Tuesday, 24 April 2012

One Postcard

In my one to one class the other day, my student pulled this postcard out of her bag.

No to Contemporary Art # P4, 2006 by Patrick Guns (www.patrickguns.com). Printed by www.kletandko.be.
I immediately seized upon the image as I thought it was an arresting image and just the kind of thing I like to use with my students. It’s an ambiguous image, probably photoshopped, with a small amount of interesting language and with plenty of scope for investigation.

Below I’ve listed 41 different things you could say to your student(s) in response to this image.

1) What do you like and dislike about this image?
2) Who do you think made these signs?
3) Why did they make them? 
4) Who are they aimed at? 
5) Where was the picture taken? 
6) Why do you think that?
7) Who are the people in the background? 
8) Why are they there?
9) What do you think is written on the sign on the car in front?
10) Do you agree with the signs?
11) If you this was your sign, what would you write instead of contemporary art?
12) Why did the photographer take this photo?
13) Why was it turned into a postcard?
14) Rewrite the sign with new verbs.
15) Rewrite the sign and make it positive. What would you say yes to?
16) What do you think these people would say yes to?
17) Let’s practice the pronunciation of the words.
18) Let’s change the intonation. If we stress different words, does it change the meaning or intent?
19) How would you convince these people that contemporary art doesn’t suck (whether you agree with them or not)?
20) What do you understand by the definition contemporary art. Can you think of any examples?
21) Is contemporary art popular in your country?
22) Do you know the names of any other kinds of art? Which is your personal favourite?
23) Do you think contemporary art should be sponsored by public money?
24) Do you enjoy seeing art in public spaces, or do you think it’s a waste of money?
25) If you were artist, what kind of art would you make? Picture it in your mind and describe it to a partner / me.
26) Is protest popular in your country? What do people usually protest about?
27) Have you ever protested? If yes, what about? If not, what would it take to make you go out onto the streets?
28) Do you think that public protest is worthwhile or a waste of time?
29) How do you think it feels to be a police officer at a protest?
30) Is violence ever justified at a protest?
31) Do you think this picture is real?
32) Does it matter if it is real or not? Is authenticity important in art? 
33) What do you think the photographer is trying to say with this image?
34) Why do you think the photograph is black and white and not colour?
35) Do you think this picture belongs in a gallery?
36) If you were going to send this postcard to someone, who would you send it to?
37) Write the postcard to that person.
38) Swap postcards with someone in the group and reply to their postcard, imagining that you are the person they have written to.
39) If you could interview the photographer, what would you ask him?
40) If you could interview the protesters, what would you ask them?
41) If you think it was photoshopped, what do you think was originally written on the sign?

Now I didn’t say all of these things to my student, that would be overdoing it a bit. In fact I probably chose less than ten and got a good 45 minutes of discussion and activities from them. All of these questions are perfectly valid responses to the image, however, so it’s just a case of picking and choosing which ones your students will engage with, or even better, ask themselves without prompting. 

And each area of discussion can lead into its own area of discovery, whether that’s grammar, pronunciation and so on. I asked my student to exchange ‘contemporary art’ for another phrase on her own protest banner and she arrived on ‘female mutilation’ (with a little language help from me) which led to an interesting discussion, as you can imagine. A rather more serious suggestion than my own ‘cinnamon with apples’!

It’s amazing what you can come up with when you have an open mind, a willingness to be taught by the student(s) and the confidence to be flexible. All you need is one postcard.

For this and more great images in the No to Contemporary Art series, go to the artists website.

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Thursday, 12 April 2012

ELTchat Blog Challenge: My First Lesson Plan

The current ELTchat Blog Challenge is to share with us your first lesson plan. If you can't find it or threw it away in a tidy up many moons ago, then why not tell us about your first ever lesson as an EFL teacher? What do you remember? What do you wish you'd known then that you know now? And when you look back on that lesson, how do you trace your own development since that day? I'd love to hear about your memories and reflections.

If you'd like to learn more, listen to Bethany Cagnol's reflections on the ELTchat podcast.

I've actually already blogged about my first ever lesson, in fact it was my first post proper on this blog back in October 2010. For this post I have decided to literally write about my first lesson plan, the first time I ever sat down and wrote out my aims and the procedure of the class in a formal way. Not surprisingly, this was on my CELTA.

So four years on, how do I feel about this lesson plan? Here are some observations...


Twenty minutes! Oh how I remember it now, it seemed like an eternity. Now it disappears in a heartbeat. But it's hard to achieve a lot in that amount of time, so it does make a difference in how I assess the plan.

Stage and Aims

Clearly this was a writing class with the idea of recycling vocabulary already learned in the lesson (the lesson was divided up into sections, twenty minutes per teacher). I have no problem with that!


- Eight points in twenty minutes! For me, that's overplanning but at the time I needed to break a lesson down, understand its constituant parts and how they work in order for them to become the second nature that they are now.
- I used a supermodel as an example, which I certainly wouldn't do now. It's too bland and clich├ęd for me nowadays. Politician could certainly create some interesting feelings in most countries at the moment, and then we'd use students own examples rather than mine.
- As activities go, it's not a bad one. I wouldn't make handouts now, just give them pieces of paper which they could divide up into four.
- I collected examples of errors but didn't mention also collecting positive, correct uses of the target language which I would always do now.
- It didn't coalesce into a more meaningful activity, but I didn't have time, so I'll let myself off that one.


I should have played a less active role in point four. Now I would let the students get on with it without my input unless they specific asked for something. Otherwise, I would monitor, take notes, and not get involved.

Observer Comments

The feedback was very positive, but this examiner was known as the good cop of our two trainers! I'm sure he overlooked numerous faults in order to look to the positive, especially as it was the first teaching practice of the course.

Peer Feedback

I particularly remember the feedback I received after this session as it was one of those occasions where somebody says something that really sticks in your mind. In general, I'm a fairly lighthearted person so I was surprised when one of my fellow trainees described me as coming across as very serious in the lesson. She basically told me to smile more, and that simple point was very helpful in opening me up to the students and has helped me a great deal over the years. Thanks Lindsay!

Join the ELTchat Blog Challenge! Write about your first lesson plan or your earliest teaching memory on your blog and share it with me in the comments below, or tweet it with the hashtag #eltchat. For more details, read here.

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Saturday, 7 April 2012

IATEFL issues: People


Just a small part of the marvellous PLN at IATEFL this year.
For me, there's no doubt what the highlight of any conference is. Yes, the presentations are great, and yes, it's an opportunity to visit a great city, and yes, the parties are fun, but first and foremost, it's about the people.

And luckily for me, I'm part of a wonderful professional learning network of like-minded, equally passionate educators who I not only have the honour of knowing online, but occasionally get the privilege of meeting face to face. And while we do have fun together (and we do have fun!), we also talk a lot of shop, sharing reactions, impressions and opinions. We go and support each other when someone is speaking. We share their work and projects and make sure everyone knows how brilliant they are. Meeting in person takes this relationship to another level.

This year I was also recording interviews for the ELTchat podcast, which was a great way to meet some new people (I was particularly delighted to unmask OUPELTGlobal, and what a great guy he was!) and catch up with old friends. Thanks to everyone who spared me 5 minutes at Horton's for an interview.

So to everyone I met at IATEFL, thank you for being part of a wonderful week. Thanks is not enough, but it's the best I can do. And to those of you who weren't there, I hope I see you next year!
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Friday, 6 April 2012

IATEFL Issues: Dogme (or Wandering Naked Through the Dogme Forest...)

So Dogme ELT was one of the big issues of the conference. Big surprise, I hear you say. Well I'm sorry if you're tired hearing about it, but it's not going away. If this conference proved anything, it showed firstly that there are still a lot of teachers who don't know what Dogme ELT is, and secondly that even some of the ones who have heard of it don't really know what it is, even though they think they do. More about that later...

Ever since I have become interested in Dogme, I have heard the same old arguments against unplugged teaching and I'm becoming a little bored of them, to be honest. You know them, the old ‘you hate technology’, the familiar ‘you just make it up as you go along’, the hoary ‘what's so wrong with course books anyway’, and so on. I don't feel the need to go over these now, I think that they've been conclusively disproved or discredited in numerous blogs posts by my PLN and most comprehensively in the Teaching Unplugged book.

It's when you go to a conference like this that you can end up confronting these prejudices face to face. Martin Sketchley (@eltexperiences) gave a session in Glasgow where he presented his Master's thesis on Dogme ELT. He posited the idea that, based on his research, a balanced approach between teaching unplugged and more traditional, possibly course book based activities was the most effective way to teach. It was a measured argument, based on his research and a fair conclusion.

I can't argue for or against Martin because I haven't read his thesis, but I would like to know how he felt about the talk afterwards (and if you're reading this Martin, please let me know in the comments section) because I felt his talk was somewhat hijacked by audience. There's something about Dogme that seems to make the discussion go up a few notches and this discussion was no exception. I thought that it was unfortunate that at times the pitch of the argument became too exaggerated and I felt it made a genuine conversation difficult.

The most telling comment for me was from a teacher who said that before the session she didn't know what Dogme ELT was and now at the end of the discussion she felt she didn't know much more. I'm not blaming Martin for that, in that environment it would have been difficult for him to calmly get that across, but I couldn't help that feel it was a wasted opportunity. What could have been an opportunity for her to learn was instead a chance for her to feel that she had become confused by a heated argument, which can’t be the best way for any of us.

Adam and Emily in action.
There was another comment which I also thought was telling. An older teacher forcefully, and to be frank, rudely made the point that since she'd been teaching like this for 20 or 30 years, she couldn't see what the fuss was about. This is when I refer you back to those tired old anti-Dogme arguments that I mentioned at the beginning. This is another one of those old chestnuts, the classic 'this is nothing new so what's the big deal?' point of view. Adam Beale and Emily Bell's presentation the preceding day provided an excellent counter point to this perspective. Adam has been teaching for only two years and decided to undertake an action research project into teaching unplugged at his school in Santander, Spain. 

