A teacher’s tale

When I embarked on my CELTA course there was no way I could imagine I would now be a CELTA Tutor and Assessor as well as a DELTA tutor and even a teacher development centre owner!

As a young man, I wasn’t sure I wanted to work as a teacher. Teaching seemed particularly challenging, even daunting back then. Instead, I briefly worked as a translator of fantasy novels – naively believing that this was going to be easier – and had to find a McJob on the side to make a living; translation did not pay much, I quickly came to realise.

One day, a friend suggested I should give teaching a try. He said it wasn’t as difficult as I thought it would be, he explained how rewarding it could be (albeit not financially), he even compared it to what I was doing at the time and in the end asked “how much worse can it be?”. I started having second thoughts and reluctantly took his advice and started applying to language schools.

A few weeks later, one of these schools did get back to me and, after a nerve-wracking interview, I was offered a teaching job. By the way, that foreign language school located in Nikaia will always have a special place in my heart – so will the owners and the learners I got to teach there.

Ms. K.M. had given me my first opportunity to teach. I’m not going to dwell so much on all the blunders I made in my lessons – they were a lot; however, I did try hard not to let anyone down. I kept studying, asking for advice, experimenting…

When the academic year ended, I realised my teaching wasn’t good enough and I had to do something to become a better teacher. I hated the fact that, in my students’ eyes,my lessons would be considered just one more inescapable slot of absolute boredom in their heavy daily schedule. At the same time, I did not want to betray the trust the centre owner had shown me.

So, I applied for an intensive summer CELTA course. I learnt a lot, I worried a lot, I even panicked at some point. The course itself naturally had its ups and downs; but I still have very fond memories of some of my colleagues on that course! How they helped me during the stressful weeks, how much fun we had, how we learned from each other!

September came and I returned to the Nikaia school. I was feeling much more confident. I could finally see exactly what I had been doing wrong and was able to reflect on my own teaching, exchange ideas with colleagues in the teacher’s room, plan lessons of different kinds; I was able to use a number of different techniques to get the students interested, to cater to their individual preferences; most importantly, I was able to finally focus on the students themselves since the burden of not knowing the basics had stopped exclusively occupying my mind during the lessons.

As the school owner/director started noticing my improvement, she offered me more and more hours and I finally got to work for her school full time. In the years I worked there, I taught different levels and age groups, I kept learning from my students as well as from my colleagues and I developed as a teacher. I went on to teach in different contexts, gained a lot more valuable experience, and a few years later I did the DELTA and started working as a trainer – and that has been a completely new adventure, with its own challenges.

When I reminisce about my journey in ELT, however, I always think of my CELTA as the beginning of everything.

  • Could I have gained this invaluable knowledge and experience without having done the CELTA?
  • Would I have improved my job prospects without it?
  • Would I have met all these lovely colleagues who helped me on this journey?

The (obvious) negative answers to these questions might seem to be overly romantic and immaterial now. Yet, I wouldn’t be able to ask them if certain things hadn’t happened exactly the way they did. And the CELTA course was one of them.

It gave me the confidence I needed as a teacher to share ideas and experiment even if that meant occasionally failing to achieve my lesson aims; it gave me the ability to reflect on those failures, identify the problems, isolate them, and work on them to get better and better as a teacher – sometimes as an individual, too. Last but not least, it opened up a whole new world of opportunities in the world of English language teaching; a world I couldn’t have imagined actually existed.

One size fits all?

Michael Blann/Getty Images

One-to-one lessons: some of us love them, others put up with them. Yet, they are a major part of our teaching, right? Many teachers tend to fill up their daily schedule with as many one-to-one lessons as possible. This is understandable – after all, teachers do have to make a living, like everyone else, and in many countries, including Greece, the low rates they are paid leave them no other solutions.

However, for a one-to-one lesson to be successful, and for learners to want to return for more, we do need to spend some time thinking about the learner’s needs, wants and preferences in each case, finding appropriate and relevant resources and materials and planning the lesson in such a way that the learners can derive the maximum benefit, so that they feel they’re getting their money’s worth.

The learner’s needs and wants

Even if learners are at the same level and the same ages, they may still be different in terms of their needs and wants. For example, let’s look at the image below showing the needs and wants of two teens both aiming to sit the same exam at the end of the academic year. You will notice that there is very little overlap; so, using the exact same materials with both would not be a good idea.

