jueves, 30 de junio de 2011

Letters of Note

Dear Reader,

This post is dedicated to you especially if, like me, you are still at work. While the rest of the world is making sandcastles, you and I are looking for a board pen that doesn't leak, or ferrying two hundred sweaty and libidinous teens around London.

I thought I'd share with you one of my absolute favourite blogs. And it's neither an EFL site nor a techy one. It's plainly and simply a collections of letters,  Letters of Note. It's a tribute to curator Shaun Usher's perseverance and dedication that he has collected such a fine corpus. I salute you, Shaun.

But it's also a testament to the power of that odd combination of ink, paper and distance as a channel, seedbed and butterfly net for human emotion. You'll find here outrage, ambition, sympathy, paranoia, sorrow, encouragement, humour, complaint, madness and pretty much every other feeling there is:

A pant-wettingly hilarious memo on bad language in 1890s baseball. John Hinkley's eerily tender stalking letter to Jodie Foster, written hours before he shot Ronald Reagan. Queen Victoria's elegant and moving letter of condolance to Abraham Lincoln's widow. Oil magnate Tiger Mike's terrifyingly vitriolic business memos.
(Use the search engine embedded in the website. Or better still, browse.)

But here is possibly my favourite - how a 6-year-old got his dream job. This also includes a video interview, by the way, but for my money the letter is the star of the show.

Must write off now. Got to go scuba-diving do some photocopying.

Wish you were here (instead of me).

Ever yours,

Alan xxx

miércoles, 22 de junio de 2011

What People Eat ...and what it's wrapped in.

I wanted to reply with a screen-capture to Sandy Millin's most recent post on her wonderful Almost Infinite EFL Ideas blog. This was in turn related to this slide show from Time.

In class with my individual adult student Jose we began simply looking slowly through the images. He instantly noticed one thing that I hadn't - the different amounts of packaging in the photos - compare the British family's food with the Bhutanese spread, for example, where there's virtually no 'future rubbish' in sight. So we re-opened a mind map that we had built up on previous occasions, and added a section on packaging, as you can see above.

Jose is one of those students who had  never seen mind maps before but took to them with a vengeance. Previously he had really taken the ball and run with it with an earlier version of this food map: He downloaded it from my Google Docs, found out mountains of vocabulary and re-uploaded his new version in time for the next class. As I blogged previously, I like to make mind maps in class, either digital or hand-made, but the curious thing is that you get all sorts of reactions to them, from familiarity to amazement to consternation to road-to-Damascus conversions.

And today, happily, lots of engagement.

lunes, 13 de junio de 2011

From Grrrrrrrrrrrrr to Hmmmmmm


 Think positive! Don't take it so seriously! It's a private class! You're allowed to make an arse of yourself in here! Instead of out there in the JUNGLE! Be cheerful! Stop worrying about getting it wrong!!!! Get it wrong! Keep getting it wrong, then you'll get it right! Haven't you figured that out yourself!! I come to your (stupid) country and make an arse of myself trying to speak your (stupid) language every day!!!! And people don't always give me a chance. I have to talk with the mumblers and the uninterested and the thick and the poorly-informed. And not with somebody who bends over backwards to create a nurturing environment for second language acquisition! I haven't had a wonderful teacher like me to give me experimenting space, and tell me about learning strategies and give me useful feedback and advice.

And that's what I screamed at my three students while shaking them back and forwards by the lapels.

In my mind, at least, that's what I screamed at them.

I had mentioned I wanted to spend a couple of lessons in which we would all plan and deliver a short talk to the class. This is something we've done before. We got talking about presentations and conferences in general. Three of my class give occasional talks in English at conferences. The fourth member is learning English specifically to attend a long session of training meetings in California, in order to become a professional motivator. (I don't know much about his plans. It's a pretty unusual job here in Galicia.)

Presentations guru Garr Reynolds
So I thought 'Great. Here we go. A spiel on how to write and prepare a prezo, and then into doing it. No pressure, lots of practice, 5 minutes each, no slides or hoo-ha, just a private show-and-tell session.'

But within seconds of me mentioning it, Pili and Ester (I'm not using real names, by the way) were complaining bitterly about how hard it is to deliver a talk in English. And pretty soon, Inès had joined them. I remember them being particularly worried about dealing with questions. They also told me (though I take this with a pinch of salt) that in their field, you don't get a second chance if you've done a poor prezo at a conference. 

While I did my mental rant I tried to be upbeat on the outside: Don't worry, you just need practice. Nobody's perfect, etc etc. Curiously, the motivator, Josè piped up, on my side: "Focus on the success, focus on the future, ...". And curiously he is both the newest member of the group and has the lowest level of English.

But I do want to use this post to think aloud about motivation and demotivation. Where could it be coming from?

From my classes?

I'll try to be objective....

