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.

***

(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.)

Online again…naturally.

All hopes of a new term in class with students have, of course, been dashed. It’s a toughie, because I’m still not convinced that online can or should replace classroom based teaching, and it’s certainly not something I enjoy. It is tempting to pin this blame on the fact that my students are operating with very limited technology and/or technological skills – a long fifteen minutes was spent today on the phone after class today to a student trying to get her laptop camera and microphone to work (unsuccessfully, I should add – in fact I’ve just popped an old webcam of mine into the post to her to see if that works any better). However, I think that no matter the speed and quality of the connection, it’s just not a form of interaction I feel happy with – I’m much the same with family group chats, so it’s not limited to work. And even my own children, well equipped (thanks to a laptop from a generous uncle and a school chromebook) and enthusiastic as they are about school, (lessons and breaks!), are less than enthusiastic about home learning. My son’s “home learning” box where we stash his workbooks and chromebook at the end of each day has been relabelled “poopy home learning”. So there’s got to be something else there. I sort of hope that this doesn’t continue long enough for me to get over it – I don’t want to lose sight of the value of classroom based interaction.

But it’s not all bad, not at all. In fact, there’ve been some positives. Here’s what’s worked well.

Group Text Reminders

As a college, we have the ability to mass text students in a few minutes, using just an email to an administrator. Some colleges I know have this facility available direct to teachers as well. Either way, last Wednesday I texted all my Thursday class, a number of whom were less than stellar with online engagement last lockdown, and when the class started I had only one person missing (she was ill, as it turned out). So that’s a simple but really really effective tool. I’ve done the same for tomorrow, just reminding students to log into Teams at the start of the lesson time.

Breakout Rooms

Hurrah! I had my first successful set of breakout rooms today, and both me and the students enjoyed the experience. It wasn’t perfect – a couple of students got kicked off completely and had to log back in, so I left them to talk in the main room – but it worked. So I have high hopes. One thing I noticed in out set up is that the breakout rooms only worked for scheduled meetings via a calendar, but not for instantaneous channel meetings.

Live Lessons

So yes, it was actually a proper live lesson – way shorter than usual, but with extensive self study follow up and asynchronous discussions. And students listened, and engaged, and contributed. As I’ve noticed before with asynchronous chat, because I had so many students online, a lot of contributions have been through the text chat, where perhaps quieter students have felt more at ease and more willing to engage.

PowerPoint

This has been stripped back. Students are often on mobile phones so instead of being multiline 28 point text it’s a handful of lines at 40+ point. Colours are high contrast (black on white usually) and fonts are, as ever, standard. Post lesson, materials are shared in pdf format as well as pptx and everything has to be mobile friendly.

Mobile mobile mobile.

I don’t care what the prevailing philosophy on differentiation in the classroom is (pitch to the less able and then stretch the more able, pitch to the top and support the less able, or pitch to the middle and do a bit of both; whatever) but when it comes to making decisions about what tech to use, then you can only only pitch to the bottom. The student with the crappiest smartphone and lowest data allowance is the student you should be thinking of when you design your online activities, not the students with all the gear and some to spare. This is entirely to do with inclusivity – if the student with the 6 year old smartphone can access, then so can the one with the top end gaming machine and all the mod cons.

Books & Paper

This year we made the decision to get the students to get a copy of a self study course book. They all did and it’s a godsend. I can ask the students to review pages, check their answers, and come to the next class with questions – brilliant. I’ve also posted out reading texts for the students so I can post questions online, but they can do the reading on paper – a number of the students have said they found online reading hard on their devices. So there are three articles (to see us until half term, I hope) winging their merry way even as I type.

Opening the online classroom

Online lessons always seemed to me to be very teacher-y. It’s very easy to do chalk and talk (which has its place, of course) but interactions and opportunities for “surprise” language are a little harder to come by. I did a nice little activity today where I got the class to prepare for ten minutes to pitch an object to me. They then had 60 seconds each to pitch. We did this as a whole class, and it was great. This also created opportunities for errors, which I quickly typed into a PowerPoint, one error per student, and then we error corrected as a whole group. Really nice, and really focussed on the students’ language use.

