we can help them to be realistic about what they can’t do… yet! Some people with a fixed mindset may think they are not capable of some things but others may also have inflated ideas of their abilities, which will also affect their learning.

We also need to encourage people to recognise what they can do and what they have learned either with you or in other (perhaps less formal) contexts.

Value effort and learning

We all want to help our learners to feel good about themselves but we need to be careful how we do this. From her studies, it became very clear to Dweck that “praising children’s intelligence harms their motivation and it harms their performance.”  When we tell someone they’re smart because they did the work so quickly, we’re communicating that if they don’t work quickly they’re not smart. If we tell someone that they’re brilliant because they got an A without studying, we’re telling them that they’re not brilliant if they need to study.

We want our learners to work, to learn and to continue to develop, so it makes sense to value learning and effort rather than what they can already do with little work.

Help them find the right strategies

If someone is finding learning difficult, we need to help them find ways that work for them. Watch them as they tackle a piece of work.  Ask them what they’re thinking and how they feel. Let them try different ways of approaching an activity. Make suggestions. Tell them that there’s not just one way to learn. Scaffold.  Highlight when they accomplish something they originally didn’t think they could. Encourage them to reflect. Increase the challenge. Help them see that they can learn! A lovely example of this can be found on Vicky Loras’s blog.

Make a vivid, concrete plan

Many of us will have had discussions with learners about work they can do independently. They usually think it is a good idea. They will agree to do it. But they don’t always manage to do it as much as they or we’d like. Dweck suggests that what is needed, and what works, is making a vivid concrete plan. She gives as an example, “On Wednesday morning, right after I get up and brush my teeth, I’ll sit at my desk and start writing my report.”

It’s the simple things that make a difference – and I do like to keep things simple! Sometimes we just need to highlight what appears to be common sense in case we take them for granted, or assume that everyone thinks or believes like we do.

What’s important to me is the idea that a person’s potential is unknown. We can’t write people off as not being good language learners, or tell them that science is not their thing.  It may well be that they are finding it difficult right now, but there are different ways to learn, different approaches and strategies to try, and we should help them to explore these different ways. We can also learn from them if we don’t impose our way of learning, and are open to finding out what works for them.

We don’t want to be that teacher who tells a future Nobel prize winner that the idea of becoming a scientist is ridiculous because “he will insist on doing his work in his own way.”

 

References:

Dweck, C. (2012). Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential. Kindle Edition.

Gardner, H. (1997). Extraordinary Minds. New York: Basic Books.

Carol Goodey is currently an Adult Literacies & ESOL Worker in Community Learning and Development with a local authority in Scotland. She’s also taught general English & EAP to students coming to study at university in Scotland, and does some tutor training. She has an MSc in TESOL and really enjoy keeping up with what’s going on in the ELT/ESOL world, via Twitter (@cgoodey), forums and blogs and, whenever she gets the chance, talks and conferences. You can read her blog here.

Think! – Two Mindsets

This post was previously published on a now defunct blog called Think! Language And Culture I used to write. I’ve dusted it off and republished it here for your reading pleasure.

If there’s an attitude that I want this series of Think! blog posts to encompass, it’s right here in this infographic:

Two Mindests

Taken from here. Originally published in Information Graphics by Sandra Rendgren (Taschen).

Or, and it’s something I’ve been trying is to do, is to choose the second option to push yourself down that right channel, the path of growth. I say push yourself because it’s not easy, it’s hard work and requires you to think outside of your comfort zone. I’m doing this because I know the reward is to reach a higher level of achievement, a greater sense of understanding of myself and the universe, and an increase in my self-confidence. As the image shows us, there are two ways to approach life and learning. You can adopt the approach on the left, the closed minded, “fixed mindset” that prevents us from growing and improving. Every challenge is seen as a threat and any excuse to disengage is taken.

I’m trying to choose the difficult path to progress rather than the easy path to atrophy. And that’s why these blog posts exist.

But as language teachers and learners, we can also see how these options can relate specifically to language learning. It is clear that those students who adopt a “growth mindset” have a far greater opportunity for success than those who don’t. In fact, I would go so far as to say that those who choose the left path will never learn a language as they might say they wish.

