We need to talk about course books.

When I started teaching in a private language school, one of the big rituals of each year was choosing your course book. You’d have a look at previous ones, check out the catalogue and thesample copies, and then order a bunch in, paid for by the students themselves, built into the course fees. Over time I developed some favourites. I always liked Landmark from OUP for not being too fussy, and quite solid. Cutting Edge Intermediate i also liked, because it was new back then. But none will ever compare with the mighty Headway Pre-Intermediate, the original one with the yellow cover, my first ever text book. I learned how to explain most of my grammar out of the back of Headway (and later New Headway). They certainly stopped me from having to worry about sequencing language items in the syllabus, or indeed about choosing content, so that I could just get on and do my thing in the classroom. Using course books has had a huge impact on me in terms of how I develop activities in class, and indeed how I develop materials. I will hold my hands up right now and say that I owe a lot to having had the chance to work from course books in the early part of my career.

These days, however, I barely touch the things. Primarily, I think, this is because my teaching context has shifted dramatically, from teaching the privileged and wealthy in private EFL schools to teaching the far more linguistically, socially and educationally diverse students in public sector ESOL in the U.K. When I first made this shift, I used to lament the amount of “wasted” time on selecting or developing resources, when there were perfectly good resources already out there, although I think there was some justification for this: I met some ESOL teachers at that time (c.2004) who would go out of their way to avoid using anything “EFL”, whether it be course books, “recipe” books or photocopiables because they were “too EFL” whatever that meant. This mindset is dying, although is not entirely dead: not so long ago did an observation alongside an external consultant and when I said that the materials were not really appropriate (and eminently adaptable to make more so) she prononced sniffily that they were “too EFL.”

In the last fifteen years or so, my practice has changed. I have shifted my stance to a pragmatic middle ground, picking and choosing what I want from what is out there, in particular resources or activities available online for free. However, what I won’t do is use a coursebook as it is intended to be used: as syllabus, resource and record of learning. And here’s why.

There are the “universal” complaints about global coursebooks. There’s the pinned down, controlled and controlling syllabus. Then there’s the way they date terribly (anyone remember “Guy and Suzy” from a pop band in New Headway Intermediate, or perhaps the badly disguised Posh’n’Becks? Totally, as my children would say, cringe). Then there’s the general blandness of the content – just so much meh. But all of these pale into insignificance when compared to the major problem with global coursebooks in ESOL- relevance.

Global EFL coursebooks are often culturally, socially, and ethically wrong for migrant students to the U.K. precisely because of their intention to appeal to as broad a range of people as possible. You might have a few pages of fairly neutral and recontextualisable stuff in the book, maybe a couple of token safe “issues” like the environment, but then you’ll still have something about wealthy white people on holiday or in an office. I’m really sorry but this sort of thing leaves me cold. How am I supposed to take some glossy magaziney piece about a New York TV presenter, or whatever and make it relevant to the students in front of me? I just had a little look at a more recent book and oh my goodness the middle class privilege apparent in that sample chapter: “a weekend break in Prague” “renting a karaoke booth” “my end-of-year trip to Disneyland”? Or how about renting holiday lets in Vietnam, hotel information or perhaps a short reading on “Young Europeans flock to Argentina for job opportunities.” in this series? There would be so much adapting or repurposing – so much so that I might as well just start from scratch. The course book editors, writers and publishers know where the money is, of course, and I’ll tell you now, it’s not in a community centre in West Yorkshire. Ultimately, and somewhat ironically, the more global course books aim to be global, the less relevant they have become to my local teaching context, even though it typically features students from at least three continents.

When you say things like this the producers of these books will wring their hands and point out their own socially liberal beliefs. They may simply argue that the contextual stuff is irrelevant as “it’s just a vehicle for learning English.” Perhaps they might prefer to argue that politics and criticism has no place in the ELT classroom (PMSL). Really, guys, though, it’s fine, honestly: we all have a living to make, and yours is by making internationally sellable product for large corporations, something which millions of people around the world do all the time in all sorts of industries. I’m just saying I won’t be buying a class set, the teacher’s book, and all the rest because the content is not apprpriate for the students I teach. Soz.

Materials development and selection these days is a deeply eclectic affair. If I use anything preprepared, it’s likely to be something selected from sites like the British Council’s Teaching English or ESOL Nexus. It might be something from SkillsWorkshop, or something taken from one of the big collections of photocopiables. I often adapt authentic texts, because that fits the ESOL context best of all – our students are surrounded by real language all the time, after all, and it makes sense to equip them with the skills to cope with this. And then, from time to time, I might even choose something from a course book. It’s likely to be one I already know, because, let’s be honest, it’s ten times easier to hunt something up online than it is to rummage round a bookshelf, especially when there’s a high probability it won’t fit in some way.

Ultimately, I think, this goes back to how I approach lesson resources. Even when I used to follow a course book, I used to get frustrated when I had an idea of how a lesson should work but the materials didn’t quite fit, and out of this came the notio8 that materials should fit the lesson, and not the other way round. It seems wrong to me to rethink the lesson so that it fits a particular resource. Sure, there’s a lot of people saying “don’t reinvent the wheel” when it comes to resources but it’s my wheel, and I want it to roll my way, and not along the steel rails of some distant course book writer.

(Controversially) Teachable Moments

Things went a bit pear shaped this week. Thursday morning I went into class ready to a nice, predictable “reflect on last year, discuss thoughts about this year” task (using an hourglass as a metaphor) and discovered that more than one student had had a couple of really rough experiences last year so very quickly reverted to a mundane reading task which I’d used with another group earlier in the week on the theme of motivation and why goals fail. This was with the intention of following this up on Friday morning with a bit of a discussion about resolutions, and thence to engage students in a bit of negotiation about what we were going to do in the coming term, and even, if they wanted to, set themselves some targets. After all, I’m OK with target setting if it’s something someone thinks will help them to focus – it’s standing over students and saying “You must have targets and they must be SMART because it’s the rules” which I object to. However, any discussion of this is a moot point, because it didn’t happen. We might do something about it next week, but given my antipathy to target setting, and the fact we’d just been reading about why goals and targets fail, I doubt it.

The plan, insofar as there was detail, was to start with students thinking about what challenges and hopes they had for the year ahead. I calculated how I was going to support those students who might struggle with this emotionally (by keeping the focus fairly light for those students) and had arranged to get students to write their challenges on post its, work in (socially distanced) pairs to compare and ctaegorise their challenges & hopes, to be followed by a whole group sharing and advice giving activity, and some small group presentations, perhaps. From this, I imagined that there would be plenty of opportunities for teachable moments arising, so I fully expected it to expand into the whole lesson.

But life, being life, managed to not let this happen. For one, we had a really poor turnout, due to illnesses (not covid) and other challenges, and as a result I was down to six students. Now, the challenges/hopes lesson was really planned for a much larger majority in the lesson, as there was still going to be a part where we honed down which topics or themes we were going to focus on for the term, and I wanted there to be a more community / democratic focus to that task as I hoped it would stimulate content for future lessons. There had been a nicely productive chat for the first 15 minutes or so, but I could sense this was fading away to a natural conclusion, and I was hunting out the resources for a grammar lesson looking at future forms, based broadly on one I did online last year, and therefore not needing handouts printing (meaning I could move into smoothly, rather than having to leave the room).

