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.

 

Google docs works well to model the writing process with EAP students, who are navigating the expectations and mechanics of an undergrad research paper.

The assignment

Suppose you’ve given an assignment to your students with the steps something like these:

  1. Basic exploratory research
  2. Narrow focus and create research question(s).
  3. Research, organise and outline
  4. Annotate bibliography
  5. Draft paper & revise

Naturally, class time is spent explaining instructions, understanding readings, and working on language appropriate for introducing argument, supporting with evidence and the like. Individual feedback, if time permits, may touch on grammar, clarity and academic style. All this is wonderful, but regardless, I’ve realised students struggle with time management, know the writing process in theory only, and lack exposure to desired final products. They crave exemplars: they want something to compare themselves to before submitting; they need to see the real writing process in action. This gap between theory and practice led me to experiment with showing my students how I write; I did so through Google docs, particularly focusing on the transition from Step 4 to 5 (above).

In this assignment, Toronto was the very broad topic all students began with in Step 1. They narrowed this down to individual topics through Steps 2-3 and by Step 4, had a working understanding of topical background information, an argument to prove, and a general sense of the direction their paper was heading.

I did everything too

I did the assignment alongside them on my own focussed topic: bike lanes in downtown Toronto. Until this point, however, their access to my version was limited to class presentations explaining instructions clearly and activities practising relevant language: not good enough. So I uploaded my exemplar annotated bibliography and began a new shared Google doc, where I’d demonstrate how to write an introduction section from writing already completed in Step 4.

If you’re looking at the second link from above, you’ll see on Page 1 just a review of existing information from Step 4 (first link). On Page 2, you’ll see the bulk of my writing process, where I’ve revised these two paragraphs to lead to my thesis as an introductory section of the final paper. On Page 3, you’ll see the final product, colour coded to relate lessons from class to the introduction I composed here.

Let’s look more closely at Page 2 though, to see exactly how Google docs is magical for modeling my process to students.

Suggesting mode & revision history as process

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.56.24 PM

Google docs currently has three viewing modes: Editing (approved users can make changes that automatically update the document), Suggesting (approved users can make changes that appear similarly to “track changes” in Microsoft word i.e. different coloured text appears for edits made, strikethrough text for deletions, etc.), Viewing (approved users can only see, but not edit, the document at its current state). Through Suggesting mode, students are able to see all my edits to rework the original paragraphs into an introduction with my thesis. This affords a visual to emphasise the first draft is not where things end.

The two green arrows above indicate a second useful feature here: revision history. By choosing this option from the File menu tab, the right sidebar appears with many dates in chronological order. Clicking on one of these dates highlights the exact change made to the document. You can see from above that on October 23 at 12:28, I made the changes that appear in green on the document. Other changes are greyed out. This feature enables students to see these revisions as an actual process over a series of days and times instead of in one sitting.

Audio comments to explain process

These features alone prove Google docs’ utility, but students could only see what I had revised, not why I had done so: not good enough. I decided to highlight each change I’d made and explain why I did so using audio comment.

Screen Shot 2015-01-24 at 2.51.34 PM

The purple arrows indicate the Commenting function. When you highlight text within a Google doc, you can leave users a comment by pressing that icon. This results in the sidebar boxes on the right where you can have threaded conversations about the highlighted text. Clicking on any of these comments highlights this text. While explaining through written text could suffice, reading explanations while reading the text itself could be reading exhaustion. So I used a simple online recording tool, Vocaroo, to provide audio links of these explanations for students. You can hear an example Vocaroo link mentioned in the first comment on the Google doc itself or by clicking on the play button here:


(Aside: Yes, it lacks some enthusiastic, but I was aiming for clarity above entertainment.Normally I’m sound more interesting. I swear.)

Yes, there are apps/plugins that you can add to Google docs, like Kazeina, that also allow audio comments, but the learning curve was something I wanted to avoid, while keeping the interaction as intuitive for students as possible.

Going forward into the next term’s research project, I’ve elected to try this throughout all steps and encourage students to write their papers on Google docs so we can engage with their writing in real-time over a longer duration.

So there you have it. With 1 point from the last post, now it’s Google docs 2, pen & paper 0. ;)

If interested and you can get something from static slides, I recently led a session about this assignment at #realize15. Click here to view them on slideshare.

 

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 5.52.39 PM

NB: Let me preface this post by saying if you have never touched a Google doc before, you may want to watch a quick Youtube tutorial on the subject first, like this. You won’t regret it.

My first workshop of the year is coming up at the #realize15 forum on January 23-24. In this session, I’ll be talking about a blended EAP research project I did with students this past fall. In this second iteration of the assignment this year, I added more of a digital component through Google Drive, which I more heavily use with each new term. The basic functions have remained constant, but like with many everyday situations, the infamous ‘teacher eye’ continues to find stronger and more collaborative ways to incorporate Google Drive functions into the classroom. This leads me to the next few posts on its functions for course purposes, partially in support of my #realize15 session, partly just because I like to persuade people to use it. Today’s topic: Google Docs for in-class collaboration.

The traditional context

Very often in writing courses, some form of collaborative writing occurs. Probably one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • Build a story: one student writes a few lines. That gets passed to another who adds to it and so on.
  • Peer editing: one student finishes a piece of writing in class. The paper gets passed to a partner, who gives feedback in one form or another on it. Then it’s passed back.
  • Board examples: you choose a few students to go up to the board to put their sample sentences on for feedback.

I’m sure there are more. In each case, however, obvious limitations occur: the number of students who can give feedback to a piece of writing; the number of students who can be at the board at the same time; the temporary nature of board work; your ability to monitor student writing closely enough while walking through the classrooom; etc. etc. This led me to wishing there were another way to do these types of shared writing tasks.

Google docs with colleagues

Oddly, I have been using Google Docs as a shared document tool with my colleagues to plan our weekly syllabus and take notes at course meetings for several years. I’ve even shared information with workshop attendees using it. Though I’d never really cowritten anything substantial with a colleague,  a colleague of mine who teaches our first-year History credit course, Alexandra Guerson, often writes papers with a partner in different time zones. With this mounting familiarity in Google Docs, the leap to use with students for in-class collaborative writing was natural (and somewhat of a -why did’t I do this before- facepalm moment).

Written feedback in class

One day before class, I asked students to bring their laptops to class (NB: this room had accessible wifi and a projector–pretty essential for maximised functionality). We were reading a short text with academic reading circles and learning how to respond to questions with short answers (SAQ)–those exam-type comprehension questions that require several cohesive sentences and evidence from a text, like mini-essay body paragraphs.

