“I want to ride my bicycle/I want to ride my bike” sang Freddie Mercury in 1978. I’m not sure how genuine his sentiment was, but I tell you now after four weeks of being off the bike, it’s a fairly accurate approximation of how I feel. 

Let’s be clear, I’m not a skinny whippet clocking up 100 miles each weekend, and neither am I prone to throwing a mountain bike around the trails. But I do like to ride my bike: I like the ease of travel, the happy speed/efficiency ratio, the schadenfreude of passing people in big expensive cars stuck in traffic, the satisfaction of climbing a really big hill, the joy of freewheeling down the other side, the contemplative meditative state you achieve, and the sweet open freedom of movement. 

You’ll excuse me for gushing. But I’ve come to enjoy riding, and now, owing to an accident a few weeks ago, I can’t. This is only temporary, thank goodness, but even so I quickly started to come up with a long list of the things I couldn’t do while my arm was in a sling. I couldn’t support myself on that side very well, I couldn’t open jars or get those plastic seals off the top of milk cartons, I couldn’t sleep in the way I liked, I couldn’t hold a book while lying down, I couldn’t pick up my children when they fell over, or wrestle (you need a small boy in your life to understand this), or give them big-two-arm hugs. There were wider consequences: family routines had to change to allow for the extra time it takes to get to work without a bike, I couldn’t go swimming with them, I couldn’t drive on family trips, I was limited in how I could help around the house. As a result of not riding, and the longer journeys, I have come to resent work quite a lot for being nearly 90 minutes away from home, resenting meetings that over-ran by five minutes, resenting stupid relocation of one building to a site on the other side of town to the railway station (a 10-15 minute walk, after all, is an easy two minute ride) . Then there is the loss of  freedom of movement, not the pretend freedom you get from car ownership (free to pollute, free to pay car tax, free to pay for maintenance, and free to sit wasting your life, fuming and frustrated in traffic jams) but actual freedom where it takes you the same amount of time regardless of traffic, regardless of delays, and with a journey, even at rush hour that is always exhilarating and usually fun.

It’s healing now, of course, and now only some of those things remain true. And none of them are the big profound things that might have faced me with a damaged spine, or a lost limb, for which I consider myself very lucky. I’m still alive, as well, which is a big bonus. And all this time I’ve been able to clothe myself (just), wash, eat, cook, clean, read, write, work (only two days off), and in fact do almost all the other things that make me happy. Even though the hugs have been one-armed but they have still been hugs. So it’s not been bad, but the sense of “can’t” has been consistent, and still frustrating. 

So it was I found myself wondering about what you do go through if something properly serious happens: if you know you are never going to be able to do all those things, how long does it take to get past that frustration? How quickly does wistful wishing become outright despair, and how much support do you need to cope with it?

I also found myself thinking of my students: out of all learners, the migrant learning the language of their host country is almost universally defined by what they cannot do. Sure, we mean well, but the very nature of what ESOL teachers do is defined by what or learners can’t. And this sense of can’t must surely be more profound than my shoulder-related niggle: not just in class but in day to day life. Students come to class because they can’t help their children, can’t talk to officials, can’t cope at the hospital, and even if they can find a job, they can’t find a job commensurate with their skills and qualifications.  ESOL students are so often defined by what they can’t

I know ESOL teachers celebrate our students, their abilities and achievements: of course we do, and we must. To offset the deficit frustrations of not being able to use a language, we learn what our students can do, what skills they have: it’s what makes the job interesting, after all. They’re not helpless babies to be pitied and petted, but adults with knowledge and experiences, often a world away from our own comfortable existences: knowledge and experiences which we celebrate, share and engage with. 

Which brings me back to the far less important matter of my arm, and enjoying and celebrating the many things which I can do. So I’d anyone wants me, I may be reading a book, writing a blog post, drinking, eating (probably too much), and, of course, hugging my children. 

A Bunch of Lies

You know, out of all the people who ever read this blog, probably only about six or seven have seen me teach, and of that handful, maybe only two that I can think of have objectively observed me teaching ESOL.

This is interesting because for the vast majority of the people who read this, my reputation as an ESOL teacher rests entirely, absolutely 100% on my self promotion.

And the thing is, all of the comments and the lesson descriptions, the criticisms, reflections and observations, any reference at all to classroom practice could be a big bunch of lies. I could be very carefully constructing a particular professional image based on a few minor aspects of my professional life. I’m not, or at least, I’m not lying when I write here. I have occasionally obscured the truth behind verbal hedges, particularly where individual or institutional reputations are at stake. There’s not really a lot to be gained from making it personal, except where it concerns me, and an awful lot to lose. Most institutions have a “bringing the name of the college into disrepute” type clause somewhere, and that is always there at the back of my mind, even when I am nudging at the edge of the envelope a little.

