Saturday, 15 October 2016

PLNing Development: The (d)evolution of Twitter

Having delved back into past posts over the summer to reflect on how my teaching has been influenced by dogme, I am now in the process of looking back through my old posts on online CPD  (Continuous Professional Development) and growing a PLN (Personal Learning Network). The first in what will hopefully be a series of posts focuses on where the whole online journey of self-development began for me - Twitter.

A Slow Start
I first heard about teachers using Twitter to connect on the forums of my MA course back in 2010. Intrigued, I signed up but then.... didn't know where to start! I followed the account for the Teaching English website and a couple of people I knew but nothing happened and I wasn't sure how to make it happen. I then left Twitter alone for a while.

Getting Connected
By the summer of that year, I had become interested in the idea of blogging for teacher development but finding an audience was tough and my posts were going largely unread. A colleague on my MA suggested sharing my blog on Twitter to drive traffic towards it. I then returned to the 'micro-blogging' site and followed people my MA coursemates were following. Slowly but surely, people started to follow me back. Through links shared on Twitter, I found blogs to read, and I discovered the world of online conferences and webinars. Perhaps most importantly, I connected with other teachers from different contexts around the world. We started to share ideas, offer advice and push each other's thinking forward.

It was around this time that I blogged about using Twitter to build up my PLN for the first time. Over the next year or so, I would check Tweet Deck (haven't used that in ages!) several times a day always keen to see the links that had been shared and the conversations that had been taking place since I last checked in. These would often give inspiration for blog posts, ideas to try out in class, or areas to focus on in my MA studies... Exciting times!

Chats, Challenges & Conferences
Shortly after I became active on Twitter, #ELTchat started up and things really took off. Wednesday afternoons and evenings were crunch times in my weekly professional development as a global group of teachers engaged in a fast and furious analysis of important issues in ELT. That led to more connections, and more ideas to take into class and turn into blog posts or workshops.
Then there were the challenges that came up, inviting teachers to write a blog post, make a video or in some other way communicate an idea about teaching or teacher development. There was even a challenge to post about top people to follow on Twitter...

And then there was the almost obligatory and inevitable workshop session on using Twitter (one of hundreds that must have been given around the world at this time!) That helped me dig into what is was about Twitter that was so important: it was never about the numbers of followers and tweets; it was about the connections made with people and the ideas that were shared and developed. I can honestly say that had I never got involved on Twitter this much, I would probably be entering my 15th year of teaching primary school kids in the same establishment in Turkey...

From sharing ideas to sharing links
I also did some research into Twitter, blogs and social media for CPD during my MA. I remember how I scoffed at one article I read (apologies but the exact quote and reference has long since escaped my mind) that described such platforms as merely places for 'one-way broadcasting' - the author obviously had not engaged in such an active community as I had, I confidently declared to myself, and did therefore not regard PLNs and online CPD in the same way that I did.
However, nowadays I would agree that the author has a point. I don't go on Twitter that often these days and when I do, it's usually to share a link to one of my blog posts or articles. Others seem to do the same, sharing links either to their own work or to interesting articles. These get 'liked' and 'retweeted' but there is very little conversation going on. 'One-way broadcasting' seems a good phrase to describe it all. Like a radio channel, we send tweets out, other pick them up but very little comes back...

Something seems to be missing...
So why has this happened and what does it mean for the current state of online CPD? I would suggest the following (all based on my own observations and personal experience rather than any rigorous research I should add):

The Rise of 'Social Media & Sharing' Apps
In its early days, Twitter's 140 character limit made it unique. It facilitated a quick exchange of to-the-point comments which actually allowed for more back-and-forth interaction than one might have expected. Indeed, it was designed to mimic the space given to write text messages on our phones. However, other social media and sharing apps that have come along in recent years have been more about sharing things found online in the age of the smartphone: Pinterest, for example, is mainly used for sharing images and links; Flipboard is about aggregating articles into stylish 'magazines'; recent arrivals like Snapchat are about sharing the moment. The way people use Twitter seems to have changed accordingly - it's less about SMS-style conversation now and more about that smartphone driven quick sharing of links.