Planning a one-to-one lesson

We need to remember that we should not be trying to re-invent the wheel for each lesson; there is no need to aim for the unique, extraordinarily ‘magic’ materials every time we want to make something more fitting and suitable for our learners’ needs and preferences. Using a set of specific questions can save a lot of time and effort. In particular:

  • Why did I choose this material?
  • Why is it of interest to my student/myself?
  • How does it address my student’s needs?
  • What is the specific purpose of this material?
  • Does it cover skills/useful language my student needs/wants?
  • Does it include activities my student prefers or should I adapt it?
  • Is it culturally appropriate?
  • Is it at the appropriate level?
  • What problems can I anticipate my student to have?

At this point, we need to start thinking about the learner’s preferences and their interests so that we can make the materials even better, even more motivating.

A set of criteria we can use to make our lives easier when adapting materials is the following:

  • Modifying: changing the type of activity
  • Personalising: making it relevant to the learner and his/her personal life, etc
  • Supplementing: adding materials, e.g. short videos, etc
  • Reversing the roles: the learner becoming the teacher  
  • Student taking control: the learner deciding what to focus on, conducting the activity, etc

Taking Student A from the image above as an example, we can safely assume that we would focus more on their writing and speaking skills rather than their reading, their accuracy and range of past tenses rather than present tenses, etc. So, how would we adapt the activity below without wasting precious time?

Taken from ©Pearson, New Cutting Edge
  • Modifying:
    • turning it from writing into a speaking activity, e.g. an interview between Justine Klaus and an interviewer
    • designing and completing a flowchart
  • Supplementing:
    • adding a follow-up activity: a written or spoken ‘response’ from one of the relatives to the event/ an interview, etc
  • Reversing the roles:
    • the teacher fills in the gaps including some mistakes; then the learner corrects them and explains why they were wrong.

Finally, we should not forget that the student himself/herself can be involved in the process of selecting materials or even designing material they would like to use in their lessons. In that case, we might be able to learn something ourselves from our students!

In a nutshell, we ought to remember to:

  • create a detailed learner profile and keep it up to date as the course progresses
  • base our selection and adaptation of materials on our learner’s needs, wants, and interests/hobbies
  • involve our learner in the selection/design of the materials 
  • establish a line of communication appropriate to the teaching/learning context
  • keep a record of lessons/topics/etc covered to present it to the learner’s sponsors
  • encourage learner autonomy to help them achieve their goals faster

How can we revitalise ELT?

‘Wait – I could use that!’: A few days before the US elections, researcher A. Greenwald went around asking people whether they intended to vote and why. Naturally, most replied that they would. But here is the thing: it later transpired that the people asked were much more likely to vote than another, control group (Goldstein, Martin & Cialdini 2007 – p. 63). Why? Because simply stating your intention creates a public commitment and this generates a small, subconscious pressure that pushes you towards being consistent. OK – let’s pause here: could we not do the same idea with our students? Ask them whether they intended to do their homework perhaps (and why)? Indeed, we could. Is this an idea we could use? Yes. Does it have to do with ELT? No. Read on…

The Law of Diminishing Returns

Has this ever happened to you? You read books, you attend conferences, you watch webinars and it is all great – initially. Beyond a certain point however, you find yourself thinking ‘Yes, I know that’ or ‘Hmmm – that’s X in other words’ – if you are an old hand, you may even find you can predict what people are going to say before they do so! Why? The answer is ‘The Law of Diminishing Returns’. It’s a little like picking figs from a fig-tree. In the beginning it’s all very easy and your basket keeps filling up, but once you have picked the low-hanging fruit, you have to work much harder for much smaller returns. So here is an idea: why not move to another tree? The Moral: To rekindle your interest in teaching, try going beyond ELT.

For the past ten years or so, I have been exploring the vibrant field of Applied Psychology and I have come to realise that there are all kinds of insights from such domains as Advertising, Management, Custumer Service or even Design which can be really useful to us as teachers. In what follows I am going to share with you three ideas pinched from the food-and-drink industry. In each case I will be suggesting one or two ways in which we can make use of these discoveries in our classes.

