Article Discussion Group Summary

Article Discussion Group, October 2014

Article Discussion Group, October 2014

October 13 saw the kick off of AusELT’s Article Discussion Group (ADG) which was conducted primarily via the Facebook community and focused on a contribution to the latest EAJ –  Teaching Pragmatics: An action research journeyin which the authors describe a 3-year project investigating the teaching of pragmatic norms in students ranging from A1 up to refugee learners and tertiary level learners.

The following is a summary of the ADG which occurred over the period of about 1 week with the addition of a parallel discussion group at The British Council Hong Kong (BCHK).

Question 1: How important is teaching pragmatics for your students?

Several people had interested anecdotes and reflections on the issue of importance of teaching pragmatics, ranging from Clare McGrath’s experience of a Japanese student’s confusion in response to the mention that jokes be told at wedding speeches, and Sophia Khan’s mention of Maria Doyle’s blog post on cultural miscommunication, to Mike Smith’s comments on the necessity of including such features on university pathway and preparation courses.  He commented that using anything but semi-authentic recordings would be a disservice to his students, but interestingly that much of the “small talk” of the classes centred around what he call day-to-day and orientation tasks such as getting a uni ID card, solving problems such as logons not working and other IT issues, familiarisation with campus surrounds and facilities and joining social and sporting clubs.

Several readers echoed their support of the authors’ use of semi-authentic texts in contexts of immediate importance to students. Languine Phil highlighted the importance of grading texts for lower levels but he also questioned the practicality of recording and videoing semi-authentic interactions on a regular basis. Some of the teachers present at the BCHK discussion group questioned the need and relevance of teaching pragmatics in a non-English speaking context, adding that much of the English encountered by their learners would be between non-native speakers of English, and also that there was very little if any teaching of pragmatics in the local curriculum or HKDSE (secondary leaving exam – an interesting reflection on its utility here).  They came to the conclusion that, unlike in the article being discussed, there was no immediate relevant context that their teachers could use for the basis of teaching pragmatics extensively.

Question 2: Do you use naturalistic texts in your classes? (fully authentic or semi authentic texts) and what benefits do you see to using recorded role plays using proficient speakers as materials to teach pragmatics? What drawbacks?

Languine Phil commented that he was a firm believer in teacher-written texts, until he, like Mike Smith, saw the benefit of using authentic texts, with the right support for lower level learners.  This might include adjusting features of the text to make important language more prominent.  Phil added that he saw the benefit of using native speakers (rather than actors) in unscripted role plays, but wondered how easy it would be to get authentic language out of these texts in practice and how feasible it would be for teachers to use some of their preparation time to start building/creating a public resource bank of semi-authentic recordings. For those teaching in monolingual contexts, you might find James Pengelley’s (*author of this summaryarticle on teaching sociolinguistic competence useful, which details how intermediate students reacted to comparing the same dialogue conducted by native Spanish speakers (in Spanish) and native English speakers.

Mike Smith added his concerns about time constraints that most teachers work under, especially those who are not on long-term full time contracts.  He also flagged the issue of needing access to proper video equipment which would require a significant investment to be used in class, although perhaps it might be a worthwhile experiment to pursue lower quality copies for professional development purposes.  Clare McGrath added that using online voice recording software (e.g. Vocaroo) would solve any issues of costume, set or lighting that you might find in videos, and wondered if teachers were to focus on a higher volume of shorter voice recordings, it might be possible to build an effective audiobank quickly.

Sophia Khan reiterated Mike’s concerns about having enough time (it’s easy enough when you’re on a low teaching load), but she (as did several others in the discussion) felt there was an interesting potential, proposed earlier by Phil, of sharing such resources publicly, say, within the AusELT community, possibly a section on the wiki with a selection of lesson plans and accompanying videos.  Sophia’s concerns about grading semi-authentic texts for lower learners was echoed by the Sue Valdeck and the BCHK group who also raised their concerns about the potential of quality control, if a group of teachers were to be allocated additional admin time to work on building a resource bank like this.

Agi Bodis wondered what, exactly, was being implied by “authentic” – whether is was native-like, or “not from a course book”, adding that the real issue is what level of pragmatic complexity would be beneficial for a particular learner group e.g. sarcastic language in a dialogue for beginners is too complex but it isn’t ‘inauthentic’.

Lesley Ciioccarelli referred to a highly recommended online resource developed by Lynda Yates, Terry Griffin and Jenny Guilfoyle, in conjunction with the AMEP on teaching employability communication skills to adult migrants.

Question 3: How useful do you see Simplified Discourse Tasks for your teaching?

Agi Bodis and Clare McGrath both added suggestions of adding paralinguistic and non-verbal elements to the DCT (DCT = Discourse Completion Task – for some examples of different kinds of DCTs, Clare recommended this article) used in the article, adding that using DCT’s might be more effective where students are asked to reflect on what was said, rather than what they might say in the same situation. Languine Phil rounded off this question with his belief that DCTs are more (maybe only) effective if they are used frequently in classes, rather than as a one-off.