Most people who blog, tweet, post Facebook updates, all the rest, are managing a particular online presence. I know I am. I’m certainly more cantankerous and shirty online than I ever am in the flesh. Face to face? Big slightly shy pussy cat. Scrub that. Horribly, excruciatingly, agonisingly shy. I suffer from a massive fear of telephone calls, so much so that I have been known, for crucially important phone calls, to write a script to read from to get me started. That bit, by the way, is absolutely true.

Or is it? That’s sort of the point about online personas. I could manage my online persona to be a super-positive techno bubbler who thinks everything is AWESOME, breathlessly excited about some new app or gizmo (Wow! This app can actually make your head disappear up your own rear end, and allows you to reflect on it while you do it!), hyper jolly about all things methodological (Woo! Blooms new digital e-taxonomy revised – second edition!) mega-super-pro-college (Yay! Go Team College!), and it would all be very exciting and would look awfully good on the CV. Or I could work very hard to anonymise my posts and post long, savage, sour and unfair criticisms of the government, my employer, everything.

To be fair, both versions are pretty dull: I want a human when I read a blog, but I don’t want three hundred posts about how pants everything is. I know, at least as well, if not better than you do, how pants it is, and wallowing in your interpretation of that is not my idea of fun. I once had to listen to someone whinge vaguely and incoherently about how they hated setting SMART targets (using such tried and tested arguments as “I’ve been teaching for twenty years…”) and resisting the urge to grab then by the lapels and scream “shut up!” The super excited babbler is also pretty tedious: people with such a low excitement threshold are useful in this world, because they test out everything before the rest of us do, but I’d rather not hear about it straightaway, thanks. (For the record, by nature, I’m whatever the stage is after early adopter. Such people are usually time and money rich, where I’m not, so I let someone else spend their money and effort working out something new before I start to play with it.

In reality, I think most of my online presence is somewhere in the middle. I’m quite careful not to implicate my employer in what I do online, although I may have slipped once or twice. It’s partly because I want to avoid pointless slagging off, of course, but also, and this is quite important, this isn’t college me. The work here is all my own work, both good and bad, and I get full credit both ways, thanks.

Of course, it could all be a complete fabrication, and thus we are back at point the first.

Eleven Questions, times two.

Having been a gloomy bugger these last few weeks, it was nice to be tagged by both Steve Brown and Genevieve White on their blogs for the recent run of blog posts where you get tagged by a fellow blogger, write 11 random facts about yourself, answer eleven questions posted by that blogger, then tag eleven others to answer element of your own questions.

I’m going to cheat on the last of these, as pretty much all of the eleven bloggers I would mention have already been tagged and posted, as far as I can tell. So I’m going to finish with eleven questions, and leave it open to you whether or not you answer them. Or maybe you just think about them for yourself and never ask them. Up to you.

Right. Eleven random facts.

1. I am the oldest of four boys, all more or less two and a half years older than the next youngest, all with Biblical names, although mine is the only Old Testament one.

2. Never, ever say to me “help yourself” unless you really really mean it.

3. My reading swings between very real non-fiction and utterly unreal fantasy/SF.

4. Both my children share names with jazz greats, but weren’t named specifically after them.

5. Depending on brand of shoe, my shoe size is 12 or 13. I therefore hate it when a shop assistant brings me an eleven, “in case it fits” and consequently buy all my shoes online.

6. Drinks, if you ever meet me in a bar, in order of preference: interesting proper beer, Guinness, mass produced lager, grassy-lemony dry white wine, thick and dirty red wine. Thanks. But just wine if you come to visit.

7. I have a yellow front door.

8. I grew up in Banbury in Oxfordshire, but was born in Swindon. The former is famous for a nursery rhyme, the latter for…. for…. erm, well, I’ll get back to you.

9. My favourite country and only destination for emigration is New Zealand.

10. I am an atheist, although more of the live and let live sort than the radical “all religion is evil” variety.

11. I ride a bike mainly for fun and commuting, with exercise as the useful side effect, rather than the other way round.

So, Steve’s questions:

1 What motivated you to start working in education?
English. I like the language, I like doing stuff with it and, if I’m honest, it all really started as a way to make a living while I worked on my fantasy of writing a novel. I’ve still not finished the novel.