And then one of the students (let’s call her A) asked an interesting question loosely linked to the conversation they had all been having. I’ll have to paraphrase briefly as the thrust of the question took some time, but the question was this:

“Why won’t the UK rejoin the EU?”

Old news, perhaps, and a question overshadowed by covid the last couple of years, but a valid one, given the background of the student in question. More importantly, indeed, most importantly, every other student in the class had an opinion. There were grumbles about prices increasing and shortages of certain products, but also a debate emerging over the benefits and drawbacks relating to EU membership, with some students citing reasons for leaving with which they agreed.

Talk about an opportunity. This was a theme about which everyone had an opinion or at least a hunch of a feeling, and about which it was really really simple to draw up a quick table on the board, put the students into two groups of 3 (for maximum opportunity for discussion) to come up with a list of pros and cons of rejoining the EU.

Who needs starters and plenaries, aims and objectives, powerpoints and lesson plans when the world hands you something like this on a nicely polished plate?

Except, and this is a good except, it went even further off. In one group a small side debate arose on the theme of benefits fraud, which hooked in the other group, and which then rose up to dominate the whole class until:

“All Muslims do benefit fraud.”

That sound you heard last Friday at about 10.30 was my jaw hitting the floor. It was a shocking moment, perhaps even more so when you consider that the speaker in question was herself Muslim. The subsequent silence was, as you can imagine, more than slightly awkward.

But again, gloriously, wonderfully teachable. I felt that this was definitely one of those moments where I needed to step in before some sort of row broke out, so we tried to clarify carefully what the student was trying to say. In an attempt to do this, another student added “I think all Asians commit benefit fraud.” Now, as it turns out, the general thrust of this comment was basically “it’s not just Muslims,” and so it was clearly a misguided attempt to mollify the students in the room: although the speaker in this case was not Muslim, she was Asian. At this point, the one non-Asian and non-Muslim student in the room was maintaining a very careful silence!

So where to go with this? There were two points here: the social expectations around equality and respect, and the question of how to actually say what you are trying to say. As a starting point I wrote up “avoid making generalisations” and used both students’ sentences as a means of eliciting/presenting a more appropriate way of saying it – I think we settled on “Based on my experience, many of the people in my area are committing benefit fraud.” What was really nice about this was that during the discussion which followed those language elements started to crop up – “based on my experience…” “I’ve often found that…” “some people often…” This is a Level 2 group, and I admit there’s not a lot here which is Level 2 complexity of structure, based on simple lexical or structural criteria. However, if you look up from grubbing around simple grammar and denotative meaning, and start to consider more complex socio-lingusitic elements, about recognising the power in the words you use and using language to offset that power, this is definitely Level 2. This is alluded to in the ESOL Core Curriculum (at various points on pages 19-22 here, since you ask), by the way, but rarely picked up in assessments and exams, and certainly when I reflect on my own teaching experiecnes, not something I often explicitly teach.

This wasn’t the end of it, of course! The discussion ranged in that lesson from this to various other social issues – fraud in general, child abuse, refugees, the situation in Palestine (as you can probably imagine, this was an especially passionate part of the discussion), corruption and bribery, and a whole host of other things. In fact the original discussion about EU membership fell very much by the wayside, and we only really used it towards the end to bring the conversation back online when it was beginning to drift away.

So what did we learn from all this? First up, I really enjoyed pretty much giving up the general control over the thrust of the lesson, and the feedback from the students was very much that they enjoyed the chance just to speak. They did say that they wanted more error correction, which I think would be a good way to close off a lesson like this – collecting spoken errors and feeding them back for a whole group correction exercise, for example, but I think this could be quite challengiung when you as a teacher are involved in the discussion directly. It’s easier with more structured small group discussions, however, and I would definitely do that. The vocabulary developed was amazing – “cash-in-hand” “loophole” “catch redhanded” “businesses exploit desperate people” and so on, and as I always find in this kind of free-ranging lesson, much richer than I would ever be able to “teach” and also much more valuable.

For myself, I have sometimes found with lessons like this that it can become a bit of a lecture, where I hold forth on a topic in response to a student question, and so I made a specific effort to throw discussion questions straight back to the group rather than respond directly. Even language focussed questions I tried much harder to get the group to address the question, rather than answer the question myself. In general, I think this worked well for this lesson as it drew on the collective knowledge and increased opportunities for students to talk. This did mean a shift, slightly, in the power balance of the classroom – thinking about that last blog post, there remained a sense of “Me Teacher, You Student” but it was much less about me delivering input and more about filling gaps, re-cconstructing language in line with what students were trying to say. The lesson was negiotiated, in that sense, rather than imposed.

Given the strength of opinion, I think I might follow the lesson up with a more generative task around challenges for the new year, and get the students to consider global, national, and regional concerns as well as considering their own personal concerns for the year ahead, and use these ideas a themes for future lessons. I also want to start bringing in more effective “capture” strategies which capture this emergent language and form it up for the students. This is for two reasons – most importantly for the students and for subsequent lessons where revisiting the language will be possible. The second is more for my own research into how this kind of emergent language can form the syllabus, and how it does this,. At the moment the interactive white board is proving invaluable for this – I filled three screens’ worth and was able to export this into a pdf for students, but this definitely needs something for the students. From next week I am going to get the students to start keeping a learning diary of sorts to complete each week to reflect on what they have learned and how they are percieiving the lessons.

What also really has me thinking is that I need another research question – not just about pereceptions of the syllabus emerging, but also who is responsible for what in that curriculum. However, that, I think is a question for another day.

A Critical Challenge

This is an old post which I drafted before Christmas, but it links nicely to something which happened this week, so I’ve chosen to publish it anyway….

There was a story in the weeks before Christmas in the news about an alleged, for I believe it is currently officially unconfirmed, illegal party held by members of the current government. Now, for the benefit of future readers, or indeed myself, the party was illegal because at the time, there were laws in place forbidding such gatherings in order to avoid spreading the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result there is a definite sense of frustration at this rather blatant flouting of the law at a time when people were unable to spend their last few hours with dying loved ones, never mind have a work Christmas do.

At around the same time, the Prime Minister (Boris Johnson, for future reader reference) also announced that his wife had given birth to a baby. And it is here that my little classroom vignette begins.

I went into class on a mid-December morning with the intention of picking up a short piece of vocabulary homework wth the class based on an activity we had started the previous day around the theme of memory. Now, as I was dishing out the lovely advanced learner dictionaries to the students, discussing this and that, as you do, and then:

Student: Did you know? Boris Johnson has had a baby.

Me: I had heard that, yes. I wonder if he hopes people will forget about the party.

Student 1: what party?

Student 2: When we had lockdown, they had a party.

There was a brief moment of silence as this was digested and reflected upon, before the discussion came: “What do you call it when…?” “That is unfair, what is the word…?”

The discussion eventually took in general governmental corruption (almost, at one point, veering towards “my government’s more corrupt than yours”), Covid-19 conspiracy theories, the recent killing of an MP (a bit of a tender nerve because a very popular local MP was killed by an extremist only a few years ago), and the motivations for that.

And this is the language which grew from those discussions – some added by me to help the discussion along, and some directly contributed by or asked for by the students.

So far so critical. This stage of the lesson eventually ran out of steam, so we returned to the previous focus of the lesson, although we included this language in some of the work as it linked to what the students had to say.