The BCHK group queried the use of DCTs as a valid assessment of students’ ability to use the pragmatic features being tested. They acknowledged the assumption that knowledge of a linguistic feature is likely to precede (and potentially facilitate) an ability to produce it. They also expressed curiosity over the ways in which students in the study were assessed and to the lengths to which the authors went in order to best ensure independence of pre- and post-tests of pragmatic awareness.  The discussion then turned to the overarching purpose of action research and they concluded that they felt action research is best served when its intention is to improve understanding and relationships between those in the classroom – they felt that more precise disclosure of the means of assessment in the article would have been an useful addition to the article.

Clare McGrath (in an earlier thread) voiced her interest in developing tasks that might help to adapt their own texts – perhaps as a way of exploiting existing texts (and thus minimising word load?).  Sophia Khan added that Lynda Yates, a pragmatics specialist at Macquarie University, had recently published an article on this in which she uses the acronym PREFER as a way to guide teachers to use materials from a pragmatic perspective:

- Practice-relevant models

- Raising awareness of pragmatic and pronunciation issues and their interaction

- Experimentation with new pragmatic resources and pronunciation

- Feedback, Exploring the world outside

- Reflection on what to do and how to do it

Teachers looking for pragmatic lesson ‘frameworks’ in particular may benefit from this.

Question 4: It seems that a combination of being explicit by using such things as Discourse Completion Tasks and using authentic (or close to authentic) texts to focus on “formulaic sayings” can be useful for low level learners.  To what extent might this “liberate” teachers from dull coursebook content?

Sophia Khan commented here that she loved the idea of a coursebook based purely (or mainly?) on naturalistic texts – thought she remained skeptical of any thing like this being published in the near future, until at least publishers begin to move away from the grammar-driven course book syllabus that dominates mainstream materials. Agi Bodis cited the CSWE course book used in the Australia Migrant English Programme. Clare McGrath was able to give detailed insight into the CSWE course book and added that she felt the book was more tailored to giving students information about life and systems in Australia.

Clare also added to Agi’s point relating to the importance of the teaching culture at each particular school – where if pragmatics are included in teaching materials or assessment tasks, there would be very little consistency in the way pragmatics were covered, especially by early-career teachers, or those who were changing teaching contexts, especially between Migrant English and ELICOS programmes.

Languine Phil posted a link to a chapter from Listening to Australia (and supporting audio files) suggesting that it was a good example of a resource to inspire teachers to start incorporating their own activities to focus learners on features of pragmatics in audio scripts.

The BCHK group spent considerable time discussing the possibility and practicalities of adapting their current courses to accommodate a greater focus on pragmatics – with a staffroom of more than 100 teachers, they felt it would be an almost impossible task to meaningfully organise an audiobank in the way Clare had previously suggested. In addition, BCHK was the HQ for developing a “revolutionary”, customer-oriented course called MyClass in which students can choose the topic, time and teacher they wish to study from class to class.  It is a listening-speaking-lexis driven task-based course, with graded, scripted materials in every lesson, and attempts to cover some pragmatic features such as ‘sounding polite vs sounding sarcastic’. The question remains whether the distribution of pragmatic features MyClass courses are distributed in a way that is representative of native (or semi-authentic) contexts.

The group wondered if adapting the MyClass materials would be a valuable feature of future revisions of the course although it would require significant man hours to do so.  Given the unique characteristics of MyClass, and the relatively high need for training in each teaching centre where it has been rolled out within The BC network, the BCHK group also recognised that including a more explicit focus on pragmatic language in MyClass materials would also require further efforts in training teachers in the delivery of the course. Indeed, the group felt there were many examples of pragmatic features that couldn’t be easily taught in class without prepared materials – e.g. the use of silence and, given that each MyClass session runs for 90 minutes, and each group of students varies from session to session, there are limitations on the efficacy of the MyClass platform for covering pragmatics in great depth. This perhaps reiterates the point rased earlier, that pragmatics is most effectively dealt with when the learners have a homogenous target culture.

Thanks to all who participated in the discussion – online and face to face – we are all looking forward to the next one!

This post by @hairychef

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

Upcoming chat – systems thinking: an introduction to fast and slow thinking

Our next chat will take place on Thursday 6th November at 8.30pm AEDT (you can check how that corresponds to your own time zone here) and we will be talking about systems thinking. The interest in this topic was stimulated by Adrian Underhill’s recent visit to Australia where the concept of ‘fast and slow thinking’ formed the basis of his presentations on professional development in learning organisations. We look forward to exploring the topic in more depth on Thursday. The recent blog posts on Adrian’s workshops by Aparna Jacob and Tamzen Armer give a great overview and make for useful pre-reading. There’s also an article here which considers the role of fast and slow thinking in education and has a short Youtube clip narrated by Daniel Kahneman who developed the concept.

To get you thinking (fast or slow?)  here are some pre-chat questions:

  • Would you consider yourself a fast, instinctive thinker or a slower, more reflective thinker? How does your thinking style inform your approach to teaching/learning/management?
  • Is there ‘a need to educate learners to be disciplined thinkers’ these days? How would this work in a TESOL context?
  • In your organisation, does ‘daily fire-fighting take precedence over systems-thinking’? (See Aparna’s blog post)

 

This post by @Penultimate_K

Perspectives on developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD – Part 2

This is the second in a short series of blog posts inspired by Adrian Underhill’s workshop on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD, which he delivered at various locations in Australia recently. To find out more about Adrian Underhill, read his recent interview in the English Australia Journal.