LB0228-001We began traditionally, by answering an SAQ individually with pen and paper. Upon completion, they exchanged with a partner who cluttered up their paper with little bits of pen/pencil scratches and questions in tiny print, aimed to be squeezed into the small blank spaces available. Once returned, each student took feedback and rewrote their answers on a new paper, sometimes whispering a question to their partners to clarify meaning or simply decipher the scribbles written feedback. I asked three to put their answers on the board (this is the definite max who can write on the board simultaneously) while others were finishing. Even though these students had already finished a second draft of their answer based on peer feedback, they still took their time, laboriously staring at the board, then erasing parts of their answer, then rewriting. All in all, this process probably took 10 minutes longer than I intended. Most other students finished. They waited, checking their phones. We then worked on the board answers together; I elicited errors from the crowd; I corrected in different coloured chalk all with the resounding permanence of being erased one fell swoop of my board eraser. Gone into oblivion (and perhaps a few photos taken by students who prefer not to write things down as we go).

Round 2: students use Google docs

For the second round of practice answers, I shared the link (bit.ly/020_conlin) to a Google Doc where I allowed anyone to edit anonymously if desired. On it was only the photo and I began typing the question and instructions in front of their eyes:

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 4.57.07 PM

Next, I asked students to type their answers as they were writing them into the space provided below it. To their amusement, they began seeing a few answers appearing on the screens before them, followed by heads turning around the room to see whom it was typing. After a few minutes of big eyes and little giggles, they were composing their answers above or below another. It was magical to watch 15 answers simultaneously appearing. I took this opportunity to add further instructions and my own answer to the document.

Once all students were completed, I projected the Google Doc on the screen and showed them the next instructions. It was time to give feedback to each other based on shading categories we previously used (…when despite my best sales pitch, not everyone had highlighters):

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 5.10.41 PM

First, I demonstrated on one answer. Then, I assigned each a classmate’s answer (NB: for this, they had to tell me if I’d given them their own since no one’s was clearly identified). Their goal was to read and highlight a classmate’s issues in these colours on the Google Doc. Colours began appearing all over the document like rigid horizontal brushstrokes! More whispering and giggling.  Here, they started to see how their answer was being mysteriously highlighted as they watched. Remember, because it was in anonymous mode, only students who had logged into their Google account on their own were identifiable at this point–a surprisingly effective way to overcome the initial fear of publicly sharing one’s writing. One answer looked like this, for example:

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 5.16.11 PM

The final step of this peer feedback was commentary and more specific editing. For this, I changed the Google Doc into “Suggesting” mode (very similar functionality to Microsoft Word’s Track Changes). I demonstrated on one answer that when reading an answer it’s valuable to give specific feedback through comments, asking for clarification or giving suggestions. I made a few edits to a paragraph–missing punctuation, incorrectly spelled word, etc–to show how the edits would appear in the document until resolved by the user. This time, I put students into partners to coedit an answer together. The result was fascinating. Students were drawn into this activity, giving loads of feedback (NB: sometimes justly, other times they were wrong too–a skill that improved slowly over time). Paragraphs became colour artwork like this:

Screen Shot 2015-01-11 at 5.21.37 PM

Once every last comment had been given, everyone looked with focussed attention at the feedback their answers had been given, accompanied by laughter and the occasional light-hearted accusation of injustice. We went back up the page to look at my sample answer, analysed it for strengths, and ended with new homework instructions to compare their answers to mine, consider the feedback they’d been given and resolve it (select to accept the changes or not) and revise to a second draft answer in a new Google doc they’d create and share with me.

Google docs = 1; pen and paper = 0

Using Google Docs for effective feedback is not an exact science, but the point was for students to become familiar with its functionality, appreciate what it can do more efficiently than with pen/paper/blackboard, and keep a permanent record of what we’d done in class together.

In a forthcoming post, I’ll talk about using Google Docs revision history and comments to demonstrate writing process and give feedback directly to students in real-time.

Click here to see the entire Google Doc discussed in this post.

 

Man, it feels like I’ve been completely out of the loop for a year. I guess it looks that way too. I still exist, I swear. Sure, for most of 2014 I was subsumed by my dissertation (or at least its grey cloud looming over me), but I wasn’t completely lost to everything. I managed to become captivated by Serial (more posts on this later) and even binge-watched a few seasons of Downton Abbey (no posts on this later). What matters here in the present, however, is my annual rundown of reading that got to me this past year–proof I did actually read things other than Community of Inquiry research.

Adam Simpson’s EAP Infographics (edited out due to malware)
1It would be horribly remiss of me not to give credit to Adam for his useful new EAP site. He combines relevant academic vocabulary with clear examples of usage and meaning in infographic animation form. I like this post in particular, Reporting what someone wrote, mostly because it was so directly relevant to academic writing my students were doing at the time. Plus, the simple volume of material Adam publishes is astounding.

Marek Kiczkowiak’s TEFL equity advocates
2When someone stands up for their beliefs, especially when they promote inclusion, tolerance and acceptance, I can’t help but applaud. On the same wavelength as individual posts here and there about the discrimination non-native English speaking teachers face in employment in our industry, Marek’s connected a number of advocates for the cause to combat this. In times where organisations sometimes hesitate to endorse yes/no positions, this one deserves better.

Russ Mayne’s E=MC Hammer
2I can freely admit that I often create lessons using my spidey-sense teacher intuition, which I justify based on years of classroom experience. While it sometimes works out, my year of camping in the research jungle edged me towards the evidence-based side of the tent. Russ’ blog includes so many discussion points for us as a group sometimes directed by well…less than sound beliefs. This is one of my favourites from the year because it directly relates to the plague of star-studded Facebook memes I see shared as though they are gospel, when in fact they are just bogus. It reflects our willingness to spread and accept misinformation at face value through social media. The stakes aren’t always as harmless as one might think. PS – you might want to check out Geoff Jordan’s post too.

Lindsay Clandfield’s Six Cool Tropes in ELT EdTech
4Continuing the ideology from Russ’ post, Lindsay lays six recent prominent (but tired) arguments about educational technology out there for what they are: plausible at first glance, wrong (at least partially) when actually considered.  Example: Young learners are digital natives. Teachers are digital immigrants. Uggh. I used to be the young learner in this argument in my youth. Now I’m on the other side and am appalled when someone younger than me thinks I’m naturally a luddite. Besides, I have a whole whack of students who can’t navigate Google docs intuitively, yet I can. :P Thank you, experience with and interest in the progression of technology.

