Thursday, 28 August 2014

Appreciating what we don’t have

One question that naturally enters a person’s mind when moving to a place like Gabon is “What will no longer be available to me?”. Rightly or wrongly, this part of the world is often associated with lacking things, whether they be luxury items and comforts like a favourite cheese or high-speed internet, or basic amenities such as a reliable electricity supply or drinkable piped water.

Mmmm… Cheese… Image credit: Pixabay

Well, I’m pleased to say I’ve been pleasantly surprised so far. The local supermarkets are well stocked (albeit expensive), we got the Internet connected to our new home within a day of arriving (a little slow at 512 kbps but we’ll manage), we’ve only had a couple of short power-cuts so far, and water hasn’t been a problem at all.

I did also wonder before I came about my new school. I was promised a place with access to extensive resources but what would that actually mean in practice? On that score, I have been more than surprised as there is a huge stationery inventory (backed up by a ‘green initiative’ to avoid waste), a well-stocked library (full of previously untouched books), and enough computers and other digital equipment to make an EdTech junkie overdose.

My very own classroom!

However, there are also many things here we don’t have (compared to my previous schools) and I would like to take a few moments to highlight those things:
    No grades
Oh, the hours I used to spend calculating grades, agonizing over them, trying to find a balance between what was deserved and what was expected, only to be told to change them because they didn’t match the grammar teacher’s mark… There was the pain of seeing a child on the verge of tears because they had one or two low grades and the frustration of seeing a student who had failed to complete any project work and/or had a disruptive effect in class getting a high grade because somebody somewhere had demanded it.

But no more! There are no grades here. There is feedback, there are reports, and there are teacher-student/teacher-parent conferences, but there are no percentages, no letters, and no numbers that distract from the progress the student has made and the comments the teacher has to make about their learning.
    No internal examinations
Tied closely into the above, there are no written exam papers here. The students do not have their learning interrupted every few weeks to make sure they can spell new vocabulary or that they can choose the correct verb form in a gap-fill. Instead, they are asked to engage in a process of on-going self-assessment and discussion with their teachers. In order to show what they have learned, they are asked to do project work and make presentations to the class. The only ‘traditional’ exams (and therefore grades) they will face are the international ones like IGCSE and IB. Even then, the school favours assessment options that include coursework when possible. This all helps them show what they have learned rather than what they were expected to learn.
    No homework (in primary at least)
I often saw students back in Turkey struggle under the strain of a lot of homework. It was sadly not uncommon to see instructions on the board at the end of a long school day telling students to complete 10 pages of maths problems or write a 500 word essay in English by the next morning. At home, we had far too many days when my son (only seven years old!) would come home, start his homework, have dinner, finish his homework, and then it would be time for bed. Thankfully, that is not the case here. Primary school students do not get homework. At the very most, they may be asked to read a couple of chapters of a book of their choice or speak to an older relative about life in the past but there are no worksheets or page after page of exercises to be done.

Even when homework is set in the secondary school, it is limited. Each teacher has an allotted day and length of time for homework. We are encouraged to set it a few days in advance to give students some time to organise their work. We are also discouraged from giving exercises, worksheets, or written tasks. In place of those things, we should encourage the students to do some research, and find a way to connect what they are learning in class to their own lives away from school. Much more concise and much more relevant.
    No bell
This may seem like a small thing but the lack of a bell has made a huge difference so far. Teachers are trusted to keep time and start/finish classes at the right hour. That means no more ‘countdowns’ to the bell or kids rushing to the door as soon as it rings while the teacher is still trying to round off the lesson. No bell puts the teacher in control of timing and ensures that the lesson concludes calmly.

