Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Teaching like Mike Leigh?


Watching acclaimed British film director Mike Leigh being interviewed last week, I couldn't help but pontificate on his unique directorial style.

from Wikipedia:Leigh uses lengthy improvisations developed over a period of weeks to build characters and storylines for his films. He starts with some sketch ideas of how he thinks things might develop, but does not reveal all his intentions with the cast who discover their fate and act out their responses as their destinies are gradually revealed.

Leigh's vision is to depict ordinary life, "real life," unfolding under extenuating circumstances. He makes courageous decisions to document reality.The critical scenes in the eventual story are performed and recorded in full-costumed, real-time improvisations where the actors encounter for the first time new characters, events or information which may dramatically affect their characters' lives.

Final filming is more traditional as definite sense of story, action and dialogue is then in place. The director reminds the cast of material from the improvisations that he hopes to capture on film.
With all this discussion about the relative merits of another film inspired EFL teqnique (teaching unplugged aka Dogme), I wondered if and how Leigh's unique method might be translatable to the EFL world.

Firstly, Leigh builds his storyline through improvisations with his actors. He lets the characters build the narrative. If we see the teacher as a director and the students as actors, then I think we can see the story as a curriculum. Rather than arrive in the classroom with a prescribed plan, detailing the students classes for the next few weeks, the teacher and the students (led by the students) make their own curriculum over the the length of the course. Or we could see it as an individual lesson with the same approach.

Leigh then doesn't reveal the overall story to his cast until the project is finished. That's part of the reason why his films can seem so naturalistic, because the actors are actually surprised or laughing or crying as opposed to them pretending to be. As teachers, the idea of surprising our students and not telling them what we are doing can sound a bit troubling. I certainly don't like the idea of keeping the students in the dark. Consequently, if students need to know where they are going, how they are getting there and why, adopting Leigh's approach seems reckless and potentially harmful. It risks aimlessness, and a lack of direction which could easily lead the students into wondering exactly why they are there and if they are improving.

However, I think it's possible to hold back some information from them without making them ignorant. For example, I think most teachers don't feel the need to explain the teaching methodology behind each activity, as normally the learners having a sense of satisfaction will suffice. The other important thing to remember is that the process is not without a direction, or indeed, a director. If the teacher has objectives, even if they are fairly loose, then he can create signposts along the way so the students know that learning is taking place, just as Leigh knows the kind of film he wants to make without deciding upon the specific details of the narrative, and that at various times in the filming, his actors will begin to understand how the story is developing.

The scenes are then filmed in costume, where, as I mentioned, the actors can discover new information about the story and other characters as the scene progresses. I like the idea of our students, taking part in the class, and as it happens, being pleasantly surprised by the activities they can do, the language they are learning and using and the skills they didn't realise they had. A little utopian, perhaps, but with a the right attitude on both the part of the learner and the teacher, it is entirely possible. That sense of surprise, which is invaluable for motivating the students, is only possible if you hold something back and let the students discover it for themselves.

Finally, for Leigh, the result of this approach is to create an engaging story. His films do not feel experimental to the audience, as they follow a fairly traditional narrative structure. In fact audiences should find themselves identifying with the events as they unfold, especially for a British audience. In this way, the teacher doesn't have to rewrite the rule book in terms of how a lesson operates. Tried and tested activities could still be used if they fit the main aims. He could even use a coursebook if he likes!

Leigh's overall objective is to capture reality, in all it's tragedy and comedy. While I'm not looking to include too much tragedy in my classes, I am certainly interested in reality. By using this naturalistic approach, the teacher can create student centred classes by collaborating on the introduction of authentic and engaging subjects for the students. I'm not sure I'd describe that as courageous, but I do consider it essential.

So these are just some random thoughts on how Mike Leigh's style could work in a TEFL setting. This is not some kind of manifesto for a movement (Leighism? That's a terrible name.) Perhaps it's poorly thought out and pretentious. I'm sure there are holes in it, so I'd love some feedback, and if you have any other ideas for film inspired teaching movements, I'd love to hear them too.
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Tuesday, 26 October 2010

Back to school.

Picture Source: atbaker and Animal Photos!

Reading Ania Kozicka's excellent guest post on Ken Wilson's blog this morning, the thing that struck a chord with me was not the main topic of her piece, but something she mentioned at the end in her biographical information.