2 What is it about teaching that makes it a “profession”?
Hmm. Tricky. I know what it isn’t. It isn’t about being a member of professional organisations, or about managed professional processes, or about who you work for. Professionalism is a state of mind, and is reflected in the way in which you are perceived by people around you.

3 Is language a subject?
Yes. Is that too easy? It’s a subject especially when studied objectively as a thing to be learned rather than as a thing you need to use for a particular purpose. It’s the difference between knowing the way to do something and actually being able to do it. Cf. know-that vs know-how.

4 What can you not do that you would like to do?
Speak Turkish. It’s an agglutinative language with infixes, which is the sort of thing that excites me. I’d also like to be able to repair a bike beyond just the odd flat tyre and adjustment.

5 What do you do that you wish you didn’t do?
Eat too many sweet things.

6 What’s the best bit about your current job?
I’ll come back to you later on that one.

7 What “big idea” are you currently turning over in your mind?
Not so much of a big idea, but a big reflection. Are there universals in education, things which can be applied, consistently, effectively and without exception to all types of education? My instinct is no, but I think people would like the answer to be yes.

8 What’s the best place you’ve lived in?
Devonport, Auckland. I had to travel across the bay by ferry to get to work. The local pub served good food and better beer. There was a lovely second hand bookshop, super friendly library and a small local cinema. We could take a quiet evening stroll up the side of a long extinct volcano and see lovely views to a not so long extinct volcanic island. There was a beach five minutes walk from my front door. An hour or so’s drive in any direction, more or less, took you into places of stunning natural beauty. If there’s anything in that list which is unpleasant, do let me know.

9 Who is the most annoying person on television at the moment?
Television? Since the advent of iPlayer and similar on demand TV, I have started being deeply picky about the TV I watch, so I can’t think of anyone particularly annoying! Possibly some of the people on the very early morning Cbeebies programmes, the ones which are a bit dated, and with which I associate sitting with children and feeling guilty about being too tired to read or do something creative.

10 When did you last learn a new word, and what was it?
uhtceare and I read it in the Etymologicon, but properly demonstrated learning it, that is, formally produced it without looking it up or checking it first, the other week in my especially gloomy blog post.

11 Where would you rather be right now?
It’s the Christmas holiday, my favourite of all the breaks across the academic year, and I’m at home, and am quite happy where I am!

And Genevieve’s questions:

1 When and where are you happiest?
At the moment I’d be very specific and say in my front room, with my family, opening presents on Christmas morning!

2 What makes you want to cry?
All sorts. Any time children are being badly treated, in particular.

3 Do you think Scottish independence is a good idea?
For Scotland, probably yes, for the rest of the UK, probably no. But I’m quite happy, personally, for Scotland to be independent.

4 What is your unsung talent?
Tricky. I have none that I can think of…

5 What is your all time favourite ELT activity?
The NASA game (in Penny Ur, Discussions that Work) or anything like that. I really like that sort of free speaking task which generates lots of discussion and lots of language. I also like just walking in and seeing what happens, although that doesn’t quite count as an activity, really!

6 Where do you write your blogs?
Using an iPad, mainly either sitting on my sofa in the bay window of my living room, or on the train to work. (This is why, just for the record, some of my posts may appear in full 1000+ word form during work time, as they upload when I hit the work networks.)

7 With which literary character do you identify most?
Hmmm, tricky. I really thought about this, as a reader, and I couldn’t pin it down to one character. Depending on my mood and inclination, then sometimes John Wheelwright, the narrator in A Prayer for Owen Meany, sometimes Grady Tripp in Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys (a good novel, but his Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is awesome, as in awe inspiring, as in probably my favourite book ever in the history of books), and more often than not the Gruffalo.

8 If you were an ELT teaching approach which would you be and why?
Dogme isn’t really an approach, but it does reflect me in lots of ways, in that I haven’t planned my life, but tend to work things out as I go along.

9 What would your last ever meal be?
Cheese, bread and pickles. With beer.

10 Where do you think you’ll be ten years from now?
In ten years I’ll be balder and greyer with two teenage children, so who knows. I generally like where I am now, but I’d like to be writing more, maybe with my name on the cover of something. More for kudos than cash, but any money would be nice.

11 Who would play you in a film about your life?
I used to say Kenneth Branagh about the time when be made that version of Frankenstein, because we both had long bushy ginger blond hair and terrible beards, and my girlfriend at the time fancied him. Now, though, I’m not so sure!


