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Do your lessons have to taste bland?

What does PARSNIP stand for?

It’s an acronym for the following topics:

(no) Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –Isms, Pork.

Imagine real life without being able to enjoy any of the things mentioned above or not even being able to read and talk about them freely. Imagine you’re only allowed to read and talk about Marie Curie, the weather, netball, a new species of spider found in the Amazon, and some unknown, ‘innovative’ founder of some obscure NGO.

An Orwellian nightmare to some, a dream come true to others.

Whether you think the situation I’ve just described is an Orwellian nightmare or a dream, indeed, PARSNIP is a major part of our ELT lives. PARSNIP is the (in)famous acronym of topics to be avoided in coursebooks for the obvious reason that publishing companies have to penetrate a lot of markets at the same time. So, since they wish to keep their sales high – both a logical and legitimate objective, of course – they need to make sure that there is absolutely no risk of causing offence to anyone, in other words they need to produce content that is ‘safe’ everywhere. That’s how students end up talking about a very limited, and usually rather boring, range of mundane topics.

Does it mean that being exposed to and reading about Marie Curie or Mother Theresa is to be frowned upon? Of course not. On the contrary, it can be interesting and even fun occasionally. It does become rather problematic and unrealistic though, when it’s the only content you’re being exposed to in the class.

Is there a logic behind PARSNIP?

The answer is simple: yes, there is. Avoiding topics which can offend certain students is a wise choice in a lot of cases. For example, when you are not really familiar with your students’ likes, preferences, personalities, beliefs, cultures, identities, etc, it’s always a good idea to play it safe by following the coursebook; even when they’re bland, course books can at least provide a ‘safe space’ for everyone in the class, including the teacher: anodyne texts, a coherent flow of lessons, useful exercises, etc.

I am not a proponent of doing away with coursebooks. However, the majority of coursebooks – just as any other product/service intended for mass consumption, most TV programmes being another example of that – systematically fail to deal with topics which are inherently more serious, profound and go beyond the obtuse concepts of ‘good’ vs ‘evil’, ‘offensive’ vs ‘inoffensive’, ‘right’ vs ‘wrong’.

What can we do about it then?

Inherently non-trivial interesting topics, such as current affairs articles, opinion articles or talk shows, make input and language more memorable and, arguably, they make learning more likely to take place. So, there is a case for designing or selecting materials that do not come straight out of a coursebook: materials that are inspired by the real world, no matter how bleak, saturnine, controversial, or silly the latter might sometimes be.

However, we have to be very careful when doing so. Some of the things we always need to remember when selecting and designing such materials for classroom use are the following:

  • The need for the teacher to be fully aware of the learners’ preferences, boundaries, level of tolerance, culture, and interests. Preferably, you need to have had a number of lessons with the learners first so that a level of rapport and mutual trust and respect has been established.
  • The teaching context, i.e. the language teaching organisation you are working for, so that you do not bring yourself in a difficult, potentially irreversible position.
  • The expectations of the sponsors of your students, e.g. parents, a company paying for their employees’ business English lessons, etc.

Can it actually work?

Yes, it can. I am sure most of you reading this post have designed at least one lesson like the ones I’m alluding to at some point in your teaching career.

Those of you who haven’t done so and are wondering what this type of lesson would look like, I’ll give you an example of one I designed and taught with a group of young adult students a few months ago. But, first, a few things about the background of the learners in that group:

They had been preparing for the IELTS exam and had been having online lessons using Zoom. All of them were uni students and some of them had to work for a living at the same time. During our lessons, they did not hesitate to speak their mind: most of them were open, talkative and friendly, but did not seem to appreciate the coursebook topics very much. I felt they would be able to deal with something more topical and, as we had known each other quite well and there was very good rapport and trust, I decided to risk a more sensitive topic. After all, the environment was safe enough to accommodate all different ‘voices’ and mindsets.

