The breaking of the back was the making of the man.

“To make yourself, it is also necessary to destroy yourself.” (Patrick White, Voss, 1957)

I remember reading the above quote while I was travelling around New Zealand in 2009. I felt an immediate connection with the character in the book, a doomed pioneer who is determined to explore the Australian outback at all costs. I had in effect done exactly what he was talking about. I had called off my wedding, quit my well paid job just as the crisis kicked in, moved out of my flat by the sea and took all the money I had and went travelling to New Zealand and South America. It was the best thing I ever did, I’m sorry to sound heartless but it was. It was this reevaluation of life that led me to where I am today. Stripping everything back, deciding what it was I actually wanted to do and then choosing the path that led me to becoming an ELT teacher.

Now lets fast forward to the present day. I was lucky enough to attend the brilliant IH Barcelona annual conference last weekend. The line up of speakers was impressive and I was excited to see some old faces. There was no real theme to the conference as now seems to be the fashion, but throughout the conference and especially after a period of deep reflection the theme was evidently clear to me.

The conference began on the Friday evening with two excellent plenaries. The first was from Jessica Mackay (@JessBCN) My tweets from the session:

Jessica Mackay currently encouraging us to do research #IHBCNELT

Teachers are probably better at being able to explain their research to other teachers. It can help TD, be empowering & inspiring. #IHBCNELT

Research can help to refresh our teaching and make us rethink what we do in the classroom. #IHBCNELT

Sts benefit from a teacher who does research. That teacher is engaged, interested and cares about the class. Everyone wins. #IHBCNELT

A desperate need for research written by teachers for teachers. #IHBCNELT

It was a very inspiring start to the conference and had me sitting up, paying attention and immediately pondering what research I could do. The last comment above, was for me, a very powerful statement and something that I think is desperately missing from ELT. I don’t think research in a sense has to be about writing huge dissertations for your masters degree or papers and books laden with toilsome terminology. To be relevant and immediately useful for teachers on the ground it needs to be done in real-time, action research coupled with documentation through blogging. Easily accessible and open to comment and debate among other teachers.

Next up was Anthony Gaughan (@anthonygauhan), who was asking us, “Where are all the unplugged teacher trainers?” Anthony hit the ground running, wanting to know why Dogme/unplugged teaching was only being paid “lip service (at best)” when it came to teacher training. Why wasn’t it given more time, more attention? Why weren’t trainees being encouraged to teach without the coursebook and work directly with what their students brought to the classroom? His argument was compelling and backed up with his own experiences of unplugging his CELTA courses. He then laid out an unofficial mandate for how teacher trainers and future trainers could set about unplugging their own courses.

Course books are not essential! @AnthonyGaughan hits the nail on the head. #IHBCNELT

Ditch your timetable, work back from results, start with what they can do, ask them what they think. #unpluggedteachertraining#IHBCNELT

Stop writing TP points, don’t ask for lesson plans, devote more time to guidance, stop answering, ask! #unpluggedteachertraining#IHBCNELT

Teach with them, don’t judge, help, 3 good reasons-economy-flexibility-self sufficiency for doing #unpluggedteachertraining #IHBCNELT

I’m not a teacher trainer and far from being one, but this had me on the edge of my seat. I certainly hope I wasn’t the only one and I really hope that the teacher trainers who attended were paying attention. If we want to make a difference to teaching it has to be at the very root of the profession. Trainees need to be made aware that course books and materials are not the be all and end all of a successful lesson. Anthony talked about teachers walking unaided, with out the crutches of the coursebook to support them. If anything the bottle feeding of coursebooks to trainees is quite possibly what prevents them from walking unaided in the first place. The trainee needs to be trusted, encouraged, nurtured just like we do with our students, they must be made aware of the bigger picture and that picture can’t be found in a course book.

Luke Meddings kicked of proceedings on Saturday morning with his talk ‘Dogme, detour and drift:Learning from the situationists. He didn’t let us down. Taking us on a journey around the world, back in time and a trip to his mum’s loft.

His message was simple and hard-hitting.

School=exams=success. Real education is lost. @LukeMeddings sounds like he is building towards a rallying call. Revolution? #IHBCNELT

.@LukeMeddings: “When it becomes a revolutionary act to just teach instead of prepare students for the test, we’re in trouble.” #IHBCNELT

Education is becoming obsessed with results, statistics and exams. Teaching is now akin to feeding information into empty heads. Spoon feeding language and discrete grammar. Luke was willing to provide us with an answer to counter this tide of standardization and testing. Dogme!