This list of vocabulary is likely to produce one of two reactions from the casual observer. The first is the one most closely aligned to my own beliefs, which is something along the lines of “yeah, go for it.” The other is the voice of “reason” saying “ah, but this is you imposing your ideas onto the students. You are indoctrinating them into your own left wing beliefs.” As my research is looking at applying critical approaches to teaching, I do find myself thinking about how far we go with the political in terms of teaching, and perhaps to unpick both of those ideas.

So, as I say, the ideas being expressed in this section of lesson are, by and large, in line with my own. Indeed, they stemmed from my own politically loaded statement (that the PM was hoping to distract from a controversial and unpopular piece of news) so a criticism of the current government was clearly embedded in the discussion from the outset. Now, I could very easily have chosen to close down the topic completely: “still, this is all very interesting, but now class, let us return to learning English,” and, from some perspectives, perhaps I should. While I may be teaching adults, there is still a culture of respect in an ESOL classroom at least where a teacher’s ideas and opinions are considered of importance, whether it be on the nominal subject of the course, or on other affairs. In any classroom, I think, a teacher has power over their students, however they may try to reposition themselves, and as Uncle Ben said, with great power comes great responsibility. So one has to consider carefully how one makes use of that power. What if a student disagrees fundamentally with what you have to say, for instance? By expressing those opinions from a position of power, you run the risk silencing and dismissing those opinions. In terms of inclusion in a classroom like this, it actually doesn’t matter whether whose opinions are “right,” but whether or not those people feel valued and respected, and feel that they have a voice. So you have to reduce your power somehow, or at least increase the power of the students in this setting by asking and inviting opinion, and, really importantly, listening to the students, acknowledging and respecting their opinion. I did make a specific effort to do this, by inviting students to comment, and by linking the language to the students own experiences, which led to some discussion of the relative corruptness and awfulness of dfferent governments – at which point the current regime in the UK came off rather well – as we all acknowledged, at least we can criticise the government without fear of reprisals – the notion here of freedom of speech and thought is vital. Now, I have to admit here to a slight snap in this process where I did let my own feelings override a student – as the topic moved onto covid-19 restrictions, vaccinations, and the like, one student did say that they had heard that the “virus wasn’t natural”and that it had been manipulated by the Chinese for nefarious purposes. That’s a paraphrase, because I shut that conversation down. I did this partly because of the potentially racist sentiment, but also because my patience for consipracy theories is deeply limited these days, but also I believe it is important for people to find out as far as possible for themselves from legitimate sources. Whether justified or not, however, I think I should at least have let the student finish.

The key here, as I have said, is power. A lot of the criticisms of critical pedagogy stem from the idea that this approach is one which imposes a Marxist, socialist, or at least broadly left wing ideology on the classroom, and that by doing so is no more or less indoctrinating than any teaching methods it seeks to oppose. But this is typical of the tendency towards dichotomy so often used by education writers, commenters, tweeters, lecturers, teacher trainers and so on. In order to achieve clarity and precision, theories are presented as opposing “sides”, and no matter how hard the originator tries, the notion that these are two extremes of a continuum tends to get lost in the recall.

So yes, the origins of critical pedagogy are indeed Marxist, and the focus on power and the power imbalances is typical of the left wing (right-wingers are just as interested in power too, of course, as long as it is theirs, not someone elses). But often this is because the ideas developed in, and in response to, extreme situations. Freire, to take an obvious example, was working with extremely disempowered learners, and had direct exoperience of the challenges faced by the students with whom he worked and studied. He was also imprisoned by a right wing military junta, which no doubt helped to harden his opinions to one end of an extreme. More recent writers and projects on particpatory and critical pedagogy in ESOL are also working in extreme situations – Elsa Auerbach, for example, working on projects with migrants to the USA, or English for Action. The latter are a charity working with migrant students, and able to do so more inclusively than mainstream funded provision like general FE colleges and ACL providers (and yes, that is a dig at mainstream providers who probably could do more). The students in question are excluded, for a range of reasons – not so much on the margins of society as hanging off the edge by their fingertips.

What is crucial to note is that critical doesn’t have to be radical. Elsa Auerbach, for example, doesn’t argue for political action in itself, but in encouraging students to become active for themselves and on their own terms. Being critical is not necessarily about radicalising students to become Marxist agitators, but rather about allowing students to examine for themselves where they sit in society, to judge for themselves how they feel about that, and, crucially, enable them to take appropriate action for change. Whether they choose to do that remains entirely up to them. Unfortunately, the contexts to which educators bring these approaches are indeed ones of power imbalance. ESOL students, for example, are rarely privileged, although some do indeed have relative financial comfort and/or positions of respect in their communities.

But to bring this back to my classroom interlude, where does this sit? I don’t think many students went off to write outraged emails, and although we did highlight the freedom of speech which allows us to criticise the government, for example, and the right to protest within the boundaries of the law, I have yet to see protests planned in the coming weeks. And I was careful to highlight when we were discussing contentious issues where my own knowledge was limited, and where something was my own opinion. This does, importantly, involve an eroding of the teacher’s power in the classroom. By conceding that what I say may be flawed, or even wrong, I am chipping away at the notion that the teacher’s knowledge is absolute.

But then I don’t think I’ve ever presented myself as such to students, or at least I don’t like the idea of being the gatekeeper of knowledge to pass to students as

ESOL, Sustainably

I took part in a really interesting #esolchat on Monday on Twitter on the topic of environmentally sustainable practice in ESOL. Like many people, I try to live and work in an environmentally friendly way, and sometimes I do well, and other times rather less well. Now, this is not an authoritative account by any measure, but I have been thinking a lot about my practices, personal and professional, in terms of the environmental impact.

First of all, let’s be clear, environmental impact is a hugely complex topic. For example, according to Mike Berners-Lee’s brilliant book How Bad Are Bananas, a thin lightweight plastic bag has a carbon footprint equivalent of 3g whereas a recycled paper bag is four times that (once you go up in size & quality, of course, things change dramatically – supermarket “bags for life” create 50g and those nice designer paper bags made of virgin paper create a massive 80g). However, there are other impacts to using a thin plastic bag, and as Berners-Lee points out, you are better off using a reusable bag like a rucksack, or even just no bag at all if you can manage it.

Secondly, everything, everything we do has a impact on the environment. We could get really really hung up on this, but simply by being alive we have a carbon footprint, using resources, and so on. And before you throw yourself under a bus in despair, this too creates a massive environmental impact: emergency vehicles (at least 3, probably), hospitals, flowers at your funeral… Seriously, don’t. The issue is one of balance, not of abstinence.

So how bad are we at work, then, and what can we do about it? I try not to think about the pens I have thrown away in the past. I used to casually lob old board pens into the bin with reckless abandon, and probably still would. But what other classroom habits are there which I could address?

Display boards, whether interactive or not, are tricky. I suspect, however, that a well cared for old fashioned whiteboard using recyclable and/or refillable pens is probably less damaging than a modern interactive whiteboard, and probably a blackboard and chalk is better than both (I could be wrong). We use, for example, rather brilliant (I have to admit) boards which are effectively large touchscreen TVs – no projector, and if need be no computer. They should last plenty of time, and I hope we will recycle them properly at the end of their useful lives.

I did some quick calculations using various online calculators – this is very much back of the envelope stuff, and assumes we are using the standard electricity supply at work,

Our current IWBs are this model which has a consumption rating of 107 watts. To work out energy consumption we need to multiply that by the amount of time we use it and divide it by 1000 to get kwh (kilowatts of energy per hour, sort of).