Not enough structure to the course? There is a definite emphasis on conversation, speech and pronunciation, with few tangible handouts or published material. Maybe the students don't have a clear idea that they're progressing. Maybe they be more comforted with a coursebook. Maybe I throw them into the deep end too often?

Where else could a lack of motivation come from?

From students' lives elsewhere?

Maybe they enjoy their English as a getaway, a break, a mental holiday. A hobby. Maybe they come in tired or stressed from work. Maybe they've just been turned off classrooms by previous experiences. And they're just not in the mood to deal with somebody like their boss ;) Actually, not sure if that smiley there is justified....

From their own personalities?

Maybe they are quiet, studious folk; two of them certainly are. Maybe all the speech and activity are disorientating or embarrassing. Maybe they have low-self esteem. It's a terrible thing to think but maybe - whisper it, now - they're the wrong kind of people.

From not having clear reasons and goals?

Is a general desire to maintain or improve their general English not specific enough to work as motivation? It seems like a legitimate motivation to me. And common to boot.

It's revealing that Josè is the heterogenous element: studying to be a motivator, lone male (as a teacher my testicles don't count), very specific need, and also in theory, a lower level-student. But hardly a basis for sweeping generalisations.


So here we are at hmmmmmmm.

Now how do we get to 

martes, 7 de junio de 2011

Thank You

Thank you David Warr for giving us a great original idea for scaffolding language...

[PS I've just realised that Ana at the lovely imadeitso is doing a thank-you week. Coincidence...?]

lunes, 6 de junio de 2011

Guest Post from Gordon Scruton

Laydeez an Gennelmen..., 

I'd like you to give a warm welcome to my guest blogger Gordon Scruton. Gordon is a fellow Scot based in Northern Argentina, and we got in touch when we found a shared love of the Videojug website. He has joined the online EFL community quite recently, but with great energy, writing two separate blogs which I wholeheartedly recommend to you: So Where Did It Go Wrong  is mainly orientated towards fellow teachers, while Understanding How We Learn  is more directed at students of English. 

If you haven't invited a fellow blogger to guest for you, do try it. It opens various doors. Not only do you get to chat to a faraway colleague, but you'll almost certainly end up sharing influences, favourites, contacts, classroom tricks and all manner of curiosities. (It turns out we were born just across the River Clyde from each other, he in Dumbarton, I in Greenock. Which curiously makes him a Highlander and me a Lowlander...)

But over to Gordon:

Where I Like to Go on the Web

When Alan asked me about doing a guest post about my favourite websites my first reaction was “Yeah, that sounds great, there’s lots of great stuff out there!” but then my mind went blank and I thought, “Yeah, sounds great, lots of stuff… where to begin?”  So thank you, Alan, because this finally gave me a reason to go through my bookmarks, blow off the dust and cobwebs and remind myself of one or two gems that I’d forgotten about.
So what do I like on the Internet?

This is one of the oldest teaching resources on the Internet (indeed their records go back to 1995!) though with all the new websites available I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you out there had forgotten about it… I certainly had.  The conversation questions section of this site is amazing for the simple reason that it is SO extensive!
Teaching Suggestion:  If you are 15 minutes from your class and you are stuck for something to do this is an excellent resource to go to, find a list of questions, print them off and then select the ones you want and write them up to stimulate discussion or any number of other conversational activities.
Not that any of us have ever been so unprepared… ahem… moving on.

This is one of my students’ favourite sites and if they see I’ve got the laptop and projector it is difficult for me to get out of giving the last 5-10 minutes of my class over to this website.  My students obviously love it because at least a couple of them have told me they tried it over the weekend! Who can ask for more than that from a teenager?
One of the great things about this site is that the music automatically stops until the correct word is typed into the gap and there is an option to play back the last line only (just hit the backspace key).
Teaching Suggestion: I usually just give the keyboard duties to one of the students and that frees me up to make notes of any phrases/grammar/idioms/etc. that comes from the song that the students have chosen.
A big thank you goes to Russell Stannard and his brilliant website, Teacher Training Videos, for bringing this website to my attention.  I would have put Russell’s site on this list but I’m sure that everybody already knows and visits it already!

I promised myself I would limit myself to one BBC website though I do find that there is a veritable embarrassment of riches provided by the collaboration between the BBC and the British Council.
TeachingEnglish is a great resource of ideas for teachers which includes resources, tips, articles and - as is common for BBC websites - much, much more.  I have easily spent hours and I’m sure I have many more hours to come looking through this site’s content and mulling over the ideas and suggestions it provides.

By a strange coincidence, one of Alan’s recent posts was all about Mr Bean, so this recommendation simply supports that.
If you’ve got low-level learners (and especially if you’ve got young learners) I would suggest the Mr Bean animated shorts on youTube.  Mr Bean seems to be universally known so you have that on your side.  Plus, a lot of the animated videos are only 2-3 minutes long (perfect for class work) and have next to no speaking in them and are therefore perfect for emergent language work.  The one word of caution is that I’ve found some of the videos are blocked depending on where you are in the world, and not only that, there seems to be little consistency to the blocking.  I haven’t really figured this one out yet but I think that small hassle is more than worth it.
Teaching Suggestion:  Tease the students with a few pieces of vocabulary before they watch, get them to guess what might happen, work through any ideas the students might have and then give them the video at the end to compare their ideas with the video.  From this, they should already have the vocabulary to accurately retell the story.