Wellbeing

Last lockdown it was more or less every Tuesday, last week it was Wednesday – the lockdown black dog comes to call. You feel listless, grumpy and disinterested. So I’m trying to build a better routine – some sort of exercise, for example, in the form of in-house exercise in the morning, then a ride out later in the day, perhaps early evening, which sort of act as my commute. I’m also enjoying the advantages – lunch with my family, although not like summer when we seemed to have lunch in the garden every day, and the lack of required commute if the rain is really bad! Working with music on is great too, as long as there’s no meeting or lesson on. I’m also making sure that I don’t just read work/study related books but also novels. Films & TV shows are a big help, and I’m working on sleeping both better and earlier.

So that’s what’s been working so far. It’s early days, of course, and a lot can and probably will change. But it’s starting a lot stronger and more cleanly than lockdown 1 in 2020, and so may it continue!

MPhil Reflections – November 2020

I’d really forgotten what this was like. My first experience with this kind of formalised research was back in 2011, when I did the LSIS Research & Development Fellowship, and then another project in the interim, the results of which are here. On the face of it, perhaps, it would appear odd that I never followed through on either of these – after all, the topics of both projects, attitudes to staff development and CPD, and barriers to online learning respectively are ones of general personal interest and of wider value and use to the FE and the ESOL teaching community.

Yet I think, actually, the reasons are very clear, particularly if you’ve read this blog before, or have been following me online in any capacity. The reality is that although I was passionate about both themes, I think I felt that for me as a professional, I had done all I wanted to do with the topic – there was little or nothing left which I wanted to learn, not at that point anyway. This isn’t the same, by the way, as saying I had learned everything about it, and no more work needed to be done – there is loads to be done on both themes – if nothing else, that’s one of the things I learned at the time! No – I was done with those things for me, and really I’ve never felt the need to go back to them.

Fast forward to summer 2018 and I had a go at applying for the ETF supported MPhil – clearly it was an unimpressive application as not only was it rejected, but I can’t actually recall what it was about – probably technology again, something which has been a part of my professional life, like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross, for many many years, despite me sometimes trying to move away from it. Digital technology is important, and useful, and necessary, and fun to play with, and after many many years of experimentation and use, I am now very confident and familiar with it. And while familiarity hasn’t quite bred contempt, it has bred a kind of indifference. It’s nothing to get excited about, it just is, in much the same way that a whiteboard, pen and paper just are. Shrug.

And yet technology crept into my newest proposal – a somewhat split personality, undecided affair, probably influenced by the context (Coronavirus restrictions, lockdown learning, etc.) where I somehow tried to balance up blended learning and dogme ELT/participatory learning. (Interestingly I saw a tweet the other day where someone had done a participatory classroom activity using Jamboard. See? I still like the digital stuff.) So the original proposal was something along the lines of applying participatory approaches to developing a blended learning course.

This was back in August/early September, however, when I really had no idea how the new academic year was going to shape up. In reality the 50/50 blended learning move had a much less dramatic effect than any of us had expected, certainly once some initial technical issues had been resolved or worked around. We just got on with it. Pragmatism was key, with the very early realisation that online was hard for many students on mobile devices. This isn’t the place to go into details, but the reality was that the benefits of remote learning (mobile, interactive, responsive) were not exclusive to digital online learning, and were quickly offset by the practical, technical drawbacks (apps not working on all devices, small screens, no access to multi-window device like a PC, concentration, time/freedom to study.)

So the online learning element of my practice was already on a back foot when I started the online workshops last week, and I was honestly anxious about how the hell I was going to keep the blended learning part of the deal. I wasn’t that interested to start with, and had shoehorned it into the application, plus, in practice, it wasn’t as game changing or as exciting as I thought it was going to be. So what to do? I’d already been reading and rereading some of the work I’d referred to in the original application, but, and this is the really really crucial point, all the texts and so on on online and blended learning were sitting a dusty pile marked “for later” and was redevouring the articles and texts on participatory learning, on noticing, on learning opportunities and affordances, on curriculum design, and on learner engagement, culture and motivation.

