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…

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.

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

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!

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!