Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Caught on camera again - my interview for iasku

I seen to be developing a fondness for video posts recently! After my recent ELT identity crisis, I was contacted by Chiew Pang, also known as @aClilToClimb on Twitter, and he asked if I would be interested in doing an interview for his new blog iasku.

If you haven't paid a visit to this blog yet, I strongly recommend that you do - not just because I'm on it (:-p), but also because I think it's a great idea and a simple way to get to know different people from various walks of ELT life a little bit better. Scott Thornbury and Barbara Sakamoto were the first two guests to be interviewed so I jumped at the chance to join such illustrious company.

So, if you would like to learn a bit more about my life before teaching, what led me down this career path, why I teach kids, what motivates me and my post-identity crisis thoughts, check out my interview via the link below:

Chiew is a busy guy now managing three different blogs, all of which are recommended reading. After you look around iasku (and why not volunteer to be interviewed while you're at it?), check out his first blog a cLiL to cLiMB as well as his other new one The Dogme Diaries.

The Last Week of School, Part 2 - Saying goodbye

My last post focused on the things we did in class in the last few lessons of the school year but today’s offering focuses on what is often the hardest part of working with kids: saying goodbye.


The sounds of silence… - Image by To Ga Wanderings

In effect, there were no lessons last Friday. Trying to do any would have been a waste of time anyway as even the hardest-working of students had completely shut down and many of them literally just came into school with their parents to pick up report cards and clear out lockers.

With the kids who were in class, I had the pleasure of just hanging out with them. Some had brought in games, some were reading books and some were passing the time on PSPs or iPhones. One girl had received a Samsung Galaxy Tab as a karne hediyesi (good report card present) so I showed her how to use it and transferred some games and apps over via Bluetooth. She produced a late contender for my favourite memory of the year as she proclaimed to her friends “Wow! Mr David has got so much to teach me!” to which one of her friends replied “Isn’t that his job?”. She very matter-of-factly said “but this is really useful stuff!”

I spent the rest of the time circulating and chatting to the kids about their holiday plans and about the school year. It was nice to just talk to them without any aims or thoughts about what kind of activity we could move onto based on what they were saying.

I’m not one who has a problem with kids playing computer games but one thing that has annoyed me in the past is when they don’t even look up from their portable consoles when the lesson is over and I’m saying goodbye. To counteract that this year, I spent the last few minutes in each class going round saying goodbye to each child individually. I was pleasantly surprised by the reaction as I got plenty of rib-cracking hugs, pleas for me to return as their teacher in 5th grade and even attempts to stop me from leaving the room. I’ve never had that level of reaction before even when saying goodbye to students I had many more contact hours per week with. I think the individual touch made the difference.

While working with kids can be frustrating and stressful at times, moments like these make it all worthwhile. It’s the memories of spending time with them and chatting with them last Friday that will stay longer than any others, for me at least!

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Last Week of School, Part 1 - Fun & games

Last Friday marked the start of the summer holidays for schools across Turkey with kids now facing a 3 month stretch with no school until they return in mid-September (no such luck for us teachers though as our ‘seminar period’ now begins). As I mentioned in a recent post, one problem that stems from the exam-driven system here is that once all the tests are done, the kids lose all willingness to work and motivating them to do anything is a struggle. This post may come too late for teachers in Turkey but I thought I’d share some of the activities we did in my classes anyway in case those of you elsewhere with the last week of school still to come need them.


Where their minds were this past week! Image by @aClilToClimb via eltpics


“Game! Please, teacher - game!” was the first thing I heard when entering classrooms last week (and the week before come to think of it). While I was happy to oblige, most word games are really just filler activities with a lifespan of 5-15 minutes so it was necessary to have a few ideas up my sleeve.

Actually, rather than up my sleeve, I had a few ideas on my blog as I revisited ‘Dogme Games - Just Unplug & Play’ and recycled some games we had played earlier in the year. If you click on the link to that post, you’ll also find links to more game ideas at the end and in the comments.

I also pinched a couple of ideas Nick Jaworski shared recently on his blog: ‘Bonk!’, which I adapted to ‘Angry Words’ due to the fact I was using a soft toy based on a popular mobile platform game about irate avian creatures, and ‘Vocabulary Tennis’, both of which were big hits.

