Iatefl Blues, yellows and greens. And a sense of direction.

Blues, Yellows and Greens... Pick your color! (Photo by Max A Mauchline on ELTPics - CC license)

Another Annual IATEFL Conference has come to an end.

An intense week of attending presentations, checking out what new books and resources there are in the market, meeting old friends, making new ones, discussing teaching and teacher development. It’s so intense and you get such an adrenalin rush from all of it that it is inevitable to feel a bit blue afterwards.

The venue was excellent – even if a bit far from the city (just a 15-minute walk, but with the programme, there isn’t enough time to go eat something in the city centre and go back in time for the next session). Good rooms, well located exhibition, plenty of places to sit down and meet people. I do, however, think two things didn’t work as well as they could – and I know I echo what some of the other people, who have posted reflections about the conference, in what I am about to say. The first is that some of the talks I wanted to attend were in small rooms (and I do realise some of the presenters specifically requested a limited number of seats, but that was not always the case) and by the time I got to those rooms, there were no more seats. Because of health and safety regulations, we couldn’t sit on the floor or stand on the back. I know it is difficult to predict who will have a large number of people turn up for their talk and who won’t, but it doesn’t stop being frustrating. The second is that the venue being somewhat far from the city centre made lunch time complicated (long lines in the places at the venue, or missing the first afternoon session if you decided to eat at the Bistro there). Maybe I was badly spoiled in Brighton last year, where there were many options around the venue. It also represented a problem at the end of the day, when a large number of people got out at the same time and tried to find a taxi to go back to the hotels or to one of the evening events. I understand there isn’t much the coordinating committee can do about them, but those were the two things I felt that could have been better. That is the yellow (making an analogy with traffic lights, I guess) part.

On to the greenMy overall conference experience this year was even better than last year’s. Maybe I got luckier at choosing the sessions I attended, going to sessions that were more relevant and meaningful to me. I also think there is a little of what Adam Simpson says on his A Tale of Two Conferences (part two) post: being involved in sharing and connecting through social media and being involved in the ELT blogosphere (reading and writing in them) changes your conference experience. And not only for the people you meet – first virtually and then in person. More importantly, having a PLN and being active on Twitter and reading people’s blogs has given me a better sense of what people are involved in, what they do, their views on teaching. It broadens your horizon. So now when I go to a conference I recognise many of the names in the programme, either because I interact with them virtually already, or because I have read about them in other people’s blogs. Whether that is the reason or not, my experiences at conferences ever since have been much better, I have taken much more from them.

Instead of blogging about the sessions I went to – especially because other people do a much better job at it – I decided to talk about a great, motivating feeling I got at the IATEFL Conference in Glasgow. A feeling that struck me on the very first day and it continued on during the week. A feeling that has made me very happy. It is a distinct feeling of a common topic and way of thinking among many of the presenters and participants. It gave me a sense of the direction I believe (and sincerely hope) ELT is going towards.

Which way are we going? Finally a sense of direction! (image by @Cgoodey - ELTPics on Flickr, CC License)

This “sense of direction” started taking shape after I attended Anthony Gaughan’s session “The Seven Deadly Sins of ELT” (which by the way was a session many people I know tried getting in and couldn’t, for it was full already). In his talk Anthony challenges many of the practices considered “sins” in the ELT classroom – especially after the communicative approach – and made us reflect upon benefits from using them in certain situations and for the right purposes (At this point I am thinking I’m going straight to ELT hell for all I have sinned!). Among the sins are repetition drilling, translation, L1, teacher explanations and telling your students they are wrong – as opposed to recasting. You could hear the sighs of relief across the room!!! The truth is, so many of us (I wouldn’t dare say all of us, but the thought did cross my mind ;-)) already think that way and do those things in class, but many do it hoping no one finds out. The majority of those who do it certainly won’t do it if/when being observed by a DoS or another teacher. Because we have been told over and over not to. Because those techniques are old. They’re not communicative. But, as Anthony asked himself: “Does everything have to have communicative value?”. Personally, I think communication is the end, where we want our students to get, but not necessarily the ideal means in every moment of the class. Any extreme is usually flawed. Anthony’s session was filled with questioning and ideas of how / why to use those techniques.

