My bucket list

Like Hana Ticha, I would say I’m pretty satisfied with my life, and really appreciate the good fortune I’ve had to be able to do the things I’ve done. I’ve written about this before, and I would still say that if I die tomorrow, I’d be happy with the life I’ve lived. Nevertheless, there are still a few things I’d like to do, so here’s my contribution to Hana’s #bucketlistchallenge:

  1. Have a family.
  2. Fly in a hot air balloon, preferably in Egypt – this is something I’ve wanted to do since we made travel brochures as a school holiday homework when I was 11!
  3. Learn to play a musical instrument.
  4. Have two consecutive months when I don’t have to see a health professional about anything.
  5. See the curvature of the Earth from space – not sure how achievable that one is, but that’s why it’s a bucket list!
  6. See the lava of a volcano – I was very excited when I saw smoking volcanoes for the first time as I flew to Malta this summer.
  7. Take the Trans-Siberian Express.
  8. Learn Arabic.
  9. Learn an Indian language – Hindi, Urdu or Punjabi probably. When I was very young, the library my mum worked at had lots of bilingual children’s books, and I remember being fascinated by the different scripts there.
  10. Go on a walking holiday.

The first 5 were pretty easy to come up with, the others required a little more thought 🙂 What would your bucket list look like?

A volcano smoking in the bottom right-hand corner. The rest of the view is mountains with a few cotton-wool clouds over them
My first ever view of a volcano, near the toe of Italy as I flew to Malta in July this year

 

Introversion: the hidden strength in language learning? (guest post)

I was disappointed to miss out on Alastair Roy’s IATEFL talk this year, in which he described ways to help introverts in the classroom. Since I couldn’t attend his talk, I asked him to write a guest post for my blog. I’ll let him introduce himself…

All about me

I’d like to start this blog post by telling you a few things about myself. I enjoy going for walks alone with my dog (shout out to Oreo). I like reading books on my balcony. I hate noisy, crowded places like nightclubs. I don’t like to be the centre of attention, especially on my birthday. I like one-on-one conversations and prefer to take a back seat in group conversations. My mobile phone bill rarely exceeds nine euros per month because I prefer WhatsApp to my own voice. I find small talk tedious and, at times, painful. I enjoy eating out with a friend or two, not so much a big group. When the majority are at the beach soaking up the sun each summer, you’ll find me happily lost in a small town in Sweden, Portugal or Romania.

Put all this together and you’ll see that I have a rather introverted personality. Note that I don’t call myself an ‘introvert’, as I believe that introversion and extroversion lie on a spectrum, with each individual’s character falling somewhere on that line. Often when discussing my interest in introversion and its effect on language learning I’m told “but you aren’t introverted!”, or “you’re not shy – you like to talk too much!” It’s very simple: I’m chatty and outgoing if I feel comfortable with you and know you quite well. The great misunderstanding is that introversion is equal to shyness and inability to relate to others, a misconception that Cambridge even allude to in their online dictionary. To me, introversion and extroversion can easily be illustrated by something I encounter on my daily commute:

Two roads
Image taken from Google Street View

…two roads eventually leading to the same destination, each with its own particular set of obstacles. As teachers we need to be aware of where our students are on the introversion-extroversion spectrum and help them make the journey as smooth as possible so they can arrive at their destination.

Identifying introversion in students

I’m often asked after giving sessions on introversion how to identify students who may be more-introverted. I’d love to say it’s easy, but it’s not so easy to pin down.

I first became interested in the effects of introversion in language learning because of four students I had in a Cambridge: First preparation group. What drew my attention to these students was their lack of participation in class, and I automatically jumped to the conclusion that they were struggling with the content of the course. This was just before the Christmas break, so we soon parted ways for a week or two of obscene quantities of food and gifts. During that holiday, which I spent in my childhood home in Scotland with my family, my mum handed me a ‘memory box’ she had kept for me, stuffed to the brim with yellowing pieces of newspaper and other long-forgotten objects. As I made my way through the never-ending collection I happened upon an envelope full of school reports, meticulously kept since 1988 in true Mrs Roy style. What I read made me realise that I had misjudged those four students, and it would lead me change my whole approach to teaching:

  • Alastair is often distracted – or bored – in class.
  • Alastair needs to participate more if he is to succeed.
  • Alastair must learn to work better in a group.