Maria Konnikova’s (The New Yorker) I Don’t Want to Be Right
9Further to this critical thought, The New Yorker pulled this one out about why, despite mounting contrary evidence, we insist on upholding our beliefs. Here’s the kicker: “When there’s no immediate threat to our understanding of the world, we change our beliefs. It’s when that change contradicts something we’ve long held as important that problems occur.” Hello! By the way, if you’re a Star Trek fan, I recommend this one, where an alien race decides to press charges of heresy against one of its scientists because his research contradicts their entire belief system.

Anthony Gaughan’s Where are all the unplugged teacher trainers?
5I don’t usually get pulled in by dogme posts. I’m not sure why. I think it’s probably on the same level as any discussion pointing heavily towards the virtues of any one approach/style/whatever, which tends to prickle the anti-extremist hairs on my arm. Anthony’s unique (to my knowledge) teacher training angle drew me in. It all made me wonder why dogme is dogme and not just teaching; why CALL is CALL and not just teaching; and what the appropriate readiness is for new teachers to attempt this teaching thing…

Mike Griffin’s Two quick (and cool?) location-based ideas ...
6Dear Mike – I could have included any number of your posts from the first half of this year including a guest post about conference presentations that kicks ass (but somehow to do so seemed wrong). You’re prolific. You’re entertaining. You’re appreciative. You have some of the longest post titles out there (rivaling you here). Much love, Tyson. Dear everyone else – Read his blog. For example, this quick post gives two easy-to-do classroom activities that utilise the room’s space for meaningful purpose. It made me think of how to make one part of my EAP classroom the i-can-say-anything-i-want-without-backing-it-up side and another part the i-have-to-make-claims-i-can-back-up-with-evidence area. PS – I didn’t get around to reading much in the second half of the year.

Writing for Research’s Academic citation practices need to be modernized
7Coming from someone with a fair amount of experience navigating the citation practices across a few disciplines, I’ve yelled at the minutiae included style guides. I know there’s a reason for everything, but as a mirror to much academic writing: it isn’t obvious.  It all seems far too needlessly complicated. This post nicely gives some reasons to update (e.g. the irrelevancy of publication cities, uggh…) and suggestions on how. Still, we have a ways to go.

Bored Panda’s 40 of the most powerful social issue ads…
8While ELT certainly is not on Bored Panda’s radar, this collection of very compelling advertisements brings attention to social issues that have seen their share of advertising campaigns, like racial profiling, deforestation and drunk driving. The difference here is so many in one place–many shocking, many with such effective clarity–raise my heart rate and make my brain race with urgency to share with students. Who says we should stay away from issues in language classrooms?

The round’s Academic Reading Circles by Tyson Seburn
10The one piece of writing that has had to take an unfortunate backseat all year to my dissertation is my inaugural ebook, which will be published by the round. This has been a long time coming (I’m thinking in TESOL France 2012 it all began!) and Lindsay’s been ever gracious with accommodating my delayed after delayed after delayed timelines. The one good thing about taking this time is that between its inception and now, I’ve learnt so much about process, I’ve seen my writing transform for the better (I hope) and have been inspired by posts like those above. Trust me, you’ll know when it’s done (before IATEFL?). Until then, you can get a taste from this, my favourite post of the year.

To all you other aspiring/inspiring ELT bloggers out there, my hat’s off to you for your work this year. I struggled to keep up. I look forward to rejoining our community in 2015.

 

2314626_10237619-bagtote16_bAre we resistors to language adaptations?
Are we out of the language loop?
Are we getting old?

I wouldn’t have thought so (and nevermind, I’ll actually just speak for myself). I think I’m very open-minded about this sort of thing; I am normally at least aware, yet more often a user, of new vocabulary (I take my fair share of selfies), shifts in genre-accepted grammar (go ahead, start written sentences with but) and styles of expressing oneself (e.g. personal pronouns in academic writing are OK). These transitions don’t take long for me to adopt, provided I see adequate evidence of their use (I use the term ‘adequate’ loosely). In fact, this adaptation often spills over into my teaching, depending on the context students are allowed to experiment with unconventional language use. BUT, there’s one such piece of language creativity–one grammatical ugly duckling, one tawdry harlot of misuse–that took me completely by surprise recently, and though I’ve now seen it pop up in the most random places (note the tote above), my early adoption tendencies have failed to kick in; my cringes have failed to subside when it sneers at me from the page. Why? Because beliefs.

Did you raise an eyebrow just now also? Trust me, a small shudder went through me writing it.

It seems as though, unbeknownst to me, this because + noun construction (not to mention because + adjective) has mounted enough use to make the American Dialect Society’s Word of the Year for 2013. What? How did I not notice this? I’m well read. I spend an abnormal amount of time on social media. I have a teenage niece and nephews.

Image by Christopher Locke

My apparent ignorance aside, I have begun to reconsider whether or not I fall into the same unquestioning traditionalism as of a previous generation who cling to placing those pesky prepositions anywhere but at the end of a sentence. Thinking of my linguistic flexibility fossilising also makes me shudder.

Thankfully, my language teaching powers have also begun to equalise this knee-jerk spasm of hate, causing me to consider how to handle my existential concerns and attempt to rationalise my distaste.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 4.39.09 PMNot long before a conversation (with this colleague) about this because business triggered everything, I was leafing through my collection of old textbooks that sit, collecting dust on my office shelf, to see what of value I could learn from them.  One that caught my eye was Grammar is Important: A Basic Course for Canadian Schools (McGuire 1949: Book Society) because old and because grammar.

Most of it contains the usual: parts of speech, sentence structure, simple explanations and of course, identification exercises. Then I turned to an intriguing section: “Special Uses of the Future Tense”, which beyond surprising content, had a nod to guided discovery.

photo

The opening paragraph explains how to use shall and will with particular pronouns for simple future use, but the sentence examples themselves do the opposite. Sure, it doesn’t guide much with the unclear instruction, “study these sentences”, but hey, it was 1949. What surprised me most, however, was not its approach to language learning, but in fact the language use itself. The use of shall has long been reduced to a few key movie phrases during my Canadian lifetime (“Shall we dance?“, for example), and thus by the time I was in elementary school, the distinction between the two by my grammar teachers included something like, “Sometimes shall indicates more of a promise than will.” But that’s it. No mention of coordinating either with different pronouns for meaning, let alone reversing this coordination for a different meaning. Obviously language use had changed enough to deem teaching this construction unnecessary, perhaps even harmful.

