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

March: this month I have…

  • Considered the cultural importance of handwriting thanks to ‘Who needs handwriting?’, a great podcast episode from Freakonomics.
  • Shared this fascinating simulation of reading with dyslexia with my colleagues.
  • Secured my first donation of books for Erayim!
  • Finished reading my first novel in German (Der Vorleser by Bernhard Schlink).
  • Done a spot of tutoring… always fun to teach one-to-one.
  • Signed up for One Stop English (a tutor needs materials!) and been overwhelmed by the amount of content available on the site.
  • Attended a fantastic lecture by Professor Nannerl O. Keohane entitled ‘Women as Leaders’ at the equally fantastic Blavatnik School of Government.
  • Tried Gefilte fish for the first time – and loved it.
  • Spent some of the Easter break walking the Thames Path. Recommended!

The end of term – and two bottles of wine

This week marked the end of another term at FELLOW – we’re on holiday for a few weeks! We celebrated with the customary potluck end-of-term party: FELLOW buys some provisions, learners bring food or drink from their country (or Tesco, depending on how much notice they get), and we play some traditional party games. Pass-the-parcel and musical chairs are long-time FELLOW favourites, but this time we did things a little differently and set up a UK-themed pub quiz using this online activity as our starting point. I’m ashamed to admit that the activity reminded me how little I know about my own country! The quiz was challenging for learners, too, but they were really keen to discover the correct answers and a couple even asked to take home a copy of the answer sheet so that they could study in their own time.

The party was a great success: we had five volunteers to help out, approximately thirty learners to feed and at least one third of our combined weight in Easter chocolate!

I’ve easily attended 10-12 FELLOW end-of-term parties now, but this one struck me as slightly different to most of our previous events. For one thing, there was no musical chairs – but there was also significantly less alcohol. At Christmas we usually prepare mulled wine (alcoholic and non-alcoholic) for learners, and for this party we bought some beer and white wine as well as a variety of soft options. In the past, learners always turned up with their own beer – as well as the occasional Evian bottle of homebrew! – and most people had a drink or two. This year, learners contributed more food than alcohol, and we didn’t get anywhere near finishing the paltry supplies we had bought in preparation for the event.

The leftover bottles of white wine at the end of the night made me realize how much our group of learners has changed since I joined FELLOW in 2012. Four years ago, the majority of our regular learners seemed to come from Central and Eastern Europe. These days, the learners that attend most often hail from the Middle East, and most of them do not drink. We haven’t done a survey of FELLOW learners in a while (not since my first – and last – impact report of 2013), and I think it’s about time we conducted another one.

Our demographics may have altered, but routine does not: I’ve just finished collating teachers’ availability for the coming term, and I am about to send it on to the volunteer who prepares our timetables. Are we going to fill the timetable before term starts? Unlikely – but somehow, it always comes together.

If you live in or near Oxford and would be interested in volunteering with us, please fill out the form on the FELLOW website or use the contact form on this blog. I can promise fun, engaged learners and a teaching situation like no other!

Making mistakes: it’s OK!

All too often I come across students who are scared of speaking English. A good number of people I’ve tutored over the years have requested lessons with me because they want to focus specifically on speaking. A common complaint? ‘Every time I open my mouth, I make a mistake. I know all the grammar rules, but I still make mistakes!’

There’s no shortcut to fix this: the answer lies in practice, be that practice that focuses on accuracy (those pesky grammar mistakes!), or practice that focuses on fluency. I also think that there’s a lot to be said for increasing a learner’s confidence. It’s OK to make mistakes. In fact, it’s fun! While learning Russian, I embarrassed myself a lot, but failure is really part of the process. Once you’ve made a ridiculous mistake (and had it pointed out to you), you are significantly less likely to make that mistake again. Here are some of my most memorable Russian errors – laugh away!

