The Exchange

I thought that maybe we’d get some sense of community to work through problems we face in society, it looks like the status quo is still very much alive and well. Instead, so many people crave normality. Normality was unfair and rubbish.

The tools are there to be had in our little corner of English language teaching. We’ve got pay-what-you-want services, open source software, and even beyond that, we have exchange of services and knowledge. We should be more open to this if we truly believe that teachers can learn from students and that it isn’t just one-way transmission of knowledge. Yes, I know I have a Patreon; am I not allowed to be paid for things I write?

Anyway, talk costs nothing. Deeds matter. I am going to try a low-stakes experiment. I think that starting in September or October, I have time to mentor about two people, probably a mixture of email and video chat, or even Discord, for about four months. Let’s leave it open at the minute to see what happens. It costs nothing. All I want is permission to blog about what I learn from the experience over that time. You get my 17 years of experience working in education, and I get what you bring.

If you’re interested, contact me.

I’m on the Teacher Talking Time Podcast

If you miss the sound of my voice since the pilot episode of the FTSD podcast (which will be coming back, promise!), you can catch me yammering about listening on the Teacher Talking Time Podcast with the frankly ace Chiara Bruzzano.

If you have a spare couple of hours, you could do worse. I’m perhaps more bearable than usual, and the time it was recorded corresponded to me feeling a bit tired and wired so, yes, I’m entirely misanthropic, but hopefully not depressing.

How can I Teach Listening Online?

So, the last post was about how I think your employer should be paying you appropriately if you are using your own computer and internet, electricity, software, etc. Does this mean I want your lessons to be rubbish? No, it does not.

Somebody from one of my workplaces said in a group email “How can I teach listening online?”

Some people say pre-listening, while-listening, post-listening.

I am not those people.

Schema activation: maybe

If it would be normal in the situation that you are going to have your listening task/activity in to be anticipated, you might want to get your students to think about what they already know about the topic and what they would expect from a talk or conversation about the topic between the types of people involved. However, this might not always be the case. I know that the ‘normal way is brainstorm and predict’, but everyone is told this and it doesn’t exactly seem to be bringing about a world of amazing listeners, does it?

So what can we do instead?

You can throw in a bit of micro-listening (Field, 2008). This is likely to make students think about what’s coming up, or even why you chose that particular tiny clip. You do it by faffing about with the start and end bits of the YouTube clip. See below where it says iframe then the link address? Well at the end of the link is a ?start=16&end=17. This means the clip starts at 16 seconds and ends at 17 seconds. You can also mess with this in Moodle. You can even do this directly in your browser.

<iframe src="" width="560" height="315" frameborder="0" allowfullscreen="allowfullscreen"></iframe>

Then what?

Well, what do you want your students to be able to do? Do you know whether they can’t?

With TED talks, I often have students to take lecture notes and summarize. The notetaking method is basically that I have detailed here, but I check notes in class. If I am teaching online, I suppose I can only have students show me notes in breakout rooms or send me photos and I can give feedback. This is going to be a challenge, I think, but you do what you can, don’t you.


I do actually do post listening tasks. I try to get students to react to what they just listened to. Sometimes this is not very expansive because listening is a bit tiring due to the amount of attention involved.

I also always have students reflect on what was problematic/difficult in the listening and why. I try to find that part in the listening text. If it’s a YouTube video I open the transcript and search for the key word, which usually helps; if it’s a different text with a handwritten transcript, it’s longer; if it’s a video from a popular paid streaming site, which I would never recommend you use because of legal issues, you would just have to skip and estimate). You can then give feedback about how you would go about getting that bit of listening (or even whether the effort is worth the payoff).

Hopefully this is helpful. If there is anything you disagree with, leave a comment. If you have questions, leave a comment. May the odds of your students decoding listening texts forever be in your favour!


Who’s Paying?

Everyone I know seems to be teaching online right now. It’s not exactly a surprise: nobody wants to miss work, and nobody wants their students to miss out on learning.

This is all very nice because it means that we get some sense of normality. However, in among all this, have we further normalised the use of our own belongings for work? I am paid for my time, in that I am salaried, but most jobs don’t provide laptops or WiFi for their teachers. My main job has provided me with a tablet-laptop hybrid, which is – as far as I am aware – unusual for people on a teaching only contract.

Are all these institutions providing the infrastructure or equipment needed for online teaching, or just saying “Get on Zoom and teach a full timetable”?

