neon jesus

(My contribution to the #dogmeme, with advance apologies to Karenne Sylvester)

Teachers have a lot of people telling them what to teach, and how to teach it. Governments looking for cheap votes. Parents who want to abdicate themselves from the responsibility of raising their own children. Administrators who need to hit targets, meet budgets and check boxes. Publishers with units to shift. That is exactly why I engage in my own self-initiated professional development. When I visit conferences, talk to other teachers, blog, tweet, and do all that other stuff I want to hear what I could do. Or what I might do. Or what may, perhaps be worth thinking about. Sure, tell me what works for you…. but let me think about it and see if it works for me, please.

I am broadly sympathetic to the basic concepts of dogme. I certainly agree that coursebooks and pre-planned curricula built around grammar mcnuggets can be very restrictive, and that teachers should exploit emergent language, teaching affordances and other human unpredictables as best they can. I am not sure that this in itself constitutes a method, however… it is at best an approach. And if you are talking about the more rigorous, chaste versions of Dogme that might be called a method, then I am not really interested. I want to plug things in and interact with ideas from outside the classroom. I see it as equally restrictive to tie oneself to or deny yourself materials. This is the religious fervour to which I refer.

And as for the evangelism?  I believe that classroom methods are a negotiation (implicit or explicit) between the teacher, the learner (s), the context and the moment. For that reason, I believe that unplugged teaching has a very important role at the right time, with the right participants, in the right situation…. but it is not the only way. If I were teaching advanced adult learners in small classes in Europe, I imagine a techno-dogme hybrid would be fantastic. But actually, very, very few teachers, in the wider world of English Language Education, are teaching in such a context. In fact, very, very few know what Dogme is, or ever will. And we bloggers and tweeters, we conference goers, the movers and shakers, sometimes need to remind ourselves that we are not typical, that we are lucky to have some choice about how and what we teach. Teachers can be afraid, tired, confused, or just plain uneducated. Like students, they need nurturing, not hectoring. So let’s not assume that anyone who doesn’t teach Dogme is too self-interested, too stupid or too lazy to try it.

Is ignorance always a sin?

George Siemens’ recent post on this topic was a thought provoking one. I am not a man who holds particularly firm convictions (if you were feeling uncharitable you might call me a flip-flopper, but I prefer to say I am open minded). I don’t think Siemens is suggesting that these questions should be locked away and never re-examined, but it seems useful to take a step back and figure out what you have learnt. As I write, I am pretty sure about the following things.

  1. Teachers need to find a personal voice. There are many ways, but not all of them work for all teachers. Your own style must be congruent with your (sub-concious) beliefs.
  2. Students also need to reflect frequently on what they are doing and why. Indeed, it is their primary responsibility.
  3. You try it first, then I’ll help you fix it. I’m not going to tell you how to do it from the beginning.
  4. I would rather tailor my classes to allow the most enthusiastic students to flourish. Setting passing criteria drags everyone down. If you ask students to read five books, they will all read about five. If you ask them to read as many as they can, some of them will read twenty five.
  5. Education is a very dangerous treadmill, because students and teachers alike quickly forget why they are on it. Tests, textbooks and syllabi are supposed to serve learning, not the other way round.
  6. Technology is providing teachers and learners with all manner of marvellous opportunities, too fast for large institutions like publishing houses, universities and governments to keep up with. Too bad for them.
  7. English doesn’t belong to native speakers. I still don’t get how regional native varieties are considered ‘correct’ yet non-native varieties need to be fixed. If you can be clearly understood, your English is correct.
  8. Even the best teachers have bad days.

Now I am halfway through the second semester and I figured the students should know me pretty well. I put together this Teacher Beliefs discussion activity for some of my more advanced classes to find out. It was quite pleasing to find out that, generally, they do… and that in most regards we were in agreement.

Is there anything that you truly believe? Are you and your students aware of one another’s beliefs? Don’t take anything for granted…..

(Written as a NEST, working in a foreign country, but hopefully of interest to all)

How did you learn cultural awareness? Assuming you did, of course….