Migration and Moving On
People move on and trends come and go, and this is especially true of technology. I think I caught the crest of a wave when I joined Twitter but that has ebbed away to an extent. That is not to say of course that those people are no longer active professionally or no longer engage in CPD, just that they have moved onto other things. Some people who were active on Twitter a few years ago have now gone quiet and are most likely giving their all in their classrooms and schools as I write. Others have migrated to Facebook, staying connected with their closest connections from Twitter and elsewhere. And others still have moved up professionally and now have more demands on their time or no longer teach so much in the classroom, which was and always will be the primary inspiration for blogging. Many of the bloggers and tweeters I originally connected with are now still writing but they often contribute to blogs, websites and newsletters run by teacher development groups like Teaching English and iTDi or teacher associations like IATEFL.
Downsizing CPD
One thing I have come to reflect on about my own CPD is that it simply does not need to be as continuous as it once was. At the time I first got involved in making PLN connections, I had been teaching for only half the time I have been teaching now. I was in the midst of an MA and exploring what language education is all about. The constant exchanges and sharing of ideas on Twitter was exactly what I needed at that time and really pushed my thinking forward, helping my with my studies and with developing my career.

Now, the ability to analyse, reflect on and adapt my practice is part of who I am as an educator. Instead of looking to the Twittersphere for inspiration and help, I look at how I can connect and share ideas with the teachers in my own staffroom. It's smaller scale but it is just as effective. Without those experiences on Twitter, I would probably not engage in local small-scale CPD in the same way.

So thanks Twitter for helping me connect with so many great people, several of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person and look forward to seeing again at IATEFL next year. Thanks for helping me collaborate, reflect and develop. And thanks for helping me transfer that back to my working context.

Now, I'll just tweet this post and my reflections for the day are done. ;-)

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

ELT e-book review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School by Walton Burns

September is here again and that means for many of the language teachers out there that you have either just met your new classes or you are soon to meet them. First lessons can be tough - beyond the level of the class and the number of students, you may not know much about them before you walk through the door. Things may be made even tougher in the class if the students don't know each other either!

And that's why the first lesson is a big deal - as teachers we need to set the right tone for the year, create a welcoming atmosphere, learn the names and make everyone else learn the names, and conduct some sort of needs analysis or diagnostic test.

I therefore was more than happy to review the following book:

50 Activities for the First Day of School is an e-book by Walton Burns published by Alphabet Publishing also sold in paperback and Kindle editions on Amazon. It does exactly what it states on the cover, outlining fifty first day activities. There are some well-known ideas here like 'Find Someone Who...' and '2 Truths and a Lie' but there are also some ideas I hadn't come across before such as '4-3-2 Intro' in which students have to talk about themselves first for four minutes, then three, and then two including the same information each time, and 'Time Capsule' in which the teacher collects snippets of the students' language, stores them in a box and then brings it back near the end of the course for comparisons with what the students think then.

The activities are divided into three parts:

  • Getting to Know Them - a section with plenty of ideas for learning names, finding out about your students and getting them talking to each other
  • Assessing and Evaluating - this section focuses on diagnostic tasks to find out what our students do and don't know and what they can and can't do in English
  • Setting the Tone - these activities are centred around agreeing rules, establishing routines and highlighting study skills to be built on throughout the year
Indeed, many of the activities set the tone for how the lessons will run with a strong student-centred focus and tips for bringing in strategies for encouraging self and peer correction from the first lesson. Most of the activities require little to no preparation as well and there are enough options to cover different levels of learner from beginner to advanced.

I started new classes last week and I decided to give a few of the ideas in the book a try out.

My first new class this term was a beginner (A1) group of 12-13 year-olds. Knowing their language would be limited, I decided to use 'Name Chain' to start things off. After getting everyone to say their names a couple of times each, I got the students in a circle and asked one to introduce himself. the next student then had to say 'this is... and I'm...' The chain built up till the last person had to recall everyone's name. We then mixed the circle and began again. This was a great way to ensure even in a class of fourteen people, we all knew each other's names within 15 minutes.

Later in the day, I met a group of 14-15 year-old intermediate (B2) level learners. I tried two activities with them. First, we did 'Tell me about me,' a task in which the class first had to say what they knew about me already. After a little prompting, they started to volunteer things like "we know you're married because you're wearing a ring" and "you own a Samsung Note phone". They then said what they thought they knew (e.g. "You're Canadian" and "You can't speak Arabic") and I then confirmed or corrected their ideas. We then repeated the task with the students in the group and we really learned a lot about each other.

Later in the class, we engaged in 'Goal Setting' as the students thought about what they wanted to learn/improve and what skills they would need to reach those goals. They then compared and discussed with me listening carefully to get a picture of my new students' self-perceived needs. It also gave use the groundwork to start thinking about learning plans and autonomous activities for the term ahead.