"When you see me you may catch me…- writing a script
- listening to music
- dancing
- enjoying the sun – the best source of energy
- reading a book
- watching the Smurfs – they always make me smile!
- sitting with a Spanish grammar book - I believe a teacher cannot understand their students unless they are students themselves."

It's that final point that got me to thinking about my own experiences as a learner as opposed to a teacher. I absolutely agree with Ania's point, but my relationship with language learning has always been complicated.

Like almost everyone, my first experiences were at school, studying French. My memories of the lessons are very hazy, as you would expect after 20 years, and aside from my almost unrelenting cheekiness (Mr Sheppard, if you're reading this, I apologise for being an irritant of monumental proportions), I'm not sure at all of what we actually did in the classroom. 

Nothing unusual about that, I don't remember the make up of any of my other classes either, but as a language teacher I am especially curious, particularly as I know I studied French for at least three years, got a B for my GCSE and yet at no point in my life could I honestly say I could speak French, or even be close to it. If I was to join a French class today, and I've just moved to Belgium so this isn't entirely unlikely, I would have to be in the beginners class. So now I'm burning with curiosity, trying to fathom what we could have been doing for those years that, even if you take into account my own reticence to study the language, led to a situation where I can just about read a menu and say "Le singe et dans l'arbre". If you can answer that question for me, I'd be grateful.

My next experience was after moving to Brazil, some 15 years later. I took Portuguese classes for a couple of months before I became a teacher, which I quite enjoyed, although I was by no means the class swot. That experience was invaluable to me, because I can still remember the feelings of inadequacy and frustration I had as the class happily sung along with a pop song while I understood absolutely nothing, and had to sit there in stoney faced silence. I remember the repetitive annoyance of being asked a question by the teacher and overhearing the answer muttered under her breath by another student who was quicker than me and impatient of my slowness. And I also remember the pleasure I got from getting the answer right, of pair work with an anarchic New Zealander, and the general amusement at the man who refused to stop speaking Arabic.

In other words, I think it's essential for a language teacher to have these experiences so they can know what it feel likes to be an adult language student with all the occasional frustrations that can involve. I'm not someone who loves to learn languages, for me it's a struggle and I'll never be one of those people you hear about who 'pick up' a language in no time at all. That's my reality, and I'm not complaining about it, it's just something I have to accept. But what it has done is enable me to understand that all students aren't wide eyed enthusiasts who just can't wait to learn. 

When you teach adults, there will always be a percentage of your students who are there because they have to be, or think they have to be. As a result, I can understand their frustrations and feelings, and there are two benefits of this.

Firstly, it makes it easier to empathise with their situation. I have worked with teachers who talked about adults learners who "need a kick up the backside". To me, this simplistic approach fundamentally misunderstands the complex nature of language learning. If you've been there, and had that bad day, or forgotten to do your homework, or said soap when you meant to say ice cream, you are more likely to understand that this can lead to sensitivity, shyness and embarrassment. 

Secondly, an awareness of the students situation leads to a greater understanding of how the teacher can act as a motivator in trying to engage them in the class and their studies. Rather than dismissing them as lazy or too quiet, the teacher can think about their own role in stimulating the students by perhaps encouraging a more positive learning style and subsequent outcome. (The subject of learner motivation interests me, and I'll come back to this at a later date.)

These experiences, I think, have been essential in helping me to become a better teacher. As a teacher of adults, disciplinarian is a role that I never feel the need to occupy. Friend, adviser, and counsel, however, are positions that from time to time are required. Without understanding their feelings this is impossible, and the experience of being a student makes this much easier for the teacher.
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Tuesday, 19 October 2010

How I accidentally started my teaching career unplugged.


If you are not familiar with the term 'teaching unplugged', you should read this, Scott Thornbury's excellent article from 2001.

I arrived in Brazil in May 2006, and after some time waiting for my work visa, I started looking for teaching work. I was lucky enough to be introduced to Sara Walker (have a look at her CV and you see what I mean by lucky), who kindly made a couple of phone calls to help push me in the right direction. One of those phone calls led to my first contracted teaching job, which I'll write about at some point in the future, and the second, to the boss of a language school, led more immediately to my first lesson.