It’s at this point that I have to reflect on my own language learning and concede that I have often  chosen the path of least resistance. I’ve never been a particularly comfortable language student (you can read about my troubles here), and in part this is due to the fact that I’ve rarely had a good teacher who could even recognise my difficulties, let alone help me with them. Of course I accept that it is ultimately the students individual responsibility to facilitate their own learning, but as a language teacher I feel it is my responsibility to help them along as much as I can.

The position of a ‘fixed mindset’ is primarily going to be adopted because of fear. The student is frightened of looking stupid in front of the class or the teacher when they have an information gap, or realises that this part of language is something they have struggled with in the past and they don’t want to face it again, or some other reason that prevents learning. So the question I have to ask is how can I change this person’s mindset from fixed to growth?

The first thing that springs to mind is openness. There’s no reason why you couldn’t print off this infographic and use it as the source of a lesson. Get the students discussing their own fears, worries and hang ups. Turn those fears into positive objectives which together you can plan to tackle over the duration of the course.

Create challenges which are in line with their objectives. Ideally you want the students to be coming to you and saying “this is what I want to achieve and I want you to help me get there”. Don’t confuse their needs with your own perception of what their needs are. Doing some kind of needs analysis at the beginning of a course is a great way to do this.

And as well as making sure you recognise their achievements, give them the mechanism to recognise their own achievements. Together, create course checklists, make goals which you pin up on the wall and come back to regularly. Get them to tell you and each other when they have achieved something, instead of it always coming from the teacher. Make sure that appraisal of their progress is a consistent part of their course.

Make criticism an integral part of their studies, and most importantly, make most of it peer criticism. They will expect you as teacher to be the one who tells them how good or otherwise they are doing, but building peer feedback into their course right from the beginning is invaluable. They will need training and guidance, but once they have an understanding in how to give and receive criticism in the correct manner from each other they will begin to use it as a part of the improvement process.

Give them the opportunity to find realistic role models. Discuss their heroes and what they have learned from them. Make them explain these characteristics and get them to discuss how they will try and include their influence in their own lives. This discussion doesn’t have to be limited to language learning, but their lives in general and hopefully the effect of consciously thinking about their influence will trickle down into their language learning.

And finally, don’t be scared of taking yourself down that difficult path and do a little reflection yourself. Does part of their difficulty lie in the way your class is organised? Are your activities focused enough? Do you give them space and time to really achieve their objectives? Are you listening to them? The answers to these questions may be yes, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked in the first place. It’s all part of having a growth mindset.

 

Punctuation Matters!

This post has been written in coordination with the latest episode of the TEFL Commute podcast, which I produce with Lindsay Clandfield and Shaun Wilden. You can listen to the episode on our website by clicking here.
Punctuation matters, so here are some fun ideas to get your students to be more careful when writing.

 

Occasionally I’ve had a student who doesn’t seem to realise that punctuation, capitalisation and spacing are actually things that really matter when writing. Spaces are deposited at random places. Commas are used in between what should definitely be two different sentences. Sometimes punctuation is omitted completely, and you’re left with a piece of writing that resembles a stream of consciousness that you have to try and unpack.  ‘English’ is continually written as ‘english’.

I tend to be quite strict with these things, even at a lower level (it’s good to get them out of these habits early, I think) so I talk about it with my students and point it out in their writing feedback.

There is a temptation to ignore these points which must be resisted, I think. It’s very easy to think that the priority must be the vocabulary and grammar, and while I would agree with that, it doesn’t have to come at the expense of form. If the students are writing in the first place, they need to understand that in a professional capacity, which is how most students will use their writing abilities in English, poor writing can create a lasting and damaging impression.

It’s not the most exciting subject, to be fair, but thanks to the Internet, there are a wealth of images you can use with your students to demonstrate the importance of punctuation.

puntuation matters 1

puntuation matters 2

puntuation matters 3

puntuation matters 4

puntuation matters 5

puntuation matters 6

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And a couple of spacing ‘fails’…

puntuation matters 8

puntuation matters 9
Hopefully using examples like these will make it very obvious to your students why punctuation matters!

