Monday, 27 June 2011

Why the music festival should have been unplugged

Note: This post is not an anti-technology piece as it may appear. I’m simply suggesting, as I have before, that tech should be employed only when it is necessary and adds something to the student learning experience. I’m also aware that I previously argued that we should put this discussion to bed, but this experience was too perfect a representation of my beliefs to ignore. Yes, I’m a hypocrite...

In May I was lucky enough to attend an amazing event in Barcelona with loads of like-minded, interesting people. I was entertained, enriched and absorbed in a wonderful occasion, and I hope can go back next year. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the IATEFL Teacher Development SIG Unplugged Conference, but the Primavera Sound music festival. 

I’m a big music fan, you see, so nothing makes me happier than traipsing around from stage to stage, watching old favourites like Shellac, the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and the Flaming Lips, as well as new favourites like Holy Ghost, tUnE-yArDs and El Guincho. The one downside of the festival was a technical one. The organisers had employed a fancy system for buying drinks, whereby you used a card with a QR code to pay. The card had to be preloaded from your registered credit card. To you that probably sounds ridiculously overcomplicated, but to be fair, the idea of not having to carry any money around with you at a music festival is quite enticing.

So it sounds like the organisers identified a need and had access to a rather cool new technology, and went for it. The problem was that they hadn’t taken two things into account. Firstly, we still had to carry money with us, because we had to get to the festival and back again, and we had to buy food at the stalls where they only accepted money. Secondly, there is already a perfectly good system in place that could have been employed with little fuss. It’s called cash.

Inevitably, the QR code system never worked and after a few hours the bars were accepting cold hard currency, as they did for the whole festival. The QR code system was really cool and an impressive idea, but it didn’t work and nobody needed it. And I couldn’t help but think of those who attended the unplugged conference in the same city a week before, and what they would have made of it all. I think they would have felt vindicated. I’m just glad the festival wasn’t entirely unplugged...

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Monday, 20 June 2011

ELT Blog Challenge - An Interview With Beth Cagnol

If you haven’t heard of it yet, the premise of the ELT Blog Challenge is simple.  Ask one of your favourite PLN people 5 standard questions, which you’ll see below, and from there, get to know them in ways that you might not otherwise have the chance to on twitter or other social media.

There were many highlights at this years IATEFL conference, but for me, in terms of pure enjoyment, the Pecha Kucha evening couldn't be beat. The standout performance was undoubtedly the 6 minute French class given by Beth Cagnol, the president of TESOL France. It was hilarious, and genuinely useful for me as I live in Brussels and cannot speak French. Ever since then I've been using "Pardon" for every situation!

I couldn't believe that Beth hadn't been interviewed for the ELT blog challenge, so I had to step up and ask her. I knew her answers would be interesting and entertaining, and she hasn't disappointed. So please allow me to introduce a natural entertainer, the first lady of TESOL France and the future first ELT stand up comedy teacher... Ms Bethany Cagnol!

Beth working it on the promenade

1) If your students were to label you with 3 adjectives, what might they be?

Committed, compassionate and uninhibited.

I’m committed because I love nothing more than seeing my students connect and become empowered.   I'm compassionate because I know what it feels like to struggle to learn a new language.  Seriously, I spoke Tarzan French when I moved to Paris nine years ago...
[pointing] baguette….ca…oui…merci.

My students will tell you I'm uninhibited; I'll do anything it takes to ease the tension and stress of language learning. I have this great game where I encourage students to take on bizarre roles, such as “You like to smell paper,” “You count all the buttons on a person before saying hello,” “You have to collect DNA from everyone you meet. (e.g. hair, skin etc.)” And they really run with it! And when they can laugh at me they aren't so afraid of taking risks and laughing with me."

Beth having her DNA collected

2) What would we find in your refrigerator right now?

Right now? The “working me” essentials. My fridge is familiar with two different “MEs”. The “working me” and the “vacation me”. The working me fridge has basic staples like pasta, salad, steaks, milk, eggs, a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken and a bottle of Ruinart champagne for Friday nights. But the vacation me fridge is packed with unpronounceable ingredients.  I have an adult class that likes to pick recipes out of the Joël Robuchon cookbook and I have to cook whatever the students choose, send them pictures and ask for advice on which wine to drink with it.  They make me cook some of the weirdest, and yummiest, stuff!

3) If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?

A publicist. An event planner (though, maybe not for weddings).  A florist (though maybe not for weddings). A stage or music manager. A personal assistant. A stylist (though maybe not for weddings).  And in that order too.  And on the side I would be a jazz lounge singer (currently working on that one).

