A New Mantra

Last Friday I delivered a talk to a fantastic audience of English teachers in Brasília, Brazil. It was the final session after a full day of lots of interesting sessions, filled with practical ideas, reflections and research on English teaching promoted by the Brasilia chapter of Braz-Tesol.

The topic of the seminar was “From Strength to Strength“, and it made me think some before deciding what I should talk about… This semester has been a incredibly busy one – and hard as well. Many classes to teach, new challenges (going back to teaching beginner adults for one), leading projects, keeping up with life… Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw myself thinking: “Is it worth it?”. Is all the time, effort, sweat, blood, tears and heart we put into teaching worth it?

A little background information may be needed at this time… In Brazil, education seems to be the least of priorities. Teachers are underpaid (big time), so many time they have to keep more than one job, teaching at different schools, with endless contact hours, to make ends meet. On top of that add the fact that English teachers are at the bottom of the ladder. That (IMHO) is related to the belief that all you need in order to be an English teacher around here is being able to speak English at a decent (suuuuuuuch a subjective aspect!) level.

Is that what it takes to be a language teacher? To be able to speak the language you are teaching?

No!

(big resounding NO at this point, mind you!)

I am a mentor this semester. Someone who observes each and every class of a certain group (a beginner Adult 1) and prepares classes with me. And when we meet to prepare classes I ask her why for every activity and decision (peer correction or whole class? Pair work or Whole class? Predicting difficulties and questions… It has made me realise how much thinking goes into each and every class we do. (She’s a fantastic person to mentor, though. She picks up the reasons and inferences, the rationale behind the activities).

One day we were preparing classes and she said: “Students have no idea the amount of thinking and effort it goes in each class, do they?” No they don’t. Should they?

 That’s a good question… No and Yes at the same time. In my opinion, they shouldn’t be told of how much effort, expertise, study and hard work goes into each lesson…. But in the end they do. They feel the teacher is more or less prepared.

Anyways… I was thinking about the talk and then one day it hit me during a chat. I was chattng to Barbara Sakamoto on Facebook one night and we were talking about how much a teacher has to do. She was telling me the enormous amount of things she has been involved with and I was just about to voice my opinion and then type ” But what do I know? I am JUST a teacher.”  And then I stopped myself.

I have said “I’m just an English teacher.” (or just a teacher for that matter) countless times. Why do we do that? Why do we undermine our own profession? When we say “JUST” a  teacher we’re saying teachers are not that important. We’re saying we (and our opinions) don`t matter that much,

Now, that is a contradiction. We ARE teachers. We influence people. We make people get better jobs, better education, travel better…and we are JUST teachers?

My point is: If we think of ourselves as JUST teachers, how can we expect anyone to see us as more than that? How can we expect people to see us as educators, people who have a very active role in changing people’s lives and realities.

Some changing of concept is in order, methinks. Me included.

We are ENGLISH TEACHERS. We give people a (much needed) skill. We help students develop and grow as people and members of a global community.

We are certainly NOT just teachers. And we have to be proud of what we are. We have to be proud of the long hours, sweat, love and tears… We have to build on our strengths and not be afraid of our weaknesses.

I am NOT just a teacher – THAT is my new mantra. And I am VERY proud of what I am.

The Worst Class I have Ever Taught… So What?

Today I taught what I (now) feel might have been the worst class I have ever taught in nearly 20 years of ELT.

To add to it (or just because Murphy loves me…) I was being observed by my school’s pedagogical coordinator. I was observed because it is part of our routine, to be formally observed. But first and foremost I was being observed because I had asked to. It has been a while since I have last taught beginner adults and I wanted to make sure I was doing it right.

It was all fine in the beginning. I got the students to stand in a circle, talk about how they were feeling, practice new chunks of language…

And then…. Booom!!!! Disaster hits! The Power Point I had prepared as an activity to last 20 minutes – and be the lead for the rest of the class – didn’t work.  What??!?!

What do you do when something like this happens? You improvise, you tap from the pool of activities and knowledge you have built over the last (nearly) 20 years, right? Right!!!

What if your mind goes blank?

