“It´s all about being in the room…”

This post is, I promise, about teachers listening to learners, learning spaces and learning experiences.  But let me begin by digressing a bit and telling a story.

A couple of days before the Brighton International IATEFL Conference I spent a few days in London. One of the things I wanted to do was to watch Danny Boyle’s National Theatre production of Nick Dear’s adaptation of Frankenstein and after queuing for a couple of hours, we got the tickets.

The play was brilliant in many respects (in others I did have my reservations). But one thing got me thinking. This play is being broadcast live at least once a month throughout cinemas in Europe. Having seen the play I couldn’t help but think: what experience does the cinema audience have of this play which engages the “live” audience in so many senses (literally speaking). The first 30 minutes or so is a visceral experience. How can a camera pick all of this up? Surely you only get part of the experience?

Then I began thinking about the actors on stage. Anyone who’s ever been on stage before knows that you can sense the audience in front of you. And a lot of that is done by listening to them (with the floodlights you can hardly see the audience). So what happens in the broadcast versions of the Frankenstein play? Do the actors forget there’s a camera on? Do they only act for the audience in the theatre?

These questions were going over my mind and on returning to Brazil, whilst surfing the web, I came across a Q&A session held at the National Theatre with the play’s director and the two actors who swap roles on alternate nights so that they both play the roles of Victor Frankenstein and the Creature (Daniel Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller).  In the interview, which you can see below, Jonny makes clear their reluctance as regards the broadcasting of the performance.

He makes it clear that the experience of watching live theatre is unique because of the exchange that happens between the actor and the audience,

“…we’re performing so that you up there, the back of the, back of…your experience has to be for us as engaging as it is for you down there…so you can’t ever get that balance using a camera…[…]…but still, I’m telling you, it’s all about being in the room, that’s what theatre really means.”

So, the actors sort of confirmed my gut feeling about the broadcasts. But the more I thought of it, the more Jonny’s words struck a deeper chord with me as I couldn’t help associating what he said to the language teaching and learning experience. His words, “it’s all about being in the room…” couldn’t be truer for us teachers and for our learners. We’ve heard this before in the words of Earl Stevick: “[…] success depends less on materials, techniques and linguistic analyses, and more on what goes on inside and between the people in the classroom.” (Quotation can be found in Stevick, E. 1981. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley: Newbury House.)

The “communicative” classroom has always in a way tried to foster a constructive interaction between teachers and learners. We have, as new teaching resources and approaches have emerged, elaborated and introduced new elements into our classroom. Yet, if there is something that should have always been present, despite changes, is our ability to listen to our learners and we can only do that because we are sharing the same learning/teaching space.

As the lesson takes place, we have to be able to feel and sense what is going on in the classroom. We’re not robots after all. Yes, we may have a lesson plan, we may use a coursebook (or not), we may use IWBs (or not), we might be teaching over 50 learners, we may be dealing with mono or multilingual groups, it really doesn’t matter. If we don´t stop to look at the learners, to take the time to listen to them (and that means not succumbing heart and soul to timetable, syllabus and testing pressures), react and interact with them, in short, construct a dialogue, then we’ve become mere content regurgitators and we’re forcing them into the same mould.

I also think that in some countries (Brazil being the case) the speed and rate at which we are living our lives has pushed us into imitating the same pattern in the classroom. It seems to me that “acquiring” the English language is a bit like the Gold Rush of the late 19th and early 20th centuries: fast, furious and then it dwindles and you end up with ghost towns, with little memory of the heyday. This pattern doesn’t work as a true learning experience.

Strong words and imagery? Well, yes. Yet as a teacher trainer I do get the opportunity to observe thousands (okay, slightly exaggerated here) of lessons every year. The question I have asked more and more recently following lesson observations has been: “So and so seemed to want to share something with us. Did you notice that?” In general, teachers are so worried about covering the lesson plan (okay, so there is a huge amount of tension when it comes to being observed…so it´s understandable when this happens sometimes) that they forget that learning magic happens when interaction takes place, when we need to extemporize in reaction to the learners’ needs and when we truly share something. Learning becomes more meaningful and in fact, we actually create a true learning opportunity when we allow this interaction and exchange to take place.