TamzenAbout the author:

Tamzen Armer is currently Assistant Director of Studies at an LTO in Canberra, and Reviews Editor at the English Australia Journal.


Adrian Underhill’s session on “Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD” raised some interesting questions for me about learning in my LTO. In keeping with my key ‘take-away’ from the session, allow me to share . . .

Identify something you have learnt at work recently . . . who else knows you have been learning that?

Throughout the workshop, Adrian made reference to “the mess we’re in”. For me, that mess was perhaps best summed up by the question above – who else in my organisation knows what I have been learning, and indeed what do I know about what others have been learning?

Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level

It seems to me that in my organisation a lot of learning must be getting wasted. I know I rarely share my learning with others and I suspect that is the same for other people. It’s not because I don’t want to share, but there never seems to be the time, the opportunity or the forum.

In an organisation I worked at previously, there always seemed to be discussion about teaching and learning, about how to explain things to students, about how best to teach things, about what people had learned at external PD sessions. It all happened in a very organic way, outside of organisation-imposed PD sessions, and it was extremely important for me as a relatively new teacher. These discussions made me enthusiastic about English, about the job, the possibilities. It helped me bond with my colleagues. It gave me confidence when I felt I could contribute to the discussions and when I didn’t, I learned things.

There are no ‘universal’ solutions to ‘local’ situations . . .

So what is different in my current LTO? Well, to start with, the way our timetable works means that there is no common break time or lunchtime. Or start or finish time. A lot of the discussion in my previous organisation occurred during the short breaks in classes or after class when everyone would be in the staff room. The staff room: difference number two. At my current organisation some teachers are in two-person offices; the others in 10-person rooms. But because of the timetable, there may only be a couple of people in those room at any one time. It seems to me that both of these factors impede the sharing of ideas and opinions and thus learning is wasted.

It’s been easy for me to notice this but to put it in the “too hard” basket. However, having the time in Adrian’s session to focus on this problem, to talk through it with others and to see that no ‘universal’ solution does not mean no solution, was very useful.

We need to develop local knowledge that follows the contours of the setting and circumstances we are in . . .

A number of suggestions were made by other workshop attendees. The first was having a noticeboard in a common area where things could be shared. Unfortunately as our common areas are also common to other departments, as well as accessible to students, I had to rule this one out. A second suggestion was to have face-to-face meetings/idea shares. I know this is popular with teachers as when we have done it in the past, feedback has been good. However, the time constraints mean this is only really possible in our non-teaching weeks which occur four times a year. This did not seem frequent enough to create the kind of collaborative environment I was envisaging and also our sessional and casual teachers, the bulk of the staff, aren’t generally around at those times. However, as people are keen on this kind of forum, it seems worth pursuing and I think it would be possible to have more frequent get-togethers of smaller groups and, by changing the meeting times, different combinations of people could come together. A final suggestion was a closed Facebook group where ideas could be shared. Another attendee reflected on her experience of using this kind of forum in her LTO and it seemed promising and would certainly overcome many of our “environmental” constraints.

We make the mistake of dictating problems and solutions, making people passive, colluding in the problem and dictating answers, rather than inviting them to empower themselves by entering the problem, and developing their own knowledge — Anne Burns

Fortuitously, this workshop occurred just before one of our non-teaching weeks and I took the opportunity to arrange an informal PD session in which I reported back on my learning from Adrian’s session and had colleagues who attended the EA Conference share what they learned there. There did seem to be a general feeling that we could be sharing more and a number of avenues for communication were suggested by staff. Firstly, people were, as expected, keen to meet face-to-face, even for relatively short periods of time. There was also a feeling that email, as our main workplace channel of communication, could be used for such purposes. One colleague suggested having a particular subject-line convention such that emails of this type could be easily identified/redirected into folders to save them disappearing into the mass of email communication which fills the inbox each day. It was also suggested that our staff Moodle site be used to collect and store useful links, and indeed a number of the conference attendees had already put links to sessions they found particularly beneficial on there.

Do you, the teacher, demonstrate the quality of learning you want your students to develop?

In our classrooms we ask learners to communicate, co-operate and collaborate. We expect our learners to think critically about resources they use, and we expect them to become autonomous in their learning. It will be interesting to see now whether we are able to do the same.

This post by @tamzenarmer

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

Next Twitter chat 06/11/2014 – voting now open.

The next #AusELT Twitter chat will take place on Thursday November 6 at 8.30pm AEDT (the D stands for daylight saving!) and voting for a discussion topic is now open. You can cast your vote using the link below.

Perspectives on developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD – Part 1

This is the first in a short series of blog posts inspired by Adrian Underhill’s workshop on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD, which he delivered at various locations in Australia recently. To find out more about Adrian Underhill, read his recent interview in the English Australia Journal.

AparnaAbout the author:

Aparna Jacob is a first-time Director of Studies at an LTO in Sydney. She is passionate about professional development for teachers and is keen on developing a learning culture at her organisation. She holds an IDLTM amongst other industry-related qualifications.


 

At his workshop on Developing a Learning Organisation approach to PD, Adrian Underhill highlighted a few key ideas that set me thinking about impediments to systems thinking and sharing learning that most Language Teaching Organisations (LTO) would face. Below, I examine some of the ideas from the session in the context of the LTO I work for and look at a few possible solutions.

