Delta Module 2 Week 2: The Going Gets Tougher

Dzień Dobry, Wrocław calling!

11695785_10101823046477273_5051946845036992849_n We’ve just finished week 2 here at IH Wrocław and things have definitely reached a more frenetic pace. I have been told and reassured however that after this week, things get more manageable. During this week we have completed or Professional Development Assignment (PDA) Stage 2, Finished all of our Developmental lessons, and been tasked with our first Language Systems Assignment. If it seems like a lot of work, that’s because it is. During the day there are input sessions from 12-3 and we’re observing our colleagues from 4-6 (or 6:15-8:15 for group 2). So there’s really not a lot of time to focus on incorporating the input sessions into your actual lessons just yet, I hope the idea is that we’ll have time before our first assessed lesson next week but we shall see.

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So far we’ve had input sessions on lesson shapes (TTT & PPP), clarifying and analysing target language, and phonology. Fridays are our 1-1 tutorials with our tutors to discuss our LSA’s and general feedback.

I have to say the workload is overwhelming. I haven’t had to write anything academic since I finished my MA 5 years ago, so switching gears is a bit of a shock to the system. Fortunately all of the candidates are supportive of each other, and we spend some of our (very) limited down time sharing lesson ideas, journal articles, and resources with each other. And of course there’s always the moral support over a glass of wine at the end of the day. It’s nice to be in a community of professionals who are passionate about learning and teaching!

I was asked last week by @anthonyash “What were you expecting?” To be honest, I thought it would be more experimental and lesson planning would be more hands on. I imagined lesson jamming and really pushing the boundaries of teaching. The lesson jamming hasn’t happened yet, but my boundaries have been pushed in other ways. The course is really more about making you a solid, proficient teacher. I was expecting to have to come up with lessons á la Thornbury or Judy Gilbert, but that’s simply not the case. Like I mentioned earlier, we spent a lot of time on the basic lesson shapes, so the idea is to have a good pedagogical grounding rather than collecting more bells and whistles (though sometimes there are bells and whistles!).

Delta Module 2: The First Week

I‘ve just finished my first week of Delta Module 2 at IH Wrocław. I have to say it’s not what I’ve expected but no less challenging! Our students are all young, professional Poles with a very good level of English. They’re very cooperative and eager to learn but most importantly eager to apply what they’ve learned– which is not something accustomed to after a stint in Saudi Arabia!

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Students discuss agreeing and disagreeing during a TP

So far all of the candidates in my group (total of six) have completed a diagnostic lesson and a developmental lesson and received feedback. Our next (or first depending on how you look at it) is our LSA (Language Systems Assignment). This is a longer, more in depth analysis of a particular language system (lexis, phonology, grammar, functions, or discourse) of no more than 2500 words and an accompanying lesson plan.

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Mr Alex Tilbury, main course tutor

As in the CELTA, the problem isn’t that the work and assignments are particularly difficult or challenging, but that it’s a lot to manage in a short amount of time. A typical day includes teaching practice (TP) feedback, 2 input sessions, an hour break and then 2 hours of teaching practice/observation. As you can see there’s not a lot of time during the day to plan lessons, and/or work on assignments, let alone have lunch! Good time management and organisational skills are essential, and I think it’s interesting how Cambridge has worked this element of professionalism into the course.

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Mr Anthony Guaghan, co-tutor for the Delta course

I have to say our tutors are quite supportive and knowledgeable and this is something you should definitely consider when choosing where you do your Module 2. It would be nice if we had more time to reflect on the input sessions but this is par for the course.

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Input Session

Aside from not having enough time, the only issue I have is with the teaching practice. Specifically the students. They’ve all done similar courses at IH (one of them has been coming for 6 years!) and more or less know what to expect. They’re used to getting up and moving around, working in pairs/groups, being able to speak at length at a moments notice, etc. From my experience, many students aren’t really prepared for this kind of classroom management and can be quite hostile to these approaches. My main challenge for after this course, but something I’ll need to think about at present, will be how I’m going to translate these techniques into different contexts. How does theory hold in the face of praxis?

