Last Friday marked the end of my fifth year as the Director of Studies at International House Bydgoszcz. When I moved here I thought that I would be a bit bored with the job after 5 years and it would be time to move on. I’m very surprised and happy to say that that is not the case at all, and I’m not planning to go anywhere anytime soon. I’ve written this post to share some of the things I’ve learnt from five years as a Director of Studies and some of the highlights of the job for me.
What I’ve learnt
Perspective is difficult to achieve, both for teachers and for you. Once you’ve got it, it’s both important to remember and hard to understand that others might not have it.
Patience helps, both with yourself and others.
Emotional reactions are a normal part of any job, but you need to learn when it’s OK to let them happen and when it’s better to wait.
You’ll deal with the same issues and hear the same complaints repeatedly, and it’s a lot less frustrating when you accept this.
The effort isn’t seen, the results are. Think about how they’ll be perceived.
There will always be accusations of favouritism, regardless of how much work you put into making things as fair as possible.
Difficult decisions are still decisions that have to be made. Know that they’re the best decision you can make at that point in time and move on.
Communication is key.
Gratitude makes a huge difference to how everybody feels. Express it sincerely and often.
Managers need feedback just as much as teachers do, but it’s hard to create an environment where you get it. When you get negative feedback, don’t fight it or get defensive about it. Accept it and learn from it. Show gratitude for it. Model how you want your staff to respond to feedback.
Crisis points are where huge amounts of learning happens.
Sometimes your teaching gets neglected when there are so many other things to think about.
You have to take care of yourself and your physical and mental health.
Have you ever watched in despair as students have a ‘conversation’ which is actually just two monologues? Or tried in vain to interact with a student who only gives one-word answers, however encouraging you are?
I know when I’m B1 or below, it’s difficult for me to pull my weight in a conversation and I need a lot of support from whoever I’m talking to. In the classroom we can provide this support in a variety of ways. We can supply sentence stems that students can complete, we can show them the first two or three turns of a conversation, or we can provide them with a whole range of questions or other functional language which might be useful in the conversation they are having.
These are all interventions we can make before or during students speak in class. But what about after the conversation? How can you help students to reflect on the success of that conversation? Here’s one idea I haven’t tried yet but it would like to: show students the conversation shapes below and ask them these questions:
Which shape is like a conversation you might have in your own language?
How would you feel in each of these conversations if you were a person A or person B? How actively would you participate in the conversation in each example?
Which shape is like the conversation you just had? Do you think you were person A or person B?
How successful do you think it was as a conversation?
What could you change in the conversation you just had to make it more like shape 3? What help do you need from the teacher to do this?
You can download a PowerPoint of all of the images at Conversation shapes if you want to adapt them for your own lessons, though please retain the credit.
I think this activity is an example of metacognition, which is the act of monitoring and making changes to learning strategies you use. The reflection helps learners to become aware of the processes they use when they are having a conversation, and what they can do to have more successful conversations in the future. Here’s a beginner’s guide to metacognition from Cambridge.
What other strategies do you use to help learners have more successful conversations?
On 26th June 2020, I took part in a panel for the IATEFL Leadership and Management Special Interest Group (LAMSIG) entitled ‘What now?’ with Nik Peachey, Sandra Pitronaci and Josh Round, and moderated by Jenny Johnson.
This second question-and-discussion led webinar provides a forum for ELT academic managers to connect with a panel of expert academic practitioners to understand and share our understanding and response to Covid-19 and how we prepare for the future. How much will return to our familiar “normal” and how much will be a “new normal”?
My role on the panel was to consider the academic implications of restrictions on physical distancing (a.k.a. social distancing), gatherings and class size. The management/financial implications were discussed in a business management panel two weeks previously.
What is social distancing and why is it important?
Social distancing is a term which has come into wide circulation since the COVID-19 pandemic began, but each country has its own rules on what that distance is (there’s a helpful infographic in this BBC article). It’s therefore important to check what the requirements are where you are teaching and stay up-to-date with any changes.
Social distancing is important because coronavirus spreads when an infected person coughs small droplets – packed with the virus – into the air.
These can be breathed in, or can cause an infection if you touch a surface they have landed on, and then touch your face with unwashed hands.
Virus transmission is less likely when ”fresh” air is involved – usually when people are outside.
As I write this, some countries allow people to be closer together providing they wear masks, have plastic screens between them, or sit side-by-side rather than face-to-face. There may also be legal requirements for ventilation (the virus seems to spread more indoors than outdoors, direction of any fans/drafts can influence the direction of the virus) and frequency and depth of cleaning.
Timing is also a factor – the longer you spend with someone, the more risky it is.
Timing is also key. The longer you spend in close proximity with an infected person, the bigger the risk.
Scientists advising the UK government say spending six seconds at a distance of 1m from someone is the same as spending one minute at a distance of 2m.
Being exposed to someone coughing is riskier. Being 2m away from a cough carries the same risk as someone talking to you for 30 minutes at the same distance.
All this means that when setting up classrooms for face-to-face teaching, we need to consider:
the amount of space between people
the number of people present
which direction they’re facing
whether masks are required or not
whether we use other methods of screening people from each other
ventilation of rooms
cleaning of surfaces
the amount of time spent together
Apart from this, we also need to have clear procedures in place if students or teachers show any symptoms or get the virus. This includes notifying anybody who might have come into contact with people showing symptoms to tell them to self-isolate, and may lead to whole schools being shut down again.
