#NATECLA Day 2, vol 2: Democracy & Britishness 

My apologies. It’s been a little over a week and I’ve been sitting on this post that whole time. But bear with me – I hope it’s worth the wait.

It is probably unnecessary to report back on the NATECLA AGM, which, I have to admit, I have only ever attended once before, and that because the lovely people at the Ruth Hayman Trust were going to say thank you for raising money for them (which I strongly urge you to do as well,  because as far as I know they are the only charity that do the kind of work they do to support migrants in the UK). I have to also admit that I can’t decide if I find the whole business of proposing, seconding and voting on motions to be either charmingly democratic, or just a teensy bit archaic. Sorry: I think I am a bit of a dictator at heart, and if I did apply to be co-chair of NATECLA, I worry that I would probably turn out to be a bit like Chancellor Palpatine. Mild gags aside, what really struck me was how much influence NATECLA has gathered in recent years against a backdrop not only of funding cuts to ESOL but also of a worryingly convincing anti-immigrant discourse both politically and socially.

However, business duly done and it was time for what can only be called the graveyard shift at a conference. Almost inevitably things tend to thin out at this time of day as people head home a little early, and all the exhibitors have packed away and gone. I’ll admit that I’ve done this before, but for this one I stayed, because the final workshop I attended was on a theme which intrigues me and I was interested to see what was being said. The session was on “brokering Britain” and the notion of ESOL teachers as “mediators of Britishness.”

It was less of an input, and more of a discussion, starting with an introduction to a book on the theme that Melanie Cooke and Rob Peutrell (with others) were working on, and to which we were contributing, sort of , some of the final chapter. Certainly, the discussion is one which has appeared in this blog before: the responsibility and function of an ESOL teacher as more than just a language teacher, but also as brokers of the dominant social and cultural context in which English occurs in the UK. It’s interesting because it’s something I’ve always been uncomfortable with as a direct “duty”, for example under the Prevent programme, and yet despite this, something which I’ve engaged with in the sense of encouraging active citizenship. This distinction was one which was raised at the beginning of the session: between getting students to engage with democratic processes and to be pro-active in their communities, social activism, tempered with the discomfort of ESOL teaching as a tool of the state, of teaching language as a “social proxy”, perpetrators of the notion that language is a measure of ones loyalty: you cannot be British if you can’t speak English. In that sense at least we are both gatekeepers and prison wardens: “I judge that your language is not yet to standard, therefore you are not ready for the appropriate exam.” This, coupled with the unrealistic learning expectations of students, which I wrote about recently, can taint the relationship between student and teacher.

In our group the discussion hinged around the nature of the texts we bring into class. As a frequent user of authentic texts, it certainly got me thinking about the political edge which we bring to the ESOL class perhaps subconsciously: my sources of choice are newspapers of the left and the centre left (Guardian & Independent), and occasionally to the better quality end of the right wing broadsheets (the Telegraph) or (nominally) politically neutral sources like the BBC. Certainly the choices I make are texts which reflect my own political stance, which was another question we discussed.

One of these discussions that has stuck with me was around the extent to which we admit our own political views in class. I am usually fairly open about my politics in class, albeit prefaced with a disclaimer, along the lines of: “You are welcome to disagree, but…”. That said, I don’t start with my stance or allow it to dominate, at least not consciously, but students are often curious and will ask. An honest question deserves, I think, an honest answer: I’m not a politician garnering votes. And anyway, I’m open, even didactic in my opinion of less contentious issues than Brexit or General Elections. I once based the text analysis in a reading lesson on the way that the writer referred to the participants in a car accident in a way that dehumanises people in favour of the car (“a pedestrian was hit by a VW Golf” rather than the less deft but more accurate “a person was hit by another person in a car.”) The choice of text and theme was linked very closely to an aspect of personal politics, as it were, as well as being an interesting exercise in textual referencing and critical reading. Certainly I would hope that it would encourage the students to start to read about a more personal context more critically, in the way that migration to the UK is reported.