Dogme could be the key. Focus on dialogue, no focus on discrete grammar points. learn a language thru spking Giving people a voice #IHBCNELT

I couldn’t help but agree. Luke, as well as Anthony, was bringing Dogme back to the forefront of ELT. It is a viable alternative in a world where very few people are willing to break away from the pack and do something different. And to get it started we need to breakdown a few barriers.

Dismantle the box we are put in as teachers. Then go on to dismantle the boxes our students are kept in. @LukeMeddings great talk #IHBCNELT

The conference moved on and so did I. Moving around the conference hall to see as many people as possible. Some great talks, combined with useful ideas and further food for thought.

At 15.30 I found myself at a loose end, so I drifted into the main hall to watch Phillip Kerr talk about “The adaptivity of adaptive learning”. It blew my mind!

Coursebooks are on the move and this is bad news for teachers. The big publishing houses and many other newly formed businesses are currently investing huge amounts of money into adaptive learning. Coursebook content is moving online, likely to become cheaper and more easily accessible, making the need for real face to face teaching less and less. Teachers will be relegated and learning will be about learners consuming grammar and lexical mcnuggets. You would think that to spend billions of pounds on adaptive learning, you would need good old-fashioned research to support its credibility as a learning method. Well think again. The method is fueled purely by what is called, ‘Big Data’. Big companies collecting personal information and recording internet habits and trends to tailor personalised learning courses.

Big data is something we need to know about. we need to be aware of the effect it has on us We need to talk about it! Phillip Kerr #IHBCNELT

Money talks and it talks louder than all the teachers in the world put together. But Phillip gave us some hope, eloquently pointing out the big problems adaptive learning is likely to face in the future.

Adam Beale ‏@bealer81  Feb 8

Language is socially constructed. Always has been & always will be. Phillip Kerr speaking about problems adaptive learning faces #IHBCNELT

Unfortunately he did end on a more negative note when he warned;

“Algorithm written coursebooks are coming … Good luck.” a chilling end to Phillip Kerr’s dose of dystopia at #IHBCNELT I’m scared anyway.

I’m not sue if I did Phillip’s excellent talk any justice, so I would highly recommend reading his blog, which you can find here –

So what about this theme?

All of the talks I have written about here struck a major chord with me. Almost like a wake up call, my own personal watershed moment. The theme was one of returning to basics, with the teacher becoming the most important learning tool in the classroom. Teachers researching their profession, teachers showing other teachers what is possible, teachers giving students a voice and freeing them from the ever-present pressure of exams and finally, teachers providing learners with the one true way of learning a language, face to face through dialogue construction.

This has inspired me to completely rethink my current teaching. As I hand back the most recent of the exams I have been teaching towards, I feel an uneasy guilt that I have become part of the system. A teacher that simply spoon feeds his way through the school year. I need a phase of stripping everything back again, destroying what I have become to then remake myself. Dogme, I believe, is key to this. It doesn’t mean a total disregard for coursebooks or materials in general. This is not a war or a rant against coursebooks, but a search for a viable alternative that utilises the teacher and creates a more meaningful way of teaching. I would like to prove that there is another way and bring this to the attention of as many people who are willing to listen. Like the doomed character at the beginning of the post I may well be wandering into my own personal desert, but at least I gave it a shot.

This air conditioned life has left me gasping for some real conversation. (Frank Turner)


Blast from the past!

Prezi screenshot

It been nearly a year since Emily Bell and I presented at IATEFL 2012. I have managed to get all the videos working on the Prezi presentation that we did, so I thought it would be nice to get it on here, what with IATEFL 2013 just around the corner. Enjoy.

I was a rabbit in your headlights.

(image taken from google images)

It’s been nearly 2 and a half months since my unplugged project came to an end. I would like to say I have been on a long, sun drenched, relaxing holiday and completely disconnected my overworked brain, but instead I threw myself into summer work and have only just come up for air.

Throughout that time, my reflection of the last teaching year has been on slow burn and after a recent conversation about what ’emergent language’ was, I felt it time to bring an end to this chapter of my teaching life.

For those of you who have followed this blog from the beginning, skip to the next paragraph. For those that are new, a very quick recap of the project. One intermediate class, one fairly inexperienced teacher, a blog to record everything that happened in the class and the chance to teach in the unplugged approach for an entire academic year. There were ups and downs, crisis’ of confidence, euphoria, breakthroughs and blogging block.