In the afternoon, that same day, I went to Jim Scrivener’s “A Proposal for Active Interventionist Teaching”. Jim says the communicative approach has settled down into a safe, peaceful dead-end, and it isn’t leading to very much learning. While I don’t entirely agree with Jim that we are in a dead-end (after all, not all of us are limited by it, even if no openly. Much has been done and progressed), I could relate to it – and it resonated so closely to what Anthony had said in the morning. He questioned the label of teachers as ‘facilitators’, as passive people standing on the back guiding students into developing their own learning. He stated that it is an active, creative, shaping role – not an abdicating one. He reflected upon the amount of empty praising there is going on in classrooms around the world and whether it really is effective. He suggested real, effective feedback as more efficient tools. Just as Anthony, he said problems have to be pointed out to students and that teachers have to cease being scared of hurting the students’ feelings. We should not be mean or rude – by all means! His point was that we can’t be overly afraid. We have to give teachers permission to teach again.

Those were just the two first sessions that gave me the sense of direction I mentioned. Throughout the rest of the week other sessions steered in that direction as well. If last year I felt the conference was about technology and tools to use with students, this year, for me the conference was about stopping on our tracks for a bit, assessing, reflecting and evaluating what really is working and what isn’t in the way we are expected / supposed to teach these days. We have to use some critical thinking (which we talk so much about teaching to our students – it’s time we use it as well!) and be honest about it. And make any necessary changes, adapting and personalisation needed without being afraid. We are the experts in class. We should be allowed to teach and decide which technique or activity will be more effective with each learner / group of learners in different moments. Effective teaching, as far as I am concerned and have noticed over the many years I have been teaching, is not black and white. There is no absolute truth, or a right and a wrong way of doing it. There are uncountable shades of gray, because teachers are different, students are different, needs and learning styles are different… And the teacher should be allowed to decide what works best for his/her learners and groups without being judged by it.

The conference in Glasgow was great for many reasons. But the one thing that gave me a breath of fresh air and motivation to go back to the classroom and do my job was the feeling that we are slowing demanding (as teachers) and giving (as students, DoS and “thinkers”) teaching back to teachers. And that feels good.

I guess I won’t be going to hell anymore, after all ;-)

Are We Adjusting?

Are we ready for the students we have?

Something funny happened to me this last week… In a B1 (more like a B2, really) group of teens I have (14-15 years-old students) group I have we are discussing language – with a closer focus on English, of course. And one of the first things we do is compare formal and informal language. I give the students some informal terms and they have to come up with formal synonyms to them.

After I had explained the activity one of the students asked (holding her smartphone on her hand – my school has wi-fi for the students) “Teacher, can I google it? Can I use the internet to find suitable terms?”

Pause. I am an enthusiast of technology and its power in learning. I tweet and I Facebook. I students come up with a term I don’t know I use an app to find out about the meaning and pronunciation or I google it (on my smartphone) right on the spot. I admit to making a longer pause, thinking whether my true opinion would be appropriate. And then I thought of my ultimate goal: getting students ready for life. Would they have their smartphones at hand when needed? Maybe. Maybe not, But most likely, the answer would be yes, especially after wi-fi has become so available – at least in Brazil and the last few countries I have visited lately.

So I thought: “In a real, authentic life situation, would this student be able to access (and use) google?”. And the answer was yes.

I believe students have to acquire the minimum skills to know what to look for and basic “get it from context” abilities (at least these ones have!). So why should I forbid? Isn’t “googling” what I do, when I come across a question I can’t answer on the spot? Why should I ask them to do it differently?