How is this relevant to my issues with because + noun/adjective? Well, if these outdated grammatical constructions that I’m not aware of–and more that I am aware of–exist and have consciously been determined more or less obsolete, am I resisting irrationally? Maybe there’s no reason logically to object.

It reminds me of a typical conversation I used to have when I was younger with my mom:

Mom: Go play outside.
Me: I don’t want to.
Mom: Why not?
Me: Because.
Mom: Because what?

The fact that the last retort ends in “what” suggests that what follows very well could have been a simple noun (though it never did that I remember). Traditional grammar rules–and now I may mean this term loosely–always indicated that what follows because is not a noun alone, but a full clause (e.g. I don’t want to because TV is more fun.) or of + noun (e.g. I don’t want to because of my a TV show.). Why didn’t we ever think to simply say “because TV”? Drilled into us were the ‘proper’ constructions.

When I first saw the because science, Internet, sleep responses, I thought the of had simply dropped out of laziness or social media-dictated concision, but in fact, the dominant explanation is to shift our grammatical perspective on because from conjunction to preposition, which corroborates a short discussion about this I had with Mike Griffin and breathyvowel here. The gist is that because is the new of, or rather the ‘why’ preposition. Regardless of the current dialogue about it, it begs the question of how it began. I’d venture to say it had to be from some popularised celebrity phrase (remember “Ssssssmokin’!“?) Or maybe it’s because Twitter.

So where does this lead in teaching, I wonder. Do we do a disservice to students who, perhaps accidentally, use this construction if we correct it? Do we start introducing it as a legitimate third grammatical construction? Do we wait for it to appear in class and do the usual warning: ‘well, you’ll see this sometimes in certain contexts, but be careful when you use it…’? Once again, it may come down to frequency of use, which although anecdotally can be noted as often enough to become a ‘word of the year’, someday it may increasingly show up in corpora.

My guess, however, is that where adaptations (adoptions?) like this are more easily forgiven in oral production, it won’t gain legs anytime soon in formal genres of writing. Of course, I can guarantee that every time I see it in a piece of student writing, I will think twice about correcting it because blogging.

grammar

 

Over the last 5 years that I’ve been heavily involved with the online ELT community, it has been extremely satisfying to see the dramatic rise in participation at web conferences, online streaming of offline conference sessions, and types of synchronous Twitter chats. Webinar series–Shelly Terrell’s for American TESOL Institute springs to mind as the go-to–continue to be the most frequent and widespread OCPD (check out the ELT Calendar for a bunch in blue).  Yet still, I know there are a number of teachers who have some apprehension about attending, let alone leading one themselves.

To this end (and because I have a passion for these things) I’d like to introduce more opportunity to engage in online CPD through a series of webinars, offered on a fairly regular basis, at different times for different time zones, sometimes led by people you know, sometimes (hopefully) by those wanting to give it a try. With added choice, I hope to persuade more of us to get involved online and share their ideas.

The first 4C in ELT webinar, thanks to the Webheads Community for the resources:

chia

Abstract:
As we look back at the history of English language teaching, we can see a correlation between the trends in the most popular language acquisition theories of its time, and the application of such assumptions into the language classroom. Whether it be Krashen’s ‘Affective Filter’ hypothesis translating into humanistic approaches such as De-Suggestopedia, or Searle’s speech acts giving rise to the functional syllabus, practitioners have tried to apply theory to practice in a way that best helps learners to best acquire the language. But we don’t always get it right.

Since the late 1960s, we’ve seen Hymes refute the focus on grammatical competence, highlighting instead the importance of communicative competence, we’ve had Michael Long talk about the role of interaction in language acquisition, and we’ve heard variations on Ellis’s proposition that teachers should not predetermine the linguistic content of a lesson. We claim that we’ve moved into a communicative era of language teaching, but how far are we really from the grammar syllabi of the 1950s?

Interaction:
If you have any questions the bubble to the front of your mind beforehand, feel free to write them in the comments section and during the Q&A, should they not be discussed during the talk itself, maybe Chia will be able to do it.

Speaker bio:
Chia Suan Chong is a General and Business English teacher and also runs teacher training courses such as the CELTA and the Cert IBET, in addition to cultural training courses. Based in York (UK), she is a regular conference presenter and graduated with a degree in Communications Studies and an MA in Applied Linguistics and English Language Teaching. She is passionate about languages and is fascinated by the interplay between culture, communication, language, and thought. Chia blogs and tweets regularly for English Teaching Professional (@ETprofessional) and you can find out more about her at chiasuanchong.com and about.me/chiasuanchong.

Date:
Thursday, April 24, 2014 @ 4:00PM – 5:00PM EST (see your timezone).

The recording of the webinar is now available. Click here.

PS – A special thanks to Shelly Sanchez Terrell and BELTA for the inspiration.

Tagged with:
 

2013

At the end of the year, I like to look back on a year’s worth of blog posts, both my own and those that caught my eye by others in our community. It gives me a broad-picture perspective on the breadth of sharing, insight and dialogue that has occurred throughout the year. I’d like to congratulate everyone who puts their ideas into a public forum, for their courage, their wisdom and their contributions. So as I’ve done for 2011 and 2012, here are just a few noteworthy posts from others that provided me (and probably you) with ideas to consider (click on the headers to go to that post).

cardoso
Beyond the slight gasp let out by all those who autotweeted this post (that was classic, btw!), Willy brings balance to the discussion (something we all should have had before scoffing) about Brazilian prostitutes being offered free English lessons by their association in preparation for the World Cup. Best line: “Do people condemn language tuition to executives of tobacco companies? … Are they doing any better to society than prostitutes? Well, they’re all fucking someone in their own way, but draw your own conclusions.”

griffin
A third of Mike’s blog title is “rants”, so you can expect a certain amount of discussion involving annoyances, yet done so in ways that don’t come off entirely negative, but more in a ‘right-on-brutha’ fashion. In this post, as you can imagine, he aptly lists of 13 (just a coincidence, folks) industry irritants from webinar pre-registrations to Scoop.it links on Twitter to people not bothering to Google something before asking for help (ok, those are the three that irk me the most from the list). So stop the madness!