All that’s left to do now is summarise my thoughts on the whole thing. Which is easier said than done.

I will start with the good news. The four students that took the PET exam and were part of the project group from the beginning, all passed. You wouldn’t believe how happy this made me. The class was never really exam orientated, although with the exam fast approaching toward the end of the year I did base lessons around the PET exam and the final classes were devoted to exam technique and making sure the students were aware of the format.

Looking back at the year, I realise how incredibly lucky I was to carry out such a project. This couldn’t have been done without the support of my D.o.S, Emily Bell (@emilyvbell), my fellow teachers at IH Santander and my ever-expanding and awesome PLN. The magnitude of what I was actually attempting didn’t hit me until people like Anthony Gaughn, Jemma Gardner, Chiew Pang, Mike Harrison and Scott Thornbury, and many others, began to take an interest in what I was trying to do. In all honesty, it was completely bonkers. A second year teacher, with a hare-brained idea of teaching without a coursebook, with minimum materials and then taking on the added pressure of blogging about it and then presenting at two conferences. Madness. But you know what, I wouldn’t have changed it for the world. I took a journey that many people would never even have imagined, a journey that many other teachers would have shied away from, teachers with years of experience that have continued to follow the same well trodden path and never ventured from their comfort zone. I proved to myself that I could teach and that I was making a difference and I hope that people who have followed this blog, have been inspired or provoked to look at their own teaching and what happens in their classroom.

I also feel honored to have championed teaching unplugged as a legitimate teaching practice. While I am well aware that there needs to be a lot more research and debate rages as to whether it is ‘just good teaching’. I genuinely feel that it is an authentic way of teaching and can help a teacher to strip down everything around them and get back to basics.

I feel like a more rounded teacher, a more confident teacher and more importantly I am unafraid to experiment in my classes and push the boundaries. I’m convinced that this can only benefit my students and help to push English language teaching into the 21st century. Even if I don’t get it right the first time,  the amount of reflection and learning that happens is unprecedented, which I think project unplugged demonstrates.

To finish, I just want to add my thoughts on emergent language. Which I think is the cause of much debate and is quite hard to define and even harder to extract and then work with. I think emergent language exists. It is an indicator that the students are pushing themselves to experiment and produce an utterance that they are not quite sure of or perhaps haven’t studied properly but is appropriate to say at that moment. The slightly garbled and mixed up second conditional, which is then pounced upon by the teacher, exploited, clarified, practised and reinforced so that it become a part of that students language armory.

Just as important as emergent language is the language gaps our students have. The things they aren’t saying. The structures they aren’t using, when in fact the situation is screaming out for it. Some people might argue that the coursebook caters for this. Ploughing through from unit 1 to unit 12 will cover all the bases and fill those gaps, but unless we actually listen to our students and allow ourselves the opportunity to notice these gaps through conversation driven activities, we may just end up papering over those gaps and not filling them correctly.

Output (emergent language) + Input (filling the gaps) =   Results

On that note, I will draw a line under my unplugged experience. It’s been emotional and my Dogme days are not over. I have ideas and motivation for future projects but they will have to wait.

Learner Diaries; A summary

As the academic year draws to a close, its time to summarise the two projects that I was running this year, at IH Santander.

If you’re new to the blog and Learner diaries, please read through the posts entitled Learner diaries 1,2 and 3 for the lowdown and extracts from the learner’s diaries themselves. If you have been following these posts from the beginning, thank you and I hope that you have gained something from these posts and maybe even been spurred on to try it yourself.

So, what exactly did I get from this project? Well, I think it is more important to focus on what the students got from this experience. After all, they were the main reason for starting this and without them participating I wouldn’t be writing this now.

Due to various reasons, I was unable to get specific feedback on the diaries themselves which is something I regret. So I have read back through the diary extracts and will be basing my summary around these. Firstly, I like to think that the diaries empowered the learners and was in keep with the theme of the unplugged project from which this off-shoot project formed. By giving them an outlet to express their feelings about the class and what happened in it, I effectively had an ongoing needs analysis that was honest and true and was prompted by questions the students were asking themselves, rather than a two page formal needs analysis that they are required to answer at the beginning of the course, which is normally rushed and completed with the same old answers. Anthony Gaughan recently mentioned the need for more frequent needs analysis in his talk about what makes a lesson great.

