So, that technology thing again. 

I taught a lesson today, during which I used a cassette player. I also couldn’t switch the computer on as I needed the socket for the cassette recorder. So no interactive whiteboard either. 

And do you know what, it was ok as well. The world didn’t end. The listening task was nice, the work the students did was useful, engaging, all those things. Would it have been better with a digital rather than cassette recording? Marginally, perhaps, because instead of rewinding the cassette while students checked in pairs, I would have been able to monitor the conversations a bit, but even then, it wasn’t an onerous task, and I managed it pretty speedily. In to activity, the technology neither enhanced or transformed the act of listening. And neither should it. What about the board, though, did the lack of IWB make things worse? Not realky: if anything it made it better: with an interactive whiteboard I have more or less infinite pages of board, which makes me very sloppy in my boardwork: everything goes up there, uncurated and chaotic. With the limits of the regular one, you have to think carefully about how you are laying it out, which bits you keep, which bits you get rid of. Today I ended up with this, for example: 

It was a fairly organic board (yes, I know that’s a posh way of saying “unplanned”), but it captured everything from the lesson where an IWB would have sprawled across multiple pages. The list in the middle is the answers to the listening task (listen and say what type of relationship it was). The words in the top right and bottom left are the remnants of a discussion that we had at the beginning about different types of relationships (it was tempting to drill “I am in love with you” but propriety stopped me). The stuff at the top left is language that emerged during the final speaking task (tell your partner about three different relationships).  It’s not an award-winningly clear whiteboard, and it only made sense if you were there, but it captured it in one “screen”. 

And I do think this is a valuable skill. I worry with CELTA trainees, in a curmudgeonly kind of way, that they are all learning how to use an interactive whiteboard and PowerPoint before they have really learned how to use a whiteboard. I worry about this because there is a very real chance they may rock up at a job in a year or so and find themselves with nothing more than a few old coursebooks and a whiteboard and pens, and not know what to do with it. Or cassettes: standing there with the original Headway and some old cassettes, how will they cope? Ok, so that’s maybe a little OTT, but you know, I wonder. 

Then there also the sneaky, naughty, not-Best Practice thought that although things like IWBs and digital recordings bring a load of convenience to the classroom (and believe me, I’d miss them) another part of me wonders if  there’s something to be said for the discipline of a whiteboard and a cassette player which makes you think more concisely about what language is happening in the classroom. Or perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I can think of ways of bringing across that focus and  concision into using an interactive whiteboard, so that all the other bonuses of the interactive whiteboard (printability, quick access to google images, that sort of thing) can be utilised as well. 

I realise, of course, that this is a well worn tread for this blog, and I should probably redress the balance and say something warm and cosy about how great technology is. Because it is and it can be, and to be fair, interactive whiteboards are, in and of themselves, pretty remarkable bits of technology, even if they tend to be overloaded with unintuitive, gimmick-heavy software. And a digitally controlled audio recording is damn useful. But there are plenty of blogs and articles out there doing the hard sell, so I’ll leave that job for now. So for now, just remember, using tech is fine, in its place, and so is not using tech. Just don’t be too much in awe of it. 

Fluster

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I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Frank Herbert, The Litany Against Fear in Dune.

I had my formal observation this week, and my feedback. It was, as has generally been the case, a pretty accurate evaluation of the lesson, and, as any observation should, picked up on a couple of bits that I missed, or perhaps was in denial about (like “do the differentiation which you planned.” which is an improvement on “plan differentiation”)

One of the other, less formal bits of feedback was an observation that I fluster, which is interesting because that’s something I’ve seen in other people and commented on as having a negative impact on the lesson. That same fluster and nerves was really the impetus behind my last post about planning as well: frustration, being unhappy with the ideas for the lesson, never mind anything else, all of which was compounded by nerves. The nerves beget fluster, the fluster begets mistakes, the mistakes beget more nerves: the little death becomes the total obliteration.

A bit of nervous energy is not always a bad thing, mind you. If I plan in too much detail, and too far in advance, for example, I get complacent about the lesson, and forget what it is I have planned, treating it as “done”. I plan more or less day by day because I find my brain works better that way, and part of that is nerves: a sense of pressure that acts as a motivator, and I have a hundred better ideas in the house before the lesson than I do in the preceding week.

However, when it comes to formal observation of lessons, why fluster?

A part of it is simple lack of confidence. I was reading the other day about “imposter syndrome” which is where despite being good at something, you lack confidence in that ability and as a result you are convinced that you are about to be outed as a fraud.