The loveliest word

 What is the best word out there? A word which captures everything that really matters? I will tell you. It’s ‘Kate’ – if your name happens to be Kate, that is; or ‘Anne’ if this is what people call you. The loveliest word in English is your name. Advertisers know that of course. In Australia, Coca-Cola wanted to reconnect with the younger generation. How did they do that? Piece of cake: they printed some of the most popular names on Coke bottles! Imagine going to the supermarket and finding a Coke with your name on it. Wouldn’t that attract your attention? And why not get one for your boyfriend with his name on it? But what if you couldn’t find it? No problems: there were special kiosks where you could have a friend’s unusual name printed out on the bottle. Naturally, sales soared… (Ferrier 2014 – p. 110) Watch this amazing clip:

Make a note of the idea: we are the centre of our world. Our first name attracts our attention and creates positive associations.

So how can we use this? 

Use your students’ first names. At every opportunity. I used to try to create a closer bond with my students by addressing them as ‘mate’ or ‘chief’. Not anymore. ‘But’ you might say ‘I already use my students’ first names – all the time’. Do you? Let us have a look at that essay you marked a moment ago…

Don’t tell – sell!

This one completely blew my mind (Wansink et al. 2005). Imagine a buffet restaurant like the ones you find in all good hotels. Next to each of the metal containers, there is a label with a description of the food: ‘Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Cod Fillet’ or ‘Vegetable Soup’. What do you think would happen if someone were to replace these labels with more descriptive ones such as ‘Tender Grilled Chicken’ or ‘Succulent Cod Fillet’ or ‘Creamy Vegetable Soup?’ That’s right: all of a sudden, these dishes became much more desirable and consumption increased dramatically. Clearly, the fancy adjectives worked wonders. But here is the interesting thing: not only did these descriptions increase demand, people gave the food much higher ratings too! Watch this clip:

So this is the big discovery here: expectations colour perceptions. Forget ‘What you see is what you get’; research suggests that ‘What you get is what you expect’!

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about how you introduce the material you give your students. Do you say ‘Now we are going to read an article…’ or ‘OK – you’ll never believe what this article says…’. And what about activities? Is it ‘Now we are going to do an activity to practice X…’ or ‘Right – this is my favourite activity ever…’? Now look at how I introduced this section. The moral: sell your stuff to students.

Engagement – (capital E)

This last story comes from Germany (Ferrier 2014 – p. 108). The McDonald’s people had a problem: they had to advertise, but their budget was limited. What could they do? Then one of them had a brainwave: why not get the customers to do the work? So they organised a competition. They set up a site where people could go and make their own virtual burgers. All the ingredients were there, and they could combine them in any way they wanted to create something visually impressive. Now here is the clever bit: having done so, the people themselves would then promote their creation in the media! And everyone would get to vote for their favourite option. Not only would the winning burger be included in the McDonald’s menu, there would be prizes too. Well, wouldn’t you get your friends involved? Wouldn’t you get them to vote for your masterpiece? Watch this clip:

Needless to say, the idea was hugely successful. The secret here was ownership: whatever we create, feels exceptional – regardless of how good it actually is.

So how can we use this?  

Well, think about the activities we use in class. Most of them are language manipulation tasks, right? But what if we were to ask our students to create something – a story, or a poster or a sketch? And what if there was a safe site where they could upload their work and where others could vote for their favourite? Just an idea…

It only takes a nudge 

OK – what about this one? The students of a secondary class in the UK were due to take a math test the following week. The parents of half of these students – the parents, mind you, not the kids! – received the message in the picture a few days before the test. That was all. The results? The students whose parents got the message did substantially better than the others. Not only that; the idea was popular with both parents and students! (Service & Gallagher 2017 – p. 115) Apparently, sometimes all we need is the right reminder at the right time. The sender doesn’t even have to be the teacher! Imagine the possibilities here: ‘Improve your school results – get a good secretary!’ I rest my case… 😊  

References

  • Ferrier, A. (2014) The Advertising Effect. South Melbourne, Oxford University Press
  • Goldstein, N., Martin, S. & Cialdini, R. (2007) Yes! 50 secrets from the science of persuasion. London: Profile Books
  • Service, O. & Gallagher, R. (2017) Think Small. London: Michael O’Mara Books
  • Wansink, B. van Ittersum, K., Painter, J., , How descriptive food names bias sensory perceptions in restaurants. (2005). Food Quality and Preference, 16 (5) 393-400
Nick Michelioudakis
Nick Michelioudakis