huang
It wasn’t difficult to agree with Li-shih’s commentary about the divide between researcher and practitioner. Throughout my ELT career, research has seemed like this impenetrable haystack of academic-ese that wasn’t worth sifting through to get to the useful needle buried within; what practising teacher has time for that?, I thought. More and more, however, I’m swayed to the side of evidence-based practice, beyond simply my anecdotes and intuition. However on spot these two may actually be, it’s always thrilling to see validation somewhere else, and a growing acceptance to admit you might be wrong. Li-shih, here, addresses some of these concerns in response to Penny Ur’s recent articles and keynotes on the subject.

loseva
Ann Loseva is a beautiful writer, though she may not admit it; and this is is one post she did in her blogathon for the British Council that opened my eyes to this truth. She craftily weaves together a commentary on “the tyranny of limits” through the example of Twitter, written assessment and the platform of the blogathon challenge itself. Since then, it’s easy to notice this craft on each post on her blog, many of which I’d likely include in another list.

madhavan
To be honest, through my current incarnation as MA student, research has been this omnipresent dark cloud looming over me; that’s why it was difficult to choose between many of Divya’s posts on research (others here and here) as each has shed new glimmers of hope, both through commiseration and inspiration. I chose this one, however, because of Divya’s ability to both criticise and suggest how ‘research’ is used by those in our industry. If interested, you may also want to check out Russell Mayne’s Evidenced-based EFL blog, like this talk posted here, for example.

meddings
Luke’s one of my favourite people, as are a number of the people who commented on this post about how Pearson is on its way (or continuing its way?) to infiltrating all sectors of education on the grounds of measurable outcomes and transparent reporting. Correct or not, where this post rang home for me was the concern that one day coursebooks would find their way into the higher education EAP curriculum (have they already?), like they have through most private language school curricula. I prefer the autonomy of the teacher, myself.

mewburn
It’s valuable to read blogs outside ELT circles for the perspectives I get on struggles, triumphs and attitudes in other areas of education as clarity in my own thinking about our own industry often comes. Dr. Mewburn talks about a pervasive culture of dominant, aggressive and jerk behaviours among academics to those under them, suggesting it gets them further in their work environments and an (unfortunate) perceived relevance to being expertised. She, however, remarks that for this to change, it has to be rejected, where it currently isn’t. This post gave me perspective on my own career trajectory, in terms of keeping my ego in check.

millin
Though quite a short post, Sandy’s concern about what ELT educators do when they retire provokes a hearty discussion in the comments section from many of us struggling in the same boat. It’s a topic I’ve never seen directly discussed so openly on a blog, but one which we all know is a huge worry in our industry of low wages and insecure contracts. I say we all unite, open a massive joint investment account to contribute to and share it when the time comes.

muir
Remember before that horridly overshared fox song, there was this wonderfully infectious public service announcement from Australia featuring cute characters setting themselves on fire and slicing themselves in half? If you don’t, check out this lesson from Allatc, complete with video, handout and teacher’s notes, which came at a time I kept wondering how I could use it in class.

patsko
One post I needed to read at exactly this time (you may notice a theme emerging from some of my chosen noteworthy posts), Laura shares some major lessons learnt through the process of completing her MA in ELT & Applied Linguistics. She talks about the use of literature, real research, effects on her outside life and a couple other things one truly should consider before taking on this enormous task. In the end, it helped me feel like I wasn’t abnormal in my confusion.

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Saskia is a colleague of mine at New College and starting blogging this year with an academic bang. In this post, she refers to how her children creatively negotiate the rules of games and ‘hack’ the way a toy was initially meant to be used in an attempt to thwart their own boredom, which she instead refers to as “an extended amount of time to do nothing and be free to explore and create out of the resources that surrounded them.” It prompted me to consider how if students were given this time, what unexpected (and perhaps valuable) learning they may do together.

terrell
I cannot relate to why anyone bullies, let alone bullies someone so thoughtful, cheerful and supportive as Shelly. In this raw response to cyberbullying tactics of which she’s been at the receiving end, it hit closer to home that the Internet has the potential for giving a perpetual voice of attack to public personas. And yes, it gave me pause, but Shelly shows through attitude and action how you can’t let it defeat you.

wilson
During an era where a vast number of posts and articles nearly entirely focus on the learner, the learning process and how to engage all learners, Ken’s post lauding the teachers themselves and their efforts was a refreshing read. He doesn’t argue that ultimately what it comes down to is the learner, but compares much of the attitude and effort of learners with that of the teachers they (may not) engage with. Hear, hear.

Other notable contributions to ELT blogging in 2013 who deserve a mention:

Nathan Hall on ELT Reflections
a tireless string of single-word titled posts that relate outside experiences to ELT topics.

Kevin Stein on A Whisper of Gratitude
part of a trio of recent JALT conference-goers who touched me with how they connected.

Vicky Loras & Eugenia Loras on The Loras English Network
very proud of the continued dream-seekers on their new, meaningful ventures.

Scott Thornbury on An A-Z of ELT
an era came to a close this year with Scott ending his run on my favourite blog ever. Sad days for me.

Joanna Warden on Teacherpants 
a colleague of mine who is jumping into blogging this year; great things are to come in 2014 I’m sure.

Beyond all of these were the ELT posts not written during the uprising in Turkey in midyear. I was deeply affected by the numerous social media updates from my ELT friends teaching across Turkey, too numerous to mention throughout this bibliography. It’s the first time I really felt thoroughly touched by the power an event like this from across the world, thanks to the internet and how media can and CANNOT be controlled. It was during this hiatus from blogging that Facebook and Twitter proved to be the avenue for first-hand accounts of the tragedies that the world wasn’t seeing through traditional media and demonstrated how vital these avenues are for the transmission of information. I worried about my Turkish students, who’d returned to their country for the summer break; my friends and colleagues like Dave Dodgson and Adam Simpson; and all of the citizens who stood up for their beliefs. I admired them and tried my best to support from afar.

2013 has been quite a year for the ELT blogging community. Cheers to all for a happy, healthy and safe 2014. I look forward to compiling the list of 14 for next year.

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So, on to part two of me talking about myself, thanks to Carol Goodey, Shelly TerrellDivya Madhavan and Michael Stout. In this instalment, I’ll be answering questions she posed to the 11 bloggers she tagged, asking some of my enthusiastic PLN to participate and asking them 11 questions. Are you one of them? But first, back to me.

Edit: This has become the most self-indulgent post ever, so hope you enjoy.

Carol Goodey’s Questions + My Answers

What do you most enjoy about blogging?
I like the opportunity it affords me to write. During this process, I gain clarity into how I think about a particular topic, whether I expect it to or not. There’s truth to the idea that what’s in your head doesn’t make so much sense and articulating it to others improves this.

gameboyvary

From Beck’s Gameboy Variations

Do you play a musical instrument? If not, would you like to? Which one?
Yes, I play piano moderately well. The adverb likely would have been ‘extremely’ when I was a kid, but I haven’t touched it since my song-writing days of yore.

How far do you travel to work? How do you travel?
I purposely live near where I work. I can walk to work in about 20 minutes along a straight line that consists of a major road, under an overpass, past two Harry Potter-esque university buildings and through a small pathway covered in foliage. Despite this, I often take the bus that goes along most of this route in winter, and a share bike service in summer.

What do you enjoy most about the work that you do?
I both coordinate and teach in an EAP program. My favourite aspect is teaching how to deconstruct texts. A very, very close second is formatting assignment documents that I’ve contributed ideas to… in my gorgeous office.

What was the first thing you ate today?
Previously I mentioned that I eat an ungodly amount of toast. Today’s included butter, peanut butter and raspberry jam.

If you could travel anywhere, where would you go? Why?
I can never answer this question myself when talking about where to go on vacation. If transporters were involved, I’d pick Hawaii.

What month next year are you most looking forward to? Why?
August, because that’s when I’ll have submitted my dissertation and that part of my life for the last three years will finally be over.

What meal do you prepare most often for friends?
I can’t remember the last time I cooked for friends, so nothing. I am fairly good at suggesting Thai delivery.

From http://shirtoid.com/

What was the last movie you saw? What did you think?
Gravity. Though it was little dizzying at first, the rest of the movie was shot beautifully, had ample suspense and emotion.

What three things do you like to have with you when working?
This depends on what I’m working on and where. Ideally, my laptop, my TV and a good friend.

What do YOU think about reality TV shows?
I love reality TV. It’s predominantly what’s on said TV when I’m working in the evenings. It doesn’t take concentration, but is consistently entertaining. Favourites include Survivor, Big Brother, Amazing Race, Biggest Loser, Income Property, Live Here Buy This and House Hunters International.

Shelly Terrell’s Questions + My Answers

What is a goal you hope to accomplish from your bucket list?
One goal – publish the ARC book with the round. It’s been in my list of projects for over a year now and though things have progressed, it’s something I’m getting at very, very slowly because of other demands. I love the round. I love Luke & Lindsay and just want to devote my time to this, but I can’t.

What is one goal you hope to accomplish in 2014?
I would like to feel happy about what I produce for my dissertation. It’s been a huge struggle these past few years, both in terms of motivation and time. It’s due in August, so here’s hoping it’s good.

If you could host a reality TV show, what would it be about?
I’d host one like Survivor. To go to tropical places for 2 months to shoot a show where people do challenges and live with no luxuries while you stay at a resort. Sounds perfect to me.

How do you blow off steam?
Posting my frustrations on Facebook tends to make me feel better, especially when others commiserate.

What is one of your personal theme songs?
This has come up during your 30Goals and it was hard then. I don’t really have any theme songs. I love many songs, but not any I listen to for motivation or inspiration. This first one that comes to mind though is Eel’s Mr. E’s Beautiful Blues, but mostly because of the chorus, which makes me say you know what, it is a beautiful day!

What are you incredibly proud of accomplishing?
My career progress in the last 5 years. It went from a rut as a private language school teacher making nothing and knowing no one to a dream job at University of Toronto, both coordinating and teaching, as well as president of TESL Toronto…not to mention the amazing friends and contacts I’ve gotten to know in the industry through this blog and other social media. It all just took a decision on my part to want more.

What was one of your favorite gifts?
The best gifts for me have been a comic book I’ve coveted that has been officially CGC graded and encased in airtight seals. Otherwise, dinner out. ;)

How have you dealt with a past failure?
There are no failures, unless we’re talking about scores during university. I guess I don’t consider failing as possible.

What is one piece of advice that has helped you throughout life?
My grampa, then my mom, always said “this too shall pass” whenever something’s got me down. And it’s true.

What was your favorite toy when you were a child?
I collected stuffed animals when I was little. I had so many that I used to arrange them as a class that I would teach (I also had a blackboard in my playroom). My favourite was aptly named, “Bunny”.

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What’s your favorite piece of art?
Not much of an art fan. I just don’t really get it. Galleries typically bore me. But I’d have to say my favourite is hanging in my office. It was painted by my partner. It looks like a dark cloud, with black drips from it, and random Korean characters in white.

Divya Madhavan’s Questions + My Answers

Do you like country walks?
Yes, I like walking through the woods or around the northern France countryside (did that with Margaret Hurley & Ian Kang last November after TESOL France). I had a special connection avec les vaches.

If you could choose between a chocolate and a non-chocolate dessert what would it be?
I would choose cookies, non-chocolate. I love cookies, particularly peanut butter.

Do you have a preferred variety of house pet?
Over the last 13 years, I’ve had puppies (the amazing Rocco and now the beautiful Loulou), so I’ll have to go with dogs, though for many years before that, I always had cats too.

Do you think lemon tart is better with or without the meringue?
Without meringue, it’s just a bunch of yellow goo.

If you had time to blog about something other than education/ELT what would it be?
I used to blog about how ridiculous I found things in the world, general stuff. Included in that was also countdown lists of the best albums each year and my weight loss through the Wii. So more stuff like that. Witty, of course. Come to think of it, however, I have a blog for each of my puppies. One for Rocco after he passed away last year for cathartic reasons. One for Loulou as a type of baby-book.

What is the next language you’d like to learn?
I have a certain pull towards Dutch. I’m unsure why.

Do you think salted butter caramel is better consumed hard or soft?
Um. I have no idea, but I generally like chewy things vs crunchy things.

Have you ever had to write out a minute-by-minute lesson plan?
During my TESOL training, it was required to write out these types of plans. When I used to create centralised lessons for the private language school I worked for, I also did that.

What is your favourite French pastry?
Isn’t it all good? Honestly I can’t say really because I’m not familiar enough with all of them.

Have you ever been observed teaching? How much?
I have, but it was long, long ago. I do feel like I’m observed a lot by other teachers when giving workshops though.