Sometimes the fluster cycle occurs simply because something goes wrong that you weren’t expecting: it’s why we get trainee teachers on CELTA to think about things that might go wrong. Mistakes beget nerves and suddenly we find ourselves trapped once more in the nerves-fluster-mistakes cycle.

In this particular case, a small part was to do with something outside the lesson: it would be indelicate of me to comment on what the was, but I was distracted by this and had dropped a bit of professional focus. Partly, I think, it was relief at being somewhere familiar for me, and settling into overly comfortable patterns, and really not following through on it.

But whatever. These things are all well and good. They’re  not the real problem with teacher fluster during observation. In another conversation this week, there was a sense of dismay that teachers should feel nervous at observation, or feel worried about the process.

This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the process in which teachers are being involved. Teacher observation for quality assurance purposes is, essentially, a high stakes summative assessment, like a GCSE exam or a degree dissertation. Whether the lesson is graded or not, if there is the potential for punitive consequences for the individual, then there will be nerves. It’s ignorant and arrogant to suggest otherwise. Never mind the official “don’t forget it’s also developmental” cant, because if it all goes south, a quality assurance observation can be the little clatter of stones that precedes the landslide.

The irony, of course, is that this awareness is more likely to lead to it happening. Almost, I think, something like the rational meditative state implied in the less well known half of Frank Herbert quote is the only answer.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A little dramatic maybe, but it gets to the point – you have to try, somehow, to get past it and work through the nerves. You have to consciously acknowledge the consequences, but also rationalise them. It may be the clatter of small stones, but the landslide may still not happen.  ‘ve only seen the landslide a few times, so to speak. As  awfully new-agey as it sounds, perhaps the answer does lie in some form of meditative reflection before the lesson, an opportunity to rationalise and clarify, and to focus on the important thing – the learning in the lesson. Don’t deny the negativity, or try to gee yourself up, forcing yourself into some manic pixie state of rabid positivity, just let it pass over and through you.

Teach the students, make them learn. Everything else can wait.

Planning – it’s a love/hate thing.

I like planning lessons, that is, I enjoy planning lessons and thinking about what I might do in that lesson, and coming up with interesting ways of teaching something, or practising a skill, or eliciting a language point, or whatever. I like making or finding or developing a resource. I like thinking about how I am going to make sure I can keep everyone engaged and learning. I like planning.

I hate Planning. I hate the boxes, the “have you thought about whichever governmental whim you are supposed to be embedding”, the “we don’t expect extensive planning but we expect you to show us how you will differentiate for the individual needs of your students” double standards. I hate the hair splitting “ooh, your learning outcome isn’t smart enough, and if you reword ‘write 5 sentences using past simple’ as ‘use past simple to write 5 sentences’ you will be fine” (because students couldn’t give a stuff, because all they really understand is that they will be learning about past simple. Although they can’t self assess against that learning outcome until you teach them what it is…). I hate the stupid “assessment” box. Yes, it does look like I copy & paste, because I do, because I use checking in pairs, self assessing against the answers on the whiteboard, teacher marking and all the rest of it most of the time. I hate the tedious, mechanistic “input > output” simplicity a lesson plan form suggests, as if by achieving said learning outcomes, and assessing said learning outcomes means something. It doesn’t. It means the student achieved that once. Whether or not that outcome is now automatically achievable in any setting is highly unlikely.

I hate the way I find it ard to fiddle with a formal lesson plan and make changes at the last minute, even though I will happily chuck the entire lesson out at the last minute for an exciting but semi-formed idea if, and this is important, if the lesson is not being observed.

But actually, of course, what I really hate is that I have an ok set of lessons for the next few days, but they are missing something and I can’t put my finger on it. And there is no form in the world going to help me there.

Victim Blaming: Crash 2

I’ve been off work for part of this week owing to the unexpected appearance of a broken collarbone, courtesy of an equally unexpected driver pulling out of a junction presumably interpreting the words “give way” as merely optional. Naturally this has led to a wonderful set of lovely “get well soon” messages, but also one or two comments meant affectionately, but which raised a whole bunch of questions. “That bike!” said one. “Plonker” said another. (Its worth noting that both comments were followed up with lots of love and concern). What was interesting for me was that these were mild variations of the kind of victim blaming that comes up in these situations: read any article in the news on a road traffic accident involving either a pedestrian or a cyclist, and at some point will be some comment about the cyclist not wearing a helmet or hi vis or the pedestrian not using the crossing correctly, or similar comments: in short, rather than holding the perpetrator of the crime to account, at least some of the blame falls on the victim. It’s a variation of the “she was wearing a short skirt” defence of the rapist. It doesn’t matter, either, that the motorist was driving over the speed limit, or drunk, or not looking properly, there will often be a portion of blame for the accident placed on the person who was most badly affected by it. (A similar phenonomen is the amazing self driving car, as in “a Volkswagen Golf collided with a pedestrian” rather than “a motorist failed to drive responsibly and hit a pedestrian with their VW golf”: a linguistic tool which manages  to remove responsibility from the owner of a large, powerful and potentially lethal machine.) Motorists get terribly defensive about this sort of thing, which is perhaps inevitable when you combine the motorist’s usual arrogant entitlement with guilt.

