August: this month I have…

  • Been recovering from three weeks of fun and teacher training in Kyrgyzstan!
  • Started a new job in Change Management – to be covered on this blog soon.
  • Set up a lunchtime German conversation group with my colleague Rachel, in the hope of putting my language to good use.
  • Eaten some delicious meals at the Chester Arms, the Pickled Walnut, and Manos.
  • Started planning the autumn term at FELLOW.
  • Picked more blackberries than I know how to cook.
  • Met representatives from the University of Oxford to discuss an ESOL project they are planning to support local Syrian and Kurdish communities.
  • Acquired a new housemate!

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…

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 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.

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!

February: this month I have…

  • Completed my first MOOC! (Oxford Teachers’ Academy Teaching English to Teenagers, if you’re interested)
  • Given my French a workout with the help of, a fantastic annual online festival. Check it out next year!
  • Enjoyed (and appreciated) this brilliant Vice article on ESOL in the USA.
  • Celebrated a friend’s birthday with a stand-up set by Isy Suttie, and some delicious Indian street food at Bhel Puri.
  • Considered LX in ELT materials design, with the help of Nick Robinson’s blog post and webinar. I’m looking forward to learning more about this in the coming months.
  • Been contemplating ways of improving FELLOW volunteer recruitment.
  • Been getting excited about my Dad’s plans to learn Italian!
  • Wondered whether Spritz could help me improve my own language skills…
  • Bought my plane tickets to Bishkek, as well as this book – which means I am actually going to Kyrgyzstan this summer!

Last lesson at FELLOW: facing the future

FELLOW has been particularly calm so far this year – no double-booked rooms, dramas or unwelcome intruders – but this week’s turn of events was particularly unfortunate. Four teacher cancellations in as many days! Although we have a lot of eager volunteers, it can be very difficult to find extra support at short notice so, if someone does become unavailable, we usually end up cancelling the session altogether.

Luckily, though, help was at hand. We have a new volunteer who is currently training to be a teacher, and she very kindly offered to teach all four of the short-staffed classes: a first! I am incredibly grateful for her involvement at FELLOW, and I hope she gets a lot out of the experience. Her amazing teaching resources and beautifully-prepped class certainly put mine to shame last lesson.

I took the higher group once again this week and, after the success of my last vocabulary lesson, I was eager to revise the language we had covered and build on the topic. However, plans changed when the previous night’s teacher told me that she had covered future forms with the group, they had struggled, so maybe I could cover it again?

Uh-oh. I’ve had limited success teaching grammar to the higher group and on top of this, I sometimes feel as if my career has been marred by the poor teaching of future forms! I would be the first to admit that I struggle to teach will, be going to and present continuous together: even with the help of the finest grammar books, I find it challenging to communicate the nuances of meaning effectively.

So there we have it. FELLOW. Grammar. Future forms. Yikes.

I had to treat myself to a pre-teaching comfort Burger King to steel myself for the confusion that was bound to ensue.

As it turns out, everything was fine. I began the class with a quick write-your-own-dictionary task to revise vocabulary I’d covered in previous classes. I drew a table on the board that included the target language and asked learners to complete the table with the part of speech, a definition, and an example sentence for each item.

Part of speech Definition Example sentence
toddler noun a child who has only recently learnt to walk My friend’s daughter is an adorable toddler.

Not quite a cohesive vocabulary set, but you get the idea…

Learners got down to this quite quickly and the results were really good. As things are constantly in flux – different teachers, different students – we don’t always take the time to review new language. The activity was definitely appreciated, and I’m aiming to take a few moments to recycle vocabulary at the beginning or end of each lesson in the future.

Then came the scary part: future forms. The previous teacher had led with a text-based presentation and I decided to keep up the deductive approach and ask students to analyse my own set of example sentences, first to establish the purpose (offer, prediction, arrangement etc.) and then to examine the form. We ended up with a learner-generated summary chart on the board that covered all the forms and their meanings. Learners then worked in groups to complete a worksheet of gap-fill sentences, practising the same approach that we had covered in the first part of the lesson. Inspired by Svetlana Kandybovich’s great post on developing gap-fill tasks, I had hoped to do some peer correction: learners would complete two items of the worksheet, then pass to the next learner to correct and then add the next two items. Unfortunately, FELLOW being FELLOW, I had 24 learners and only 15 worksheets. So we collaborated instead! Peer correction happened in groups, and seemed to work well – learners worked together to review another group’s work, before I elicited the correct answers in a class feedback session.

I wish I had had time to focus on production of the target language, but it was 9.30pm before I knew it – and suddenly, class was over.

Lessons learned? I didn’t find future forms as nerve-wracking when I was working with materials I had written myself, and I really liked spending more time on sentence analysis as it required learners to engage closely with the language at hand. I would have liked to have got to a productive task – but next time, better timekeeping needed!