So I said “Yes…. look some of the answers up – after you have reached a dead end.” The student’s reaction?

“Teacher, you should talk to every single teacher I have. You’re the only one who understands the time we are living in. Can you talk to my math teacher and tell her we should be able to use calculators?”

Now…I think I am stepping on unsteady ground… My daughter ( a few months ago, when struggling with math, as she usually does – she seems to have a much more artistic intelligence) asked me why she couldn’t use a calculator in her math classes, since she would be able to use one when needed. I reasoned she needed to know the basic math operations, because she couldn’t depend on devices. But truth of the matter is: I use my iPhone’s calculator even when figuring out how much each person should pay after happy hour. It’s just easier.

Did my allowing the student to use her phone and google hinder learning? I don’t think so… but what do you think? What do you do when students try using internet/unplanned technology in your class? Can we just ignore the kind  of technology our students have at hand? does it prevent (or enhance??) learning?

On a last note: After that I completely established fantastic rapport to these students…they think I am cool. And they’re producing like crazy! :)

Do You Ever….

How I've been feeling (photo by Kalexanderson - CC through Flickr)

feel discouraged, as a teacher? I’m going to take a risk here and say you have.

As a teacher I sometimes feel like I am not doing my job. Like the students aren’t really learning, no matter how hard I work.

I have a couple of challenges this semester. For the past 6 or 7 years, I have mostly taught teens – or young adults at proficiency level. And we all know how fast most of them pick up language, especially because of the amount of exposure to English they get these days (with movies, music, games,internet, etc). But this semester I have been given (relatively) elementary groups of adults. Wow! That shook me up. Don’t get me wrong – I have taught as far as level 1 – real beginners – in my teaching career. But I guess I got too used to what I had been given lately.

I had forgotten how much more support adults at beginner levels need. How much more support, cheering up and and teaching they require. How much slower they move. I had forgotten how much they struggle at being exposed to authentic language – such as me speaking normally, without measuring my words. Their anxiety and issues had slipped off my mind.

One of the groups (that I am teaching and fit such description) I currently has has been struggling (still) with the simple present tense. I have spent the first 2 weeks of class reviewing it (2h30m a week), but I am not sure I see much improvement. I changed approaches, tried different activities… and I am not sure I have been effective.

I have created a site for the class, with extra resources and news so the ones that have to miss class (lots of them travel for work) can keep up with what we are doing. I have prepared activities. And still, I am not sure they are “getting”it. I feel somewhat frustrated.

More than anything, I feel bad, because I have been feeding them a lot of “grammar McNuggets” – grammar exercises, drills and so on. After the third class of teaching the Simple Present (which they should have learned/seen in their first year) I feel bad because that’s not how I think learning should take place, but it seems it’s the way they prefer, that they feel they are learning – even if I don’t really agree.

If my goal as a teacher (and the career I have chosen, my passion) is to help my students learn, what to do when you don’t feel learning is really taking place – or at least not at the rate you would expect? How do you know they are learning, if your classes and hard work are being effective?

Heeeelllppp!

What are Errors and How Should We Deal With Them in Our Classes?

This week I was fortunate to be invited to write about language errors and how I approach them in my classes, for the new iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) blog. Not only that, but I am honored to write about it alongside some great ELT names, such as Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto, Yitcha Sarwono, Chuck Sandy, Scott Thornbury and Steven Herder. It is great to see how we each talk about a different aspect, based on our own experiences and work.

If you’d like to read what I wrote about it – as well as the other bloggers, just click on the link below :-) There are some great threads on the comment too!

iTDi Blog

Before a Language Teacher… I was a Language Learner

For me, one of the best things about blogging is reading the comments after the blog ans seeing how people from different places, different contexts and experiences read and understand the same post. How they see different aspects – our view of things passes through the lenses that our experiences have given us. I love learning about how other teachers around the world see things, wonder what makes them that way. And one of the most effective ways of doing that, and getting a wide variety of teachers sharing their experiences and views on the same topic, is a blog challenge.

