Interesting Questions (an Activity)

Earlier this year I hosted a Question and Answer session for the first time in my life. It was a session for teachers of the language school I was visiting in several capacities/roles: as a lesson observer, lesson plan reader, oral and written feedback giver, and a teaching seminar facilitator. The session I am talking about in this post took place immediately after two professional development sessions offered by the school senior teacher (on Developing Speaking Skills in Class) and myself (on Developing Writing Skills in Class).

The day before I was finalizing my notes and slides for the seminar and was wondering what kind of (potential) challenges need to be anticipated for the Q&A slot of the day. One of the anticipated challenges I had was that the audience would not be asking any questions at all (for a number of reasons, e.g. not being interested in what I can share, and/or not willing to participate in general, feeling shy, not having confidence to ask something in front of everyone, etc.).

I decided to prepare a simple activity to warm everyone up and hopefully to get us started in a less formal/more relaxed way. In fact, this activity was not needed as I was asked lots of questions. Perhaps a topic for another post (or a different kind of audience!) So, I’d like to share the activity with you. I think it can be adapted for a classroom use with language learners of different levels. By the way, if you know its original author, please drop me a line in the comment section.

Time: 10-20 minutes

Preparation: have small cards with one word on each (e.g. name, country, food, drink, movie, school, subject, etc.), ideally for each participant/student in the room, and a couple extras.

Guess the month when the pic was taken

In class: each participant/student takes one card with the word on it. The teacher/facilitator either explains the task explicitly, or announces that there is going to be a game and models the activity.

Explanation/instruction: you ask me a question using the word on the card, and I will only answer it if the question is interesting/creative. (I think it is important to offer an example here)

Zhenya’s example: NAME.

Participants/students ask you their questions. If they ask something like ‘what’s your name?’, ignore the question (add a comment, e.g. ‘You know my name, don’t you?’) It ‘s important to remind everyone that it is a game though, not to make people feel bad.

Ask why the question was not answered, elicit that it was not interesting, had an obvious answer, etc.

Invite everyone to think of more interesting/creative questions with the word ‘name’. Some examples I came up with:

  • How do you feel about your own name? 
  • Who gave you this name?
  • What’s the most difficult name to pronounce (in English, in your L1)?
  • What’s the most pleasantly sounding name to you, and why?

There are more ideas of course, e.g. ESL Discussions blog

Give time to prepare their questions. If necessary (especially with language learners), help with new vocabulary and/or allow access to dictionaries. A possible step can be peer checking the questions for accuracy.

The next stage can vary depending on the number of people in the room: can be a mingling activity where participants/students ask their questions to each other and make a note of the most creative/funniest one (or the most interesting/inventive answer, etc.) It can also be a small group work (3-5 people in the group) and then sharing some surprises with the whole class.

For the purpose of the Q&A session I was thinking to wrap it up by inviting the audience to ask some of their questions to me (facilitator), as a way to get to know me a bit more and make a ‘bridge’ of more general questions to those with more professional focus.

Bonus links:

Museum Hack offers non-ELT ice-breaking questions that may be fresh and interesting to try in class or on a course with teachers.

This post on my blog about the Conversation Method and asking (non-)personal questions.

Thank you for reading! 🙂

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Interview with Marina Morozova-Yesipenko

This time, please meet Marina Morozova-Yesipenko, my fellow Ukrainian ELT-er. You can find her bio-blurb at the end of this post. Meanwhile, let me introduce her to you in my own words. I met Marina a couple of years ago at one of our Teacher Training Days in Kyiv, and she then joined our pilot course for teacher trainers last June. She then joined our Reflective Group community on Facebook and was planning to join a session in Dnipro. Instead of that, she actually came to the very first Edu Hub Teacher Sharing Day with a Pecha Kucha slot within the theme ‘Think Different’ and shared her passion to reading, research, learning and Professional Development. After that we met again on an online course offered by ITDI in January 2019 called ‘Becoming a more reflective teacher’. When I contacted with an invitation to our Second Edu Hub Mini-Conference, she explained how tight her traveling and presenting schedule has become (between February and now, Marina has been to Poland (presented at IATEFL Poland YL SIG), Czech Republic (presented at IH Brno ‘Giving It Back’) and VACLE (Visual Literacy) Conference in Malta and InnovateELT in Barcelona. Some more are planned for the near future.

Presenter mode: in Moldova

The energy and drive I felt from Marina gave me an idea for this interview. Below my questions will be marked ‘Zh’ and Marina’s replies will be ‘M’-ed. Let’s get started.

Zh: As far as I remember, you have tried various roles and jobs in ELT in Ukraine (started teaching at a University in Kharkiv, owned your own language school in Mykolaiv, taught English and Japanese, worked with new teachers, etc.) How did you come up with the idea to spend more time in trips, conference presentations and travels?

M: A long time ago I started to be thinking of getting a more ‘substantial’ course (than e.g. CELTA/DELTA) and to become a researcher. I realized that to be a good researcher I needed to develop my presenting and public speaking skills so that people could listen to what I am doing and see how it works. I tried to develop my presenting/soft skills and to approach this from various sides, and I am still an ELT teacher.