Well, needs change, and – if complexity theory really has any relevance to language acquisition – they do so unpredictably, so how often can/should needs be reassessed? Every month? Every week? Every lesson? Before or after the lesson? During it? (Anthony Gaughan, 2012)

I think that learner diaries can go some way to combat this and provide the teacher and learner with valuable feedback in which to proceed with further lessons.

This nicely links into the next point. By responding to what is written in the diaries and building lessons around these needs, the learners can see that what they are writing is important and that you the teacher are listening to what they have to say. The knock on effect is to create a greater rapport with the learners, encouraging them to write more and strengthen the cycle of feedback/needs analysis.

The diaries are also a valuable resource for lesson ideas. What’s great about the diaries is that the learners are constantly producing work. From this the teacher can use what has been written for a writing skills based class, maybe pick up on a topic that a learner has mentioned in one of their entries, something they like/dislike, what they did at the weekend and so on. The teacher can also prompt different responses and probe for more information with the responses they leave in the learner diaries, be it in the form of a direct question or perhaps a personal response to something the learner has written. Again, it pushes the learner to write more, further strengthens the rapport and provides the class with a wealth of material.

The learner diaries were also trialed with various other classes within the school and I was fortunate enough to share the project with Noreen Lam (@Noreen_Lam), a teacher at IH Santander, and we also presented our project at TESOL Spain, Bilbao. Recently, Noreen presented the same talk as part of the International house on-line conference and you can see the recording here;

Here is what Noreen has to say about the project;

Looking back at a year of learner diaries, I think that what I have felt most satisfied with is the insight that the journals have given into the lives of students.  Sure, it’s true that with the young learners, there isn’t much meat in the responses, and it’s often limited to “I like games and I hate homework/tests” etc, but once in a while, you get something that surprises you.  The students see it as a way to speak to you when maybe they aren’t able to do so during class time, and you can come up with something like “I hate be (sic) alone and get angry” which isn’t perhaps relevant to English class, but does tug at a more personal response and willingness to express feelings.
With the adults, it has been the same, but on a more complex level, which is what we were aiming for from the start.  I was lucky in that my adults are very enthusiastic and intrinsically motivated individuals, and they really poured their hearts out and were completely honest.  Entries began with a mixture of uncertainty, worry and lack of self-confidence, and towards the end of the year, became more and more positive with noticeable pride in their accomplishments.  They recognise their strengths and weaknesses and have taken it upon themselves to work hard.  It has been very rewarding reading their entries, especially when they share their secrets like how one “play[s] a game” where she mentally translates conversations she has with colleagues into English, thereby creating an internal dialogue in L2 and reinforcing the importance of it in her life!  Something like that just makes you go “wow!” and think, all that hard work throughout the year has paid off, and maybe I have done my bit as a teacher.

I think Noreen has summed up the experience very nicely and I can only echo her feelings. The chance to see into the lives of the learner is not only a privilege but also a very rare chance to get such personal feedback. To be able to allow the learners to do this is what teaching is all about. Empowering the learner.

Despite all the positives, not everything was plain sailing with the project. Initially, the learners took to the idea of the diaries enthusiastically and the responses offered lots of material to work with. As time went by and other things took priority, exams, holidays etc, the entries became fewer and fewer. The fact that we had the diaries spread across six or seven different classes also meant it was difficult to keep up with the responses and to put in the required time in order to get the most out of them. Some learners simply didn’t want to give up their time to fill out the diaries and for some ages it is more difficult to implement than others. I tried to deliver the diaries electronically with a group of teenagers after the initial paper based way failed and even that proved to be futile.

In conclusion, the project has been extremely enjoyable, thought-provoking and useful for both the learner and the teacher. Both Noreen and I plan to continue the learner diaries next year and another teacher at IH Santander is also looking to start the diaries with a class. I would encourage any teacher to give learner diaries a go and it would be great to hear from anyone that has tried or is even thinking of trying this kind of project with their learners to share experiences and thoughts. If anyone has any further questions about the project or the diaries, please feel free to comment here or contact me or Noreen via twitter. (@bealer81 and @Noreen_Lam)

Many thanks to Noreen Lam, Emily Bell and the students of IH Santander for supporting, participating and genuinely being cool people.

We need to talk about Dogme.

It’s been awhile, I know. After a long break from writing my last post about the project a lot has happened. I took a break due to conferences and then we had the Easter break, which meant that the lessons I did have with the project group, in-between this period, were a bit all over the place in terms of topic, and also lacking in student attendance.