If you could spend a year focusing on research, what would you research? Why?
Ugggh. I’m at that point in my dissertation, as you are well aware. ;)

Michael Stout’s Questions + My Answers

Why did you become a teacher?
Since I started school, I’d always wanted to be a teacher. Of what? Unsure. I just loved school and being the one who leads a class appealed to me. Teachers were always so knowledgeable and I envied them. When the opportunity presented itself as language teaching, I took it.

Do you do teacher research? Why, why not?
Aside from very informal action research, not so much until I started my MA. Now that I’ve been back in the university environment (both as student and teacher) for some time, I’ve been more and more convinced that evidence and research is valuable.

How important is music to you?
I adore listening to music, mostly pop, be it electropop or folkpop. It gives me an insurmountable joy when a song has that perfect combination of instrumentation and catchiness. I can’t imagine being deaf.

Where is your favourite place in the world?
Though I would have said Hat Rei Lei in Thailand for many years–just stunning beaches, treehouses and waters, but I’m not sure I could live there, maybe it’s my favourite to visit. Otherwise, I don’t really have a favourite place.

Do you eat to live, or live to eat?
The former. I like food and eating out, but it doesn’t drive my days or anything.

What’s your favourite word?
Hmm, my first instinct would be to use an expletive because of how it feels coming out, but I’ll refrain. At the moment, I am going through a “behoove” stage, the word used when we want to indicate that an action to do is in our best interests or has become our responsibility. I also like the way this word sounds–a driving force for my love of words.

Can you share an “あそうか!” (Eureka) moment with us?
When I was 33, a lightbulb just went off in my head to finally put all my efforts into growing as a professional and improving my career. Until then, though I’d loved teaching, I hadn’t really committed to it as a profession. It was something I was good at, but not something I felt devoted to more than other hobbies. At 33, I realised that if I ever wanted to be stable, expertised and live comfortably, I had to focus my attention on one thing.

Can you give us an example of a time you learned something from a student?
I have learnt about culture from students more times than I can count. I think this is what I take away from them more than anything else. And it’s never remaining the same. As much as I think I may know Brazilian, Korean or Chinese culture, the next generation is a little bit different.

Where do you want to be in five years?
On the Sunshine List (I may need more than one source of income). ;) Otherwise, right where I am, but maybe with an office on an above-ground floor instead, a newer condo and a published book.

Can you paddle a canoe?
I haven’t tried in about 25 years–the last time was in Muskoka–but I think I could pick it up again fairly easily.

What are your favourite novels?
Margaret Atwood: The Year of the Flood, The Blind Assassin, Alias Grace
Haruki Murakami: Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World
Arthur C. Clarke: Rendezvous with Rama, Rama II
Robertson Davies: The Deptford Trilogy

On to the next section…

As part of this chain challenge, I’m going to mention 11 bloggers that you should check out and tag them here. If they’re avid readers and/or savvy on their blogs, they’ll realise they’ve been tagged. If it’s you, feel free to ignore this or participate. It’s completely up to you.

PS – I pity the popular bloggers who’ve been tagged in this challenge multiple times, so I’ve attempted not to tag anyone who’s already been tagged somewhere.

PPS – In an untimely turn of events, a good number of my blogging friends have decided to participate in my MA research…on blogging, so I’ve not included them here either, as a thank you. ;) But if you ARE one of them, feel free to take this blog challenge on too. ;)

  1. Lindsay Clandfield
  2. Julie Moore
  3. Scott Thorbury
  4. Willy Cardoso
  5. Louise Taylor
  6. Carolyn Bergshoeff
  7. Michael Griffin
  8. Divya Madhavan
  9. Jennifer MacDonald
  10. Baiba Svenca
  11. Alexandra Guerson

My Questions to Others

So, here are your questions, straight from my cerebral cortex (I think):

  1. You have 5 minutes to rescue one of your blog posts from oblivion. Which do you pick? Why?
  2. How did teaching become (part of) your career?
  3. Aside from weather-related impressions, how does Canada come across to you? If you’re Canadian, how do you think we come across to others?
  4. What career path could you have easily gone down had teaching not worked out?
  5. What characteristic of your Chinese zodiac animal sounds like you?
  6. What do you vastly differently now than when you were a new teacher?
  7. What book have you wanted to read but have never gotten around to it?
  8. Out of these options, the best class size is… 1 student, 5 students, 13 students, 24 students, 50+ students.
  9. Does your middle name have some meaningful significance, if you have one?
  10. You will give a workshop to your colleagues. What would you feel comfortable leading a session on?
  11. How do you feel about carpeted rooms in your house?
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1459676_10152104678942489_990046675_nI’m sitting on my sofa surrounded by a hoarder’s dream of clutter while two rooms in my place are being stripped clean of the disgusting builder’s carpets and replaced by new flooring. I’ve taken a holiday from the university to “supervise” work being done, but as I’m useless to concentrate on more pressing work or MA-related tasks, I find myself with the rare opportunity to participate in a chain blog questionnaire, the previous link by Carol Goodey. A fun snapshot into who we are beyond the blog, the idea goes as follows:

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger. (check, done above)
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself. (check, done below)
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you. (don’t want to bore you with reading too much about me at once, so this will come in the next post)
  4. List 11 bloggers. (next post)
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you. (next post)

Why 11? Good question, so I’m doing 13 for 2013.

Random facts about me

  1. My full name is Tyson Brian Seburn, but I wasn’t born with only these names. Seburn is actually my mom’s maiden name, and originally one of my middle names. I was born with the last name Davies.
  2. I was a basically a straight A student until high school in everything except Physical Education class. Ironically, I excelled at gymnastics, which is the only part of that class that pulled me grade up from a fail.

    Back to front   YouTube

    Yes, this is me in 2012 still doing it!