Getting back into the classroom with social distancing
Many schools do not have the option of using bigger classrooms, and there’s a limit to how many students we can lose and still maintain a viable business. We need to get smart with the spaces we have available. Our classrooms have chairs with folding We’ve played with various options at our school, though none of them are fixed yet. We won’t be trying any of them out until September 2020, so please let me know if you have other ideas!
Creating boxes marked with tape on the floor of the classroom to show which space each student should be in. Instead of our normal horseshoe pattern, it would be a grid using every part of the room, with all students facing forward (which feels like complete anathema to an experienced EFL teacher!) The first student to enter goes to the furthest box and the last student is in the one closest to the door. This also helps us to work out/manage exactly how many people can be in each classroom. The teacher has a slightly bigger box including the board.
Asking students and parents/carers to wear masks as they move around the school, until they arrive at their seat.
Telling parents/carers that they cannot come into the school building – they must drop their child off at the door.
Keeping windows open where possible to provide ventilation (not sure how that will work in the Polish winter though!)
Combining face-to-face classes with online ones (a hybrid approach), having one of each per week rather than two in the classroom.
This provides the benefits of both types of lessons, and means that if we have to go into lockdown again, students are already used to an online environment.
It also reduces the amount of time people spend in the school in relatively small rooms with groups of people, and therefore should reduce the risk.
This means we can use our bigger rooms for twice as many groups, as they will only be in school on one of their two lesson days, instead of both.
For off-site lessons, it reduces the need for teachers (and students!) to travel on one day a week.
Creating a code of conduct for students/parents to sign on how they will behave when in the school and in class, including staying the correct distance away from others.
Attempting to stagger class start and finish times to reduce the number of people moving around the building at the same time.
Having teenage group breaks in the classroom instead of moving to a communal space.
Requiring students to bring all of their own resources (pens, paper etc.). No resources will be lent to students by the teacher or by other students.
Using this large common space as a classroom, instead of a meeting place.
Working out a cleaning regime that can be run between lesson times, not just at the end of the day.
Ensuring there are large enough bins in every classroom for tissues so that they can be disposed of as soon as possible.
Changing the way that we teach, again.
A(nother) new way of teaching
Same same, but different: we’re back in the classroom, but not as we know it.
Students have their own boxes in the classroom which they must stay in during lessons, so we can’t change pairs or groups at will.
They can’t share resources, so we can’t do activities which involve passing paper or mini whiteboards around.
Both of the above mean that they can’t stand up and write on the whiteboard, as that’s a double-whammy of moving past other people and touching shared board pens.
Children can’t move from their seats, to the floor, to moving around the classroom. No more running games, or gallery walks with information stuck to the walls.
Teachers can’t walk around the room monitoring how successfully students are completing an exercise.
So what can we do?
New pairs can be formed by students turning in different directions, for example working with somebody from the box in front of them, to the left, to the right, or diagonally.
Include movement breaks or exercise breaks, with students standing up and moving around within their box but in a prescribed pattern so that they continue to stay the right distance away from others. Alternatively, they could put masks on while doing these activities.
Continue using some of the online resources which students are familiar with, for example Quizlet or Google Docs for collaborative writing. These can create a sense of team work.
Ask students to write large and legibly enough for the person in the box next to them to read their work. When they need to do a peer check or get a second opinion, they can hold up their notebooks so that their neighbour can read it.
The useful links section below has more ideas.
As lockdown has been lifted in Poland over the past few weeks, we’ve now arrived at a point where a lot of people seem to have forgotten that there’s such a thing as coronavirus, and we’re still at risk from it. Some people still wear masks and gloves, but most don’t. As I write this on 26th June, it’s 13 weeks until we start teaching in September, and only 14 weeks since we went into lockdown on 16th March. As we’ve all learnt in the past few months, a lot can change very quickly, so who knows how people will feel about social distancing in September.
I feel like some students and/or parents might refuse to follow the rules, creating potential conflict situations. We need to make our expectations very clear and explain that we’re putting these rules in place to ensure the safety of all of our staff and students. We don’t want everyone in the school to have to go into isolation because one person came in with the virus.
Another problem might be a lack of rapport in a group which has only met online or in a socially distanced space. If they can’t easily work with everyone in the group, it could be harder for them to feel comfortable using their English in front of their classmates.
It’s not all doom and gloom: students can benefit from a socially distanced classroom too.
If we have a first-in-sits-furthest-from-the-door policy, this could mean that people are working with different students each lesson because of the order in which they arrive.
Students will have to enunciate more and/or use clarification strategies if they can’t hear/be heard by classmates, rather than getting closer to each other.
We’ve got another chance to be super-creative with our teaching, and I know we’ll all benefit from that, however hard it might be at first!
These are all of the links I’ve managed to find so far for social distancing in the classroom. There don’t seem to be very many as I write this in June 2020, but I’m sure that will change! I’ll update the list as I find more.
Mike Tomkins had been teaching in a socially-distanced classroom for 4 months when he wrote this reflection. It contains answers to frequently asked questions, and a few activity ideas.
David Dodgson described his experience of moving to a paperless classroom to help maintain social distancing and how the rules in his school have impacted on his teaching.
Sara Davila wrote about social distancing and young learners (and teens) for the Pearson blog, including ideas for helping them to deal with stress and think critically. I think the discussion she suggests could be adapted as part of a first lesson, though the post seems to be aimed at teachers working with the same group all week, rather than a couple of lessons a week as our school does.
Helen Chapman talks about strategies she has used to work around the limitations of the socially distanced primary and secondary classroom, particularly the problems caused by wearing masks.