For an industry which pitches different cultures together with such force and frequency as ELT, there is very little teacher training devoted to cross-cultural communication. On the CELTA? Sorry, to busy cutting up cards to practice the past perfect. DELTA? Well, can we do it after I’ve transcribed this into phonemic script.  Masters? Perhaps, but who knows what people get up to on those things. No, most of us have to figure it out for ourselves…. new job, new country, new people, new language… well, here goes nothing!

Of course, for many of us that is part of what makes teaching exciting. For others, it may be what forces them out of the profession early on. Is there more that we could do for new teachers in training to prepare them for life abroad? Especially if we have no idea where they are going, or might go in the future? Can we give any better advice than “Look, listen and learn?”

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions

Geert Hofstede’s research has been taken up as a business tool, but it has applications to the ELT classroom. He assesses five aspects of culture; Power Distance, Individualism, Masculinity, Uncertainty Avoidance and Long-Term Orientation.

Here is a comparison of my home culture, and my host culture. I should expect to come up against a greater reliance on rules than I am used to (Japan is an uncertainty avoiding culture), and I am also likely to notice a greater gap between gender roles (based on the masculinity index).

It is an interesting starting point, but rather simplistic. There is little mention of how the different dimensions play against each other, and the categorisation into national cultures attributes homogeneity where there may be none. Even a country like Japan, not generally considered diverse, has enough difference to be significant. Perhaps the iPhone app (Cultural GPS) advertised on the site gives us a hint – this is a handy tool for the business person flying in and out, but maybe not much more.

Culture Bumps

Carol Archer first coined this term for the unexpected outcomes, foiled expectations or unpleasant surprises which are not uncommon in cross-cultural encounters. The idea is not dissimilar to that of Critical Incident Technique theories. Unlike Hofstede’s model, these techniques suggest that we extrapolate backwards from what has actually happened to reveal something about a particular culture, group or individual, rather than make an assumption based on research about what might happen in real life.

Contrast Culture Method

As opposed to the previous two methods, CCM is very precise in how its sessions are conducted. Two players perform a role play based on an incident – one acts as a reference player, supposed to be closer to the audience’s own culture. The other is the contrast player, who reacts against them. After the role play, each player is interviewed by a facilitator, still in character, while the other player waits outside. Both players then return, and come out of character to discuss what has transpired. There are similarities to Critical Incident Analysis, but in this case players are at great pains not to identify as any particular nationality or culture, rather as a pair in reaction to one another.

I have been loosely affiliated to the CCM Special Interest Group of SEITAR Japan (Society for Intercultural Training, Teaching and Research) for a while, and have taken part in a few sessions. Here you can see an edit of our workshop at the JALT PanSIG in Osaka in May…

CCM Long from darren elliott on Vimeo.

(There is a short version here)

Choices

Which of these models, if any, do you think would be most useful for the novice teacher preparing for their first overseas posting? Have you ever received any training? Was it any good? Do you have any epiphanies to share, of culture bumps that taught you something you needed to learn?

Further Reading

Carol Archer’s website offers free downloadable materials for English language classes, as well as further information. This article on handling culture bumps from the ELT Journal by Wenying Jiang is freely available with a bit of googling…. and this one from the APA explains CIT from in earliest incarnation.

Cultural differences are a mainstay of ELT coursebooks, but this one does it with a bit more style and depth. Joseph Shaules, one of the authors, is also a member of the CCM SIG, but I haven’t met him yet.

Geert Hofstede’s ideas can be explored on the cultural dimensions website here.

You can learn more about CCM in this great reader.

Presented at the Chubu Junior and Senior High School Seminar 2010

First of all, a guide to the five kinds of digital camera I discussed. The ‘traditional’ camcorder, the pocket camcorder, the mobile phone, the digital camera, and the webcam.

A Field Guide to Digital Video from darren elliott on Vimeo.

Then a digital video checklist of things to consider when choosing a camera for a job.

