I took photos of slides. I tweeted. I gave up and simply listened intensely. I typed up notes on my laptop. I switched to my iPad or phone. I sat in the back. I sat in the front row. I sat near the wall. I participated with others. I avoided participating. IATEFL sessions ran the gamut of circumstances for me. My takeaways from them, likewise, aren’t necessarily the intended point by the presenter, but what spoke to me.

Opening reception
Outgoing IATEFL president, Carol Read, welcomed long-distance fundraising cyclists to Manchester and followed with an enthusiastic oral embrace to all attendees in the room at the Manchester Central Convention Complex. I’d never heard her speak before but the crinkle in her nose when she smiled so sincerely and the joy in her voice as she spoke endeared her like she was my favourite teacher ever–a welcome counter to the abrupt ‘shush’ I received from another woman who seemed to ignore evidence of the chatter-filled hum that surrounded her. Then again at the opening plenary, Carol’s story of a mother mouse fending off a cat because of her foreign language ability only reinforced my admiration.


Donald Freeman (University of Michigan), opening plenary
IMG_0824If I said this image commented on language proficiency within the classroom our learners demonstrate, what commentary would you believe it represented? I’ll give you a second to click on the photo and really look at it… This is what I took away from the entire plenary: like how we can see a segment of the landscape from within this suitcase sculpture, the language proficiency our learners show us in class is part of, but not representative of the entire proficiency they have (or need) outside the classroom. Then he talked about skateboards and lost me.

IMG_0864Willy Cardoso’s talk on challenges in initial teacher training course design
I consider Willy a friend, a peer, and a guy whose investment in our industry is admirable, but he’s also somehow managed to escape leading a talk I attend, so I cornered him (i.e. I sat near the back in a room of 150 other participants). While his descriptions of teacher training course considerations and challenges kept me engaged,  the sudden appearance of a seemingly blank slide, which briefly interrupted his flow as he bowed his head and walked to the other side of the stage, exemplified how to keep an audience engaged. Moments after wondering what was happening, a clearer inspection of the slide unveiled words like ‘insert your own thoughts here for a minute’.

IMG_0899Luke Meddings’ people, pronunciation and play with the Queen
Queen E turns 89 today. “One wishes her … a very … happy birthday.” Insert gum into your mouth, clinch your teeth, tone each word sombrely, and you too can play with accents like the Queen’s. Through his masterful impersonation, Luke transforms pronunciation practice from simple mouth aerobics into lost inhibitions. Hilarity ensues. I imagine similarly in the classroom. In addition to our false regality, we acted annoyed, excited, and even like our L1 family members while saying the title of his workshop to our partners. Normally I’m not so engaged in active workshops, but this side of Luke mixed with a language point drew me in.IMG_0904

IMG_0926Harry Kuchah Kuchah’s ELT in difficult circumstances
We complain about uncomfortable or techless classrooms, but they are not difficult circumstances. From my office with my laptop, it can be easy to forget that the context ELT is for me, with my perceived problems, is not what the majority of language learners face, yet that majority is so grateful to be learning. Harry rose my awareness here. My takeaway is gratitude.

And then I went to, was engaged in, and left inspired by 5 times as many sessions and events as is mentioned in this post.

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IATEFL: yes, that massive collection of language teaching industry talks and professionals from across the globe, just concluded last Tuesday after five days of awesomeness. If you weren’t able to attend, there’s no realistic chance of replicating almost any part of it for you. Sorry. Believe me, this was my first time in person and while the streaming videos and live tweets were great in previous years, they do not compare to the live experience. The IATEFL bug has bitten.

I’ve wondered how I would meaningfully capture anything from the conference on my blog and it’s taken until this jetlagged zombie-in-daylight day to attempt to do so. I suppose I could summarise each valuable/enjoyed session, but honestly I’d be blogging for days (or like a madman–ask any of the roving IATEFL reporters). Instead, I elect to give bite-sized takeaways of sorts. Enjoy!