I’m convinced I will always be in teaching, but at the moment I’ve gone ‘off-track” to pursue a more academic career. I would like to do a research which I can later apply in my classroom as a practitioner.

Zh: There is a saying I really like (but can’t remember the author): ‘In theory, there is no difference between practice and theory, but in practice, there is’. It sounds like you plan to ‘merge’ the two.

M: I have been engaged into action research but due to lack of things/facilities/time/resources and other assets I don’t think the results can be somewhat reliable.

While doing my CELTA and Delta courses I I felt like I was ‘scratching the surface’, so to say. My family and close friends know that I have always imagined myself in a more academic line of work. I started my career at the private sector of ELT but with time, see that I would like to try myself in something else. I don’t want to keep doing the same thing every year. I am ready to go not higher but deeper in the subject of my research.

Zh: So what would you like your research to focus on?

M: I have always been interested in applied linguistics because it is applied. Not something far-fetched but something tangible, practical. That’s why my PhD research is aimed at using multi-modalities, not just text in its conventional sense but with supplied with images, videos, gestures. If we drive off a purely linguistic perspective, we will see that we have to teach 6 skills, not 4, (including viewing and representing)

Zh: Can you say a little more about multi-modalities please?

M: We are all different according to multiple intelligence theory, so may benefit from the variety in learning tools and techniques used by teachers. There are also children with special educational needs (SEN) who can gain immensely from the multimodal type of instruction, too. We are talking here not just about inclusive practices, not just speaking and chit-chats in class. Multimodal texts combined with visuals and other aids as well as infographics can be a huge asset to any learner in the course of their cognitive development, and they are part of the modern world now.

Here’s a good article on Multimodality

Zh: I see the connection now: one conference you were especially excited about was The Visual Arts Creation in Language Education (VACLE) in Malta. What were some of your ‘A-ha!‘ moments inspired by the event?

M: That’s right: I had not expected it to be that deep. I can list several takeaways from Day 1 I attended.

some of the revelation taken away from the event were Critical Imaging (critical evaluation of images and their effect on conveying and interpreting the message) and Applied Imagination, which is a valid scientific discipline, you can earn a degree in
• Psychogeography may get you interact with your immediate environment more closely
• Get your learners to comment on their moods, feelings and aesthetics of the images they interact with on a regular basis. And this does not come naturally, rather, it is a skill to be taught or used in the lessons
• Teachers are able to create really meaningful models for the learners, which suggests that if we want to encourage our learners to do something, we should set an example. Let’s look at the practice if recording and storing vocabulary. Many practitioners get their learners to do it, but can the teachers honestly confess they do the same?
• Critical pedagogy is about confrontation, between teachers, perspectives, approaches. It is an everyday practice of challenging yourself and asking yourself: “Why am I making this choice? Is it really the best course of action to follow, or I’d better learn more on the subject?”
• Silence is not necessarily the sign of absence of communication

This conference was my ‘tipping point’, where I saw what I should do next.

Zh: As far as I am informed (and I am far from being an academician) multiple learning modalities is a less researched area in ELT. At the same time, it is a convenient topic to talk about, a very ‘teachable’ or ‘trainable’ on courses. Hopefully, this creates a niche and a need for the research.

M: What’s more, semiotics and Multimodality are still neglected in ELT, if I may say so. ELT is still based on language in its linguistic means, ignoring whatever goes beyond. Though meaning making is a complex process, being is a very context- and culture- specific area, as the same image can be seen differently by people of different cultures. For example, in Japan, they use symbols, both linguistic and visual ones

Example: Autumn = gloomy, elderly people, coming death. These symbols are interpreted differently in Ukraine, which may cause misunderstandings.

Zh: Your multi-lingual viewpoint would be great (as a speaker and teacher of Japanese)

M: True, through working with people with different L1s and different perceptions of English, I am becoming more tolerant. By the way, I’d like to teach Spanish people one day, as I have no idea of how people from this culture learn.

in Gdansk

Zh: Are there any plans for the summer?

M: Sure! I am on the way to my PhD degree, having an exam to sit in early June. Please, keep your fingers crossed! Then, I am taking part in Doctoral School in Applied Linguistics organized by the University of Malta.

Zh: Wow, sounds exciting and very practical. Are you planning to present on a topic closer to the main research theme, too?

M: Yes, I presented my topic in May, at InnovateELT in Barcelona. Another reason for attending was to gain a drop-in session experience, just the same as it was in this amazing event in Dnipro you hosted. Hope to be there next year!

Zh: Wow, there are multiple events in your life, so bright and full! Thank you for finding time for this productive chat, and for sharing your passion to self-education and learning with me.

I would like to express my genuine respect and admiration to the turn into a different area of ELT you are making. Wishing you achieve the goals you are setting, and continue the happy growth and development, in ELT and beyond. May the adventures continue, and the word ‘multi’ brings variety and happiness to your life. Your active, insatiable approach to developing professionally is truly inspiring.