The purpose of the workshop this time was to take our original proposal and turn into a formal proposal, which was then to be submitted to an academic panel for review. We would then have to meet said panel, and justify and defend our proposal.

Justify and defend.

Terrifying words, but useful, because they prompted me into a proper analysis of what I was proposing, which I suppose was the point, and so by the time I had my conversation with my supervisor with my redrafted, formal proposal, the only remnant of blended learning was a mention in the (admittedly quite snappy) title “Technology, democracy and participation”. It was a fairly quick job at that point to excise technology and tweak the title to focus on participation, negiotiation and learner-centredness.

And that is where we are now. I’ve been accepted, unconditional offer, did me a good job with the academic panel, I think, and we’re off.

Broadly, very very broadly, speaking, I’m looking at how we can build a course not on external exam requirements, official curriculum, nor on the tedious skills for life learning journey which is nothing more than a slightly creaky assessment model, and still relies on teacher dictated course content, but on student generated content which emerges from lesson to lesson. I’m feeling very influenced by the work of English for Action . The idea is to build on the classroom approach I outlined in a chapter what I wrote a while back on learner responsiveness, mix it up with a little task based learning, perhaps, a more generous slug of dogme elt, and an awful lot of finding out what the background is to all this stuff, but take a course level approach, rather than focussing purely on classroom interaction.

The thing is, whatever you may think of my ideas, or where it sits on whatever dichotomy or continuum you like to use, this is something which genuinely interests me, even excites me. Admittedly it’s partly based on frustration with the dour performance management model of learning beloved of the kind of turgid manager who is steeped in audit and accountability to ever lift their noses past the nearest spreadsheet: a dry system of assessments and targets created in order to place the impression of order on an essentially disordered and unpredictable system. Skills for Life was flawed 20 years ago, and it’s creaking now, although some of its process have weathered the criticisms of many great brains over the years, particularly around the dreaded individual learning plan. As far as I can tell, people have pretty much given up on even beginning to think about those systems critically, perhaps because many of us don’t want to rock the boat.

And there will be challenges along the way – not least from the students, I expect, who will need to be brought in on the thinking from the beginning. I suspect as well that while my immediate manager is supportive of me on this, some of the things I am contemplating (the absence of a recognisable scheme of work, for example) are likely not to go down too well when it comes to quality assurance processes (which favour a very particular model of course planning. Trust me, have a look at your institution’s guidance and tell me there’s not a clear stance on what good practice is in course design). But that’s a challenge for the future. I’d love it if it turned out truly revelatory and disruptive, but equally I’ll love it if it turns out to be just a bit of interesting work for me: the point is the passion. And I might be wrong, completely, utterly wrong, who knows? It could bomb, it could be a nightmare, it could be a living hell which everyone hates. But that’s the point, isn’t it? You test something to see if it works, evaluate it, reorganise it, and you try again. So here’s to the next couple of years!

Pruning Criminal Vocabulary and Other Reflections

When I first started teaching EFL back in the who knows when, a favourite lesson of mine was the vocabulary of crime and punishment. I would link it in to narrative tenses, perhaps, or describing people, using the context of witness statements (and on one rather naff occasion, wanted posters). It never occurred to me at the time that, with the exception of crime in the news, it’s a pretty specialist lexical field. Nevertheless, I did it with the classes I taught, and relevance be damned, because a) it was fun, b) everyone needs to know the difference between robber and burglar, and c) we could almost always end up talking about movies.

When I started to teach ESOL to immigrant students, however, I started to become much more fussy about the vocabulary taught and the topics used – taking into account more of the context of students’ lives, maintaining relevance to learner experiences, and blah di blah di righteous, worthy and well-meaning blah. In more recent years, particularly but not exclusively with higher level groups, my approach to topics and vocabulary has become much less rigid all round. We don’t “do” vocabulary any more, I rarely go into lessons with a neat menu of vocabulary items, and my lexical learning outcomes are suitably non-specific. Instead, vocabulary tends to appear as and when it needs to, making it both more interesting and more useful to students, thus ticking both boxes of challenging and relevant.