Rubens Heredia has 5 tips for the socially distanced classroom in this Pavilion ELT video:
After many attempts, the most successful search term I found was ‘activities for the socially distanced classroom’.
Sara Devila’s article (above) had a link to an article about a clever idea from primary schools in China: one-metre hats. A headteacher in Amsterdam had a different idea about keeping her distance by using a large skirt (though I’m not sure about the cleanliness of hand on the stick!)
Teaching experimental science in a time of social distancing includes some great experiments students could try at home, and shows how another branch of education is completing rethinking how they work.
This article from Spaces4Learning has some useful questions if you’re considering a hybrid approach (some face-to-face, some online classes) to help you think about what you do in each lesson.
These social distancing games shared on Twinkl are for primary school children, and many of them require a large open space, but they could provide some inspiration.
One of the positives of the situation in the last 3 months is the fact that many events are now held online and are therefore accessible to people from a wider range of locations. This was the case for the ExcitELT conference, held online on Sunday 14th of June 2020. I joined around 40-50 other teachers from all over the world to talk about overturning norms in ELT. As the conference was based in the Japan time zone it meant 7 a.m. start for me, but it was well worth getting up for!
The format of the conference is worth mentioning as I think this was one of its great strengths. Each one hour block was broken into three sections. First we had a short presentation from one or two people interested in that area. Then we went into break out rooms on Zoom in small groups of three to six people. We had access to a Google Doc containing questions to help us talk about the topic. We made notes in the document during or discussions and the final few minutes of the block involved a summary of interesting points which came up. This format works really well as it allowed us to dive into a topic in more depth and share our experiences of it. I feel like this led to a richer conference experience and I hope more conferences are run like this in the future.
Overturning norms around teacher conformity – Anna Loseva
This was the first of two topics from the conference which I had never considered before. Anna invited us to think about which areas teaching involve conformity. Examples might be the feeling that we need to get particular qualifications to progress in the career, the pressure to conform to student expectations like playing lots of games, or perceived market pressures such as the perception that students only want teachers who grew up speaking English.
Anna started to think about teacher conformity when she was looking for a job in Vietnam. A lot of people advised her to get CELTA to make the job hunting process easier, including me. Anna decided that if she did this and got a job it would validate the system which says that CELTA is worth more than a teaching degree and the many years of experience which she already had, though she also acknowledged the usefulness and worth of a CELTA course. She managed to get jobs and has proved to herself and others that it is possible to work in a foreign country teaching English without getting a CELTA first. This prompted her to ask when conformity is and is not useful, which was the topic of our group discussions.
How can conformity be helpful?
It helps us to learn new things from people around us as we trying to fit in. This is especially true for new teachers fitting into the profession.
Our group discussed the need to know what the rules are or might be before you feel comfortable breaking them.
If we conform to a particular set of requirements, for example how a course works within a school, it can make it easier to support each other. We have a common point of reference for discussions and a kind of shared language.
Having restrictions can push our creativity.
It helps us to learn the culture of the system, for example how a local education system works.
It helps us to know when we have met expectations.
It allows us to set standards, and develop and evaluate ourselves and others against those standards.
How can conformity be detrimental?
It can lead to burnout, frustration and disappointment.
Students and teachers can end up losing motivation.
Students don’t necessarily know what is best for their education, so if we conform to their requests or expectations all the time it might be detrimental to their education.
When people conform without questioning it can lead to keeping guidelines which we no longer need.
The rules which we conform to might be outdated or inhibit creativity. They can limit autonomy and differentiation.
We might end up doing things which we do not understand the reason for or the point of.
Constructive disobedience can lead to progress and innovation. Making mistakes and trying something new are useful paths towards development.
We can forge our own path.
Anna left us with two questions to consider.
Do you see some of the accepted norms in our industry as questionable? Should they be questioned?
Is gaining approval important where are you? Is it a big part of ELT culture?
This session was a great way to start and really set the tone for the rest of the day.
Overturning norms related to teacher well-being – Tammy Gregersen
Tammy introduced us to the concept of positive psychology. She described the difference development based on strengths can make compared to development based on a concept of deficit and what’s missing. She introduced us to the work of Seligman, who says that if you use your ‘signature strengths’ you:
Have more ownership over development and feel more authentic
Have an intrinsic motivation to use your strengths
Have a more rapid learning curve
Feel invigoration, not exhaustion
Have a sense of inevitability with the feeling of ‘try and stop me’
Excited about displaying what you are good at
Feel creative and one stupid shoe projects revolving around your strengths
Engage in continuous learning
Own your strengths
(Apologies for any mistakes while paraphrasing – its from 2008 but I could find the original list!)
Tammy asked us to do a survey our strengths. We had to take the top five and find two of them which we had in common with another member of our group. We then had to consider two ways we could use our strengths in new or novel ways in the next 2 days.
Since I did the survey, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the top five things which came up from my list. I was very pleased with the points that it picked out because they are all things which I have consciously tried to develop in myself:
Love of learning
When discussing it with my friend later, we talked about how this type of survey could feel like an equivalent of a silly quiz in a magazine telling you what kind of person you are, but the fact that it keeps going round in my head means I think that this could be a very interesting avenue to explore. I’d be interested to know how similar or different the ranking of the 24 strengths on the list would look if I did the survey again in a few months or years. I also want to find out more about positive psychology and Seligman, starting with exploring his website Pursuit of Happiness in a lot more depth.