Delta Course 2015

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So, I’ve arrived in beautiful Wroclaw, Poland to start my Delta course. Over the next 8 weeks I’ll be talking about my experiences here at IH Wroclaw, LSA’s, and a lot more. I’m looking forward to adding a few more tools in my teaching belt as well as working with some other candidates with much different experiences than mine. Also our course tutors Alex Tillbury and Anthony Guaghn are quite active in the ELT community.

I’ve decided that for the course, I want to focus on Phonology, Lexis, Writing, and Listening. I’ve chosen these because the systems and skills complement each other and, more importantly, they aren’t things I’ve really dealt with in my 8 years in the classroom. But I’ll be going into more detail as these lessons come up.

Watch this space for updates and insights into the Delta course.

7 Innocuous Topics That Are Taboo in a Saudi ELT Classroom

There are some things that are quite known about living and working in Saudi Arabia. No drugs, no alcohol, no mixing of the sexes, everything shutting down for prayer 5 times a day. These things, with time, we get used to as a matter of routine. But there are a few things that I had never thought were up for negotiation. I’ve compiled a list of 7 surprising things I’ve encountered over the past 2 years of teaching in the Kingdom.


1. Names

Even a simple question like “What’s your name” may elicit a complicated response. For a native speaker, it comes out as a long string of syllables: “Abulsalamalotaibi.” Which led to a lot of instances of me saying “I’m sorry?” Students usually say their full name (first and tribal) when meeting for the first time, instead of just their first name, which is what we expect. With time, finding the junctures becomes easier and something like Abulsalamalotaibi becomes  Abdulsalam Al-Otaibi. In addition to their first name, most Saudis include their father’s name (patronymic) as well as their tribal or family name. This doesn’t follow the ‘traditional’ first name/last name framework. What complicates things further is that men with children may also be known as “father of [son’s name]” in Arabic. It’s important to know that most Saudis are fiercely proud of their tribal filiations and will most likely be able to tell you the history of their tribe and associated stereotypes.

On the topic of names, it’s also taboo to ask for the names of female relatives–particularly that of the student’s mother or sister. We’ve done several “Family Tree” type exercises and students will sometimes leave these blank. I always give them the option of using a pseudonym if they don’t feel comfortable sharing.


2. Addresses

This was interesting. In the books we use as part of our curriculum, one of the assignments asks students to write a business card with their name, job title, address, etc. I noticed after some time, the students would leave the address section blank. At first, I was curious. Everyone has an address. I would ask “where do you live?” and time after time I would get the same vague responses. We would get to the district level of the city but their knowledge would taper off somewhere near the main streets or “cross streets” (intersections). Eventually I stopped asking. It wasn’t until about a year in, a friend told me: the houses and families came first, and then came the roads. It would seem that the region developed so quickly, roads and through-fares were more of an afterthought, a means rather than an end in themselves as is often the case in the Anglophone world. I think for me (and most materials & coursebook writers), the roads always come first then the houses, so it would be unthinkable for a building or house to not occupy a specific space and number on a road.


3. Birthdays

Birthdays are a tricky subject as well. Many times, “how old are you?” takes longer than it really should. In Saudi Arabia’s interpretation of Islam, celebrating birthdays is frowned upon. Therefore, many students go by the year they were born for their age, but they struggle to recall the exact date (mind you they use the Hijiri as well as the Gregorian Calender). Things are changing, however, and more students are aware of their birthdays, but you won’t find any birthday parties at school. Not in public at least.


4. Holidays (in general)

On top of birthdays, celebrating, well, anything, is generally frowned upon as well for religious reasons. That means most British and American holidays are off-limits. I remember last year, I wanted to celebrate my favourite holiday, Thanksgiving. Even though it’s secular and mainly focused on generally universal themes of family, friendship, and mindfulness, we weren’t allowed to do anything about it. At the last minute, we were given permission to put on a programme for it, but we had to change the name to “Day of Giving Thanks” and play down the whole “holiday” part of it. The same goes for New Years, Valentine’s Day, and of course anything Christian, like Easter and Christmas.


5. Music

Also frowned upon is music. This includes background jingles. This, of course, doesn’t apply to all students. You can find music on the radio, TV, or the internet and it’s not uncommon to see students plugged into their iphones, bobbing along to some tunes. However, there have been several instances where students complain or walk out if they hear music during a video or audio recording. It’s not usually the singing, but the accompaniment that causes the most offence. In any case, I’ve been advised not to include any music in my lessons.