So, when I stumbled upon an interesting article about the #metoo movement, which had been getting a lot of exposure and still is a real hot potato, I made a lesson out of it: I supplemented the materials with a short YouTube video, designed a couple of listening and reading activities, and added a few questions for discussion. Believe me, these particular learners loved it. Some very interesting discussions took place – they also helped me to view things in a slightly different perspective, too.

Below, you can download the materials for the lesson – check them out, as they may still be relevant. If you think your advanced students might appreciate it, feel free to use the material. And if you do, I’d love to read about how your students responded in the comments below!

Shall we throw grammar out with the bath water?

Do we need grammar?

My first thought when somebody asks the question do we need grammar? is “of course we do, what are you talking about?” Still, bitter experience has taught me that easy answers are not necessarily, or even usually, correct, especially when the question itself is ambiguous, so I then go on to consider the question more carefully. 

If the question is taken to mean “do we need to teach grammar explicitly,” then the jury seems to have been out for at least a few decades; far from coming up with a simple, direct answer, psycholinguistic research seems to be simultaneously supporting both that we need grammar and that we don’t need it (see, for example, Ellis 2015). Nevertheless, there will always be those for whom, in the words of Henry Widdowson (1985, p. 161) “the delusion of simple answers will always be available as an attractive alternative to thought.” Thus, the dogmatic certainty of some, even today, that we should (at last!) do away with grammar can only compare to the certainty of others, more than a hundred years ago, that explicit study of grammar rules is the only way in which we can learn a foreign language. It seems to me that they are both wrong, not (just) because the truth is usually in the “middle ground” between two extremes, but because the question itself is problematic.

Reframing the question

A question like “do we need grammar?” is actually not just problematic, but quite meaningless if we haven’t defined what we mean by grammar, who ‘we’ refers to and what “we” might need grammar for. Thus, the answers I might give to the question would be very different in each of the following cases:

  • whether  ‘we’ refers to language learners or language teachers
  • whether by ‘grammar’ we mean explicit, declarative knowledge or implicit, procedural knowledge of the grammar rules
  • whether we ‘need’ grammar for interaction in basic everyday communication contexts or in order to write an article, a short story or a poem or in order to teach the language

Do teachers need grammar?

As a language teacher educator, I think I can understand why I am inclined to defend grammar: I am thinking of language teachers rather than learners, and the need for them to possess declarative, not just procedural, knowledge of grammar, so that they can compose fully accurate models of language for their students and so that  they can make informed decisions about how much (or how little!) grammar instruction their students need and what form this grammar instruction should take depending on the type of learners, their level and their learning purpose. In other words, what I am inclined to claim is that foreign language teachers need detailed, explicit knowledge of grammar even if they choose not to teach grammar explicitly in all cases. 

Why do teachers need grammar?

In fact, knowledge of grammar (and yes, I mean declarative knowledge of the grammar rules) is a prerequisite for teaching the language even if the teacher has chosen not to teach grammar explicitly. To be precise, if they have chosen not to teach grammar explicitly, it may be even more imperative that the teacher should know their grammar. Here is why:

  • They can select what kind of language to include in the models they provide, so that the models do not confuse the learners and make clear and obvious the meaning and use of the structures they exemplify.
  • They can select appropriate contexts for the structures in focus, that is contexts which naturally invite the use of the structure and which make the meaning and use very clear without the need to resort to explanation.
  • They can devise appropriate, i.e. clear and simple, checking questions to ensure  that the learners have understood the forms and meanings in focus even if no explicit presentation of the rules is provided.
  • They can anticipate what problems the learners might have and devise appropriate tasks and activities to help learners overcome these problems.
  • They can plan what to say if learners should ask the question most teachers dread: “why do we say it like that?”

Dismissing grammar and grammar teaching altogether on the grounds that explicit study of the grammar rules is not useful or not appropriate in a particular context makes little sense. At best, it’s based on a logical leap: explicit grammar teaching can be ineffective, therefore let’s not teach grammar at all; or worse, let’s not even bother to find out what grammar and grammar teaching involves. Beheading  the patient may be a radical cure for headache, but let’s not forget it inevitably results in the patient’s death. 