Overall, I would recommend this book. The activities are presented clearly and concisely and they are adaptable. They do not simply focus on learning names and finding out about hobbies and interests either They also encourage teachers and students alike to think about what they need from the course and help set the right tone for a successful year. Not every idea is a new one but credit is given for the ideas adapted from others are their are enough new tasks and variations on classic ones to make the book worthwhile.

50 Activities for the First Day of Class is available now in e-book, Kindle and paerback formats.

Official publisher website -
Amazon Store page -

A free copy of the e-book version was supplied by the author for review purposes.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Me and My Dogme

Back in the early days of this blog, dogme was quite a popular topic. There were virtual debates that played out over several blogs, twitter feeds and YouTube videos (at times prompted by and at times spilling over into the real world of conferences and other ELT events). There was also the "dogme blog challenge" which led to my first teaching-related YouTube video, my first ever animated video, my first ever split-screen interview conducted with Cecilia (sadly, the site we used has since shut down and the recording has disappeared with it).

But enough of the rose-tinted reminiscence. Dogme has become less of a 'hot topic' these days, at least on the pages of this blog. Having been inspired to revisit the whole idea by Ceri Jones' recent IATEFL talk on going "Barefoot with Beginners" this post will serve as a retrospective of my blogging journey with dogme and where I stand today on the subject.

Many plugs have been pulled over the years...
Image via
A lazy Sunday morning in October, 2010 saw my first tentative steps into what was at the time a raging online debate with the post My Take on the Unplugged/Dogme/Coursebook Debate. Aside from the semi-apologetic ramblings about any false claims, I stand by most of what I wrote about - teaching unplugged does not simply mean not using a coursebook; rather than using them as a safety net, new teachers need to learn how to use coursebooks effectively; and over-reliance on coursebooks is a problem in many different teaching contexts.

Continuing with Sunday as dogme day, I shared some more thoughts a couple of weeks later, this time posing the question Could dogme work with Young Learners? At this time, I hadn't dabbled with the unplugged arts in classroom myself so it was all speculation. A lot of what I anticipated, however, would ring true later on - kids enjoy the personalised approach and the idea of creating something away from the constraints or specific targets of set coursebook tasks; despite the benefits, persuading stakeholders and decision-makers of the value of doing things this way is tough, even when you have proof that it works; small steps are therefore needed to enact change and perhaps weaning teachers and language departments off coursebook-dominated syllabi is a more realistic target.

After a month and a shift to a late-night Friday blogging slot, I was ready to reflect on Planting the seeds of dogme - unplugged lessons with YLs. (As a quick aside, this emphasised one the great things about having a blog like this - re-reading the post really brought back vivid memories of those lessons from almost six years ago!) When it worked well, we had some productive and positive lessons and I recall the togetherness we felt as we talked, explored collocations, tried out some past simple and wrote a descriptive paragraph to bring it all together. There was also the reminder though that with kids, a rigid structure to the lesson often helps with classroom management.

My experiments with dogme really started to take off when I started Unplugging Exam Prep in order to get my students better prepared for the Cambridge YLE Tests. Pompiskotch made his first appearance as we started to use student artwork and stories as the point from which our lessons began and the ultimate goal of succeeding in the exam helped provide a focus for the more unruly groups. This led to me using dogme long-term in classes for the first time as we based our preparation for the Flyers test on unplugged principles with Lessons on the Fly.

During this time, I became fully convinced that dogme was indeed a viable alternative to materials-driven courses as my students did just as well as those who worked through practice books and past papers and I was honoured with the TeachingEnglish Blog of the Month award for my reflections on the lesson Let It Snow.

Although I was not teaching dogme all the time, it started to influence my thinking more and more, eventually leading to what I view as a critical moment in the evolution of my teaching style and beliefs - captured in the post Don't just fill the gaps... Explore the space. This remains in my mind a fitting analogy for a lot of what I see in English language classrooms and course programmes - so much time and focus is on filling gaps and ticking boxes that there is not enough space for students and teachers to explore and develop in.