Make you own quiz

Quiz time is always a hit just before the holidays. I find students enjoy being put to the test with either general knowledge questions or questions based on topics previously covered in class. Last year, I discovered a game generator called Fling the Teacher and used it to make a multi-choice quiz (see this post and screencast by David Duebelbeiss for more information). The kids loved it and I wanted to use again this year.

But, making the quizzes is time-consuming and they are often over very quickly so I decided I would be lazy instead of my students! I asked them to get into groups and write multi-choice questions to go in the quiz. We chose a theme (general knowledge, capital cities, sports and our recently finished reader The Wrong Trousers were popular choices), they wrote the questions on Post-Its, brought them to me at the front of the class and I typed them up on the computer. The next lesson, they then played the quiz of their own making and tried out some from my other classes too.

It’s always a good time for dogme

Some colleagues of mine were bemoaning the fact that the kids were no longer even feigning interest in regular lessons. “They don’t want to do the last unit” was one complaint. “They all say their books are at home” was another. I got the usual funny looks when I pointed out that if they didn’t have a coursebook at all, that wouldn’t be a problem.

However, games aside, one actual lesson I managed to do with no complaints from students and plenty of creative language use was lifted from the pages of Teaching Unplugged. As the kids minds were on their holidays with much discussion over where they were planning/hoping to go, I decided it was the perfect time to use the activity ‘Real’ world (pp. 50). We cleared a space in the middle of the class (always a bit chaotic with kids but necessary) to act as our ‘map’, identified north, south, east and west and marked Ankara and a couple of other well-known locations with small objects (depending on where the students in the group were going, the space either represented Turkey, Europe or the world). Rather than stand somewhere representing where they would like to visit, the students stood on spots marking where they were actually going.

They then asked each other yes/no questions to work out exactly ‘where’ they were standing. I was by the board at this point (or the ‘North Pole’ as one class put it) writing up prompts for questions they were struggling with. They came out with all sorts of questions (Are you near…?, Can you see….?, Is it hot? Are you staying in a hotel?) and really enjoyed it. With one class, we even had time to adapt another idea from the same book, Destination Unknown (pp. 51) as I had the students write short messages to each other from their locations describing their holidays (so in our case, it was Destination Known!)

Yes, that’s right - writing in the last week of school!!! If ever proof was needed that dogme is the way to go, I think this is it!

Friday, 17 June 2011

An #FF Tribute for @gret and her post ‘Dear Class…’

Last week, you may have noticed Tyson Seburn tweeting his  #FF recommendations in a slightly different way, on the hour (more or less) and individualised rather than a long list of names. He subsequently explained on his blog that he felt in this way his picks were more considered, meaningful and noticeable and this is something I have been trying to follow this week.

A few days later, Tara Benwell wrote a guest post on Tyson’s blog describing how she honours a member of the ELT blogging/Twitter community each Friday by highlighting a post from their archives with a summary and a recommendation to read it (you can see all the posts in the series here). She challenged her PLN to do the same and, always a sucker for a blog challenge, I decided to join in.

Of course, choosing a post from the thousands of wonderful ones out there isn’t easy! Rather than actively going out and searching for one (which would have led to too much time spent narrowing the field down), I thought I would let it come to me based on whatever was on my mind in the days running up to today and the choice presented itself to me literally moments ago:

Dear Class… from Greta Sandler’s blog About a Teacher

Why ‘Dear Class…’?
This is a really heartfelt post Greta wrote last December at the end of the school year in Argentina. It is written in the style of an open letter to the class she had just taught for the last time before they went on their summer holidays. This one came to my mind as today was the last day of the teaching year for me in Turkey and I said goodbye to a lot of students today. There were very touching moments and, while it was sad to see them go, the memories of today and this school year will stay with me for a long time. Greta’s post really sums all of that up beautifully.

Why Greta?
Another reason for making this special tribute to Greta was that just this week she returned to blogging for the first time in several months. Her posts are always a worthwhile read and really convey her passion and dedication as a teacher so this is to welcome her back. Also, Greta is a teacher I really admire and value in my PLN and I respect her highly as a teacher of young learners. We also have another connection beyond the age group we teach and that is a love for football and the best team in Argentina, San Lorenzo!