Nick Michelioudakis (B. Econ., Dip. RSA, MSc [TEFL]) has been active in ELT for many years as a teacher, examiner, presenter and teacher trainer. He has worked for a number of publishers and examination boards and he has given seminars and workshops in many countries.  He has written extensively on Methodology, though he is better known for his ‘Psychology and ELT’ articles which have appeared in numerous newsletters and magazines. Nick has just designed a short course on Psychology and Language Teaching, which you can find out more about here

A teacher (trainer) is a teacher is a teacher

WARNER BROS
Dame Maggie Smith as Professor Minerva McGonagall  in Harry Potter

A learning experience that made my day

Recently, on a particularly stressful afternoon during which I was in an awful mood, I attended a webinar delivered by a very well-known, highly respected teacher trainer and it changed the course of my day. It made me feel refreshed; it calmed me down and helped me feel good about myself, about my colleagues and my profession in general. I had been de-stressed, re-energised.

Later that same day, I sat down and tried to reflect on the experience and try and identify what it was that made that webinar so good. Which shows that the webinar didn’t just inspire me, it also urged me to delve into the process of reflection once again and, therefore, help me work on my own presentation skills.

As I was brainstorming and listing some of the things that were great about the webinar, I suddenly remembered several other occasions similar to the webinar: decades ago, when I used to attend exam-prep lessons with another teacher. The parallels were obvious. Back then, those lessons made me feel equally good about myself; they always made my day –not in a Coelho-esque superficially positive manner. On the contrary, they genuinely sparked my curiosity and hunger for learning; they stimulated my brain for wanting something more profound, something insightful and unique. And that ‘something’ was not a goal in itself, that ‘something’ was not a prize, but a process. In fact, the goal (passing the exam) had almost become immaterial at that moment.

Teachers vs. teacher trainers

It was clear to me that there were a lot that the trainer whose session I had just attended and the teacher who had taught me decades ago had in common. Inevitably, the obvious question came to me: Is there an essential difference between teacher training and teaching the language itself? Or even better: what are the similarities between training language teachers and teaching the language to a group of students?

I should say that the more experienced I become, the more discussions I have about this specific topic, the more webinars I attend, the more books I read, the simpler the answer is: what makes a good teacher and what makes a good trainer are basically the same few things. And it can be dangerous for a trainer not to realise the similarity!

I am, of course, like everyone, talking about my own preferences and prejudices when I talk about what makes a good teacher. And admittedly, I may be dwelling more on the characteristics that I sometimes feel, or fear, I fall short of.

What makes a good teacher?

So, in my opinion, what makes a good teacher is…

  • our ability to listen to our students: One of the most important characteristics of a good teacher; if we cannot actively listen to and understand our students’ needs, wants and preferences, then how are we supposed to help them?
  • our ability to empathise with our students: once we take an active interest in our students’ preferences and needs, we can start showing empathy towards their difficulties, their problems, and the things that make their learning more challenging perhaps. We can establish good rapport and mutual trust.
  • being open to feedback from our students: getting used to accepting criticism and getting feedback from others can sometimes be a painful process; however, only then can we actually become better at what we do. No matter how experienced we might be, there will always be things to work on and improve.
  • our willingness to show we’ve taken our students’ feedback on board: accepting feedback means nothing if we do not take it on board and actively show our students that their opinions matter and have value.
  • being humble enough to admit we cannot know everything: once we get into the role of a teacher, we tend to forget that we are not the light of the world, and we tend to believe we have the answers to everything – even if we knowingly sometimes give answers which are inaccurate and misleading. It is absolutely fine not to know the answer to a question a student might have, as long as we then do our homework, find out the answer, put it into words that are easy for the student to understand, and get back to them at the first opportunity.
  • our overall sense of duty as educators: that’s admittedly a huge discussion. However, what I consider important is the sum of our ability to listen, to simplify and explain, to monitor, to reward, to correct, to provide a safe space, to motivate, to subvert.

Why is this relevant to teacher training?

Some teacher trainers seem to believe that they are now in a position to advise and admonish teachers, as they are no longer just teachers themselves. After all, a teacher trainer enjoys a higher financial and social status, right?