Between the City and the Forest

I’m not self isolating, per se, but just doing my normal antisocial hermit thing in the break between autumn and spring semesters here in Japan. I was reading Deleuze & Guattari’s A Thousand Plateaus for a reference in an article I have been writing, and the book kind of took over all of the other things I was supposed to be reading. I came for the rhizomes and stayed for the nomads. It’s quite hefty, and I’m not finished yet, but I have loads of ideas about it.
Huh? This isn’t the first blog post that I have written that references oblique references to French philosophers of the mid-20th Century. But we’re about to get less oblique.
One of the whole things about Deleuze & Guattari is that they are talking about society. They talk about dualism and binaries and segmentalism, but they also talk about multitudes and individuals. How do we get away from hierarchical structures? How have people got away from hierarchical structures? That was one of the things that got me interested in Relational Cultural Theory, as well.
We have our stratified, hierarchical society, typified by the State and the City. If we apply this to ELT, we can say that we have The Establishment/Big ELT (big publishers, big organisations, supporters of the status quo). We also have those outside of the City, in the Forest, which operates in a less obviously stratified, hierarchical way, but is a constant opponent of the city, though the city relies upon it for resources otherwise unavailable within the City walls. I imagine the Forest being the people working away with quietly innovative ideas. Academia, perhaps. Universities, researchers, some teacher trainers who don’t really get on with The Establishment. Innovative, perhaps oppositional, but maybe not heard so much. Because they’re in a metaphorical Forest!
The Forest basically opposes the City, because you have the City taking resources; the City opposes the Forest, because its dwellers are essentially the barbarians at the gates. Except not. Because there is a symbiosis here. The City needs the Forest for certain times and certain services, as the Forest needs the City for the things it needs but doesn’t have. And then you have those who are neither of the City or the Forest. Deleuze & Guattari call them Nomads. They have smooth space, they are non-hierarchical, they are a mass of independents, sometimes clustering, sometimes taking off out of the cluster, moving to the centre, moving to the edge. They also have need of both the Forest and the City. But both the Forest and the City need the Nomads, because they have the War Machine. This War Machine is not always a war machine – Deleuze and Guattari are highly metaphorical, which makes reading them heavy going at times – but something that the City can use to become even more powerful (or the Forest can use to usurp the City’s hegemonic position).
But who are the Nomads of ELT? I don’t know, but perhaps it’s people like SLB Coop with their Task-Based Language Teaching Course (a War Machine) and online learning resources (an array of War Machines) within a small organisation doing big things, with members moving between independent and group work; people like Paul Raine making his highly professional Apps 4 EFL (a War Machine) in his free time. I see the mid-space as full of nomad artisans.
So, what is the point of all this waffle, Marc? Well, it’s that what I have thought previously about ELT — ELT as industry/profession dichotomy, big business ELT versus ‘ordinary’ teachers — might not actually be right. It’s less a Hegelian dialectic and more of a raspberry ripple to-and-fro. When the Big ELT bunch get hold of something new from somebody out of the fold, it strengthens their position. Also, when the Forest, let’s say scholarly SLA-based, somewhat monkish ELT gets hold of something, from somebody wandering at the edge, it strengthens their position. There is no end to the City and the Forest conflict: it continues because people like it that way, and no amount of War Machines are going to change this, because for every War Machine the city gets, the Forest will get from the Nomads at its edge. There are also nomads who will settle, pointing their War Machines at either the City, or the Forest, but all this does is get them as part of the mass in either place.
Am I saying, if you can’t beat them, join them? I don’t think so, because that seems utterly defeatist. Maybe I am trying to say, if you can keep going and doing your own thing you have City dwellers and Forest dwellers both asking for your work. Can Nomads be mercenaries? Of course. They don’t have to be. But if you want to get by in ELT beyond the low pay in the City’s entry level jobs, way below the clerics at the top, you might want to be nomadic. If you want to avoid being in a situation where you’re in a less comfortable but fulfilling position in the Forest, you might want to be nomadic. You might have to think, first, what your War Machine is.
I think I have a couple, to be honest. I don’t think it’s big headed, because probably everyone has a couple. Having spent years preoccupied with listening, I reckon I have a good foundation there of something good. The stuff I am doing on Patreon, I reckon, is a decent crack at a crossover between mainstream and task-based courses. I also think my RPG ideas have plenty of go in them.
It’s not just a case of selling them to either the City or the Forest, though obviously that’s one case. But innovation happens through copying and reverse engineering and stuff. If somebody saw one of my ideas and made their own version, I might be angry, especially if I wasn’t acknowledged. But it would mean that Big ELT or Academia thought my ideas were worthwhile, and maybe took account of shortcomings that I thought they had.
What does your War Machine look like?