There was more to the discussion than that, of course – the notion of being an outsider to the whole citizenship question, for example, not just as a student but also from the perspective of a teacher who was born elsewhere. I wonder as well if we are brokers of not only Britishness, but also of belonging – agents not of integration and conformity, but rather brokers of our communities. I know that I sometimes feel “outside” the communities that perhaps my own students work and live within: I have yet to work in the city I live in, for example, which grants a sense of distance from the towns and communities I work in – I rarely, if ever, see my learners outside of the working week, and my knowledge of the social geography of their communities is deeply limited. I build on this distance, with comments like “Platform 8 [where I catch my train home]” is my usual answer to “What is your favourite place in the town?”

Needless to say, of course, the notion of the dreaded British Values was raised, but this really cemented that distinction between the view of citizenship as an officially sanctioned status, rather than the more liberal stance – while few, if any, would criticise the Values, per se, there is always that question of whether they are specifically “British” and whether they supersede any other sets of values you may care to mention, not to mention the key question, really, of whether we are just teachers of a language, or whether we are much more than that. I personally would say that we are much more than just language teachers, but that the Britishness we “teach” should rarely be explicit, if at all. Active, progressive, social interactivity and engagement, yes, but preaching whitewashed, nostalgic and officially sanctioned Britishness? No.



#NATECLA Day 2, Vol. 1: guilt, games and gambits

The trouble I have during conferences is that I don’t always sleep well. It’s not a reflection on the place or quality of the accommodation, so I always feel a little spaced out first thing in the morning, and need some rather epic mounts of caffeine to survive. However, this year’s coffee consumption has been a little less than normal, which I think is a fairly positive reflection.

IIn the morning, feeling buoyed up by the first cup of coffee and a plentiful breakfast, was keynote #2 from Rachael Roberts on the theme of guilty secrets of the ELT classroom. Like Russ Mayne a couple of years ago, to was a session more or less geared to make me happy: starting with zombie learning theories and truthiness (the notion that something sounds like it’s right, even though it’s deeply spurious) and then a review of things which people feel bad about. Now, I’ve got to be honest and say I don’t generally feel too guilty about things like dictation, or a little bit of translation, and have had some new ideas and reminders to try abandoned older ideas in these area which is always a good thing.

However, I’m not convinced by reading aloud as a practice, and I enjoyed Rachael’s skewering of the usual justifications, but was interested to think about reading aloud after the students have understood the text so that they are focusing on pronunciation and sound-symbol relationships, and not on understanding the text. She also took on the notionn of sharing learning outcomes on the board, and WALT and WILF: all apparently uncontroversial and pretty much standard practice, but critically viewed from surprising range of quarters, including the originator of WALT and WILF.  I sometimes worry that in post-compulsory education we are too often half a leg behind school education in these things, with a remarkable propensity to start adopting stuff just as schools are beginning to abandon them: we are not good at resisting zombies.

The rest of the day was spent in practical workshops: I’m wary of passing on ideas that belong to others, particularly where those ideas have been freely shared: it feels somehow cheeky and a little disrespectful, so instead here, in purely chronological order, are a few of the things I’m going to be taking away.

In the first session of the day, I went to Michael Fennel’s session on “Set Phrase English”. Like some of the dictation ideas that Rachael mentioned, there was a lot here which reminded me of older ideas, and put a new spin on them – drilling, back-chaining, and some simple yet effective ideas on how to embed some useful conversation gambits (remember the book?) into classes. The idea which stuck with me most was the first one we explored. Michael elicited from us the various question words (and reminded me that I always forget “whose” when I cover this language). Each question word is then turned into full questions about personal things. Michael invited us to ask him the questions first three times each, and each time answered with some slightly different information, before asking the “class” (i.e. us) to summarise what he had said. Thus a handful of simple questions became an opportunity to practice listening and then forming fairly comolex sentences and utterances, and the whole activity was definitely something I could see myself using in a lesson next year.

The second session was on using Socratic Dialogue in teaching. This was, perhaps, a little more esoteric, less obviously groundable in simple classroom activities, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The core notion, if I have this right, is that a small group starts by identifying a global issue (“Is first language in the classroom good?”) then identifying individual, first person examples and issues. These first person examples are then discussed and analysed respectfully, before being used to inform the main issue. This reminded me in many ways of the community of enquiry concept, where participants think of questions around a specific theme, and then decided which of the questions should be discussed. I’ve taken part in these and found them to be very useful. In terms of practical applications, I think that there is a lot of use in an ESOL class around things like class rules, for example, or even, for a suitably mature and high level group, negotiating a syllabus. It also has some interesting possible uses from a teacher development perspective – having a group of teachers discuss and analyse, say stretch and challenge or learning outcomes in order to get a better understanding of what it means and come up with useful solutions and ideas.