Activities

 

Transcriptions can be a simple way of noticing errors, reflecting on strategies, checking gaps in knowledge and reviewing language. Here is an example video transcription worksheet to give you an idea. Students can transcribe conversations, role plays or even monologues, although I think they should be unscripted initially. Research suggests (see Lynch, below) that transcription can be beneficial as part of a task process.

You may prefer to put the students behind the camera too, in which case you will need to train them in the use of equipment. If all your students have video facilities on their mobile phones, you could have them record short videos over the weekend to discuss in class on Monday – playback through the phones themselves makes this a fairly simple job for the teacher. These could be project or topic related, or you could give the students free reign to express themselves.

If you would like to be even more ambitious, you could release the students to make and edit documentaries, interviews, skits or commercials. You could exchange video messages with students in other countries, remake scenes from movies shot for shot, make news reports or create weekly soap operas. With the tools and the time, let your imagination run wild!

Recording and watching your own classes, or those of colleagues, can also be useful. Check Ruth Wajnryb’s excellent ‘Classroom Observation Tasks’ for ideas.

Links

Vimeo is the video hosting service I use. The pro service is cheap, has a massive 5GB weekly upload limit, can be password protected, and looks great. It is also free of the awful commentary one comes across on youtube, with a great community of artists, animators and film makers. Students can visit the site directly and watch the video just by typing in a pre-agreed password. No registration or log-in required.

Dropbox provides free online storage, back-up, and synching between computers. Premium services are available, but if you can get your friends to sign up to the free package you get free bonus storage. Your students don’t have to sign up to anything, you can upload video files and send students a download link by email. Very simple.

WordPress is a great blogging platform (this blog is a wordpress blog) to which you can directly upload video, as long as it not too large. Some services allow you to post by email. Each of the four student blogs I am administrating this semester has a unique email address. I give this email out to the students and they can post text, photos or videos to the communal blog to share. A great way to collaborate on projects, and to stay in touch over the long summer holiday.

There are absolutely hundreds of digital video formats available, some rare, some very common. This list helps you figure them out, and free software like Any Video Converter will help you convert them if necessary.

I have bookmarked a lot of stuff which turned up during online research here at diigo … have a look around!

Further Reading

Allan, M. (1985). Teaching English with Video. Harlow, UK: Longman

Geddes, M. & Sturtridge, G. (Eds.) (1982). Video in the Language Classroom. London: Heinemann.

McGovern, J. (Ed.)(1983). Video Applications in English Language Teaching. Oxford: Pergamon.

(Three fantastic books. Not only are many of the ideas and activities still relevant today, but issues such as format incompatibility and teacher techno-fear seem to have quite a history….)

Brewster, M. (2009). Lights, Camera, Action. English Teaching Professional, 64 (September), 59 – 62.

(Some really great practical activities, highly recommended)

Shrosbree, M. (2008). Digital Video in the Language Classroom. The JALT CALL Journal, 4/1, 75 – 84.

(Slightly more technical, also practical)

Grayson, K. (2010). Flippin’ Out. Technological Horizons in Education Journal, March, 35 – 38.

(Useful overview of a number of handheld ‘pocket’ camcorders, although already dating fast!)

Lynch, T. (2007). Learning from the transcripts of an oral communication task. English Language Teaching Journal, 61/4, 311 – 319

Stillwell. C., Curabba, B., Alexander, K., Kidd, A., Kim, E., Stone, P. & Wyle, C. (2010). Students transcribing tasks: noticing fluency, accuracy, and complexity. English Language Teaching Journal, 64/4, 445 – 455.

(Two of many articles exploring the value of transcription)

If you were at the event on Sunday and are coming to look for the supplements on my presentation about digital video, please hold tight! I’m hoping to upload the checklist, some activities, worksheets, link, videos and a bibliography in the next couple of days. While you are here, if this is your first visit, have a look around! This might be a good place to start ; D

In the meantime, I just want to say what a pleasure it was to attend such a great little conference, and the evening pecha kuchas were amzing – the first session in the world to be held in a karaoke box? It’s great to see people getting together and organising these events (I wish I’d been able to attend the equinox too, which appears to have been a series of absolute belters)

Big shouts to @chucksandy @lesleyito @GifuStocks @m_yam @StevenHerder @barbsaka and all the other great non-tweeters who will hopefully become tweeters soon!