What needs to be considered here is the degree to which the more vulnerable road user is responsible. Motor vehicles, lets remember, are driven by people, not, yet, by themselves. There is an element of sentience in the user, even a middle aged man in a 4×4, and they’re are not forces of nature or immovable physical objects. Therefore the person in charge of the machine should be held responsible for their actions as default, much as in the Dutch law of strict presumed liability, where anyone wishing to blame the more vulnerable road user for the accident needs to prove it. Certainly the chances of a motorist killing someone with their car (see how that sounds?) are far higher than a cyclist killing a motorist with their bike (but my word have I ever wanted to at times). Proper presumed liability would also, by the way, hold a cyclist responsible if they hit a pedestrian, so really everyone wins. Unfortunately, what we have in the UK is a presumed faith in the ability and inclinations of car drivers, and an elevation of the private motor car to a moronically untouchable state, despite the fact that the infrastructure is creaking as more and more people buy into the myth of freedom peddled by car companies and are simply too lazy to consider alternatives. (I know, you’ve got to drive. Of course you do.)

Whatever. There is a parallel here, as well, when the question of immigrants wanting to learn English gets discussed in the media. You read the online comments on such things, and rather than looking at the systems which have let those individuals down, the focus and the discussion  falls on whether or not the migrant wants to learn (and by association, therefore, wants to integrate) and often to the negative. There’s often a lot of “when I went on my gap year to Italy I made sure I learned Italian” rather than an acknowledgement of the difference between economically comfortable expats and refugees, spouses, and financially strained migrants, most of whom would run, and do run, to any free language classes if they were given half the chance. The insinuation is usually that the migrants are refusing to learn English, and refusing to engage with ESOL classes, when the reality is probably very different. 

In reality while there are certainly some people who won’t engage with ESOL classes, there are a lot of people who simply can’t. This might be because of some cultural or social restraint: family commitments, or, in the sadder cases, family restraints, where spouses are reluctant for their partners to develop independence beyond the immediate family. Far more probable, however, is the simple lack of money: where individuals don’t have the £400 a course, or whatever it is, to pay to learn English. After all, we are often talking about people often at the lower end of the financial ladder. Even the slight adjustment of funding rules to make full funding available to people earning at or below the tax allowance threshold of £11000 (as evidenced by their payslip) would open up classes to a whole range of people who would stand to benefit. 

What lies at the root of criticisms of migrants not learning English is simple prejudice, blaming not the current discriminatory, narrow minded and short termist system, but rather blaming the victims of that system for things beyond their control. It’s prejudicial because the criticisms are usually levelled from a point of majority privilege and power, with little or no knowledge of the situation, and a refusal to engage with or understand that situation. Like the pedestrian being blamed for not checking the road properly before crossing, or the cyclist being blamed for their own death for not wearing a hi vis vest, the immigrant being turned away from ESOL classes is being blamed for their own poverty. 

Comparatives, Superlatives, and “by far the most charismatic teacher in college.”

This week, owing to the arbitrary governmental diktat that one ESOL qualification = 100ish hours, marks the end of our first semester. It’s a weird time, because for students who are not going up a level, it essentially means a week of diagnostics and inductions, then business as normal. It doesn’t feel like the end of a course, even though technically that’s what it is. 

So anyway, I thought it was a good time to teach a lesson which was somehow both a closing off of the course while still maintaining a sense of continuity. Also, after a week or so of exams, target reviews, course evaluations and so on, I thought it might be nice to get the students to learn something. (What’s that you say, targets are part of the learning process? Bless you and your funny ways.) In fairness, myself and the group’s main teacher have both worked hard, I think, to maintain a balance between the more reflective-administrative aspects of the course, and a need for the students to have something to take away from the lessons, but still, a “pure” language lesson, I thought, might be nice.

