Thursday, 30 September 2010

So, you’re doing an MA, No. 1: Surviving the first few weeks

My MA advice series moves into a new phase following on from ‘So, you’re thinking about doing an MA No. 1: Are you ready?’ and ‘So, you’re thinking about doing an MA No. 2: Choosing a course’. In this phase, I will look at some dos and don’ts for getting through the whirlwind that is the first few weeks of registration and induction, balancing your new study commitments with everything else that keeps you busy, reading from the screen and approaching your first assignment. Anything else you want to hear about, let me know!

The Registration Process

After going through the search for a suitable course and the application process, it’s time to begin. However, first you’ll have some registering to do. As you are a distance learner, this will most likely be done over the internet and, without direct guidance, it can be a bit tricky. Although all steps will have been taken to ensure it goes as smoothly as possible, errors can occur – delays due to overloading of the university system, incorrect information in the database, courses not showing up in the enrolment section… Of course, each university operates differently but my main advice is the same: Don’t panic! and Don’t be afraid to ask for help! These problems are anticipated and your university should have an IT support team and a dedicated registration support team for you to contact. I had problems registering in my first year due to the fee for the entire course rather than Year 1 showing up on the payment screen and again this year with a course that I wanted to take not showing up properly but in both cases a quick email to the relevant person led to it all being sorted out quickly.


Even for distance learners, there is likely to be an induction period. This serves as a chance to get acquainted with whatever Learning Management System/Virtual Learning Environment your university uses as well as to meet your tutors and course mates and do some introductory tasks. This can all seem overwhelming at first, especially if you’ve never done a distance learning course before. My main advice is the same as above: Don’t panic! and Don’t be afraid to ask for help! :) The teaching staff will have seen it all before and are there to assist you with any problems you have orientating yourself in your new virtual surroundings. If the system works like the one at Manchester, you may have the chance to interact with continuing students as well, who will also be willing to help. A quick email or message posted on the forum will usually result in a swift reply. With a little time and exposure, you’ll soon learn to find your way around.
Beyond the technical issues, here are my top tips for getting the most out of your induction programme:
  • Use the chance to make connections
Above all, doing an MA is a great chance for professional development. You will be meeting ELT professionals from all over the world, all with different experiences and backgrounds and different areas of expertise. Introduce yourself in whatever space is provided and reply to/comment on the introductions of others. You’ll soon find some valuable additions to your PLN, maybe even a few new people to follow on Twitter! This year, a few new students based in Turkey contacted me and it was good to connect with them and offer advice. We also soon found out who was on Twitter and followed each other and even prompted a couple of people to sign up and start tweeting!
  • Find others who work in the same field as you
Whether you teach weekend courses to adults, work with kids in a regular school, do business English classes or train other teachers, odds are you won’t be alone. Connecting with someone with a similar teaching background can be very helpful, especially as you work through the first semester’s studies. This applies both to your fellow students and to the academic staff running the MA course as well. I was a little concerned that I seemed to be the only teacher of young learners starting the course so I contacted the tutor who was overseeing induction and asked if there might be anyone in the department with experience in this area. He promptly replied and put me in touch with two of the teaching staff who had done research with children. One of them was even originally from Turkey. Both were very helpful, recommended some books and articles relevant to young learners to me and went so far as to give me a draft copy of an article they were preparing for publication!
  • Read the literature provided and attempt the tasks
This may sound obvious but all the induction material is there for a reason. If you take the time to look through it, you will find invaluable help with things such as accessing electronic journals, referencing the literature and using the VLE space effectively. There may be tasks to complete such as a short piece of writing. It’s worth doing these to get early feedback on your writing style and also to make an early connection with your teachers!
And finally, a couple of more technical tips:
  • Link your university email to another existing account/mail reader
As your university email will only get official messages from the university administration or your MA department, it’s easy to forget it’s there. If it is possible, either link it to your personal email account so your messages are redirected there or add the address to whatever mail reader you use. My university email all comes to Live Mail on my laptop so I never miss any urgent messages about the course.
  • Find out if you have access to a VPN
A VPN (Virtual Private Network) is a small programme that can be used to allow you to access a network remotely. In my case, I use a VPN fro the University of Manchester which makes my computer appear as though it is accessing the internet from inside the university campus. This saves a lot of time when viewing journal articles as I no longer have to enter my university log in details anytime I want to view or download a pdf. It’s also great for circumventing regional restrictions on sites like YouTube or Vimeo (just added to day :()…. But that’s another rant for another post! ;) Anyway, if your university has such a programme, download it and use it!