Well, not exactly – even our government does not seem to think that way, and that speaks volumes!

There are certain dangers lurking behind the deliberate and misleading divide between teachers and trainers.

  • Thinking that we trainers are it: becoming a self-professed authority and losing our humility is the gravest of dangers which logically leads to arrogance; consequently, we do not listen to our students’ feedback, we cannot learn from them (or anyone else for that matter) and we end up detaching ourselves from them (and reality) growing more and more distant.
  • Resting on our laurels without caring to develop ourselves any further: arrogance tends to have that effect on teachers turning us into so-called gurus negligent of the fact that we might be resembling dinosaurs as time goes by.

No matter our title (director of studies, teacher trainer, teacher educator, trainer trainer), we remain teachers. Only upon this realisation can we make the difference and bring about some genuinely positive changes – and not just in the relatively limited environment of the classroom.

Speaking your mind?

Speaking in an exam

[image from playbill.com)

“I don’t mind talking to you or my classmates in English; in fact, I quite enjoy it. But it’s different when I have to have a conversation with a stranger whose job is to look for mistakes in what I say and how I say it – the examiner is not there to support me, but to judge me. And they’re not interested in talking to me,  they just want to do their job, pass or fail me, and then go home!”

This is how a learner preparing for a public exam described his attitude to the speaking test. And he’s actually quite right. His words capture two salient characteristics of speaking tests, which both teachers and learners need to remember:

  • A speaking test is not a normal communicative interaction. The main purpose is neither to exchange information, nor to exchange opinions, nor to express feelings. The main purpose is for the learner to demonstrate what they know and what they can do in English and for the examiner to judge the learner’s performance.
  • The examiner’s job is, indeed, to make decisions about the learner’s level based on the evidence the learner provides. In most EFL examination contexts, the examiner is actually discouraged from speaking naturally and participating naturally in a conversation with the learner; instead, they are asked to follow a script in the interests of standardization and fairness.

An unnatural situation

The ensuing unnaturalness of the situation is not an accident, but rather an inherent necessity, one of the necessary evils, it seems, of exams. Speaking examiners, who are mostly teachers themselves, learn to check their teaching personality at the examination room door and put on the hat of the impartial, but occasionally robotic, examiner. In a similar way, learners may also have to learn that it is in their best interest to adopt a speaking style for the examination room which may be very different from what is the norm in natural conversation.

Research into natural conversation (for example, Leech 2000, Quaglio and Biber 2006, Miller 2006) has shown that it displays characteristics like the following:

  • at least half of the utterances are fragments, incomplete clauses and parenthetics
  • more than 60% of the complete clauses used have a very simple subject – verb – object structure
  • more than 70% of the verbs are in the present tense
  • there are quite a few structures (including non-defining relative clauses, participial clauses and infinitive clauses) which are extremely rare
  • lexical density and  lexical diversity are both very low, which means that a limited number of words are used, rare words are avoided and many of the words are repeated again and again
  • cohesive devices are limited to very simple conjunctions like and and but, with only occasional use of conjuncts.

And yet, to prove that they have reached an advanced level, learners taking a speaking exam are expected to demonstrate that they can construct full, grammatical sentences, that they can use a broad range of grammatical structures, that they have an appropriate range of vocabulary at their disposal and that they can employ a variety of cohesive devices to help them connect their ideas and signal what logical relationships obtain between different ideas. In other words, the kind of speaking performance that will earn learners good marks in a speaking test seems to display none of the characteristics of natural conversation; worse still, speaking tests seem to require that learners should use a register that is more typical of written than of spoken English. 

What should we teach them, then?

That doesn’t necessarily mean that teachers should be teaching learners how to speak unnaturally. In my view, we should instead make sure that learners understand what the requirements of the exam are and make clear when we are practising  exam skills rather than practising the language. Rather than pretending that what learners have to do in the exam is simply “be themselves” and interact the way they would in “real life” (which, unsurprisingly, is a shorthand term in the ELT world for “life outside the classroom”), I think we should clarify that an exam is most certainly not a normal communicative context, that it has its own rules and its own conventions, that it is, at the end of the day, a spoken genre different  from almost all the others, which learners can master, given the right guidance.