After lunch I was worried. I was full of good sandwiches and I could feel the ghost of sleeplessness leaning on my eyelids. Luckily, however, the session I attended was practical, energetic and did a grand job of exorcising the ghost until I could get ten minutes nap in the sunshine before the NATECLA agm. This was around ideas for using phones in class, and even though it covered familiar ground (QR codes, Kahoot) it was still good, as it always is, to kick ideas around with different colleagues, and to properly get to grips with some newer ideas, like Quizlet. Certainly QR codes are something I’d forgotten about a little, and the idea of getting students up and scanning them with their phones is something which has languished in the depths of my memory for a bit too long. It was also nice to be reminded that I MUST go and investigate Plickers.

There is much, much more to be written about what happened after my doze in the sun, but that may have to wait until later, particularly as it involved lots of thought provoking thinking about citizenship and the role of the ESOL teacher as servant of the state, which is a topic I could spend hours writing about. And right now, it’s sunny, and I have a dog who needs walking.

#NATECLA Day 1, Vol. 2: Multilingual Realities

It is perhaps, a small reflection on me, that there is something inherently joyful in the phrase “trans-semiotic translanguaging”. This wasn’t the main focus of the evening talk given by Melanie Cooke and James Simpson (researchers into ESOL since ages, astonishingly clever people and co authors of Still The Best Book On ESOL) but it was a phrase which came up and which has lodged itself into my head quite rigidly. If I get time I might even tell you what it means.

No, the talk was entitled Recognising Multilingual Realities in ESOL and centred around tackling that great classroom taboo: students first languages. Or rather, the “features of [their] multilingual repertoire that centre around” their first languages: this was the focus of the first half of the talk. Drawing on findings from the TLANG project , Dr Simpson (also of ESOL-Research JISC mail list fame) discussed the nature of individuals’ languages as translanguaging. People who we might consider to be multilingual are not users of several discrete lumps of language, which is processed and used in separate ways, but rather they are users of a linguistic repertoire which includes features of many languages, and can (and do) draw on these as needs require, or as personal preference dictates. This is, I thought, also bound up in notions of individual and social identity, as in the mutual pride and interest shown in one of the examples given of a teenager wanting her (primarily Czech speaking) Mum to correct , albeit in the form of a text. Given that the vast majority of people globally, and a large proportion of people in the UK are plurilingual in some form or another, it does raise questions of how this pride in linguistic heritage can be twisted into notions of cultural and political linguistic dominance: immigrants should learn English and use it in favour of their other languages, rather than as an addition to their range of languages.

Speaking as an ESOL teacher, it would be easy to take umbrage at something which might appear, on the face of it, to be critical of the work that ESOL teachers do: implying that we are the minions of a dominating state. However, it’s worth remembering that outside the sphere of these politics; at a social, familial and personal level, English language learning is important, but what we need to consider is that our students’ other languages are as important as their English. Our job is not to over-write and over-rule those languages, but to extend the repertoire to enable wider and more useful interactions in an English dominated setting. Sure, it helps us to superficially, perhaps, buy into the discourse of integration and cultural assimilation as promoted by our governments because that leads to helpful things like funding from said governments. And I like being paid. Sorry.