There is no ‘arrival at quality’. It is not a rest state that you gain and retain.

Quality is an ongoing and permanent journey, driven by the constant inquiring activity of the organisation.

Like most small-medium private ELICOS providers, our LTO operates largely as an “organic organisation” (Robbins, 2011, p.451) characterised by a centralised head, the CEO, from whom all budgetary decisions flow. Vertically, there are few management tiers and departmental structures are uniformly flat with wide spans of control. Typical of an organic organisation, everybody is expected to contribute to all operational aspects and overall there is a low level of formalisation and structures, procedures and practices are flexible. Yet, within this system, largely due to what Charles Handy refers to as the dominant “person culture” (in White, Hockley, Van der Horst Jansen, & Laughner, 2008, p.36), initiative and quick decision making are the norm and any change is quick to be implemented. Profit, rather than a unifying mission and vision, is the driving imperative on which most decisions are based. Daily fire-fighting takes precedence over “systems thinking”. The LTO’s lean processes do not prioritise intangibles such as reflection, learning and investing in individuals. In such an environment, the term “quality” remains a catch phrase, an ever-elusive and mysterious state that we are constantly striving to arrive at.

How can a team of committed managers with individual IQs above 120 . . . have a collective IQ of 63?

 Peter Senge

The Academic and Marketing/Sales departments are often the two main departments at most LTOs. Conflicting priorities often mean they are at loggerheads over every issue from student recruitment, attendance monitoring to agent involvement. In the absence of a clear goal, not only do departments find it difficult to work together but it’s also not unusual for team members to compete against their teammates, focusing only on individual KPIs rather than the common goal of the team.

Such an environment serves as a hothouse for Handy’s “Person Culture” typical of small organisations. Charismatic individuals, keenly focused on self-development thrive and become indispensible to the organisation. This in turn can also breed an unhealthy “Power Culture” where the person who has the CEO’s ear has authority and can establish their own direct line of communication irrespective of hierarchy. Learning, in such an individualistic environment is not shared to benefit the team or the organisation as a whole. Such an environment instead encourages “knowledge hoarding” where knowledge is gained and not shared so that one’s own agenda and status can be furthered rather than add to the learning of the organisation. Individual learning can be wasted unless harnessed at organisational level.

 

Systems Thinking is the process of understanding how things influence one another within a whole.

Systems Thinking begins when we see the world through the eyes of another . . . and realise that our own perspective is just a point of view.

A systemic view of your school sees how everything is interconnected, healthily or unhealthily.

The various departments in the LTO are largely autonomous and solely responsible for their functions. For instance, marketing functions are only carried out by the marketing team and teachers are divorced from these activities completely.

This also means there is no real need to interact with the other departments thus resulting in departmental and knowledge silos and thereby the isolation of each department. The traditional dichotomy between the English teachers and Marketing Officers is evident at our LTO and the physical location of the two departments within the building contributes to this lack of interaction. The marketing department is located in the reception area so that the students have easy access to their Marketing Officers. Though teachers walk past the reception on their way to class, there is practically no interaction between the two departments.

This lack of interaction or awareness of one another’s roles results in further disconnection between the two teams and even a lack of tolerance. Teachers often view trial students or agent visits to their classroom and an intrusion and interruption. Without an understanding of the various courses, teaching methodologies or classroom management techniques used in the classroom, marketing officers are unable to promote the schools products, services or teachers adequately. This then results in the marketing team focusing on superficial aspects of ELICOS products like “native teachers only” or “guaranteed IELTS results” without fully comprehending the complexity of the learning products. Teachers, on the other hand, lack the time or training to understand the cultural background of the students in their class and may choose to view them purely as learners rather than as fee paying customers.

Human capital is not just having smart people . . . It is having smart people who are connected up . . .

Recent changes at the LTO have necessitated a few frank discussions between the two departments particularly with regard to communication and identifying causes of miscommunication. Pressure from above to meet common targets has also had a unifying effect and this has forced the two teams to cooperate, understand one another’s viewpoints, compromise and arrive at solutions together. Progress is evident when meetings are solution-oriented rather than a discussion of hurdles in the way.

Involving teachers and marketers to collaborate on meaningful projects like looking at the nationality mix in a classroom and making decisions on student recruitment, or allowing marketers to sit in on classes to gain a deeper understanding of products they sell, can provide opportunities to recognise the contribution of the other team and bridge departmental silo-isation. A discussion at the Underhill workshop has also resulted in the idea of Marketing Officers sitting in on classes with a few key observation areas in mind and use their understanding from these observations to better promote the courses. A meet-and-greet for marketers and teachers will also be held in the following months where teachers will develop a better understanding of the cultural background, learning styles and expectations of certain student groups.

Learning becomes not just something that staff do for themselves or for the benefit of the clients . . . but something that everyone does for the flourishing of the system itself.

A small LTO like mine is keenly focused on short term goals and immediate gains rather than developing a sustainable long term approach that involves investing in their human capital. Knee-jerk reactions and seeking quick-fix solutions to problems is the norm and this often results in unforseen long-term costs being incurred by the company. Responding to daily crises takes precedence over Systems Thinking habits like reflecting on our actions and consequences, examining our mental models more deeply, and seeing how our structure affects our behaviour patterns. Such reflection is essential to all LTOs as it will reveal the learning opportunities that lie just below the surface of everything we already do and transform the organisation into a learning “hot-house”.