Sheldon or Penny?

Such guidance would include explicit references to the assessment criteria used in the exam and activities focusing on evaluating spoken performance in relation to those criteria. This, however, could be introduced as a game: listening to normal conversations and deciding whether they would be  good enough for an exam as well as listening to less normal conversations and deciding whether those would be good enough for an exam. Which of the two characters, for example, in the video below would you say interacts normally? And which one demonstrates a good range of structures and vocabulary that examiners would appreciate?

Learners in the know

Once learners realise that they need to play a role in the examination room, for which they need to develop a different manner of speaking, one that shows off their language knowledge and skills, it will be possible to continue teaching them real English as well as preparing them for the exam without feeling as though we were all taking part in an absurd performance of an absurd play.  All we have to do is keep the two separated: this is real life, that is exam survival!

References

Leech, G. 2000. Grammars of spoken English: new outcomes of corpus‐oriented research. Language Learning 50 (4):675‐724
Quagluio P. and D. Biber 2006. The Grammar of Conversation. In B.Aarts and A. McMahon (Eds.) The Handbook of English Linguistics. Oxford:  Blackwell.

Whose understanding are you really checking?

We know for a fact that no matter how clearly we present language in the classroom, we should always ask questions to check the learners have understood the important aspects of this language, e.g. meaning, use, and form, and perhaps further clarify potential confusion or misunderstanding, if we get evidence that they haven’t understood – or move on to something else if they have!

One of the most common ways to check the learners’ understanding effectively is through CCQs – short for Concept Checking Questions. Inexperienced teachers tend to find CCQs quite difficult to come up with; their judgement as to when a CCQ is good or not is shrouded by a cloud of uncertainty.

The reason for this may have to do with the fact that CCQs are closely connected to a teacher’s ability to analyse language for teaching. In fact, CCQs mirror a number of things:

  • a teacher’s knowledge of the language, and their own understanding of it
  • the background studying they’ve done on a specific structure, word, etc
  • how well they have prepared for the teaching of a specific structure
  • their ability to decode and simplify this inherent or acquired knowledge to help students understand.

Let’s look at two examples and put this hypothesis to the test.

Scenario 1:

A taecher introduces the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate learners. The language is found in a coursebook text about great works of art. The marker sentence is ‘The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci.’ So, after having presented the meaning, form, etc, the teacher proceeds to ask the CCQs they have prepared to check the learners’ understanding. One of the CCQs is:

Teacher: “Do we know who did the action?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Do we need to know?”

Students: “Yes!”

Teacher: “Really? Do we need to know that Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa?”

Students: “Yes, it’s important!”

Teacher: “No, when we use the passive, we don’t need to know who did the action.”

The obvious consequence is utter confusion, to say the least. The reason is that the teacher thought (s)he knew the use of the passive voice without paying attention to the context. It is true that one of the uses of the passive voice is when the doer is unimportant/obvious. However, this is not the case for this specific marker sentence, in which the opposite is true: the passive is used here in order to place special emphasis on the agent of the action! The problem with the concept question selected is that the teacher was overconfident: they thought they knew the rules and did not bother to check.

Scenario 2:

Again, introducing the passive voice to a group of pre-intermediate students, the teacher contrasts the same sentence formed in the active and in the passive voice to present the differences in relation to form.

The marker sentences are:

  1. The Mona Lisa was painted by Da Vinci
  2. Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.

After having presented the difference, the teacher asks the following questions to check the learners have understood:

Teacher: “So, what happens to the subject of an active voice sentence when we turn it into the passive?”

Students: *silence*

Teacher: “Is sentence 1 an agentless passive voice construction or not?”

Students: *silence*

In this case, the teacher was perfectly aware of the differences in form, the terminology to describe it, etc. They had done their background studying. The major problem though is that the metalanguage they used to check understanding was not accessible to the learners. In other words, the teacher had not been prepared appropriately to teach the language.

Conclusion

So, when we analyse language for teaching, we need to bear in mind that knowing the rules – or thinking that we know the rules – is not enough.

Analysing language for teaching purposes also involves being aware of the audience and how you can get through to them; our CCQs reflect not only our ability to check the learners’ understanding, but also our ability to anticipate confusion, our ability to empathise with the students, and our willingness to help them understand.

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!

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!