So for our IWBs, used for 6 hours a day, gives us 0.642kwh. I’m going to assume that they are in use for around 5 days a week, 35 weeks a year so that takes the use of a single IWB of this sort up to 112kwh, roughly 26kg of carbon emissions according to this calculator. Not so much, really, when you consider that sitting in a queue of traffic for 5 miles can cost 22kg per day. But things add up quickly. In my building alone there are around 30 or so of these, which makes it up to an annual carbon cost of 780kg. This is consumption alone and we’ve not touched on things like the costs of producing the things, transporting them, installing them, maintaining them, and, eventually, the environmental impact of getting rid of them, with all the various nasties that are inside. We also rarely use them without a computer, so we’d have to factor in that cost as well. Berners-Lee gives us around 12g per hour, so 35x5x12 = 422g, so let’s just say 0.5kg a year for use, plus 50kg per year manufacturing, transport etc., assuming we use the laptop for 4 years, multiplied by 30 again (one per room) takes us to 1515kg. Oh, but then there’s the cloud storage, the servers, and all the other stuff that use of an IWB encourages, which frankly is just too complex for me to work out here but is a lot more than you might think. So the annual carbon consumption needed for 30 rooms to run IWBs is in the region of 2000kg of carbon per year, and that’s left out some pretty big costs that I don’t have time to find. Even so, that’s at least 2 tonnes of carbon being chucked into the environment just for PowerPoint.

What about per teacher? Based on these figures, me teaching one hour in one room with a laptop and an IWB comes to around 25g of carbon for the board and 12g for the laptop, or 37g per hour. I teach 840 hours a year on my current contract, so that takes my fairly conservative estimate up to around 31kg of carbon emitted during a year of teaching. For perspective, that’s not much more than your traffic filled commute. Doesn’t sound so bad, perhaps, but multiply that up for a big college of some 500 teachers and it’s 155 tonnes of carbon.

Then there’s printing. According to this site at least, 100,000 sheets of fresh virgin paper has a carbon footprint of around 6000kg. That’s a lot of carbon, but then again, that’s a lot of paper. If printed, leaving aside the production costs of the machine, a single printed page apparently gives us around 1g of carbon dioxide. I have around 18 students in each class, across each, for 10 sessions. assuming 2 sheets per student per lesson, that’s 360 printed pages a week.

Hang on, let me check that, because that suddenly feels like a lot of paper.

No, that’s 360 pages. A WEEK. Wow.

Across a year based on 35 teaching weeks that’s 12.6kg of carbon. That’s a lot less than the IWB etc., but again, multiply that up for your 500 teachers and you’re into 6 tonnes. It goes down a lot with recycled paper, possibly 50%, but even so that’s a lot of paper. This is all assuming two pages printed on one side, but I’m not sure the printing costs of double sided printing will add much to the base carbon cost of the paper. And yes, I do regularly use 2 sheets or fewer per lesson.

Printing, plus laptop plus IWB then comes to 33.6 kg of carbon dioxide emissions for the basic tools of the job. Paper has got a lot of bad press, but actually even with these very very rough caluculations, with all sorts of conservative estimates and dubious sources, a paper based course, using materials printed on a laser printer, is likely to be much less damaging environmentally. Sure, if you are printing 10 pages per student per week, then that’s a scary amount, and actually close to equal the use of the electronic devices, but simple paper is also much much easier and less resource intensive to recycle, and again, using recycled rather than virgin paper means you could be looking at about half the emissions.

Rooms will need heating and lighting, of course, and then there’s the appliances in the staffroom kitchen, and goodness knows what else. Moving away from carbon emissions, there’s also the matter of cleaning chemicals around the buildings. Then there’s the disposal of materials, for example in FE from practical sessions in creative industries, hair and beauty, motor vehicle engineering, construction and so on. This year’s end of year art show could easily become next year’s landfill. I’m pretty sure all these areas now have a sustainability element, which would include safe disposal of chemicals and materials, but even so, it still has to go somewhere even if it’s not into landfill or poured straight into a river.

So: what to do? I’m an ESOL teacher, so that final point is much less of an issue than for others. However, any changes can only have a cumuluative effect. An easy one is the pointless writing down of instructions, whether on a whiteboard or on paper. We are conditioned, through habit and use of published materials, to include a task instruction on a handout. Let’s say for your E1 lesson on adverbs of frequency, you have 10 single line gap fill sentences in 14 point Comic Sans, with a nice title, some instructions, set at 1.5 line spacing, which would comfortably fill a full page. We could get rid of the title and the instructions, use a lighter, smaller font, shift the margins, and suddenly you can get two per page with minimal, if any, impact on learning. Sounds like a fuss? Maybe, but then again that’s a carbon footprint reduction of 50%. Not bad for five minutes.

Alternatively, does the activitiy need a handout? Unprinted paper is much less environmentally damaging than printed paper, and if you use recycled paper, that’s a huge benefit. So what about dictating sentences for grammar practice from time to time? (If you’re thinking that sounds a bit boring for the students, consider that a) they will practice writing and spelling, and b) clip art and comic sans does not make a gap fill interesting.) And no, you don’t need to put the instructions on the board either? If you’re using it anyway, then maybe? Certainly I use just the board and get students to copy things, for example.

Full texts are a little more challenging, but I’ve tried a couple of tasks which mean that the students write their own questions, for example. Alternatively I dictate a list of words and/or numbers and ask the students to identify their relevance in the text. For gist, the old “predict the content” from the title and students read to identify their ideas is an easy go to. In terms of follow up language work as well, you can ask students to underline key words or structures and use verbal questions to get students to focus on the language in the text. One piece of printout for the students, no IWB at all.

I use scrap paper a lot too. I have a pile of postcard sized paper which I bring to every class, made from old handouts cut up. These are given to the students with questions, challenges, error correction, etc. on as I go round the room. Instead of writing and printing flashcards, get students to create their own on these.

And remember as well that at the heart of every ESOL class is human interaction, and without it you’ve just got a teacher telling students about grammar. Interaction, lockdowns nothwithstanding, needs no technology. Why do you need to write down discussion questions, for example? Why not just ask the students the first question and then see where the discussion goes, feeding new questions as the task progresses?

Reusable resources have a place here as well: laminated copies of photographs, for example, have a huge potential for jumping off points for lessons, and could be used incredibly effectively. Pictures of places, for example, could be used to start role plays, situational and functional language, locational language, alll sorts. Students take a picture and you lead with verbal prompts like “What place is it?” then “Where?” “What do people do there?” “What do you say when…?” Take them in, clean them off, use them again.

Like I said above, though, it’s a whole lot more complex than people think. The thing I haven’t really touched on here is embodying the environmental values in your own life outside of work: after all we are much more than the jobs we do, and that goes for the environment too. I know I’m far from perfect, but there’s something hypocritical about inisisting people cut the amount of paper we use at work, while at the same time driving to work in a massive gas guzzler. I don’t like saying that, because I don’t want to put people off reducing paper, etc., at work, but to get these things right, you have to think about all aspects of your life. We need think about it ecologicially in the broadest sense of the word: how do our lives interact with the world and the environment around us.

Hiatus?

I’m halfway (ish) through an MPhil based on practitioner research, and what feels like a very few months ago I was all fired up, reading, writing, and made quite a lot of progress in a relatively short time – setting out the context and the problem (basically that in ESOL, curriculum design – diagnostics, target setting, comprehensive schemes of work, etc. – is patronising and not fit for purpose.) and starting a literature review (exploring the possible alternative models to said curriculum design) which I am roughly halfway through.