Here I also don’t have to contend with one thing that always bugged me in Turkey – having break time very 40 minutes. I often felt that this was counterproductive as the kids were often distracted by the impending opportunity to run around and would often be tired or bursting with energy when called back to class a mere ten minutes later. This was then repeated 8 times a day… In this school, lessons are 60 minutes and there is no break until the end of lesson 2. That break is 20 minutes giving the kids time to unwind and relax and come back to class refreshed instead of being dragged back halfway through a game of football. 2 more lessons then lunch, and 2 more then home time. It all seems to run much more smoothly.
    No course books
This is a big one for my and my dogme-leanings. There are no set course books in use – not for English language lessons and not for the other sections of the school curriculum either. We have targets, we have topic areas that need to be incorporated, and we have a bank of resources that can be utilised as and when needed but exactly how we meet those targets and include those topic areas is up to us as teachers. A large part of the period before school opened was devoted to stressing the need to get to know our students and to tailor our teaching to suit their needs and interests. No more need to teach past  continuous or discuss life on the American frontier just because it is in Unit 5!
    No fixed syllabus
As a consequence, there is no fixed syllabus either. We have the flexibility and the freedom to add extra elements and explore different areas, just so long as we can link what we do back to the general curriculum for that particular section of the school. Again, this offers space and time to teachers and learners alike to make the most of our lessons together.
    No Nos
We were also told before school started that the Heads of the school sections and the Directors are open to all ideas – it doesn’t matter if it is off-the-wall or something experimental, all suggestions, requests and brainwaves will be considered. I put this to the test immediately by proposing an extra-curricular game-based learning club. They said ‘yes’. I requested that the school purchase licenses for MinecraftEdu, they said ‘yes’. I am hoping this pattern continues as we move towards opening the language school over the next few months!
    No limits
All of the above add up to no limits. I think there are great possibilities here for the students to learn and learn effectively and for the teachers to develop and teach effectively as well. Career-wise, this has been a good move so far and all signs point to this promising start continuing over the next academic year. I will be keeping you updated!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Long Goodbye

As you will know from my last post, I now find myself in a new job in a new country as I take on the role of Language School Coordinator in Libreville, Gabon. Of course, leaving Turkey and my life and career there was quite hard and it wasn’t made any easier by the drawn out nature of saying goodbye.

I started my job here earlier this week but the transition from one full time position to another took a while as it followed a series of ‘goodbye steps’ including my last day of teaching at TED (mid-June), last day of actually working at TED (end of June), moving out of my apartment (mid-July), and departing for Gabon (mid-August). Scattered in between were farewells with different groups of people (students, colleagues, friends, and family).

However, as always, I kept myself busy during that period with a few projects (paid and unpaid) and it was fun to see what working as a self-employed freelancer in the world of ELT could be like.
Among the projects I was involved in, I lent my voice to a couple of ELT course book projects (those of you in Turkey, don’t be surprised if you hear a familiar voice on any tapescripts in the near future!) and I also taught a couple of short exam classes to get back into the swing of working with adults (those led to a few reflections on the state of ELT in Turkey which I will be sharing on the blog soon).

I was lucky enough to have the chance to work with Kristina Smith and the SELT Teacher Training Academy, who are doing a lot of exciting work with language teachers in Turkey and in Asia. This began with designing and creating a series of presentations as part of courses prepared specifically for the regional market with separate focuses on primary, secondary, and academic levels (distinctions a lot of TEFL courses currently lack), and ultimately led to me spending some time in Almaty, Kazahkstan, running a training course for primary teachers. This was my first time running an extended course rather than a one-off workshop and it was a great learning experience. Please visit the SELT Academy blog to read my reflections from my sadly brief stay there:

And as ever, there were webinars. I was honoured and pleased to be invitied back as a presenter for the Reform Symposium (RSCON5), where I ran a session on using Minecraft with language learners (please visit my ELT Sandbox blog to learn more about it) and I was proud and happy to be part of the iTDi Summer School MOOC. Again, I focused on game-based learning and you can expect some reflections over on ELT Sandbox soon.