All examples of punctuation errors come from here. The spacing errors come from here and here.

The End Of An Era

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If you’ve been reading this blog for a long time, or follow me on social media, you should be aware of my involvement in BELTA. BELTA is the Belgian language teachers association, which I co-founded in 2012 with Mieke Kenis and Guido Europeaantje, and have been president of since its inception.

I won’t tell you the full story of how BELTA started here, you can find out more on our website. Suffice it to say we started it from scratch and in four short years we have hosted 3 annual conferences with plenary speakers including Jeremy Harmer, Luke Meddings, Hugh Dellar and Philip Kerr, had nearly 30 webinars, two online conferences with TESL Toronto, published our journal the BELTA Bulletin, ran a very successful blog, and brought something new to the ELT scene in Belgium and internationally.

So why am I telling you about this now? Well, simply put, I’m no longer BELTA president. I’ve decided to resign as it’s time for a new stage in my professional life. There are things I need to do that I’m hoping will enable me to have more options professionally and it’s impossible for me to concentrate on these and dedicate myself to BELTA as I have in the last few years. It wasn’t an easy decision by any means, but I know it’s the right one.

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Kicking off the first BELTA Day in June 2013

So I writing this post for two reasons. Firstly, I want to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has been involved in BELTA since we started. To everyone who came to our events, online and off, to every conference and webinar speaker, to every volunteer, to every follower on Twitter and Facebook, every blog reader, and of course, every BELTA member, thank you.

But most of all I want to thank my fellow BELTA board members Mieke, Ellen, John, Vicky, Vedrana, Joris and Jurgen. It’s been an absolute joy and a privilege to work with you and an honour to be your president. I’m still grateful for the day when you decided that I should be president even though you knew I would be leaving the country in a few months. There are countless examples of fine judgement you have shown since we started, and hope that it one of them! BELTA is the thing I am most proud of in my professional life, and that’s all down to you, so I really can’t thank you enough.

The closest we ever got to a photo of the board in 2015 - stuffing leaflets into conference bags!

The closest we ever got to a photo of the board – stuffing leaflets into conference bags!

The first BELTA board, Jurgen, Ellen, Mieke and me.

The first BELTA board, Jurgen, Ellen, Mieke and me.

When we founded BELTA, we were all complete novices. None of us had any experience in running a teachers’ association and we had limited contacts in Belgium. That didn’t stop us. I had a mantra back then that I used to set the tone for how we conducted ourselves:

We have no money, no members and no experience, but we’re going to act like we have all three.

The idea of this was to establish that our amateurism wasn’t an excuse for poor, substandard work. We commissioned an easy to navigate and attractive looking website as early as we possibly could. We started our webinars very early on and only invited speakers who we knew would be excellent. We have the same high standards for our conference speakers, and blog and journal writers. Our newsletters, posters and social media accounts look good and are maintained regularly. Our sponsors are extremely well looked after and listened to, as our members.

Introducing Hugh Dellar in 2015

Introducing Hugh Dellar in 2015

The lesson I have learnt is that you have to demand a lot of yourself when you offer a service. Of course, if you’re a volunteer then you will probably have less time than you would like, but that’s not excuse for something second rate. And whatever service you offer, paid or unpaid, you can’t expect it to be rewarding and fulfilling unless you pour a lot into it. It’s as true of teaching as it is of volunteering.

The effect of this approach is huge. I hope from reading this you can see the effect BELTA has had on me. If you wish to have a experience like this in your life, the only way is to go for it, to go all in, demand a lot from yourself, expect the same from others while respecting their skills, autonomy and commitments, and enjoy the process of collaboration. If you do, what you are able to achieve will surprise you and the rewards are huge.

BELTA will go on, of course, in the more than capable hands of the new president, John Arnold, and I’ll still be involved, whenever they need me, in an scaled back, advisory position. I can’t wait to see what the future holds for them.