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Welcome to Earth - Guest post by Anna Musielak

I’m delighted to be able to welcome my first ever guest blogger to Reflections of a Teacher and Learner and who better to have than serial guest blogger Anna Musielak. I first connected with Anna after her presentation at TESOL France last November. Although I was not in attendance at that event, I heard so much about her workshop on drama there via the buzz on Twitter. Since then, she has provided me with the impetus and the ideas to use more drama in my classes (see this post) and now, through this guest post, she has given me more. Aliens are always a hit with my kids so I’m sure they will love the combination with drama!

Welcome to Earth

I love teaching kids – it's tough but so rewarding:) Children are not afraid to make fools of themselves, they love fun and they love goofing around. And if they can do it on an English lesson – they are more than happy to attend:) What's more, if our young learners treat English with pleasure, as their hobby, the process of learning comes naturally and the new material is acquired quicker.

friendly alien

The friendly alien

Some time ago I did a lesson with my 10-12 year-olds that we called "Welcome to Earth". The idea was very simple - every student got a finger puppet (I have various ones: animals, professions, fairy tale creatures) and had a couple of minutes (depending on the level) to think of the story behind this character, all the time using really easy constructions (name, hobby, age, address, likes and dislikes, family, favourite food etc). I have to add here that I really LOVE my finger puppets, they are my trustworthy props not only when I teach kids but also adults. More importantly, they are light and don't take up too much space:) I have a whole collection – some are even handmade;)


My daughters modelling some of our finger puppets

Students prepared their stories and I explained, that I was the alien from out of space (a friendly and knowledge- thirsty one) and wanted to learn everything about the new planet and its inhabitants.


Students were supposed to say something about themselves (they were in their roles of course). I was very inquisitive and had no idea what a pen/table/window/elephant/ballerina etc... were. When I was finally satisfied with their answers, it was my turn to be interviewed. They asked about my planet, its inhabitants and their customs (all the time using simple English: What's your name? Where do you live? What is your mum's name? Do you like...? What's your hobby? Can you fly? etc...). I tried to make up crazy and fun answers to surprise them and encourage them to keep asking questions. And of course, I was wearing antennae and alien's mask (for those not willing to dress up – you can just put a tag/sticker saying that you are an alien;))


Me in the role:)

Later on, as a follow up task, we made some (old school) posters using paper, glue, stickers, drawings, magazine cut outs, markers and lots of glitter (both girls and boys loved that – we had some girly pink stuff and some manly black glitter;)) Students were divided into groups - “the animals” made one poster, “the working people" another one, “the fairy tale creatures” a different one. The posters were supposed to encourage aliens to come and live on Earth.

We had various works – some posters were about hobbies, favourite food, important events, some about animals and their habitats, and some about „magic” creatures and fairy tales. My students really liked that idea, so a lot of following lessons were centred around “the friendly alien” topic. We wrote emails, designed alien costumes, created the alien's family, sent party invitations and so on. It became the main theme of our English lessons.


Look closer – did you know that twist is not for old people? ;)

Anna Musielak is a Polish teacher and teacher trainer holding a Ph.D. from Silesian University. She has worked at the military unit, at college, teaching British Literature and Culture and as methodology director in a private language school. She has also published articles on literature, culture and language teaching. At the moment she is working on workshops and teaching English to young learners and adults. She is interested in using drama, music and literature in ELT.

You can follow her on Twitter: @AnnaMusielak

She doesn’t have her own blog (though I strongly urge her to start one!!) but can be regularly found writing fantastic guest posts around the ELT blogosphere. Here are a few of those posts, well worth a read:

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

“I don’t know who I am anymore!” - A shared existential crisis (video post)

The other day on Twitter, I saw this message from my MA colleague Ed Russell:

ed in crisis

After requesting some clarification, it turned out Ed was not, as I initially thought, thinking about his online PLN presence but his general place in the world of ELT..:

ed in crisis 2

...to which one of my other MA colleagues, Isil Boy, replied…:

Isil not in crisis

…an idea that I liked as I had been grappling with the same issue as Ed:

dave in crisis

I was going to type up the post upon coming home from work today but it was such a lovely sunny evening that I decided to sit out on the balcony for a while. However, my mind was still on the issue so, having not done a video post for a while, I reached for my Galaxy Tab and produced the following:

Do you know who this man is? :p

So what do you think? As we become more experienced, pursue further study and start to present at conferences, do we need an area of specialisation? Or is it all just another form of labelling? As ever, comments are welcome and appreciated!

