Saturday, 28 January 2017

When didn't the wheels fall off? #tdsigcarnival

This post has been written as my contribution to the IATEFL TDSIG 2017 Web Carnival- if you happen to be reading this post on or before the morning of the 28th January 2017, click on the link for details of how you can watch the live sessions. If not, click anyway - you might find recordings, links to other blog posts and all the other cool work the TDSIG is invovled in.

Just another day in the classroom...
The difficulty with this particular topic is narrowing the focus down to one moment. There have been several classroom clangers in my career, some that could have been avoided with better planning and more awareness, others that even a seasoned professional would have struggled to have seen coming, prevent, or keep under control.

There was my first lesson with my first ever class, an elementary group of adults in Turkey - it had been going quite well until a student asked "How old are you, teacher?" I honestly answered '21'. There was a queue outside the office of the DoS during the break. I was 25 for the next four years.

There was the time I decided 'Being Around' by The Lemonheads would be a perfect song for an intermediate level group learning the second conditional. It makes me cringe simply to think about the lesson now. Yes, plenty of examples of second conditional but a high degree of unfamiliar vocabulary plus a room full of students not well-versed in 90s indie rock made for a painful 45 minutes.

There was my move into teaching kids and the class when, taking advice to be firm and uncompromising too literally, I spent 20 minutes repeatedly entering the room, glaring at the kids who would not stand quietly before announcing 'again' and, well, doing it again. Routines! I simply didn't have an effective start-of-the-lesson routine in place.

Oh my! There was the morning when a kid, without any warning whatsoever, puked his guts all over the desk. Chaos ensued with cries of "I'm going to be sick!" reverberating from every corner of the class. Unfortunately, one kid was not over-reacting and actually did follow through. Or up. Or both. Ugh! I hastily left the room to get the corridor manager's help and saw a girl arriving late. "Hello teacher!" she said with a smile on her face and a cute wave as she passed me. Before I could turn around and say 'stop!' I heard a wretch and a splash, and sure enough... there she stood in the class doorway, pebbledash on her shoes and her Minnie Mouse backpack still on her shoulders.

Oh, the technology! We've all had the moments when the internet is not working when we want to play a YouTube video the entire lesson plan hinges on, or we turn up to class to see a gaping hole under the desk where the computer should be. How about booking the computer lab for a lesson to test out a digitised text-reconstruction activity you have designed for your MA with deadlines looming, only to find the room locked with no sign of the ICT teacher or janitor, both of whom woud later claim they thought I had requested Thursday not Tuesday?

Moving on to a time when I was becoming more aware of the wider world of CPD, I once spend an entire introductory lesson to an IELTS course referring to the 'IATEFL exam'. I only realised when a students asked me what the difference between the IATEFL and IELTS tests were!

Forgetting about a timetable change while working in Gabon, I once walked into my classroom prepared to do a 'My perfect school' lesson with Year 5 and 6 EAL students only to find the Year 11 IGCSE English B class in there. We still went ahead and did the lesson and they came up with some serious suggestions for improving the facilities and opportunities available to high school students on our campus. I just didn't show them my illustrated model example paragraph containing a bouncy castle and an ice-cream machine on every corridor.

Almost my entire Trinity Dip TESOL face-to-face experience when I suddenly forgot how to manage time efficiently or reach outcomes within a 60-minute lesson. Years of teaching in a non-language school environment where an approach of "We'll come back to this after break/in tomorrow's lesson" had caused me to get lax in the fundamentals of planning a 'tight' lesson and I had to relearn quickly. I just about managed it.

And onto my current job in Bahrain. Teaching beginner teenage learners for the first time. Being told that as we were more then halfway through the academic year, they should be at 'a decent A1 level by now'. Failing to see the column on the register that listed 12 of 15 students as newly enrolled. True beginners, nowhere near ready enough to get into groups and brainstorm questions to ask their new teacher. A three-hour lesson plan had to be quickly scrapped and we spent the afternoon working on common vocabulary, writing letters (the alphabet kind, not the communicative kind) and basic "Nice to meet you" dialogues.

That's just a sample of the things that have gone wrong. However, there are lessons to be learned in all of them. Some moments made me reflect on how I present myself to my learners, others caused me to investigate better classroom management techniques. I also realised (the hard way admittedly) that there is a lot more to consider when selecting authentic materials than the grammar they contain.

Being prepared, not just planned, is another key point to take away from some of these experiences - check and double-check the equipment, the room booking, the timetable, and the information on the register. Make sure your pens have ink on them and your flies are done up (ah... didn't mention that one until now, did I?)

Most importantly, be prepared to adapt - in some of my early 'wheels fell off' moments, I made things worse by pushing on when it was obviously not working but in the more recent moments, I was able to recognise the situation early on and make the lesson more suitable to the students in the room.