6. Faces

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Showing faces (particularly of women) whether in pictures or on video is also controversial. Outside of the classroom, women are encouraged to cover their faces while in public. Things are a bit more liberal on the East (Khobar) and West (Jeddah) coasts and you’ll find women only wearing a hijab (or no covering if they aren’t Saudi). Take a look at the pictures. One is from the book we use as part of our curriculum. The other is from a shopping mall. When using pictures with people, it’s good to use some discretion.


7. Academic Integrity

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Not really a taboo but cheating is a widespread and generally tolerated (if not expected) practice in many Saudi schools. It’s been a challenge in my current job to instill a sense of integrity and get my students to stop copying answers from the back of the book. There have been many times when a student has written “Student answers”  or “model answer” during topic writing exercises. At the very least, I try to tell them if they’re going to cheat, at least do it well and don’t get caught doing it!

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That being said, attitudes are changing rapidly, especially as the younger generation gains more exposure to the rest of the world via social media. Many students are quite relaxed about most of the taboos and are gaining an awareness of outside practices. Still, I’ve been caught off guard by some of my more liberal students who listen to hip-hop, but will quickly turn the page of their book if there’s a picture of an uncovered girl there.

How Important Are Lesson Plans, Really?

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There’s been a lot of talk lately in the tefl twitter and blogospheres about the importance (or unimportance) of lesson planning. For many of us that have been in the game for awhile we develop a sort of ‘automaticity’ to planning lessons. We know from experience what works, what falls flat, and how to set it all up. We know how to activate schematas, which display/concept/instruction check questions to ask, we can anticipate, more or less, what will be asked of us, etc. So for the experienced teacher, do we need to plan lessons every day? No. Every week? Probably not. However, I do think even experienced teachers should be doing a lot more planning than they are now (which let’s face it, isn’t much).

When I was preparing my application for my DELTA course I was asked to design an activity around an authentic text. I thought back to lessons I had done in the past and spiced it up a bit with some activities I read in “Games for Language Learning”. However when the interview came, I was floored when the course tutor asked about my aims. Apparently “because that’s what works” isn’t a good answer. The truth of the matter was that I hadn’t had to think about aims really since my CELTA. But I’m beginning to think that this was a mistake and something I should have been more conscious of all these years. And that’s what lesson planning does: It calls into question why do the things we’ve been doing for years.

After I got rejected the first time, that word ‘aims’ was burned into my brain for weeks. It still gives me the chills. After a few days of self-pity, I hit the books. “Planning Lessons and Courses” by Woodward seemed a good place to start. At the very beginning she lays out what a lesson plan is and what it isn’t. Mainly that it does “NOT mean the writing of pages of notes with headings such as ‘Aims’ and ‘Anticipated problems’ to be given in to an observer before they watch you teach” (emphasis hers, not mine). Rather she understands it to mean “considering the students, thinking of the content, materials and activities that could go into a course or lesson, jotting these down, having a quiet ponder, cutting things out of magazines and anything else that you feel will help you to teach well and the students to learn a lot, i.e. to ensure our lessons and courses are good.”

The keyword here is thinking—forethought. I see it every day. An amalgamation of materials clobbered together from the teacher’s library or a quick search on Google for “present perfect activities” 5 minutes before the next class. These lessons, though usually mediocre at best, do get the job done and a good teacher can make the most mundane activity come alive. But they also inevitably leave something to be desired. The transitions between stages/activities could have been smoother or more coherent; activities could have been more fleshed out or better contextualised; could I have done some phonology work with that exercise? There is a thought process that goes into properly planning a lesson and it usually shows. It shows an awareness of technique, theoretical underpinnings, and the why. A thorough lesson plan does not always guarantee a successful lesson but I think there is a positive correlation between the planning and the execution even though these two are not mutually exclusive. Whether we like it or not, it’s an awareness of the above as well as their conscious application that separates an OK or just coasting teacher from a good one. It’s not enough to just do, but to know why, and a lesson plan gives us the space and framework to consider possibilities. There’s a reason we spend so much time during our CELTAs on lesson plans even though we don’t use them nearly as much as we thought we would. It makes us think systematically about all of the elements that contribute to the success of a lesson. After we go into the big world of TEFL, we can take off the training wheels and start experimenting with those elements.