 

************* Marina about herself:

I am Delta, IHCYLT and CELTA-certified teacher and teacher trainer. Occasionally I present at Conferences in different countries, which is more a matter of relating, sharing and discovering new horizons together with my colleagues. I have been in exam preparation for about 15 years, but currently I am developing in two seemingly unrelated domains – Young Learners and English for Academic Purposes. In addition, I publicly preach Lexical Approach and the related concepts and support learner autonomy and Multiple Intelligences theory. I am truly convinced that teaching is not only a profession but a vibrant and overwhelming lifestyle.

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Professional Development Journal: Guest Post by Tanya Gunko

As the title suggests, it is a guest post. Tanya and I have known each other for years, and among many aspects of being connected professionally, we both like reflecting on our teaching. We both are a part of the Reflective Practice Group in Dnipro. [There is a more detailed bio blurb at the end of this post] Also, we both like writing: I do it on this blog and Tanya… Over to her!

I came up with the idea of keeping a Professional Development (PD) journal not so long ago. Before that I had taken my notes on my computer, in my diary, in my notebook for lesson plans, on separate pieces of paper, etc. Finally, I realized that keeping all my notes and thoughts in one place would be much more convenient. Of course, now I’m not using it as often as I used to because of my maternity leave but it still helps me to move forward. I have two lovely girls (4-year-old and 7-month-old) who are my main students at the moment.

And there was one more thing that encouraged me to try keeping a journal. At the language school I used to work for we regularly had trainings and workshops which were a great source of new ideas. But I noticed that my colleagues, especially new teachers, quite often felt a bit overwhelmed after them. And I also used to feel like that. After each session I could hear the same questions – When to try this? When to find time to learn more about this? I spend some much time planning my lessons, I don’t want to spend even more. This must be a great idea / resource/ app, but I don’t have time to learn more about it, etc. Once I decided just to write a list of new ideas during our workshop and then at home decided when and with which group to try them. Not to feel overwhelmed I didn’t try a new task every lesson. It took me a few weeks to try all the ideas with different groups. The ideas that didn’t work were forgotten forever, the ideas that worked I kept using, adjusting and soon they started saving my lesson prep time instead of taking more.

At the moment my PD journal is a notebook that I’ve divided into several sections:

Work in progress

Ideas

It’s a list of absolutely different ideas and tasks that appeal to me and I’d like to try with my Ss. I usually add new ideas after trainings, workshops, when I read something on the Internet, after observations, etc. And I also make some notes next to each idea.)

A few examples:

  • Edpuzzle – to work with authentic videos; as homework (quick checking and follow-up discussion at the lesson); any level (might be more interesting for Intermediate+ group); TRY with my Advanced group (maybe for unit 4)
  • ‘Dictation’ – when Teacher says: ‘I go to the cinema every week‘ and Students write: I never go to the cinema / I seldom go to the cinema, etc.

[Note to self:  cane be used] as a warmer, lead-in followed by quick discussion in pairs; may be focused on target grammar or vocabulary; at any level; TRY with my Elementary group

Books/Resources

A list of books I’d like to read and resources I’d like to look through/try

I’d like to learn more about

A list of ideas with some notes, for example:

  • A flip lesson (?) – YouTube
  • Teaching adv Ss (google for some ideas)
  • One-to-one vs teaching a group  
  • A lapbook (?)  – YouTube
  • How to cut video? (ask Alex)
  • Grammar posters (Lisa’s idea – talk to her and try with my Ss this semester)

Ideas for social media

At our school I created a group VKontakte (alternative for LinkedIn) for my colleagues and used to write posts there, which continued on Facebook later, and might migrate to Instagram in the future.

My one-to-one lessons

I always have at least one student taking private classes. In this section I write a few things I want/have to work at with each student.

For example:

Dasha (2 years) Goal – STATE EXAM DONE)))

From Beginner to strong Intermediate

Ø Grammar

Ø Vocab

Ø Writing

Ø Tips for taking the exam

Ø A lot of listening

 

Vladimir (IT company) Business English, Pre-Intermediate

(Business Result, One-to-One Business, Market Leader)

Ø  Grammar revision

Ø Poor vocab

Ø Speaking, speaking and speaking

Ø Problems with listening

I can also write down certain plan/ideas to work at some point (not shown in the table above) 

Mentoring

This section looks pretty much like the one about my one-to-one students. I have (well, actually used to have as it was Green Forest reality) a list of my junior teachers and a list of things we work at, have to discuss, should try, etc based on my observations and their lesson plans.

This semester

In this section I write my goals for a semester. At Green Forest at the beginning of every semester we had to complete a special form with the following questions:

  • What exactly are you going to work at this semester? (e.g. time management, presenting grammar, drilling, giving clear instructions, etc)
  • What exactly are you going to do to succeed?

Most of colleagues at the language school hate these questions (young/new teachers just say that they have to work at everything and absolutely underestimate these questions; experienced teachers think that they’re already pretty good at everything and as it’s their 10th semester at GF they already don’t know what else to write there J). I also used to dislike these questions 7 years ago. But now I understand that they’re extremely helpful and teach my junior colleagues how to use these questions.