4) What do you find most difficult about the teaching profession, or What has been your most difficult class as a teacher?

My most difficult class! Oh Lordy, I’ll never forget it. I was in the fetal position in the language department director’s office.  Tearing at my hair. Really!  I was given a group of university-age students who had a retched reputation for exhibiting behavior that we normally see in zoos.  I laid down the law and it completely blew up in my face. They mutinied.  For the entire semester, every time I entered their room, I felt like I was being asked to walk the plank.  While this happens very rarely, I think dealing with discipline issues (with all ages!) is one of the most difficult aspects of English language teaching.  

Beth's students showing off a treat from Ken Wilson

5) What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?

The movie “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels” with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. I know it practically by heart. I love the bit where Steve Martin is in prison in the south of France.
Martin: I didn't steal any money! She just saw me with another woman! You're French, you understand that!
Inspector: To be with another woman, that is French. To be caught, that is American.

And now for the encore...

6) Can you tell me a bit about where you teach, and how long you've been there?

I like to juggle. I’ve liked it since I began in 2002. It keeps me on my toes.  Being freelance, I teach in about five different places during the week. These include public and private higher education institutions and private companies.  I specialize in what the French call “deblocage.” I help the students come out of their shells.  I get the biggest rush when a student tells me they’ve been “debloquéd” thanks to my classes.

7) Where did you teach before there? Have you ever taught in any other countries apart from France?

I wish I had teaching experience in other countries! I taught piano and musical theater to teenagers back in my hometown in Virginia.  But it was in France I fell in love with ELT.  I’ve dabbled in teacher training in Poland. LOVE that SO much.

Beth's students presumably cooking up 
something delicious (well they are French!)
8) How did you become involved in TESOL France?

I arrived at TESOL France’s doorstep in 2006 for the Best of BESIG. It was my very first teachers' conference.  I knew right away I wanted in: watching it all come together, schmoozing with the top-notch speakers, the technical know-how, the nitty gritty, the adrenalin rush in the wings. All of this was familiar to me thanks to my years of theater experience.  I jumped in, head first, and co-organized the 2008 and 2009 Conferences with Ros Wright and graduated to organizer of the 2010 and 2011 events.  I’m convinced organizing conferences it is the best way to meet the best and the brightest in ELT.

9) Your Pecha Kucha was one of the highlights of this years IATEFL conference. Have you always enjoyed performing? Have you ever considered stand up comedy?  

[Blush] Thanks! I had a blast doing that PK. Stand up comedy?! Heck, why not!  I first got up on stage at the age of 5. I played a bush that sat on stage in a local production of the “Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Since then I’ve acted and sung in loads of shows.  It plays a huge part in my teaching experience.  Back in 2002, a language school boss said it best. He took me aside right before one of my first classes and asked, “Beth, do you like being on stage?”  … “Yup” I replied.  He winked and said, “Then, you’ll do just fine.”

Beth working it on the promenade part two

A big thanks to Beth for the interview. Be sure to have a look at the interviews in this challenge, including my interview with Ania Musielak here at:

Follow Beth on Twitter: @bethcagnol and read her blog.

And you can see Beth's Pecha Kucha among all the other great presentations on the video below:

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Wednesday, 15 June 2011

How Would You Teach Carlos Tevez?

Match 52 - Carlos Tévez

For you non-football fans, Carlos Tevez is an Argentinian footballer who currently plays for Manchester City in England. He has lived in the UK since September 2006, playing for West Ham and Manchester United before he joined their bitter city rivals. He has never seemed entirely settled in the country, and now his family are living back in Argentina, including his two daughters. He often talks about leaving to be closer to them.

On May 19th @MundoAlbicelest tweeted the following:

I couldn’t help but imagine what Tevez has been like in the classroom. What kind of learning experiences has he experienced up to this point that made him feel this way? Was it is his fault, did he have a bad attitude, or did the teaching he receive not match his particular requirements?

My feeling is that (almost) everyone can be taught, no matter how difficult they seem, and it’s our responsibility as teachers to find the right style for our students. That’s not to say that it’s necessarily easy, of course.

So my question to you is: If he was in your classroom, how would you teach Carlos Tevez?