References
Ellis, N. (2015). Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning .Their dynamic interface and complexity. In P. Rebuschat (ed.), Implicit and Explicit Learning of Languages (pp. 3- 23). Michigan: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
Widdowson, H. G. (1985). Against dogma: a reply to Michael Swan. ELT Journal 39, 1985, pp. 158-161

Are you a Haydn or a Beethoven?

One of my pet subjects to discuss with colleagues is how our knowledge of other areas than methodology can inform our teaching. In my case, music – the sonata in particular – is one of these other areas which has deeply informed my teaching; so, I thought of expanding on this idea in the hope that some of you might find it relatable.

The sonata in the style of Haydn.

Years ago, I studied music theory. One of my favourite subjects was History of Music, during which we studied the evolution of certain forms of composition – the sonata being the ultimate form of all.

Of course the term sonata is a rather vague term in itself. For example, a symphony is a sonata for an orchestra; a trio is a sonata for three instruments; a quartet for four instruments, and so on. Its different names depend on the number of instruments the piece of music has been originally composed for.

Regardless of the name though, a sonata consists of a set of specific movements, put in a specific order. If we listen for example to Haydn’s Sonata in C major, H. XVI, 35, we’ll notice that there are three distinct movements:

  1. 1st movement: an allegro con brio (playful and cheerful), during which we can hear the main theme and its standard variations
  2. 2nd movement: an adagio (in a slow tempo), during which the main theme is transposed into a different yet relevant key to create the illusion of an alternative theme – also, the tempo is much slower and the dynamic much more gentle and calm
  3. 3rd movement: again, an Allegro (cheerful), during which the composer returns to the original key and theme using several other technical clichés, which I won’t bore you with, to put back all of the pieces of the puzzle together in a majestic finale!

Sounds familiar so far?

By now, you might already have seen the parallel I’m attempting to draw between a structured English language lesson and the sonata. To be more specific:

  1. the way in which we teachers usually start with a lively warm-up activity (allegro con brio) to set the mood as well as the context
  2. then, we go on to the adagio movement of the lesson, during which the pace might occasionally be a bit slower, the class is a bit calmer and quieter to allow the learners to process, practise and internalise different aspects of the language systems or skills, hopefully without forgetting the overall theme and direction of the lesson
  3. finally, the way in which we usually finish the lesson with a final, heroic allegro: a triumphant, communicative activity involving the whole class trying to put all of the pieces of the puzzle back together.

Did this parallel help?

Thanks to this knowledge of the structure of the sonata, I was able to get my head round the standard, linear lesson planning framework quite fast. I was also aware of several ways in which I could modify activities without losing sight of the ‘main theme’, i.e. the main aim. In other words, I could supplement my lesson with some standard, prescribed variations.

However, there came a point when I suddenly felt that this seemingly straightforward approach to lesson planning became stringent; it got rather repetitive and boring both for the ‘composer’ and the ‘audience’. The traditional, Haydnesque sonata structure had become “a shop device by which a bad composer may persuade himself and the innocent reader of textbooks that he is a good one.” (Newman, 1958:51)

I had reached a plateau and wasn’t able to move forward – to the point of risking becoming a Poundland singer-songwriter. And my ‘audience’ could feel that.

Beethoven to the rescue!

Still, this parallel between music and teaching helped me once again. This time it was Beethoven’s last three piano sonatas: I remembered how the grand maestro completely altered, or sometimes even abandoned those archaic standards and rules of form which restricted his creativity to the detriment of the final outcome. He would shift the order of the movements; he would add or even leave movements out; sometimes, he would only include the main theme followed by a range of variations. In fact, his last and most enjoyable piano sonata consisted of two movements only!

This helped me reconsider my planning abilities: the second ‘slow’ adagio movement could now be modified and replace the first one; then, a series of variations could follow leading up to a crescendo-finale, or there could even be an alternation of adagios and allegros. Or, I could leave whole movements out! I had come to the realisation that as long as the composer respects his audience’s expectations and is able to help them keep track of the main theme, then the sky is the limit.