After going for a meeting with a school administrator, one of her teachers called me and asked me if I would be interested in working for another school she was setting up. Obviously I was interested, and after meeting with me they decided they were prepared to completely overlook my total lack of experience and give me some private students. They would support me with coursebooks and materials that I could use, and they assured me that the students would also have their own books. As a complete novice relying only on my status as a native speaker, this was clearly important to me.

A couple of weeks later, I was still waiting for my first student when the phone rang. "We have a student for you," I was told, "but it's just a one off class and it starts in two hours". When I realised that the bus journey would take around an hour and a half, as you can imagine, I was pretty frantic. The student was a business woman who was having a phone interview in English the following day and needed to practice her interview technique. So I googled 'interview questions' and printed out a couple of pages of typical subjects for a job interview, and off I went to my first lesson, scared of getting the wrong bus, of getting lost, of being late, and of messing up the lesson.

Now I don't remember much of what happened in those two hours we spent sitting at her dinner table, apart from the amazing fruit smoothie her Mum made for us, but I do remember that we talked non-stop and that she had the opportunity to speak about many aspects of her life and work. Truth be told, there was almost certainly too much teacher talking time, but that aside, I think I did pretty well for a newbie who'd been dropped in it at the last minute with no preparation time or materials.

At the time, the experience boosted my confidence in my ability to 'be a teacher' or at least successfully pretend to be one until I could learn more about it. In the long term, I can look back on it now and see how I had inadvertently started my teaching the way I want to continue, by being able to walk into a classroom and use the material that the students generate to create dynamic, useful and enjoyable classes. The interview questions we used were just a springboard, and a natural conversation (class) followed, but it was never forced and there was definitely no strict lesson plan with a required grammar activity or a listening exercise. In other words, it was mainly student led (although this was probably because she was a very easy going, chatty person, and not because I had somehow opened up a telepathic link with Thornbury and Meddings, writers of whom I was not yet aware).

I have followed a fairly traditional path, if such a thing exists, in becoming a qualified ELT teacher by working in an institute, following their prescribed coursebooks and then taking the CELTA and learning classroom management and CCQ's etc. As with many teachers now, who seem to be moving away from the controlling influence of the coursebook to a more cooperative and occasional relationship with the published material, I too prefer to dip in and out of coursebooks and rely more on student generated content. This leads me to wonder if I need to unlearn some of these lessons I have learned in the last few years and go back to the naive happenstance of my first class, with just a handful of interview subjects and a willingness to learn, both for the student and the teacher.

Of course, I'm not suggesting that I regret the things I've learned between then and now. On the contrary, those experiences are precisely what have enabled me to reflect in this way. I am also acutely aware that coincedence was a big factor, with not just the personality of the student affecting how it went, but also the fact that she was an adult, that we shared common ground for discussion and there was only one of her, as opposed to the more intimidating environment of a classroom of staring and expectant faces. I was fortunate in a number of ways, most of all in that the class wasn't a disaster and didn't put me off teaching for life! Furthermore, although it took me some time to realise it, it provided me with an example of the possible effectiveness of a simple, materials light approach to teaching. And yes, she did get the job.

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Friday, 15 October 2010

Time to reflect...

As I have decided to throw myself into the ELT blogosphere, I think it's only right that I begin by telling you a little about who I am and why I started this blog. My name is James Taylor (@theteacherjames on Twitter), and I've been an EFL teacher to adults since 2006, when I went to live in Brasília, Brazil. I taught mainly one to one classes there for two years before moving to Seoul, South Korea, where, after completing the CELTA course, I taught local English school teachers.

Teaching is not something I had ever considered as a profession until I found myself in Brazil and in need of a job. Luckily for me, I fell in love with teaching English and the journey I have been on since that time has been the most rewarding experience of my life. To have the opportunity to find something that has had such a profound effect on me while also having had the chance to experience new cultures and meet some great people has been wonderful, but it has also been intense. I have read several times that a self reflection log is useful tool in a teachers development, and this blog will primarily allow me to reflect on the experiences of the last few years in a way that will, hopefully, encourage participation from other teachers and maybe even some of the students who were in my classrooms.

There are many things that have happened to me in the classroom in the last few years, and my hope is that by reflecting on them I will be able to improve myself as a teacher. If you'd like to join that process, then I'd love for you to get involved so please feel free to leave comments. Thanks. Now I have to choose the subject for my first proper post...hmmm...so many to choose from...
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