And then in the last couple of months it’s all dried up. Partly, I think because it’s an MPhil, and, naturally, the university want to know that I’m not going to fuck it all up, which requires me preparing abstracts summaries and reports, applications, and so on. This kind of stuff, while I understand its purpose in keeping me on the course, is a long way from sexy things like critically reviewing processes like the (eye roll) learner journey, and so it’s a bit of a chore. And even preparing for a conference felt like a bit of drain on my focus, but again these things are important part of the process; a cog in the big academic machine, if you will. It probably didn’t help that I’ve delivered workshops at conferences before, nor that all I really had to say was “this is what I’m going to do” which isn’t as exciting as “look at what I’ve done”.

A bigger impact, it has to be said, has been the summer holiday and the return to work, the former being busy with family, the latter being, well, just busy. There’s been new routines (my youngest has started secondary school, sob!) and working patterns, new classes, new students, new systems, a new (to us) manager, not to mention adjusting to full class, full time face to face teaching for the first time in 18 months. The presence of a lockdown for the first three months of this year, for example, meant I had more time to dedicate to the writing and reading processes.

So it feels like I’ve not made much progress since about June, which I why I am writing this – to exorcise the demons of distraction, as it were, and refocus my energies on the project.

Except that when I sit down and think about it, I’ve not been sitting still. As I’ve said before, I’m looking at using a curriculum model in which the content evolves as the course progresses, based not on products but on processes: a sort of dirty amalgam of participatory pedagogy and dogme ELT, with a hint of task based learning and a splash of critical.

And while I’ve not yet been speaking to the students, as regards data gathering, etc., I have started my first set of reflective notes in an exercise book rather pretentiously entitled “field notes” (hey, it’s my project, I’ll ponce it up if I want to). I’ve also got loads and loads of lesson sketch plans, teaching ideas (six pages, for example, of ideas for working with texts), and a pile of books full of post it notes, and a handful of notebooks with, er, notes in.

The project is, then, progressing. I’ve not yet finished the literature review, but I’ve read the reports, studies and books, and they are informing my ideas, and certainly the writing has taken a break, but the meat and drink, the action, if you like, of action research, is happening. (It’s an action researchy sort of case study, I suppose, but I’ll worry about that later on: the whole research methods and methodology thing always feels a bit navel-gazingly self absorbed to me, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it).

And also because the focus is curriculum design, this means that simply by doing the teaching on the course, and recording/reflecting on this, I am making progress towards the finished product, even if there’s a lot of uncertainty over how this will all go. I’ve also been thinking a lot: which means nothing concrete has been produced – so this apparent absence of product perhaps also contributes to my sense of not having done much (perhaps I have been infected by the “evidencing impact” disease rampant in FE…)

And I suppose that for someone who thinks by writing, with a final product which will be expressed in a massive piece of writing, the absence of formal progress on that piece of writing feels like a hiatus. Ironically, however, by writing this post I have managed to remind myself of how much work I have done, and indeed, am doing. So it may feel like a hiatus, of sorts, but the reality is quite different. That said, I really do need to get writing…

Course planning in the moment

One of the things that always strikes me at this time of the year is that teaching ESOL isn’t a front-loaded process in terms of planning and assessment: I can’t plan out in anything other than the skimpiest details what I am going to be doing week by week next year. I don’t have a tidy sequence of units accompanied by a pile of powerpoints and worksheets that I can recycle year on year. But then it’s also not really a back-loaded subject either: at the end of the course, the students do exams, the exams get marked and that’s it. There’s no coursework to catch up, assignments to be resubmitted, etc.; I hit July and it’s done.

Instead, ESOL is very much rooted in the present – a “now-loaded” workload, if you like. For one, although I could recycle materials and texts, these are often identifiable as being the same by returning students, and if a text is re-used as a reading or listening task, then this raises questions of their value by students coming back. A Level 2 student may take two academic years to fully complete their reading, writing and speaking & listening qualifications, during which time they don’t just study say reading, or speaking & listening, or writing, but rather do all three all the time during the academic year: despite the labelling, exams are not taught as discrete units, but rather they are intertwined, and mixed in with vocabulary, grammar and the rest, which makes it very hard indeed to re-use resources. I usually reckon on re-using materials over a three or four year cycle, alongside all the lesson resources and ideas which, due to being rooted in current events, I will literally never be able to use again, like the splendid lesson I have on the Brexit vote, or the last election, or the introduction of the new £1 coin. And let’s not even begin to reflect on all the lesson materials about the Covid-19 lockdowns which, I hope, will never be used again.

So this year, in line with my research project, I am planning to maximise the “now-ness” of the ESOL context, and explore ways of bringing the emergent to the forefront of the lessons, rather than as an aside or a tangent. I’ve done this from time to time before, with activities based on visual or textual prompts which create in a need to communicate, and from this need comes the language to be learned. It’s a little bit dogme/unplugged, a little bit task-based language learning, a little bit participatory pedagogy and a dash of critical everything. There’s a lot of crossover there, I know, but that’s sort of the point: all of these stances/approaches end up with a similar practical output: students are placed in a position where they need to communicate and this leads to the language. This language needs to be analysed and understood – for me this is where TBLT comes into things as reminder that at some point during the process there needs to be some sort of teaching of the language, and for me this can be explicitly taught and explained, not just reliant on reformulation or error correction. Essentially, I’m planning to teach my next ESOL course as a process-based curriculum, with a view to comparing what comes out of it with what the students would normally cover in that period: contrasting an emergent curriculum wth the product based curriculum which is standard in ESOL.

I’m sure there are a whole bunch of ESOL teachers out there now about to jump down my throat, claiming that their course, based on diagnostic assessments, ILP targets and the Adult ESOL Core Curriculum is terribly learner-centred, that they take their learners’ needs into account in every lesson, that their scheme of work is student-led. To which I would argue that yes, it might feel that way to you, but consider this: you decide which language will be taught and when, you decide which vocabulary will come up, you restrict language if it doesn’t fit the core curriculum level for your class, you, the teacher, are the key decision maker in the classroom. And that’s OK. That’s an approach.

Indeed, what I am suggesting is not removing that decision-making process from the teacher. There will be a need to devise the tasks to generate language interactions, a need to select texts, a need to select the how, and to decide on which of the students’ contributions will be focussed on so that they are not wrestling with over-complex language at too low a level. However, within this there will a much greater focus on the language which emerges from the interactions, and the teacher’s role changing somewhat, relinquising some of the power over the course.

For example, I might have an activity based on photographs of the local area used with some Entry 1 students. In this activity I get the students to name the places, and talk about how often they go there, and why. Maybe they will talk about what they do there. All well and good, and we might generate lots of present simple, lots of contextual vocabulary. But questions will come up in the lesson which might prompt further analysis, or perhaps a conversation about how to ask for information at the job centre, which might lead us to look at request structures. Perhaps it will springboard into a lesson or two on directions. Perhaps, more controversially, a need might arise for a look at past simple or perhaps future forms even if it’s more lexical in approach than analysing the structure in detail. Who knows.

This work might happen in the same lesson, or in the lesson which follows. This is something I could arrange with the students – “Shall we talk more about this in the next lesson?”

