Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher

Last summer I had the immense pleasure of meeting and working with M, a nine year old from St. Petersburg who spends her summers in Sevastopol. I decided to blog about her classes because I found it very difficult to find information about how to teach a 121 class with a young learner who was almost completely blind, and hoped my posts would help others. Teaching M required me to approach lessons in a completely different way and the result on my blog was the Rethinking the Visual series. If you’d like more background I’d recommend reading them first.

This year I was back in Sevastopol for four weeks to do a CELTA course, and I was very happy when, on my first day at school, M and her mum came in to see if she could have classes for the summer. They’d just arrived in the city and didn’t realise I was there, so there was lots of hugs and laughter :)

The first lesson we had was based around a present I’d bought her just one week before at the Casa Battló in Barcelona, without knowing if I’d see her or not.

This is the only picture I can find of the gift – a braille picture of the house. I was so excited when I saw it and bought it instantly because I’ve never seen anything like it before (please let me know if you have and where I can get others!) M really enjoyed exploring it, and we revised some house vocabulary. Using the palm of her hand I showed her where Spain is in relation to Crimea and where Barcelona is in Spain. We also talked about Gaudi.

Over the next four weeks I had eight one-hour lessons with M, and I was very happy to see how much difference another year of school has made to her reading and writing abilities. Last year she vaguely knew the letters in braille, and I needed to refer to my list often to confirm which dots she needed to make some of the letters. She can now read braille pretty fluently, and write it confidently. We wrote down new vocabulary in every lesson, which is a big difference from last year, and she could still remember where Barcelona is and who Gaudi was at the end of the month.

The main problem she still has is that of all children her age (and many adults too!): spelling. Whenever M wrote down new words I always tried to elicit the spelling from her, and she had about an 80% hit rate. During one lesson she asked me about how to know if a word is spelt with ‘c’ or ‘k’. It happened to be the first lesson when I was being observed by A, the teacher who has taken over from me for the rest of the summer. Between us we came up with sets of words to help M remember some spelling rules. I thought we’d come up with most of the c/k rules during that hour, but kept coming across more exceptions or ‘groups’ during the rest of the month – the rules are so much more complicated than you can come up with off the top of your head!

M’s school had lent her two books for the summer, Mary Poppins, and another of short 1-2 page texts accompanied by exercises on topics such as dinosaurs and Tutankhamun. Some of our lessons were spent reading the short texts, with M spelling out any words she didn’t know. We would then take the exercises and answer them orally, and I would try to expand her world knowledge wherever I could. After reading a text about the jungle, she was particularly excited to discover I’d lived in one for four months and asked me lots of questions about the experience. I used her hand again to introduce her to Borneo.

Most of the texts were accompanied by a project, although I don’t think they were designed with visually impaired students in mind. Her school wanted her to do one of these projects as part of her summer homework, but it was difficult for her parents to help her because they don’t speak English. M chose a project about dinosaurs. In it, she needed to find out about different dinosaurs and put together fact files about them. The problem is that she still doesn’t know how to use a computer, so the only ways she can do research are if she is lucky enough to be in a braille library (do such things exist? I assume they must somewhere!) or if someone else does it for and tells her about it, which is what we did. I went on to a dinosaur site and tried to give her as much autonomy as possible by getting her to choose the ones she wanted to find out about and tell me exactly what she wanted to know – I tried to work as a search engine rather than doing the work for her. The project also said that she should draw or find pictures of the dinosaurs, but we ran out of time to do that, so I hope her parents will be able to help her with that.

M really wanted to find a girl in the UK to chat with. She’s ten now and was looking for someone of a similar age. I have a thirteen-year-old cousin so have put them in touch. They’ve sent each other a couple of voice messages. M was very excited by the exchange and is looking forward to having a proper Skype chat with my cousin. If you know a ten-year-old girl with a B1 or higher level of English who’d like to chat with M, let me know and I can try to put them in touch.

The biggest challenge with the lessons this year was that they were at school rather than at her house. In the third lesson, when we were in our third different classroom, I gave her a tour of the school, showing her where all of the rooms and doors were so she could find her own way around and had a better idea of the size of the rooms and school. It was interesting for me to see how being in a different environment affected her confidence initially, and how much more comfortable she obviously felt once she knew the layout of the school.