Manage projects with Bullet Journalling

This is how I use the Bullet Journal method (Carroll, 2018) for project management with the project management hierarchy from Agile Faculty (Pope-Ruark, 2017) If you want to find out more, check out the books on the author websites.

Keep it simple!

A lot of the things you see online about bullet journalling is elaborate, almost like you need a degree in graphic design to do it. You will also see a lot of expensive Moleskine and Leuchterm notebooks and washi tape. I use a cheap squared notebook, cheap Pilot eraseable ballpoint pens or whatever is to hand. My notebook does not look lovely. I am all about the speed and simplicity because it helps me to streamline things so I can mitigate my bad ADHD days.
Basically, our to-do list becomes a hierarchy of Epics, Stories that are part of the Epic, and Tasks that are part of the Story.
The spacing is mportant. I have overarching tasks, which are called Epics (Pope-Ruark, 2018) justified to the left margin, then any tasks that are part of that, called Stories, underneath that and indented. Any Tasks, basically the smallest unit of action we are working with, would come underneath the relevant Story. If you use an agile planning system like Kanban it can be similar. Basically, think of the indents as:
     . Task
The bullets are simple. For project management the only bullets necessary are:
. task
x completed task
o doing/in process
< scheduled to calendar
You can use – to add notes under the relevant task and also / if you delegate an item to somebody, which you can then change to a x when it is finished. I rarely delegate so I don’t really use the slash often.
This has helped me stay on top of a lot of projects, particularly because it’s easy to copy a project and insert more sub tasks as they come up if you don’t leave enough space for them in the first place. The journal is light and mobile, and you don’t have to worry about losing sticky notes that have come loose.
The kinds of projects you could use this for are syllabus design, needs analysis, planning a particularly complex lesson, writing a test or even overhauling your admin system.
I hope this is useful and if you have anything to add, I’d love to read about it in the comments.
I would also like to thank Ted and Kamila for helping me keep this blog ad-free and not doing advertorials and things by becoming patrons. It’s easy to do by just clicking the link to my Patreon page.

You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone (status update)

Well, the Summer was busy and the start of the Autumn was quite busy too. I was supposed to be revising a paper to get it published but what happened was that I revised it and still didn’t get it published because it is the account of unsystematic mess.

I went to the busiest conference I’ve been to so far (New Sounds 2019) and met lots of phonology and phonetics people. I presented and didn’t mess up, so it was relieving because I felt a bit like a fish out of water. Or Aquaman’s weakling brother.

There was the usual stress over student questionnaires, which is unreasonable because I know that much of the feedback is positive or neutral but my brain focuses and cycles through the negative stuff as my own cinema of the damned. I am just about over it now (thanks to slightly out of sync workplaces), and wish I could find a way to just move on from this.

Other than that, I had my first overnight trip with students which was quite fun, even if I wouldn’t choose those activities myself. Directly after that, I had the start of the semester, so I had to remember what I planned at the start of the summer (and what I planned to change).

Anyway, here is some stuff that is working for me:

LMS as document repository so I don’t spend hours a week photocopying.

Adapted Cornell notes, for myself, and also for my (intermediate and up) listening students, which will likely be written up soon as a blog post.

Bullet Journaling for myself (still) for daily agenda and log and ultrashort lesson plans which is exactly as you imagine.

No longer freelance

Well, the title says it all, doesn’t it? As of next Monday, I work my final freelance lesson so as to better manage my life and mental health. It’s been a bit weird in my newish job: I thought reducing the number of workplaces I go to would reduce the mental load but instead, stupidly, brain makes tons of suggestions of things to do. I also started some different research projects which are exciting (to me) but also time consuming.

Now, even though I am not a freelancer any more (for the time being?), I am very much doing my own thing with my professional development. Work is very laissez-faire about what I do but I can as to order any number of books for our intensive course teachers’ library, and have had this for a while and honestly it’s brill to just know that I can get stuff basically whenever.