Oh, and if a kid throws up in class, just get everybody out!

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Just About Managing - IH London's Certificate in Academic Management

Image from
A nice surprise awaited on the first day at work in the New Year - my Certificate in Academic Management had arrived during the holidays. Less than a year into my ICT Coordinator role with the British Council and I already have an extra line to add to my CV under 'Qualifications'.

When I passed my Trinity Diploma, I honestly thought I was done with courses and assignments. I had the top level qualification for EFL teachers and that was backed with by my MA. I was set.

But that wasn't really the case. During my time as Language School Coordinator at ERV in Gabon, I struggled at times with the management side of things. I was used to designing courses, creating placement tests and assessments and mentoring individual teachers but having a cohesive, long-term development and training plan in place, reviewing and managing performance, and running an observation programme were all new challenges for me. I haven't even mentioned marketing the school, pitching our courses to corporate clients and managing the budget yet!

I came to Bahrain having gained valuable experience in many of those areas - my Trinity Diploma in particular had prepared me to be an observer - but I felt I had been just about managing in Gabon and more training on the management side of things was needed, especially with my new management responsibilities within the British Council's internal structure. One curiosity about ELT is that the Trinity Dip/DELTA are often seen as qualifications that lead into management positions when they are in fact teaching courses (as was highlighted in Shirley Norton and Karen Chambers' IATEFL session last year) so, despite having previously decided "that's it" when my Dip was complete, I found myself taking one more course - the IH Cerificate in Academic Management.

This is an entirely online course divided into three eight-week modules. The modules focus on:
  • an introduction to academic management and managing teacher performance
  • conducting observations and giving feedback
  • setting up and running INSETTs
After each module, there is an assignment of 2,500 words focusing on how you are applying/will apply the learning to your context.

The modules are all delivered through Moodle with new topics on a weekly basis. Each week there are set tasks to do. These generally involve forum discussions with the tutor and coursemates, 'group work' tasks conducted through private messages with summaries posted on the forum afterwards, and reflective journal tasks which are only seen by the tutor.

In my previous online experiences for my MA and Dip, the discussions and interactions were at times hampered by a lack of consistent participation with each programme eventually dwindled down to 3 or 4 regular contributors. In a refreshing change, that is avoided on this course as participation is compulsory. Each candidate must complete at least 80% of the online tasks to pass. As someone who generally participates actively, I welcomed this stipulation and it worked as during my course, everybody was online and interacting over each of the three modules.

This course also differs from my previous experiences in that there is no 'live' component - no weekly webinar or Skype chat as had been done on my MA and Dip. At first, I thought this was strange and that I would miss that element of synchronicity. However, that did not prove to be the case. Our new topics went up every Sunday and my Monday evening, almost everyone would have posted. I didn't miss the webinars at all - although that element of direct contact was not there, there was also no frustration as that week's webinar was scheduled for a time I was not free or we lost 15 minutes to connectivity issues. The content of the course (input from the tutor, articles to read, video interviews, discussion with coursemates) was all more than enough to prepare me for the assignments.

In general, this course is also more low key than the Dip or an MA. The workload is not as heavy and weekly tasks can often be completed in 3-4 hours per week. Spread out over 5-6 days (as is recommended by the course providers) it is really not that much extra work at all. As participants are likely to be Dip/DELTA qualified teachers with several years' experience, a lot of the content will be familiar. That is not to say there is nothing new but rather that the concepts and issues presented are easy to get to grips with and you never feel out of your depth when undertaking the tasks. It is pleasant to be able to enjoy a course without the constant feeling of being under pressure or being rushed.

So that is the course, but what about its impact on my work? On reflection, has it helped me improve as a coordinator?

Well, one of the strengths of the course is that it is just about managing (unlike the DELTA/Dip which only have a limited focus on this area). You can also do it 'on the job'. Being able to immediately apply and evaluate some of the ideas discussed by adapting them to your immediate context really helps enhance the learning that takes place. I was able to support a colleague on my teaching team who was applying to take the DELTA while doing the module on performance management. This experience then formed the basis of my assignment. The ideas discussed for observation went far beyond the typical 'quality control' default and explored a number of different options for conducting the observation and giving feedback - all very much focused on the teacher and not going along with the 'box ticking' that often takes place. As we enter the New Year, I find myself preparing a series of training sessions for using iPads in the classroom and the final module and assignment have proven very useful for that.