Aside from this responsive planning, and the outlining of the activities/stimuli/prompts (I need to work out a good term to cover these) to generate the language, that is all the course planning I intend to do, at least while the project is under way. There will be more detail in the lessons – I’m not going full dogme and just rolling up and saying hello, but the outcomes of the lessons will be unplanned.

I predict barriers. Some will be mine – I do like to know at least roughly what is going to happen in the next lesson, for example. Some will be the students – I think that students do like to know what is happening, and I think I will need to be explicit about this, as well as developing some really good systems for capturing emergent language so that students recognise that they aren’t just having a bit of a chat. I also predict institutional barriers. I work in an FE college, after all, a context where learning is traditionally seen as “delivering” units and “covering” the syllabus. In such a setting, learning outcomes are generally seen as a pre-requisite, even in my college, which has a wonderfully enlightened take on scheme of work and lesson planning. (I’ve probably got colleagues and ex-colleagues thinking “You don’t need detailed lesson plans any more, just like you wanted, and now you want to get rid of learning outcomes? Will you never be bloody happy?”). Again, I think they key there is going to be about recording the language, making the learning clear, even if it is after the fact, rather than before. The focus needs to be on “what have we learned /talked about / uncovered?” rather than “today we will….”

This isn’t winging it, whatever you may think. Planning and preparation will need to happen. Indeed, it will probably have to be very explicit planning so that I can be clear with the students about what is happening. Resources, texts, etc., will all need developing. But, and here is the joy, despite the fact that I will be teaching Entry 2, Level 1 and Level 2 this year, that planning in advance need only happen once. The same prompts, the same activities, will be used by all the groups (although only one will form, I think, the basis of the research project, which will be more of a case study).

Whether it works remains to be seen. Certainly if it’s really falling apart and deeply unpopular with the students, then I am going to have to rethink it fairly smartish. In terms of a research project, it’s OK if it doesn’t work: more interesting will be how and why it didn’t work. In terms of workload – to return to my starting point – I don’t see it as being significantly worse, or better. Even under normal circumstances, ESOL planning and teaching takes time and effort during the year, not before or after, so this is unlikely to be much of a change. If anything, the “as you go” planning will be more stimulating than just grabbing a handy resource book, copying the appropriate pages and walking into class. I know that for me, at least, I will probably plan more carefully and thoughfully than on a pre-planned, resource driven course. If I used a pre-written resource, I rarely plan out how I will use it, and just go with it. It generally works out OK, after all.

So now, all I need to do is devise the activities/stimuli/whatever. Oh, and come up with a really snappy name for them.

Gifts

Back around Christmas 2019 I wrote an unpublished blog post about the astonishing generosity of ESOL students when it comes to gifts, and then Covid happened, and the post fell by the wayside, and eventually got deleted in one of my regular purge of unfinished and/or no longer relevant drafts, Since then, of course, we’ve been going through a global pandemic, classes have moved online, then offline, then half and half, then online, and we’ve sputtered through to the end of two miserable academic years. I’ve changed jobs, had a canine tragedy, my eyesight has become a weird mess where I can’t see anything which isn’t at the middle distance, glasses or no (an unacknowledged side effect of online learning, I suspect), Billy Joel has inexplicably made his way onto my itunes playlist, and oh, by the way, I’ve started an MPhil (hence the drought of blog posts these last few months).

But enough, because there has been one constant throughout all of this, and it goes back to that unfinished blog post from that long ago Christmas: gifts, and especially the givers of those gifts, which, as I work through my last week of the year, is at the forefront of my mind.

If you teach ESOL you’ll know about this, of course. The end of term, Christmas, Eid, whatever, is often an excuse for celebration, and indeed, in pre-Covid times, I would be writing this digesting the first of many large meals of samosa, pakora, dolma, pierogi, pani pol, and no end of other utterly delicious examples of global cuisine. Along with this, at the end of the year, there are often gifts, as well; quite astonishingly generous ones. If you don’t teach ESOL, go find an ESOL teacher and they’ll quickly regale you with stories of that time when they got given a guitar or whatever (that did happen, by the way, although not to me).

It’s not the direct cash value, but the relative value of the gift. After all, not all of these students are well off; indeed, quite the opposite. A box of Ferrero Rocher may not be hugely expensive, for example, but could represent a fair chunk of an indvidual’s income. And I don’t care if I receive anything or not: I do get paid, after all, but these gifts, be they cheap or expensive, never fail to move me, not to mention the cards, jeez, yes, the cards. I mean I’m just a bloke doing a job, after all, not some miracle worker, and in fact I should be the one giving the students the gifts.

You see, the gifts are not the reason I do the job. The cards are not the reason I do the job. I do like being paid for the job, of course, on account of having a family to feed, clothe and house, but I like to think that if I were to win the lottery, I’d still want to volunteer as a teacher somewhere. The great gift of ESOL teaching is the privilege of being a part of someone’s life, even if it’s just a for a few hours a week in a community centre. These aren’t just any lives, either, but lives which have experiences and challenges past, present and yet to come which I can barely begin to imagine. Sometimes this sharing is brief and passes quickly, but often it is something which sticks with you for years. Stories of torture and of hanging onto the underside of a truck, or sitting in a boat in the dark across the Mediterranean holding onto your children. Stories of personal tragedy, death, loss, divorce, losing your home. That someone could then come to you and tell you these things, let you a little into that experience, this is the privilege of teaching ESOL. And knowing that you are a part, however small, of the journeyaway from that is even more special.

Don’t get me wrong: I have no illusions as to the relatively small part I play in these narratives: I’m just a bloke in a classroom bumbling on about verbs and features of text. The great gift of ESOL teaching isn’t some middle-class saviour narrative, but rather that someone is prepared to include you in their story in some way. When a student opens up with these stories, it’s genuinely special.

So if you aren’t an ESOL teacher and you see your ESOL teaching colleagues walking down the corridor bearing piles of gifts, bunches of flowers, and goodness knows what else, bear in mind that this isn’t why we do it. The gifts are generous, and always welcome, for sure, but in all honesty, it’s the givers who are really why we do it.

(No) Going Back

It’s a year more or less since the UK went into lockdown for the first time, and covid-19 really took hold here. College closed, as did my children’s schools, all with about three days to get ready for a transition to entirely online learning. In September we came back to a 50/50 blended learning model, before finally, in January, going into a second full lockdown with schools and colleges closed. It’s been one heck of a time coming to terms with it, and adapting how we work to fit into these changes. Some of them haven’t been good, but some of them I think, I will be keeping with me as we begin what I’m sure someone soon will be calling the “new new normal”. (And if not, I claim it as mine.)

Indulge me first, though, while I mention the things which I am looking forward to going back to, post-lockdown. Actually, it’s just one thing: interaction. Spontaneous human interaction in a face to face environment. This has been the single biggest thing I’ve missed, both personally and professionally, during this and the first lockdown. Full fat, high sugar, human interaction, with all those wonderful metalinguistic strategies which are virtually impossible to pick up on a screen, not the watered down Diet Coke version you get through video chat . Let’s be clear, if I was teaching something dourly mechanistic, where I had a bunch of information to get across, then sure, I could cope with the notion of explaining something, setting some questions to check the understanding, assessing the answers, job done. Indeed, it probably works perfectly well online, after all, universities have been teaching like this since always. But there’s something about learning a language which requires interaction, and this is ridiculously difficult to achieve when you’re spending half your time saying “you’re on mute, Amjad, turn on your microphone” and the other half waiting for one of your students to finish talking to their children about having a cup of milk.

