miércoles, 19 de junio de 2013

Welcome A Board

Have you got mini-whiteboards for classroom use? If you haven't, or haven't ever seen them, this post will be in part a warm recommendation of them. But let us begin at the beginning....

I started my EFL career in a Berlitz outpost somewhere on the smoggy outskirts of Milan, where I was thrown into the deep end teaching low-level adults using Berlitz' own method & materials (basically audio-lingualism).

And now two decades later, I'm full circle! Two builders and a sailor have decided to pick up some English. The three lads are all late thirties, of rudimentary education.

And it's been great fun so far. Many years ago in Poland, I was surprised when my boss Tim Hazell remarked how much he enjoyed teaching absolute beginners. It was not school policy for a NEST to get lower level classes there, and I had got used to the comparative luxury of teaching classes who could understand you to an extent, and with whom you could plan less and have fewer materials. His point was that any advance is a huge step forward if you're a beginner, and if you can work that angle, beginners can engage enormously.

Another nice thing is that my lads are tabulae rasae - they haven't picked up any bad habits yet. No obsession with doing exercises, or language-equals-grammar. So they are still quite keen to do "kids' games" and open to pronunciation work. Right from lesson one, I've been boarding phonemic transcriptions and asking them to copy them and refer back to them.

So what do we do?

Plenty of drilling - thank you, Mr Berlitz!

Plenty of pronunciation and IPA.

Mind maps - one per subject, one per double page. And we revisit them frequently, either for revision or to add new vocab.

Plenty of Pelmanism and card games.

And the mini-whiteboards of course. The lads got the minimum of whatever basic state education was going in 1970's Galicia. They are functionally literate, but by no means comfortable writing beyond shopping lists. I 've noticed that they tend to mix upper- and lower-case letters, having one favourite version for each letter. That's something I noticed with my A2/B1 learners in Libya.

We frequently practice lightning dictations with individual words and short chunks just for simple listening+writing practice. I think the board is more useful than just a notebook. For one thing, I can encourage them to write larger. And for another, the erasability and transience of the writing is comforting for experimenting and making mistakes. And rhirdly, they are great for doodling and sketching on.

If you can get hold of a class set of miniboards, or better still persuade your DoS to fork out for them, you may find them very useful. To give you a guideline, I can get hold of them in a large supermarket nearby for EU6 apiece.

By the way, Tim Hazell is now doing this http://www.myspace.com/djtimhaze

PS I've been taking paternity leave off the blogging for a while, so thanks for being patient. And young Emma is doing wonderfully, BTW!

lunes, 1 de abril de 2013

Reader's Digest

The vultures are circling round Google Reader. Those two nice men at Google are pulling the plug on it in July.

So I took the opportunity to jump before I was pushed, and I had a look at what the Linux community has for blog readers. I tried out four different readers from the standard Ubuntu repositories. All of them were either stand-alone apps or extensions of mail clients, by the way.

My standard home-office machine is an ageing Gateway with 512 MB RAM. I'm currently running Lubuntu 11.04. And what runs on Ubuntu doesn't necessarily run on Lubuntu, which is a much more Spartan desktop environment. So I wasn't making it easy for the candidates ;)

And behold the white smoke over St Peter's - we have a reader.

yarssr is popular, but got stuck starting up on my antediluvian machine.

There are extensions for the Thunderbird and Evolution email clients, but I had never used either. I tried both and had trouble setting up the main apps on which the extensions depend.

(By the way, I've heard good things about the Firefox extension for RSS, but I don't use Firefox at the moment, so I didn't try.)

Blam installed and worked fine, with one big but. I was able to import my subscriptions, but simply as a list, and I'll be buggered if I'm going to spend 20 minutes putting them all back in their categories.

And the winner is Liferea.

If you need to do lots of fancy things, read the specs and reviews first. However I just need a pretty simple application. And liferea seems to do the simple stuff fine. It has the same three-pane view as Google and most other readers, so no surprises there. It's not as fast as Google, but I only noticed the lag when marking-as-read all the hundreds of old posts.

And importing my subscriptions in the right folders was pretty simple. You download a file called OPML from GR and import it to the new reader. Google it.

If you hear of more, let me know.

Till then, byeeee.

PS While writing this on Google Blogger, I noticed that the autocorrect doesn't recognise the word "blog". Tee hee.

miércoles, 27 de marzo de 2013

A Touring Exhibition

Q: What do the following all have in common:

two dead birds
a scrubbing brush
carrots, oranges and onions
a double-sided comb
a doll's leg
a nylon net
injectable saline solution
pink rubber gloves
a wooden frame
millions of transparent organic thingies?

[Do decide your answer before scrolling down.]



They form part of a touring exhibition called "Beach After Storm" which I was lucky enough to be invited to earlier this week.

Aren't they just lovely?

Here's another unsigned work by the same artist:

Have you ANY IDEA what the third one might be? Here's a closer look:


PS Yes I know this is supposed to be an EFL blog, but I am on holiday at the moment :)

All the best,

Le Garçon de la Plage

sábado, 9 de febrero de 2013

And then there were four

Just a short explanatory note. This young lady is to blame for the shocking drop in activity on this blog over the last few months. Emma joined us two weeks ago. (And this is the first moment I've had to blog!)

Anyway, I'd be obliged if you kept me on your subscriptions list; I will be back here as soon as circumstances allow.

