Technologically and linguistically adventurous EFL teacher, trainer, writer and manager

Archive for the ‘Blogging Challenges’ Category

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

 

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Surviving week one

We’ve just finished week one of our school year. As always, it was a rollercoaster of emotions for everyone involved.

Teachers are nervous because they have no idea what their classes will be like. Those who are brand new are wondering if they’ve made the right decisions: moving to Poland, joining our school, leaving what they know behind, becoming a teacher…

Second-year teachers are feeling more relaxed this time round. They know what to expect, and they can only marvel at how nervous and stressed some of the new teachers are. Then they meet their classes and realise there are still challenges there, and work yet to be done.

The students are no different. They want a good teacher, or a teacher like the one they had last year, or a teacher who’s definitely not like the one they had last. Their first day nerves are just as acute as ours, sometimes more so: they’re doing it all in a foreign language after all, which at least some of us aren’t!

After two or three days, once teachers have met most of their classes, things start to settle down. They realise where the pressure points might be, but it’s no longer a sea of unknowns. Planning is done based on known quantities, or at least more known than a few days previously.

Our Fridays aren’t as busy, with just a few 121s at this point in the year. Everyone can take a bit of time to sort themselves out, plan ahead for next week, or just get out of the building that bit earlier.

Now, on Saturday, everyone can breathe a sigh of relief that they’ve survived week one. They can work out what to do with their weekends, and how much work it will or won’t involve (the answer if they want to stay sane: it won’t!)

Looking forward to the year ahead!

I hope that in this year to come you make mistakes. Becuase if you are making mistakes, then you are making new things, trying new things, learning, living, pushing yourself, changing yourself, changing your world - you're doing something.

P.S. Fiona Mauchline has recently written a set of very useful tips to help you survive your first year of teaching, or to remind you of things you may have forgotten if you’re a bit further down the road.

Who am I writing for?

Following my post asking who my readers are, and posts by Michael Griffin and Tyson Seburn in which they discussed students reading their blogs, I thought I would continue my introspective streak and say a little about who I think I’m writing for.

Mike and Tyson both asked a set of questions which I’ll start off by answering:

  • Do you think about students potentially reading what you write?
    Yes. In fact, I assume that they will, and have written some posts specifically for them, like Useful FCE websites. I also have a whole separate blog, sadly neglected, which was designed for students, and I often refer them to the Quizlet and podcasts posts there.
    As a CELTA trainer, I actively encourage trainees to read posts that were written with them in mind, not least Useful links for CELTA. I always assume that my reading can be read by anyone, and therefore try to keep things anonymous or not include them if I think they might cause problems at some point down the line.
  • Would your writing be different if you were sure students would never read it?
    I don’t think so, because I would still assume that somebody who reads it might know my students, even if they weren’t my students themselves.
  • Have your students ever talked about your blog with you?
    One or two students have asked me about it, and I told my new group about it in a letter I wrote them today, though I just said I have a blog, not what the actual link is.
    A trainee once came up to me in getting to know you session at the beginning of CELTA, and jokingly said ‘I wanted to meet you quickly, because I wanted to know what someone who tortures people spiritually is like.’ She was referring to a post I’d written a couple of weeks before.
  • Have you ever heard of a teacher getting in hot water with a student based on what they wrote on a blog?
    No, though I’m sure those stories must be out there.
  • Do you have guidelines for yourself or from your institutions about what you can and should write about on blogs or elsewhere?
    There are no institutional guidelines (if there were, I would probably have been involved in writing them!) I have one personal guideline though: Only write things about other people that you wouldn’t mind people writing about you. It’s a variant of ‘do as you would be done by’.
  • Does it bring credibility to you as their instructor? (My additional question)
    I don’t know, though I think it does show them that I care about my profession and put extra time into it beyond work.

So who do I think I’m writing for then? The things I write about are probably aimed at the following groups of people:

  • Other teachers.
  • CELTA trainees and trainers.
  • Delta trainees.
  • Students (occasionally).
  • People wondering about living/moving abroad.
  • People with ulcerative colitis and other chronic health conditions.
  • People who are interested in my life, what I’m up to, and the thoughts in my head 🙂
  • Myself, especially for catharsis.