Brad Patterson proposed the latest challenge in my PLN with a post where he shares his story of learning a foreign language and posing a question for anyone wiling to share their story:

“I challenge you to blog a story of your language learning, be it a success or a story about what didn’t work for you OR for your students if you’d like.”

So… without further ado, here’s my story.

Curly-haired, blondish Ceci with dad and bro

My mother used to be an English teacher. I was a very curious child – always wanting to learn things and asking questions. So naturally, I was intrigued by that different language my mother spoke. I leafed through her books, looked at the images and wanted, more than anything, understand what the books said. I learned to read and write earlier than most kids I played with – at 4 to 5 years old. Books have always been my passion.

So my mother bought me English books that came with records (Yes, records!) of cute songs and had beautiful pictures and words under it. And I listened to the records and repeated the words. I listened to and sung the songs. I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to communicate. So my mother tried to enroll me in a private English course when I was 6. The course wouldn’t accept me as a student, because the minimum age then was 7. My mother, after much talking, convinced them I wouldn’t fall behind or have discipline problems, so I started my formal studies of the English language.

And a whole new world opened up. It was easy for me. I could reproduce the sounds quite effortlessly, I learned without major problems, I spoke English in class all the time and progressed quickly. By the time I was 13 (with 2 hours of class a week) I had completed the whole course, including advanced conversation classes. Languages are a passion. Communication is a key aspect of my life. Nothing makes me more frustrated than not being able to talk to – or understand – someone.

The first time I really understood what it meant to be able to communicate in another language came when I was 12 – my first trip to the USA, to visit Disneyworld in Florida. I could talk to everyone, get around, order things and, most importantly I understood all the explanations, all the signs… I knew what people were talking about. More than the adults on  the trip! I could never understand how a person can visit a foreign country without being capable of fully understanding what is being said to them. How could they go on a ride (in one of the amusement parks) and not understand the story, what the guides said?

When you visit a foreign country and you don’t speak the language, you don’t get the full experience. You can’t really experience the culture. You don’t get a full idea of the people and their habits. That, for me, is special.

In Kansas, on top of some bails - at 15

After that, when I was 15, I spent a year as an exchange student in rural western Kansas – a year that changed my life and gave me a much broader view of the world, the different people in it. It opened my eyes to diversity and the beauty of it. To how much we learn and grow from being exposed to different cultures, habits and beliefs. I started teaching English when I came back from the exchange program, after some training at the school I had studied at (yes, I know…too young, no real training… that’s a topic to a whole post, I’m afraid)

At about the time I got back to Brazil, I also made a decision. My first life goal. By the time I was 35 I wanted to be fluent in 5 languages. I can tell you right now I did not accomplish that (35 is passed and gone). I did, however, study Spanish – where I consider myself fairly fluent. I also started studying French after I had my second child. But the method and the lack of time didn’t help and I quit after a year. I still want to go back to it. My phonetic talent has persisted, and I still seem to be able to internalize and process foreign languages fairly easily.

But for me, the biggest consequence of my experience was my awareness of the world and to how important knowing other languages is if you want to communicate effectively while experiencing the world. Both my children study at a bilingual school, and I plan for them to be fluent at English by the age most kids go on exchange programs, so they can go to a country to perfect their third language. I speak to them in English often – for them it’s not really any difference whether I speak in English or Portuguese (though they do struggle more with English). They love it and see the benefits and reason for it, because they have been to foreign countries and were able to communicate on their own. I took my kids to visit my Kansas host family and they felt confident (and safe) enough to spend full days with people other than me. They would go on their own to ask for things and information when we went to Disneyworld. They talk to my English-speaking friends when I am on a call on Skype. They see the why, even if they can’t quite verbalize it.

After all, in the age of globalization, information and communication… being able to express yourself properly is key, isn’t it?