Monday, 13 June 2011

Positive Reflections: 5 things I’ve done better this year

Yesterday’s post focused on one class I’ve struggled with this academic year and not had much success with so I thought I’d take a more positive stance in today’s post and respond to a challenge set by Mary Beth Hertz to end the year on a positive note. She suggested that teachers list and reflect on (is that a subjunctive? Smile with tongue out) 5 things they had done better in class this year and so here is my list:


Image by Dricker94

1. More flexibility

I was much more willing to go with the flow of lessons this year, often diverging from the plan to respond to input or suggestions from the students. If I planned an pair work activity but they asked to do it individually, I said ‘sure, why not?’ or if they wanted to collaborate on something I had envisioned as a solo task, I said the same whereas in past year, I would have insisted on them doing it my way.

Likewise, when it came to the content of the lessons, I was constantly trying to create opportunities for students to generate their own input and ideas and make the lesson more personal for them. I also took advantage of unexpected events like kids showing me their collections or medals they had won or sharing some exciting news to completely abandon the lesson plan and see where we ended up - must be the budding dogmeist in me!

2. More variety

In a way, this is linked to the above point about being more flexible but I definitely made an effort to do different things in the classroom this year. Not just moving away from the coursebook whenever possible but also exploring things I hadn’t really tried before like drama activities, drawing activities, collaborative group projects and so on. I also included more challenging activities such as dictogloss on a regular basis and generally tried to make sure a we used a variety of tasks to offer the kids something different.

3. More patience

The classes I teach are large and very much mixed-ability and it can be frustrating when one or two kids are behind the rest of the class, either dragging their feet hoping they can stay lost in the crowd or struggling to do even the basic stuff or both. I have been guilty in the past of rushing these kids or putting pressure on them to catch up with the threat speaking to the class teacher or calling their parents if they don’t get the work done. I’ve made an effort over the last couple of years to be more accommodating of these kids and try to get to the root of why they are not doing their work or doing it very slowly. I give them more time, go over task instructions with them 1 to 1 after everyone else has started, pair them up with the helpful students in the class and avoid showing any frustration.

Has this resulted in them staying on task and getting more work done? Not always Smile - nevertheless, it has made the lessons a lot less stressful both for them and for me. Several of the ‘weak’ students also started to show more of a willingness to participate, especially in speaking activities, which I hope will continue for them next year.

4. More mileage

As one of the tasks I was given this year was to improve students’ writing skills, I decided to take a quality over quantity approach. Rather than covering a high number of different writing tasks, we focused on a few but extended them so that the students could get more out of the process. This involved spending more time in the pre-task phase identifying the language they would need to complete the task, giving choices in exactly what they would write and establishing a system of peer checking and commenting. Our writing tasks did not end there: I also made sure my feedback was content-based encouraging them to develop their ideas and add more and I set up a regular system of using their language errors to make up a collaborative error correction task before directing them back to their own work to find their own mistakes. That whole series of activities often meant 4 class periods were devoted to working on one piece of writing but I found that to be more effective than rushing through 4 different tasks in the same amount of lesson time. I even delivered a workshop on it!

5. More sharing

This has been one of the best parts of the year for me: sharing ideas and collaborating with other teachers, both in my own school and through my virtual PLN. I’ve exchanged a lot of great ideas with my two colleagues in 4th Grade and we had a really good group dynamic. Through this blog and the blogs of others, I’ve been inspired to try out different things, reflect on my teaching practice and discuss ideas about education with great educators around the world. Time and distance are no longer barriers to professional development and that is one of the great wonders of the 21st Century!

That’s my list. What’s yours?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Like crossing the alps with (pink) elephants - My ‘difficult’ class

Those of you who’ve been following my blog for a while may recall a post I did shortly after the beginning of the school year, entitled ‘Outdone by the Pink Elephant’. In that post, I was trying to solve the puzzle of why a class I was having trouble with behaviour wise seemed better when a new teacher who had been observing us (the ‘Pink Elephant’) did a practice lesson with them. Recently, Kirsten Hawkins (@lingliziya on Twitter) came across that post and asked if I would review how the rest of the year with them went and whether or not I had had any success in finding a way to work with them.