I’m not talking about how to get a laugh (although it’s always a pleasure). No, but I’ve been listening to some great interviews with comedians recently, and what struck me was the way in which they talk about honing their craft, succeeding, failing and getting better. They could easily be talking about teaching. I particularly recommend this series of interviews from Marsha Shandur.

A few quotes.

“It takes ages to learn how to do stand-up, because you can only practice on stage…you can try to imagine it, and write it, but the business of getting your stage legs takes ages.”

Dan Antolpolksi

“You can’t fake talent, but you can gain experience. You just can’t fake those first thousand gigs. You have to do ‘em. ….and then after that you start to become more like you are off-stage than on ”

Russell Kane

This came up time and again, through all the interviews, along with the idea that the first few gigs were great and then things suddenly came crashing down. We can find exactly the same ideas in the literature surrounding teachers’ career pathways; expertise is transitory, one can reach a plateau, or start to go backwards. Like teachers, most of the comedians talk about their work as a craft, something which needs to be polished and developed through practice, yet the craft can only be practised through the act itself… something which takes a thick skin and enormous self-confidence.

“If I’m playing the wrong crowd now I can go to absolute silence, whereas other times… a sort of hysteria is created in the room.”

Stuart Lee

Even an acclaimed, successful and talented comedian can fall flat on his face from time to time – and it might not even be his fault. He may simply have taken the wrong gig. Teachers, too, may occasionally come up against a class with which they can do nothing right.

Another common theme is diversification. Comedians seem to come to comedy from all over the place, and once they get there take on any number of roles to make a living. I get the sense that, as with EFL teachers, comedians change things up because they have to and because they like to. In my own research I found many instances of teachers who had chucked it all in to move to a new school, a new country, a new ‘gig’… to keep things fresh. Clearly ELT is an unstable career, change is often forced upon teachers who have to follow the work with the students and the seasons. I wish that there were more security, and I could plan my life with a little more certainty. But I think many of us secretly like it that unpredictability too.

So, what we can learn from stand-up comedians is that professional development is not unique to teaching. That those professionals who reach a level of succcess in their careers (and I am not talking about the superstars, but just those who make a decent living, do what they do well, and find happiness – my definition of professional success), have something in common. Confidence in their own ability, resilience in the face of knockbacks, flexibility, and a love of the job.

A final word from Dan Antolposki….

About a week ago I wrote about an experiment in silence with a class, and promised to come back with a report on the students’ reactions. It really was quite enlightening. This is what we all learnt.

1. A particular result may not mean what you think it means
Looking back through the many comments on my previous post (which was one of the most commented upon I have posted) it is interesting to see that we, as teachers, slightly misread the whole situation. As professionals, committed to our students, caring about them deeply, we all assumed that the end result (constant discussion in L1) springs from the joy of freedom, the taking up of responsibility and other positive emotions. Actually, according to the students, they were terrified.

“We actually thought that you were angry at us and abandoned us because we use too much Japanese in class.”

“I took it for granted that you were angry and you didn’t want to give our class.”

I don’t know where this leaves Krashen. Despite the cause being the negative emotion of fear, the result was very positive.

“To do task without your help was difficult for me. However, I were able to hear much English. And I could speak more in English than usual!”

“…if we have no teachers, we must think how we should study. However,this situation is very important to us too I think. Actually we try to look for the answer more harder than usual. I spoke in English more ,moreover I heared more opinions of them than usual. Though we had much difficulties, it was very interesting to me.”

Of course, anyone who has met me in real life will find this fear highly amusing. Teaching teenagers we do sometimes need to wield a big stick. However, I don’t want this to be the dominant motivating force in my classroom, which leads us onto our next point.

