I went to Kyrgyzstan (part one)

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A couple of months ago some followers of this blog very kindly donated teaching ideas in preparation for a trip I was planning to Kyrgyzstan in support of women’s charity Erayim. I came back from Bishkek last month, and I thought you might be interested to hear a bit about how it all went. What follows is an overview… more detailed thoughts to come.

In brief: it was fantastic! Kyrgyzstan is a very interesting country, and a land of contrasts: imagine a land of rugged mountains where the people are Asian and speak Russian, vodka is the tipple of choice, and you hear the call to prayer five times a day.

I spent the first four days of the trip in the capital city, Bishkek, where I met some of the British undergraduate volunteers and attended an induction day led by representatives from Erayim. As part of the induction process, I led a day of teacher training for the young British volunteers to prepare them to lead month-long summer school courses for children. We covered a few basic teaching principles, and I shared the ideas that were kindly donated. These went down very well! The volunteers also benefitted from some OUP resources books, and together we spent a couple of hours picking out activities and discussing how we could adapt them for different scenarios.

After a comfortable few days in Bishkek, I was taken to Chaek, a village of approximately 7,000 people. Chaek is the main village in the Jumgal valley, and is even considered remote by Kyrgyz standards. No taxi driver in Bishkek seemed to understand why I would end up there! This perceived remoteness will change sooner than you might think: China has invested millions of dollars in a road-building project to connect the large cities of Osh and Jalalabad (in the south-west of the country), with Issyk-Kul and the Chinese border crossings in the north-east. The road (which is shaping up very nicely), will open up new trade frontiers in Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, but it will also have untold benefits for the isolated inhabitants of the Jumgal valley. The new road will bring both passing trade and tourism to the valley, which is home to the second-highest mountain lake in the world (Song-Kol), and the local people want to learn English in part to make the most of this exciting opportunity.

I led a two-week teacher training course in Chaek with the support of Andrew, a recent graduate from Leeds, and Gulzada, a local woman who currently teaches English in Bishkek. We had thirty English teachers in total, all experienced professionals working in state schools at primary or secondary level. While I led methodology classes and the occasional skills lesson, Gulzada focused on teaching grammar, and Andrew on speaking practice and games. At the end of the course, each teacher received a certificate of completion, a copy of Murphy’s English Grammar in Use, ten Anglo-Kyrgyz dictionaries, a CD and booklet of songs to use in the primary classroom, and a booklet containing all the activities that had been donated by my lovely friends and colleagues from OUP and beyond.  Feedback from the teachers emphasised how happy they were with the course content. In fact, their only major criticism seems to be that the course should have been longer!

I’m incredibly happy that I got to have this wonderful experience, and spend some time getting to know a country about which I had previously known so little. If you have a couple of weeks to spare next year and are interested in getting involved (I can’t recommend it enough!), then please get in touch and I’ll give you some more information about the project.

And, as I mentioned at the start, I’ll post in more detail about my time in Kyrgyzstan very soon.

I’m (still) here

It’s hard to believe that I haven’t updated this blog in almost seven weeks. And (surprise, surprise) it’s because I’ve been busy. Really busy!

Over the last few weeks I’ve spent a lot of time getting my head around my upcoming trip to Kyrgyzstan. I feel as if I’ve been planning it for years, and suddenly it’s only a couple of weeks away! The practical aspects of the trip are almost sorted: flights are booked, equipment has been bought, and I’m officially vaxxed to the max. There’s still quite a lot of planning and preparation to do around the teacher training course itself, and unfortunately I have recently received some bad news: two of my teacher training colleagues for the project are no longer able to fly out to Kyrgyzstan. This leaves me running the show! Thankfully, two new volunteers have stepped in to fill the gaps – and I’m so happy that they’re able to commit to the project at such short notice.