I did get to go to her house one day though, for pancakes and home-made cake with her family. We explored their garden, full of home-grown fruit and veg, and played with her two little sisters, the older of whom was trying to teach me Russian by pointing at a picture of a unicorn and saying the word repeatedly until I said it back to her :) She was also singing ‘Let it go’ when we arrived, but only knew that line. Films and songs are certainly powerful – she’s four!

I’ve really enjoyed teaching M again this summer. I have no idea when I’ll be back in Sevastopol, or if I’ll be in Saint Petersburg at some point, so I’m not sure if or when I’ll see M again. I really hope I do because she is one of the fastest learners I’ve ever met. She’s already B1 (intermediate) in English, and has just started learning Spanish. I’m sure she’ll be an interpreter one day. I’ll watch her progress with great interest, and I hope I’ll get to teach her again at some point.

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the blogs section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you! Here are the topics for July 2015, and anyone is welcome to join in. If you haven’t tried blogging before, why not give it a go? To inspire you, the associates offer their takes on the topics.

My contribution for July is a collection of zero prep activities from other people’s blogs, plus one recommended book. They should help you if you’re doing a last-minute cover class. Katherine Bilsborough has also written on the same topic.

Idea and light bulb on blackboard

If you do choose to join in, why not share the link here so that others can read your posts?

Sevastopol moments

The views from Dasha’s house, Lisa’s flat, Tanya’s flat

Views of Sevastopol

Returning to Chersones and Silver Strings

Chersones Greek temple and Silver Strings waterfall

Seeing Foros from a different angle

Foros church

Going to Livadia for the first time

Livadia Palace

The beaches of Balaklava, Pobedi and Fiolent

Silver beach and Diana's Grotto beach

Panorama

Panorama building and bits of the Crimean War painting inside

A tour of Crimea, from Karadag along the coast back to Sevastopol

Karadag, Koktebel, Mayak and the mountains of Crimea

The north side with Daria

Fort on the North Side of Sevastopol Bay

Time with Olga and Andrey

Crumble (kramBOL) with Olga, Lisa and her sons

Games with Sasha and Tony

Long chats with Anna

Dinner with Tanya and Lena

Unexpected meetings on day one, leading to lessons with M again

Visiting M and her family for pancakes, unicorns and dinosaurs

A beach barbecue with Ira and friends

Campfire on Inger beach, near Balaklava

Seeing how children have grown and finding out about ones to come

Happy smiling faces at the end of CELTA

Being reunited with all of my things

Getting back into Russian

Knowing how everything works

Observing the changes

Feeling like I’ve never left

Leaving

Hoping to return

For the last year I’ve been CELTA training around the world. Here is a collection of random thoughts about what the CELTA does and doesn’t do, and what being a trainer has taught me.

What the CELTA does

Improves the confidence of trainees
Even those who are particularly shy at the beginning of the course are able to stand in front of a group after a few lessons and project confidence, even if they’re still worried!

Shows them some ways of staging a lesson logically
Though of course the list is not exhaustive, it is a good grounding and can help them plan their own lessons later, whether or not they choose/have to use a course book. Simple things like giving students an activity to do before reading/listening, rather than saying “Read this’, then springing questions on them afterwards, or important steps like providing feedback after activities, may seem obvious to a seasoned pro, but they rarely are to a complete beginner.

Encourages trainees to think in depth about planning a lesson and setting up activities
The lessons which fall flat are normally the ones which have had the least amount of thought dedicated to them. One or two of those and the trainees soon realise that they really need to think through what they’re planning to do more carefully.

Makes them think about the instructions are going to give and the way that they talk to a class
I sometimes take for granted how easy it is for me to grade my language for different levels of student, and forget that it takes real effort when you’re a new teacher. The key area which this normally affects is instruction giving and activity set-up, often requiring careful planning.