But what of the implications of this from a classroom perspective? This is where the second half of the talk came in, from Dr Cooke (there were so many Doctors going round at one point, I was half expecting John Hurt to arrive in a TARDIS) talking about findings from the DALS project, (sadly, I can’t find a link…). This tied much of the translanguaging practice to the more contentious issue of the use of students other languages in the classroom. As was pointed out later, standard practice is to avoid other languages in the classroom, but the findings from the DALS project suggested otherwise: students could use their own languages through activities to explore and negotiate meaning in English. Students were actively encouraged to use their first languages, rather than avoid them, with counterintuitive results: richer, more expressive and, most importantly, perhaps, more meangful language emerged from the shared multilingual intercourse. Students’ other languages were also used to find shared experiences, showing that rather than being a hindrance, other languages than English can be a help. Now, I have to admit to an English only policy, at least on paper, although in practice I am fairly laid back – when I think of my Level 1 / 2 group this year, I recall using aspects of translanguaging and seeing it as students from a shared linguistic and cultural background (Congolese French speakers) interacted at times to negotiate meaning, as, at times, did I, with my own rusty and very limited French. On paper, it would appear to be somewhat excluding of other students, but in reality it was incidental to a wider discourse which did revolve around English.

In the study, of course, students were asked to reflect on their feelings about their other languages in the classroom, with interesting results: students enjoyed some aspects of it: speed, convenience, efficiency, but also felt very strongly that using English in class was important, if not necessary.

The question, then, is why we have this monolingual focus to ESOL continues, despite the reality of a multilingual environment. Certainly it is treated as the standard practice (“best” practice?) in training (honourable mention for CELTA, perhaps?), in most coursebooks and materials, and it would get frowned upon in any lesson observation I’m aware of. And despite to critical view of it, I think I would still want to insist on if not English only, then at least English mainly in a class. James and Melanie were coming from a sociolinguistic perspective, but this does, perhaps, also need to be reviewed against understanding from second language acquisition, although I’m a bit rusty on this, to be fair, and certainly want to go back to review it, bearing this in mind.

And that’s the point of any kind of talk like this, to challenge and force you to analyse your own practice and beliefs, and however much you might agree or disagree, this can be no bad thing at all.

The “Just Been to a Conference” Post

You know, this academic year I have attended a whole bunch of training. Some of it external, but much of it internal. Now, I have to admit that I don’t often get to engage with internal training events as a participant so I feel like I miss out sometimes. I’m a bit of a subject specific snob sometimes too – as soon as someone starts to share or discuss a technique which is highly linguistically demanding for learners then I’m afraid you have more or less lost me. I try, and I want to try, but you know, if I can’t see how I can apply the idea as is to my practice as soon as possible, then I’m really going to struggle to engage. Someone once observed that I was “too much of a specialist” but you know, I rather like being an ESOL specialist. It’s never going to score me much by way of a career, perhaps, both in and out of college, but I don’t think I really care. Becoming too generalised in mindset feels to me like selling out, in some weird, undefinable way.

So anyway, this all means that I rather like going to a subject specific conference, as I did on Saturday at the NATECLA National Conference, where I get to talk and think all things ESOL. There are a lot of people I on it ever see at these things, which is lovely, of course, but it’s also good when there is no need to filter concepts into an ESOL friendly format. Instead, I find myself taking on a whole bunch of new ideas and concepts, or realigning ideas, or just having ideas for simple classroom activities that I can do stuff with.

There were some recurring themes in the sessions I was able to attend, and indeed linked to my own. One of these themes was around reformulation. This is taking a learner’s inaccurate or incomplete utterance and repeating it back to the learner in the correct form. It is a fairly instinctive, natural method of error correction and functions as a sort of “on the fly” input for students

S: I make my homework.

T: I do my homework.

The session I attended by Richard Gallen from Tower Hamlets College was on that very theme, and around the ways in which classroom conversations can lead to specific learning, and fairly early on he established that the simple act of reformulation considered on its own is largely ineffective. I’m sure, as well, that this wasn’t news to me, but I can’t remember where i picked that up from.However, it does make sense to suggest that simply repeating back the language to the learners is unlikely to lead to anything useful – there’s nothing there to encourage the learner to act on the reformulation, there is no follow up for learners. No, the point is this: for reformulation to work, we need to make things explicit to the students – make sure that the learner notices the reformulation and actually attempts to assimilate it. The phrase that kept coming up during the session was language upgrades, which distinguished nicely for me this kind of conscious improving of language in situ rather than simply correcting errors. Richard suggested a number of ways to introduce this – recording the language on the board, then getting students to revisit the language in a follow up lesson, perhaps using a slightly different context. If you record all the language reformulations, you can then turn these into simple gap fills, for example, as an activity in the following lesson – to use my example above:

“I always ______ my homework after class.”