I thought back to all of those classes. Had I been such a bad student? I was no angel, but nor was I so detached from the learning process. Over the course of my festive break I analysed thirteen years of schooling. I had hated raising my hand in class. I had disliked group work because I preferred to navigate my own thought processes. I had written stories with an imagination you couldn’t believe. I had enjoyed practical subjects where I could experiment on my own.

These four students in my class were me.

They were avid readers, forever in the school library. They were conscious of their work and strived for 100%; 99% was not an option. They enjoyed speaking practice with their friends but were filled with terror when I drew names out of a hat at random.

The problem was that my classroom environment wasn’t meeting their needs as learners.

On my return to school, refreshed and carrying an extra two kilos of Christmas joy, I began investigating a bit further and stumbled across some of Susan Cain’s work online. After reading her book in one weekend I decided to adapt a questionnaire she devised and use it in class as a fun activity. I led in with a discussion on introversion and extroversion to find out how familiar the students were with the concepts: they were surprisingly knowledgeable about introversion and how it manifests itself. We then completed the questionnaire (me included), with students writing down their answers on a piece of paper as I dictated the questions. We then compared answers by revisiting the questions and having a chat about the results. Students were able to opt out of answering if they felt uncomfortable, which a few did on some questions. The feedback from this activity confirmed my suspicions that these students were not struggling academically, rather the classroom environment was not conducive to their learning needs.

Creating a more inclusive environment

Reflecting on my own experiences, I began to analyse my classroom practice with a view to making the learning environment more accessible for all. I realised that the language learning environment can be quite exclusive, favouring extroversion over introversion, with this being particularly true with the communicative approach. So I made a list of the factors that had a negative effect on more-introverted students in my classroom, including:

  • lack of quiet time to think and reflect on what they have learned;
  • stressful group situations;
  • fear of speaking out in class – fear of ridicule;
  • classroom layout;
  • the typical teacher ‘worry’ about students who are on their own.

It was time to take action. Not wanting to make sudden changes to classroom procedures that had been established for some time, nor wanting to go too far and risk the exclusion of more-extroverted students, I introduced my new approach gradually.

Lesson Structure

First, and most importantly, I introduced what I like to call ‘the valley’. While this may conjure up images of breathtaking Welsh scenery, it was an important element in classroom activity which meant starting the class with noisier activity, perhaps vocabulary input or a video, followed by a quiet activity, such as reading, in the middle, before finishing with another interactive activity, perhaps speaking.

Valley

Taking this approach means that more-introverted students have the opportunity to work quietly and individually, giving them time to reflect on what they are learning, while more-extroverted students are not denied the opportunity to work in a more interactive way.

Working in groups

I often ask students to produce projects or presentations in groups. However, for someone who is more-introverted this can present a series of challenges: speaking out in front of a group, a heightened sense of ridicule, or simply just not being confident to challenge ideas. A nice way to solve this is to issue roles to each member of the group: the sense of order and clear expectations for every member of the group can go a long way to addressing our fears. Roles can include note-taker, chairperson, spokesperson; I even include a ‘language police’ role where the person monitors the group and ensures they are using the target language as much as possible.

Another key thing to bear in mind is this: is working in groups really the only option for the activity? Could an individual produce something equally as valid in the same amount of time? Let them choose whether they want to work individually, in a pair or in a small group and be flexible. Sometimes the team approach is not the most productive; letting the individual choose how they prefer to approach some tasks can lead to much more affective learning.

Speaking out in front of the class

It would be wrong to say that more-introverted people strongly dislike speaking in group situations, such as in class or in work meetings, with many equating this aversion to the aforementioned ‘shyness’. In reality this is not the case at all. Putting someone who is quite introverted on the spot is extremely stressful – our introversion means that we like to think our ideas through and plan an answer before we open our mouths to speak. Think back to the last class you taught: did you put any students on the spot to answer a question? Or perhaps you asked a question to the whole group and chose someone whose hand shot up into the air? The chances are that you didn’t speak to one of your more introverted students. Some ways you can make group discussion more accessible to more introverted students are:

  • Give a few minutes for students to construct an answer on their own or with a partner before contributing to a group discussion.
  • Allow students to make notes on cards in preparation for discussions – note-taking is a valuable skill to develop.
  • Introduce a ‘question-pause-question-answer’ approach, whereby you ask, wait a few seconds, ask again, and then invite answers. The moment’s pause allows everyone the opportunity to construct an answer.
  • Introduce a ‘pass’ option in quick-fire questioning. Although some students will abuse it at first, I have found that some of my introverted students have been thankful for the opportunity to step back from a question when they are not fully ready to answer. This doesn’t mean that you can’t return to them a few moments later for their input.

Classroom layout

I’ll keep this part simple. Are your students in rows or groups with the teacher’s desk at the front? Move your desk to another part of the room so that students can approach you for support more discreetly. Consider creating a quiet area, if possible, where students can remove themselves from the group during individual activities and ‘recharge their batteries’. Have a mixture of group tables and individual tables and allow students to choose where they want to sit for different activities.

Worrying about ‘lonely’ students

This area is particularly relevant to me as I write this, as just today I had a lovely conversation with a student in the playground of our school. Every day I see him sitting alone on the same chair, swinging his legs and staring off into the distance. Our gut instinct as teachers is to nurture relationships between students; however, sometimes we need to recognise that we shouldn’t force students into being with others at all times during the day. Back to the student today, I asked him how we was, and he told me he was “fine”. A typical answer. I asked him if he wouldn’t prefer playing rather than sitting down during his break, since he’s sitting down all morning in class. And the reply was strikingly honest: “I like being on my own”.

Of course, the teacher in me discreetly checked that he truly did want to be on his own, as opposed to feeling excluded by his peers. But he assured me that he loved his classes and enjoyed being with his friends, but that his breaks were “his time”. Brother, I totally get you.

What could we do? First, try not to jump to conclusions. Try chatting with a student who is on their own and finding out a bit about them: if they are happy being alone then leave them be. Being on our own helps us recharge our batteries and face the next part of our day with renewed energy. Offer a quiet space, for example the library or the classroom, where they can relax during breaks. They will thank you.

Conclusion

“Introvert: someone who is shy, quiet and unable to make friends easily” is how Cambridge describe my personality type. I’m not particularly shy. My family and friends will tell you I’m far from quiet, especially when I get on my soapbox about something I feel strongly about. I don’t find it particularly difficult to make friends when I have things in common with people. But what I don’t enjoy are some of the situations I’ve described in this blog post. Introversion is a unique personality trait that fosters far more positives than negatives, but as education (especially in languages) is subconsciously directed towards the extroverted ideal, many who tend towards introversion don’t have that opportunity to shine as brightly as they should. Us teachers hold the power in our hands to make change this.

To close any workshop I present on this topic, I like to tell people a story that is attributed to Mark Twain that I believe sums up introversion:

Upon arriving at the pearly gates of Heaven, a man asks of Saint Peter, “Sir, I would dearly love to meet the greatest General the world has ever known”.

Saint Peter, smiling, points to a elderly gentleman sitting on a nearby cloud. “Why, there he is, sitting over there!”

“Rubbish!” answers the man, “He is not the greatest General! I knew him on Earth. He was nothing more than a common baker!”

“Ah, but that is where you are wrong,” said Saint Peter. “That man may not have been the greatest General the world has ever known, but if he had been given a chance, he jolly well would have been.”

P.S.

If you’ve made this far, thank you! If you would like to learn a bit more about introversion and its affects on the learning process, I highly recommend you read Susan Cain’s book [affiliate link]. You can also find a very early version of what would become my session at IATEFL 2017 here and and some interviews with me about the topic at the British Council Madrid Conference 2015 and the TESOL Spain Conference 2016. You can also contact me on Twitter if you’d like to ask me anything: @air02.

Alastair Roy

Alastair Roy is Manager of the British Council teaching centre in Villaviciosa de Odón, a stone’s throw from Madrid, Spain. As well as being a regular conference speaker and teacher trainer, he is a Trinity TYLEC tutor. He is currently completing a Master’s degree at Lancaster University while attempting to rebuild his long-abandoned blog, Resourcefl – watch this space!

References

Cain, Susan. (2012) Quiet :the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking New York : Crown Publishers.

Cambridge Dictionary: Entry for ‘introvert’. http://dictionary.cambridge.org/es/diccionario/ingles/introvert?q=introversion Accessed on 16 July 2017.

Other posts about introversion (from Sandy)

If you’re interested in finding out more about helping introverts in the classroom, or if you’re an introvert yourself, Laura Patsko has written a series of posts you might be interested in. Anthony Schmidt has also collated some relevant research.

The Proficiency Plateau (guest post)

At the beginning of my career, I was lucky enough to work with a whole range of dedicated teachers at International House Brno. One of them was Lily-Anne Young, who at that point had been teaching the same proficiency-level group for a couple of years. She worked with the same group for many years, and is therefore always the person I go to when I need help with teaching very high-level students. She has now agreed to write some guest posts for me, which I hope you will find useful. Over to Lily-Anne:

What do you do with students who already have, or don’t need, CAE/CPE but want to keep working on their English? The non-native speaker teachers, translators, business & tech people and many others? The ones who have hit the proficiency plateau?

Having taught a C2 class for 10 consecutive years, with many returning students, this is an area I have dealt with, struggled with and love. It’s demanding, challenging and potentially soul destroying, yet I, and some other people, thrive on this.

Expectations are incredibly high. It’s up to us and the learners to meet those expectations. To do this, it has to be a mutual experience: negotiated content, constant communication, reciprocal feedback, respect and the teacher as a facilitator.

In this introductory post I’m going to share some of the observations I have made over time and consider the implications for both teachers and learners.  In future posts I will share some activities which have proved successful with my students, and make further salient observations.

Who are these amazing people?

O’Maley (Advanced Learners, OUP) [affiliate link] points out that learners at this level are usually:

  • Highly educated
  • Teachers, educators, translators, academics
  • Middle or senior management

Based on my own students, past and present, they:

  • may be suffering from the Proficiency Plateau;
  • are highly motivated;
  • but may be wondering just how they can, usefully, improve their skills;
  • cannot be pigeonholed (as if we would ever consider such a thing);
  • love to challenge the teacher and to show off a bit;
  • all have different areas of language expertise, obsessions and gaps.

The Proficiency Plateau

I am coining this phrase as my own (I hope nobody else has used it). Teachers often talk about the Intermediate Plateau, yet the same situation can be hit at all stages of learning a language and once learners have achieved C1/C2 level it can seem almost impossible to measure progress and achievement.

What does it mean?

It means that you are going to work with students who, as with most learners, have a wide range of interests, from the mundane to the bizarre, but who also have much of the language needed to express complex ideas. This gives us a much wider range of available topics and scope to play with language than we have with lower levels and coursebooks.

It means that they are going to ask you questions you may not know the answer to off the top off your head or can answer but can’t explain. Hence, you need to be able to think on your feet and be willing to admit that you are not an encyclopedia, dictionary or Google.

It means that you have to adapt coursebooks, resource books, find suitable authentic materials and create lessons from them which meet the diverse needs of the learner(s). Which takes us on to:

Materials

There is a dearth of ready-made materials for advanced learners who don’t want to do CAE/CPE/IELTS  (or have it). This is mainly due to a lack of market demand and I believe/hope, based on the fact that my C1 students are getting younger every year, that this may change. (Yes, I am older but the C1 students are still in secondary school – that’s a big change from 10 years ago when my students were 30+).

In the meantime there are published resources which you can use and adapt – after all, we teachers are very skilled at that – and the CAE/CPE books can give you an idea of which language areas you may wish to target in the development of your course.

However the main resource for us has to be authentic materials.  Everybody has their favourites and I have mine, which I will reveal at a later date 🙂

Going beyond language

Push the boat out; above and beyond; the call of duty; hit the nail on the head. These are all wonderful phrases to know but you have to encourage your learners  to use them in appropriate situations, not just parrot them to show off knowledge. Likewise we have to motivate the learners to use their language effectively.  

To do this I work with authentic materials, some of which are provided by them and some by me, then use those materials to create classroom situations in which they can practise both language and skills.

So here is a, not exhaustive, list of some of the skills my learners and I work on together:

  • Humour
  • Sarcasm & irony
  • Criticism & compliments
  • Swearing (be careful with this)
  • Different accents
  • Different Englishes
  • Poetry, nursery rhymes, literature
  • Reading between the lines
  • Presentation skills
  • Marketing/negotiation/persuasive skills
  • Making appropriate choices between synonyms depending on contexts

Thus, I prefer to take the emphasis away from measuring progress and focus on encouraging my students to explore not only language, but also how English has so many variations and to develop skills which they may or may not have when using their own language.

I hope you have enjoyed this post and I have whetted your appetite for more.

Lily-Anne Young

Lily-Anne is a DipTesol qualified teacher with over 15 years experience in teaching in various locations and covering the whole gamut of teaching situations. Working as a freelance teacher trainer and senior teacher, based in Brno, CZ, she has recently decided to try to share some of her knowledge with other professionals via conferences and other peoples’ blogs.

In particular she has an interest on how to work with and help very advanced learners as this is an area she has been working in for a long time and many people find daunting.

In her spare time she plays in an amateur badminton league and tries to understand her Czech speaking boyfriend.