It's easier to move when you're not plugged
Image via
From September 2012 onwards, there is an apparent decline of entries on this blog specifically focusing on dogme. Part of that stems from the eventual dimming of the flames elsewhere in the blogosphere on the topic (indeed, as noted at the start, the inspiration to revisit this topic came from Ceri Jones' recent IATEFL talk on 'Barefoot' teaching with beginners) but part of it is also down to me reaching and passing that critical moment as a teacher. The reality is that, apart from those 'Lessons on the Fly,' I have never had the chance to teach 'pure' dogme. There have always been (and probably always will be) external demands for certain goals to be met and certain materials to be used.

However, exploring and experimenting with dogme has allowed me to take a more critical view of what my students do in class and why. It is simply not good enough to say we are going to do something just because it is the next item on the syllabus. I always evaluate learning aims and set material in terms of how they meet my students' needs. If adaptation is necessary, we adapt. If too much adaptation is necessary, we throw it out and go our own way. I bring this up with management too, explaining why I skipped over a set task and why, also emphasising how the alternative approach was more suited to their needs.

The other key change in my teaching has been the ability to recognise and pursue those 'unplugged moments'. Without my past reflections and experiments, I would never have experienced my favourite lesson in 2014 or used The Lesson Springboard to engage students in cross-curricular learning or responding to the learning outcomes of students from different age groups.

Pulling the plug completely may remain an ideal rather than a reality for me but it has had a strong influence on me, and my teaching is all the better for it.

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Barefoot with beginners

This was a talk title that immediately took my mind back to the early days of building my online PLN. 'Barefoot teaching' is a phrase I remember from Paul Braddock's old blog to describe his experiment of teaching a group of teenagers without adhering to a pre-selected coursebook. Instead, he responded to learners' immediate needs, incorporated authentic resources based on the students' interests, and let the lessons flow.

Barefoot teaching - washing it all away
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CC0 Public Domain
The other flashback to those days was the speaker Ceri Jones, who has been a key member of my network and an influence on my development over the years through her excellent blog, involvement in #eltpics, and work as a tutor on my Trinity DipTESOL course.

I've never seen Ceri speak though and neither have I met her (despite us both being at IATEFL Manchester last year!) so I picked this recorded session out to watch. This was not just a selection based on personal preference though - I was also intrigued by what an established coursebook writer had to say about teaching without any published materials.
The concept was made even more interesting by the fact that the group in question was a class of beginners. The idea of 'materials light' teaching is often associated with learners past the beginner stage, who have enough language to at least try to express themselves. In turn, that language becomes the starting point for the teacher to build the lessons around. But what do you do when there is hardly any language coming form the students?

Ceri gave an example from the very first lesson when a student said he was from an obscure village in central Spain. Building on that, extra language such as "where's that?" and describing where places are. This is the kind of personalised learning moment that I feel language lessons often lack. Perhaps with a standard coursebook exercise, this would have never come up. Instead, it stood out ehre as a learning opportunity.

The idea of lesson summaries was an interesting one. I have found it is common for students and teachers to leave an unplugged lesson feeling they have discussed and learned a lot but without a written record, it can be quickly forgotten. Here the summary acted not only as a record but also as a map of the barefoot journey allowing Ceri to trace where and when particular language points had come up and how they developed.

The past simple example was a very interesting one - it first appeared early on as something the students genuinely needed. With a focus very much on meaning and use, it was recycled and developed until the grammar focus finally came a couple of months later. This stands in stark contrast to the usual procedure of covering the grammar early on and gradually expanding the communicative use.

As a result, the students' own summary of the classes focused on topics and content whereas Ceri's summary looked at grammar points more - a reminder that student and teacher perceptions of learning are not always the same. The summary also provided a starting point for in-depth self-assessment of strengths and weaknesses in the language learned to that point, something that may be more difficult with a proscribed syllabus.

The progression of the students as shown by the writing sample was impressive. The emergence of grammatical elements such as the past continuous without them ever being formally taught was a strong testament to the strength of this approach. At times, we need to give learners a chance to play with the language and jump ahead in the syllabus to the language they need to use. When they need to use it, it is more likely to stick than when it's covered just because it's in Unit 5.

All of which serves a nice lead in to my next series of posts - some reflections on dogme... :)

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016: Moving into Management

Having looked at the forums on technology and mobile learning in my previous IATEFL posts, I now turn my attention to a more recent focus in my career: management.

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CC0 Public Domain
Several years ago while working in a private college in Turkey, I was asked to assume responsibility for 'the language skills programme' with 4th Grade students, which meant writing the yearly plan, making sure teachers were on track with reaching learning goals, and making recommenddations for the following year. Later, the responsibility was extended to 5th grade, overseeing class blogs was added in and I also had to mentor new teachers. Officially, I was still an 'ESL teacher' but my role had morphed into a kind of management lite one.