Starts to make trainees adapt materials so that they are more suitable for their learners
Although this only done to a limited extent on many courses, stronger trainees show they can adapt to learners’ needs by changing the topic of a text or updating it to make it more relevant to the present day. The ‘Focus on the learner’ assignment also encourages trainees to think about learner needs and finding or adapting materials to meet them.

Makes them analyse language so that they are ready to teach it
Teaching grammar is seen as a big scary thing by most trainees, and language analysis is actively avoided by some and misunderstood by others. The same is true of vocabulary lessons, but to a lesser extent. However, once they’ve observed or taught a language lesson they normally see the value of analysing language carefully before teaching it, and this process also encourages them to start using reference materials to help them.

Gives them the basics of theory for them to build on later
A 120-hour course can never cover everything, and doesn’t claim to either. Instead, trainees are offered an overview of teaching, with ideas about how to further their professional development in one or more sessions in the final week of the course. This grounding in theory is a good basis to build on and the reflection built into the course is designed to encourage them to reflect on this theory and to begin to question it.

Gives them a collection of activities to draw on when they go into the classroom
My friend once told me her German teacher used to suggest the only way to become a good language speaker is ‘Vorsprung durch Diebstahl’ (progress through theft – a play on Audi’s ‘Vorsprung durch Technik’). I think the same is true of any skill you learn, teaching among them. By ‘stealing’ from teachers observed during the course and used in input sessions, trainees have a good bank of ideas to vary their lessons when they first start teaching, and find their teaching style (because let’s face it, that’s what new teachers are doing way more than adapting to their learners!)

Gives trainees the opportunity to observe about 36 hours of classes
When else do you get the chance to observe so intensively, outside of the Delta or something similar? On the CELTA course, trainees are required to observe six hours of experienced teachers’ classes and approximately 30 hours of their peers’ lessons. I often think that this is actually where most of the learning on a CELTA takes place, with the input sessions just providing the language to talk about teaching, and a few of the ideas to steal. Until you’ve seen it put into action and noticed what does and doesn’t work, nothing really sinks in.

Shows them whether they really want to teach or not
Not to be underestimated! By exposing trainees to the classroom and making them teach, instead of just concentrating on theory, the CELTA helps trainees to realise whether the classroom is really the right place for them.

What the CELTA doesn’t do

Show them how to placement test students
The main question I’ve been asked by trainees towards the end of the course or soon after it’s finished is something along the lines of ‘X has asked me to organise some classes for them. Do you know a placement test I can give the student(s) to find out their level(s) and decide which materials to use?’ Thus far, I don’t, so if anyone else can recommend something free, online and fairly reliable, I would be very grateful.

Show trainees how to teach materials-light or materials free
While there are some CELTA courses which focus on this, they are few and far between. I’m not sure what else to say about this as I don’t want to ignite a whole new debate – it’s just a fact.

Tell the trainees everything they ever needed to know about teaching
As I said above, a 120-hour course could never hope to do this. Doing a CELTA is not the be-all and end-all, and does not negate the need for continuing professional development. It is an initial teacher training course and should be treated as such. It frustrates me when a CELTA can trump somebody without a CELTA and relevant experience. If there is no follow-up training or development, it’s worth is diminished. I suspect this is particularly so for trainees who had prior experience before the CELTA, as they may well slip back into old habits (although feel free to prove me wrong!)

What being a CELTA trainer has taught me

How to give clear, concise instructions
And about time too! This is something I’ve always struggled with, and it turns out that watching lots of trainees get it wrong, offering tips on how to do it better, and reflecting on it constantly throughout the year have finally sorted out this problem. I even discovered that I highlighted it as an issue in my own end of CELTA reflection, a document I’d completely forgotten about until I was training as a tutor last August!

How to time lessons more accurately
As with instructions, this is a long-time issue of mine. Again, offering guidance to others on how to do it has really helped me, and I’m much better at prioritising to achieve my aims, something which seems more key in the intensive CELTA input sessions of a four-week course, than it ever did on a seemingly ‘never-ending’ language learning journey (!) I even came up with some formulae after my trainees kept asking for them.