Overturning norms around ELT conferences – Shoko Kita, Tim Hampson, Peter Brereton
One of the reasons which I wanted to attend this conference was the fact that the ExcitELT team have been running interesting conference formats for the past few years. In this session they asked us to think about three main areas:
How to make conferences more diverse
How to narrow the gap between the presenter and the audience
How to make conference has more friendly and accessible, including more affordable
They started with this quote from Haruki Murakami:
The questions which we were given to consider are useful for anyone who wants to plan a different kind of conference I think. They were:
How can we address and balance all areas of diversity?
How do we reach a wider range of participants?
How do we follow up on new presenters?
What can we do differently to make parents more welcome and make sure we have an affordable family policy?
Can video or online sessions be used for people who are distant? How can video sessions be more interactive?
What are the time demands of social events organized alongside conferences? Does this affect who got to them?
How much time is optimal between sessions for discussion?
How can you overcome the problems of one-time workshops?
By organizing an online conference which included a lot of group discussions and responses to participants’ experiences, the ExcitELT team started to work towards answering some of the questions that they posed. I will be interested to see how new modes of training and conferences develop in the post-pandemic era.
Overturning norms around second language teacher education – Geoff Jordan
Geoff started his presentation by describing the current training norms in place for elt. He described the craft model of CELTA where you hone techniques to become a teacher and the applied science model of university degrees where you learn the theory and think about how to apply it to the classroom. Norms in in-service teacher education include observations, sponsored courses, seminars and conferences, and perhaps also visiting trainers.
Geoff says that these methods of training pay little attention to how people actually learn a second language and lead to inefficacious teaching as most teachers use a course book to implement a grammar-based synthetic syllabus.
He described a common norm now of training focusing on teacher cognitions, which requires teachers to understand and articulate their own beliefs, assumptions and knowledge (BAKs) about the subject matter and pedagogical practice. These BAKs explain the mismatch between what teaches are told and what they actually do, and between what teachers say they do and what they actually do.
Geoff would like us to change the norms of second language teacher education sorry that we concentrate on doing real, relevant things in the target language, not just talking about the target language. He would like our teacher education to support and sustain this model, recognizing that implicit learning is the default mechanism of second-language learning. Focusing on BAKs ignores the elephant in the room of the form of the syllabus and how it is delivered.
To make these changes Geoff wants us to push for reform of the CELTA, conferences, and in his words ‘globetrotting gurus’. He wants us to encourage locally organized second language teacher education, promoting teacher collaboration, local teacher organizations, and ensuring that local teachers can discuss local issues. Above all he says that the guiding principle of second language teacher education should be to promote efficacy.
Neoliberalism in ELT – Tim Hampson
Tim’s talk was a replacement for a presenter who couldn’t attend and I’m glad to have seen it because it was another idea which I had never considered before. Despite having listened to the BBC sociology podcast Thinking Allowed for many years I had never really understood the concept of neoliberalism, so I will start with one definition which Tim gave us which I think was very clear.
Neoliberalism believes that free markets and competition maximize human well-being.
One of the key points of neoliberalism is the fact that it seems to be a pervasive ‘truth’. It’s difficult to imagine a world that is not neoliberal, and it just seems to be the way things are. Some of the ideas that this leads to can be questioned. For example there is an idea that when individuals make choices, the result of your choices is what you ‘deserve’, but my choices as a white British middle-class woman with a university education very different to those of poor black man in the deep south of America. Another idea is that competition drives progress, but we can ask what that competition is, what that progress is, and whether it is actually beneficial.
Linked to neoliberalism is the idea of cultural, linguistic, economic and social capital introduced by Pierre Bourdieu. For example by learning English you might gain linguistic capital which you can turn into economic capitals by getting a job, or social capital by using your accent to fit in or helping you to interact more smoothly which leads to social connections or a job. Examples of English being seen as cultural or linguistic capital include learning English to get into a university course as a basic requirement, even if the course doesn’t require you to use English. English is also used as part of a drive to internationalize universities. Some people have to get an English certificate to look good in the job even though they may never use English at work. There is also the thorny question of learners asking how they can sound more like a native speaker, as there is a perception that a native speaker accent could give you more capital. In a neoliberalist view of the world it might feel like everyone is trying to gain capital, as it is hard to see the world in a different way once you know about this theory. But are they really?
Tim pointed out that we might view learning English for social or linguistic Capital as being preferable to learning full economic capital, but often you have to be in a place of privilege to even have the choice of prioritizing social or cultural capital Iva linguistic capital. Learning a language to get a job is just as legitimate as learning it for social or cultural reasons.
In our discussions Tim asked us to consider what kinds of capital are present in ELT and how we think about them. As he said, this idea of capital is an interesting lens through which to consider our profession.
Overturning language ideology norms – Heath Rose
The final session of the day was led by Heath Rose, who writes a lot about global Englishes. He started by telling us about how we might teach English as an international language, based on proposals by Galloway and Rose (2015:203):
Increase World Englishes and English as a Lingua Franca (ELF) exposure in the curriculum. This will reflect ‘the complex reality of how English is used worldwide’ (Saraceni, 2009).
Emphasize respect for multilingualism.
Raise awareness of global Englishes.
Raise awareness of ELF strategies.
Emphasize respect for diverse English-using cultures and communities.
Change teacher hiring practices.
