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.

You can lead a horse to water…

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while, a lot of it coloured by long-term experience, but much of it much shorter term. The stimulus for getting it out was this great post about teacher beliefs by Mike Griffin.
Teaching EFL can be a weird thing. We look at our classes and wonder about how to make our classes better and reminisce about our students who did something notable. It’s all rather insular. To develop, often we need to see outside, if only to see the inside again but from a different perspective.
Some people don’t want to see the outside, though. Comfort zones are difficult to push through. Unfortunately for me, in one of my teaching situations, my work depends upon somebody who needs to be forcibly removed from their comfort zone.
Harsh, Marc.
Remember this blog started as a mission to make my little freelance corner of TEFL a bit more conducive to being better. Making myself better. I suppose I am lucky in that most people I work with share this orientation. Unfortunately, the one person who doesn’t has a knock-on effect on my work.
I have observed. I have been observed and team-taught. I have supplied a file full of materials and an unwanted copy of The Practice of Teaching English. Yet things have not changed.
We have a grammar syllabus with carrier topics, which I fudge by choosing ‘structure trapping’ tasks (Skehan, 1998). I wouldn’t care if my partner teacher taught PPP, Test-teach-test or even Suggestopaedia. Instead there is a 20-minute warm-up about something strange and unrelated to the topic or grammar of the lesson. It’s highly teacher focused. When the part of the lesson comes to deal with the topic/grammar it basically involves students taking notes in Japanese and resulting in poor output all round. I shall make the point that our remit is speaking and writing, but mainly the former, and all English. There is no effective monitoring of students or elicitation of correct output after error treatment. There is no rationale behind the chaos, just a smile and knowing that this has always seen them through every lesson.
When challenged, my partner gets defensive. “I’m a great teacher!”, “I’m a good person.”, and “The students like me.” have all been used to defend their position.
Myself and another colleague have attempted to engage them in conversation about teaching and learning but this has been shot down. I don’t know if the problematic colleague has any beliefs beyond ‘Students must be motivated’. I would agree to an extent, but how they are motivated by chaotic lessons unrelated to their tests or ordinary situations puzzles me.
I know that teachers have to want to develop but what about if they have to develop but just don’t want to? Help has never been requested, though offered several times. Lesson plans and materials supplied have been ignored in favour of “Which Disney princess should I fight?” and “Do I look more like a cat or a dog?” where ‘I’ is the problematic colleague.
Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can.
Skehan, P. (1998). Task-Based Instruction. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 268-286. doi:10.1017/S0267190500003585

Foolish Utopianism in Teacher Development?


I was going to go to a conference relatively recently but at the last minute I decided not to because I hadn’t actually looked at the price. I thought that because it wasn’t the JALT (Inter?)national conference (nor was it a JALT event at all) that it might be relatively cheap, also seeing as it was at a university campus.
I nearly vomited in my mouth at the price when I saw it. Seeing it there, I hope the keynote presenters were paid for their time, especially seeing as it was unlikely that major publishers would have been paying for them.

1. Possibilities vs. Practicalities

I know that space with nice chairs and decent coffee doesn’t come for free but I also know that some of the teachers who give a damn about their CPD or lack of it can’t afford to pay the equivalent of US$200 to see someone give a talk or workshop that may (or may not) be useful for them in their context.
I’ve never really been that interested in any of the ‘name’ ELT people bar Scott Thornbury and Luke Meddings because what seems to be the case at IATEFL is that facile reinforcement of (perhaps erroneous) beliefs is what draws the attention on the internet, with the exception of Silvana Richardson’s NNEST plenary and Russ Mayne’s Myths in ELT presentation. Geoff Jordan complains about the IATEFL palaver, with big names. To justify a large cost I suppose they need names, but why not cut the costs?
I’ve never been able to get to big conferences due to work but the ones I have made it to have been highly participatory and kind of grassroots. I have also loved many of the webinars I’ve attended and some stuff that might fly might be a hybrid of the two.

2. The Interzone of Cyberspace and Meatspace

Imagine 20-odd people gathered in a space with a mike, a projector, a webcam and several others watching online,  feeding questions for the speaker into a public Google document or Twitter hashtag. Imagine 20-odd others in another space in another country watching on a projector, while one of them has the familiar stomach-cramps related to their upcoming presentation-come-workshop.
Google already allows live streaming on YouTube and there are other providers, too. Electronic Village Online has already done web conferences. What about face-to-face with an electronic function? The live-tweeting phenomenon points in this direction, as people seem to want it.
You get to have the communal experience, with networking breaks, yet also have people presenting that you’d never see because they would never normally be able to make it due to time/money/family.