Sorry, sorry. Positives, positives. I think I was just wanting to make sure that everything which follows is essentially underscored by my personal caveat that whatever I say from here on in, online is not as good as face to face for learning a language.

So what am I going to take forward? What changes has this virus wrought which will remain?

In terms of professional practice, I’ve loved the almost complete removal of direct grammar teaching from my lessons. Between a book and various online resources, I’ve shunted most of the direct instruction of discrete language items out of the classroom: flipped learning, essentially. This was an idea I’d been toying with for some time anyway, but this has really forced my hand, as we’ve only had time and energy for a relatively brief online lesson each week, where I’ve wanted to maximise English language interactions which students may not get at home. There’s been lots of error correction, discussion, arguments, etc. about grammar and so on, but little by way of grammar presentation. I think I’d like to take this structure forward into a full timetable, if I can, especially as it fits nicely with an emergent language model if you invert the flip, as it were. The usual flipped learning model presents knowledge online, then practices it in the classroom, which is much was I’ve been doing this lockdown, and to a lesser extent in the term before. In an inverted flipped model, the language emerges in lessons through interactions, then the study of that language takes place after the lesson, through work set online or signposted in a physical book. So this is definitely in the mix for next year, particularly as it aligns with my plans for developing an emergent curriculum as part of my practitioner research MPhil.

The text chat has been a real eye opener as well – conversations between students which I would normally miss, for example, but which have been fascinating to watch and be involved in. It’s also been a platform for students to ask questions, joke, interact and participate not only during but also between lessons, which I really really want to capture somehow going forward.

There are also features outside of the classroom which I’ve liked. Online meetings, for example. Obviously, there is unlikely to be much need for these if we’re all back in the building together, but actually, being able to attend meetings online from home has been great. The flexibility of working has been a mixed bag: I’ve always firmly delineated work and not work time, so it’s been a struggle where this has blurred. However, between the lockdowns, we were encouraged to leave the building as soon as possible after teaching, meaning a little more work came home than I would strictly like, but I was able to fit it in around family time. I didn’t come home and flip up the laptop screen – I’m not the kind of parent who can walk into the house and disappear for another 90 minutes: this isn’t 1952, after all. But I can leave bits to be done around other parts of the day, or in little fits at the weekend, and at the same time, making sure that this doesn’t swamp the rest of the time.

Then there’s been the professional development. I have really really come to rely on online networks in the last year – contact with colleagues, even when we were in college, was sporadic and brief, with few opportunities for long discussions. Online, through twitter and through other networks, I’ve been in touch with loads of people from all over, attending events I would never have managed to attend face to face.

It’s not been an easy year, by any measure, although I’ve had it far far easier than millions of people even in the U.K., never mind worldwide, and aside from two family members having a fairly serious dose of Covid, the pandemic has thus far touched me only lightly., for which I remain thankful. And it was a year of changes for me. I changed jobs, for the better, I think, from advanced practitioner to “just” a teacher: an internal restructure forcing my hand to follow through on a decision I’d been considering for several years, which has been nothing but freeing and enlightening and in many ways the removal of a whole stack of baggage, which was in its way holding me back from really getting into research, and into the MPhil.

And that’s the point of the picture at the top of the post. It’s road on one of the cycling routes that the lockdown forced me to start, as I was no longer cycling to work, and a road I didn’t even know existed. The morning before the meeting where I knew we were going to discuss the changes, I went for a ride. This road has a slight incline, enough challenge, physically, which helps me focus thoughts but not so much that it wipes out everything. And it was climbing this slope that I found myself thinking that I can take with me the best of the old; those experiences, those skills, and the people, but get rid of the excess baggage that was weighing me down. This is perhaps the longer term effects of Covid. It’s forced us to explore new things, new routes, new ideas, and allowed us to see what can be jettisoned, what can be adapted, and forced us to identify what we really value in our classrooms. We’ve got a bit of a hill left to climb, for sure, and there might even be a bit more hill on the other side, but we can go forwards taking with us the best of the old, and the best of the new.

“Double Handy” Online Emergent Language.

Sometimes things happen in the most unlikely of places. I’ve been teaching an ICT course online for the last few weeks, which, given that the students are all accessing the course via their phones means no practical PC based ICT stuff (keyboard skills, that sort of thing), but more “theoretical”. It’s meant to be practical digital skills, rather than ICT as such, so there’s been more freedom over content than there is for the oh-so-dry functional ICT qualification, which sometimes feels like it’s been sponsored by Microsoft. So we’ve had a look at email etiquette and security, social media practice, and, today, online shopping.

Now, I have to admit, I was a little out of imagination and steam this week, after a long day of online lesson and the variable pleasure of three back to back meetings, followed by a distinctly more enjoyable online parents evening (as a glowingly proud parent). Therefore, rather than trying to come up with something new I based the lesson on these resources from the British Council – adapting the materials so that each text was read in one screen, rather than as a worksheet. and tweaking a couple of bits as I went, but more or less kept it as is. Sorry, and that, but I was tired, and it’s nice to hand over the task of planning and sequencing tasks to someone else.

It’s a little ironic, then, that I somehow managed to achieve the relaxed informal interactions I’ve been aiming for, where language emerges from the interactions of the students. I have a little bit of a theory about why this sort of chat is hard to achieve online. Video based chat is actually much harder for people to negotiate because the cues, visual or verbal, are trickier to interpret in that setting, with the added confusion of pixelating screens, delayed responses, and so on. It’s a bit of a separate skill in and of itself, and is taking all of us some time to learn. Certainly it lends itself to a different type of interaction than a face to face conversation – you miss those little signs (physical, verbal) which make it clear that someone wants to speak, and you’re actually only left with the stilted pauses while everyone waits to see if the speaker has finished. This isn’t too bad if there’s only two or three people, but if you’ve got a class of 15 or more, it’s nigh on impossible.

In this particular class, however, for reasons I haven’t fully fathomed, the preferred interactions seem to be through the text chat function. Now, because we’ve all been chatting via messenger, sms, etc., for the last goodness knows how many years, the interactions here seem to be much more comfortable. There is a genuine smoothness to the interaction, with jokes, questions, comments and overall a sense of human interaction which (to me) always seems to be missing in a group discussion online.

So here’s a snippet of what happened (reproduced with permission of the students).

Interesting, no? Some of the comments were as a result of spoken prompts from me, of course, but at one point during this exchange, and during an earlier one, I was very very tempted to just sit back and let the conversation flow, and by and large, I did here. The discussion was real and productive, and showed the group of students as respectful, but also being creative with the language and with each other (“Brilliant, you are double handy then”). In short, it was a real conversation, through a format which was familiar and comfortable, and making use of multimedia emoji, “likes” and so on – perhaps employing these as a textual version of those subconscious cues in spoken language.

At the same time as all this was going on I was offering spoken comments: the whole thing started when I mused on the word “handyman” as a way of using “handy” to describe a person. So not only is this happening in written text and emoji, but also in response to, and in line with a spoken interaction. In a language which is, for most of the students, second or third – fully multi modal, if you like. Technology was the enabler here, and the language was full and natural. The multimodal nature of the text allowed me to notice those errors which might have otherwise gone unnoticed, although most of my feedback to students at this stage was spoken,during the lesson I used a range of interactions. for error correction and clarification.