So, in this section I write my goals (big and small) and my main steps that I think must help me to achieve them. That’s the time when I look through all my sections (ideas, books/resources, new things to learn more about / try) and make a plan for the semester.

[Note to Zhenya: I think that I use the table you advised me to use while working on my Personal PD Plan]

Goal Steps When Notes/Feedback
 

 

Besides the table above I write down a list/lists of things I want to try with my students (for different groups/levels these lists can be different) and then during the semester while lesson planning I regularly return to these lists to see if I can do sth at the lesson. For example, I had a list of vocabulary tasks/games for my Advanced group that I could use as a warmer, vocabulary review/revision, short break/last 5 minute task and while planning a certain lesson I could return to this list and choose sth good for that very lesson. Or one more example, at the beginning of the semester I knew I wanted to try creating grammar posters with my students and I also wanted to do with them a writing project (fast forward: they created leaflets, it was a great task and we all enjoyed it) and I wanted to use more digital tools. But as I had a new group of students and we worked with a new course book I didn’t know when exactly I could try all these tasks. Later when I got to know my new students and our new course book better I knew when to try these ideas. If I hadn’t had this list I could have forgotten about some or all of them. The more groups I had to teach, the worse my memory seemed to be. I usually remembered that I wanted to try sth new but sometimes couldn’t remember what exactly, or remembered about it too late.

Well, in general, at the moment my PD journal has several sections that look like lists of ideas and a few sections with certain goals and steps where I put all these ideas together.

It turned out to be a pretty long description 🙂 I hope you could get the idea. I don’t want to make it even longer now but will be happy to answer your readers’ questions.

About Tanya:

Yes, that’s the notebook! 🙂

I am an English teacher who is absolutely obsessed with my job. Having done my SIT TESOL course in 2008, I started teaching adults and that is what I am still doing. I have had ten interesting years of teaching different levels, attending various trainings and workshops, applying new knowledge at my lessons, sharing my experience with colleagues and constantly developing my teaching skills. Most of this time I worked at Green Forest Dnipro language school where I started as a junior teacher and left as a senior teacher and a mentor, and even tried my hand at being a teacher trainer.  Being an enthusiastic teacher and a loving wife and mum I’m trying hard to keep a balance between my family and work and therefore I can’t do without time management and planning my professional development. Teaching younger language learners might be the next step in my career.

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Interview with Jedrek Stepien: the Conversation Method

Last month I wrote a post about a great session I attended at Innovate ELT in 2018 and encouraged readers to share questions to the presenter for a follow-up and further conversation. Well, now is the time! The title today says ‘interview’ but you can see it as a Q&A time with the speaker. Please feel free to add more questions in the comments below. And we begin with…

… Zhenya’s Questions

I see that ‘Mentals‘ is a conversation-focused language atelier. How did you come up with the title? Is Mentals a language school?

In my mind, learning foreign languages has always been a mix of the intellectual and the spiritual. ‘Intellectual’ meaning that language is a tool for making sense, therefore speaking ultimately means exerting yourself intellectually. You do not feel it as such when you speak your first language, but it becomes clear once you start learning your second one as an adult. And it takes spiritual qualities like persistence, stubbornness, and courage to learn a second language. And so the word ‘mental’ which means both ‘intellectual’ and ‘spiritual’ seemed like a perfect choice. There is nothing I dislike about this name, even the fact that ‘mental’ also means ‘crazy’, because, after all, one needs to be a little bit crazy to learn foreign languages.

I hesitate before calling Mentals a school, because first of all it is only me, and second, I do not offer comprehensive education, that is, I do not organize courses, I do not design syllabuses. Mentals is more like a gym where learners come to practice. What I offer my students is an opportunity for a rich and satisfying output each and every time, and, surprisingly, there are not many places like this.

Your tagline says: ‘My job is to teach English, and my passion to design great conversation experience, so I do what I love.’ How important is liking or loving what you are doing?

It is essential for two reasons: first it allows me to continue doing something so precarious and financially rather disappointing, and second, loving what you do is essential for providing high quality education. Given that we speak about teaching and not mere instruction, methods and materials are always secondary to the passion of the teacher. Years of practice have left me rather skeptical about the possibility of teaching anybody anything specific. What is truly taking place in a classroom is the transmission of attitudes and other seemingly unimportant things which ultimately decide about whether somebody becomes refined by the school or leaves it as crude as they came, only with bigger number of facts in their head. A teacher with great materials but no passion is merely shining, but one with passion is radiating. Much as the shining may be enlightening, it does not transform. Only radiation does.

How do you create your questions? Perhaps share some practical tips for creating good questions? One example from your blog post: get rid of the pronouns ‘you’ and ‘your’.

In theory all it takes to design a good conversation question is a dictionary (better still: a thesaurus), but in practice it is more complicated. I realized this after Kamila (Linkova) DM-ed me on Twitter saying that she is either too tired or too slow because she cannot design similar questions. Now, she may have been working a lot, but I know her and she is definitely not slow, so I started to reflect on how I am doing it.