I then went to Gabon where I had an official management role - Language School Coordinator. I was supposed to be in charge of designing the general and business English learning programmes, hiring and training teachers, placement testing and in-house assessment, and other logistical tasks like timetabling and scheduling cover. I was fine with all that and prepared for it but once I was there, I soon found myself involved in all sorts of other things - designing a brochure and website for the school, commissioning photographers, meeting company executives and HR managers, promoting the school at local events, conducting case studies and many more. These were tasks I struggled with, and it was all only compounded by my lack of French.... and I was teaching 20 hours a week as well!

At the British Council, I now have a slightly better teaching/management balance and I also have the support of an established system and clearly defined role, all aided by being enrolled on an academic management course. I still feel that I have a lot to learn about the management side of ELT though and that is why I picked out Shirley Norton and Karen Chambers' session "Stick or Twist: the Teacher to Manager Dilemma" for this report.

Shirley began the session with an overview of how she became a manager and it seems my story from above echoes hers - through a combination of chance and invitation, she acquired more responsibility until she got a full-blown management role and felt she wasn't truly ready for it. The option to a course (in this case the DELTM) helped her get back on track. Interesting that she found her employers saw the management course as an optional extra. Indeed, this highlights an issue in ELT with employers having a slightly warped perception of the available qualifications. The entry-level certificate is often seen as all a teacher needs. The higher-level teaching diploma is often seen as an entry into teacher training or management when it actually officially prepares you for neither. Specialist management or teacher training courses are then seen as not necessary, but as my own journey to this point and Shirley's story show, they often are.

Karen spoke as someone who had entered into management roles but then moved to teacher training before returning to teaching. She mentioned that a significant number of managers do not choose to become managers and a high number of them also receive no management training, which is a potential recipe for the managers being 'a bit rubbish'.

The need for training for managers is an important point and one that many schools could invest more time in. There was an interesting need highlighted as well for teacher training to retain staff. It seems counter-productive to take a good teacher out of the classroom to give them management responsibility as a 'promotion'. There have to be other options to keep good teachers doing what they do best while still feeling a valued member of the team.  Encouraging CPD through in-house training and sending teachers out to conferences and other events was highlighted as a way to do this and it's difficult to argue against that.

The idea of identifying key strengths in each teacher and encouraging them to develop them, whether they be materials development, marketing, or teacher training, is a vital one. This serves the teacher and the school better than forcing people into roles of responsibility that they are not keen on (like when a former employer tried to coerce me into joining an in-house coursebook writing project). I was also intrigued by the advice to allow teachers to take sabbaticals, work in different locations, or be relived of all teaching duties to work on a project while their jobs are held open for them - not something I have come across in my ELT career to date!

There were some different ideas shared in this session which moved away from the traditional management roles of the day-to-day running of a team. Investing in staff and offering opportunities are the way to keep good staff and develop better teachers and effective managers - language schools and ELT departments, take note!

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Forum on Mobile Learning

Having reviewed the forum on technology in the young learner classroom already, I have decided to stick with the "3-in-1" talk format with some thoughts and reflections on the forum on mobile learning. The teaching centre I work at has recently ordered a set of twenty iPads and as ICT Coordinator, it will be one of my major tasks throughout the remainder of this year to oversee their introduction to our programme and overall use. I am therefore looking forward to gaining some insights and picking up a few ideas for their use.

A different perspective on mob'le learning
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 CC0 Public Domain
Valentina Morgana - iPad in the EFL Classroom
The abstract promised a look into on-going research into student and teacher use of iPads and perceptions of mobile learning. 