  1. The time I wrote an advertisement for a honeymoon package (a class assignment) and targeted the whole piece at ‘you and your special grandad’. It turns out that when you’re learning to write cursive, it is quite easy to confuse ‘d’ with ‘v’. Devushka = girl/girlfriend. Dedushka = grandad.
  2. The moment where I had to play the word ‘diarrhoea’ to win a game of Scrabble – and I couldn’t even spell it correctly! The Russian word for diarrhoea is ponos, but the rules of word stress dictate that the first ‘o’ is pronounced more like an ‘a’. Silly stress.
  3. The lesson with some adult learners when I told them that I had wet myself ‘a little bit’. I had meant to reassure them that one of the students had been running late, but I had let her into the building. It turns out that a small mispronunciation transforms ‘I let her in’ into ‘I let a little out’.
  4. The bus journey through the Swiss Alps when I needed to ask a nauseous young Russian boy if he had any travel sickness medication with him. I learned that the Russian word for medicine isn’t narkotiki, and if you ask an eight year-old if he has any narkotiki,  he will get a bit confused.
  5. The chat with a wayward Russian teen whose may have seen another child’s arm being broken: ‘Don’t worry, you can tell me what happened. I promise that there won’t be a vystuplenie.’ Vystuplenie means appearance or performance; I should have said nakazanye, meaning ‘punishment’. And I had been reading Dostoevsky at the time, too.

Finally, an honourable mention for the best German language mistake I’ve made so far: in my first assessed oral presentation, I informed the examiners that Hitler had indeed been the Käse of the Third Reich. Brings a whole new meaning to the phrase ‘Big Cheese’…

Although most of these mistakes left me red-faced (thanks, Russian speakers), but even more determined to get it right next time. Other than sharing examples of my own embarrassment, I really don’t know how to reassure students that mistakes are not only OK – they’re helpful! Do you have any ideas?

Why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher

This week the British Council republished an old post from 2013 across a couple of their social media accounts. Graham Hall and Guy Cook’s study of own-language use in ELT (available here) is well worth reading if you can spare an hour or two (or jump to p26 for their summary of findings!).

L1 in the classroom has a bad rep. When I was doing my CELTA course, use of L1 was actively discouraged. I didn’t really think too much about this at the time; I didn’t speak the L1 in question (Ukrainian), and I imagined that one of the draws of the private language school was the promise of ‘immersion’ during the class. Although I didn’t know much about language teaching methodology at that point, I had studied languages for long enough to know that immersion = good, and translation = bad.

Fast forward to the start of my teaching career: I was in Moscow and, what’s more, I had moved to Moscow in order to improve my Russian. I was desperate for the immersive experience that had been missing during my university studies in the UK – so I understood why my students were so keen to be taught by a native speaker. More on native/non-native teachers to come from me at another juncture…

Earlier this month, Lizzie Pinard wrote a blog post for the British Council called ‘Why learning Thai made me a better English teacher’. It made me pause – and now, here’s why speaking Russian made me a better English teacher (in, er… Russia):

  • I could draw comparisons. Russian only has three tenses; English has… many more. Fortunately, Russian has aspects (imperfective and perfective), and these can be very helpful when it comes to explaining perfect and imperfect tenses.
  • I could translate. I much prefer teaching vocabulary by showing words in context, and glossing in English, but sometimes the classes moved too quickly. Why hinder a student’s flow when they need a word to continue a story they’re writing? I certainly quick-fired a few translations across the class.
  • I could understand students’ mistakes. If you know a student’s L1, you can often untangle their lexical or syntactical errors more quickly and, usefully, anticipate them when you are planning and delivering your lesson. There’s nothing like staying ahead of the game!
  • I could build a rapport. It’s definitely possible to build a rapport with someone without sharing a common language. However, I found that adult students in particular felt more at ease once they knew that I spoke their language. If beginner students were struggling, they knew that they could take a time-out and clarify a point in their own language. My experience of language learning was also useful when teaching students who were anxious or lacking in confidence: I could reassure them that I had been in their position as well, and I’d made it through.
  • I could laugh at myself (and my students could laugh at me). I’m sure that we’ve all chuckled at our students’ mistakes on one occasion or another. It’s certainly a great equalizer when they can laugh at you instead. During my language-learning journey I have proudly told a class that I had wet myself (note to self: word stress is very important in Russian), and asked a travelsick young student if he wanted drugs (again: ‘medicine’ and ‘narcotics’ are not interchangeable po-russki). And guess what? My mistakes – stupid as they might have been – showed my students that it’s OK to say the wrong thing sometimes. Because it really is! And what’s more, it’s inevitable…