As far as dropping personal pronouns is concerned, it is a principle similar to not discussing politics or religion in class. Still, I am not dogmatic about it, because I do ask my students if they had seen a football game the night before, etc., but I leave it for the small talk at the beginning of each class. Personal questions generate quite a lot of language (and I take notes!) but asking them throughout the class would exploit too much memory and too little intellect, which I do not find educative. That is why as soon as the small talk is over, we change the perspective from introspection to looking outward.

Coming back to designing questions, cases when I just open a dictionary and come up with a good question are rare. And even if it happens, there is usually something on my mind already, and the dictionary provides only an impulse for bringing it to the daylight. The thing is that I am genuinely curious about this world and language provides me with a very convenient platform for the exploration of the universe without having to move from my armchair. I speak a lot with people and I read quite a lot, typically 3 or 4 books at a time plus newspapers and magazines, so my head is always ready to juxtapose or connect one concept with the other, and make a great conversation question for my students. So, what I do basically is a kind of distillation of books and longer texts into easy-to-swallow questions, so that my students can arrive at interesting conclusions without having to read all the stuff that I read.

Do your students contribute to creating questions?

Yes, and more than you may think, but often they are not even aware of this. My best questions were born during conversations with my students, because either subconsciously or by mistake, they used one word instead of a different one, creating an interesting tension between concepts.

I also like the fact that my students take the questions home, discuss them with their spouses and friends, and come back with new ones. It is extremely satisfying to hear from my students “regarding your last question, my husband/wife said that…” – it means that the questions generate interesting conversations no matter in which language, and most important of all – it means that people are talking with each other. I do not want to sound pompous, but our civilization depends on it.

Do you have ‘question bank’ or storage of some sort?

Yes. I keep them all in my Evernote. I have been putting them there since 2014. At the time of writing this, there are 1483 individual questions and the number keeps counting.

[Zhenya is thinking aloud: I would love to have an e-book/book like that! Are you thinking to write it up and share?]

How do you plan or structure your lessons (if at all)?

The structure emerged on its own. Today, each lesson starts with a small talk and a little vocabulary review. There is no continuity of any material (grammar or other) and every class can stand on its own, but we tend to review the lexical chunks which appeared during our last class. I try to fish out 18 chunks, from which the student picks 6 which come to her mind first, and we proceed to a talk show divided into “rounds”. Round 1: what is the difference between a shy person and a coward; Round 2: Can a dog be a teacher? And so on. In between the rounds we come back to the vocabulary review. I call this part of the class a “commercial break” because every talk show has them. The division into rounds with breaks allows me to jump from one subject to another, and change the mood of the lesson (form more emotional to business and philosophical). As long as communication is not broken I do not intervene, and just take notes. I finish my classes with feedback.

How do you incorporate other language skills (reading, listening, writing) in your lessons?

Apart from encouraging people to design their own “English language life” – a term I first heard from Duncan Foord from OxfordTEFL Barcelona – and occasionally recommending books or podcasts, I don’t really do much towards developing other skills. Call it laziness, but the way I view my job is to provide people with an opportunity for a vast, deep and satisfying output.

You mentioned (in response to one of the questions in-session) that with beginner level groups, you use L1. How does that work in practice? How do you help students move ‘up the ladder’ of proficiency levels?

First of all, I try to see my lessons not as language lessons but communication lessons. And once you shift the emphasis from language to communication everything looks different. Using L1 is no longer a blasphemy, just like using Latin maxims is not. My perspective on it has changed since I started having classes with people whose L1 is not my L1. Switching to L1 often means that I need to use my (still) underdeveloped French or Spanish. But above all, the questions I ask are demanding even in L1, therefore switching the language does not always solve the problem. We may dive into L1 for a moment, and then come back to the target language to keep exploring the issue. Language is after all only a tool, not a goal in itself. I keep telling my students that we agreed to use English, as one of many languages for communication, but we could just as well be speaking any other language, and it should not affect the quality of our thoughts. And it takes a lot of pressure off their shoulders. Next, all I do is I tap into the natural curiosity and the will to communicate. Teachers generally underestimate this power. If the is will there is way, in foreign languages more than anywhere else.

Now as for progress – I have no means of measuring it objectively, but it manifests itself in countless things. The ones I am most proud of are not increased range of vocabulary and better accuracy, but things which rarely come up on tests such as: how students handle surprises (my questions are always surprising), better strategic approach to questions, increased clarity and logic, ability to deal with linguistic obstacles etc. At the beginning of our cooperation, I warn my students that they may never speak with the quality and ease of native speakers, but that they may match or surpass many of them I terms of clarity and depth of perception. I am extremely satisfied with the results of my work, and I would love to learn other languages this way.

[Zhenya’s note: read more about teaching lower levels using conversations below]

Questions from the blog readers

If the lessons develop from one another, and also who chooses the topics and the questions. I presume for this type of conversation classes you wouldn’t talk about formal assessment but perhaps some sort of self-assessment?

Being the host of the talk-show, it is me who chooses the questions. But I do not do it automatically. Knowing who is going to sit in front of me, I try to adapt the questions, or – more recently – choose appropriate ones from my database taking into account factors such as language level, personality, profession, inclinations, hobbies etc. I (almost) never ask about these facts directly, but they surface naturally in the course of time.