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Thursday, 2 June 2011

From Morrissey to Marmite - Why You Need To Help Your Students Find Their Passion

Morrissey, the British singer best known as the singer of the Smiths, is one of those decisive characters that is ever loved or hated in roughly equal measure. We have a phrase for that in British English, the Marmite effect, named after the particularly pungent yeast-based spread that seems to divide the public in two. This is something that Marmite themselves haven't been afraid to exploit, as you can see below:

Anyway, back to Morrissey. It seems that he's an extreme example of the Marmite effect, as the people who dislike him appear to loathe him. He has been accused of racism on more than one occasion, unfounded I think (I think he loves being a provocateur, sometimes with unfortunate consequences). At the other end of the spectrum, the people who love him take adulation to a whole other level that is difficult for the non-acolytes to comprehend.

I have first hand experience of this as in a previous, non-ELT life, I was a music buyer for a central London music store. One day I was told that he was downstairs having a browse in our DVD section. I immediately rushed to find my friend, one of the believers in the church of Morrissey, who, standing about 15 metres away from him, staring with bloodshot eyes and with the tears slowly forming, asked me "Should I go and speak to him?" Weighing up the facts at hand and the very likely prospect of Morrissey being slightly disturbed by the sight of my blubbing incoherent friend, I thought of that sage maxim that I live by to this day: "Never meet your heroes." It was probably for the best, I think.

At this point you are probably and justifiably wondering why I am banging on about a bequiffed indie singer on an ELT blog, but hang on in there, I'm getting to the point.


Recently I was talking to a friend, who speaks superb English as his second language and was an English teacher in his own previous life, about his own love of Morrissey and suddenly all this worship made sense. He described how as a gay teenager he pored over the lyrics of The Smiths' songs, finding meaning and understanding in poetry that seemed to be written for him and his life.

This led him into a distant love affair with not only the singer and writer of the song, but also the land of their origin and the language that they were written in. These brilliant lyrics, dripping with wit, beautiful wordplay and culture, were analysed and deciphered. My friend described how he was desperate to visit England, a country far from his own that was hardly portrayed in the most positive way:

"Trudging slowly over wet sandBack to the bench where your clothes were stolenThis is the coastal townThat they forgot to close downArmageddon - come Armageddon!Come, Armageddon! Come!Everyday is like SundayEveryday is silent and grey."

Lyrics from the Morrissey song Everyday Is Like Sunday.

He was also equally despairing to understand all of the lyrics that seemed to speak to him directly.

"I am human and I need to be lovedJust like everybody else does.
There's a club, if you'd like to goYou could meet someone who really loves youSo you go, and you stand on your ownAnd you leave on your ownAnd you go homeAnd you cryAnd you want to die "

Lyrics from The Smiths How Soon Is Now.

And as my friend said "it meant the world for a depressed, ill-loved 17 year-old". And as an aside, he also learned the meaning of some useful vocabulary (soil, climb, cling, bride, groom, loutish, and good-looking were all gleaned from just one song, I Know It's Over).

As teachers, we are unlikely to find that most students have this kind of love and passion towards the language we teach. However, this conversation reminded me that if we discover, whether by accident or design, that our students find some aspect of the culture and subsequently the language of interest to them, we have to pounce upon it and use this as a way of encouraging their continuing studies. If the greatest resource in our classroom is the student themselves, then to miss this opportunity would be more than unfortunate, for both the teacher and particularly for the student.

It is normal, maybe even human, for us to enter the classroom with our own pre-assigned set of tastes and values which we cannot help but be influenced by. I know I do this, because more often than not I end up directing learners towards the Guardian because I think it's a great newspaper. The positive side of this is that our students can interact with a teacher who is passionate and cares about a subject or source of material. It gives them the chance to become involved with an authentic element of the culture in an enriching way.

The flipside is that it is prescriptive, and an imposition of taste upon the learner. I'm wondering if I had a student who loved Celine Dion and, god forbid The Daily Mail (no links to them, you may notice), would I be able to set aside my prejudices and cash in on their passions, even though it would make my job less pleasant? I don't know, because as far as I know, it's never happened, and that's the problem, I never gave them the chance to tell me.

So these thoughts lead me to the conclusion that when I'm doing needs analysis with a new student(s), I need to give them the chance to tell me about their current and past relationship with English language culture, and any passions they may have. It is entirely possible that there is nothing that they care about strongly, but I at least have to give them the chance to tell me, so I can cast my own prejudices aside and make the learning experience as rich as I can for the student.

And if I was teaching my friend now, I would fill his classes with the poetry of Morrissey and the taste of Marmite, which is, appropriately enough, his other great British obsession.

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