Oh and the earrings - I know. It's the done thing here and I got outvoted. ;)

jueves, 29 de noviembre de 2012

Three and a half people.

This year has brought a change for me. I have taken over from my partner Sonia at her own English school in our small town, and left - with some regret, and not necessarily forever - Workshop in Santiago.

I'll miss the adult groups and the freedom to teach largely what, and how I like. On the other hand, I won't miss the commute and the longggggggg days away from Sonia and Jamie.

The main reason for this move may be visible in the Jan van Eyck photo below.

So I've got a bit less autonomy - I have to do a lot of recovering the local schools' curricula - and less chance to do dogme. Students mainly come so that they can get through exams. End of story.

I hope to do a bit of  brainwashing students into communicative learning in general, and specifically IPA, decent note-taking and function-fluency. I'm pretty sure none of them will have come into contact with any of these before.

However I intend to keep writing up post-plans and my usual assortment of worries, failures, triumphs and half-baked ideas.

And here, for the moment, is where I'd like your valuable opinion.

I made these cards to practice compound nouns with an upper-int group. I brought them into class and... er, nothing much happened. We made a few compounds up, but there was no dynamism, nor any inspiration on my part. What brilliant ideas have I missed? How can we turn these scraps of paper into a scintillating lexical activity?

Oh, to be filed under off-topic....

I've been test-driving Puppy Linux, yet another Linux variant, which is so small and light that you can carry it around on a pendrive. When you boot up with the pendrive in, it installs in the RAM of yer computer, not yer hard drive!!!  It gets touted as ideal for old computers, and since I run a rest home for tired and abandoned PCs, it was only a matter of time before I got round to trying it out.

And first impressions are that on my two senior citizens it runs like greased lightning. Rocket-powered greased lightning. On amphetamines.

 And also you can use your own operating system on somebody else's computer without leaving a trace after you've gone. How cool is that? I'm thinking it might be hell of a useful for people who have to do a lot of conferences using other people's gear.

Internet it found instantly - wired and wireless; multimedia and general stuff seems to work flawlessly. I haven't had the time (see first photo above) to try out printing and scanning yet, or how to install other software, but watch this space. Especially if you have a PC that predates the Iron Age.

viernes, 7 de septiembre de 2012

What's Words Worth?

This August I was teaching mainly secondary school kids who had failed school English exams in June and had to retake them in September.

If you look at their coursebooks, they contain the usual mixture of lexis, grammar McNuggets, listening and so on. But if you listen to any of the kids, they express the syllabus entirely as grammar points: "El futuro, la pasiva, las tres condicionales,..."

So there I was, repasando la gramatica. Except that my kids couldn't get a grip on it.

[Possibly because state school teaching is devoid of meaning, engagement or even practice.]

But also more simply, the kids didn't have any vocabulary. How do you expect a callow youth of thirteen summers to "do" a second conditional if they don't have the vocabulary to even find the verb? Or even know what the sentence is about. How can they if they don't know words as common as "ill" or "busy" or "dangerous"?

But, we managed to make some headway by doing plenty of group-writing in class. The following is a typical procedure I used:

We had been looking at a reading exercise based on an article about a slimming drug [ludicrous as it sounds] and had tried to consolidate vocabulary with a mind-map about health and illness. To follow this up, I boarded the phrase "How I Got Hurt" and challenged them to make up a short story, adding one word at a time round the class. With only a little intervention/guidance from me, we managed to come up with this on the board:

The last day of my holidays, we decided to go to Amsterdam. We stopped in the airport for a souvenir but we couldn't buy one because I had lost my wallet. So I went to the police and asked them for a form. They had found a wallet but it wasn't mine. Then we took it and I ran away but fell down. Then a man looked at my wallet and said "This wallet's mine! Take that! This is mine! Give it to me!"

I woke up in hospital with my leg and three ribs broken.

We followed up with a progressive rub-out-and-read exercise, which you can see here:

And as we were doing that, I realised that this would be a perfect story to act out. Though we didn't have long, we had time to perform it twice, which was perfect, given that there were six of us, and the story has three speaking parts.

I was a bit shocked to read this post by Mike Harrison just the other day, where he seemed to be arguing against personalisation. Then I actually read the thing, rather than just scanning it, and I realised we're on the same side. [Phew. Read the thing properly, Tait!] His exercises have an individual, rather than collaborative bias, but both let the mind do what it does best, which is to make connections.

Anyway, if you haven't tried collective writing before, do give it a go. You'll find that it's fairly easy to get the level of teacher guidance right, and apart from that, there's really nothing you need, except for a title. I have to say that the kids did seem to be turning up with a bit of enthusiasm rather than the usual academic trudge.

Have fun!

viernes, 10 de agosto de 2012


I'm just going to surface from my summer hibernation to share a curiosity with you.

If you have access to Ubuntu - or any other Linux box - you might want to cast a teacherly eye over Picsaw. It's a lovely simple little app that cuts up an image into a jigsaw. Very clean and of course, free. Available from your usual software channels.

Now I'm thinking that if the image contained text, you could make a nice little language exercise. Maybe something like this:

So there you go. Do let me know if you try it out.

PS - It doesn't seem to work on pdf's, at least on my rig, so if you've got a text document, a screenshot is the simplest way to go.