What his research and brilliant blog, where he reflects on his classroom experiences, have shown is that Dogme ELT is eminently teachable by an inexperienced teacher. For Adam to have discovered this way of teaching and been on the journey he has, something important and valuable to him not just as a teacher but as a person, Dogme ELT needed to exist, it needed a name, it needed a community, it needed teachers to call themselves Dogmeticians, it needed blog posts, it needed conference talks and workshops, it needed research and reflective practice, and it needed a book. Without these things he wouldn't have found it and we wouldn't have had the great Dogme chats we had in the cafe and pub, important events for both me and him (I hope).

So if you're not a Dogmetician and you find yourself wondering why us teachers with an interest in teaching unplugged are banging on about it again, remember these things. We still have to face the same accusations and defend ourselves against them. No less than Jim Scrivener accused Dogme teachers as being "unprepared" and most memorably as "wandering naked though the Dogme forest" in his otherwise excellent talk in which he otherwise gave one of the most compelling arguments in favour of Teaching Unplugged I've ever heard. If he can misunderstand what Dogme is all about, then we've still got a long way to go.

Update: Martin has kindly replied to my post on his
own blog:


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Thursday, 5 April 2012

IATEFL Issues: Work

The first of my reflections on the IATEFL conference...

One thing is for sure: teaching is hard work. It is time consuming and should probably pay more. But for me one of the questions that came out of the IATEFL conference this year was do we do enough of the right kind of it and furthermore, do our students?

The matter of student work was plainly laid out by Jim Scrivener in his talk "Demand High Teaching" (read more here). He posited that we have become too touchy-feely and too nice to our students. In his observations, based on watching classes all around the world and his discussions with Adrian Underhill, he has come to the conclusion that we need to demand more of our students. We have become facilitators, not teachers, setting our students up to do activities with unclear aims when we should be more involved in working with our students so they can actually discover and learn things about the language and how to use it.

JIm Scrivener introduces Demand High Teaching
Another talk along similar lines, Anthony Gaughan's "The Seven Deadly Sins of ELT", suggested that there are several techniques that are now considered outmoded but perhaps should be reconsidered. The sins that Anthony talked about (drilling, reading aloud, translation, use of dictionaries, teacher explanations, telling students they are wrong, teacher talk time) are pretty widely dismissed in modern ELT thinking, so it was fascinating to watch him present them in a new light. For me, this wasn't really a talk just about those particular techniques, but a wider question regarding the work that teachers do. I thought what he was really asking was for us to consider our decisions more carefully and to think more deeply about why we do the things we do, and as importantly in this case, why we don't do the things we don't.

In this sense, this was also about work. Not work in the sense of hours spent in front of a computer but rather in terms of time spent thinking deeply about what we do and not accepting things at face value. Many of us try to develop critical skills in our learners, and perhaps we need to spend a little time developing our own.

A different slant on this them was provided by Willy Cardoso, who spoke about teacher training and cultural baggage. He asked teacher trainers to allow space for trainees to reflect both on their teaching and their previous learning experiences. In his view, the value of these factors is underestimated by trainers. As a result, they unconsciously dismiss what can be learned from the trainees own cultural background which results in the domination of a western view of education. Trainers need to work at making the most of their trainees background.

Dave Willis makes the audience do some work
Dave Willis spoke about how the grammatical rules we teach our students do not reflect the reality of the English language as it is spoken. He drew attention to how coursebooks and subsequently teachers often teach written grammar as if it was spoken, when research shows they are quite different. As an example he showed how different verb tenses can be used to express quite different things (e.g. past tenses can be used to talk about the past, to talk about hypotheses, and to be polite). You are unlikely to find these in a coursebook, a grammar book or in our lessons.

The lesson we can learn from this is that we have to be more questioning and less accepting when it comes to the language as it is presented to us by figures of authority, normally in the published form. We need to have the confidence to question these rules if we are not satisfied with what they say. We, as teachers, are high level users of the language and we should believe
in our own judgements. Of course, this confidence doesn’t come overnight, it’s something we have to work at.

And going back to the idea of getting students to work, Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clandfield presented their new self-published resource book 52. The book contains an activity for every week of the year designed to encourage critical thinking in students (see here for an example). The activities they have created are specifically designed to challenge students, and also teachers, to think more and to consider issues of greater import than what you find in the normal ELT classroom. In simple terms, they need to work harder.

Luke Meddings subverts the classroom
As it goes, I’m very enthusiastic in my support of critical thinking activities. I’m not shy of rolling up my sleeves and working either. I can’t help but agree that we all need to do more work. The students need to become more industrious and not so spoilt, the teachers need to question themselves and the accepted teaching ideas of the time, and the trainers need to work on using their trainees culture to their advantage and give them more to reflect. It is to everyone’s advantage not to increase our workload, but to start to work better.

I’m indebted to Chia Suan Chong, Jemma Gardner, Sandy Millin and Laura Patsko for their wonderful and diligent blogging and tweeting of the IATEFL conference, including the talks mentioned above. Head over to their blogs to get a more detailed summary of each talk.
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