  • Valentina begins with a depressingly familiar tale - she was handed a mobile device and wished good luck by her employers. In her case, she seized the opportunity to engage in research. However, I am sure that the majority of teachers would not know where to start. This is one of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed with ICT in education - the often blind investment in hardware and software that is rarely backed up with investment in training.
  • The research project was designed to focus on how iPads are used in secondary schools. The deliberate selection of experienced and qualified teachers was an interesting one. As Valentina says, the issue is not whether or not the teacher is comfortable with using a mobile device but whether or not the teacher is comfortable with facilitating language learning.
  • After my mini rant above, it was encouraging to hear that the school where the research is taking place requested a limited pilot programme before taking the decision to purchase iPads for all students or not.
  • The 'wow' factor seems to be especially prevalent with iPads. I guess this is all to do with the evil powerful nature of Apple marketing. In my teaching centre for instance, there is a keen sense of anticipation about the arrival of the iPads. Strange then that a set of Surface Pro tablets has apparently spent the last 18 months here collecting dust...
  • Students expected iPads to be most useful for improving their listening and writing skills... Listening makes sense I suppose due to the easy access to digital media such as videos, podcasts and music. Writing puzzles me though - I have always seen mobile devices, even tablets, as cumbersome for writing anything other than short messages. Maybe I need to rethink that one.
  • The expectation that students would be creating content may explain the focus on writing. Tablets are essentially personal devices and students expect to be able to have options to edit the output to their own tastes.
  • A important point made by Valentina was that just because students use mobile devices regularly and with confidence in their daily lives, it does not mean they will be the same in the classroom. They need to relearn how to use iPads with educational goals in mind and this takes time and training.
  • Good to see the selection of apps was small and included pre-loaded ones. One issue with iPads in schools is that they often get overloaded with hundreds of apps with little thought given to how and how often they will actually be used.
  • Valentina reports that student engagement was high in lessons with the iPads but stresses again that this is not to do with the devices themselves. It is more to do with the experience and knowledge of the teachers in the classroom.
  • The multimodal affordances of tablets were also highlighted as students could easily access visuals, add audio clips to Evernote, and multimedia to Thinglink and do much more.
  • There was in the end a mismatch between student expectations and actual experiences of improving writing skills, showing that the idea of productive skills with iPads does need some further thought and development.
An interesting presentation of research that stands as a good example of how some time and thought devoted to training and implementation is a good thing. More training, less top-down purchasing please!

Kat Robb - Instant Messaging  with Learners
The subtitle of "chilled out chatroom or creepy treehouse?" certainly caught my attention! This raises the issue of considering how students feel about having their teacher pop up in their out-of-class life through class messaging groups.

  • We begin with the puzzles of Kat's context - pre-sessional university students who lack motivation for academic writing and a over-use of L1 which excluded some students from other nationalities.
  • An attempt was made to tap into the students' constant use of messaging services by setting up a group for the class on WeChat. Kat was keen to avoid being seen as infringing on her learners' social media space.
  • One sample activity was for her to send high frequency words from her students' writing to the chat group and have them find synonyms as quickly as they could - sounds like a fun gamified idea but it would be interesting to hear if this had a subsequent effect on their writing.
  • Moving into the more productive side of academic writing comes the idea of having groups produce and share a short summary of a lecture and sharing in through the chat group. Everybody could then read all the contributions and comment on them. This sounds good and student testimonials refer to increased engagement and a stronger feeling of belonging to a group.
  • Far from being a 'creepy treehouse' it seems the students felt more of a connection with the teacher through these activities.
  • Motivation, peer-to-peer interaction, personalised learning, an easily-accessible record of work - all examples of an effective application of technology rather than a flashy show of it.
For me, this talk emphasised the need to identify an area or areas in which an intervention is necessary and then forming a clear plan for tech use. When we just assume what students need and decide to use a device or app and "see how ıt goes," we won't get the desired results. Considered thought and decisions based on contextual and pedagogical principles is what tech needs to be what the students need.

Thursday, 21 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Forum on Technology in the Young Learner Classroom

The great thing about IATEFL Online is not only the chance to get a little taste of the conference as it is taking place but also the chance to watch the recorded sessions from the archive at your leisure. So, that is what I am doing today. As the recently installed ICT Coordinator at British Council Bahrain, a language centre with approximately 2,000 young learners, this forum seemed like the ideal place to start:

Here are my reactions, typed 'live' up as I watched:

Maria Diakou - Snapshots from Implmenting Technology in Young Learners' Language Teaching Classrooms
 The first speaker's abstract promised a focus on 'practical, technology-enriched moments' from her teaching context in Cypriot primary schools.