  1. IMG_0815The SIG PCE is worth it.  For me, attending the special interest group PCE (a one-day event tagged on the day before main conference or preconference event) as my gentle toes-in-the-water to IATEFL was an amazing experience. First, the talks in the Teacher Development SIG were spot on to at least one of my main interests (speaking of content summary posts: see my “problematizing for teacher development“). Second, you bond with and deeply explore topics with a group of people who, by default of selecting this SIG, share your interests–an excellent method for PLN expansion, btw. Between the speakers and the event organisers, four of my favourite (and oldest) PLN were represented: Mike Harrison, Willy Cardoso, Divya Madhavan, and Fiona Mauchline. Plus, I’m thrilled to have connected with Sinéad Laffar and Higor Cavalcante here.
  2. IMG_086730-minute talks are a good length for me.  Perhaps for the interactivity of a full-fledged workshop, additional time might be useful, but 30 minutes appealed to the attention deficit syndrome that living in the 21st century has caused. It made sitting through a talk that wasn’t going so well bearable. Finally, it’s not so daunting when you’re leading your own talk (NB: building further connections between these two subpoints is not encouraged). Overall, they pack a strong punch when used efficiently, plus you can go to so many more. On that note…
  3. IMG_0838Aim to see lots, but give yourself a break if you miss some. Attendee mistake 101: go to every talk you wanted to and burn out by the end of Day 2. Of course I wanted to see as many as I could. I diligently circled sessions in my program the night before. In many cases, I even agonised about choosing one of the three or four conflicting talks I’d end up seeing (NB for organisers: sometimes too much choice is a curse). Like so many before me, I quickly accepted this was an impossible task, and that breaks were needed to decompress… and mingle…
  4. IMG_0935It’s about the spontaneous as much as the planned. Scenario: you’ve just left one talk and have 15 minutes to go to the bathroom, get a coffee, and jaunt to the next talk circled on your list across the way. During this time, however, you run into an awesome PLN member, but who isn’t on quite the mission you are. Do you: a) say a quick hi and hug but that you’re heading for a talk you don’t want to miss? b) connect with them and have conversation, accepting you’ll just have to miss that talk? Ultimately for me, the talks are great, but it became obvious early on that this was my chance to spend time with people in person that I loved connecting with online. Plus, it’s these discussions that often matched the stimulation and learning that came from the talk I missed. Speaking of the people…
  5. IMG_0842Go with the flow in the evenings. Yes, the conference venue, talks, and exhibits were grand–above my expectation. No, they weren’t what I’ll remember most. It’s joining PLN for dinner, the talks unrelated to ELT, the surroundings where we spent time together. It can be exhausting after a full day of inspiration to go out for the evening as well, but it’s absolutely worth every minute. Even though I’ve known most of these people for years online and met many of them at least once offline, like any friendships, quality time develops them the most.

So this is what bite-sized looks like today. I might have another IATEFL post or two in me; we’ll see. :)

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English is crazy? Grammar police? I look at both concepts with a similar disbelief. If you do too, this post may not be for you. You’re the choir, so to speak, but feel free to read along with a collective nod. That kind of agreement comes up again a little later in this post.

In one part of my life, I get emails or Facebook shares with funny language tidbits which, to anyone but teachers, indeed make English look stupid. See this famous vocabulary poem and this pronunciation poem as examples. Harmless, but not as funny as they might think.

Elsewhere, near these poetic forays into our language landscape comes a seedier claim: there is one correct unchanging version of our language. You don’t see that claim so clearly stated out loud, but it’s evident when the self-proclaimed language police quickly (selectively) point out broken rules. Doing so suggests a belief that shifts in usage occur at a distance, not within our lifetimes, as though everything that conflicts with ‘hard and fast’ language rules are temporary, bastardized, or both.

Is it? Grammar police in misguided action.

The truth of the matter is that somewhere above a basic foundational use distinguishing English from gibberish (though check out old English or middle English sometime), the rest of our neat rules are up for grabs. Change may be gradual (e.g. colonial power struggles, loan words) or quite abrupt (e.g.social media crossovers). Marek Kiczkowiak points out that had early definitions persisted, some common expressions would involve entirely different meanings now. I’ll be bizarre in the face of language purists by suggesting that correctness should be dependant on the agreement of a majority who use it in a particular context, not a stubborn minority who teach it or cherish a childhood rule. To borrow a phrase coined by Stephen Colbert (though mockingly), there is a wikiality to our language in these times of connectedness.

Yes, there are examples of carelessness that irk me too: would of instead of would have; your instead of you’re; and others like them. Rationally considered, however, a few start to persuade me of their value. For example, I’ve noticed a marked increase in the deletion of apostrophes in social media texts. Initially I cringed, but youre is the product of efficiency. Would it be so terrible if those pesky apostrophes simply became part of the past? Then the idiocy of the it’s/its rule would disappear too. That cant be bad… Then there’s that reductive because + noun. If it can be named word of the year, who am I to resist?

I’m not arguing we throw complete caution to the wind and abandon everything that helps learners be able to communicate, but as language teachers, our challenge comes in accepting that what we think we know is actually not so absolute. We must face the available evidence (check out Google’s nGram Viewer, various corpora, or just the world around us really) and recognise our expertise involves flexibility. Otherwise, we become irrelevant records of the past.

PS – Having said all this, I still want to maintain linguistic differences between Canada and the States. Read more here.

PPS – For your interest, if you haven’t seen this dandy 10-minute animation, check it out. It’s not comprehensive, but gives a useful glimpse.

PPPS – Believe it or not, Anna Loseva, this is a terribly failed attempt at #paragraphblogging. I’ll try again next time.