As for the assessment, it is indeed felt rather than certified. I do not underestimate the value of formal assessment, but at the end of the day, its impact is to a large extent psychological. Good teachers can achieve similar results without resorting to certificates.

What kind of feedback does the teacher give to students?

As a language teacher, my job is to focus on three areas: lexicon, syntax and phonetics. As a human being I venture sometimes into semantics as well, where there are mostly very positive things to say. Although (or maybe because?) my questions are designed in such a way that there is no correct or incorrect answer, I am very often stunned by the brilliance of the answers. People are, on the whole, incredibly smart, despite what we may conclude based on the state of mass culture for the mass society. Listening to such clever answers, it sometimes feels hard pointing out some minor grammar issues, or mispronunciation. It is only a heartless exam committee or job interviewers who could nitpick on such irrelevant stuff as the lack of third person –s or the incorrect use of present perfect while the rest of the answer shows an incredible depth. As for the form of the feedback, it is the everlasting sandwich: good-bad-good.

Questions from my colleagues on Facebook

Do you believe Conversation Method can work with A2-B1 levels?

Yes! By the way, I have just realized that Zhenya upgraded my way of teaching to the rank of ‘a method’**, but to me they are basically inter-human exchanges. From the perspective of pure language skills it may seem difficult to have compelling conversations at A2, but what could be impossible between two human beings? We need to remember – and I repeat after Thornbury and Slade – that as teachers, we need to avoid in the first place squelching learner’s self-confidence, willingness to communicate and persistence in communication. I feel that traditional PPP type of classes do just that, whereas good conversation questions nurture all these three features. The problem of insufficient ‘level’ of English can be neutralized by asking simpler questions. And by simpler I usually mean more concrete (in contrast to abstract), for example I consider the question about the difference between ‘a toy’ and ‘a tool’ as simpler than the question about the difference between ‘new’ and ‘fresh’. It may ultimately be a psychological trick, but people feel more confident if they can immediately visualize the problem, and concrete nouns serve this purpose beautifully.

**Zhenya’s note: here I see and use ‘method’ as a particular procedure for accomplishing or approaching something [lessons], especially a systematic or established one.

Can you offer any tips on naturally provoking conversations with individual students? Especially the lower level ones?

It is one of the biggest challenges in teaching – to make L2 conversation classes – an artificial situation by nature – to be as natural as possible. Unless somebody is skillful at designing compelling role-plays, there must be a vital interest on the part of the teacher. The obvious place where to find it are details of personal life, but it is a trap. First, not everybody feels ok with sharing them (and there is a growing awareness of protecting privacy), and second, it is a rather short-lived strategy because conversations quickly become repetitive and limited in scope.

The alternative is to tap into natural curiosity and ask questions to which you yourself do not know the answer, but are curious about. This way you will shift the emphasis from language to communication – a move which levels the playing field between you and your students: you may have language skills, but your students may have better understanding of the problem. With this strategy classes stay fresh and students do not grow tired of them. The “downside” of this approach is that teachers must be well-educated, well read and curious themselves.

The strategy of tapping into curiosity is universal across all levels. The only difference lies in the quality of questions – I mentioned earlier that lower level students respond better to “easy” questions, where ‘easy’ refers to discussing concrete objects rather than abstract concepts; but ‘easy’ should never mean ‘shallow’.

Does your approach have anything in common with Lexical approach? Do you work with Ss vocabulary after the conversation?

Yes! I fully subscribe to the vision of language as ‘grammaticalized lexis’, and the idea of “cheating” your level by means of chunks appeals to me in particular. It is 100% in line with my type of classes, where there are adults who are intellectually capable of answering the questions, and all they need are language skills. During the class I take notes, suggest certain phrases when necessary, and at the end of the class we usually have a beautiful heap of useful chunks. These chunks end up on each student’s Quizlet class and are further recycled during the “commercial breaks” between questions when we meet next time.

Is there usually a follow up task/ home assignment?

No. I wanted to say ‘unfortunately’ but on second thought I do not have any remorse. I love when the follow up appears as a natural extension of curiosity – when students take my questions home to discuss with their families and friends. They may be speaking their L1 there, but the questions secretly increase their willingness to communicate, so I may say that it is not my students but my questions which do their homework 🙂

Is this questioning a focused one (in terms of a form focused task) or can it be simply a humanly exchange for the sake of a natural discourse to happen in class?

I can work both ways to some extent, but directing them towards more specific forms, such the use of a particular future tense for example, may be difficult, because it is the student who controls the answer, and changing this open-ended-ness of questions would take away a lot of fun from answering.

As for humanly exchanges, I tried my questions in almost any context – in the classroom, but also with my friends, family, Airbnb hosts, at parties and conferences, with random people while learning French, every time they proved a great success.

What question would you ask yourself about the Conversation Method (and how would you answer it?)