Take today, for example. The class are doing a mini-qualification in Living & Working in the UK as a part of their wider study. In one section, students have to write down their free time activities and who they do them with, before finding out about where in the community they can do them (there was a lot of “ignore coronavirus” at this stage). One little discussion from this linked into gardening as a pastime, and the need arose in the discussion for “prune” “cut back” and (my favourite) the verb “deadhead” – all terms of extreme relevance in any discussion of gardens in the UK in November. The words thus supplied, the students could then continue to explain what they were doing in the garden at the moment.

Later on, I’d developed a powerpoint made up of pictures to prompt a discussion about rights and responsibilities – different types of families, elections, health, that sort of fairly predictable thing. The first slide featured a photo of a couple of police officers, one of a PCSO, and a photo of a court – aiming to stimulate the concepts of the right to a fair trial, and a responsibility to be generally law-abiding. It was entirely successful in this, but only after a barrage of discussions, questions and answers which developed into this somewhat scruffy collection of vocab (what can I say, it started well with lawyer/barrister/solicitor and went downhill from there)….

The key here, though, was that almost all of this language was developed out of reforming and rephrasing what students were struggling to say with their current language – “settle out of court” for example, came from a question about whether it was possible to do this in a criminal case (I said “no”, which I hope was right). So I made sure the student in question used the expression, and then we followed through with the discussion. At least two other students deployed the term after that, which is a small win.

It is exactly this kind of conversation which is hard to reproduce online. Not impossible, by any measure; such things could develop in a well managed video based lesson, or through asynchronous online chat, although it would take significantly longer to get to this volume and (in places) complexity.

And it is exactly this kind of conversation which I would like to use to build an entire course – emergent, relevant and needed language, some of which may arise purely in one context, never to be seen again, and some to return again and again and again. “Torrential rain” came up in a lesson on collocations, and has returned several times, much like the rain which inspired it in the first place, but its collocationally restricted companion, “rancid butter”, has been significant in its absence (due, I think, to refrigerators and low fat spread). This is the challenge and the joy of working with emergent language – rather like throwing mud at a wall, some language will stick, and other language will slide down into an ignominious lexical slurry to be forgotten. I don’t believe for a second, however, that careful pre-selection by the teacher, is likely to be any more effective, and while convenient lexical grouping might provide a framework on which to hang the language, it’s not in any way essential. Instead, I think it’s the emergence of language, the student noticing that language, and it’s ability to fill a gap in the students’ need to communicate which causes the “sticking”.

All of which is very unscientific, and based on observations, hunches, and vague memories of long-ago read articles, rather than any kind of sound principle. But it feels right, as much as that is anything to go by, and is worth exploring not only as an off-chance in a one-off lesson, but also considering how to take emergent language and language learning opportunities like this and turn them into some form of solid, manageable course which intrigues me. Luckily I will have the chance to explore this in the next couple of years, and get a little academic recognition in the form of an MPhil, about which I am abundantly excited.

“Well,” he said, “I’m back.”

So, how’s it going with you? I’ve been teaching in a classroom now for almost a full half term. That’s right, back in actual classrooms with actual students doing actual lessons. Well, sort of. The model we’re using is a fifty-fifty model: recruit a given class to full capacity (ish), divide it into two cohorts (bubbles?) and then each cohort gets the same lesson face to face, and then the rest of the work is remote study.

What have I picked up from this so far, then?

The classroom itself is weird. Each room I am in has been laid out with strict reminders about social distancing, don’t move the tables, etc. There is sanitiser in each room, and a large, if depressingly plastic, tub of wipes (one of the most depressing side effects of this last six months has been the rise in bloody plastic bags and containers, and morons dropping non biodegradable face masks quite literally everywhere). This has created new routines – for example, wiping down tables at the beginning and end of lessons. More dramatically, however, it’s created a change in the way that whole swathes of student-student and teacher-student interactions take place: students can’t move together to work, and I can’t walk around giving careful comments on work. So I am restricted to staying at the front of the room, or walking at a distance occasionally. Powerpoint has become a much more vital tool than it had been, as it’s easier to manage from a fixed position, and the animations and other features mean you can create a more interactive process.