Here are the links to the archived presentations: 

RSCON5 – Breaking the Learning Blocks: Minecraft and Language Learning

iTDi Summer School MOOC – Raise Your Game: GBL in the Language Classroom
Sadly, not all the projects came through. I was also scheduled to contribute to a joint Turkish Ministry of Education-British Council project training state school teachers in using class tablets and technology in general to support language learning but sadly it was postponed until the new academic year.

And that was that. My work in Turkey is done for now as I move my focus to teaching students and training teachers in Gabon. I hope I can continue with the web conferences while I am here and, who knows, maybe pop up at a couple of face-to-face events as well.

Friday, 22 August 2014

From Turkey to Gabon

The blog has been quiet recently and for good reason as my family and I prepared to move on – a change of job and a major change of location as we swapped the Mediterranean climes of Turkey for the tropical climes of Gabon in Western Central Africa.

Gabon? Gabon?

Yes, that’s right – we now live in Libreville just north of the equator, where I am preparing to take on the new challenges of working in an international school and overseeing the development of a new language school. It’s been a crazy few months of leaving the old life and getting ready for the new one and after a week or so here, it looks like there are a few more crazy (but exciting) months ahead.
I have answered many questions from colleagues, family, and friends about this move over recent times and in this post, I am going to summarise some of them.

First of all….,


Why Gabon? Why now?

The decision to leave Turkey after 14 years, the last 12 of which have been spent at the same school, took many people by surprise (including me!) Why give up a steady job in a modern European country for a leap into the unknown in a developing one? Why leave after having been in Turkey for so long, establishing contacts, learning the language, and knowing the local ELT scene so well? Why take your family (including an 18-month old) to Africa?

Taking those one at a time, there was never any plan to go to Gabon or Africa in particular (although I have often wondered why there never seem to be many positions other than voluntary ones advertised in this part of the world) but there was a plan to move on. Granted, I had been in Turkey for a long time and I had enjoyed my time there but I had a feeling that I had gone as far as I could professionally. The choice I faced had I stayed was to continue doing what I was doing without any real new challenge or to take a big risk and try to work on a freelance basis. In many ways, that would have been more risky than where I find myself now so I decided to look abroad.

My original intention when I took my Trinity TESOL course all those years ago was to see the world and work at the same time and, even after 14 years, that desire was still there (for both me and my wife). I had the chance to live abroad as a child and I wanted my sons to experience that too. They also now get the chance to experience not only a different country but also a different education system and a different language, all of which will help them as they grow older.

I also did my research. I researched the city and the country and was pleasantly surprised to discover that Gabon is a rapidly-developing and forward-looking country. They are many exciting projects going on here as wealth from the abundant natural resources is invested with a view to becoming classed as a ‘newly-developed’ nation. One of those project areas focuses on education and that is where I come in.

I now work at The International School of Gabon Ruban Vert, which opened just last year. It has been established not just to serve the expat community but also to offer an international standard of education to Gabonese students. Initially, I will be working as part of the EAL programme, offering language support to Francophone students as they integrate into the school’s bilingual (English/French) system.

But that’s not all. The project does not just cover K-12 education but also aims to go further into adult education. With an increasing number of foreign (non-French) companies investing here, there is an increased demand for ELT so during the first term, I will also be working towards establishing a language school here offering both ESP classes to local businesses and general English to the local community. As I type, very little is in place so we will be starting from scratch. Over the next few months I will be meeting with potential clients, designing courses, developing action plans, and putting everything in motion with a view to getting started in January 2015.

In short, I get to start my own language school!

At present, my mind is bursting with possibilities. I have been told that no idea will be considered too outlandish or unconventional. There is no expectation of following a certyain method of teaching or working with any particiular publishers. In fact, as we are in the heart of Africa, there is a natural predisposition to operating in a low-resource environment.

Could this be a ‘Dogme Language School’? That is something I will be seriously investigating and keeping you posted on over the coming months.

Exciting times!

Looks like a nice place to relax after work!