One thing which comes to my mind is: ‘Do you find your way of working with the students methodologically sound?’ And honestly I wish somebody more experienced than me assessed this. I tend to see the way I teach as ‘dogme on steroids’, because classical Dogme focused on affordances found in the classroom or around it (bad weather etc.), my style of teaching surpasses any boundaries of time and space. We are able to move from discussing plastic hammer toys, to shyness, then go to the jungle, and ultimately to stars and planets. All this without moving from the classroom, without using any tech, VR sets, etc., just using words.

Thank you for this conversation about conversation, Jedrek! I feel I am falling in love in this idea, and am eager to try it in practice as soon as I can. It’s an inspiration!

Jedrek Stepien is a freelance English teacher, who pursues the best possible conditions for linguistic output. He is @mentalspl on Twitter, and you can reach his website at https://mentals.pl/index_en.html

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(Conference) Presentation Prep Anxiety

Do you know that feeling? When you are thinking about the coming session, and those 45 [50/60/90/…] minutes seem like a huge time ‘on stage’? You start to question your own knowledge of the topic you are presenting on, and whether or not the topic is interesting/relevant/useful for the teachers. You are asking yourself a number of ‘what if’ questions (e.g. What if everyone already knows those activities (ideas, tips, resources, etc.)? What if the topic is boring and no-one starts to participate? What if it’s too hard/easy/obvious… What if… ok, you got the point)

Sharpening them is another calming activity 🙂

My strategies to cope with those feelings have been the following:

  • reminding myself that these are feelings not facts (and that such thoughts will come and go)
  • starting to prepare earlier rather than later (to have time for several drafts and chatting about the topic with colleagues)
  • finding out as much as I can about the audience (and/or thinking how to incorporate this ‘mini-needs-analysis’ into the session)
  • balancing ideas and reflections with specific practical activities to be used in class (well, I am not a fan of ‘activity-only’ approach to creating sessions, but I don’t think that a complete ‘activity ban’ from a workshop would work either for teachers attending a conference/TD event; I may be wrong)
  • finding a reason to be super excited about the specific session I am preparing for (not to the topic, but to something in the session): it can be an ice-breaking activity, a task to do in groups, a slide, a question, etc. Something that excites me as a presenter would probably/hopefully fire a shot of inspiration in (someone in) the audience

When was the last time you were 100% happy? And a true picture 🙂

  • preparing more rather than less (in that case I will most likely have enough materials for a longer session on a training course in the future)
  • related to the point above: rehearse/pilot some tasks that are completely new or were designed for this specific session
  • reminding myself about a lot of previous sessions I have done in the past that had positive feedback from the participants (well, one of them was my small professional failure, as I see it now, but that’s based on my perceptions and reflections)
  • writing such a blog post (in fact, very reassuring and calming down even at the point of typing this!)
  • wondering what else can be done (and when/if a time will (ever)l come that presenting will be a 100% comfortable experience)

Is it ‘stage fright’? Impostor syndrome? Professional Development (side effect)? Something else?

What are some of your strategies to prepare for and feel cool about a coming presentation/conference workshop?

Thank you for reading! 🙂

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Monitoring Technique

Have just read Hana’s post on her blog and felt an urge to respond with a comment. After drafting my reply I realized that I have written too much for a comment and decided to post it on my blog.

Hana writes: ‘Monitoring the class while the students work in pairs or groups is one of the classroom management techniques every teacher is expected to do‘.

A true story to illustrate this, especially the part ‘expected’: when I completed my initial training course for teachers almost 20 years ago, I was confident that ‘monitoring’ meant walking around the room while the students were doing their task. Could I explain the reason(s) or rationale for doing that? No. I knew that monitoring closely might interfere into a conversation and that ideally I ‘should’ be doing it discretely, or from behind (so that students could not see me)

Fast-forward to five or six years later: I am training to receive my training license and together with my coach (ToT) we are delivering a listening lesson to language learners (and are observed by all the teachers on the course). I am setting a listening task, the recording is playing, and I am walking around quietly (yes, monitoring). My co-teacher asks me in whisper how the students are doing with the current task, and whether or not I think we need to re-play the recording. Guess what? I have no idea about that!

  • Zhenya, weren’t you monitoring them?
  • I was, of course! But I was not reading what they were writing in their notes…

So… it was a big learning moment to me to find out that ‘monitoring’ was not about me moving around the room, but that it was about observing student learning, their insights, challenges, mistakes, etc. Yes, it could be done quietly, and without ‘stepping into’ the conversation. Since that day, I have a piece of paper or a small notebook in my classroom or training room, for notes to make while I am really monitoring (or listening).

Which tasks need to be monitored? To me, these are the new ones (if students have never done them before, they might have questions in the process, and those can be addressed immediately and not distracting everyone else); if the tasks are ‘anticipated challenge’ for various reasons (new language, new exam skill, games with complicated rules, etc.); if the tasks are ‘key’ for the teacher to make a decision whether or not to move on or to stay on the point longer.

Also, large classes to me is a place where I would be moving more, just in case I missed something during the time the instructions were set, or if someone is not comfortable to ask a question to the whole group.