Sunday, 26 September 2010

So, you’re thinking about doing an MA No.2: Choosing a course

This is the long overdue second in a series of posts about applying for and studying for an MA in TESOL. If you haven’t read the first post, you might like to start there: So, you're thinking about doing an MA, No. 1

Which university?

A quick Google search for ‘MA TESOL’ or ‘MA TESOL Distance Learning’ will bring up a whole host of hits. How can you go about about narrowing the list down? Here are my main tips:
  1. Be as specific as possible in your search. Do you want to do a general TESOL MA or a course which focuses on a field such as young learners or EdTech? There are courses out there to cater for many different strands of language teaching so narrowing down your search early on can help.
  2. Get recommendations. Do you know anyone who has done/is doing an MA? Ask about the university they did it with and the other universities they applied to. Don’t know anyone like that? Put the question out to your wider PLN! Ask on your blog, tweet it – we all know the power of our PLNs for coming up with the answers you need. On Twitter, you’ll find many past and present MA students and plenty of MA lecturers and course directors as well. Once you have a list of suggestions, search for those universities specifically.
  3. Check out the universities. It may sound obvious but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Do a little research on the university itself and their TESOL related programmes. Is it well established? Well known? Well respected? It’s also worth seeking out comments on the distance programmes. Are they well organised and well supported? These factors will be key to a successful and rewarding course of study.

Before you apply…

After narrowing down your choices, there are a few important points to check out before starting the application process:
  1. What are the entry requirements? These will change from university to university. Some may expect a certain number of years of teaching experience (usually two but maybe more) and some may specify that it is recent experience. It’s also worth checking what academic qualifications are required. Most will require a bachelors degree and a CELTA. The DELTA is not normally required but it may count as credit towards your Masters and allow you to skip the introductory modules (even if it does, I would still recommend doing them as it’s all part of the learning experience ;)).
  2. How long will it take? There are 2 and 3 year programmes out there (some with the option to extend your studies over a period up to 5 years) so it’s important to decide which one will be better for you. The 2 year courses will be over sooner but will involve a more intense workload, especially at dissertation time. Personally, I chose a course which runs for 3 years as my teaching job and my family keep me pretty busy!
  3. How much will it cost? Tuition fees also vary from institution to institution and may change further depending on whether you are classed as an international student or not. Some courses can be very expensive while others are more affordable. It’s worth sitting down and budgeting the whole thing before going ahead. It’s also worth checking out if your current employer might be interested in chipping in to this investment in your professional development!
  4. Are there any onsite components? Some courses may require you to attend some classes in a person while other will be offered 100% by distance. No use applying to a university on the other side of the world if you are then asked to travel there a couple of times a year!

When applying…

Once the decision is made, make sure you pay attention to the following things:
  1. Allow plenty of time to apply. You may be asked for references and these may take time to organise, as was the case for me. Plus, the sooner an application is submitted, the sooner your prospective university will see it.
  2. Have you completed the application correctly? Nothing worse than being refused or returned because something is missing or filled in incorrectly.
  3. Emphasise what you want to learn from the course. Most likely, you will be asked to write some kind of statement about why you want to do the course. While describing your experience in the relevant field helps, it is most important to focus on what you want to gain from the course. I had very little experience of using technology in class before starting my MA so I stressed how I wanted to build on my existing experience, advance myself and help move my school forward by learning more about it.
I hope that’s been useful. Next time, I’ll be looking at what to do once you’ve been accepted and you are ready to start.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Guest blogspot on Teaching Village

Following on from my guest blog post on Prestwick House, I've now had another post published on Teaching Village, Barbara Sakamoto's excellent blog for EFL/ESL teachers.

The post concerns my first love of edtech in the classroom: PowerPoint. I feel it gets a bit of a bad press these days, partly due to the newer, flasier tools appearing through web 2.0 but also due to the number of lessons which are reduced to boring lecture-style slideshow sessions. However, as with any tool, if used appropraitely and effectively, it can be of great benefit for learning and the post discusses some ideas for using slideshows in class along with some examples.

Anyway, you can read the post here. I hope you find it useful.

So thanks again to Barbara (@barbsaka on Twitter) for giving me the chance to appear on her blog and for sorting out all the embedding of examples. Thanks also to Theron Muller (@theronmuller) for putting me in touch with her in the first place.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

New classes introducing themselves to me

As a follow up to day 1, in which the class learned about me, I went for an activity on day 2 that would give the kids more of a chance to tell me about themselves. I used an idea from the 'Interesting Ways to Get to Know Your Class' slideshow and asked the students to draw a coat of arms (thanks @tombarrett for the idea). This consisted of a shield shape divided into 4 with the students drawing pictures to represent important information about themselves in each quadrant (favourite colour, favourite animal, a hobby etc). To make it more personal, I showed them a photo of my ancestoral coat of arms, which they thought was cool.