This week I’ve finished putting together my activities booklet, and I’ve also sketched out a rough plan of the methodology-oriented sessions I’m going to teach. Once at the teacher training centre, I won’t have access to a computer, printer or a photocopier, so I need to make sure that I have compiled all my materials and emailed them to the office in Bishkek before my arrival. It will be interesting to see how I survive without the internet…

June has also brought some interesting developments on the FELLOW front: we sent one of our committee members to this event in Birmingham, and I had a very productive meeting with a senior member of the University with regard to educational provision for displaced persons in Oxford. I hope that I will be able to share some exciting outcomes from that conversation soon!

Finally, I’ve also made a big professional change: from August, I’ll be taking a sabbatical from the big wide world of ELT and making my first forays into Change Management! I’m really looking forward to trying something new, and I’m hoping to take away some innovative ideas that I can employ in my teaching and training. I can feel a few more blog posts coming on…

Bilingualism and the Brain

One of the best things about living in Oxford is having access to the inner workings of one of the world’s most famous universities, although I’m ashamed to say that I don’t take advantage of this privilege very often.

Last week, however, I found the time to attend an interdisciplinary seminar called ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’. The seminar was part of a series called ‘Brain and Mind – from Concrete to Abstract’, the aim of which is to bring together academics from the sciences and the humanities to discuss approaches to a variety of different topics. ‘Bilingualism and the Brain’ took place in the beautiful surroundings of St Hilda’s College (finally: a reason for me to visit!), and involved presentations from five different academics as well as an interdisciplinary discussion panel. The real draw for me was Dr Victoria Murphy: I’ve heard her speak before, and she has done a lot of interesting research into both language acquisition and EAL (English as an Additional Language). More on that another time, though! Here are a few interesting facts I learned during the seminar:

I’m bilingual!

Or thereabouts… In her opening speech, Dr Kerstin Hoge defined a bilingual person as someone ‘who uses more than one language creatively’ (as opposed to someone who knows a range of lexical chunks, but cannot manipulate that language). I had always considered bilingualism to mean native speaker fluency in two languages, but Dr Hoge pointed out that proficiency can wax and wane (I can definitely attest to that!), and the definition of ‘bilingualism’ is the same regardless of when you start learning the second language.

After brain damage, language abilities return at different rates.

Dr Kate Watkins talked about aphasia in bilingual people following strokes. When aphasia occurs, the two languages usually recover at different rates. According to Pitres rule, the more familiar language recovers first. According to Ribot’s Law, the mother tongue recovers first. A more modern theory is that of dynamic recovery: how quickly and how well the language returns depends on a number of factors, including exposure, age of acquisition, proficiency in the language and the language of the environment in which the patient is recovering.

Bilingualism is a global norm.

Dr Themelis Karaminis conducts a lot of research into bilingual babies, and reminded the audience that bilingualism is a global norm, not an exception. I’m feeling a little less special now…

 The UK has a ‘monolingual mindset in a multilingual world’.

Dr Victoria Murphy presented an overview of EAL in UK schools. She told the audience that in 2014, 19% of primary school students and 14% of secondary school students were categorized under ‘EAL’, and these numbers increase every year. Languages in the UK are also unusually diverse: these EAL students speak over 360 different languages between them! Evidence shows that although bilingualism is a distinct advantage, the UK education system does little to support teachers with EAL students in their classroom, and little to promote and encourage bilingualism.

 

I think I have at least one more post in me about this seminar – mainly on EAL – so I will leave you to ponder those facts for a while. All in all, it was a fantastic seminar and I am very pleased that I made the time to attend.

If you’re in the Oxford area, it’s really worth keeping an eye out for public lectures and seminars. There are loads out there!

Last lesson at FELLOW: breaking news

Last week I taught my first FELLOW lesson of the new term, to a room of largely unfamiliar faces. Over the course of the Easter break we’ve acquired a lot of new learners, and unfortunately this has thrown the dynamic a little bit. The majority of the learners threw themselves into the warmer (a good old-fashioned race-to-the-board team game), but retreated into their shells when we moved into our groups to start the lesson proper. We were inundated with volunteers last week (two teachers and four assistants for one session!), and I’m really grateful that they were there to lend a hand and give our learners some extra support.