No two CELTA courses are ever the same
While there are the inevitable differences brought on by location and trainees, I didn’t realise that each CELTA course is put together by the Main Course Tutor and others working at the same centre if relevant. It is the result of experience and is constantly tweaked, so each course I worked on this year had slightly different documentation and assignments that were set up in different ways, as well as timetables that we organised very differently from one place to the next. Having said that, all of the courses are judged on the same criteria, covering the same basic set of input sessions, and with the same requirements for teaching and observation. The assessor’s visit on each course and annual Cambridge standardisation ensure that wherever you get your CELTA, it has the same value.

I’m ready for some stability
For anybody coming to this fresh or who has got a bit lost in my adventures of the last year (I don’t blame you – I can’t believe them myself!), this is where I’ve been:

Apart from in Thailand where I had the luxury of nine weeks, I spent four weeks in each place, living in a range of accommodation including apartments, a residential hotel and lodging with two different couples. I improved my packing skills, and felt like I was living out of a suitcase. In between, I was at home for up to a month, ‘camping out’ at my aunt’s house, then off again. I’m really looking forward to my next adventure, when I’ll be moving to Poland to start a new job, and hopefully staying for at least a couple of years, enough time to build up a bit of a (social) life there! I also can’t wait to have my own kitchen again ;)

Map of the places I've visited in 2014-2015

Click the map to see where I’ve travelled this year, including photos

I love my job
Well, I knew that already. But a year of sharing it with other people, and helping them to enter the wonderful world of EFL teaching has reaffirmed it again and again. I have no regrets whatsoever about the career path I have chosen, and I know that I have been incredibly lucky to have the year I have just experienced, despite commenting on the lack of stability above. The people I have met and the places I have been will stay with me forever, and I hope it won’t be the last time I work with these inspiring people or visit these amazing places. Now, on to the next adventure!

I’m very proud to be one of the TeachingEnglish associates, a group of wonderful English teachers from around the world. Each month a series of topics is posted on the ‘blogs‘ section of the British Council TeachingEnglish site, which everyone is invited to write about, including you!

My contribution for June is about accent and identity, looking at my feelings about my own accents.

Group of students with speech bubbles.How do you feel about your accent? Do you think it’s influenced by your identity?

 

I spent July back in Sevastopol after nearly a year away. So what changes have there been? And do people still believe they made the right choice at the referendum and they are better off in Russia?

The most striking change for me was how busy the city is now. There are a lot more people and traffic jams are much more common. At least half of the number plates are Russian, and they come from a wide variety of regions. When I first arrived in Sevastopol I think the population was about 500,000. On this trip, I was told that it’s grown to about one million, although nobody is really sure. A lot of the difference in numbers is due to refugees from Donetsk and other parts of Eastern Ukraine. It was also the peak of the holiday season when I was there. Flights from Simferopol airport are constantly booked up, with people arriving from all over Russia, plus other former Soviet states like Kazakhstan. This means it’s now very difficult to find accommodation in the city and the price of rent has risen considerably.

The rest of the changes I found out about were less obvious.

There now seems to be some recognition in the outside world that Crimea is no longer part of Ukraine, although not yet that it is part of Russia. When I visited Skyscanner to book a flight, Crimea was listed as a separate place in the country list. I found it interesting that it was listed in Roman characters on the Ukrainian list, rather than in Cyrillic, and wonder what prompted that decision.

Skyscanner Crimea

Skyscanner Crimea English

Sanctions have not had as much of an effect on commerce as I expected, as you can still buy many ‘Western’ products, like Mars bars, Bonaqua water, Laughing Cow and mascarpone. However, the majority of these are actually produced in former Soviet states, which is why they have slipped through the net.

They have affected my friends in other ways though. Those who have opted for a Russian international passport* can no longer get a Shengen visa, meaning they cannot easily travel to or work in Europe. The only way to get around this is if the address your passport is registered to is outside Crimea, for example in Moscow or Saint Petersburg. It used to be possible to get Shengen visas without leaving Crimea, but this is no longer possible.