Hana writes: ‘I know there needs to be a certain amount of trust between the teacher and the students. If you believe your students will go on Facebook instead of doing the assigned work, you’ll probably need to monitor them every minute of every practice activity‘, and I agree. It is sad to realize that teacher standing close by could be the only motivation to do a task, but if it works for some groups of learners, it is a possible solution.

Something that made me think about my presenting style was this sentence from Hana: ‘I’ve recently realized that when I am in the role of a student/trainee/attendant of a workshop, a close physical presence of the teacher (or the presenter) is not pleasant to me.’ – I would like to reflect more on the way I behave (stand or move) in a presentation I give. I do move around for a task set in pairs, and oftentimes the reason is to see if everyone is ‘on’ and if the task is manageable or needs extra clarification. My next presentation is at the end of October, so it is good to have a small action point now.

While writing the above, I realized that my ‘monitoring activity’ is often done without moving around. One example is when students are listening to a recording, or watching something, I sit or stand at the ‘far’ side of the room, or in the corner, so that I could see everyone and no-one would be looking at me. This way I can see who is struggling with the task (for possible meaningful grouping later).

Another idea is about the time while students are talking in pairs or small groups, I sit down in the middle (taking someone’s chair) and ‘disappear among students, listening to various pairs in turns and not distracting them with my comments and questions.

A colleague of mine taught me to ‘zoom in‘ by focusing on one specific pair of students while they are doing the task. It can be done from a good distance, or even from the ‘default’ position near the board. I found this especially useful in a class with beginners, who are very sensitive and aware of their mistakes and sometimes teacher’s close presence may shut them down.

Also, there are times when I am explicit about NOT monitoring the task (with students or teachers) asking them to go in the ‘far corners’ of the classroom, and even playing loud background music with a device in the middle of the room. This way a real Information Gap is created and every group (and me as a teacher!) have a genuine reason to listen to each other.

How do you monitor student (or teacher) learning) in your classroom? And in the online courses you run? (I often feel that ‘stepping into’ a discussion where a group is working may feel the same way as coming too close to students in class)

Thank you for reading!

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Reflective Group Meeting Topics 2018-2019

Summer again, which means we are on a break from the reflective group meetings. This also means sharing how our year has been, and what meeting topics we had. It was the third school year of reflecting together in our group in Dnipro!

If you are interested what we did in year 1, read this post, and read about year 2 here

Our pre-meeting questions often became a meeting plan, so I will share them below.

Professional Development, Summer and New Year

  • What were your professional development highlights this summer? In September?
  • Why were they important to you?
  • What were you working on in 2017/18 academic year?
  • What would you like to change/improve/think about in the coming school year?
  • Why do you think these aspects are important to you?

Teaching to Love the Language – is it the Best Motivation?

  • What is something you love to do / feel passionate about? Who and how helped you to discover and fall in love with this thing?
  • Who and how motivated you to study and to teach English?
  • What does it mean to you – to love the language?
  • Do you believe that loving the language will motivate the students to progress in it? Why?
  • How can we help our students to love the English language?

My 2018: travel and work, home and classes, books and movies, family and friends, thoughts and insights

  • The highlight(s) of the year
  • The questions of the year
  • The discovery of the year
  • ELT and non-ELT moments of learning

Time Management (in all spheres)

  • What existing TM systems/books/apps do you know/use?
  • Do they work for you?
  • How can they be adapted?

Teaching Lexis

  • Which mistakes are more likely to lead to misunderstanding – grammatical or lexical ones?
  • Which do you think is more important – advancing vocabulary or teaching grammar? 
    Do you always stick to the course book in terms of what you teach? How do you choose what extra vocabulary to teach?
  • Will you teach phrases containing more ‘advanced’ grammar to beginners or try to simplify them? Why? Why not? 
  • Is L1 a valuable contribution to your teaching or do you tend to exclude it from the teaching/learning process? 
  • What activities do you use to help students remember, practice and use new vocabulary? 
  • What are your favorite collocation/lexical chunk resources?

Challenging Frameworks or What Makes a Good Lesson

  • Do you follow a certain framework/algorithm when planning your lessons?
  • What are your criteria of a good lesson?
  • Have your beliefs about lesson structure and those criteria changed over your teaching career?

A Bigger Picture?

It was final meeting of the school year, so we stepped back to talk about the professional development goals set in September, what was achieved, dropped or modified, etc.; what was learned, and how (PD events attended, presented at, organized, etc.); what books/resources were helpful/insightful, and why.

Some bigger questions, for which it was hard to find the time:

  • What might be your ELT mission?
  • How is Reflective Practice helping (if at all) to achieve it?

Our ‘Bonus idea’ was a Book Exchange Party: teachers who wanted to participate brought a book that was special (that year, or in general), in order to exchange them for the summer break. I am now re-reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach.

Finally, we analyzed the topics suggested by members as ‘interesting’ in the survey, and decided who may be a facilitator for the coming meetings in the new school year 2019/20. I have never felt more prepared and inspired before!

Thank you for reading, and have a great summer! 🙂

Picture taken at the Museum of Railway Transport, Kyiv.

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