They really enjoyed doing the activity and comparing their pictures with each other. While they were drawing, I circulated around the room asking questions. The whole activity offered a great way to get to know about their interests without demanding too much in terms of language production and it's definitely something I'll be trying again.

Perhaps I'll add a scan or two of some of their work once I've collected it all in. ;)

Monday, 20 September 2010

Introducing myself to my new classes

After a looooooooong summer holiday, the kids finally came back to school today and I got my first taste of the new 4th grade 'conversation' programme. It actually turned out to be a very light first day compared to previous years as my schedule is such this year that I see 5 different classes once each day (in the last few years in 3rd grade, I entered two different classes for 12 hours a week, meaning one class got a 3 hour slog on their first afternoon back). That meant the lesson was over in  no time at all!

As this age group have one more year of English under their belts, I was able to drop the basic greetings and alphabet of past years and get them talking more. After briefly explaining what we would be doing this year ('conversation' includes readers and preparation for the Movers exam it seems!), I introduced myself. I first showed them a Wordle image I created from a paragraph about myself and asked them to predict sentences about me:
Wordle: Introductions

I then presented facts about me using Glogster. However, two of the facts are not true and the students had to guess which ones. Finally, there was just about enough time for them to do the create some true/false sentences about themselves in groups. So come on PLN! Take a look at my glog and guess which facts are not true ;)

Monday, 13 September 2010

A virtual teaching network and the first obstacle overcome

With Seker Bayram (Festival of Eid) over, full steam ahead at school as there’s only a week to go until school starts now (where does the time go?). I’m still waiting on exact confirmation of which classes I’ll be teaching so in the meantime, I’ve kept myself busy with a side project:

The TED Teachers’ Network

In an earlier post, I mentioned an idea I had head for a virtual professional development network I had had. Basically, this would take the form of a wiki to which myself and all my colleagues in the English department could add content and discuss teaching related matters. Well, I pitched the idea to the heads of the English department just before the Bayram and they thought it had potential. However, they said if it was to be done in the school’s name, permission should be sought before proceeding further so I spent some of my holiday time drafting a proposal to be submitted to the directors for consideration, which I shall summarise here:
Over the years, I have found professional development has been one of those things that everyone agrees is desirable in principle but in practice, giving up Saturday afternoons or time after school for workshops and seminars is resented. Interesting discussions and exchanges of ideas sometimes take place in the staffroom but are only of benefit to those present at the time. My proposed solution is to create a wiki page where we can share our ideas, discuss them and learn from each other. There are 4 main uses I foresee:
  • Sharing and discussing experience, tips and ideas
Using the wiki’s editing features, as a group of teachers we can share and discuss our thoughts about general areas such as classroom management and motivation as well as topics specific to ELT like presenting vocabulary, teaching target language and encouraging speaking. Through the wiki, those staffroom discussions can be recreated online and displayed for future reference.
  • Creating a ‘hub’ for useful links
Similar to the above, links to useful blog posts and articles concerning education and language teaching can be collected alongside useful resources available on the web and discussions of how best to use them. Over time, these lists of links could be expanded and added to by any member of the network to create a valuable resource.
  • Exposing colleagues to web 2.0 resources
By embedding some web 2.0 tools for various purposes (e.g. a Voicethread for introductions, Wallwisher for gathering ideas), the ‘edtech newbies’ amongst my colleagues would get the chance to try some tools first hand and assess there usefulness and possible applications in the classroom. Many teachers are reluctant to use things in class they are not familiar so this could help overcome that.
  • Hosting screencasted presentations
Finally, screencasted presentations could be embedded to the wiki for teachers to access and watch whether on a free lesson at school or at home. ‘How to….’ videos could be made and uploaded to demonstrate some of the web 2.0 tools out there and seminar style presentations about classroom and education related topics could also be hosted there (removing the need to stay behind after work or come in on a Saturday in the process \o/). Ultimately, I would hope that other teachers could get involved in making the screencasts too to make this a collaborative effort as well.

Anyway, if you’ve read this far, you might want to take a look at the wiki in its present format:
Note that it is still in the early stages but I felt an example of what could be done was necessary to back up my proposal. As ever, comments and suggestions are welcome!