We empower the learner. The learning space is transformed. The experience is a different one.

Going back to Jonny, he also mentions in the interview that the whole “process” of presenting the play is one which “affects” the audience in very many ways as there is the interaction of lighting, music, etc. It’s quite interesting to hear an actor describing a performance of a play as a process. The idea of collaboration with the audience is quite a strong one. And this is so true of our reality in the classroom. We all know learning is a process, but how often do we not treat our teaching as a product rather than a process (I think many of us can plead guilty to saying at some stage something to the tune of: “Today I taught the present perfect.”. I know I can, and I also made a point of writing it down in my monthly lesson planner!!!!! As if, “done with this” and now onto something else…..).

The moment we begin thinking the learning/teaching experience as a process (and not a testable by-product), we attribute new weight to the word ‘time’ in ‘timetable”. We allow learners to potentially subvert the learning process by adding their own voice. New exciting possibilities emerge in the classroom and I can be certain that memorable experiences are to be had.

So, paraphrasing Jonny, but changing his words a bit:

It´s about being in the room, that’s what teaching/learning really means.

Are you a first-time Young Learner teacher?

Over the last few years I’ve found it increasingly difficult to find teachers who are keen to teach Young Learners or who are indeed ready to teach this age group. I put it down to the fact that our University courses in Languages generally prepare teachers to work with an older age-group (due to the manner in which our school curriculum is distributed). In addition, when student teachers do TP, it’s hardly ever with younger learners.

The irony of this all is that I often see graduates who’ve just started teaching being assigned a class of Young Learners. I think there often is a grave misconception which goes something like this: if you’re young, you’ll be a great YL teacher because you’ve just come out of college brimming with energy and enthusiasm.

Hmm, that might be the case, but being an energetic teacher is not even half of what you need in order to be able to teach YLs effectively. There’s so much more to it!

This is how it was with me, about twenty odd years ago! I unashamedly confess to being completely lost with my group of 10- year-olds! (I started off with a class of Young Learners, an Upper-Intermediate group and a CPE class! What variety!)

I had absolutely no idea how to teach these YLE kids. Maybe it was a cultural factor (I had in fact trained as a primary teacher in the UK, but my seven-year-olds we a far cry from the Brazilian 10-year-olds); or maybe I was simply unsure how to teach a foreign language to kids.

Whatever it was, I am indebted to my life-saving mentor: Ingrid, a specialist in teaching young learners. She was my teacher/mentor with this group of kids and I can only imagine her horror as she observed an entire lesson being taught by yours truly on items of clothing without using a single piece of realia!!!! Yes, I confess to having inflicted this punishment on those poor kids who just looked at me, imploringly, as if to say: what on earth are you on about! (I think their looks will haunt me for ever and ever….).

As I finished teaching the lesson, I knew something was seriously wrong. But I didn’t know what it was. I did feel tears welling up (gosh, some of us are so emotive when we’re young), but held back and looked at Ingrid feebly. Looking back, this was indeed a make or break moment for me as a teacher. The only thing was that I wasn’t really aware of this then. With great skill Ingrid helped me see where I went wrong and I understood the importance of modelling, the use of repetition and, most of all, the use of realia to bring things to life in a YL classroom.

What did she make me do? She made me teach the same lesson again the following week and she said she would observe me again! Wow! Lucky I listened to her! It changed my understanding of how to teach young learners.

Not quite sure how much better the second lesson was, but she must have felt it went fine. Well, I at least I got some really good feedback from one of my little 10 year-olds: “Valéria, agora eu entendi tudo!” (Valéria, I’ve now understood everything!”) Phew! What a relief!

So, today when I observe teachers teaching young learners I can’t help but remember my own initiation into this very specific area of teaching EFL. I still think it requires a teacher who is able to deal with so many different skills and abilities in terms of classroom management (but these we can, of course, learn as we gain more experience). But above all, it requires teachers who enjoy letting themselves go a bit, either when they are singing a song or telling a story; it requires someone who enjoys being hugged (here in Brazil we don’t have many hang-ups yet about kids touching us or vice-versa for that matter, although things are changing gradually); it requires someone who can deal with the children’s parents (and that’s quite a skill); it requires teachers who are willing to get their hands and clothes dirty with paint; teachers who let kids sharpen their pencils for the umpteenth time; who wipe clean children’s noses, who patiently listen to and sing the same songs probably over 100 times in the same term; who laugh at the oldest jokes ever and pretend they’ve never heard it before; who put on funny voices when using puppets; who successfully break up any fight about lending and borrowing the red felt tip pen and who in these wonderful but challenging days of inclusive education, are also able to embrace children with SEN into their classes.