I taught the higher group, picking a topical news lesson from One Stop English’s collaboration with the Guardian. Current affairs materials are perfect FELLOW lesson fodder because learners are likely to be familiar with the topic already from their own reading and listening in L1. As the group includes learners of all different abilities, it helps if they already have a good grounding in the topic in their own language. Topical news lessons are also useful to take out into the real world: if we study something really up-to-date, the lesson equips learners with the language they need to make small talk in English with friends, neighbours or colleagues.

My favourite places to ‘shop’ for topical news lessons are One Stop English and Breaking News English. Both are useful, but One Stop English is certainly the gold standard: the lessons are usually fully-formed lessons (with a warmer, neatly set-up reading stages and a productive task), whereas Breaking News English contains reams of activities from which you need to evaluate and extrapolate those which are most suitable for your learners. Normally I tend towards Breaking News English, but I’m still enjoying a free trial for One Stop so I want to use everything I can!

The only flaw in the One Stop lesson plan was its level. The lesson (which you can download here if you have a OSE account) comes in three levels: Elementary/Pre-Int, Intermediate, and Advanced. Macmillan/the Guardian do not have their levelling under control – something they admit in the comments section on the page. They know this, I know this… and it’s something I try to mitigate when teaching with the material.

I chose the Intermediate lesson plan, hoping for something B1/B2. I added in an extra warmer with picture prompts to introduce the topic and make sure that learners were clear about the names and locations of the cities mentioned in the text. I spent extra time reviewing the target vocabulary, and had two assistants monitoring the learners and helping them with the written exercises.

Unfortunately the learners struggled even with this extra support. It took over 45 minutes for us to cover the new language in the text – and that was before we strayed from the suggested topical vocabulary set to explore additional unfamiliar words. We did manage to squeeze in the post-reading comprehension questions before the end of the lesson, and I was really surprised by how well the learners coped with them. That said, the vocabulary tasks were painful – for all of us! – and we needed so much time for them that we never reached the final discussion stage of the lesson. This does happen at FELLOW from time to time, but it is always a huge shame – and leaves me feeling like a terrible teacher!

This lesson wasn’t a great start to the new term: a combination of new learners and unsuitable resources is almost always a recipe for disaster! I think I’m going to have to re-evaluate my source material over the coming weeks.

April: this month I have…

  • Laid the foundations for my trip to Kyrgyzstan (read more here!).
  • Attended fascinating lectures by Levison Wood, Sir Barry Cunliffe and Dr Peter Frankopan that have only fuelled my wanderlust.
  • Started a new term at FELLOW.
  • Written an article about the language of space for Oxford Dictionaries.
  • Planned trips to Stuttgart and Barcelona to catch up with old friends.
  • Attempted to catch up on the highlights of this year’s IATEFL thanks to great blog posts here, here, and here. Thank you for filling me in!
  • Joined a French conversation group in the hope of meeting new people and getting some much-needed language practice.
  • Spent too much money on books…

April showers (bring May flowers)

Now, where were we?

I can’t believe it’s been so long since I have updated this blog!

Well, actually – I can. April has been about as unpredictable as the lovely British weather. I spent the first half of the month in bed (or wishing I was in bed) because I was struck down with an unexplained stomach problem that was so painful that I even ended up in A&E! Happily, all is well now.

Personally, it’s been a jam-packed month: I’ve attended birthday parties, hen parties and dinners – and also managed to squeeze in a weekend visiting my grandparents in The North.

Professionally, it’s been even busier. My two main projects are at critical stages in their development and there is plenty of work to be done. I couldn’t even make it to IATEFL this year, which feels slightly shameful as it was only a 90-minute train journey away! Let’s see if I make it to Glasgow next year…

Over the last month I’m pleased to say that there have been some great developments around my planned trip to Kyrgyzstan.