The lesson, then. I started from an idea around the students making farewell certificates for each other, initially thinking of students simply completing a prewritten certificate. You know the sort of thing: “this is awarded to Julio for being the Hardest Working Student”. Then I worked it through a bit more. What language were they going to need? Superlatives, of course. But this is a Level 1, that is intermediate group, and superlatives alone would be too easy, so I thought we could add in a review of comparatives, and, for good measure, some intensifiers. 

Ok, so next stop, how to get the idea started? Usually when I teach comparatives and superlatives, I like to get students to share personal (ish) information and compare that, but in this instance, I thought it would too similar to the final task, and anyway, a bit easy. So instead I chose to build a context by getting the students to classify a whiteboard full of nouns. Most of these were the traditionally bland items: cities, countries, vegetables, that sort of thing, with a couple of clever dick moments (China, Italy & Hungary to reflect countries of students in the group, plus another 3 countries, Australia, Iceland and Fiji… think about it.) I also allowed my inner imp some playtime and added recent US presidents and UK prime ministers,  including the current incumbents. 


This was quite fun, and I think I judged the complexity of the groupings and and the number of words just right: a quick bit of pair work after working it out individually, before then feeding back to check. These then formed the basis of the practice activities later on. 

Next stop – presentation: I went teacher led, posting example sentences for each structure covering the main points (comparatives and superlatives) around form and spelling, concept questioning in classic CELTA style to draw out and check meanings. After covering each, the students wrote example sentences using the words from the sorting activity. Finally, the students reviewed with me various intensifiers for comparative and superlative phrases: by far, easily, for superlatives, far, much, a great deal, a lot, a bit, a little, a little bit, and a couple more for comparatives. These were then inserted into the previous sentences. 

The final task was the certificates (after a brief tangent into imperial and metric weights and measures – don’t ask). This was simple: students wrote their name at the top, then the “certificate” was passed around the room, and each student wrote a complimentary sentence about the person at the top, with feedback, before the finished certificate being returned to the originator with 8-10 sentences on it, which they could then read. Where students finished early, and to balance things out, I had the students write similar certificates for me and the group’s other teacher, which produced things like this:


It fitted the bill nicely, and was, overall, a good lesson. Like a lot of the lessons I teach now, context was incidental, arising from the classroom and the students, rather than an imposed context. There was a lot of opportunity for language and concepts to arise that I couldn’t necessarily predict, while still having a structure, and an expectation of language production. It was a lesson of ratios: in the first task was the right ratio of nouns and complexity for sorting, and later there was just the right ratio of new to old language, and this created the right level of engagement and focus for the students, with plenty to learn as well as recap. Insofar as it is ever possible to tell, the final sentences suggested, as well, that learning, or consolidation of learning, had happened.

Ob, and one more thing: I didn’t prompt the sentences about me, I promise. 

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

Upgrading Tasks

I do a lesson at Entry 1 and Entry 2 on transport vocabulary. I have the students work in groups and brainstorm vocabulary to do with different forms of transport. They then pass it to the next group who check the vocab and the spellings, then add their own ideas. This goes round until every group has had a look before some sort of plenary. I’ve refined the task into people/places/things of late, so that group A do people (driver, passenger, etc.) then B do places, and C do things. At lower levels I dish out picture dictionaries, and it becomes a research task, at Entry 2 it’s more of a revision/expansion task. 

However, in my head, this is very much a low level lesson, restricted to Entry 1/Entry 2 (elementary) students. So when I did it with my Level 1/Level 2 group I very much expected it to fly by, leaving half an hour for a discussion activity. Needless to say, of course, it did quite the opposite. Sure, the obvious stuff was dealt with quite swiftly (ticket, passenger, wheel, that sort of thing) but we did have a lot of interesting things, like what do we call the person who pushes the refreshments trolley down the train, and why the automated tannoy on the train will announce “we will shortly be arriving into…” rather than “we are shortly arriving…”. My answer to the latter was about clarity, and “action in progress at a specific point in future time. Mind you, for the former I was stumped: I couldn’t think of a generic job title, although I’m sure the train company have something like “refreshments operative”. I did tell the group about “trolley-dolly” mainly because it linked into a discussion we had been having about genderised job titles (“air hostess” vs “flight attendant”) and discrimination at work, but also because it’s silly sounding. 

Whatever: this was a good reminder that with this sort of open ended activity, students tend to choose what they will take from it, rather than being reliant on teacher-dictated input, and I’ve moved away from some of those lessons of late, relying more on teacher generated and controlled input. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of teacher control, but opening the classroom  through activities is extremely rewarding for both me and the students.