Well, as my time with this class is effectively over, here goes…


Another famous elephant-related struggle. Image from antmoose

Sticking with the elephant theme, at times me dealing with this class felt like Hannibal crossing the Alps complete with a drawn-out war off attrition and a stalemate neither side were happy with (but without the pitched battles and bloody massacres of course)! There were difficulties throughout the year, from dealing with one particular ‘challenging’ boy/class clown, to vicious fights in class to trying to get them settled down on Friday afternoons and, unfortunately, no permanent solution presented itself.

At times, we were kind of trapped in a circle: they would act up, I would try to keep them on track, they would ignore me, I would take names with the threat of passing them on to the class teacher, they would be sorry… only to start acting up all over again the following week!

I tried various things which either failed or had limited success. Putting them into groups was a bad idea as many of the kids had a mean competitive streak which would regularly boil over into heated rivalry or they would deliberately sabotage their group’s work if they didn’t get along with the others. Games also brought about similar results with far too much gloating over success or crying in the event of losing out.

Something that did work for a while in the second semester was the fact that there was a video to go with our reader, an adaptation of the Wallace & Gromit animation The Wrong Trousers. Promising them we would watch part of the video on Friday afternoon, dependent on good behaviour during the week, worked well. However, this was not ideal as in my other classes I was using the video in all sorts of different ways, often prior to reading,  to maximise the learning potential. However, with this group, I was forced to always leave the video until after reading as a carrot on a stick to keep them focused, as a tool of control rather than learning. Similarly, there were other productive student-centred tasks and unplugged moments I was able to utilise in my other classes that I had to abandon or skip all together with this group because they got out of control too easily.

One of the problems, as I mentioned in my last post, is that they didn’t take my ‘conversation’ lessons seriously. With no official exam and (initially) no grade attached to my classes, they took the opportunity to relax and break free from the usual teacher-fronted lesson format a bit too far. Even later when it was decided I would give a grade based on their classwork, little changed. I spoke to one boy after a lesson about why he wasn’t writing anything in his notebook and reminded him that not completing any tasks set would result in a low grade. “What will your parents think about that?” I asked. “Nothing,” he replied. “I got 90% in my last English test so they are happy.” During another ‘little chat’ with a different boy, I was surprised when he said I was his favourite teacher. “Really?” I said. “So why do you act like this in my class?”. he thought for a second before replying “Ali is my best friend but I like punching him! You are my favourite teacher but I like annoying you!” - quite an attitude from a 10 year-old!

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. There were some lovely kids in that class who always worked hard, participated and treated me the same as they would any other teacher. I felt really sorry for them as they complained to me regularly that it was always the same group of kids who acted up in English, music, art, and other classes resulting in the whole class being labelled as ‘difficult’. I worked hard to let them know that I did not think that way and they appreciated that.

One big surprise was their level of performance when we did The Wizard of Oz in the theatre. The rehearsals were difficult, at times approaching complete chaos in the classroom, and yet they pulled it all together for the final show. Many other teachers commented that the two groups from this class were the best they had seen in the entire year group. They really enjoyed getting into roles and acting, so much so that I continued doing drama-based activities with them even after the show had finished, which were some of the best lessons we had together.

So, it was a difficult and challenging year and I can’t help but feel I never really ‘cracked it’ in terms of motivating them or enthusing them. What could I have done differently? Discipline wise, not much as we are told to keep problems contained within the classroom meaning there is very little support. Classroom management wise, I think I should have devoted more time to explaining what my lessons were about and establishing some ground rules. We had so much material to cover with the readers, our Fun For Movers book and Wizard of Oz preparations that I didn’t want to lose too much time early in the year. I now see that it would have been time well spent.

I also think routines would have helped - in trying to respond to the problems I faced early in the year, I chopped and changed things too often. With a set way to start and end the lesson and move between activities, I may have had more success in keeping them on task.

Their love for drama was connected to a desire to get up and move about. I think the opportunity to be a bit silly and show off to the rest of the class within the context of the lesson was something they enjoyed. I just wish I had discovered this earlier in the year and been able to exploit it more.