To finish, then, my questions.

1. What is the best thing about teaching?
2. …and the worst?
3. What made you start blogging?
4. Have you ever said or done anything online which you regret? (Tell us more…)
5. If you were sent to teach in some remote, non-computer connected corner of the world, what book would you take with you? Why?
6. Do you think that in five years you will be a better teacher, a different teacher, or just the same?
7. What would you do if you had to stop being a teacher?
8. Which song or piece of music affects you most deeply? Why?
9. What is your worst habit?
10. Are there any specific experiences or events which have shaped you as a teacher?
11. How many students in a class is too many?

A Navel Gaze about Navel Gazing

I was just checking through my stats and things when I realised I’d just missed my blog’s second birthday. Hey blog, happy birthday, I thought. Rather scarily this also means I started writing it two months after my son was born. How did i manage that?

Anyway, I’m averaging at least 1 post every couple of weeks, although averages are deceptive. I started very tentatively, maybe a post or two then a month or so hiatus. Now I’m running on about a post a week, which is fun. Rather sadly I have also been enjoying reading the stats for the blog too: there was a huge spike a month or so ago, with my Problem with ESOL post being publicised elsewhere and although I’ve never really managed to hit the lofty heights of hundreds of hits since then, I have managed a fairly respectable regular 50-100 hits a week. Which is nice, but not, as Mike Harrison has said very eloquently, the point of a blog.

And you are probably now wondering, where is the fire, the aggression, the relentless flow of creative and innovative ideas? No? Oh, well, maybe you are wondering where this is going.

Go back up to the title. Read it and bear in mind that you just followed a link to a personal blog. This is important. I’m blogging about blogging today, and fully expect there to be fewer readers of this post. So feel free to leave now and come back when I have something exciting to say!

I like blogging. I kept a diary between the ages of 15 and 18, a life sadly destroyed on my 18th birthday exactly: the details are rather unpleasant, but let’s just say the diary was unreadable. But I also stopped because there was no audience. I was hardly recording my rather tedious middle class teenage angst for posterity, after all.

Blogging isn’t like diary writing. It’s taken me two previous stabs at blogging, one of which is still out there somewhere, I think: the other, thankfully, has been taken down and is as destroyed as it can be. Both experiences taught me two things, which distinguish it from diary writing.

1: blogging needs a focus to work. For me anyway. I’m neither celebrity enough nor a talented enough writer to be able to hold forth on any given subject and gain a following. I have a small following (hi everyone, thanks) mainly via Twitter, in the field of what I do, which is teach ESOL and train ESOL teachers in the UK FE sector. But beyond that (in internet terms) I am Mr Nobody. But the focus helps. A diary is free to ramble, records minutiae, and be a bit tedious. A blog works better if it has a focus to it, otherwise you will lose your audience. Which leads nicely to point 2.

2: blogging has an audience. This is vital. An audience gives writing meaning. It also makes you a better writer. If I am writing just for me, as I do with fiction (which is never likely to reach the wider world) then I can leave something unfinished, or not bother with it, or abandon it, or whatever. With my blog posts I have an audience and therefore an internal editor. This also being nonfiction and nonfiction I feel strongly about, there is a temptation to, as I put it, “go off on one” and the permanent (ish) public record, after a hard learned lesson, is a good yoke on that: knowing thatyour words could be, or indeed are, read by your colleagues and employers, current or future, forces me to be more careful and less emotional about what I want to say. It also forces me to be critical from an outside perspective, both in terms of how I write and how well supported are my assertions. OK, well maybe not always that last point, after all, this isn’t a dissertation, but certainly when I really want to go off on a rant the public audience aspect makes me go off and find stuff out. Of course, when I don’t find anything, like my SMART targets grumble

A blog is personal, yes, but not necessarily private. The transparency this engenders is important. I’ve liked the psychological nudity of the blog about my work, that I have been more or less laying out and clarifying my thoughts and feelings about the work I do: it reflects something of the change that has taken place in my attitudes to classroom practice in the last 4 years or so: here is what I do, come and have a look if you like. An open door policy to my teaching, both in practice and in theory.

So thank you for sitting through this post, I hope it’s been fairly enjoyable. No major insights into, or passionate criticisms of ESOL, FE, or teacher development, alas, but it’s the middle of the summer, and there’s precious little teaching going on, and a token amount of development! So again, cheers and I’ll probably post next in September.

In the Summertime: Thoughts for Next Year

Next year, next year, next year….