Heath suggested ideas such as using a listening journal to encourage students to listen to a wider range of English voices, or you think a presentation to ask them to research different types of English. He talked about getting students involved in discussions about Global Englishes, raising their awareness and helping them to consider the identities as multilingual language uses. Accommodation strategies which we could teach students include helping them to deal with speakers of greater or lower proficiency than themselves, dealing with speakers with different accents or cultural norms, and helping them to join different linguistic communities.
Some of the barriers we discussed were the lack of suitable materials, knowing how to assess language and the requirements of particular exams, teacher education and training, an attachment to ‘standard English’ by stakeholders such as parents, and teacher recruitment practices. In our group we focused a lot on the final points and on the fact that in some countries it is very difficult to challenge days due to circumstances beyond the school’s control, such as national visa policies. However we all agreed that it is very important to do what we can.
As I hope you can say from what was described here, this was a very different kind of conference and one which has given me a lot of food for thought. If you get the chance to attend, I would highly recommend it. Thank you to Shoko, Tim and Peter for organising it, and to all of the attendees who shared their ideas and experience.
Podcasts are how I get a lot of my information, and how I broaden my perspectives on the world. The storytelling and sharing in a really well-produced podcast can change how you think or how you see the world in less than an hour, in a way that no other medium I know can do so consistently.
Here are four podcast episodes I’ve listened to in the past week which have done just that.
The killing of George Floyd by a police officer has sparked massive protests nationwide. This hour, writer and scholar Clint Smith reflects on this moment, through conversation, letters, and poetry.
If you only listen to one of these four episodes, this is the one. It draws together problems which I kind of knew about and others which I had no idea of, and shows how important and wide-ranging the impact of all of these issues are, but particularly silence. I’ve listened to it twice, and I’m sure I’ll listen to it again. The reflective nature of Clint’s conversation with the host, Manoush Zomorodi, the poems he reads, and the decisions we all have to make, but especially black parents, are all important to listen to. He emphasises that this is an intergenerational job, and we all need to play our part to move towards the world we want to create. And if you didn’t already realise how powerful and important education is, this episode would prove it.
It’s easy to look back at the past and say what you would have done, it’s harder to look at the present and say what you’re going to do.
As protests for racial justice continue, many are asking how racism became so embedded in our lives. This hour, TED’s Whitney Pennington Rodgers guides us through talks that offer part of the answer.
Whitney Pennington Rodgers is the current affairs curator at TED. She selected four talks which show how racism affects all of us, regardless of what colour we are, and suggest ways that we can start to do something about it:
Baratunde Thurston: How To Deconstruct Racism, One Headline At A Time
Heather C. McGhee: Racism Has A Cost For Everyone
David Ikard: The Real Story Of Rosa Parks — And Why We Need To Confront Myths About Black History
Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa: Black Life At The Intersection Of Birth And Death
All four of these talks made me think about what I can do, and how lucky I am to not have to deal with these issues myself. The final poem was particularly powerful and emotional, and reflected what Clint Smith said in his talk too. These are things which should be self-evident, but clearly aren’t. We need to work to change that.
Listeners choose the music that has been special to them during the weeks of lockdown. With Jane Moss, Hugh Mullally, Ailish Douglas, Professor Jason Warren, Niti Acharya, Margery Hookings, Simon Spiller, Clare Raybould and Garry Greenland.
Each of the eight pieces of music shared here is accompanied by a story from the person who chose it, all from the general public. They cover all aspects of dealing with the pandemic and how it has changed lives in both negative and positive ways, and many of them made me cry. As a piece of cultural history which truly captures a moment, this podcast episode should be saved forever.
Rob Myles, along with his producing partner Sarah Peachey, is the creator of The Show Must Go Online, which, since March 19, 2020, has been creating fully if madly rehearsed productions of Shakespeare’s canon in the order in which they were written, once a week, using actors and fight directors from all over the world. With over 100,000 views on YouTube in just 12 weeks, Rob talks about how this has become huger than he ever imagined, and how he’s learned to work in this new space; how his early studies in psychology led to understanding characters and delivering an actor-driven experience; excellent new opportunities for both audience engagement and audience research; iambic discoveries expressed in actual iambic pentameter; developing his singular obsession; shout-outs to The Barnsley Civic; being leaders in a movement rather than a company; and the realization that our moment cried out for a Rob Myles — and thankfully we have one.
This is a much more upbeat episode than the three previous ones, and is a fantastic example of the creativity and innovation that this pandemic has created. It shows the ingenuity of humans, and how we can all pull together in extraordinary ways. Rob’s story of going from somebody who hated Shakespeare at school, with a working-class background which meant that drama didn’t even really cross his radar through to somebody who became completely obsessed with it and is now co-producing every Shakespeare play in the order they were first produced. The last two minutes of the podcast are particularly important, as I completely agree with Rob Myles that Shakespeare is and should be for everyone.
These episodes have stayed with me, and will for a very long time. Podcasts really are special.
Alastair Grant and Florencia Clarfeld have been doing amazing work over the past couple of months, running a weekly gathering on Zoom called ‘We’re all in this together’. I saw Alastair share links on facebook to the resources they created, and it seemed like an intriguing and original response to the crisis and the need for teacher support, so I asked Alastair to tell us more about what the community is and how it’s organised. Here’s his response. Thanks for writing this Alastair! (Note: the post was written on 4th June, but I’ve been slow to upload it so some of the time references are wrong.)
Crises bring out the best and the worst in people, especially on social media. And by midnight on Friday 20 March, a few hours after quarantine was announced here in Buenos Aires, there was plenty of both.
Facebook here is the preeminent form of media (social or professional) for teaching. From posts asking how we would be able to teach our students now, to offers of help with online tuition (most of which came at a price), Facebook seemed have become a pedagogical free-for-all in a matter of hours.
I coordinate the English department of a local secondary school and my teachers wanted ideas and so did I. But it wasn’t only us – everyone seemed to be asking for the same, whether it was advice on using Google Classroom, what Zoom was and how to use Live Worksheets, there was a huge and sudden need. And I wouldn’t call it a need for help with what I’ve seen described as “emergency teaching”. I’d describe our situation more as “response pedagogy”, whereby the way we lead our students (as the original Greek suggests), needs to effectively respond and evolve to fit with a new situation.
Back to Facebook, and there was everything and nothing on offer at the same time. But certainly what there wasn’t, was a space for people to share or ask for advice on teaching under lockdown. Nonetheless, Facebook was still the connecting thread for everyone, so I decided to create a forum for people to share material and experiences of this new way of teaching. And it was a way of teaching that needed to be constructed pretty fast, as here at least, we were in lockdown in a matter of hours, with only the weekend to prepare for a new world on Monday morning.
My partner, Florencia Clarfeld, who has been working on this with me since day one, chose the name of the event which is now a weekly meeting: “We’re All In This Together”. I love the name, because it feels like a counterpoint to the social distancing that has been enforced. We decided that the event should be held on Zoom but that they were to be meetings, rather than webinars. I wanted to give teachers a space where they would be able to share their experiences and ideas rather than just listen to one person speak, because that was not the point at all.
The first invitation to the event drew nearly 200 enrolments. Now, when you ask 200 people, most of whom have never met, to starting chatting about a totally unfamiliar situation, you might well be met with total silence. So I prepared some PowerPoint slides in advance to help things along. The slides were a collection of about six games and warmers and my idea was to show/demonstrate one and then ask the teachers if they had anything similar. So that was the plan. But would it work?
Not only did it work, but something very unexpected happened. As soon as I asked people if they had any similar activities to the one being shown, the Zoom chatbox flooded with links, website names, activities and apps that teachers were using. Without wishing to sound corny, it was quite an emotional moment. So then it became clear that the meeting was going to do its job, whereby the chatbox became the main source of material.
Now after every “We’re All I This Together”, I put the session video and the PowerPoint into a Google Drive folder. You can find the link at the bottom of this page. But, like I say, the real “pull” of the sessions is the chatbox transcript. In every chat transcript (we’ve had eight session so far), there are hundreds of tips, ideas, suggestions, games and activities shared by teachers from all over the world. Each session has its own topic, so future teachers coming to the Drive folder will be able to find them.
For the first Zoom meetings, I had only room for 100 people, and for a while there were many people left outside, which was a great shame. Then we were offered a 500-person Zoom room by a bookshop from called Advice here in Argentina and since then we have had space enough. Until, that is, I invited Dr. Stephen Krashen along to be interviewed on his thoughts about teaching during Coronavirus and his parting of the ways with The Natural Approach. The meeting was oversubscribed but well over two hundred people, so we had to live-stream it by Facebook, the video to which has now been viewed nearly 18,000 times.
Events like this are normally paid, but I believe that under the circumstances everyone should, for example, benefit from the privilege of hearing what Krashen has to say as well as being able to ask him questions. For me, education is both a right and a privilege – but not for a privileged few.
This coming Sunday we have Adrian Underhill joining us for an interview and we expect another full house. [Note from Sandy: this has already happened as has an interview with Sarah Mercer, and the recordings are in the folder.] The generosity of the interviewees is overwhelming. People might well ask for some kind of fee but I have explained the situation and people have been more than willing to be interviewed pro-bono. In Dr. Krashen’s own words, he said, “I’d love to”.
So now the meetings have evolved, just as our teaching has evolved. Some are interviews with inspirational figures from ELT and some are workshops. We want to keep this mix as it is, so that the original mission statement, the “why”, is never lost. We’re All In This Together is a safe space for teachers to share ideas and exchange suggestions and experiences.
There’s a new world coming after COVID-19, and we, the teachers, are the ones who are helping to build it. As always.
Alastair Grant is an English Teacher, Teacher Trainer and ELT materials writer. He is the Academic Director at Colegio Nuevo Las Lomas and a teacher trainer for International House Montevideo, where he runs the Cambridge Delta 1 teacher-training course. He is a consultant on the profesorado de inglés at the Universidad Tecnológica Nacional in Buenos Aires, where he has currently lectured in Discourse Analysis and Methodology.
He holds an Honours Degree in English Literature and Philosophy from the University of Warwick in the UK, has completed the International House Certificate of Advanced Methodology, all modules of the Cambridge Delta and the Cambridge Train the Trainer Certificate.
This is the last of my weekly posts, started when the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools in Poland. I still have a couple of weeks of work left, but my teaching is done for the year and life outside the classroom seems to be opening up again, so this is a general reflection on what I’ve learnt since lockdown started.
When we first went into lockdown I thought that it was going to be very difficult for me because I live by myself. I thought I would get lonely and depressed because that’s what’s happened to me before when I didn’t have friends I could easily meet. However, it was the complete opposite. I don’t think I have ever felt more connected to the world and to my friends and family since I started living abroad. As we all discovered the power of Zoom and how easy it is to connect groups of people for all kinds of different reasons I started to have regular group meetings with three different lots of friends as well as regular conversations with my mum and with two other friends. Together with professional conversations and online events, my social life has been very full, including games afternoons, pub quizzes and just having conversations on every topic under the sun, starting with the inevitable “What it’s like for you there now?”