That was the most difficult class I’ve had in ten years of teaching. Although I could have done a few things differently, I also have to remind myself that there was only so much I could do. After all, I only saw them for 4 hours a week for one year of their school lives whereas they have been in a class together in since 1st grade. Several teachers have struggled with the same kids before me and I’m sure their teachers next year will too. Without an established system of support for teachers dealing with difficult classes, there is only so much we can do…. but that’s another post for another time.

Oh, and one more thing I could have done differently - I should have worn a suit more often of course! Smile with tongue out

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Caught in a trap - grades, motivation, holidays & the exam-driven system

On the way to work, there is a bank of recently installed speed traps suspended above the 4-lane highway. In Turkey, such a wide road is an invitation to floor the acceleration pedal and it used to be common to see cars, trucks and even public transportation flying along at speeds of 100 km/h and above. As this is a road used by a large number of school buses each day (shockingly also guilty of such routine speeding), the speed traps were a welcome deterrent, with drivers soon forced to slow down once the speeding tickets started to arrive in the mail.

Image by t0msk

Alas, the speed traps have only had limited success. You see, they were only installed in one place and so everyone now carefully stays within the official speed limit (70 km/h) starting about 150 metres before they get to the cameras but as soon as they pass them, it’s flat out on the accelerator again and the speed limit is ignored.

Whilst looking out of the window/tightly gripping onto the seat in front for balance on the teachers’ bus going to work this week, this sight of the traffic slowing down to observe the rules of the road for 30 seconds got me thinking of Aisha Ertuğrul’s recent post of Ken Wilson’s blog and the subsequent comments about the education system in Turkey. Large classes and a ‘sweep it under the carpet’ attitude to behaviour and discipline problems mean many kids do as they please in class with no fear of the consequences because there aren’t any. The only thing that keeps these kids in check are tests (speed traps) and report cards (speeding tickets). And so, like the cars on the road, they only worry about sticking to the rules when tests are coming up or final grades are about to be given.

The problem is, there are so many tests that even at Primary school level that is all the students (and their parents) care about. If they can go home and say they got 90% in the exam, it won’t matter that the teacher has called to say no homework has been handed in for weeks or books are always left at home or that there have been fights in class.

This has been a real struggle for me this year, my first year teaching ‘conversation and skills’ for four hours a week with each class. As the ‘grammar’ teacher was giving the tests, that was the lesson they cared about and mine (in the eyes of a few children at least) was like free time. Although I was against it in the beginning, it was only when the decision was made that they would receive and grade from me to be included on the report card that those kids started to take my lessons more seriously.

So, in a way, the grades motivate them to try a little harder and actually complete the tasks and projects I ask them to do, which is a good thing, right? Only, it causes a whole series of other problems, the main of which I’m experiencing now. With the holidays just a week away, the kids know that the grades have been handed in, the last exam has been done and the last performance in front of their parents has been made. As a result, last Monday I had several students in one class say they hadn’t got their notebooks or any other materials.Why? “Because exams are finished, teacher” they said.

On top of that, a lot of kids have been absent this week and many more will be absent next week. They take the view that the school year is pretty much over so why bother going to school? And their parents agree and let them stay at home! Of those kids who do come, their motivation to do anything resembling work is very low. “Game, game! Please teacher! Game!” are the words I heard at the start of virtually every class last week. Essentially, the last two weeks of school every year is wasted in this way. And that’s with a summer holiday that is already 3 months long.

The other problem with ‘slowing down just for the speed traps’ is that is often happens too late. Even though it is not compulsory, one of my tasks in class this year was to prepare the students to take the Cambridge Movers Test. That test took place this morning and last Monday I had kids who had consistently ‘forgotten’ their books and not completed the prep tasks all year suddenly ask me for help to get ready, the panic and stress evident in their voices and body language only serving to further my belief that this is not the age to be testing them.

So, what can be done? Not a lot without change from the top I’m afraid. This is the system in Turkey and these kids will be taking exams for the rest of their lives, to get into to university, to get jobs, to keep jobs… I just wish a school, any school (preferably my school!) would force change and scrap exams for younger kids, changing the system from the bottom up. Maybe then we would see more children motivated to learn for learning’s sake rather than to pass a test.

Oh and (I’m sure most of my colleagues would disagree with me on this one but…) make the summer holidays shorter as well! 3 months is a ridiculously long time to be away from school. A shorter summer break and more holidays throughout the year would serve kids and teachers alike much better!