There were other things too. Timing is crucial for these language upgrades – it’s no good getting the upgrade too late – and it needs to be just at the periphery of awareness: conceptually familiar, perhaps, but not completely linguistically familiar.  In short, if you get the upgradewhen you need it “just in time” and “just right” then the language is more likely to stick.  Richard quoted here from Leo Van Lier: The Ecology & Semiotics of Language Learning, which I am adding to my reading list. There may be a confidence / fluency payoff here – such immediate upgrading is surely going to interrupt the flow of a learner’s speaking, but if it makes the language stick, is this a worthy sacrifice? To interrupt fluency like this is a tough call for a teacher whose main focus is often communicative effectiveness, of which fluency is a major part.The challenge, I guess, is making that judgement call in the lesson, and this would depend very much on the learners themselves. There were some interesting insights into learner practices – students who took on the new vocabulary offered in an exchange tended to use that language with some sort of qualifying definition or statement. It was a genuinely interesting thing to see the transcriptions of the classroom conversations, and I really did wonder how practical such a thing might be for me to try one day.

There were plentiful other insights from Richard, things like the notion that learners grouped by similar ability, rather than mixed ability is more likely to lead to learning because of the quality of upgrades they can offer: the lower level learner in a mixed pair is less likely to act on the upgrades offered, and is also unlikely to be able to offer appropriate upgrades to the higher level student.

What else? learners remember more lexical feedback than grammatical and in fact generally ask more questions about vocabulary, although this sort of questioning does tend to be at higher levels rather than lower. The other humdinger moment for me was the revelation that our learners should be aiming at developing around 12-15 words a lesson in order to progress appropriately.

So I found myself thinking, as one does at these times, about my own lessons. I reckon that I’m pretty good at reformulating and am definitely one for letting language emerge “on demand” in the lesson rather than being overtly dependent upon “input” language. I’m also fairly good at recording the language that arises, usually informally, I think: the day before the workshop I was revisiting an old IWB file with a colleague and found myself wondering how a whole bunch of words had appeared on the slide, which appeared to have only the most tenuous links to the main information. Where I know I need to do better, then, is the follow up work, the consolidation, if you like, something I want to be much much better at next year. I think I do it in the lesson, and I’ve noticed students doing this sort of conscious application of new language in the moment, but as was discussed in the workshop, teachers need to actively promote this kind of emergent, negotiated language in order to enhance learning  – students need to know that the language is there and do something with it.

This is, of course, going to appeal to me as a piece of research, and I guess when you sign up to sessions at a confenrence it is often a bit of an echo chamber – I’m unlikely to be going to sessions on, say, SMART targets, or engaging learners with learning outcomes, because I’d rather scoop out my hear with a spoon than listen to someone extolling cheap performance managed behaviourism, but I’m likely to be battering down the door to a workshop on conversation and emergent language. But then you go to conferences to find out more about things you are interested in, I guess: it’s not a comprehensive education, so to speak. I’d have been deeply disappointed to find out about Richard’s workshop second hand, whatever happened.

I’ve just seen the wordcount in the bottom corner creeping up towards 1500, so I think I should probably stop. This doesn’t mean I’ve nothing to say about storytelling from Jamie Keddie, just that this post is getting ridiculously long! In a lot of ways Jami’s talk on storytelling and ways to exploit videos in line with this was similar – after all, these kinds of activities often build on language that emerges in reaction to, or as part of the story – opportunities are presented for emergent language which can be capitalised upon and exploited in just the same way.

So it was a good day, and a good event – I’ve got a serious batch of ideas for next year, which is sort of the point, isn’t it?

The Quiet One at the Back

I attended a staff development event on Friday. It was useful and interesting, so anyone waiting to see if I trip up and say something inappropriate about my employer will be sadly disappointed today. No, the training and the content were both fine. What was interesting, however, was a little thing I observed about behaviour. 

The organisers (Hi!) had arranged a seating plan to ensure that people weren’t sitting with the people they usually worked with. This is, of course, a staff development variation on a practice I use in class: making students move around and work with other people they may not otherwise engage with. Again, all for the good, really, an opportunity to explore new ideas, or to challenge your own ideas, further build networks and so on. Except for one crucial factor. I was sitting right at the front, bang in front of the screen and on display. 