For a number of reasons, too complex and annoying to go into at this point, my teacher training next year will be limited to CELTA and a bit of literacy teacher training. Instead I am going to be lucky enough to teach a level 1 group three mornings a week, one L1class for one afternoon, and then a beginner / E1 group two further afternoons.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years with fairly minimal ESOL teaching, but at the same time getting properly out and about in the world of social media stuff for the first time, getting involved in practitioner research properly, going to conferences and generally looking up from the nearby stuff, and looking around at what else is happening.

Which has meant a whole load of ideas and thoughts about teaching ESOL, most of which I’ve not really been able to put into place.

So this next academic year is when I get to do this.

In the last month or so I have been lucky enough to see Melanie Cooke and Becky Winstanley talking about participatory syllabus design using some of the Reflect ESOL tools.

So this got me thinking. It’s interesting because in the last year I’ve read up on dogme for the first time, and, I’ve got to be honest, I’ve always avoided the Reflect stuff based on my own cynicism (sorry, but “the Reflect Mother Manual” from which Reflect ESOL is drawn is not a title to inspire me, I’m afraid) and on account of being a PDF of about 90 pages which I didn’t want to print. but I realised actually that my favourite bits of lessons, and indeed, my best lessons, have, for some time, been the ones which have been unconsciously aligned with these approaches. Indeed I think I have been going through a process of “alignment” for most of my career (since, I think, the day I first read a page from a course book and went “really? Come oooon.” probably in about 2002).

I have, of course, gone into both dogme/reflect with my usual scavenger head on: I don’t fully subscribe to either approach (too many questions, which I know is a little like committing heresy) but I agree with the main principles, which will do. So instead I flicked straight through the Reflect ESOL book to the main “tools” at the back, and thought that, having seen their use so effectively deployed at the NATECLA conference, I will pinch the cause and effect tree idea as a way of developing the syllabus: the roots as the ss writing about their backgrounds, the trunk as “the course” and the branches as the course content and finally fruit as perhaps longer term goals, and/or ideas for future lessoms. Assuming we then have a base room, we can have this on the wall to revisit and discuss as and when seems right. I’ll be intrigued to see what comes out at the top.

The second thing, then, is the idea of basing the course around a class blog. Having seen Richard Gresswell extolling their virtues at the Adult ESOL for migrants Seminar erlier this month, and having experienced them as tools in teacher training, I very much want to exploit them in class. We are supposed to be upgrading our VLE in the new year, so that could be a possibility, I suppose, although for what I have in mind for these learners needs to be learner led, and I’ve not seen a VLE which could realistically claim to be that. So a blog appeals to me at the moment. I’ll still use the VLE for something. Not sure what, but I’m aiming for learners to be confident and regular users of the internet, so would like to remove the barriers as much as possible, particularly with the lower group.

It would then be great to have this blog open to as wide an audience as possible and even better to have a blog shared with another class in another part of the country, or even of the world. That may well happen and would be very cool if it did. I really like the idea of the learners not just writing for me, or for some notional audience, but rather writing for themselves, and for a real audience.

I think I’d like to try a facebook page, for sure, as I’ve seen people do interesting things there and definitely will be encouraging mobile phones in class. I have a lovely image of some wizened inspector of the Wilshaw / Gove mould walking in and finding me and the students accessing Facebook on their mobiles. So my main idea for some practitioner research next year is going to be looking at the whole Bring Your Own Device movement, and what actual access do ESOL learners have to technology outside the classroom. I got quite annoyed at some of the “well, they can go to the local library” attitudes of some people at the JISC conference this year – mainly teachers of young people and adults in a mainstream college setting, so I will forgive them. It is just not that simple for ESOL learners. I might be proved wrong, of course, which would be fab, but that is the point of research.

I am reminded of an OFSTED inspector at the NATECLA conference referring to the fact that e-learning is more than just electronic gap fills. She was absolutely spot on, although undermined by the approach on the Common Inspection Framework that e-learning is basically about the VLE, which is, really, just a great big teacher centred electronic worksheet. Certainly old attitudes to the web and elearning place the teacher in control of the content and the structure of the learning whereas a social media structure to the learning online could make for a much for responsive and learner-driven course.

So I guess I’m looking at marrying up my two obsessions / interests here – materials light, learner driven classroom practice, and my interest I elearning and social media. They marry up nicely: learners an take control of their lives online and offline, as part of a wider English using universe from which learning opportunities could arise, and to maximise those opportunities, in particular using the web as users of English to do things, rather than see it as a cold “practising English” space.