Anyway, this is a bit of a rambling post, but basically, some stuff that I have been looking at that relates very much to TESOL teaching issues and such are:

Giulia’s post about her bag, which is essentially any freelancer’s office.

Bullet Journal, which I have dabbled with, went to buy a different book about productivity and couldn’t find it so bought Ryder Carroll’s The Bullet Journal Method.

The latest Teachers as Workers post on working conditions (which says that working conditions in Germany are similar to those in Japan); keep your eyes peeled for a new post by me on the iTDi blog, too.

I am also looking quite critically at task-based language teaching stuff: not especially negatively, just critically, and hopefully will have a paper out about it sometime in the next year or something.

Anyway, those of you on holidays, enjoy them. Those still teaching, thanks for stopping by while you are so busy.

Creating creative creativity in ELT. ExcitELT summary

Went to ExcitELT on Sunday. The theme was creativity, which is a horrible word in that it’s so positive and everyone wants to be seen positively or as nurturing/fostering positive attributes. Of the plenaries in the morning, what sticks in the midweek after? We develop skills and use these creatively, according to Stephen Ryan. Chhayankdhar Singh Rathore was saying that we create our relationships with our students. Of the afternoon plenaries, Lina Gordyshevskaya gave an overview of foreign language anxiety, and Drienne Verla Uchida did some stuff about rejigging a set curriculum that was set by administrators. The evening plenary stuff I remember was Russ Mayne and Julia Fearn-Wannan talking about cognitive biases.

The standout feature of ExcitELT for me are the hangout sessions, because they are dialogic. James York did a session on games and/versus gamification and which I learned about some games I want to find and try. Amanda Harper’s session on mixed media was informative. Peter Brereton and Shoko Kita’s hangout was hybrid presentation and hangout on creativity in our jobs, and these themes were touched upon by Julia Fearn-Wannan in her hangout on self-directed professional development, which was a must see given the name of this blog. Anna Bordilovskaya looked at creativity across cultures in the classroom and reinforced for me the impossibility of using creativity as any kind of metric for assessment because it’s so fuzzy and too subjective.

I missed the video plenary because of a mixture of ADHD-assisted ants in my pants and fatigue.

Anyway, glad I went. I kind of wish that some sessions were longer so as to go deeper. I think I should also have taken a rest for a session as well, but with interesting stuff available, the brain wants what the brain wants.

4 Ways to Teach Like a Holistic Detective

The past couple of days have seen me on a total geeky binge of the Netflix show Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I got totally sucked in by the surrealism, stayed for the action, and who doesn’t love fantastic costume design? Anyway, this is not a review, it’s a post that asks what can oddball television shows remind you about teaching English.

Be Holistic

Dirk gets where he wants to be by being holistic. “Everything’s connected” he would say. So, while you might have a plan for a lesson, don’t be afraid to go off piste. Remember that you don’t teach lessons, you teach people. You need to react to the situation, not keep going toward something you’d planned upon even if it isn’t the right time. You’ll get there if you need to.

Be Kind

The people we teach probably look at their second language skills as a measure of their worth. This might lead them to look at themselves as not good enough. Dirk would make them feel better. He might make them feel like life is chaos (and it is when you’re operating in a second language), but that doesn’t mean that they of feel like an arsehole. Far from it. Be kind. Be a friend.

Don’t Ignore the Evidence

While Dirk says he isn’t the kind of detective who looks for clues, he doesn’t blindly ignore it either. Follow hunches, but assess them, too. If other people know about things consult them. If there are written records, read them. Inform your hunches.

Get the Fear Sucked Out of You

Teaching can be fraught with anxiety. Learners don’t always agree with us, which can lead us teachers into states of panic where we dwell on ‘people hating us’ and that ‘this lesson is going to be shit’. Sometimes, what you need is some terrifying punks to feed on your panic and help you out. Sometimes your most antagonistic colleagues might be the ones you need most. I know when I was still only about five years in to my career, there was a colleague who seemed very aloof. I thought he didn’t really like me, too be honest. But after a ‘bad lesson’ he was the one who called me out. “You’re not shit, you just had a lesson that felt like shit. There’s a difference. Shit teachers don’t care and don’t know they’re shit; good teachers have shit lessons sometimes and that’s OK. You live and learn.”

Any other reflections on language teaching linked to sci-fi/fantasy in the comments are much appreciated.