An obstacle overcome surprisingly easily

Proposals like the one I’ve written for my teachers’ network idea are common at my school. Official letters are required for all number of things from asking for time off to trying to get the old mouse for the class computer replaced. The size of the school (students numbering into the thousands and teaching staff in the hundreds) make this necessary so I got a pleasant surprise last week when some websites I requested to be unblocked (as mentioned in my previous post) were unblocked immediately! The computer department, instead of asking for an official letter, just told me to give them a list and put all the websites on the exceptions list without question. Now, I can tweet from school, read Wordpress and Blogspot blogs and access Glogster, Voicethread and a whole host of web 2.0 tools in class. Hopefully, this quick and speedy style of response will be around all year!

Thursday, 2 September 2010

New academic year, challenges, changes and making sense of ‘WebSense’

After a nice break away from it all, I’ve been back at work this week in preparation for the forthcoming academic year (still plenty of time as school doesn’t start in Turkey until Sept 20th). Only two days in and it’s been interesting so far: very much a refreshing change to the usual post-holiday gossip accompanied by numerous cups of over-brewed tea…

The Big Meeting

‘Meeting for ALL teachers on Wednesday at 9am’ came the texted warning. ‘With the school director – be on time and no jeans or t-shirts!’ A stark reminder as I sat in my hotel room that a return to work was imminent. Unusual though that the entire school (from kindergarten to high school) would be called instead of our usual primary-only meeting with our principal. As it turned out, more than a perfunctory meeting, it was a presentation as the director set out a vision for the new school year and beyond. She had many positive comments to make about moving forward, increasing learner autonomy, embracing technology rather than avoiding it, learning with our students rather than just teaching them. ‘Yes,’ I thought. ‘This is what I wanted to hear.’ But quickly a couple of reminders of how much action will be needed to back up the words: we were shown an illustration of a boy surrounded by the latest tech devices, eagerly working away on his laptop. ‘Is this what we want to see from our students?’ came the question (following a 5 minute explanation of the benefits of engaging today’s youngsters through technology). ‘NO!!!’ came the chorused reply to which the director said ‘you were supposed to say yes!’. Later, she asked if our goal as teachers was to strive for one perfect method that everyone could use to teach. ‘YES!!!’ came the reply this time. ‘Hmmm,’ the director said. ‘Must be the heat, it’s getting to you.’ Lots of work to be done then in convincing the teaching masses to experiment a little and adjust their attitudes but at least the people in charge are pushing for it.

New Challenges

Once the meeting was finished, we retired to the English department hoping for news about what year groups we’d be teaching. As expected, I was told that after a few years in the 3rd grade, I’d be moved into the 4th grade ‘conversation’ programme. It will be a big change as rather than having my own classes, I will be sharing a class with the Turkish ‘grammar’ teacher. Despite the conversation tag, I’ll be responsible for developing speaking and writing skills as well as working with some readers and preparing the students for the Cambridge Movers exam. So, even though the message given in the opening meeting was positive, the reality for now remains that I have to work with story books written entirely in present tenses and teach specifically for a standardised test… Still, I’ve also been charged with creating a webspace for the students to access from home and this is where I see possibilities, especially for improving writing with some of the great web-based resources out there.

Furthermore, under my own volition, I’ve started work on a pbworks site aimed at promoting an exchange of ideas, advice and resources amongst my colleagues. I hope we can not only share and collect links to useful websites but also discuss and share our own ideas and perhaps even upload some screencasted tutorials and seminars. I’m selling it to everyone as an alternative to giving up evenings or weekends for in-house training! Join in when you want, from where you want. And there’s more…. my employer TED has opened a couple of new schools recently and I may be sent to visit and give workshops to the teachers there. The Northern Cyprus branch sounds like a good place to start! Seems like I’ll be busy this year then… Oh, and of course, year 2 of the MA will shortly be underway as well!

The First Obstacle of the Year

I’ve also encountered the first barrier to my plans and ideas this year. I want to create a webspace for the students incorporating some of the great tools I’ve seen and used in the first year of my MA and over the last few months through all the great links my PLN have passed on through Twitter: Voicethread, WallWisher, Glogster, Slideshare, DomoAnimate, LiveTyping and Zimmer Twins are all sites I planned to make use of but, to my horror, I found all of them were blocked by my school’s internet filter!! ‘Websense’ makes no sense to me! I’ve now spent a large portion of my evening typing a list of which sites I want unblocked and why to be submitted first thing tomorrow. As I said earlier, a lot of action is needed to back up the words…