Yes, quite a demanding challenge isn’t it? And we still ask graduates to have a go, quite often with very little guidance or training!  How wrong!

So, if you have ever been in a situation similar to the one I experienced or are actually going through this now, how did you cope / are coping with it? Who has helped you? How have you been able to develop your teaching skills in this field of EFL?

I would love to read your comments.

If you can´t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?

If there’s a film I enjoy watching this time of year it´s Love Actually. For me this film’s a winner right from the very start, with the opening lines narrated by Hugh Grant with his inimitable voice, when he says:

“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow airport. General opinion makes out that we live in a world of hatred and greed. I don’t see that. Seems to me that love is everywhere. Often it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy but it’s always there. Fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends.

When the planes hit the Twin Towers, none of the phone calls from people on board were messages of hate or revenge, they were all messages of love.

lf you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.’

It’s actually a film about voices for me: voices which are heard, sad voices, unvoiced voices, translated voices, misunderstood voices, voices which are ignored, voices which are brash and difficult not to hear, betrayed and betraying voices, frustration-filled voices and, of course, love-filled voices.

A voice which we cannot help but hear is Natalie´s, with her simple: “If you can´t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?”

This sentence resonates (maybe because it’s simply such a good idea all in all) and it gives me a perfect excuse to round off the year with a blog post (and it´s a pretty long blog post, so get ready) which sort of pays tribute to & thanks everyone within the field of ELT who has contributed to making the year of 2010 a very special “learning” year for me.

IATEFL 2010

I’ve been a regular IATEFL participant since 1998. I can say beyond a shadow of doubt that this year´s conference was possibly the best I’ve attended so far.

It was excellent on several levels: in terms of its organization, the choice of conference venue, the plenary speakers and the quality of the concurrent sessions.  I learnt a great deal from colleagues working in Europe, within a traditional EFL context, but also from colleagues from different continents, who showed me what it means to work in challenging or difficult circumstances. In these sessions the art of teaching and what it means to be an educator was voiced loud and clear.

But equally important was what happened online. Harrogate online was a brilliant resource which allowed people at the conference, as well as those who were unable to attend, to get a glimpse of what was taking place. It allowed me to discuss Tessa Woodward´s plenary with colleagues who hadn´t gone to the conference. Thanks to the tremendous effort put in by all who were directly involved in the planning, development and implementation of Harrogate online.

With free wi-fi and the use of Twitter we created a community at IATEFL which has now become the basis of my PLN. I know many people are still skeptical about the use of Twitter during conferences. Quite frankly, if you want to see collaboratively learning taking place on a microgenetic level (Vygostsky at his best), all you needed to do was to follow the #IATEFL2010 tweets and see the level of sharing we accomplished. It was phenomenal.

ABCI 2010

I was one of the people who organized the ABCI (Associação Brasileira de Culturas Inglesas) Conference which took place in July 2010. Its size was modest in comparison with IATEFL – we had 750 teachers at the conference, from all over Brazil, and we also counted on the participation of colleagues from within LABCI (Latin American Association of Culturas Inglesas).

My sidekick (and mentor) in all stages of the organization was Bob Lewis, a dear friend and colleague who’s taught me a lot. The organization of the conference actually began in September 2009. Over lunch with Jeremy Harmer, Bob and I made our first plenary speaker invitation and Jeremy very kindly jotted down the conference dates.  A few days later we confirmed David Crystal (thanks to the joint effort of Graeme Hodgson, British Council, Brazil, and João Madureira, CUP Director in Brazil). By the end of the year we already had all our plenary speakers and some special workshop presenters. My deepest thanks go to all of them: Jeremy Harmer, David Crystal, Herbert Puchta, Marc Prensky, Dave Allan, Ben Goldstein, Graham Stanley, Jeff Stranks, Paul Seligson, Jennifer Bassett and Hugh Dellar

Then we received the concurrent session proposals and the committee began analyzing and selecting proposals. This was when we knew we would have a fantastic event. The quality of the titles and abstracts was wonderful: so many themes, so many different opportunities for teachers from around Brazil to share their experiences. The fact that it was raining torrentially also sort of helped: we were all stuck in this lovely hotel in Rio discussing ELT issues!

The conference raised its fair share of controversy (which isn’t a bad thing), it provoked pertinent discussions and it gave many of our younger teachers their first chance to experience a quality conference. This created a thirst for attending such events and many went on from the ABCI conference to the BRAZ-TESOL National Convention (which was also highly successful and I was sorry to have missed it, but exhaustion took its toll). It stimulated many teachers to send proposals for IATEFL 2011, many of which were accepted. One of our teachers, Raquel Oliveira, even won the LTSIG Travel award. My objectives were reached: to foster the desire for development, looking beyond our immediate working environment and seeing things from a new perspective.

To the teachers who attended the conference: thanks for sharing your practice with us all. Thanks for getting the Twitter bug and tweeting wildly during the conference! Thanks for staying for what probably was the first ever ELT Pecha Kucha to be held in Brazil! A special thanks to Vaddie Najman, Ana Paula Cypriano, Guilherme Pacheco for all the help with the event.

Good to hear so many different voices from within Brazil. Looking forward to ABCI 2012 (São Paulo)!

Rebooting the Conference: Moscow – Technologies & the IATEFL LTSIG group Round Table online discussion

In August I received an invitation by Graham Stanley to participate as a panelist in this online round table discussion on the use of technology in the language classroom. This online part of the conference was to be transmitted synchronously to an online audience (moderated by Graham Stanley) as well as the Moscow Unconference participants (Gavin Dudeney facilitating in Moscow itself).

This was a first in many respects for me. It was my first participation as a panelist in an online round table event; it was the first time I actually understood a bit more about the mechanics of an Unconference; it was the first time I participated in an event which brought together online and face-to-face participants. The speakers talked about their experiences with technology in the classroom (mostly the use of IWBs and access to technology) from their own perspectives.

I was able to learn a great deal just by listening to Kalyan Chattopahyay (India), Sophie Georgiou (Cyprus), Vance Stevens (Abu Dhabi), Nik Peachey (Morocco) and some of the participants in Moscow. We had 44 participants online at one time. This event just proved to me that education, teaching and learning can no longer remain the same now that we have a myriad of technological resources available to us. The possibilities are endless and it´s up to us to find purposeful and enjoyable means of using these resources.

#ELTchat

I had always followed #Edchat on twitter and although the topics interested me, the nature of the discussions sometimes were a bit far from the reality of the ELT world. So, when the first #ELTchat started in September it was a very significant moment. It allowed many of us to really focus on the issues which were most relevant to us. Nothing can be more democratic than selecting the topic and then discussing it in two different times on Wednesday – this ensured people from different time zones could participate.

The quality of the discussion depends entirely on what we bring to it and on our very dedicated “moderators” (Shelly, Marisa, Jason,  Berni and Olaf) gently reminding us of the topic and question in hand. A variety of topics were discussed, from oral correction, to the use of coursebooks, the use of L1, to teacher training and development. The addition of the podcasts added a new dimension to #ELTchat in October.

#ELTchat has become indispensable in my own development as a teacher and teacher trainer. Yet what I most admire about this is that every week we have the chance to meet new colleagues, teachers who are new to Twitter or new to #ELTchat and all of us contribute to the discussion in our own ways.

If you can´t say it at Christmas, when can you, eh?

So, coming back to my main point, I just wanted to have the chance to say a great big thank you to all my colleagues within the field of ELT for all the learning opportunities I’ve experienced this year. I actually think that the joy of being a teacher is that we’re always learning something new.

I must say that after being an ELT professional for almost twenty years, I’m so happy that I feel more passionate about my career today than I did at the start. I think it shows I chose the right profession. (God, and to think that at some moment in life I wanted to be a dentist! No disrespect intended to dentists, of course!)

Wishing you all a wonderful Christmas and fantastic New Year!

Valéria