Because that’s what happened to me. Despite having taught the present simple countless times, and this being a revision, I panicked.  I couldn’t think of what to do. Frustration took over for a minute or two and I didn’t know what to do next. Within a few minutes I managed something, let go of the PowerPoint which had taken me an hour to do, and moved on. I drew a smiley face and a sad face on the board and wrote things I liked / didn’t like to do. And I moved on from there, got students talking, monitored… But still I feel like I fell short. And you know what?

I did. I feel I fell short and I know I could have done better. And that makes all the difference,

We all have bad days, don’t we? Maybe it was the frustration of having  thing go wrong, maybe it was the fact I was being observed that made me nervous… I just wasn’t myself. But it worked. And I feel the students learned. So why am I writing about this?

Because most teachers are terrified of being observed. They feel their job (or life) depends on every move they make, every activity they do – especially when being observed. But surprisingly enough, I didn’t.

I was upset (to say the least) the class hadn’t work the way as planned. I knew it wasn’t the kind of class I’m used to teaching. But it was all fine. No nervousness, no anxiety. I just want her (the coordinator) to observe me again in the same class.

Now… a few years ago, being observed in such a lesson would have devastated me. It would have made me crumble and question my abilities as a teacher. But tonight, it didn’t. And I left the room feeling ok, and analizing the lesson so as to think of what could I have done differently / better? I didn’t feel I was a bad teacher, or incapable. I was frustrated, yes, but that was not as important.

So what has changed? Is it me or the classroom? Is it my self-confidence as a teacher? Does having 20 years under my belt make a difference? Should it? Is experience in the classroom THAT important? Or is confidence more important? Or, even more complicated, are experience and self-confidence  so tightly related?

I’d really like to know what you think, and hear about your worst classes.

#ELTchat: the loss of eltchat.com – Plan B : A Repost

Image

I haven’t posted in a long while, partly due to lack of time – traveling, too much work and too many projects. I hope things will slow down a bit soon. And partly because I’ve been thinking a lot about teaching lately and have been having a bit of a difficult time organizing my thoughts enough to put it down on a post. But I hope to be blogging again soon. The reason for this post is simple: #ELTchat. I used to be a very active participant in #eltchat (lately I’ve been teaching at the times it takes place, so I have been having to catch up by reading the summaries and the wiki) and I know the value it has had on my professional development (and I know that is also true for countless other teachers) and the professional and personal relationships it has brought me. I was really upset by the news below, and I could never refuse a request by Marisa and Shaun to help spread the word, so everyone knows what is happening.

 

This is a repost of their post about the issue and what is going to happen now.

For the last – well, almost two years now, since September 15, 2010, #ELTchat has kept us on our toes and forged hundreds of professional and personal relationships amongst its followers who turn up on Twitter every Wednesday to talk about  topics they have suggested and voted on – a community of peers which was created by a small group of colleagues – which grew and grew some more and became something that counts as an important  part of our continuous professional development.

Like many great ideas, it didn’t hit just one person but several. And that is how #ELTchat was created.

The website to keep up the communication of its members, a base and repository of our ideas was one of the first things we all thought of creating – the wiki came later.

Andy Chaplin was keen to join the moderation team and help with podcasts and technical stuff; he was quick to buy eltchat.com and announced the good news to us after the fact. A few months later, right after TESOL France 2011,  he suddenly disappeared – some say for reasons of health. We never found out for sure. We never received a single word of response to our emails. eltchat.com was and still is registered in his name.

And yesterday we lost it


On August 8 the domain expired and we have no way of taking over unless it goes up for sale again; it was very sad that Andy Chaplin did not find it appropriate to renew.

The news is really upsetting.

The work we have put in on this website cannot be told in a few simple words – but it has been a labour of love and we have got so much out of it that we have never regretted one single moment

We are pretty upset at the behaviour of this individual – disappointment is one big understatement.

But we trust that our community of #ELTchatters, our PLN for short, will again gather round the new domain which we have purchased – eltchat.org

It will take us a few days to put the website back on its feet

And all will be as it was before – all the posts in place all your thoughts and comments, all the polls and great summaries which got us on the shortlist of the ELTon Awards nominations

We will be back with a vengeance

We are not just a website – we did not get on the ELTon awards shortlist as just another website!!!

We are a great community of teachers and we have a Plan B!