This week has been the first week where I have had all the students back together, including two new students. With such a big break it was hard to go in with any real ideas of where the class was going to go. But, I did have a lesson about giving and receiving good and bad news prepared, just in case.  We started by doing a lot of pair work and reporting back to find out what had happened during the Easter holidays. It was clear that everyone was a bit rusty, so this worked well as a warmer and to ease the students back into the class room. Just at the end of one of the reporting back sessions, one of the students told us that his partner had lost his job and been sacked at the weekend. I asked him how he felt about the events and to give us the reason for the sacking. I then asked the students to tell their partner what the last piece of bad news was that they had received. That lesson was going to come in handy after all. They reported back to the class and I gave feedback and correction where necessary. Next I put the students into groups to talk about how they could make it easier to give someone bad news. we boarded the answers;

  • Telling some good news after or before the bad news
  • using humour / tell a joke
  • don’t tell them the whole truth
  • get someone else to do it
  • do it face to face

I then distributed a worksheet, about advice on how to give bad news from the prepared lesson, and asked the students to work together to fill in the gaps and to read the full article to compare their answers with that of the worksheet. This was a fairly easy and quick task so I moved on to eliciting the language you could use to tell someone good or bad news. I boarded the suggestions and corrected where necessary.

The next step was to get the students to listen to seven short conversations I had recorded onto my dictaphone and work out if it was god or bad news and what the news was. They also had the task of listening for the language that was used in the recording. The recordings really made the students work hard and we spent some time on repeating the different conversations and working out from context and using certain lexical clues to work out what was happening. After some feedback I asked the students to try to remember some of the language that was used in the listening to give good or bad news. I added the ones they had written down to the previous ones on the board.

With the lesson I had prepared there was a set of phrases for both giving good and bad news as well as phrases that could be used for both, depending on the tone of voice and additional information. I placed these on the centre table, all mixed together, and asked the students to separate them into the relevant groups, good, bad or both. After some discussion and a little debate about the ‘both’ group we settled on the final answers and then I went through some drilling exercises. Pointing out the rise and fall in intonation depending on whether it was good or bad news. I repeated the exercise for phrases that we use to respond to good or bad news and also got the students to come up with their own.

The final part of the lesson was to work together and create a dialogue with the situations we had talked about in the earlier part of the lesson, using the language and phrases from the class. The lesson ended here and the idea was to finish and perform the dialogues in the next class.

The next class

So, before hearing the dialogues I went around the class and helped with some rephrasing and structuring in the dialogues. We drilled the language and then the students performed them. They clearly had the hang of where the particular phrases needed to go and there were some quite theatrical performances with interesting use of intonation.

That very morning I had received some bad news myself, my parents were due to visit me for the first time in nearly two years, but there car had broken down on the way to the airport and they ended up missing their flights. From this very unfortunate event, I created a newspaper headline and prepared it before the class and mocked it up into a pretend newspaper. I showed the students the headline and told them it was about something that happened to me and they had to ask questions to gain information and find out what happened. This was where the problems began. The process was quite long and drawn out and the formation of the questions themselves was particularly difficult, and for me worrying, as the students were finding it really hard to get their question word order correct. We eventually got the full story. I checked the students understanding of headlines and why it was so short and why newspapers contract the information in that way.

The next stage was to get the students to write their own headlines about something that had happened to them recently. I worked my way around the room helping them to construct the headlines and to try to keep them short and to the point. This is what they came up with;

  • Gijon are returning to hell (football related)
  • All roads lead to Milan (recent holiday)
  • Lack of sleep can be dangerous
  • Racing are close to going down to hell (football related)
  • Rainy days lead to boredom

The next part was simple, the students would go around the room, ask questions to each other, make notes and then write a report on their favourite story. This very quickly went out of the window. The forming of questions was all over the place, confusing both speaker and listener. This lead to mis-information and a lot of back and forth before actually getting any facts about the story. The amount of errors coming out of the activity was just too much. I didn’t know what to focus on at first and then simply stuck to the questions that were being asked. After 5 minutes I stopped the activity. We were getting nowhere fast and I could see the frustration building. I boarded some of the questions and did group error correction. I then elicited the W question words and what information they were used to elicit. Instead of going back to the milling exercise, I turned it into an interview exercise one person at the front with everyone else asking questions allowing me and the students to concentrate on one question at the time. Again, the process was slow and painful and the students were really struggling, each question needed restructuring and at times was broken down into one word at a time slowly building it back up. Toward the end it got a little better so I moved it back into the milling exercise. Mistake. I was swamped with more errors, too many errors, a tidal wave of errors and the questions spluttered, stuttered and blurted out in all sorts of ways. I allowed the activity to continue to allow myself time to try to work out exactly how I was going to fix this and exactly what I needed to fix. I couldn’t think of anything. I was lost in a sea of errors, confusion and inexperience, my inexperience.