Even if you have a Ukrainian international passport, you still need to have a Russian local passport to meet the requirements of daily life in Crimea as far as I know. If you cross the land border from Crimea to Ukraine and the Ukrainian border guards find that you have a Russian passport, they can fine you heavily (about £500 if I remember rightly), remove the passport and destroy it. This means that most people now travel via mainland Russia rather than crossing the land border (though it is still used). That adds another layer of complication for those with Ukrainian passports, since they require a Russian entry visa to come back into Crimea. This is only valid for 90 days. I’m not really sure what happens if they overstay that period.

While we’re on this topic, the only area in which people said it was better being in Ukraine was the bureaucracy. Although it was long-winded, Russian systems tend to be even more complicated. There is also the added problem that Crimean officials are still trying to get their heads around the Russian systems, and don’t always know how they are expected to do things in their new country.

One positive change I noticed was that money seems to be flowing more freely than when I left in August last year. At that time, one or two cash machines were starting to work, but it was still largely a cash economy. From what I could tell, most cash machines seem to be functioning normally now, and card machines in shops are also back in use. There is now a Russian 10 rouble coin featuring Sevastopol, and another featuring the Swallow’s Nest in Yalta.

2014-Russia-Crimea-Sevastopol-10-ruble-coins

Having said that, not all of the money from the Russian government is making it to where it should. One person told me that Sevastopol was given $5 million to repair the roads in the city centre ready for the 9th May Victory Day celebrations, but there was no evidence of any repair when I was there in July. Apparently the money ‘disappeared’.

Overall, everyone I asked said that they still believe they made the right decision in the referendum to leave Ukraine and join Russia. However, some of the optimism has worn off a little, as their high expectations have not been met. While there have been some improvements in their lives, there is still a long way to go before life becomes free and easy again.

*In Russian, the word ‘passport’ is used to describe both the local/national identity document and the one used to travel internationally, hence the distinction here.

I was very happy to be asked to write a guest post on the ETpedia blog. John Hughes’ book has been very useful to me on CELTA courses recently, and I would highly recommend getting yourself a copy. If you use this link, I’ll get a few pennies too.

ETpedia cover

My guest post was 10 tips to help you become a teacher trainer. What tips would you add?

The latest IH Journal is now available, featuring the Developing Teachers column by yours truly. This time the topic is whether the Delta is really worth it, answering a question I’ve been asked many times.

The journal features articles by IH staff from around the world, covering topics as diverse as IH Madrid’s class book competition for young learners, a potted history of the English language and even an article in Russian about equivalents of English language teaching terminology. The contents page is here, and the whole journal is here. You can also read past issues of the journal.

IH Journal issue 37 front cover

 

Rhythm of a CELTA

This post is aimed at new CELTA trainers, especially those about to start their training (thanks to Amy for inspiring it!) If that’s not you, the jargon probably won’t make sense and the post isn’t really relevant :)

One of the most challenging things I found as a new CELTA tutor was knowing how to manage my time on the courses, so I thought it might be useful to share the main things you have to think about each week. The questions below are based on my diary of to-do lists for the past year, something I’ve found incredibly useful to keep me sane! Of course, the rhythm may differ from centre to centre, but it could serve as a starting point. (This is also a reminder to me in case I have a gap between courses!)

Before the course

  • Do you have the trainee profiles?
  • Are you familiar with the templates for giving lesson feedback? Will you type or handwrite your feedback? (Tip if you’ll type them: create a template so you can’t accidentally save over anybody’s feedback!)
  • Do you know the timetable for the first week, particularly which input sessions you’ll be doing?
  • How long do you have to prepare feedback? When do trainees need to hand in their self-evaluations after lessons?
  • Have you familiarised yourself with the assignments, particularly any which will be set in week one?
  • What materials will you be using? Do you need to prepare TP points? In how much depth?
  • Do the trainees need specific observation tasks for TP? Or will they be encouraged to write whatever notes they choose? Or a combination of the two?
  • Will you be with the same group of students throughout the four weeks (e.g. always elementary) or will you change throughout the course (e.g. weeks 1/4 with one group, 2/3 with the other)?
  • When do the trainees change tutors?
  • How much of the course is paper-based? Does the centre use methods to share information/files, like Dropbox or Google Drive? Is this only between tutors, or do the trainees have access to it too?