The first step towards this is harnessing in-house expertise and sharing this knowledge that has already been developed using the time and resources of the company. There are no “universal” solutions to “local” situations. Therefore we need to be guided by knowledge and experience from the people in the local situations . . .

We need to develop local knowledge that follows the contours of the setting and circumstances we are in.

Honest inter-departmental conversations about working towards our shared goal, once identified, are an excellent starting point. Clarity of where we want to be means we can recruit the right people who can join us on the journey and help us get there. Any failures encountered on the way would only be opportunities for further joint learning. This way the entire school and its activities transform into an adventure park for everyone’s learning.


 

References and further reading

NB: You can see the slides from see Adrian Underhill’s presentation by clicking here

Pickering, G. 1999. “The learning organisation: an idea whose time has come? ELT Management Number 27. Available from: http://lamsig.iatefl.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/05/2-Pickering-The-Learning-Organisation-2.pdf

Robbins, S.P. 2011. Organizational Behaviour. 6th ed. Pearson Australia.

White, R., Hockley, A., Van der Horst Jansen, J., & Laughner, M. 2008. From Teacher to Manager: Managing Language Teaching Organizations. Cambridge University Press.

 

This post by @aparnajacob

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

#AusELT chat summary: Conference Swapshop (9/10/14)

October’s Twitter chat got off to a bit of a shaky start as several people (who shall remain nameless) managed to forget that the clocks had gone back in Sydney . . . Anyway, sausages were burnt, direct messages were flying, but disaster was averted and we ended up with a small but productive discussion of everyone’s conference experiences. There was a particular focus on the recent English Australia (#EAConf14) and ACTA (#ACTA2014) conferences (click to see details and programs), but also – inevitably – some reflections of the nature and future of teaching conferences in general. The chat was moderated by Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas) – surely one of the most highly experienced conference goers & presenters in our community – and turned up MANY useful links and directions to pursue. You can read the full transcript here but this post aims to capture the most useful areas in more coherent form, with links, for your delight and delectation. So – enjoy!

There were three main areas that seemed to come up again and again:

  • Learning technologies
  • Pronunciation
  • Connecting teachers

And of course, there were also some other stand-out sessions that chatters had seen or participated in. So let’s take a look at these first.

Learning technologies

Learning technologies lecturer, author and go-to guy, Mark Pegrum (@OzMark17), recently wrote a blog post about the tech-related sessions he saw and participated in (as a plenary speaker and panellist) at the 2014 English Australia Conference 2014. It’s a detailed and thought-provoking overview, and his perspective is particularly interesting as he looks at the different layers at work, from practical sessions for the individual teacher, to observing how teachers are engaging in and using technology themselves, to how the drive for technology is having an impact at a global level. As he says at the end of his blog post:

Of course, not every presentation was about technology, but technology has become an increasingly present theme, mixed in – as it should be – with broader pedagogical, cultural and sociopolitical themes.

Mark’s plenary was entitled Walking and talking around the world: A snapshot of international mobile English learning, and you can see his conference slides here. Also look out for an interview with Mark in the April 2015 issue of the English Australia Journal.

Paul Forster (@forstersensei)’s #EAConf14 session on Engaging digital language learners had ‘rave reviews’ according to various sources, among them Nicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) who found it: “User-friendly and hands-on. Easy for those getting started in edtech to understand.” When @forstersensei was asked why he thought it had been so popular and he simply said: “I think there is still a lot of interest in technology and teachers are looking for ideas and training.” You can see the companion website Paul made here – if you couldn’t see his session yourself, this extremely clear, practical website will allow you to benefit just the same.

Michael Griffiths (@trylingual) is another #AusELT stalwart who presented on tech, this time on his research regarding Online PD: Current attitudes and behaviours of ELICOS teachers. Unfortunately he had to miss this chat, but his session was live-tweeted and there were definitely some interesting findings – not to mention some very nice feedback on #AusELT’s usefulness as a professional community of practice. You can see Michael’s presentation slides here.

Another #AusELTer, Lindsay Rattray (@ClassWired), also spoke at #EAConf14, along with colleagues Lachlan McKinnon, & Thom Roker on the topic of Digital literacies for teachers and students: A toolbox of practical ideas (click their names to see their pecha kucha slides).

Pronunciation

At #ACTA14, Arizio Sweeting (@ariziosweeting) addressed The paradoxical predicament of pronunciation: What is being done about it? and Shem MacDonald spoke on Exploring EAL pronunciation through who we are, and what we say. @cioccas was able to attend these, and spoke very highly of them: “standing room only at the 2 I want to . . . I’m guessing it shows teachers want more on how to teach pron.”

As further evidence of teachers’ increasing interest in pron, Lesley highlighted the popularity of the AALL Pron symposiums in Canberra (the next one will be on Friday 5th Dec 2014 – see details here) and mentioned that at the the pre-conference workshops at the 2013 ACTA Conference had been exclusively dedicated to pronunciation.

@ariziosweeting was particularly interested in this changing attitude to pronunciation amongst language teachers: “Aus is making good steps to promote it [pron] more . . . my forthcoming article on SpeakOut calls it the Sleeping Beauty to acknowledge the perceived change.” Arizio will be at the Dec 2014 AALL Pron symposium along with fellow #AusELTer and pron researcher Mike Burri (@michaelburri). Keynote speakers will be Graeme Couper and Michael Carey. As it happens, Arizio also has a popular blog on pron (Pron Central) and he will also be co-running an EVO session with Piers Messum and Rosalyn Young on Teaching pronunciation differently in early 2015.

Connecting teachers

@cioccas and @andrea_rivett presented a workshop together on PLNs at #ACTA2014 – as they met on Twitter this is surely a testament in itself to the power of the online PLN! By all accounts their session was very popular, so well attended that chairs had to be brought in from other rooms. Feedback was also very positive, with @cioccas noting that some participants “even said they finally ‘got Twitter’”

@sophiakhan4 asked “What did the audience respond to most?” and @cioccas said: “Probably our passion! And the tweeting with Post-it notes on the wall ☺ ”. This pen-and-paper version of Twitter was a great idea and can also be used as an excellent classroom activity!

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Thanks also to Lesley and Andrea also for spreading the word on #AusELT ☺

Other stand-out sessions

  • BzfzMqRCUAAWsmMNicki Blake (@Penultimate_K) took part in the GrEAt Debate at #EAConf14 along with Adrian Underhill and Chris Evason, opposing Pamela Humphreys, Mauricio Pucci and Phiona Stanley. Nicki described it as “a tongue-in-cheek look at the proposition that ‘quality is better than quantity’ . . . it was like your classic debate mixed up with some good old-fashioned lampooning.” When asked, “How do you prepare for that?”, she said: “‘You trawl the opposition’s websites looking for ‘dirt’ ;)”
  • Speaking of Phiona Stanley, @cioccas strongly recommended her session on Native speakers, intelligibility, and culture crossing: How native English speakers learn language grading on Cambridge CELTA at ACTA2014. Phiona also presented at #EAConf14 on Beyond ‘food and festivals': How to teach critical interculturality in language teaching, which was also the keynote at the UECA PDfest 2014 in Sydney, so several chatters had seen it and all agreed it was excellent. Phiona also had a very interesting article in a recent issue of the English Australia Journal on Lessons from China: Understanding what Chinese students want.
  • Adrian Underhill’s pre-/post-conf English Australia workshops on Developing a ‘learning organisation’ approach to PD also had a big impact on many attendees – so much so that we will be dedicating a few blog posts to it in the coming weeks. In the meantime you can check out his slides here.

In the latter half of the chat, we got into some more general ponderings on the state of conferences today and what we might be looking for in the future. Below you’ll find some of the issues we touched on and what was said.

Research or practical ‘take aways’?

@forstersensei said: “For me #EAConf14 was lacking that practical focus that teachers want. Research is great, but teachers (in particular) want something to ‘take away’”. @Penultimate_K agreed: “There has to be some “take home” value – that’s why your companion wix was so much appreciated” @cioccas agreed: “Same for #ACTA2014. Need a balance. CAMTesol is the best I’ve been to in that regard, but CLESOL too” (in fact several chaters seconded CLESOL as a conference that strikes a good balance between professional, academic and other strands). Chatters generally agreed that balance was the key – we need both research-based and practical sessions, but may conferences seem to weigh overly heavily on the academic side.

@sophiakhan4 thought this was interesting and suggested it may even be “an effect of reaching a ‘conf presenter’ level – forgetting about the nitty gritty.” She also asked if the seeming lack of practical sessions for teachers might be because “some confs are beyond the reach of ‘ordinary’ teachers? . . . so in that case doesn’t it make sense that the content caters to [those that attend]?”

@Penultimate_K thought this might be true, adding “ordinary teachers aren’t likely to be delegates – mostly management and researchers . . . Melb/Vic teachers [were attending #EAConf14] on group tix but mostly management/sales from interstate.” However, this surprised @cioccas, who said there were “lots of ordinary teachers at ACTA, ands most wanted more practical sessions”

Many chatters mentioned UECA PDFest and similar “teacher-centred” events as being important in bridging this gap.

Why are Aus/NZ confereces so expensive?

One of the key reasons “ordinary” teachers may not be attending conferences is because they can’t afford to go, as suggested by several chatters. @forstersensei commented on “the increasing cost” of attending conferences and @sophiakhan pointed out that IATEFL for instance is much more realistic financially. @cioccas had actually done the research: “I did a survey of the costs for ELT confs and EA & ACTA topped the list.”

@Penultimate_K added that therefore “if a company is going to budget for a conference, they are more likely to send s/one senior” @sophiakhan4: “Right. But they could send a HEAP of teachers to PDFest for the same $. Worth thinking about.”

@sophiakhan4 also suggested that “some of the $ of Oz confs is due to shipping in big name speakers – a needless expense?” @cioccas thought that “maybe just one big name would suffice each year” and chatters agreed, but both @sophiakhan4 and @ariziosweeting were in favour of seeing more “grassroots” presenters.

Are organisers/attendees making good use of social media yet? 

@Penultimate_K noted that at #EAConf14 social media was used “but mostly in the marketing stream not in the teaching stream”. @sophiakhan4 who had been following on Twitter said it was “a dramatic improvement from 2012! But tweeters were generally (not always) the usual suspects.” At #ACTA2014 @cioccas observed that “organisers used it for announcements but most people didn’t notice ☹ ”

@Penultimate_K commented that “use of ‪#socmed‬‬ channels to provide parallel info streams would go a long way to increase access” although @cioccas wondered “if Australian ELTs are up there with the ‪#socmed‬‬ yet though?” and @sophiakhan thought that that “tipping point” hadn’t arrived yet.

@Penultimate_K acknowledged this: “still being told to turn off mobiles & given hard stares when live-tweeting . . . Waiting for Aus conferences to embrace casting/video, extensive hashtag use, etc . . . conferences need to acknowledge that social sharing is a thing now. Not just acknowledge but cater for . . . “ @sophiakhan4 agreed, predicting that “ it will all be taken for granted 10 years on”, but also suggesting that right NOW, “if only 1-10% of the audience ALSO appreciates [social sharing] – [efforts to promote it] will fall fairly flat.”

@Penultimate_K agreed, and suggested that perhaps a social media approach “may be better for events like pD fests/UECA” because “people more likely to share practical ideas over ‪#SOCMED‬‬ than theory.” @sophiakhan4 wasn’t convinced of this, arguing that whether a session was practical or theory-based, “maybe both are too hard to get into a twitter soundbite” @Penultimate_K countered this by suggesting that ideas “could be shared in PLNs using other channels” to which @sophiakhan4 said “Yes but who writes a blog post? Who takes their own time to write a Facebook post about a PD session? Few people.” @Penultimate_K said “Few, yes. But we are here, sharing away. Now need modern-minded conf organisers to tap into this.”

Are conferences a dying paradigm?

Let’s give @cioccas the last word: “I hope not. I love the dynamics, the informal networking, serendipitous discoveries.”

This post by @sophiakhan4

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the individuals, and not those of #AusELT in general or of English Australia.

5 Things to Remember when……..Covering a Class at the Last Minute

If you missed last month’s post, the first in this series, you can read our reflection on 5 things to remember when listening to your colleagues complain right here. This month, we turn to that dreaded moment….the one that happens to the all of us:
It’s 8:55, you’re nervously watching the clock thinking I’m almost there….five more minutes and my morning will be free (and I can finally get around to culling all those friends of mine on Facebook)….and in walks your DOS, silently, slinking in the morning shadows cast by shelves and shelves of dusty copies of Practical English Usage. She clears her throat and nervously taps you on the shoulder, your index finger quivering with excitement over the left mouse button as you feel time ticking down with a certain sense of cruel, twisted fate….happy Monday!!!

1) Stop, don’t retaliate and listen!

Cover happens to everyone – we’ve all had to do it, or better yet, drop someone in it at some point as a result of a bad oyster, broken leg, bike accident or torn skirt.  There is certainly something to be said for the reciprocal, karmic nature of the way teachers handle their contractual obligations in relation to covering classes….and if nothing else, we really need to remember that one day it will be you calling in sick and in need of help.
Talking about cover to some friends the other day, we noted that the stress teachers typically feel in response to the proverbial tap on the shoulder and nervous smile from the DOS is inversely proportional to the amount of time remaining before you need to walk into the classroom; When you’re asked to cover with two weeks’ notice most teachers barely notice, but when that tap on the shoulder comes at five minutes to the hour, there are some of us who need to change their socks, others of us who manage to fit a surprising number of cigarettes into the morning, and others of us whose profane vocabulary comes into its own.
That being said, we also feel that once the clock ticks past the hour, the students are settled, and pleasantries have been exchanged, things becomes eerily familiar (unless of course you happen to be covering for a teacher who did all the cutting a prep for you….and then you realise that they’ve cut up the materials for the wrong class……….which has NEVER happened to us or anyone we know…..ever….).
So, when the tap comes, and it will come at some point, is there really any purpose in complaining, doing your best Napoleon Dynamite impression or burning your way through a pack of cigarettes?  Stop, don’t retaliate, and get the basic information you need: When is the class? What room is it in? Which book are they using? Is there a plan or any notes? Do you have time for a quick visit to the loo? (Hey, there are some luxuries even the most pressed teachers need….) Is there someone around who can help you for five minutes to quickly do some printing and cutting up or bring it to you in ten minutes? Are your shoes done up, your pants on the right way and this morning’s spinach omelet safely removed from between your teeth?
Remember, even if there is a serial offender in your office, be frustrated with them – don’t take it out on the messenger, or the students.  A smile goes a long, long way.

2) Taking opportunities to develop – earning your stripes

There is a a lot to be said for aiming to be the most professional teacher you can be – especially in an industry that isn’t necessarily internationally associated with fiercely competitive entry requirements and performance review standards.  The TEFL world grew largely from the spread of John Haycraft’s CELTA-style short courses which championed the reality of teachers learning and developing practical skills in front of students, and figuring out what seems right, intuitively, in from moment to moment, and from class to class.
There is arguably no better way than to get back to this fundamental alignment of variables (I mean, really, have you ever been as nervous, or felt under as much pressure in front of a class as on your first observed lesson on your pre-service course?) than being put in front of a class at the last minute, and seeing what happens.
In fact many would argue that this is teaching in its purest form – when you have no security blanket of a lesson plan, there is no choice but to listen to your students and respond to them – and some of our best lessons and most insightful moments have come from those moments when we felt under the most pressure.
So, business needs aside, we would argue that the issue of cover, and its associated stresses are not only important and something everyone needs to share, but an essential part of continuing professional development.  Teaching, as an art form, is centred around the notion of teachers thinking on their feet and responding, from moment to moment in the classroom.  Our industry was founded on this belief, and what better way to earn your stripes than by spending more time on the front line, at the chalkface, in the spotlight…hmm, out of metaphors…

3) What really matters?

There are two types of teachers – those who fill in their registers, and those who don’t.  If you’re lucky enough to cover a teacher from the first of these two groups, well done.  If not, and frustrating as it may seem in the moment, you will probably gain significant perspective on life’s important things as a direct result of covering a teacher from the second of these two groups.
At the end of the day, your shoulder-tapping DOS simply needs a teacher in front of the class – that is the ultimate reason they have asked you to help out.  If there is no plan, and no reference to the last page they’ve covered, and you’ve still got 250 friends to cull from your list of Facebook friends…..chin up.  Given the other benefits, most of which will have a direct positive result on your professional development (and not necessarily on your sweat glands) life at this very moment could certainly be a lot worse.
So what really matters? Only that you remember to stay positive, keep a smile (even it it’s a slight grimace) on your face, and a professional attitude the moment you step into the classroom.

4) Contingency plans

Not wanting to sound like your mother-cum-CELTA trainer-cum-director (and what a complicated relationship that would be…) teachers really need to be ready.  We know everyone always says you need to have something ready for fast finishers, and we all pretend that we do, but having a reserve of flexible, portable, instant lessons really can make the difference between a one-cheeky-cigarette-kinda-day, and a 2-pairs-of-undies-kinda-day.
We’d like to share some of our all-time greatest last minute lessons, for your reading (and teaching) pleasure (can you spot the odd one out?). Keep in mind, these are not necessarily our lessons, but lessons we know work most of the time, with most ages, levels and abilities.  Credit for these ideas and references are listed below.
a) Guess what’s inside my head
If you’ve never done this with a class, you’ve never lived.
Teacher: Can you guess what I’m thinking of?
Students: Is it a carrot?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it a chameleon?
Teacher: No! Guess again!
Students: Is it the eternal struggle of ethnic minorities in former British colonies who have since gained independence from the oppression of White colonial expansion?
Teacher: Very close, keep guessing!
Thanks to Claire Steele for this one!
b) Dialogue Building
A very flexible lesson, with minimal preparation needed that features loads of repetition, writing practice and a role play.  We got this one from Scott Thornbury’s article on OneStopEnglish here.
c) Sentence Relays

Just when you thought running dictations couldn’t get any better…..Students line up in groups facing the board.  The teacher reads a sentence clearly twice for students to memorise. When you say GO! students race to the board to write the sentence, one word per student at a time, in a relay.  If you have 4 or 5 sentences ready to go, the students then write down all of the sentences they remember at the end of the activity.  This can then lead into question writing and speaking, a jazz chant, or if you’re feeling up for it, a cheeky game of guess what’s inside my head!

d) Dictaphone Stories

If there was one thing we learned from our DELTA, it was how to use a dictaphone in class.  And we mean, really use a dictaphone.  This lesson is actually adapted from Teaching Unplugged (Thornbury & Meddings), but you can find a short description here (Disclaimer: this is a link to James’ blog).  It is a speaking/listening and materials-light lesson that will challenge even the most annoying of students.

5) Enjoy the limelight

Collectively, we flog the catch phrase student-centred learning to death.  Should there be a time and a place for teacher-centred teaching?  Is it ok to be the centre of attention, add a sprinkling of funny remarks, those old favourite jokes (the ones that every class loves, even if you’ve been telling them for 20 years) and a little anecdote here and there?
Yes, of course it is, despite what your conscience might tell you.  There is a voice inside the heads of many teachers (not ours! not anymore!) that questions any move to take the spotlight, and any conscious decision to “play up a bit” in class.  Is it a CELTA remnant? No TTT! TTT is bad! Teachers talking in class ROB STUDENTS OF THEIR BASIC HUMAN RIGHTS! Pish. While we use this phrase very cautiously, what we are really talking about is the immeasurable notion of teacher-student rapport.  This is arguably one of the strongest factors to influence student motivation, which in turn is the single biggest challenge to overcome for any teacher or student. So have a chat, tell a story, make them laugh, get them onside.
Students typically enjoy the novelty of a new face, a new voice, a new rhythm in class and this deserves to be indulged.  In reality, the students might appreciate their cover teacher all the more, simply from the novelty of having a change.  So, while that dreaded tap on the shoulder at 8:55 on Monday morning might fill you with a sense of endless and unrequited social media errands, you may very well be delighted and surprised to find yourself in the spotlight of an interested, curious and interactive group of students – and this really is what most of us live for.

* By James Pengelley and Jane Pyper (Hong Kong), purveyors of Australian wit and bathers tans.

The views expressed in this post are our own and not those of #AusELT as a whole, or of English Australia