See you all in September!!!

Marisa Constantinides – Shaun Wilden

Cecilia Lemos

P.S. We would greatly appreciate it if any of you belonging to this great community of teachers,  teacher educators, bloggers, #ELTchat followers,  reposted this on your blog

If you decide to do this, please add your name to the post under ours.

Marisa Constantinides – Shaun Wilden

Cecilia Lemos

P.S. We would greatly appreciate it if any of you belonging to this great community of teachers,  teacher educators, bloggers, #ELTchat followers,  reposted this on your blog

If you decide to do this, please add your name to the post under ours.

Hi, my name is Cecilia and I am a recovering recaster

A Recasters Anonymous Meeting… would you be in it?

Setting: RA (Recasters Anonymous) Meeting, in a dark basement somewhere we can’t mention…

Me: Hi, my name is Cecilia… and I am a recovering recaster.

Group: Hi Cecilia!

Me: I haven’t recasted in… 7 days.

(applause)

The above scene is, of course, fictional (though I fear many teachers would want it to be true). I was a recaster. A true one. I believed in the effectiveness of recasting, for all students. I did, because I was taught to. People told me it was the non-threatening way of correcting students. It’s how you should do it in the Communicative Approach. And I did it. I did so much and for so long it became part of me. And then one day (Really? Just like that?) I questioned it. Ok… maybe I’ve been questioning its effectiveness for a few years. Maybe not its effectiveness (period/full stop), but rather its effectiveness on every student. I just didn’t think most students realised I was correcting them when I recasted… And since they didn’t realise they were being corrected, they never acknowledged they had made a mistake. So, even though I had my doubts, I kept doing it – maybe not as whole-heartedly.

It all changed about a month ago, after I attended IATEFL. As I have mentioned in this blog, this year’s IATEFL Conference (and a few of the talks I attended) left me with a sense of direction. With a feeling of more freedom. Freedom of being a teacher. Freedom of doing what I think is best for my students, no matter what approach is in vogue, or is adopted by the school where I teach. (You can read more about this feeling with my post IATEFL post).

Well, ever since I came back from the conference I have noticed myself stopping my impulsive recasting more and more. Not only because of the talks I attended but even more so for the conversations I had on the topic. Better (?) yet, I have seen myself consciously pointing out the student’s mistake (not when fluency is the objective, unless fluency is prevented by accuracy – or lack of accuracy preventing proper understanding) by saying: “the correct way to say this is…” or  “That is not correct. Why don’t you say…”. And you know what? It works! After doing that for a couple of weeks a few students voiced their feeling I had been correcting them more – and their approval of it. So I asked them (even the groups who hadn’t expressed their noticing of my change in behavior) if they preferred it that way – and I explained recasting (the previous method) – and they said that most times when I recasted they didn’t notice they were being corrected. But when I pointed it out they did, and they liked it better. They felt more progress, more learning. At the same time, a few students recognise recasting and see it as a correction. But in my case, these are a minority.

My point in this post is actually a question to ELT teachers worldwide: Do you feel your students pick up recasting? Because I feel most of mine don’t. And yes, some students might be (initially at least) a bit taken aback by a blunt/on-the-spot correction. But my feeling is that at least this way they understand they did not effectively communicate, and may be more aware of the mistake on other opportunities.

I was observed by a teacher trainee (who is taking classes at the Teacher Education program we have in the school I teach) on a class recently (in an A2 group) and at the end she asked if the way I corrected the students did not embarrass or shy them away from speaking in class. Knowing where she was coming from (taking a basic Teacher training course) I asked her if she was wondering why I had done explicit correction instead of recasting with the group, because I know recasting is the oral correction tool of the communicative approach. She said I was right and asked me to justify my choice it. I asked her if she thought recast worked with everyone – a question she didn’t immediately answer, but rather just stood there, looking pensive . I said that I tried to use it with the students I sensed it worked and I used direct correction with the others. I mentioned articles and studies and conversations I’ve had. She was happy (and relieved) to hear what I said. And so were other teachers that have observed me and approached me.

It seems people are waking up to students’ individual learning styles and needs. But how feasible it is when you have a large classroom? A multilingual, multicultural classroom? Does size matter in this case? Does anything?