Monday, 6 June 2011

The Five Stages of Dogme

Having been an active tweeter and blogger for a round a year now, I’ve noticed that discussions around the phenomenon that is Dogme ELT (also known as Teaching Unplugged) seem to come round in frequent cycles. The pattern is the same: some event such as a conference or a particularly fiery blog post comes around and the whole ‘what is dogme?’ debate kicks off, usually including several more blog posts, an ELTchat session, a PLN challenge and finally a video by Scott Thornbury to sort all the mess out.

With each cycle, people new to the concept of dogme get caught in the debate and try to add their own personal perspective, consider how it might apply to their own context or just try to figure out what on earth everyone is getting so hot and bothered about. I have noticed similar patterns that seem to emerge and stages that each newbie to the teaching unplugged concept seems to go through and that prompted me to do some research and develop ‘The Five Stages of Dogme’ framework.

Please note that this research is entirely based on casual observation, hearsay and general assumption. Furthermore, the findings are reported in a tongue-in-cheek manner and bear no consequence or relevance to the real world of ELT or dogme itself. To avoid confusion, I would like to state that ‘The Five Stages of Dogme’ (also known as the Dodgson-Dross Model) are completely distinct from and in no way influenced by ‘The Five Stages of Grief’ (or Kübler-Ross Model), which is a completely different made-up framework of no particular use.

It’s unplugged - but doesn’t that mean it’s all going down the drain?
Image by tonyhall

1. Denial
This is the first stage encountered by the teacher who is hearing about dogme for the first time. The most sceptical of all will dismiss the idea of a conversation driven, materials light mode of teaching focused on emergent language as ludicrous, comfortable as they are in their carefully constructed fool-proof grammar-based syllabus world. The more open minded may experience some shock at this point having never before considered the possibility of moving away from the coursebook and their denial may be expressed in the form of “but it’s just not possible” or “aren’t we supposed to work with the coursebook?”

For teachers at this stage, careful guidance is required to ensure that they become open to the idea and don’t just dismiss it out of hand. Even then, most teachers will need some time to figure out exactly what dogme is and it is those stages we will look at next.

2. Anger/Confusion
Once they have gotten over the initial shock of discovering the concept of dogme, our newbie teachers follow one of two paths. The sceptics will exhort anti-dogme rhetoric in quite harsh terms labelling it as ‘irresponsible’, ‘cruel’ or ‘evil’ especially for new teachers who are yet to brainwashed in the coursebook ways and dismissing the unplugged practitioners themselves as charlatans who are merely ‘winging it’ and going into class unprepared and unplanned. They also label the dogmeists as ‘anti-coursebook’, ‘anti-technology’ (even if the sceptics are anti-technology themselves) and so on.

But not everyone is so sceptical. Once realising that maybe there is something to be said for this dogme stuff after all, rather than anger they experience some confusion and may be heard to say things like “so, dogme is just teaching without a coursebook”, “it’s just a conversation class then” or that’s what I’ve been doing all along!” even when they clearly haven’t. These teachers need some time to explore the idea and dig beyond the surface.

3. Negotiating/Questioning
There then follows a period of ‘negotiation’ in which the teacher venturing into the unplugged world starts to ask questions about dogme in different contexts. “Could it work with beginners/young learners?” is usually a pretty common place to start often followed by “How could it work with exam classes?” or “What about business English?”

The sceptic, however, will not ask these questions with any desire to find the answers but more in the manner of “hah! Gotcha now - didn’t think of that one, did you?” When confronted by the eager answers of the dogmeists showing how teaching unplugged can meet a wide range of needs, they may revert to Stage 1 or Stage 2 in an attempt to regroup and think of some more specific or unique circumstances in which dogme is sure to not work. Once they have thought of asking whether or not dogme could possibly work with groups of 60+ kindergarten students forced to study for the TOEFL Junior exam (what would work in that situation?), they will come back.

The genuinely open-minded, on the other hand, will not just ask the question but seek the answers as well. They will analyse their context and look for ways an unplugged approach could work and whether or not it would improve the learning opportunities of their students. This makes them ready to move onto the next stage.

4. Depression/Experimentation
By this point, our sceptic may be thoroughly depressed as they realise those darned dogme doers just have an answer for everything. A period of self-doubt may follow in which they truly question the validity of the grammar-syllabus, the exam-based system and using celebrities to make texts more ‘fun’.