That being said, I don’t think it should we should plan every lesson, every day, down to every detail. But every now and again we do need a shake up. We need to sharpen our teaching blades after going through oh so many of those 45-90 minute motions. Having a lesson plan is also an invitation for critique, evaluation, and collaboration. It’s always interesting for me, to see how other teachers weave together different activities and approaches to create a coherent experience. I don’t always enjoy observations personally, but I’d rather things go not to plan than have no plan at all and just kind of see I can come up with (as exhilarating as it may be!). Even if things go pear-shaped, it’s interesting to know the rationale behind the intent.

I would agree that teaching is not “managing the delivery of a lesson plan.” We shouldn’t see them as a constraint, however, but a framework from which we can alter and deviate from as necessary. Like Howard says, “They’re not legally binding. We don’t have to stick to them come hell or high water. They are to help us shape the space, time and learning we share with students.”

Check out:

Are Lesson Plans A Waste of Time?: https://teflreflections.wordpress.com/2015/06/07/lesson-plans-a-waste-of-time/

Observations and Paperwork:  http://eltblog.net/2015/06/05/observations-and-paperwork/#more-900

Authentic Materials and the Classroom

This post was written as part of my application for the DELTA course at IH Barcelona.

What are the pros and cons of using authentic materials in class?

Scott Thornbury has written extensively on the importance of authenticity in the EFL/ESL classroom. He and others in his school of thought argue that, the classroom, generally speaking, may act as too sterile an environment to facilitate the kind of spontaneity one would actually encounter in the real world.  To counter this, teachers should make the classroom as close to “real-life” as possible. This is achieved through the use of realia, simulacra, and in this case authentic texts. I believe this to be true, but whereas using constructed, modified or graded texts don’t allow for creativity or affordances for learning outside of the text, authentic texts must be chosen and used discriminately and appropriately in relation to the level and needs of the learner(s). Here, I will attempt to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of using authentic texts in the classroom.

As stated earlier, contemporary discourse in ELT tends to favour the use of authentic texts. There are many reasons for this.  One reason is that it is naturally embedded in a context. Whether it is a menu or bus timetable, these texts are readily accessible to the teacher and relatable for the learner. And because the text is not synthetic, it allows for affordances for learning that would otherwise not be possible when using artificially constructed or graded texts. For example, recently I did a lesson on Cajun food with a group of elementary learners. After introducing them to 4 specific dishes and eliciting surrounding vocabulary (soup, rice, spicy, etc.), I told them we were going to New Orleans and I brought up a menu on the interactive whiteboard for a Cajun restaurant to look at before we left. It was a rather dense menu, full of text, no pictures. I asked them to find the 4 dishes, I had introduced to them earlier, on the menu. Then I asked them to choose 2-3 dishes they would like to have. Next, I had a student come up, and with the help of his classmates, take a red pen over all of the foods they couldn’t eat because of their religion (I teach in Saudi Arabia so pork and fish without scales are forbidden). After this, I informed them that I had a vegetarian friend joining us, so they needed to highlight all of the things our new friend could eat (being a Cajun restaurant, there weren’t that many options, sadly). In all, we managed to practice and develop multiple subskills (scanning/skimming/decoding/etc.). The kind of activities we were able to would have taken a considerable amount of time to do on my own. Further, I would be too conscious of target language and the limitations of my students to produce something as comparable or organic. There was an aspect of discovery learning on my side as I noticed things I hadn’t previously considered when I had selected the text. The main strength of using authentic texts, then, is the affordances for learning they offer. The spontaneity texts like these can generate creates more opportunities to exploit emergent language and pushes the students to develop their skills with something visceral.