  • Maria began with discussion of the issue of lack of engagement from YLs in class and the subsequent problems of bad behaviour and overly-strict teachers.
  • She then suggested technology as the solution as it taps into the fact that kids use tech as part of their daily lives - I would, however, qualify this by saying technology can be a solution if it is used in an engaging way. The same can be also said for activities without tech - the activity needs to be relevant, personalised and appealing to interests to encourage YLs to tackle it.
  • Games - this is definitely an area of interest for me as the teacher behind ELT Sandbox. The games shown here, however, were classic 'interactive' learning games. These make the language work aspect of being in the classroom more fun, but for me, they offer little more than a worksheet or activity book page in terms of learning.
  • Zimmertwins - as a tool for creating animated videos, I see a lot more practical use in this as it gets the students involved in being productive and creative. A lot of the technology they engage with on a daily basis is receptive - they watch, listen, and click to follow a pre-determined path. This tool gives them more possibilities to be active rather than passive users of tech and learners of language.
  • Storyboard That also works in a similar way, getting students to create comic strips with their own dialogues written through text. It also offers similar advantages in terms of allowing for creative use of language.
  • Dvolver was featured as an easy-to-use tool that allows creation of animation together with captioned text for dialogue. Maria made the good point that the ease of use means more time can be spent focusing on language rather than getting to grips with the tool.
  • Storybird also allows for easy use with a large selection of pictures and works well for getting students to engage with writing.
  • Voki was then shown as a speaking tools. By speaking through an avatar, shy students can feel more relaxed as they speak from 'behind' the character. I did, however, disagree with using this as an alternative to drawing a monster. In my experience, YLs always love the chance to draw and describe their creations. It's all about giving them personal ownership of the task and in this case, I feel that a picture created by the student achieves that more than an online image with limited editing options.
Overall, a useful selection of tools though the focus was more on what the technology can do and how it can be used - not so much on why it should be used in preference to other classroom tasks.

Amanda Boldarine - Young Learners and Technology: ways to intergate culture and parents 

This talk focused on meaningful use of technology to meet learner needs and engage parents in their learning.
  • Interesting start with data from research with Amanda's own students about their technology use outside the classroom - we often assume that kids are regular, confident users of all devices and software applications but it is a good idea to confirm this before making decisions on in-class use.
  • Encouraging that the initial question ("How can I maximise my students' language learning experience?") does not explicitly focus on technology. It is the learning experience that is important, not the tech tools.
  • Having said that, Vocaroo and Padlet are then featured as the tech tools of choice - this is qualified, however, as appropriate to the limitations of tech provision in the school context with only a computer lab available.
  • Amanda used Vocaroo to get students to listen to their own voices in English and reflect on how they speak, useful in making the tech use about more than simply using tech.
  • An real audience was also provided as the recordings were sent to their parents. This is important in giving the activity a more authentic feel.
  • Padlet was used to post rules about road safety as a follow-up to learning about them. The affordances offered over simply using paper was again the parent link.
  • This was also followed up by asking parents for feedback - this again makes it more than just another activity.
  • The final point was to emphasise that technology is not just about making learning modern or fun. It needs to be integrated into the learning process and evaluated in terms of what benefits it will have for your learners.
I liked the fact that this talk showed that a simple approach often works best. No need for a plethora of flashy tools. Simple apps can be used to help the students produce language and provide them with an audience by sharing the results with their parents.

Addicted or enraptured? Image via

Nicky Francis - Being Creative with Technology in a Young Learner Classroom
The final speaker in the forum proposed a focus on encouraging creativity with technology. I liked that the abstract also mentioned plasticine and yoghurt pots!
  • Nicky began by discussing the seemingly fixated and motionless appearance kids often have when they are viewing the screen, whether it be a TV, PC monitor, or mobile device and how these extended passive moments of silence can be disturbing. While I agree that a lot of technology engagement can be passive, it's also worth remembering that long before the age of digital technology, there was often criticism of people who spent ages with their noses buried in things called 'books'.
  • Speaking of which, the next stage of the talk presented a book - "It's a Book" (that is the actual name by the way, not an attempt at emphasis from me!). The concept of having an intensive course for primary including several hours of art was an interesting one.
  • The tech came in through a movie project but not with an online animation maker. Instead, it was a movie to be made with real world props (that's the plasticine and yoghurt post then!) and the students' own voices - a nice example of integrating tech but not in a way that allows the tech tool to dominate.
  • The learners then went through a process similar to that which Jamie Keddie talked about at last year's conference of choosing characters and a setting, writing a script, and incorporating chunks of language from the story - good examples of language at work while making a movie with the actual filming part being the end product.
  • One positive effect of technology is the way it can level the playing field between teachers and students. This was evidenced here by Nicky highlighting how she learned to use Movie Maker together with her students.
  • "Rough but real" - we can certainly hear the students' voices during the sample video in more ways than one!
This talk was a good reminder that technology in the classroom does not have to form an entire lesson. It can simply form a small part of a project. It also does not have to be something pre-produced and edited by the students. It can in fact be something entirely original. Finally, it does not have to be about the latest and greatest flashy tools. Digital video cameras and programmes like Movie Maker have been around for a quite a while now but they can be just as effective as more recent innovations as long as space is given to the learner's voice.