5.Short Movies on youTube

Really, is there a better combination of inventions on this planet than youTube and HD video cameras?  I love using short movies in class and I’ve certainly found a lot of really amazing videos that I’ve had a lot of success with, but finding them takes time.
However, one channel you might be interested in is Wong Fu Productions.  These are well-produced short films (anywhere between 3-15 minutes long), the language is clean, the images are safe and the topics are usually funny and universal (boy meets girl being a common theme).

Staying with videos, one of my favourite websites for useful videos with some educational value is the ‘How-to’ video site, Videojug.
The videos are usually short, many (though not all) have good quality video and audio and a lot of the videos have subtitles of a sort (annotated notes really).  The variety of topics also means you are likely to find something for everyone here.
Note:  Some of the site’s content is definitely not suitable for everyone, so I’d become familiar with the site first before introducing it to students.
Teaching Suggestion:  Getting students to make notes and perhaps try to follow the instructions (depending on the topic) can make for a very engaging and active class.  Using this model, they could also try making their own ‘How to’ videos.

Short, quick, well-explained nuggets of real language presented with nice pictures.  For any classes at an A2/B1 level or higher, I think these are fantastic little explanations that expose students to a new phrase every day.
Teaching Suggestion:  Not much ‘teaching’, but I tend to send one of these to my students every other day or so.  Sometimes they get brought up in class, sometimes they don’t, but for some of my students they have really enjoyed looking through the site and picking up new phrases they can try out on me during lessons.

If you are dealing with large classes, or classes you don’t see very often and know they need more ‘contact’ time to progress, then might I suggest Edmodo.  It’s an easy to learn, easy to use, easy to maintain online class management system.  And it’s FREE!
What I love about Edmodo is that is has a look and general layout similar to Facebook and so, for a lot of students (and teachers) a lot of it can be understood intuitively.  There’s also a LOT of support available.  This site has been up for a couple of years now and it only seems to be growing in capability and popularity.
It’s been suggested to me that a Facebook closed group could accomplish much of what Edmodo offers and would have the benefit of not asking students and teachers to regularly check yet another website.  However, I’m not a huge fan of making myself completely available to my students and I tend to like a bit of a distance between me and them.

This might not apply to many of you out there but I’ve found this site a complete lifesaver while doing university preparation courses (AKA pre-sessional courses).  While the layout is basic, the content is detailed and there’s a lot of it.  If there is anyone out there who is doing or about to teach a pre-sessional course and doesn’t know about this site, then you should get on it now!

A wonderfully simply multiple choice vocabulary game that adapts to your level of English automatically!  For each answer you get right, FreeRice donates 10 grains of rice through the World Food Programme to help end hunger.  Education and Charity – two of the best things you could possibly use the Internet for!  This quickly grabs the attention of any class I’ve shown it to.


A lot of the websites I’ve suggested have videos for use in class (either with a laptop or a laptop and projector).  I tend to not rely on online videos but download them in advance so I am not reliant on my Internet connection in class (we won’t go into the details of the terms and conditions of use for websites like youTube in this post).
If you want this piece of mind then there are a couple of ways to do this.  I use Realplayer.  Once the free version is installed, it has a facility by which you can download almost any video you find on the Internet by hovering over it with your cursor (you’ll see what I mean).  It’s ultra-convenient.
However, for video watching (I don’t like using Realplayer for this) I’ve been using VLC Media Player for the past 6 or 7 years now.  By far and away the most versatile video player out there, I’ve found very little that it won’t play.
Alternatively, if you don’t want the hassle of downloading Realplayer, there is the website KeepVid.  Simply put the URL of the video you want and it will do the rest.  (Again, thanks to Russell Stannard for that suggestion.)

This might be such an obvious one… but it has so fundamentally changed my experience of the Web that felt I had to put it in for any of you that aren’t using this yet.  I won’t go into huge amounts of detail (this blogpost is long enough as it is!), I’ll just provide a link to the instructional video RSS in Plain English and say a big thank you to Rob Byrne and his excellent website Free Technology 4 Teachers.

This isn’t technically a website, it’s an application but a damned good one!  If you want to scramble letters in a word, jumble words in a sentence, make a gap fill out of a couple of paragraphs, create a multiple-choice cloze exercise… well if you want to make that, and more, then Teacher’s Pet is a brilliant plug-in for Microsoft Word or OpenOffice that will allow you to do just that.  Thanks to Richard Turnbull at TeflTech for recommending this at a conference in London a couple of years ago.