2. Although mystery can be effective, we must ultimately provide transparency

When the students realised what I was trying to do, they were very happy. This was a vital step in the experiment – revealing the mystery.

“But I read your comment , you tried to see our class from all kinds of directions.”

“After reading this article, I noticed you care about us more than I expected. So I’m happy that you are our teacher!”

“We were so puzzled! Me, K., M.,and M. were discussing about ゙what’s happening!?゙ through out the whole class.
K. and I were even talking about it the rest of the day!”

So had I left the class cold, with no feedback or no discussion of what had happened, the positives of confusion may have caused longer-term damage to the rapport we have been building. I kept the next class very light, and the students kept up their good habits from the previous class.

3. Perceived teacher beliefs do not always reflect actual classroom practice

If you had asked me before this class if I believed in learner autonomy and a hands-off teaching approach, I would have given you an emphatic yes. But what I was actually doing in the class belied this. It was only by removing myself completely from the lesson that I could see how students had been relying on me to prompt them, feed them and cajole them into using the language. In the last week, I have given many of my classes similar opportunities and they have all surprised me by speaking fluently in English for as longer than I expected.  Had I been unwittingly restricting learner autonomy by doing too much, by jumping in too soon, by shutting down an activity simply because I was ready to go on to the next one?

This is why I think reflective practice has never been done properly in mainstream ELT literature. The questions we are prompted to ask ourselves are always the same, and we end up giving the answers we think we should. What was good and bad about that lesson? Why did that activity succeed or fail? We will never really know unless we break the mirror and try to rearrange the pieces.

An invitation to experiment, then. This weekends homework – choose a class and do something you never usually do. Then report back and tell us how it went and what it revealed.

The Japan Association of Language Teaching is over thirty years old now, and currently numbers around three-thousand members. One of it’s larger special interest groups is the CALL sig with an internationally peer-reviewed journal, and last weekend I attended it’s annual conference.  Paul Lewis, one of the co-chairs and someone with a longstanding involvement with the sig, details the history of the conference here.

What is the JALTCALL Conference? from darren elliott on Vimeo.

As well as making two presentations of my own, I did a few interviews, went to plenty of great presentations and plenaries, and met a lot of very nice people. Like most conferences, this one had a theme, and I thought it would be interesting to reflect on it as I walked around the campus. The question is “What’s your motivation?”, and like most conference themes it is open to interpretation.

jaltcall 2010 – what’s your motivation? from darren elliott on Vimeo.

So, what is your motivation?

Two workshop prezis from JALTCALL 2010 at Kyoto Sangyo University, Japan, May 29th – 30th 2010.

Parallel Learning: How online teacher development informs classroom practice

Video blogging and Podcasting: Interviews with English Language Teaching Professionals

As you can imagine, there is a fair bit of overlap between the two sessions, so I chose to use the ‘flavour of the month’ presentation tool to make one big slide with two different pathways. It was really fun mapping it out… I am not sure if it helps me think differently, in a less linear fashion, or if it just panders to the mind’s natural inclination towards multiplicity. But this is my first paper run through….

Anyway, I am not sure whether it is such a bad thing to have ones thoughts marshalled into straight lines by PowerPoint or Keynote. Something about Prezi does scream ‘Big Fat Gimmick!’, but let’s enjoy the whizz bang fireworks while they last.

Because I hate decontextualised slides so much (one of the greatest dangers to academic discourse today, I’ll venture, is the proliferation of mute online slideshows, stripped of the only thing which gives them a life) I have recorded a run through with commentary so you know what all the pictures mean. It’s forty minutes condensed into twenty, so it’s both too long to watch online and not long enough to make any sense. Apologies for the mumble, everyone else is asleep and I really ought to be myself.

Parallel Learning: How online teacher development informs classroom practice from darren elliott on Vimeo.

I made this using iShowU HD, which works very nicely. Screentoaster also seems good, but a bit more obtrusive.

If you were at either of the sessions in Kyoto, thanks! Questions or comments are very welcome.