A couple of weeks ago I had dinner with Claire, the UK coordinator of Erayim’s educational project, to discuss plans for the summer. Claire has loaned me some brilliant books about Kyrgyzstan in English, German and Kyrgyz (!) so I have plenty of reading material to peruse over the coming months – along with my trusty Bradt guide, of course!

Claire and I spent the evening talking about the structure of the teacher training course, which I was pleased to learn involves a mixture of grammar, vocabulary, skills and methodology classes. There will be four volunteers running the course, and we will divide the subject areas between us. This is positive news for me (I do love a good reading lesson) – and I was even happier to learn that the teaching day will end at 3pm. This means there’ll be plenty of time for exploring!

I had a lovely evening chatting about Kyrgyzstan with Claire and, as she’s Swiss, I also got to spend most of our time together speaking French!

I’m also making strides in my plans to secure resources for the trip. At the beginning of the month I launched a materials drive (details available on the blog here) to complement the graded readers that have been donated to the project by OUP. I’ve had a great response to my request for donations so far, with international colleagues and some fantastic ELT authors submitting activities to the cause. I’ve even had some people offer to help me compile and edit! I’ve been overwhelmed by the enthusiasm with which my idea has been received, and I know that Claire has too. Thank you!

Finally – this week I was able to lead my first ever teacher training session! I have co-taught teacher-training sessions before, but Monday evening was my first solo attempt and I was more than a little nervous. I was faced with twelve new FELLOW recruits, to whom I needed to teach basic skills for planning and conducting conversation classes with minimal resources. I also had to cope with minimal resources: the data projector malfunctioned and I couldn’t display any of the sample materials I had prepared. We had to crowd around my tiny MacBook screen instead! Despite the technical issues, I think the session went well and I had some positive feedback from volunteers. Time will tell if they decide to commit to FELLOW, though! One of the favourite resources of the night was 2 Kinds of People: a fun (and stylish) way to get students talking about themselves and their preferences. Good ideas are meant to be shared, but I do slightly regret giving up this one because now I can’t use it at FELLOW for a while! If you know of any other Tumblrs that could form the basis of a good conversation class, you know where to send them…

It’s been a frantic month – and I think this will be the first in a series of posts to get the blog up to speed. Stick with me! And don’t forget to submit your teaching idea for Erayim.

Can you help me help others?

Dear friends and colleagues,

I’m writing to ask if you might be willing to lend some (non-financial!) support to a voluntary project I am undertaking this summer.

In July I am travelling to Central Asia! I am going to provide teacher training and EFL support to an NGO called Erayim, based in Kyrgyzstan. Erayim’s main aim is to improve the lives of vulnerable people through self-help (e.g. community-led co-financing projects), but they also run summer education programmes for children and young people with the support of a British charity, The Erayim Aid Trust. University undergraduates in Russian Studies usually teach these summer education programmes, and last year the programmes involved over 500 children across the country.

During my time with the charity I will run a two-week EFL and teacher training course for local English teachers based in the village of Chaek, in central Kyrgyzstan. I will also contribute to the training of the student volunteers in Bishkek at the start of my stay.

Like me, the majority of the volunteers will live in rural villages where there is no internet access and teaching resources are few and far between. As such, I am working to put together a small booklet of tried-and-tested quick classroom activities for the volunteers to use – and this is where I need your expertise!

I would like to ask if you would be willing to ‘donate’ your favourite classroom activity to the Erayim resources booklet. I’m looking to gather games, activities and teaching tips for the low-resource classroom that have been handpicked by trusted professionals (that’s you!) for use by new teachers in a challenging low-resource context. If you can spare ten minutes to write up your favourite activity, please let me know and I will supply you with a short brief and template. I would like to collect all the activities by 5 June in order to edit, design and print by the beginning of July.

Thanks for reading! If you would like to learn a bit more about student volunteers’ experience with the programme, you can check out their site here.

Best wishes,

Caroline