I know, there does have to be a front, or at least a bit of the room which is most prominent and visible to the tutor. Trouble is, in a setting like that, I’m quite shy. Perhaps it’s a height thing: tall people sometimes do want to shrink themselves away from the spotlight. Certainly I don’t do meetings with confidence, particularly with people I don’t know too well, and I’m not a natural networker. Nerves will always get the better of me. Nope, all that that prominent positioning induced in me was a desire to retreat. And I did. It took me most of the morning before I genuinely relaxed enough to properly engage with anyone but my immediate neighbour (who I did know), but for the majority I just wanted to be able to shrink by 2 feet and not talk to anyone.

That still not the interesting thing, however. The actual genuine interesting thing was what it made me think about all those poor students I have roughly torn out of their comfort zone and forced to head across the room and talk to someone else. Or those students who may well be just happy sitting and listening and who I have forced to speak in the name of learning. Dammit, I thought, I am such a bastard. I hate being singled out or forced to talk to people I don’t know. Always have hated it. I usually sit at the back of the room not so I can muck about but so the teacher doesn’t notice me (there is a golden spot for this, and a spot to which I gravitate, but I’m damned if I’m letting you in on that secret) and therefore can avoid anything unpleasant like engaging in a class discussion. 

So what’s to be done with people like me? For one, don’t do whole group activities. Or minimise them, and allow plenty of timing and structure. Shy people may be mustering an argument and building up to saying something but never quite getting it out there because they don’t get the chance. They may just be seething in dread that they will be asked to participate. Either way, they won’t be listening. So use collaborative methods of whole class q&a, like getting everyone to answer questions on mini whiteboards or voting software, rather than ideas like the frankly vicious “pose, pause, pounce, bounce“. (Interestingly, I googled that and in the various to of guidance there were lots warnings about students shouting out, but nothing about supporting students who clam up. References talked about “if students don’t know the answer” but nobody suggested that students may not feel confident enough to answer. Teachers are such unsympathetic shits sometimes.) 

One thing I do do is use smaller groups, for discussion tasks. Smaller groups are easier to monitor and give feedback to, as well as being less challenging for quieter, shyer students. But I try and think about those groupings. Sometimes, a friendship grouping is perfectly fine, and if it causes no major issues in terms of behaviours or mixing of ability, then where’s the problem? (I’ve got to admit, my personal jury is currently out on mixing male and female students. I know that it’s a Good Thing to mix the sexes, but if it causes discomfort and resentment? I’m not saying I won’t, merely that I question whether it’s always essential. Mind you, it’s an easy fail during a lesson obs on e&d terms so it’s worth getting students to shift about regularly.) Mixing groupings based on various criteria is pretty much standard, to the extent that failure to mix is tantamount to Bad Pracice. 

Hmmm. I have an abiding memory of being asked to work with a very confident but less academically able student in one class at school and it was horrible for both of us. Certainly I doubt that any significant learning will happen. If you get a shy, perhaps better able student and sit him next to the loud, mouthy, slightly less able student in the well meaning hope that they will bring the best out in each other, you will probably find that it’s not the case. Either the shy student will simply retreat a bit more, probably not engage, and the overall output of that grouping will be rubbish, or they will do most of the work and the gobby one will get unearned kudos. So just don’t do it. Both parties will also hate you, your lesson and your subject. 

I know what you’re thinking: developing confidence is a useful life skill. You are absolutely right, of course. My own retreat into tongue-tied silence at meetings, workshops and conferences is a testament to that. But maybe, just maybe, big mouth super confident, networker types are not always ideal. Maybe, just maybe, these people are profoundly irritating in their relentless self-promotion and their selfish dominance of meetings and workshops with their own private agendas. Ye gods, if we were all like that it would be awful. But yes, some of us do need to develop that confidence. However the bullying “go on, pull yourself together, it’s good for you” mindset is not the way. Being dropped in the deep end may help some people swim, after all, but some of us simply drown. 

“What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I was at the regional NATECLA YH day conference this week, and the final plenary was from Heather Buchanan of Leeds Beckett University talking about the uses and abuses of global coursebooks.

