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 went to Kyrgyzstan (part two)

Here’s the second part of a series of blog posts about my teacher training travels in Kyrgyzstan. To read a summary of my trip, click here.

An introduction to Kyrgyzstan

I landed at Manas International airport groggy and dehydrated. Two red-eye flights in a row, plus a mad midnight dash through Istanbul Atatürk airport to avoid a missed connection, had meant little sleep. Plane travel is not my friend: I find it hard to sit still, I choke on the smell of stale coffee, and I really don’t like the food!

Luckily Andy, the volunteer coordinator for the project, was waiting to meet me at Manas International with a bottle of water and conversation to keep me awake. We waited a little while in a small café at Arrivals for one of the British undergraduate volunteers, Rosie, before piling into a taxi and heading to our hotel.

We drove around – rather than through – Bishkek to reach the hotel, so my first impressions of Kyrgyzstan were: dust, watermelons, shipping containers… and Angela Merkel. Dust flying up behind the cars in front of us, children rolling watermelons home along the roadside, shipping containers standing in empty fields, and banners featuring the smiling face of Angela Merkel because she happened to be in town at the same time as us. It was about 10am, and already 30°C.

Happily, Bishkek is a green and leafy city with those broad, open avenues and huge squares that Soviet architects loved so much. When we made it into the city centre later that day, it felt nowhere near as foreign as I had imagined.

Most of our four days in Bishkek were spent eating. Andy took us to Navat, a traditional chaikhana where we ate ridiculous quantities of meat, delicious borsok and fresh jam. We branched out to smaller restaurants where we tried manty (dumplings, often filled with pumpkin or chives) and many questionable types of dairy product. Then on our second day in Bishkek, we were taken to Supara, an ‘ethno-complex’ of yurts and traditional buildings, for our induction with representatives from the women’s NGO Erayim.

The visit to Supara was fascinating: we got to learn a lot about Erayim’s work with self-help groups (micro-financing operations), enjoy a traditional meal, and go on a guided tour of different types of yurts. There are more of these than you might think.

We also played some traditional Kyrgyz games with sheep bones, and did a few getting-to-know-you activities that I did not have to organize! Erayim did a wonderful job of setting up the day, and it was a brilliant way to introduce the volunteers to Kyrgyzstan.

You can see a few photos from the induction here (note the photo of me talking, and everyone looking uninterested!).

And here is a tunduk (the central ring of a the roof of a yurt) for good measure:

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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.

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!

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.