Apart from the social side of things, I have continued to work on my cooking and baking. I can now confidently bake with live yeast, and have added a range of meal options to my menu, including pizza and experimenting with chickpeas. I have had more time to cook and bake than previously and I hope to maintain this to some extent when life opens up again completely.
Health-wise, it was a challenge not having physio for so long and since I went back a couple of weeks ago it has been quite painful, but nothing I haven’t had to deal with before. I have bought a bike and started to use it in the last couple of weekends and I’m really enjoying the new places it can take me to, including where I am standing right now. I dictated most of this post into my phone while standing in the forest taking a break from a bike ride. 🙂
I have hugely enjoyed all of the cultural offerings which have been made available to us during lockdown. I have watched almost all of the productions from the National Theatre and have learnt to notice staging in a way I never had before because of their simple but incredibly effective productions. I have filled a lot of gaps in my Shakespeare knowledge, watching at least five plays which I had never seen before, and appreciating all over again why he is such an amazing playwright. I’ve also seen a few musicals, and other plays and productions I would never have considered watching if it wasn’t for lockdown. I have given money a few times and hope to continue being able to support the arts in more ways after this.
My final two lessons with my groups were a grammar, vocabulary and writing test which involved me making sure they could all access the test successfully, then waiting for them to finish and providing activities for the fast finishers.
In the final lesson I shared the test results and we looked at websites that the students can use to practice English over the summer.
In the last Polish beginners lesson we did general revision from our 20 or so hours of lessons this year. We started with an ELTpics image of a person which my students had chosen and they answered simple questions about the person in a Google Doc. To help them do this we had Quizlet breaks, replaying set from earlier in the year including demonstrating the Gravity function. Pat way through the lesson we added a second image to the document and they answered more questions about that lesson. The lesson was only 1 hour long, so we didn’t have time to create conversations between the two people set in some of the locations we have practiced language for this year, for example the supermarket, the train station, or the police station. I think the structure of this lesson works nicely, particularly for the small group of three students I had, and it’s a lesson that worked very well in an online setting because we could move smoothly between the documents and the Quizlet sets.
Like pretty much every teacher in the world, my teaching has undergone a huge transformation over the last 3 months. I have gone from knowing nothing about Zoom to being able to run a range of lesson types on it and integrate lots of different types of activities and tools to make sure that my students benefit from the lessons. I have learnt that it’s an incredibly versatile tool, and I know that it will be a part of my teaching from now on. I have also been able to incorporate many things that I probably could have used in a face-to-face classroom but never had the incentive to do so, or tried once a long time ago and never used again. There is no doubt in my mind that my teaching has developed a lot due to the challenge of the last few months, and I have found it very exciting and interesting to try to work out how to teach in this different way. I wish that it didn’t need to have happened in this way but I think that education will be richer for it.
Training and conferences
Today I attended the #excitELT conference online, which was a great format – 15-20 minute presentations, followed by 20-30-minute discussions in small groups with Google Docs, followed by a 5-10-minute round-up and a short break before the next session. This is just one of the new training formats I have been privileged to take part in over the last three months. I previously wrote about the IH Moscow event which I attended which had short presentations by lots of different teachers, and I will shortly be sharing a post by Alastair Grant about the weekly We’re all in this together meetings which features very vibrant chats run via Zoom based on prompts or guest speakers. If you know of any other interesting new training formats, please let me know.
All of this has come about out of the need to provide training and support with the sudden move to online teaching, and it has yet again demonstrated the innovation of the teaching community. A lot of conferences have had to move online and this has broadened access to these events, and enabled a wider range of speakers to take part. I hope that these models are maintained when the pandemic is over, and we can continue to look for new and innovative ways of supporting as many teachers as possible.
I have had to learn to be more effective with my email communication, as in the beginning there was so much information which needed to be given to the teachers, and the only way to pass it all on seemed to be via email. I tried to speak to every teacher over the phone or on Zoom at least once a week. While this was not always possible I know I managed to speak to people at least every two weeks. I created a virtual staffroom on Zoom so that people could meet me easily and I could remain as accessible as possible, as I would in my office at school.
We continued with weekly meetings and workshops, and I tried to maintain the social aspects of this by having some time for us to have a chat at the beginning of the meeting before we started the main event. I’m not sure how successful these things were, and the last three months have shown areas where our admin needs to become more efficient, as it’s not possible just to pop into another room and have a quick chat with somebody if there’s a problem. When you have to make an appointment or send yet another email, it’s all more screen time and shows up the holes in the system.
We now have two weeks at the end of the school year to try to work out some of these problems before the summer, and I have time during the summer to think about what I can do to improve the situation. The fact that we will inevitably enter some new mode of working in September gives us the chance to have a kind of reset. I’m not sure we would have done that without the need to work in such a different way during the pandemic.
Writing weekly posts since the beginning of the pandemic has allowed me to really think about what has happened to me and to our profession and lives over the last 3 months. I have thought about my teaching more deeply than for a long time. Overall, I know that I have been very lucky to always have a little bit of freedom during lockdown, to continue to have work to keep me busy, to have a range of challenges, and to not have to deal with the challenges of having children suddenly at home. I have been very grateful for the support and comments I have received in response to my posts.
Thank you for joining me on this journey, and I hope that the end is in sight for you as well before too long. I hope that the end is really here for us in Poland too, and that it’s not a false sense of security before a second wave comes. As always with these major events, we are reminded that life is short and we never know when it will change dramatically, so we should continue to live every moment to the best of our abilities, including when we are in lockdown. Good luck and stay safe.