I can’t imagine moving to a country without speaking at least a few words of the native language, or intending to learn. That said, it seems to be the norm and it makes me wonder how different other non-L1-speaker teachers’ experiences have been to mine. Now I’m editing and teaching ESOL in the UK, one of the most interesting aspects of my classroom experiences  has been listening to students whose L1 I don’t understand – and trying to work out as much about their native language as I can.

Короче, L1 в классе – это здорово!

Putting the ‘no’ in inNOvation

A couple of months ago, while on the quest for useful teaching ideas, I stumbled across Stephen Shapiro’s Personality Poker. It’s an interesting personality test: select five cards (using spin/hold buttons) with adjectives that describe your strongest characteristics, then enter your email to discover your ‘custom personality profile’.

So I did. And my result? According to Personality Poker, I put the ‘no’ in inNOvation. I’m the reticent team member; I’m the person who’s going to shoot down your next Big Idea.

It’s hard not to react to this diagnosis when you work in an industry where technology is constantly forced in your face, and ‘innovation’ (through Change, big C) is the order of the day. An Ed Tech email pops into my inbox at least once an hour. And since the beginning of the year I have attended a number of talks where I’ve been told that I live in a VUCA world and I need to – I quote – ‘innovate or die’.

I struggle with the Personality Poker outcome for two reasons.

Firstly, I’m a millennial. I’m not supposed to need stability: I’m generationally predisposed to change jobs every two years, and never buy a home or put down roots. I should thrive in the VUCA world! Like most millennials, I’m a digital native. I’m at ease with technology – and isn’t that where all the innovation is? How dare a free gambling-themed personality test tell me that I am not an innovator?!

Secondly, Personality Poker is right – and we all know that the truth can be a bitter pill to swallow. I do put the ‘no’ in inNOvation. But perhaps not in the way that the author intended.

One of my biggest bugbears about attitudes to technology in education – both publishing and teaching – is that we are all rushing somewhere. In educational publishing (and I’m sure it isn’t just publishing!), innovation rhetoric is rife with hyperbole: content is no longer king, we must innovate or die. In teaching, a lot of fuss is made about the latest app, website, or techy classroom tool du jour. A couple of years ago BETT was awash with 3D printers, being flogged to schools with the promise of preparing their students for the future job market. And yes, it’s expensive, but you can also use it to make coat hooks and trays to use around the school. You’ll save money on furniture!

Believe it or not, I did hear those words in a 3D printer presentation! Twelve months later, I bumped into a Design and Technology teacher at an art festival who confessed that their 3D printer investment had been a complete waste of money: the machine, which handled most of the design work, wasn’t compatible with her school’s GCSE syllabus and the hulking machine lived, unused, in a corner of the workshop. Perhaps not surprising.

If I say ‘no’, to innovation, it is not because I think that our current educational practices are perfect, or there is no better way to deliver learning content than the channels we use at the moment. When I say ‘no’, it is because I am reluctant to be seduced by flamboyant words or grand gestures (future boyfriends, take note). If I don’t buy into the latest Big Idea, does that mean I’m not an innovator? That I can’t change and improve? I don’t think so.

I have been trying to pen an articulate description of my feelings towards innovation and technology in education since early January. I came up with a number of different names for myself: ‘low-fi educator’, ‘slow teacher’ (inspired by slow food), ‘moderate educator’ (moder…ator?). Then I discovered this wonderful reflective blog post by teacher Ben Rimes that helped me to think more about my own identity and refine the jumble of words in my head. I may even have been googling ‘is there anyone else like me out there?’ at the time.

And to answer Ben’s question: yes, stoicism is appropriate in Ed Tech. Actually, it’s appropriate everywhere – and I think we’d all be a little better off if we brought our stoic sides into the classroom (or the meeting room) every now and then.