If you’re freelancing, there are a few additional questions:

  • Do you know how to get to the school? How long will it take?
  • Is there a chance to go into the school before the course starts? This is a good opportunity to ask about things like photocopier codes, wifi, and printer access, as well as which rooms be used during the course and what resources are available for trainees.
  • Will your transport be paid for (both international and local)?
  • What is the accommodation like?
  • Where is the nearest supermarket? When will you have time to cook? (!)
  • Do you need travel/health insurance?
  • What about visas? Who’s responsible for them? How long do they take to get?

Week one

  • Are there any assignments to be set this week? Who will do it?
  • Stage 1 tutorials: When do you need to write them by? Do you need to meet any of the trainees?
  • Which input sessions do you need to prepare for week one?
  • Which ones do you need to start thinking about for week two, especially if you’ve never done them before?
  • When do the trainees start handing in plans and language analyses (straight away, or do they wait for specific input sessions first)? What is the deadline for them each day? What time do you have to mark them by? Do you need to give any feedback on them to the trainees before they teach?
  • Are you changing levels/trainee groups? How does the handover work? (e.g. When is assisted lesson planning? How will you arrange this with your co-tutor(s)?)
  • Do you need to write TP points for week two? Does the level of depth change?

Week two

  • Are there any assignments to be set this week? Who will do it?
  • Are any assignments due this week? When do you need to mark them by? What time do you have available to mark them in? When are resubmissions due in?
  • Stage 2 tutorials: When do you need to write them by? What time do you have available to do this? Is there a specific format at your centre? When will you meet the trainees?
  • Does anybody need a warning letter? What’s the procedure at your centre for this?
  • Which input sessions do you need to prepare for week two?
  • Which ones do you need to start thinking about for week three?
  • Are you changing levels/trainee groups? How does the handover work?
  • Do you need to write TP points for week three? Does the level of depth change?

Week three

  • Are there any assignments to be set this week? Who will do it?
  • Are any assignments due this week? When do you need to mark them by? What time do you have available to mark them in? When are resubmissions due in?
  • Does anybody need a stage 3 tutorial?
  • Does anybody need a warning letter? What’s the procedure at your centre for this?
  • Which input sessions do you need to prepare for week three?
  • Which ones do you need to start thinking about for week four?
  • Are you changing levels/trainee groups?
  • Do you need to write TP points for week four? Does the level of depth change?
  • When is the assessor coming? Factor in time to meet them (you’re unlikely to have time for much else that day, e.g. writing assignments)
  • When do you need to complete the information about trainees for the assessor? What format does it need to be in? What time do you have available to do this in?

Week four

  • Are there any assignments to be set this week? Who will do it?
  • Are any assignments due this week? When do you need to mark them by? What time do you have available to mark them in? When are resubmissions due in?
  • Which input sessions do you need to prepare for week four?
  • Is the assessor coming this week? (see above!)
  • When do you need to write final reports by? What time do you have available to do this? What format does it need to be in? Who needs the reports (e.g. main tutor, receptionists etc)? (If you’re a freelancer, do you need to sign them? When?)
  • Is there anybody who needs the final page of their CELTA 5 completed (e.g. because they’ve had a warning letter earlier on the course)?
  • When and where is the post-CELTA party? Are you invited? Do you want to go? ;)
The places you can go with a CELTA (a woman and a man looking at a world map)

The places you can go with a CELTA (my photo)

Is there anything I’ve forgotten?

Postscript

I know people look on my blog for some tips about training as a CELTA tutor, and it’s something I’m planning to write about, but haven’t got round to yet. One day… In the meantime, you might also be interested in my diary of a course I did in February 2015: week oneweek two, week three, week four.

I just looked at the IH YouTube channel and found my face looking back at me :) I’d forgotten that I was asked to talk about my experience of doing the IH COLT course while I was at the IH DoS Conference in January.

Here’s my 3-minute testimonial about the course.

If you’re interested in doing it too, you can find out more information on the IH Online Teacher Training Institute. The courses are available to anyone, and there’s a discount for IH teachers. I hope you find it useful!

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