My first concern was, however, how the hell am I going to manage speaking and listening. It was, of all my concerns, the biggest, but as it turned out, the most unnecessary. Because yes, a group of 15-20 who are talking at a 2 metre distance might sound like living hell, the reality is that the groups are half that or less, meaning that a group of 10 is quite easy to manage and 6-8 is a piece of cake: interactions are more muted anyway, and with some judicious positioning you can often even listen to them talk. Even when I can’t have them move at all, I get the students to sit in different positions each week so I at least get some verbal feedback on speaking done.

That said, however, classroom interactions have become very much more teacher led. Gone are “check/discuss/compare with your partner” and instead we have extension tasks, self assessment and whole group feedback. None of which are wrong, as such, but it’s beginning to grate. Just today, for example, during a reading based lesson, it felt like an exam, not a lesson, as students worked their way through the reading tasks.

Another thing which is beginning to grate is the repetition. I am lucky/unlucky enough to teach the same level all week. On the plus side, there is plenty of time for planning – after all, one set of resources scanned and printed for all 50 or so students I’m teaching across the week is not a great challenge, and there is the pleasing way that explanations, discussions and whiteboard work develops across the week. And sometimes the first lesson is the zinger, with everything falling into place and then all the subsequent ones feeling a little, well, stale. Hopefully not for the students, but you do sometimes feel that you’ve exhausted the materials.

And this is probably the thing I am finding the toughest. The design of the course means that in theory at least, each pair of groups is in some way the same group, and therefore need to follow the same route. Now, if you’re not in ESOL, or not into this sort of thing, you’d probably be chuffed to bits:”‘Kin ‘ell, mate, planning one lesson a week and posting work online for the other one? Dream, innit.” And it is nice when your energy is a bit low and you just need to get to the end of the day. But I can already sense groups drifting in slightly different directions, with slightly different priorities and different focuses. They are also bonding as groups – certainly they don’t think of themselves as half a group.

What’s working, then? An initial foray into plickers has been fun, but the edge has come off a bit, and I’m more relying on mini whiteboards, or simply (if the group is small enough) using answers one by one. On Monday, for example, I had students write descriptive sentences about pictures, and the process of feeding them back one by one proved immensely productive in terms of emergent language learning opportunities. But this was only possibly because of the smaller group size – a group of 18 or so and it would have been laborious and deadly slow-paced. So what is happening is that the smaller group size is paying off with better individual feedback on this kind of thing, rather than the “quick tick & check with your partner”.

Even simply showing the answers on the board has been more productive due to the smaller classes. Students clearly feel more comfortable contributing in these environments, with a number of students who had been quite reticent in whole class discussions (which I didn’t rely on as a result) becoming much more confident in their larger group interactions.

But what about the online? Honestly? It’s not been a roaring success. We’ve had hiccups with access for a lot of students due to some technical issues, meaning that access was limited. But also we’ve gone weirdly old school and started basing the language input stuff on a course book which the students have bought, and its this which has been a roaring success.

I lay the blame for tech at the door of mobile phones. Students consistently report not enjoying or being able to do reading on a phone. This is partly a formatting issue, and partly a digital skills issue – to read a text and answer questions requires multi-window work on a computer, and on a phone this is real pain in the backside. Listening is better, thanks to those amazing people at the British Council’s LearnEnglish site meaning that these can work quite well for remote learning by phone. Reading now is often given at the end of the previous lesson, as well as on Teams, so that I know all the students can access it, but the online element is fast becoming the back up and the extension, and not the essential element that it perhaps is meant to be.

But to be honest I don’t actually care. I want my students to engage with learning in the classroom and at home, and if books and paper is the way to do this then I couldn’t give a damn. This engagement is infinitely more important than using technology for the sake of it.

Anyway, this is a post which has taken me most of the half term to write, and which has grown and mutated as we have gone along. So apologies if it’s a bit long, but well done for getting to the end, and even more well done for making it to the end of your half term!