One little aside to finish on - each of the presenters apologised in advance for their learners' mistakes and less than perfect English. Why? I see and hear this a lot during presentations. It is not about the end product. It's about the process of learning. The mistakes in the sample projects make the whole production more real and more personal and that's nothing to apologise for. :)

Friday, 15 April 2016

#IATEFL 2016 - Self-motivated Professional Development

Time to move onto this month's second cycle of ten then...

You may have heard that there is a gathering of language teachers taking place in Birmingham in the UK at the moment called the IATEFL Conference. I had the pleasure of attending last year's event in Manchester but this year, I find myself unable to be there in person, instead experiencing it all vicariously through Facebook updates, Twitter feeds, and the online coverage.

I must say the online coverage is superb. Although it is logistically impossible to cover every session, the fact that non-attendees get to watch a few sessions at a time and place of their choosing (and for free) is great. Finding myself too busy to watch any full sessions over the last couple of days, I have listened to a few interviews safe in the knowledge that I can catch the presentations of interest next week, the week after or even later.

As a registered blogger, I will be reporting on sessions about technology in and out of the classroom (fitting in as it does with my ICT Coordinator position), academic management (ditto), reflective practice (as a personal area of interest) and any hot topics that come up (like the native/non-native debates that seems to be trending online).

I start with some of the interviews, particularly those featuring my fellow Teaching English Associates Kieran Donaghy, Lizzie Pinnard, Sandy Millin, Chia Suan Chong, and Vicky Saumell (whom I was interviewed with last year!) Ably hosted by Paul Braddock (back in the Paddock ;) ), they each responded to the following question:

"Some teachers have quite a negative view of CPD, especially as there seems to be little financial incentive for it. What would you say some of the more intrinsic motivational factors are that people could take into account when they think about their own professional development?"
That's a tough one! How can we get teachers interested and invested in CPD for its own sake? Luckily, I was not in the hot seat this time and instead got to hear everyone else's responses first before adding my own below.

Both Lizzie and Kieran mentioned how taking the lead in your own PD helps keep you out of a rut. Engaging with different ideas helps keep things interesting and there is always something to learn, with Kieran making the key point that you can then pass these things on to your students and colleagues, who will then in turn benefit.

Chia emphasised how easy it can be to download an article or bookmark a blog post and then read it one-handed (all demonstrated with the realia of a bouncing baby on her lap!) when you have a few free minutes. Sandy added that finding a main source of PD input such as the articles and blogs shared through the Teaching English Facebook page or a calendar of upcoming webinars can help you take a little and often approach - no need to read, watch, and join in on everything, however.

They also talked about the importance of going beyond your immediate area of interest, something that definitely chimed with me as I have learnt a lot over the years from teachers in EAP contexts, Business English teachers, and others who work in environments very different from my own. Good ideas are always good ideas and they can be adapted, experimented with and put to use in a variety of contexts.

Vicky added that curiosity helps. If you are interested in learning more about teaching and language learning, CPD is a natural progression. It is also important for senior members of a teaching team to lead by example and show other teachers what they can learn and how it will benefit them, something I intend to do in my new role.

Ease of access, learning new things and the benefits for your own teaching are all key points in promoting the idea of self-directed CPD. I would also add the ideas of reflecting, contributing and sharing. Don't just stop at reading an article or attending a webinar. Actively think about it and how it is applicable (or not) to your context. Try it out in class and then reflect on how it went and how it could be improved next time.

Share with your colleagues and also with the same online communities you visit. Comment on blog posts that resonate with you and reply to Facebook/Twitter updates that caught your interest. Relate your own experiences.

And slowly build up to contributing. Write your own blog posts (either on your own blog or as a guest poster on a blog you read regularly). Offer to host a webinar. Write an article for a SIG newsletter or an ELT magazine. Submit that proposal you've been thinking about to IATEFL for the 2017 conference or to a local event.

It's the same advice I give my students about working on their language outside class. Don't just read or listen. Engage with the information in front of you. Be pro-active and open-minded and you'll find CPD very rewarding indeed.