My main takeaways from the course are:

  • the importance of communication - it sounds like an obvious one but I think we have all worked in places where unclear communication has caused issues in the teachers' room. Teachers and other admin staff need to be in the loop to avoid any unwanted surprises.
  • avoiding box-ticking - there needs to be a purpose behind what we do, especially when we are asking the teaching staff to do an extra task. Both managers and teachers should always know that there is a purpose behind what they are doing other than 'because it has to be done'.
  • seeing the teacher as a customer - we shouldn't simply view teachers as people who work for the school. We need to view them as another kind of customer who has come here with expectations. We should be focused on helping them develop and feel valued, which in turn will help the school offer better lessons to the student customers.
  • not just focusing on the teaching team - this does not just apply to teaching staff of course. Our admin team and any other employees within the school need to be included and vlaued.
  • being direct especially when saying no - although meeting teachers' needs and staff needs is important, there are times when refusals are necessary. A direct 'no' will usually be more effective than a "well, I can see where you're coming from and ideally we'd like to.... but..."

If you have finished your Dip/DELTA and are about to embark on or have already begun a more senior role, I would recommend the course. It will provide you with specialist training that your previous qualifications perhaps haven't. The workload is manageable and can easily become part of your weekly routine. You potentially get Shaun Wilden as a tutor. The topics covered are likely to be relevant even at the first rung on the academic management ladder and you get the chance to immediately apply ideas and reflect on your own context. I certainly feel more comfortable in my role now than I did a few months ago.

Have you taken the Certificate in Academic Management? Or are you thinking of taking it? Please share your experiences and thoughts in the comments.

Saturday, 31 December 2016

The 2017 List

2016 was quite a year (see previous post) and now, inevitably, thoughts turn to the year ahead. Here's a quick list of what I am planning/hoping for in the year ahead:

Career Consolidation

  • After a big move both in career and location terms last time round, I am looking forward to being more settled this year.
  • Now I have learned the ropes at the British Council, I want to exceed expectations in my ICT Coordinator role with a view to moving up the management ladder in the future.
  • I have two big projects to oversee this year - the introduction of an online forum for our adult classes, and training teachers to use iPads. Both big projects with plenty to learn for me and my colleagues.


  • No qualifications or assignments this year!
  • I will, however, still do some courses - MOOCs - just to participate and see what I can learn.
  • January will see the start of the Minecraft EVO course
  • ...and I am also currently working through the edx Video Game Design History MOOC.
  • We will see what else of interest comes up - perhaps a course of my own....


  • I will probably write fewer articles this year - it's useful for my development but time consuming!
  • I have plans to be more active on this blog and on ELT Sandbox - I will not put a number or a frequency on it as that will only be a target to miss but I will make an effort to focus my written work more on my own blogs than the publications of others.
  • E-books? Yeah, I'll write the ones I didn't write last year or the year before! ;)
  • I would like to try my hand at writing a more academic article this year. There are a couple of opportunities coming up and hopefully, I'll get something of a good enough standard submitted in time.


  • IATEFL is coming and I'll be there as a first time presenter - yikes!
  • I have also applied to give a talk at the Bahrain ELT Conference. 
  • I need time for all the above projects so that may be it unless an unmissable event/unrefusable invitation comes along.
Whatever the New Year brings, I'll be reflecting on it here and hope you will join me!

Thursday, 22 December 2016

2016... You just made the list!!

2016 deserves its own list

Still 10 days to go as I write but 2016 has been quite a year and one that won't be forgotten in a hurry. Plenty of people have bemoaned the seemingly never ending stream of bad news this year has brought from the deaths of beloved celebrities to shocking acts of violence and major political upheaval. I was myself caught up in the middle of the attempted coup while visiting relatives in Turkey...

But this post is not about all that. It has been a year of big changes for me professionally as well. I started the working year as participating in a team building day on a tropical beach in Gabon (that's where I was when the news about David Bowie broke) and I end it having just configured a set of 20 iPads for use in the classrooms of the British Council Bahrain. There was much to be proud of and much to reflect on... too much to go into in detail so here are a few lists.