  3. Continuing that thought, for the most part I taught myself gymnastics with a mini-tramp and lots of mattresses piled up in the backyard. I’d dreamt of going to the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, but it just wasn’t meant to be. In fact, my only excursion into competition was during my first year of university, where I competed on floor exercise and vault.
  4. I grew up in a small town in one of the southernmost parts of Canada, called St. Thomas–population 30,000. It’s pretty close to a larger city, London–population about 350,000–, so whenever I told students where I was from, despite my Canadian accent, they’d almost always confuse it with London, UK.
  5. ‘Numbers nerd’ would describe me well. Though I’m no mathematician, I do like studying statistics, particularly that result in rankings, charts and graphs. Though it’s become an unpopular idea, I’ve always loved marking assignments and tests, and seeing the resulting grades, as well as rankings from best to worst. Sue me.
  6. My first language teaching gig was in Seoul when I was 23. I taught both adults and kids. I ended up calling Seoul my home for almost 6 years after that. Though I left in 2003, I did bring two Koreans back with me to Toronto–my partner and puppy.
  7. When I came back to Canada, I had no intentions of continuing my language teaching career, but wanted to move into writing, both in the form of novels and magazines like Scientific American. Wasn’t meant to be, but my language teaching career was.
  8. At home, I almost always do my work and blogging in front of the TV while watching reality TV of some sort, from Survivor to Big Brother to Income Property.
  9. Though I wouldn’t consider myself an avid reader these days, I always anxiously anticipate novels from Canadian author, Margaret Atwood-most recently, MaddAddam. Her best: The Blind Assassin, The Year of the Flood and Alias Grace.
  10. I eat an ungodly amount of toast. It’s my favourite snack. Oddly, I prefer a full breakfast (eggs benedict, bacon, fruit, hashbrowns, etc.) to it. Best toppings: lots of butter and brown sugar.
  11. I used to handwrite all my lesson plans and more often than not, all my handouts for students (which I would photocopy, not handwrite duplicates). This was back in the day of no computers in teacher lounges, let alone the Internet. Sadly, I just recycled the only one I had left from then. It was a lesson on “movies”, go figure.
  12. If we go by historical pattern, I’ll grown my hair out to ponytail length next year, as I’ve done so every time my age ends in zero. It stays long for two or three years, then I go super short again.
  13. I have over 2000 comic books in bags and boards, most of which are X-Men of some sort and Wonder Woman.
Yep, when I was 30ish. ;)

Yep. ;)

 

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I’ve gone to a good number of conferences, both online and offline over the past decade or so. You likely have too. Many of us often blog about our experiences soon after the conference is over. I’ve read about many of your experiences quite recently even. As someone who organises offline conferences, I’m often curious as to the types of sessions that people like and don’t, and why. It’s not something I’ve seen blogged much about. So at the risk of being shunned by my entire PLN (sidenote: I’ve watched more episodes of Breaking Amish than I care to admit), I’ll tell you mine.

At most language teaching conferences (where teachers are the main audience, as opposed to administrators or academics), there’s an expectation on the presenter to be less “present-y”, in other words, not boring. This expectation leads to a wide variety of attempts to be ‘not boring’ through participant involvement. Some work. Some don’t. I have to admit though, that unless I’m going to support a friend or it’s the only EAP-related session I have to choose from, I almost always avoid any session with descriptors like “interactive”, “peer-led”, “group…work” or any indication that I’ll be expected to get up and move around. But why? Aren’t I, as a teacher, supposed to love interaction?

Participant-driven sessions don’t always work out as they are pitched to. This is when you get to the session on the topic you’re interested in, you are faced with the leaders telling you to group around different tables based on a common interest of a subtopic. Instead of them leading the session, it’s about you and your peers driving discussion on the subtopic for an allotted amount of time. Sometimes there’s a leader at the table; sometimes it’s simply attendees. If you find the topic isn’t so great, you’re expected to get up and move to a different table (cultural baggage can often preempt this from actualising). After a prescribed amount of time, everyone gets up and tries a new table or the session ends. Sounds great, but in my experience, it breaks down.

You never know who is going to join the table you go to. They could be true peers with a similar level of knowledge or people quite inexperienced who join for interest’s sake, just to get information. The depth and quality of discussion is greatly affected. If everyone does share similar experience, the first bit tends to be spent comparing your teaching situations (e.g. logistics of the program, types of courses, student body, etc). This is necessary discussion, but doing this over and over gets tedious. Beyond this chit-chat, there can be too many cooks at the group, keeping discussion rather surface-level. Four seems to be the max for quality. Otherwise, meatier discussion can be had over beer in a pub with a colleague. In both situations, the discussion can feel largely like a interview with people you hardly know.I rarely come away with anything new or any particular take-away to share. 

Interaction for interaction’s sake isn’t necessary. When I sit down in a session and the presenter exclaims that everyone is going to work together on activities after hearing about the topic, I cringe just a little as I’m taken back to school projects gone horribly wrong due to an imbalance of prior knowledge or effort invested. Maybe I mistakenly go to sessions where I think attendees will be well versed in the topic, but they aren’t. Maybe I want to hear more about what the presenter thinks, rather than the attendees, considering they’ve been brave enough to lead a session on this topic. Maybe it’s because I’m on committees at school and TESL organisations, or work in a team environment in the course I teach already, where I fill my collaboration quota. Probably a combination of these three.

The participation and experiential learning I do like at a session is individual. I find value in the Q&A with the presenter as questions the audience has while listening to the presentation can be best answered by the leader, not the participants. I love the experiential learning I can do at my own pace and at my own skill level with the tech tools I chose to bring to the session, not slowing down for those that didn’t. This is one reason I love webinars and online conferences: their type of interaction allows you to chat with other participants if the discussion is engaging, participate if you find it useful or multitask without being rude.

Listening to a talk isn’t always passive or ignoring the brilliance of the audience. One downside often heard of presentation-style talks is that the attendees just sit passively listening to the presenter speak.  That’s not my case. I like plenaries because I listen to someone I want to hear speak for an hour without much interruption. I like the opportunity to both be a little entertained, but also engaged in the topic that they are the expert about. I like the fact that while I listen to them, questions about some things they say swirl in my head; ideas pop up about how the information they give is relevant to me; I can look something up online that I don’t know or has inspired me, or take notes. All these things I can do in a plenary (or a presentation-style session) without the constant interruption of group work.

So what’s my point? It’s not that interaction is bad. It’s not that all sessions like those above I’ve been to at every conference irritated me. There can be a very valuable and purposeful reason to interaction and great takeaways. However, giving some thought on why you do it, how it’s best executed and whether it’s worth it given your topic is necessary to consider. I’d rather everyone not feel interaction is key because it’s the current thing to be -not boring-.

Otherwise, as I said at the beginning of what hopefully does not border on sounding like a rant (don’t worry–I’m typing this without the least bit of rising blood pressure), the conference organiser in me would like to know what types of sessions you really do prefer to go to.

 

Please take a moment to rank your favourite (1) to least favourite (6) type of session.


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