3. Outreach

What good is a conference when it is an echo chamber? Why preach to the choir? In Japan, we need chain eikaiwa teachers and dispatch agency ALTs to come and listen but, more importantly, make their voices heard. Do you know why there is little action research or exploratory practice done in eikaiwa? It isn’t the companies, because people could be taking notes on their regular students, and often do in the roll books. It’s because the teachers know that nobody outside is reaching out to them. Nobody gives a monkey’s. Yet these people do ditch the book, do try out-there things with their students from time to time. I know it would help more of them (as it helped me) to learn more about SLA without it seeming high handed. It would help them if they saw principles put into practice in a workshop. If they could hear people like themselves elsewhere, and also unlike them, with new ideas and alternative perspectives, it would help massively. If it were made accessible, through technology, at cultural centres or coworking spaces, this could easily happen.

4. What could this be like?

It could be like Lesson Jamming.
It could be like Edcamps.
It could be like Electronic Village Online, the ToBELTA web conference, iTDI’s summer webinar season.
It could be like JALT Saitama’s Nakasendo, or Michinohe MEES linked to different locations, available on mobile phones and laptops and projectors and TVs.
If you are interested, message me on Twitter.

Cottage Industry as CPD

Working as a teacher gives you opportunities to have interesting conversations with people and have fun with language. Sometimes, though, you just feel stuck in a rut and want to change things. This could be the start of something beautiful.
You can look at what you might make better instead of having a moan. Are your materials crap? Make some. Turn yourself into a cottage industry within a larger industry. You might learn a bit about what makes good materials. If you do decide to make your own materials, I recommend Powerpoint as opposed to Word, because you can get your layout aligned more easily. Test your materials and refine them (Eric Ries lays out this process in The Lean Startup as Minimum Viable Product [and you don’t have to sell your products for money. Kudos is currency sometimes]).
You might also do a bit of action research. There is a lot of high-faluting imagery about this but what it comes down to is this:

  1. Have a think about something you want to change or want to understand the effect of.
  2. Think of one thing to change in your practice so you can observe it.
  3. Record it.
  4. Keep doing it for a bit so you know if you are fluking it or whatnot.
  5. Reflect.
  6. Maybe have another go.

This might lead you to new ways of working that are better for you. I would think so. Otherwise you might have other like-minded souls join you. However, some see things like this as too much work, rocking the boat or otherwise undesirable. Do it for yourself, not for gratification from others, else you will never see it through.
If you have a blog, why not show your work?
Stuff I’m working on at the moment is a beefed-up version of my TBLT board, and simple materials that can be used easily and widely for useful tasks. This will be coming up soon. But not very soon, so don’t hold your breath. I’m talking at least Summer.

Teaching or Testing Listening?

Dear Me probably in even 2010,
You get a CD in the back of your shiny book. The shiny book that has a picture of a loudspeaker to show you the track number. You ask the preset questions underneath and you play the CD and there are the lovely voices of the polite English-speaking people, all waiting to speak enthusiastically, one at a time with a handy grammar point in their throats. They are all lovely people who speak in a standard (prestige) variety with as much of their regional accent scrubbed away as possible.
Then you wonder why your students ‘cannot listen’.
Did you teach them how to listen, or did you only check their (lack of) comprehension again?
Nobody taught me how to teach listening. I doubt that the in-house trainers that trained me ever received anything other than a quick mention to ‘make sure you do some listening‘ when they were trained as teachers.
Students learn to listen by metaphorically being thrown in at the deep end. Unfortunately, like swimming, it only works the first time for a few people. Nobody learns to decode at phoneme or syllable level. Sometimes there might be word-level listening but it’s magic and accident. ‘Listen for the word “useless”. What is it used to describe?’
If we want to give students listening practice, all well and good, but don’t call it teaching. Call it listening to the CD, which could be done at home. Teach some connected speech and have students listen for examples of it. Teach some intonation patterns and have students listen for speaker attitude and intention or even how many items they are listing.
You could even ditch the stupid CD, find something online that has real conversations about something the students are interested in (such as a podcast about video games or a YouTube video about a country they want to go to) and play that instead, having them listen for words stressed in the tone units and make sense of it that way.
But don’t press play and tell the students that you’re teaching listening.
Lots of the key ideas here are not mine. Probably most of them come from:
Field, J (2012) Listening in the Language Classroom. Cambridge: CUP.
Prince, Peter (2013) ‘Listening, remembering, writing: Exploring the dictogloss task’. Language Teaching Research: 17(4) 486–500. London: Sage. Retrieved 9 October 2014.
Other #youngerteacherself posts at Joanna Malefaki’s blog.