Tips and useful links
If you need to present from PowerPoint via Zoom, go to File > Set up show > Browsed by an individual (window). (Thanks Kelly Cargos)
If you’re having trouble downloading the chat now, there’s been a setting change in the latest version of Zoom, which you may need to change back. (Thanks Ruth)
Each week I’ve summarised what our teachers and I have learnt during the transition to online teaching. Every post includes some tips about using Zoom, activities we’ve tried out (many adapted from the face-to-face classroom), and reflections on how my teaching and management have been affected by working from home. Here are all of the posts so far:
This is my penultimate post in this series of weekly reflections on the current goings-on, as I finish with my groups next week. This week my two lessons were both tests: the first was reading and listening, the second speaking. In this post, I’ll describe how we ran the tests and what I’ve learnt about Zoom this week.
Before I start, I’d like to stress that systems we’ve been using to test our students are the cumulative thought process and reflection on experience of the teachers and management team I work with at IH Bydgoszcz, and we’re refining it all the time! Thank you to my colleagues for all of their input and feedback!
Testing listening and reading
Before the lesson:
Create a Google Doc with your questions. Check that these are relatively easy to complete on a computer even if you have minimal technical skills, particularly for the listening.
Make one copy per student, with the student’s name in the file name, plus a demo document.
Create an extra document. In this document, make a list of all of your students’ names, with the edit link for the document under their name. Leave a space after each name/link pair. This makes things easier during the lesson!
During the lesson:
Have all of the students’ listening or reading tests open in a single set of tabs.
Remind them to put all phones, books etc, away from their device (unless they’re using a phone of course!)
For reading, tell them that you would like to check their reading, not Google’s, and therefore they shouldn’t copy and paste the text or any of the questions (this happened in a couple of my colleagues’ lessons!)
Show students the demo document, particularly any question types/exercise types which they might not immediately be able to work out how to complete. This includes how you want them to complete e.g. a True/False question. Should they underline it? Highlight it? Delete one? The last is probably the easiest by the way!
Put the list of links into the chat box. Students click on their link. If students aren’t logged in to Google (they don’t need to be), you should see a little coloured circle in the top right corner saying ‘anonymous wombat/ifrit/walrus’ etc appear when they’re in.
Ask students to type their name at the top of the document when they get in. This helps you to check that the right student is in the right document. Go through each test and check it matches the file name.
Ask everybody to mute their microphones. Mute yours too.
For listening, tell students that if they can’t hear or there’s a problem with the audio, they should say ‘Stop, help!’ as soon as possible. One or two colleagues had students who got to the end before saying they couldn’t hear anything!
Start the listening – make sure you’re sharing your computer audio! It’s best to have the file on your desktop, rather than streaming it, if possible.
While the students are completing the reading or listening, flick through the documents to see whether they’re filling it in correctly, as in completing the tasks in the way you want them to. Help students if they’re having problems. Create a manual breakout room to move a student to if you need to speak to them.
We had some lessons where the teaching did the testing, and others where there was a guest examiner. In all cases, the students worked in pairs in breakout rooms on a revision activity throughout the lesson. Mostly this was them creating a game, and they then switched games with other students to play in the second half of the lesson. I saw various types of game:
Creating a Kahoot.
Creating virtual board games in Google Docs or using Tools for Educators. Thanks to Ruth Walpole for leading me to that website.
Completing a list of challenges which each have points values, with the aim of getting as many points as possible.
The teacher set up the main activity at the start of the lesson, then put students into breakout rooms. The speaking examiner dropped in to each breakout room to test the students, then moved onto the next room. If it was a guest examiner, they could put up their hand so that the teacher knew it was time to move them to the next room. This system seemed to work pretty well. 🙂
The personal stuff
Things seem to be returning to some level of normality here in Poland. You no longer have to wear masks outside, though I still generally do, apart from when I’ve been on my bike far away from other people. It’s almost like nothing happened in many ways, which seems quite strange!
Each week I’ve summarised what our teachers and I have learnt during the transition to online teaching. Every post includes some tips about using Zoom, activities we’ve tried out (many adapted from the face-to-face classroom), and reflections on how my teaching and management have been affected by working from home. Here are all of the posts so far:
On 3rd June 2020, I presented a webinar for IH Bucharest demonstrating how to exploit activities in lots of different ways, with minimal planning required by the teacher. Of course, I wouldn’t expect you to use every activity in the same lesson, but the ideas I shared were designed to demonstrate how you can make a single exercise lead to a much wider range of practice activities, depending on what your learners need help with. The slides are here (though they’re much more useful when presenting than referring to them later! See below the slides for a more useful link!):
All of the ideas in the webinar were originally designed for a face-to-face classroom, but most of them can be used as is or with only minimal adaptations in an online classroom. They were originally shared on my blog in the post One activity, multiple tasks, based on a task from ELT Playbook 1. ELTPB 1 is a book of short tasks for teachers to help them reflect on their teaching.
My ebook, Richer Speaking, costs less than $1, and contains 16 ways to adapt speaking activities to help students get more out of them. You can find four of the ideas for free in this post.
If you’d like ideas specific to teaching online, particularly using Zoom, then try ideas for adapting group lessons to working on Zoom. Some of these may take a little longer to prepare, but I’m a firm believer in teachers doing less work and students doing more!
Let me know which ideas you’ve tried out and how they go with your classes.