For many of us, the academic year has come or is coming to a close and with that the busyness of wrapping up meetings, grading, and making difficult decisions. Yet amidst this organised chaos, uniting a course’s team of teachers for professional development and curriculum debrief best happens here while the year is fresh in our minds. This, however, can be challenging at this draining time of year. So how does a team leader create space for agency in these two areas without crossing into chore-like territory?

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On the Friday evening of IATEFL not long ago, I led a Pecha Kucha session on this stage with the enormous screen. Initially when the crowd was arriving, it was nerve-wracking, but once I got on stage, it was pretty invigorating, I must admit.

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For me, the end of a calendar year and the beginning of the next comes a distant second to the beginning and ends of academic years in opportunity for reflection and goal-setting. I may be in the minority that way, but a different type of reflection organically comes then: one of classroom-based pedagogy. Having said this, with some lovely time off from work, I intend to do some broader humanistic reflection and goal-setting also, the first foray of which has transformed into a little experiment I’m going to do as I write.

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What are you doing, Superman?!

Yes, that’s what I first thought too. I’m sure we’re not alone. You, however, didn’t stop there I bet. You tried to figure out another explanation for what Superman could be doing.

Given what we know about Superman and his adventures, we know he’s not trying to defeat the villain with his bodily fluids. We know that superheroes don’t resort to this. We know that it wouldn’t befit Superman even if they did. We know this because we understand there is context to this image: its decades of cultural background embedded into our understanding of superheroes.

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Last fall, I was walking through Cabbagetown with Lou towards Riverdale Park West, a wide open space with four baseball diamonds where people not only play ball, but also cricket, do yoga, have picnics, and let their dogs run off-leash freely and quickly. I’d come there weekly for some time, walking the perimeter three or four times with Lou tagging behind me, stopping every so often to smell the grass or roll around in it and then run to catch up. It was an OK time to be with my thoughts, but it was also a little boring. One day in October would change my attitude toward these walks forever (and inspire a few ELT podcast dreams: one always has ‘teacher eyes/ears’ on after all. #nerd). 

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Nearly three years have passed since I wrote about academic reading circles here, the last being in September 2012 on the Visualiser role. I didn’t realise then that five posts on ARC would collectively build an online audience of nearly 5000 views. Looking back at the first ARC post ever, I had little intention of this activity becoming a central figure in my pedagogical repertoire, the focus of many talks, or my first foray into vended publication. But I’m very glad it has. While its evolution has never been a solitary task, with the support of colleagues willing to experiment and students embracing an unfamiliar classroom activity, my ownership over ARC has been ever present.  I feel responsible to share it with other teachers, clearly explain its value, gather evidence of its effects, and adapt accordingly. As I do so, my enthusiasm for working with students grows with every passing ARC cycle. So as the ARC book was released this week, it feels like a natural (and necessary?) time to look back at that first post and discuss the evolution from it to now.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.