Of course, no aid is perfect.  Authentic texts have their disadvantages. One important thing to consider when planning any lesson is the appropriacy of your tools. Often, we come across authentic texts we think would make for a good lesson purely by happenstance. This is either from our own personal reading, or on recommendation from a colleague. When we find a text we think might make for interesting class/lesson, there are a lot of things we must consider before we employ them. Usually the language presented is too colloquial or technical, or is culturally irrelevant or inappropriate. Adapting a wild text takes considerable time and creativity. When using textbooks or teacher-made material, however, we have the benefit that the texts are always level appropriate and there is a definite focus on the target language. We have the advantage that the material in front of us was created and reviewed with the learner in mind. Many of the textbooks on the market today have a range of pre-planned activities that pair more or less seamlessly with their materials.  In short, ‘inauthentic’ texts are easier. That being said, though they may seem to sacrifice quality for the sake efficiency and convenience (if we consider ‘an authentic experience’ to be tantamount to quality), I wouldn’t go so far as to say they are somehow wholly inferior to authentic texts. They are often times polished and fit for purpose and can be adapted if need be. They also free the teacher to focus on crafting other activities for free/communicative practice.

In summary, the use of authentic texts, while ideal, isn’t always necessary. Realia can be an amazing tool, offering that elusive organic experience most of us strive for in ELT. Textbooks afford us a readily accessible wealth of information and activity. However, they are just that: tools. Is it the sign of a good craftsman that he or she have many tools at his or her disposal? Or that he/she be able to make the most of the tools he/she has? When it comes to classroom aids, whether they are organic, authentic, or prefabricated, its performance often has more to do with the wielder than with the material itself.

Why Failing My Last Observation Made Me A Better Teacher

Very few teachers enjoy being observed. No matter how many times it’s happened or how experienced you are, the same questions run through your mind:

“Will the students get it?”
“Is it challenging enough?”
“Is it TOO challenging?”
“What about the pacing? Have I left enough time for questions?”
“What if it goes pear shaped?!”

I was pretty confident in my lesson, I’ve done it before– a basic functions lesson on inviting people out for dinner, etc..  All the materials were prepared and we were set to go. It ended up being 1 student who I’ve had before. He’s quite focussed on learning and he always has pages and pages of notes he’s taken, along with lots of questions, which, in my opinion is always a good thing. He’s also an asshole. So it was just me, him, his 6 year old daughter, and the teacher-trainer from Riyadh for 55 minutes.

The lesson started fine enough. I went over his workbook, did some error correction and then invited some of his own questions. This may have been my first mistake. Like I said, he asks a lot of questions. Too many questions. Too many immaterial questions. From talking about prepositions of time, he went into why there was a difference between British and American English. Now, I find etymology extremely fascinating and I could talk ad nauseam about how beautifully rich and diverse the English language is. But now really isn’t the time. And besides, was he really interested or was he just testing me? I get that sense from him a lot. I gave a cautious glance to the teacher-trainer and said, with a wary smile, “We can talk about that later, outside of class.”  We continued. His little girl was squirming next to him and making funny faces at me. Five minutes later he asked me again, more determined this time. We were already behind, but I felt I needed to say something to humour him. He seemed satisfied with my 2 minute spiel on the history of English, so on we went. This time the daughter was sticking her tongue out, still squirming. In all, I think we managed to cover about 1/4 of the material for the day. It was very stop and go with all of his questions. But I feel he left happy with his curiosity sated–which is what all teachers want their students to feel after their class, right?

After he left, I got a light drubbing from my observer. I (obviously) hadn’t covered enough of the material. And I didn’t really have effective control of the class. Both of these things are uncategorically true. However, it was a personal victory in a lot of ways. Since my CELTA training many years ago, and experience preparing students for exams (both internal and external), I’ve been quite dogmatic (and not in the dogme sense of the word) when it comes to sticking to the plan and making sure I cover the material in an efficient way. But what about actually teaching? I had spent so much of my time in the classroom covering material, but I had never thought, until recently, that maybe, sticking to the plan wasn’t always in the students best interest. I won’t go as far as Thornbury and rail against textbooks, however If we think about how languages are learned, it’s tangential, it’s discrete. Language happens in unexpected ways and having too much control (i.e. overplanning) can be counter productive. Adding a bit of chaos into the mix and letting the student have a bit more agency turned out fine.  So even though I hadn’t covered all of the material, being able to say “that’s ok” at the end of it, was its own reward.

Indeed, a lot of the discourse in ELT at the moment (specifically Demand-High Teaching) is focused on lessons and materials that are open, flexible, and accessible to a wide range of learners, and allowing them to build on what they already know more organically. Essentially, less planning and more affordances for learning. But I’ll go into more detail on that next time.

Check out Adrian Underhill’s Presentation at IH DoS Conference 2 years ago here: