Animal Hybrids – Animators, Animals, and ELT

April 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

Each remaining English class at Film School Zlín (closing down in summer) is a blessing for me. I try to treasure it with my whole heart and I’m blessed with students who actually make it very easy.

My first year animation students had a trip to the great Zlín ZOO last week to observe and draw animals. There was no English class, as they were spending the whole day there. Having heard about the planned trip the previous week, I decided to do a class on the natural world, making the lesson, as well as the upcoming trip, relevant to both English and animation. We spent some time at the end of the lesson discussing the possibility of creating animal hybrids – a unique cross of any two species, with special qualities inherited from the parent species, with unique features.

The students left the class with a form, which you can see below, so that they could use it for observations in the ZOO and create their own animal hybrid, with detailed description and, hopefully, a drawing. I was hoping it would inspire them, but I had no idea what I would end up getting back.

Thanks to my students’ wonderful creativity, perceptiveness and love of drawing, the result exceeded all my expectations.

What follows are a few examples of what I got from them today. We spent two hours comparing, discussing and being entertained by these, making up stories, adding weird and wonderful details to each creature’s characteristic.

To quietly observe the inspiration flowing freely in the classroom was one of the main reasons why I love what I do.  Two weeks ago, it was a simple idea. Thanks to my students’ love of what they do, this is what it has grown into:

RISH -- Rattus cyprinus

RISH - Description

TIGLE -- Tigris accipitrida

BEECAT -- Apoidea felis

OCTOFFE -- Octoffe erectus

OCTOFFE - Description

SNORSE --Serpentes ferus

SNORSE - Description

NOCERON -- Rhinocerotidae leo hominini

Thanks, everyone! Can’t wait to see more marvels from you;)


Surpr@ise Day in Košice: How the magic happened.

March 11, 2012 § 6 Comments

Be the change you want to see in the world.

Vlaďka Michálková (@vladkaslniecko) and Chuck Sandy (@chucksandy) (both at iTDi-International Teacher Development Institute) did just that and organised an unforgettable event in Košice.

Vlaďka and Chuck’s passion and willingness to make a difference created enough gravitational pull to allow magic to happen – the magic of planting seeds in unexpected, surprising places, allowing motivated teachers to motivate teachers to motivate other teachersand so on, ad infinitum, so that teachers could make a difference themselves, too.

Yes, far too many teachers consider themselves as far too ordinary to be able to make a difference.

What Vlaďka and Chuck showed is that making a difference is in everyone’s capacity. They planted a seed – almost at the borderline of interest of the mainstream ELT world, by inviting teachers in and by letting their inspiring energy do its magic.

For a day, Štátna jazyková škola in Košice turned into a beautiful garden where professional development by teachers and for teachers happened in a way that was previously unavailable, even unheard of, for most teachers in the region. It would have remained unavailable, had it not been for the willingness to plant seeds of inspiration by a couple of teachers who decided to change things for the better.

From the eloquent, enthralling and intimate opening by Luke Meddings (@LukeMeddings) on the power of visual arts in the classroom, right down to the moving, mesmerizing closing talk by Chuck on the power of planting seeds of motivation, the day was an incredible experience that still feels almost unreal.

With contributions from Lenka (@LenkaPelikan, Czech Republic), Barbara (Hungary), Alexandra (Russia), Terry (UK), Katerina (SK) and, of course, Vlaďka and Chuck, a couple of weeks ago, it would have all seemed like wishful thinking.

I wouldn’t have imagined meeting these wonderful people in person, in Košice, let alone dream of sharing a spot in the same programme with them.

Click to see the programme and list of presenters at the Surpr@ise Day Košice

My poor phone camera does little justice to the reality of this weekend, but I don’t suppose any camera would capture its beauty anyway.

Some things will stay in my mind for a very long time: the intimate and warm atmosphere and the magic of our “non-stop Pension” accommodation, hidden away in a quiet street in the heart of Košice. Meeting Chuck at the Košice bus station and sharing a pre-event evening walk and dinner with Vlaďka, Lenka, Barbara, waiting for Luke and Alexandra to arrive.

The fact that Alexandra made it to Košice all the way from Moscow, despite all the impossible administrative obstacles getting visa to Slovakia and that we could all sing her a happy birthday, sharing a meal after the event in a homely little restaurant with traditional Slovak cuisine.

Above all, the conversations. The feeling of a connection, of meeting with people for the first time and yet, feeling like meeting good friends and doing meaningful, or silly things. Seeing how we all prepared our items in the programme alone, and yet, feeling they were all connected with a common thread that bound them together.

There will be more photos from other sources, soon, I’m sure, but I’d like to share these three. I took all of them at night, with my poor old phone camera. Their grungy, underground feel is telling and it creates a wonderful contrast to the glorious, sunny Saturday when the Surpr@ise Day took place.

This was guerrilla teacher development.

The front of the nocturnal "Non-stop Penzión". Chuck Sandy 'behind bars'.

Pre-event late-evening conversations with Luke Meddings, Lenka Kroupová and Barbara Bujtás.

The seeds have been planted, with infinite possibilities.

Many thanks Vlaďka and Chuck for making it happen and many thanks Luke, Lenka, Barbora, Alexandra, Terry, Katerina and everyone at Štátna jazyková škola in Košice for an incredible day of Surpr@ising in Košice.

Hope to hook up again soon;)

Wake up, teacher.

February 17, 2012 § 14 Comments

It’s happening.

and it’s happening now – there’s no future perfection to wait for. All there is, and all there ever will be, is here and now.

I used to think the real aim of professional development was to wake up the ideal future teaching self that was sleeping inside me. One day, by a process of trial and error, I would allow it to thrive and blossom. I used to think that the present was only a preparation for the future, for the Real Teacher Me that would come later.

One day, perhaps. But not now, not yet.

In some way, it was true. The present moment was, and always should be, seen as a possibility to open up future possibilities, by learning, preparing, trying things out.

However, what I then became to realise was that the ideal teacher self wasn’t something to wait for, nor was it something to save until it was ready.

It was, always has been, there - available in each present moment I lived through.

The present moment is the only real opportunity to be as perfect, as ideal, as we possibly can.  There’s no need to wait, no need to hold back for fear of failure. Imperfection is as natural and beautiful in the ideal as it is in a da Vinci painting.

Professional development and perfection are happening right now, hand in hand. There is no universal, one-size-fits all, Ideal Teacher that we should strive to become, and no blueprint for perfection.

By reflecting, observing, learning, contemplating, experiencing, imagining new possibilities, creating, enjoying and doing one’s best, we can be the best we can now.

Professional development is about obtaining, owning, and personalising skills. It’s about learning to use them as only you, I, or each and every other person would use them, each in our own, special way.

Professional development is about opening up to the possibility of being ideal – right now.

Turning wishes into goals: from failure to gold.

January 27, 2012 § 5 Comments

“A goal without a plan is only a wish.”

From the first moment I read this quote, I knew it hit home very accurately and beautifully. It articulates the simple truth behind success and failure and touches on something profoundly true about language learning and why some learners fail, and fail to feel they have made any real progress, no matter how hard they try.

I’ve been pondering the problem of adult False Beginners and how to help them. Why they often feel dissatisfied with their progress or unable to penetrate the invisible glass ceiling hampering their efforts.

What the quote so very elegantly expresses is that the essence of making progress in language learning lies in making a shift from a mere wish into a goal.

wish n.
1. A desire, longing, or strong inclination for a specific thing.
2. An expression of a desire, longing, or strong inclination.
3. Something desired or longed for.
 
goal n.
1. The purpose toward which an endeavor is directed. An objective.
2.The finish line of a race; a specified structure or zone into or over which players endeavor to advance a ball or puck; the score awarded for such an act.
3. Linguistics - a noun or noun phrase referring to the place to which something moves.

Making the shift from a wish into a goal is key – while the former is passive, an expression of a hope, the latter is active, dynamic, involves development, directed effort, as well as failing and trying again.

I may wish to be in Paris now, but no matter how hard I wish I was in Paris, if a wish stays a wish, I will stay where I am, typing away at my laptop (and I am not in Paris). I may wish to be able to speak a foreign language (Chinese, for example), but no matter how hard I wish I could speak it, if a wish stays a wish, nothing will change and I won’t know a word of it.

This is where the teacher comes in – by helping the learner become aware of the processes and challenges, as well as rewards and landmarks on the way towards achieving their realistic goal. A teacher can help in turning the sense of failure into motivation, a desire to move on, by planning out a practical, realistic and tailor-made set of objectives which the learner may use to keep track of where and how successful they are and where they are headed.

This is especially relevant in situations where a learner has been trying – but failing – several times, becoming the dreaded False Beginner, carrying the weight of past failures on their shoulder, making any new efforts seem impossible or futile. It can be expressed in attitudes like this:

“I’m hopeless. I’ll never learn the language well. There are so many exceptions and rules. It’s too difficult.”

“I want to speak, but I make stupid mistakes, no matter how much I learn. I’m embarrassed and frustrated. I give up.”

“I can understand, but I’m too embarrassed to speak. I can’t remember the right word or I forget new words too quickly. Everything just bounces off me.”

The more I reflect on why some of my adult learners fail, the more I reailise that the problem often lied in my inability to establish a solid sense of direction and achievement throughout the whole process of learning. My failure to set specific, realistic objectives and landmarks on the way towards the desired destination.

A learner might have a vague idea what they want (or wish) to achieve, but no idea about which routes to take, how long it’s going to take them, and so on. They even might be making gradual improvement, but they simply might not be aware of it, having unrealistic expectations, having no real sense of measuring and relying on their present abilities, or lacking sense of the whole. They might feel overwhelmed, taking mistakes as proof of inadequacy and, in spite of the hours, the effort, and the progress, they might feel they are getting nowhere.

When someone comes to me with a wish to improve their foreign language skills, they are usually motivated, looking forward to the learning process and, most importantly, looking forward to achieving measurable results. This is where their initial motivation comes from – a strong wish to improve – and there’s usually lots of it.

However, abundant motivation and a very strong wish to improve are just the beginning. Staying motivated is the real challenge and it’s up to the teacher to pick it up from there and turn the wish and motivation into a success.

I decided on these steps with my adult learners:

1. Do a Needs Analysis

The learner will get a sense of where they are and what they want.

NOTE: These thoughts were the reason why I suggested the #ELTchat topic Your experience using needs analysis with adult learners in EFL: The ifs, whys and hows. I was thrilled to see the topic got your interest and most votes, although I was unable to join the rest of #ELTchatters on the actual chat itself. There’s a fabulous summary by Sue Annan @SueAnnan on her blog here .

2. Help the learner formulate specific main goals

Not more than a couple of sentences. The big picture. E.g. What would you like to have achieved by the end of our course?

3. Draw up a more detailed road map and, if agreed, a time plan

Draw up a tailor made road map towards the main goal, use the information from Needs Analysis and help the learner decide very specifically on the objectives along the way, and how you’re both going to check on the progress. This is the birth of your lesson plans, if your learner, or you, prefer to work in this way. Or, do the D-word (nudge nudge, wink wink).

4. Have classes 

Planning the content of the lessons is akin to making a tailor-made suit. You may use a one-size-fits-all coursebook, or not – in any case, make an intuitive decision as to what will suit your learner and you best. There’s no need to follow a routine or copy what other people do. Your heart and mind will tell you what’s best. You have a lot of experience to build on!

This is a road plan leading the student through the whole journey towards reaching the desired goal and, very soon into the process, you may help them navigate their own way towards it, so that they can do so independently and permanently, on their own.

5. Reflect on the progress

Take stock. Make sure the learner is aware of how they are improving, by any possible means – tests, reflection, teacher feedback, etc. Assess where we have moved on the road towards the main goal, make sure the learner knows what is behind us and what lies ahead.

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Magic moment #1: Morning.

December 17, 2011 § Leave a comment

Early morning sets the tone for the whole day.

Not necessarily changing what we do, but how we do it. It can have great influence on the results of our personal activities and activities in the classroom.

Early mornings are a unique opportunity for warming up, checking all systems, pep talking to yourself (or your deity), enclosing everything valuable in a protective layer of calm awareness.

Early morning is a choice: letting the day take it’s course, or seating yourself comfortably at the controls.

Whenever possible, allow yourself that precious moment alone each morning before your day starts – at home, in a bus, or in your car – where you do it is not important.

Whatever happens, including the unexpected, you’ll be ready, and calm.

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A lesson in listening.

September 29, 2011 § 4 Comments

I thought I was a good listener, able to adapt activities and approaches to my learners’ needs, types and personalities.

However, a recent experience from teaching one-to-one reminded of this: however good I think I am in what I do, there’s always lots to improve on.

Here’s what happened.

1. First impressions, wrong conclusions.

I was approached by someone who needed preparing for a final EFL exam at an economics course. After I asked my new learner about her English exam and, hearing it was oral exam on topics from economics, I made the obvious conclusion: the focus of our lessons should primarily be speaking – and lots of it.

I also asked the usual questions about her previous experience with language learning. Among other things, she told me about her difficulties with foreign languages and how she felt she didn’t have ‘the genes’ for them. She could, however, speak basic, every-day English and was able to memorise new vocabulary from economics. Her fear was that she would be unable to put the vocabulary into more complex sentences, which might prevent her from expressing herself well on the exam. I asked her what she would like to do in our lessons and she explained that she mainly wanted me to explain the basic English grammar to her, so that she could form sentences better.

In my mind, I agreed – grammar definitely helps to achieve better fluency.

The plan was as follows:

  1. Avoid the usual “dry” grammar-translation used at schools. Focus on confidence-building, improving fluency, brushing up grammar in real context.
  2. Use many visual prompts so that we could practice talking about what we see in simple and, gradually, more complex sentences, with linkers.
  3. Prepare vocabulary flash cards for practising accurate definitions of important vocabulary on economics, based on the exam topics (money, competition, market, banks, products, etc.)

This, at least to me, was the perfect mix and, for the first lesson, I prepared a bunch of cool-looking visual prompts (photos of real people doing different jobs), all nicely lined up on my tablet, for a modern, stimulating lesson with no worksheets, textbooks, or photocopying, in which we would brush up the Present Simple and Continuous tenses in real context.

3. The revelation.

By the end of the lesson, however, I felt something wasn’t right. I was aware of my learner’s natural shyness, but I noticed there was a different kind of hesitancy, or a dissatisfaction in her reactions. Sensing how important this would be in our cooperation, I decided to ask her how satisfied she was with the lesson. She respectfully said she liked it, so I tried to ask a more direct question: what would she like to change and improve so that our next lesson would be even better?

After a small pause, she said something that made me realise that I was very wrong with my assumptions about our lessons:

“You know, I’d really like to focus on grammar, if you don’t mind.”

This simple sentence completely revealed to me what happened: the whole lesson wasn’t based on what my learner needed and asked me to do, but on what I thought my learner needed.

3. Making changes, eating humble pie.

Remembering our first meeting, I could clearly remember my learner trying to communicate her preferences to me right from the start. After all, she knew best what she needed and what suited her best.

As a teacher, I failed to respect her own experience as a learner,  interpreting her words entirely in my own way, based on my assumptions about her, forcing my approach and my preferences on her. Great….

Realising my mistake, I decided on a complete change. From our next lesson onwards, we’d focus on grammar. I’d prepare a list of all basic tenses for her and we would go through each of them, one by one, using simple charts, showing how the tenses are formed, with a little grammar-translation practice, all of which she could use for future reference at any time.

My learner looked relieved and happy.

4. Conclusion.

The second, and all subsequent lessons went well. Knowing what my learner really needed – a systematic, more formal approach to teaching grammar structures – I prepared clear, simple Power Point slides, showing how tenses are formed, starting with the Present Simple, and moving on to other tenses and grammar items relevant for intermediate level.

You can see how it works here:

In the lessons, my learner first tries to complete the provided empty grid in the first slide with the correct verb forms by herself, with my help, if necessary. Then I show the slide with completed verb forms, which she can copy into her notebook. I could simply copy the files for her in electronic form, but she prefers to write it down herself in the lesson, as it helps her to familiarise herself with the forms and gives her material for reference in her own handwriting. She then tries to translate a few sentences from L1 to L2 (written on another slide) with the given form orally. Afterwards, she checks and copies the sentences with translations from the last slide.

My job is to guide her through this process, explaining and highlighting important aspects, or correcting mistakes, if necessary. Everything else is up to her.

While this isn’t the method I would prefer, it clearly is a method my learner prefers, and she is making progress.

I hope next time, I will listen.

Really listen.

[Picture credit: courtesy of FCIT http://etc.usf.edu/clipart]

A “normal” teacher

May 28, 2010 § 7 Comments

an unusual situation: academic committee. seven members.

couldn’t help noticing some of the appropriately casual, disinterested expressions. but who can blame them? wouldn’t get far without one, i suppose.

i’m sitting opposite. separated by two rows of desks and gaping emptiness in the middle.

how apt.

i was listening to myself explaining the reasons why i felt suitable for the post. a thought emerged and floated at the back of my head that i haven’t been in a similar situation since graduation.. seven years ago.

i let the thought dive back and tried to refocus on the question.

my present teaching post..?

explain the unbelievable..

Well, you see, we use no textbooks, have no particular curriculum to cover, apart from a project of one sort or another that is to be completed by the end of each term. The content of each class is decided upon and filled in mostly by the learner and determined by the previous class. We are using the language in a mutually agreed context that can (and unusually does) change from class to class. There’s no homework, but a lot of work that can be done at home, on-line, or in class – either way is fine, as the classes don’t strictly begin or end in the scheduled times, but continue through to any time of day. Or night.

their eyes get disturbingly empty..

..And, there’s no punishment for unexcused absences…

some of their bewildered looks tell stories of two misunderstood worlds.

there was a pause before someone asked another question, a pause that seems to have grown in my mind now to an unusually awkward length:

“Can you see yourself teaching in a more… normal way, instead of this…. peculiar one?”

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