I think there is plenty of scope for discussion about the content and occasionally the attitudes being expressed here, but the students were doing a plenty good job of challenging stereotypes without my needing to come over all Equality Act 2010 at them. This is only a snippet, bear in mind, and the discussions and challenges did continue beyond this point.

What I took from this as a teacher is the value of the familiar chat context – whether it be WhatsApp, SMS, Teams Chat, or whatever. Looking back over this and other lessons and discussions with students and I find myself reflecting that in fact the informal text based chat has often been much richer and more engaging – simple questions and answers and discussions, for example, about the next class, times, dates, holidays, explanations for absences, mock exams, all that stuff, is suddenly much more “scrutinisable” and explorable than they would be in a throwaway discussion in class, where the focus would be on the message rather than the language. Whether I would choose to use that as the focus of a lesson remains to be seen, but it does occur to me now that that could be a really really interesting task….

Not what I thought I was going to say – Reflection on a formally observed lesson

I had my formal lesson observation this week, and as is usual with this, it’s good to have a proper reflect on it before discussing it with the observer. What is (I hope) unique about this one, is that it’s the only one I’ve had of a live online lesson.

It’s the online-ness, I think, which I want to address first. Actually, no, it’s the only thing I want to address, because the fact that the lesson was online is probably the cause of most of what I felt were the shortcomings. Some of these things may have been down to my management, and some of them down to the fact that you simply can’t do some pretty crucial things in an online context, or do them as well, whether in a face to face video class or in an asynchronous text based lesson. That’s a damning statement, and I can hear the edtech evangelists’ blood boiling even as I write it, but I’m going to stick by it.

It was, let’s face it, a deeply deeply mundane lesson. Reviewing a range of comparative and superlative structures and modifiers with high level students. I elicited some opposite adjectives as a warmer, checked where they were up to, reviewed the forms together and then got them to do some practice work. Like i said, mundane. No prizes for innovation in lesson structure, planning, style of lesson, nothing. I ticked a bunch of boxes so it fitted in with various internal expectations (lesson aims shared, that sort of fairly unexceptional fluff), and taught a lesson. I didn’t bother with a plan – we’re no longer required to supply a plan, as long as, in this case, the planning is obvious from the presentation or whatever. I’ve never been a fan of filling in any kind of form for the sake of an observer, even the so called five minute lesson plan (frankly, if you can’t work out what’s going on from the lesson and the resources, you shouldn’t be observing).

I did experiment with a couple of new things. A visualiser, for example, so I could write stuff down live. I had a bit of fun with this by getting the students to compare different items grabbed from round the kitchen, which appeared to work well. it was also my second week of using breakout rooms for pair work, and this worked very well for me in terms of getting in some proper discussions with individuals, clarifying some concepts, error correction, generating new language and ideas, and so on.

Let’s not, however, equate “used some technology bits” with innovation. Anyone with a scrap of confidence can use a web cam visualiser and breakout rooms. There was nothing clever about them, or terribly innovative. Visualisers have been around for years, for a start, and I wouldn’t have used it if there had been a way of writing “live” on the screen using everyday equipment. (The only reason I had the visualiser was because my children had been given a web cam on a stand as part of an animation set last Christmas). And breakout rooms, for all their faff and technological trickery, are just pair work. The technology isn’t doing anything new here, pedagogically speaking, I’m pleased they both worked, of course I am, but they didn’t bring anything new or different to the lesson.

I’m being harsh, a little, because actually the breakout rooms did mean I could talk on a much more personal level with the students, much as you might in a live face to face lesson. The drawback to them is that you don’t get a sense of what else is happening in the room. So, for example, in this lesson, one pair had a question they wanted answering, which I did, but not as fully as I might have liked, because I was always thinking “I need to check everyone is on task”. Normally you can get this from glancing round or listening to the rest of the room: if things have gone quiet, or the focus is drifting in other nearby groups, then you know not to spend too much time. But with online breakout rooms you are effectively blind and deaf to the rest of the class. Now, I know that given the circumstances, breakout rooms are a godsend, and it’s better than nothing, but that’s not the same as being good.

The flaw with breakout rooms captures, for me, the problem with the lesson, which is simply that I could only get a very very limited sense of what the students could do with the language through very fixed, controlled activities. The opportunities in there for what we might call “free” production were highly limited, and the chances for smooth flowing interaction virtually zero. Sure they had some input, it was assessed to an extent, but it wasn’t properly exploited. So much was missing and almost entirely because we were online.

I also need to reassess some of my own approaches here as well. Put simply, fluid interactions as you might get in a classroom setting are going to be occasional and fleeting, and limited to the more technologically confident and well equipped. This sucks. Online learning and teaching lends itself much more easily to the one way system of input and delivery, as Steve Brown explains really really well here, especially if your background is the CELTA stylee input > controlled practice > free practice – I’m guilty of this, I think – as with any time of challenge or stress, there is a need to grasp the familiar, and stick to what you can do without pushing too many limits.

So going forward, I need to make some significant changes. In between classes needs to be the input and formalised practice. Watch this video, read this explanation, do these exercises. Then when we come back to class, we do an assessment task, followed by mini student presentations, small group discussions (not pairs, so I can get round everyone more easily) and we do error correction. No more explicit input in live video lessons. Instead I need to invert everything in order to make the lessons about the learners and their language. I had a much more successful lesson last week in those terms – I asked students to prepare and give a one minute spoken presentation on how an object would change my life. As they were talking, I captured errors from each person’s work and typed it into a powerpoint presentation, which I then shared with the class who suggested corrections as we went along.

I think I will capture this style of lesson more often – each week, get the students to speak, or contribute some writing, and use this as a starting point for any formal learning, which I then set as online study for the next week, then check and review this at the start of the subsequent lesson, before moving onto another spoken or written task, and so on. Sort of like this:

Sure, nothing exceptional I don’t think, but will take a little more though in places, and a lot more work in between to make sure that the online element is posted promptly and usefully. I know some of my groups will have a workbook to use for this already, which will save a lot of effort, but there is plenty out there online and accessible for students if not.

This sort of model is similar to what I was trying to do at the start of the year with the blended learning model we were following, and I think that I should try and maintain it if/when we go back to face to face blended learning, and perhaps even carried forward to when we go back to full time face to face learning.

I don’t think, however, my observer will focus on this as the action points. For one, and mea culpa, I’ve got to admit to this, there’s a bunch of formal tracking gubbins I’ve not got round to doing – not targets, because they’re easy to roll out on the online system, but the stuff around goals and motivations for learning. I held my hand up on this one – I simply kept putting it off again and again, until tomorrow. And we all know what happens with tomorrow. So that’ll be an action point. And I think there’ll be something about assessment for learning, and assessing progress, which I think is the challenge, and does tie in with what I’ve said above. This is the interesting one, because if I’d done a similarly structured lesson in a physical classroom, a lot of the assessment and checking issues simply wouldn’t occur. So really to deal with them is not going to involve throwing technology at the students like Jamboard or Kahoot, (eyeroll), but to readdress how the lessons will be structured from the ground up. I can do it – last week proved that, and I do it in physical classrooms, I just need to make it my default again for virtual ones.

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(I am aware that occasionally people from my own organisation read these posts. For you guys, I know we use a different term, but I’m writing for a bigger audience – everyone else who reads this knows what a lesson observation is. Sorry, and that.)