The lesson finished and to be honest I was grateful, and I think the students were too. I wasn’t sure exactly what I had taught them, I wasn’t sure if the lesson was of any use at all. I had no way or idea of dealing with the problems that were coming up. I needed more structure, I needed more support and more importantly so did the students. For me, this highlights certain drawbacks of Dogme for an inexperienced teacher. The ability to deal with emergent language and language problems on the spot is really difficult and there is a lot of pressure to get it right. I feel as though I perhaps did more damage than good in that lesson and it has dented my confidence a little. God only knows what it did to the students. Secondly, what sometimes appears to be a lack of structure and clear aims to the students, in a Dogme classroom, can lead to a class with no clear end results which can be frustrating for the learner who then doesn’t have anything to show for the hard work and time they have put in. This again leads me to another question I have asked myself recently, Who exactly is benefiting from this project, the students or me?

The one positive from the lesson is that I know what I need to work on in the coming lessons. To do this I’m going to go back to the coursebook and really structure the next lessons. I will allow for flexibility and space to react to things that will come up, but my main aim is to restore confidence in both students and myself, resolve the problem of question formation and to get some learning done. I’m stepping away from Dogme and looking to the coursebook, with a critical eye, to provide the support and structure, we as a class, need.

A little less conversation….?

After the disappointment of my last lesson with the class. I really wanted to prove to myself and the class that we could have a class based entirely around conversation, that is student centered and with minimum input from myself.

Recently, I have been following the #eltbites minimum materials challenge . The idea is in the title, but click the link to find out more, a great challenge from Richard Gresswell. (@inglishteacher)

Jason Renshaw, a.k.a @englishraven, posted a very simple but intriguing idea about handing the board pen over to the students and allowing them to, in effect, dictate the class proceedings. Along with this, I had received a comment from @jemjemgardner regarding my last post, in which she suggests that simply writing something on the board and using gestures to get the students talking, without actually talking yourself, is a great way of making things more student centered. I had nothing to lose!

The class was half-full as I entered. I didn’t say anything. I simply picked up the I.W.B pen and handed it to the nearest student. I smiled and gestured to the board. I sat down and began filling out the register, making sure not to look as though I was going to assist in any way. There were a lot of strange looks, shoulder shrugging and general confusion. The first student wrote hello on the board, it was a start, he then clicked on and started to ask the class how their weekend was. After they had finished, I motioned for someone else to take over, and instead of writing on the board they asked another question for the group, “what are you doing for the holiday, next week?” Some more people came in to the classroom and the others told them what was happening. The speaker changed, and this time the question immediately caught my attention, “what do you want to talk about today?” I quickly noted down the answers:

  • The passive (I know, I couldn’t believe it either)
  • Everything and nothing.
  • Can we watch a film?
  • Grammar
  • Can we do some listening and just talk?
I stood up and asked for the pen back. The class looked a little bit relieved that I had decided to join in. I was pleased that they had taken the initiative and got the ball rolling, now it was time to keep it going. I paired up the students. I gave them all something to talk about, two students were on the same course at university so I asked them to talk about their course and what they had learned so far that week. The other group contained the student who asked to watch a film. I told him to tell the group about the last film he watched, the other student had to talk about why he wasn’t in the last lesson and the third had to talk about a conversation he and I had before the class started. The final pair, included the student who wanted to talk about grammar. I asked her to tell her partner why she wanted to do that and then I noticed that her partner had come straight from the gym, so I asked her to talk about what she did at the gym. The class room was full of conversation. I sat in the corner of the room listening in to the various conversations, writing down some notes and errors.
When the conversation naturally died down, I got each pair to report back. From this I would decide the next topic for conversation, depending on how the other students reacted to what they heard. Sometimes I got the groups to report back to other groups, I swapped the pairs around, if I heard a group reverting back to Spanish, I got them to tell me what had been said and found another question from that to get them started again. The board started to fill up, vocab, phrases, words marked for pronunciation at the end of class. I started to write down errors on post-it notes and hand them to the students, who would immediately repeat the sentence but this time with the correction. These were the topics we talked about:
  • Reasons we go to the gym and what exercise we enjoy
  • Reasons why we don’t have time to go to the gym
  • What we would do if we weren’t all so busy
  • When was the last time you had a bad nights sleep and why?
  • When you can’t sleep, what do you do to get to sleep?
I barely had to do anything, bar deciding what the next topic would be, and that was generated by the students themselves. I finished the lesson by reviewing what had come up in the class. Vocabulary, phrases, ‘used to’ and why we use it, drilling of some particularly difficult words and finishing with some praise relating to the way some of the students were responding correctly and accurately to some 2nd conditional questions.
In the end we had talked about everything and nothing, just like one of the students had wanted, they listened and talked a lot, just like another had asked to do, we had dealt with some grammar, although not the passive, as another student had suggested. The students left the class happy and content. I should have been feeling the same. I was happy with the amount of talking we had done and the fact that it was all student centered and generated, yet what had they really learned from this lesson, and what had I actually taught them.
For me the class was nothing more than a glorified conversation class. At least I achieved my aim, but what about the emerging language? This is something I have struggled to deal with and identify from day one. Trying to listen to 4 different conversations at once, writing errors, good language use and also trying to figure out what the learners need to work on or what language they are lacking is extremely difficult. Especially for someone who is lacking in experience, such as myself. While I understand that from teaching in an unplugged/dogme style a lot of the planning comes after the lesson, via reflection and what emerged in the lesson, should I not be seizing on these teachable moments there and then?  Are my students missing out on something, that perhaps a more experienced teacher could give them? My process of post planning has been extremely useful. It has allowed me to reflect on my lessons with my D.o.S and then plan for the next lesson. Yet, this planning has become more about teaching a particular language point in the next lesson and planning a range of activities that will achieve that aim. Taking away the control of the lesson from the student and becoming a teacher centered lesson. Although, very useful for the student, it isn’t really teaching in the true dogme sense. Also, it is much more comfortable for someone of my experience to feel as though I have slightly more control of the lesson and that I am actually teaching them something. A lot to ponder over the winter break.
The project will be changing slightly after the Christmas holidays. A large amount of students want to take the Cambridge PET exam, so the dogme teaching will be week on week off with exam prep classes taking place in-between. It will be interesting to see if this has any effect on how I teach my future dogme classes and also how the students react in the classes, especially after going back to a more structured exam class.
Happy Christmas. See you in the new year.

The parting of the sensory

A tale of two lessons:

It was the best of lessons, it was the worst of lessons. (but not in that order)

I bought myself a dicta-phone a couple of weeks ago, in part to prevent me having to lug my laptop and speakers around when ever I wanted to record some speaking, but also so I could go all ‘Alan Partridge’ and record thoughts and even sounds to help put together lessons. Monkey tennis?

Over the weekend I decided to record five sounds that would be of interest to my students, including my favourite sound of all time, to become the opening listening activity for this weeks lesson.

  1. The sound of a busy bar/restaurant
  2. Me buying some new clothes in Zara (clothes shop)
  3. Me and my girlfriend walking down the three flights of stairs in my apartment building
  4. Me catching the bus
  5. A cup of tea being poured (the best sound in the world)

From the very beginning of the class, things were different. I only had five students. No big deal, but normally I never have any less than seven or eight. We started of by doing ‘Up and Down’ pg 40 from teaching unplugged (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009). It’s a different way to get them talking about their weekend, than the usual talk to your partner and report back. It stuttered along, and never really got going, but we found out that one of the students had a car accident, so this became the focal point of the activity, producing accident and car related vocabulary. I put the slow start down to the new and untested activity, as well as the lack of some of the students who would normally help to, perhaps, drive the activity on.

We moved on. I told the class that they were going to listen to five sounds from my weekend. They had to simply listen to the sounds and write down where they think I was and what I was doing at the time. I played the sounds through once and then in pairs they discussed what they had put down. We then listened to each sound and I asked for their answers, helping to structure their responses as we went and confirming if they were correct or not. They did pretty well, and at the end I asked them to guess which sound they thought was my favourite. Eventually they guessed that tea being poured was indeed my favourite and I explained to them in a little anecdote, why.

When I was younger, I used to live at home with my parents. Our house was quite small, and you could hear what was going on in any room of the house if it was quiet enough. When I woke up on a Sunday morning, with a small hangover, I loved to hear the sound of my mum pouring tea into a cup. This was because I knew a minute later she would come upstairs and give it to me.