So, if all lessons become as predictable a procedure as the archaic form of the traditional sonata, the outcome may ultimately be a yawning audience, or even worse: an empty stage. ‘Papa’ Haydn we should study; Beethoven we should aspire to become.

A final note

Wendell Kretschmar, a music teacher in Thomas Mann’s book Dr. Faustus, while playing Beethoven’s last sonata on the piano (the one consisting of two movements only) and delivering a lecture on it, exclaimed:

“A third movement? […] A return after this parting – impossible! It had happened that the sonata had come, in the second, enormous movement, to an end, an end without any return. And when he said ‘the sonata’, he meant not only this one in C minor, but the sonata in general, as a species, as a traditional art-form.”

Mann, T. P. Doctor Faustus

Even though I do not whole-heartedly agree with my beloved Wendell Kretschmar, I do see the point he is trying to make. The one thing I haven’t mastered yet is improvisation – I’ve never been a huge jazz scholar… Perhaps, the time has come for a bit of John Coltrane!

References

Mann, T. P. (1949). Doctor Faustus. Translated by H. T. Lowe-Porter. London: Secker & Warburg
Newman, E. (1958). More Essays from the World of Music: Essays from the London Sunday Times, selected by Felix Aprahamian. London: John Calder; New York: Coward-McCann, Inc.

Respect and Inquiry in Teacher Education

‘I see myself as a transmitter of knowledge,’ a teacher trainer told me a few years ago. Her job, as she saw it, was to convey to her trainees what she herself had learnt mainly by reading about language and language teaching methodology and by attending courses, seminars and conferences. Intuitively, I’m sure many trainers would agree, to a certain extent at least. There does seem to be a body of knowledge that is relevant to our profession and that can be transmitted to teachers-in-training. One might mention, for example, the following areas of “received” or public knowledge that is theoretically transmittable and arguably useful to foreign language teachers:

  • knowledge of the subject matter to be taught, i.e. language
  • knowledge of second language acquisition research
  • knowledge of methods and techniques that have been developed specifically for teaching foreign languages

However, even though it seems intuitively obvious that a language teacher should know about such things, the type and amount of knowledge they require has been a matter of debate for at least the last twenty years. Bartels (2005, p. 411), for example, concludes after reviewing relevant research that “well-formed KAL [Knowledge About Language] does not seem to be necessary to be a superior language teacher”. Freeman and Johnson (1998, p. 412), similarly warn that knowledge of second language acquisition research may be “of limited use and applicability to  practicing teachers”. In addition, Freeman (2016, p. 161) points out that a reliance on knowledge of methods and techniques in teacher education represents a simplistic view of teacher education, while Kumaravadivelu (1994, p. 29) emphasizes the need for practitioners themselves to “generate location-specific, classroom-oriented innovative practices” in the post-method condition.

In fact, whatever “received knowledge” there is to transmit could only form part of the content of a teacher education programme. In Jourdenais’s (2009, p.652) view, this would represent the  “public theories” component, i.e. the “theories articulated in published literature and research”. However, a more important dimension of teacher education is teachers’ private theories, which are not necessarily based on received wisdom, but rather on the teachers’ own beliefs, experiences and actions. The divide between what teachers learn on teacher training courses and what they actually do in the classroom may actually have everything to do with the fact that the received (and transmitted) knowledge of “public theories” remains disconnected from teachers’ private theories, formed through practice and developed through reflection on practice.

As a trainer, then, my job is not (merely) to transmit such received knowledge, but rather, as Hedgcock (2002, p. 309) puts it, to enable teachers to question, critique and challenge public theories so that they can “construct their own operational theories of classroom practice”. Far from being a linear process of knowledge transmission, teacher learning seems to be a process of internalisation in the Vygotskian sense, whereby the focus of attention is “on the character and quality of the activities they [teachers and learners] are engaged in together, the resources they are using to engage in those activities, and what is being accomplished by engaging in those activities” (Johnson 2009, p. 62).