It was an interesting and indeed controversial topic, particularly to a group of people who probably rarely follow a single coursebooks, preferring out of necessity or expectation, to pick and choose published work, or develop our own materials. I’m not going to weigh in on the coursebook/no coursebook argument, although I do challenge those ESOL managers who think we should have a full year scheme of work at the start of the academic year to tell me why we shouldn’t just follow a fixed coursebook which we adapt to the class.

No, the thing which really resonated from Heather’s talk was the comment at the title of this post: “What kind of world are we trying to represent?”

I make a lot of my own materials, and devise my own activities, and I started to think: what kind of messages do I send to my learners based on my selection of texts to read, approaches to take? Do I, as an ESOL teacher, have an agenda?

Well, yes, I do. If pushed I would argue something along the lines of slightly leftwing woolly liberal, focussed on the needs and lives of the learners. Or something (woolly, remember) but I wonder how much of this comes out in the choices of themes, topics and texts which I bring into the classroom. For one, that sentence says a lot: “texts that I bring into the classroom”. They are often texts that appeal to me, as well as hopefully appealing to the learners. Certainly in theme these are often a lighter touch than perhaps my higher ideals would prefer: articles about lorries getting stuck under bridges, web quests about local events. But then I do sometimes select texts on more complex issues: for example I have a reading and speaking activity based on the Tony Martin case where a man was sentenced to jail for shooting a burglar, or controversial variations on the balloon debate, like the Amnesty task from OneStopEnglish. Interestingly, however, on more controversial topics, I realise, on reflection, that I tend to situate these outside the learners’ own experiences. I have avoided too much explicit discussion of the activities of right wing activists in the UK, especially when this applies to local issues. I have helped learners engage with local issues, for example helping them to write letters to their local MP to protest against the proposed closure of A&E services at the local hospital, and supported learners on an individual basis on their personal plans and progression, jobs and so on.

Where I have felt less comfortable perhaps has been the direct nanny-state teaching of social and moral standpoints. The main problem I had with PSD last year was based on this. Who am I to comments on an individual’s approach to personal health without them initiating that discussion? Yet I would support a learner if they came to me with a personal problem. But not for me the eatwell plate. I approach many of the citizenship materials with a critical, cautious eye: could I define a good citizen? Probably not. Do I think that the NIACE materials helped to define this? Not really, but then they were never meant to. The most recent life in the uk test guidance is excruciating in its literal whitewash of history, and the raising in importance of this history.

I am not a sports fan, and tend to avoid sport related texts and sport based resources. This is silly, as many learners do like sport, and this would be a great source for some really interesting language. I am a music fan, but again, I tend not to use this as a source for my learners’ learning, although this time it is perhaps the nature of the music which makes me reluctant to share with learners. I am also a book and film fan, and sometimes this does make its way into the classroom, perhaps because they are much more clearly and obviously usable.

In short, then, the world I tend to represent to learners is bound up with the identity of who I am and what I feel and believe about the world. Is this true of all teachers? I assume it probably is, and equally that it is hard to step outside of that world when preparing texts, no matter how much you would argue for learner-centredness. For myself, I know I could do more to get learners involved by, for example, bringing in a text each to analyse, or a question to answer. I attempted to do this for a while in my low level community based class, by getting them to talk about the people they know in the form of people “maps” but this has had to fall to the wayside as the class is slowly shedding learners.

This,I guess, is the challenge for all materials writers, and that the world we need to try to represent is the one which learners can engage with and/or relate to. It helps, of course, if we can engage with that world: easier for those of us who share cultural links and heritage with the learners, perhaps. Sometimes my own lifestyle feels like it exists in some sort of parallel universe to the lives of the learners I teach, and the challenge there is to bridge that gap, to link the lives and challenges of our learners to our own lives and challenges, and share in the way that we deal with our different challenges.

I don’t mean to force my agenda, or my ideals onto learners, (although I would challenge learners on any issues of equality), but I think that this comes through nonetheless. Perhaps this is a bad thing, but then again, perhaps not. More importantly, perhaps, is the question of whether we can avoid letting our own personal, social, cultural and political agendas come through in our teaching. I rather doubt we can.