 

I plan on conducting an experiment. A simple one. I have two very similar classes (same level, similar number of students – around 13 years old, A2 level). This week I’ll try to only correct their oral production by recasting on the first group and only by doing direct correction on the second. Then, on the end of each last class, I’ll ask them to reflect upon whether they felt / knew they had made any mistakes while speaking in that class (this will be done in writing, on little slips of paper, so that the students feel comfortable at being honest). I’m curious to see what I get! Stay tuned for the next episode on the recasting saga! :)

Teaching is like…

Brad Patterson felt the ELT Blogosphere was a bit quiet these days and decided to shake things up a bit by proposing a new blog challenge:

What is you teaching metaphor?

The challenge is very simple: share your “Teaching is like…” metaphor. As many things in life, despite its simplicity, the responses can be very thought-provoking and revealing – not to mention entertaining. We all seem to think for the answer to that question in our personal interests – other than ELT. Brad compares teaching to surfing and some of the people who left comments to his post say teaching is like reading a good novel, Latin dance, catching fireflies and jogging.

Not surprisingly, I couldn’t choose just one thing to make the analogy, so I thought Brad wouldn’t mind me having 2 metaphors. Especially because each relates to different aspects I see in teaching. So here is my contribution to the challenge (which – shockingly – are two of my favorite things) – teaching aspect of the analogy in italics, between parenthesis:

I have a thing for red shoes… (by miss karen on Flickr – CC )

Teaching is like buying new shoes. As soon as we buy them, we are all exciting and we can’t wait to start wearing them. (In the beginning of a new term we are all excited about our new groups and students, we want to get back on, start teaching again.) But the first time(s) you wear a new pair of shoes they may be tight in certain spots, they may hurt your feet and you might end up the day thinking: “What the heck was I thinking?”. (Starting to teach a new group of students many times means getting a group you don’t immediately hit it off with, they may bring difficulties and the excitement of a new semester soon fades and is replaced by routine and lots of work. And you are soon thinking: “What the heck was I thinking?”)

However, with time, as you wear that sparkling new pair of shoes they start loosening up, adjusting to your feet. And they become comfortable. (As the term rolls on you begin to know your students, they start to know you and your teaching style. Adjustments are made, you learn how to prepare and deliver lessons that work with each group. And things are not as bad anymore. It might even be fun!) Ok… there are those that you still need to put a little band-aid on that one spot that keeps hurting and you sigh with relief when you take them off. (Eventually there may be those students / groups that never get to the “comfortable” level, and that make us do our job but look forward to the end of the term.)

Pilates

I strongly recommend pilates as a way of keeping fit

Teaching is like doing pilates. It may seem easy to someone looking from the outside – gracious, slow movements. (Many people seem to think teaching, and may I say in particular teaching a language, is a very easy thing to do. You just present the structures and correct the students. Right?) But once you are the one on those straps, bars and huge balls, surrounded by springs and bands you see your first impression was not accurate. It is hard to keep the movement slow – it takes twice the strength of doing weights in an automatic way. (Once you’re in the classroom you realise there are many ways to “present” the language; that it’s not enough to just correct when the students make a mistake. You’re surrounded by different students, different needs, new techniques and tools to be used, long hours… It is hard to do everything and see learning take place.)

Some exercises and movements in pilates can be quite challenging. Coordinating different – sometimes quite complex – movements to be done at the same time by different parts of the body while also concentrating on your breathing can seem impossible. (Sometimes as teachers we feel overwhelmed by all we have to do in order to effectively doing our jobs. And many times we feel we can’t make it. Sometimes we feel there is no way we can teach a group of 15-20 people from different backgrounds, different levels, different interests. How can we tend to everything and everyone at once?) But once you start developing your muscles and they develop a memory – yes, muscles have memory! – and the movements become effortless, natural. You become motivated by your progress, you start to see the benefits of the exercises and they become worth it. (Once you become a more experienced teacher, things and procedures take less time and work. You start to see the results of your work: a student that gets a job or a scholarship, another one that travels abroad and can effectively communicate and get around… And you see the value of what you do.)

So, teaching for me is like buying new shoes and doing pilates. What is your metaphor?

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! :)