This is quite a humbling realisation for a teacher trainer. Privileged access to a body of received knowledge which you can use to design teacher training programmes and sessions seems a relatively easy and secure route to becoming a teacher trainer; acknowledging, however, that your work actually involves helping teachers reshape and transform their thinking in ways that cannot be predicted and in contexts which you may not be fully familiar with forces you to realise that collaborative critical enquiry is the basis of teacher education (indeed, it seems to be the basis of all educational activity): there can be no superior, privileged positions in this collaborative endeavour; there can only be mutual respect and a willingness to question public theories in the light of your own and your trainees’ situated practice.

This is not to say that there aren’t things that the trainer “knows” and the trainees do not yet “know” or that there is no room for “received knowledge” in a teacher education programme. What I am suggesting is that neither the nature nor the usefulness and applicability of such knowledge is ever a given: the body of received knowledge itself is constantly growing and, perhaps more importantly, both the trainers’ and the trainee teachers’ personal theories should also be constantly developing, based on reflection and critical inquiry, i.e. the persistent questioning and critique of the  experiences, behaviours and actions of both trainers and trainees. What there is no room for is the kind of trainers who see themselves as sages in possession of all knowledge. Because knowledge is a process, not an object to be acquired; and it cannot be possessed, it can only be questioned!

References
Bartels, N. (2005) Applied linguistics and language teacher education: what we know. In Bartels, N (ed) Applied Linguistics and Language Teacher Education. Boston: Springer.
Freeman, D (2016). Educating Second Language Teachers. The Same Things Done Differently. Oxford: Oxford University Press
Freeman, D. & Johnson, K. (1998). Reconceptualizing the knowledge-base of language teacher education. TESOL Quarterly 32, 397–417.
Hedgcock, J. (2002). Toward a socioliterate approach to second language teacher education. Modern Language Journal 86, 299–317.
Johnson, K. E. (2009). Second Language Teacher Education. A Sociocultural Perspective. New York: Routledge
Jourdenais, R. (2009). Language teacher education. In M. H. Long, & C. J. Doughty (Eds.), The handbook of language teaching. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.
Kumaravadivelu, B. (1994). The postmethod condition: (e)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, 27–48.

Guess who’s back!

You haven’t heard from us for a few months, but please don’t assume we’ve given up teaching or training teachers. On the contrary, George and I have been busy putting into practice a dream we’ve had for a long time: to start a new centre for teacher development, where we can do more than just offer ready-made, run-of-the-mill courses. We ’ve worked really hard to make this dream come true and we’re happy to say we’re now ready!

The name of our new baby is ACE TEFL, or the Athens Centre for Teachers of English as a Foreign Language, and we truly want it to live up to its name: a centre where teachers can feel good, exchange ideas, help one another grow, share experiences, learn more about teaching and learning, develop professionally as teachers and trainers, and, of course, have a good time.

We’re located right at the heart of Athens and we’ ve been busy making our premises the place we’ve always wanted to work in: not just a professional working and learning environment, but also a place that is cozy and full of character. Naturally, we’re equipping our centre with cutting edge resources, a library with over five hundred books and periodicals, bright and spacious seminar rooms, comfortable meeting spaces, and all the amenities you would expect to find in a modern training centre.

But even more important, we want our centre to be a place where teachers feel safe, respected and valued. After all those years of working for others, George and I are now free to give priority to the needs and wants of the teachers we work with and show them the respect they deserve. One of the many ways we can show them this respect is by ensuring that they fall in love with the place in which they will be spending a lot of their time during the day and enjoy every single comfort available.

As for our services, you can have a look at the types of courses, seminars, workshops and other stuff we offer here. Do feel free to drop us an email and we’ll be happy to give you more details on whatever interests you.

P.S. Do keep an eye out for our centre-warming party date as soon as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted! For the initiated, I am sure you are well aware of the parties George and I can throw! For the uninitiated, you are more than welcome to check it out for yourselves! If you’re not sure, well… ask around and I’m sure you’ll be convinced to join us!