Our ever eager open-minded teacher is more likely to start dabbling with some actual dogme practice at this point, though it may take some time before they fully pull the plug. They may announce something along the lines of “I’m going to do a dogme lesson today!” as if declaring it aloud makes it so (in truth, they are most likely still doing a pre-prepared task and topic, just without the coursebook or hand-outs). There is the danger here that a muted response from their class may lead to some feelings of depression before the teacher bounces back for another attempt. Good feedback though leads to further experimentation and blogosphere discussion, which finally brings us to Stage 5….

5. Acceptance
After much soul searching, our sceptic may finally accept the inevitable and allow him/herself to be baptised in the waters of dogme with little resistance. There is always the possibility, of course, that the sceptic never reaches this stage and instead reverts to denial that such a thing could ever work. Our open-minded teacher will hopefully have indulged him/herself fully by this point and be ready to march on (with no excessive baggage weighing him/her down) and never look back!

It should be emphasised here that these 5 stages are very much rigid and will be passed through in this manner and order with no exceptions (except for those already noted). So, are you a dogme sceptic or ready to pull the plug on your coursebook dominated days? What stage of the model are you at? Please share your  thoughts and comments below…

Please refer to this study as: Dodgson, D (2011). The Five Stages of Dogme: Findings from a pointless study'. ROFL Journal

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Suits you, Sir!

The school I work at has quite a detailed dress code for teaching staff. Basically, we are expected to be smartly dressed at all times with male teachers expected to wear a suit, plain shirt and tie except in the warmer months when we are graciously exempted from having to wear jackets. This was quite a contrast to my first job teaching adults in a language school. No dress code existed there and it was often the students who were better dressed while the teachers strolled about in worn jeans and faded t-shirts!

In fact, one thing that put me off moving to my current school all those years ago (apart from having never worked with kids before) was the need to wear a suit and ‘shiny shoes’ every day. Nevertheless, I ‘suited up’ and went to work, having little choice in the matter it seemed.

Ooh! Suits you, sir!

Ooh! Image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

It all seemed a bit formal though and I, together with most of my colleagues, was always looking for ways to bend the rules by wearing more comfy shoes, ‘smart-casual’ trousers, jumpers/sweaters and so on. After all, you will see and hear many people advising you to dress down and be prepared to get messy when working with kids so the less formal, the better, right?

Only this week, with warmer weather here, a jumper (even a sleeveless one) seemed too much but it was a bit too cool in the morning to go without a jacket so I donned a suit for the first time in ages. I then thought I should wear appropriate shoes to match and off I went. I wasn’t quite prepared though for the reaction I would get in my first class of the day:

“Ooooh!” said a student in my first class. “Very smart, teacher. Very nice!”

“Are we having a business meeting today?” joked another.

“Teacher, in this suit, you look very handsome” said another.

Then the best of all (for anyone who watched The Fast Show on BBC in the 90s at least): “What is yakışmak in English?” a boy asked. I told him we could use ‘suit’ as a verb and he said “Suits you, sir!”

But the strange thing was, after this initial burst of reaction, we started the lesson and the atmosphere was different somehow - the students were listening a lot more carefully than usual, taking turns, getting on with their work… quite unusual, especially as the summer holiday gets ever close! I asked why they were so keen and attentive and one boy proclaimed “You are wearing a suit so today’s lesson is very serious!”

It seemed me wearing a suit and dressing more formally had made some kind of impression on them. This was confirmed in the next class as there was a similar reaction when I walked in and then they got on with the lesson very studiously. I used the chance to chat with them about uniforms and appropriate dress for different circumstances. What surprised me was that these 10 year-olds were basically saying they thought a teacher should dress smartly. They also said that the more casually the teacher dresses, the more they feel they can ‘get away with things’.

So, maybe dressing less formally to seem more approachable is not actually the right way to go. Maybe that sends out the wrong signals about being less serious or more lax. Or perhaps it’s a cultural thing with the norm in Turkey for male teachers being smart suits. Anyway, I’ll suit up once again tomorrow and see if it has the same effect!

And what do you think? Should teachers dress smartly or casually? Do you have a dress code at work and do you agree with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments section.