It really isn’t that hard to learn how to teach. Or should I say, a teacher can be trained to stand in a classroom without making an absolute idiot of themselves within about a week, from a standing start. For something which is only actually relevant for a very small proportion of a teacher’s career, training seems to generate a disproportionate amount of discussion.  The pre-service teacher or the teacher spending the first few months in the classroom needs to be drilled in ‘the fundamentals’*, but beyond that the teacher is largely in need of development rather than training **. Guidance or mentoring from senior staff, advice and hints from colleagues in the staff room, encouragement from peers in formal or informal communities – development rarely takes place alone, but it is often initiated and directed alone. After the first year or two this often becomes a practical necessity, but I suspect is also what most of us prefer.

As so many of us plan our own professional pathways, we need to know what we are aiming at. Something of which we are infrequently reminded is that we will stumble off the path on a fairly regular basis. Teachers fail. For example.

A new class is misjudged early in the course and the teacher gets stuck in a cycle of student demotivation.

A teacher changes context (new institution, new country, new…) and finds his or her hard-won expertise meaningless.

After attempting to implement too many innovations, a teacher burns out with exhaustion.

Many longitudinal studies by mainstream education specialists and sociologists have followed teachers to identify developmental patterns and life cycles. ELT has its own too, notably Rose Senior’s “The Experience of Language Teaching“. This blog has been up for nine months now, and I have been promising a review of the book after which it is named – Michael Huberman’s “The Lives of Teachers“, a study of 160 secondary school teachers in Switzerland. If you were at IATEFL 2010 you will know that Tessa Woodward has done the job for me. If you weren’t, or you missed the plenary, or something, you really ought to watch it here.

What I particularly like about Huberman’s study is its recognition of failed outcomes, dead ends and dangerous trajectories. Self-doubt, personal crisis, lassitude, disenchantment, apathy… all possible or even likely stages in the life of a teacher. Stability can be rewarded with stagnation, rather than harmony and satisfaction. Expertise is not a permanent state, and teachers can easily slip back to previous stages of development. Everyone ends in disengagement. If you are lucky, it is serene. If not, bitter.

These are not the little failures of the novice who forgets to set up a listening, or speaks too quickly, or doesn’t know how to field an unexpected question. After a time (and given a full teaching schedule) such mechanical issues are resolved and many of the processes of teaching become automatised. If they don’t, this may spark a crisis, not uncommon after the first two years of teaching. In ELT the teacher/tourist may quit before reaching either proficiency or crisis – without, even, the concepts crossing his or her mind….

For those who continue in the profession, and reach a certain level of expertise, the next danger area is in the eight to ten year bracket. Stagnation, exhaustion or a full-blown existential crisis are all possibilities. The potential stimuli for difficult periods change as one goes through life as a teacher, but are always there.

If you are new to the profession, or in a sticky patch at the moment, I apologise. But this post is not supposed to be a negative one (or a patronising one). My point (via Huberman) is that by accepting the inevitability of difficulties, by being aware of the danger zones in the career cycle and how particular vulnerabilities manifest themselves, we have a far greater chance of reducing their impact, getting through them more quickly, and perhaps (just perhaps) avoiding them altogether.

“The teacher who had not experienced one or more difficult periods in his career was very rare…. In effect, the ‘fickle’ nature (of triggers) meant that teaching moments of exhilaration are just as fragile and ephemeral as moments of distress…. ” (p. 257)

Or shall we say, the distress is just as ephemeral as the exhilaration?

(Footnotes)

* Although even this can be approached in a more self-directed fashion. A nice link here with Tessa Woodward, too – the unplugged CELTA concept has a flavour of loop input to me.

** This refers largely to EFL or ESL teachers, who I believe are largely responsible for their own development from the very beginning – financially and practically. If we consider postgraduate degrees or diplomas to be formalised development rather than training, then I can only count five weeks of training in ten years of my own career. However, I would be interested to hear from UK ESOL, which I understand to have a much more standardised system as part of mainstream education. I would also love to know about training programmes in larger institutions such as International House and the British Council.