This story seemed to go down well. I asked the students if they could do the same. Think of their favourite sound and then tell their partner why. The room went quiet and I could see that they were deep in thought. The silence continued, so I moved around the room hoping to encourage some thoughts. Slowly they started to scribble something down, and after checking everyone had a sound, I asked them to tell their partner and explain why. Normally they would begin straight away, and the room would fill with the satisfying sounds of students engaging in conversation.Sadly this wasn’t the case. There was some blank stares and shrugging of shoulders, I was sure my instructions were simple and clear enough, so I asked one of the students to tell me his favourite sound and once he began to tell me, hinted for the others to ask him more questions about it. I turned and did the same with the other group. I turned back to the first group only to be met with silence. I engaged them again, cajoling, encouraging and trying to elicit some sort of response. Eventually some interesting things came out, but it was hard work. The sound of a Harley Davidson engine, waves crashing on the beach and so on. We moved onto the sound they liked to hear the least. More of the same, me asking and doing most of the talking. Still some interesting answers came out and we talked about the resulting vocabulary.

The next stage involved the other senses of the body and an activity from ‘Teaching unplugged’ (Thornbury&Meddings, 2009) called ‘Memory stars’ pg44. I elicited the senses from the students and then revealed a large five point star on the IWB with the five senses written on each point. I asked them to do the previous activity with the other senses. They needed to write a word or sentence that related to their favourite smell, sight, touch, and taste. I gave examples of my favourite things and then let the students write down their own thoughts. While they were writing I put some language chunks, sentence starters and expressions on the board  that I wanted them to use in the coming speaking activity. Once they were finished, I mentioned the language on the board and then I asked them to stand up and mingle, showing each other their stars and asking questions about how, when and why. They seemed hesitant from the beginning, perhaps unsure or even lacking in confidence. I panicked a little, instead of waiting and allowing them the time to start speaking, I leapt into the middle and started asking questions to try to get things moving. Suddenly I was the centre of attention. No-one was talking, they were waiting for me to ask them questions. I had hi-jacked the lesson, it was now teacher centred. In fact the whole lesson had been pretty much teacher centred. Disaster! We finished up the activity and I recapped what we had discussed in the lesson. The lesson came to an end, the students left, somewhat despondent and maybe disappointed. They mirrored my own thoughts. I went out for a few drinks and put the lesson to the back of my mind. You can’t win them all I thought, reflect on it tomorrow after a good nights sleep.

The next morning 

It was 5am. I was lying awake and I was angry. Pissed off at my inadequacies as a teacher, and replaying the lesson in my head. I managed to fall asleep again. Over breakfast I decided to do the lesson again. I walked to the Oceanographico in the morning sunshine, with a couple of motivational songs playing in my earphones. The last thing I said to myself before the lesson started was, sit back, don’t interfere and let them do the work.

The students were responsive, enthusiastic and interested from the word go. I barely said anything other than corrections and some basic instructions for each activity. There were only four people but when I asked them to talk in their pairs they actually turned to face their partner and forgot I was there. I simply listened and made notes, pronunciation, good language use, areas for improvement. The board was full, I drilled some of the troublesome words and even wrote out one in phonetic script (My DOS is going to fall of her chair when she reads this). This particular group is only one level higher than my project group but the language they produced was worlds apart.

One of the students was talking about her favourite sight and sound, the sea crashing on to the beach.

“I like to contemplate the strength of nature”

“I feel very insignificant in the world”

One of the student’s started talking about how she can hear everything her neighbours do and this lead to her talking about her least favourite sound.

“The sound of the T.V is the most annoying”

“I’m concerned that my neighbours can hear me”

I left the lesson on a high. It was a completely different feeling from the previous night, almost euphoric. What a wonderful profession this teaching business is. I spent an hour or so, later that day, getting feedback from my DOS about the lesson and then comparing it with the morning’s success.

What went wrong (first lesson)

  • Teacher centered
  • No pronunciation work
  • Lesson too structured
  • No space for flexibility
  • No real work on emergent language
  • I didn’t embrace the silence. I didn’t give the students time to talk among themselves.
  • I kept interfering, I panicked
  • The lesson idea required some quite abstract thinking. Making it difficult for the students to convey exactly what they wanted to say or talk about. It needed more scaffolding and the students more support from me.

What went right (second lesson)

  • See above and reverse.
This lesson has created a lot of discussion between me and my DOS, about various issues to do with teaching unplugged and implementing it over a long period of time. There are countless variables to take into account, too many to write about in this particular post. I will save that for later. I think I have rambled on long enough already. Watch this space.