Career Changes 

  • I had already decided in January I would leave Gabon at the end of the school year. Personal matters meant I left earlier than that but that proved to be for the best as an opportunity soon came up at the British Council Bahrain.
  • That meant dropping the 'language school' part of my coordinator title and replacing it with 'ICT'. I enjoyed my time in Gabon but the whole marketing and business side of the role was not for me. I am happy now to be in a role where I can build on all that edtech learning from my MA studies. 
  • I do miss the international school aspect of my role in Gabon though. It was tough to balance the two very different roles of EAL teacher by day and language school manager by night but I really enjoyed working with the kids. This was not only for furthering their language development but also being part of the school community and that is a branch of teaching I would like to return to one day. 
  • I also sadly lost my Minecraft after school club when moving on - an addition to the British Council's summer school programme next year perhaps? 
  • It was quite a shock to move from teaching quite high levels kids in an EAL environment to total beginners in an EFL setting, especially as this is the first time my students come from an L1 background with a non-Latin alphabet. I'm getting used to it but it was a good reminder that there is always something new to learn when you are a teacher.
  • The year started with confirmation of a pass in the Trinity Diploma. That was a tough course but it opened the door for my current role at the British Council so it was definitely worth it.
  • I blogged about some of my struggles during the course earlier this year and challenged the relevance of some of the assessment criteria to my international school context. However, now at more traditional ELT confines of the British Council a lot of the focus on things like communicative outcomes and planning self-contained lessons makes a lot more sense. I still think the Dip TESOL and DELTA could benefit from catering to more specialised fields but the learning from that course is serving me well in my current role.
  • During my MA, I found a lot of the research to be a chore but on the Dip, perhaps with some more professional and academic experience behind me, I found it a lot more enjoyable and it is something I would like to continue with in the future.
  • I was going to be one of the last people to take the CELTYL but as I have a Trinity Cert, I was told I would not get a certificate (it is an extension after all) so next year I will take the TYLEC when my centre starts offering it.
  • It was only a couple of short months on from passing the Dip that, thanks to my new employers, I ended up enrolled on the Certificate in Academic Management course and my strong pass was confirmed earlier this week!
  • It was an interesting course on an area that teachers are often expected to just get on with - a more detailed review is to come on the blog.
  • In addition to the qualifications obtained, I also completed training to be an IB examiner for English B - a nice way to utilise my experience from the international school in Gabon.
  • My final piece of training for the year was to become a local tutor on the Distance DELTA. It has been interesting to be on the other side of the process. Interestingly, I have found it very useful for my own CPD - advising another teacher on lesson planning, observing classes and giving feedback has all given me plenty to think about in terms of my own teaching. 
  • Nearly forgot - I also completed in-house recruitment training so if you apply for a job at the British Council Bahrain, you may find me asking the questions!
Quite a year all told! I feel I have grown a lot professionally, not only in terms of qualifications and job status but also in terms of how I teach, how I engage with my learners, and how I work with others. I'll be looking for more of the same (though with fewer late nights planning, writing assignments and preparing training sessions please!) in the new year. :)

Saturday, 29 October 2016

Review: Exploiting Infographics by Nik Peachey

Nik Peachey has been at the forefront of educational technology in ELT for many years, always exploring new ideas and media and linking them to best practices and effective learning.

He is now well-established as an independent publisher and in this review, I will look at his latest e-book Exploting Infographics.

Exploiting Infographics by Nik Peachey
Available to buy from
A free copy of this e-book was provided by the author for review purposes

Of all the recent trends in digital media, infographics have been one of the most intriguing. They offer the chance to digest topics in a concise but detailed manner with an added layer of engaging visuals. Indeed, the visual element can provide a great deal of support for the struggling L2 reader and this book aims to provide ideas for both using and creating infographics in class.

The book itself is available in pdf format and is quite short at 30 pages. However, much like infographics themselves, there is a lot packed into this volume. It begins with an introduction examining why we should use infographics followed by a useful look at how the students can view them in class. Considering a range of tech settings, Nik gives ideas for sharing the images in the well-resourced classroom with tablets and/or laptops available, for the online classroom, and even for classrooms with just one PC and projector or no digital technology at all.

The next section looks at generic activities that can be adapted to whichever infographics we decide to bring into class. Each activity is presented through a brief overview followed by the rationale for doing it. I personally found the ideas for fact-checking and investigating author bias and motivation interesting as my teenage students have a tendency to view infographics as entirely factual and free of opinions.

Following on from there, Nik shares ideas for getting learners to create their own infographics. These can mimic the factual ones commonly shared online or they can present personal information as an alternative 'getting to know you activity'. My favourite suggestion is that of researching and presenting a grammar point, which sounds like a great way to get students analysing and thinking about the language they have studied more carefully. In fact, combining those two ideas, students could make a personal timeline and then use it to demonstrate examples of past simple and present perfect - a great way to personalise the learning process.

Of course, creating infographics can be daunting so they next chapter looks at the whole process from researching a topic to structure to design. This is a particularly useful section of the book, not only for students but for teachers as well who are looking to create sample infographics tailored to their students' needs.

The final part of the book gives overviews of eight tools available online for creating infographic images. All of them are either completely free or 'freemium' (free basic account with some paid-only content) and Nik provides brief details about the affordances of each site.

As mentioned earlier, the book is not particularly long but it contains a lot of useful information and ideas. It will provide a great reference for teachers interested in exploiting infographics in the language classroom and also for those interested in creating them. The only thing which could have made the book even more appealing would have been a few samples to represent the ideas shared. However, as one of the aims of the book is to encourage critical thinking, perhaps it is better for the readers to be encouraged to make their own.

I am certainly looking forward to adapting some of the ideas for use with my classes in the near future.

If you are interested in doing the same, Exploiting Infographics can be purchased for £2.99 via Peachey Publications.

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 -

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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.