I tend to write posts as they pop into my head, if I have time, though some sit in my head for a long time before they make it onto the blog. Having said that, I currently have 88 titles in my drafts, which I may or may not return to one day! It’s therefore pot luck as to which of those audiences I’m writing for when I hit publish, depending on what I’m interested in/worrying about on any given day. This particularly post was mostly written to Tyson and Mike to answer their questions, but also for myself to work out my answers are. The rest of you can take it or leave it 😉

Writing is the most fun you can have by yourself. - Terry Pratchett

A gratuitous quote from TP, just because I need a picture to go with this post 🙂

Who are you people?!

Joanna Malefaki’s blog My ELT Rambles is one I enjoy reading, because her voice is so strong – I always feel like she’s chatting to me, even though we’ve never actually met.

Today she wrote a post about meeting the readers of her blog, and how strange it can be to realise that all those things you probably mostly wrote for yourself, and possibly a few people you know, have actually been read by other people who you’ve never met. In it, she said:

Well, I guess I feel strange and happy at the same time. Happy that I can help someone, strange cause, boy oh boy, do I ramble!! I guess bigger bloggers are used to it, but I am not. That’s why I am writing about it today. Does meeting someone who has read what I say, change the way I blog? Nope!! Still gonna ramble!!!

This completely echoes my own feelings. I’m lucky to have met quite a few of the readers of this blog face-to-face, and it never fails to make me squirm in embarrassment inside, while at the same time making me feel satisfied that my writing has been able to interest and help other people. When I started the blog I never dreamed that it would go as far as it has – I just imagined it as a kind of professional portfolio to help me when I was applying for jobs. Having ‘the’ put in front of my name feels very weird when somebody says ‘Oh, you’re THE Sandy Millin’, which has now happened a few times. But I can’t deny I enjoy my little corner of fame 😉

One of the things that feels particularly strange is that I think I can probably only identify maybe 100-200 (at a push!) of the people who subscribe to and read this blog, so I’d really like to know a bit more about the rest of you. It can seem a little unbalanced at times 😉 If you’re feeling brave, why not say hello in the comments and tell me a bit about you. I’m not sure if or how it will influence my writing, but it’d be nice to know more about who’s reading it!

Thank you.

I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I've ended up where I needed to be. Douglas Adams

Questions

As an experienced language learner, I know that it’s important for me to speak as much as possible in order to improve my language. That can be easier said than done though (no pun intended).

Since I came back to Poland after a few weeks away this summer, I’ve noticed I’m much more confident when speaking Polish. There’s been a real difference in my interactions, which I think marks a step change in my progress. Reading Scott Thornbury’s recent post W is for (language learning in) the Wild, I finally realised what this difference is: questions.

Let me explain.

In my first year in Poland, I went through somewhat of a silent period. Having previously learnt Czech and Russian really helped my understanding of Polish, since they are all Slavic languages. However, it meant that whenever I spoke, it was some kind of weird mix of all three languages, and people often struggled to understand me. Without realising what was happening, I mostly stopped trying to interact, and would switch to English whenever I knew it was possible.

Last summer, I went for a weekend away with organised by my flamenco teacher in Bydgoszcz. At least half of the people on the trip couldn’t speak English, but they were curious about why I was there, and wanted to share their own experiences of English and/or the UK – many of them have family who live there. They were also very patient with me, and supported my efforts to communicate.

A few fellow flamenco learners in the beautiful surroundings of Gzin

A couple of weeks after that I moved into my new flat, and shared it for six weeks with the previous owners, who didn’t speak English. I’ve written previously about that experience of immersion and how much it helped my confidence.

Despite these positive experiences, I still felt like I could only make statements, or follow where my conversation partner led.

Now I’ve realised that I’ve started to be able to instigate conversations too, because I’ve begun to experiment with asking questions. I’m still not hugely confident with the grammar of questions, and mostly stick to question words and rising intonation, but I now feel like I can steer what’s happening or fill lulls in the conversation when my conversation partner has run out of things to ask. It also now feels rather less like the Spanish inquisition.

What particularly made me think in Scott’s post was the fact that the Japanese hitchhiker he describes had been prompted to use a particular list of questions by his English teacher. Maybe I should come up with a list of Polish questions that I can use in a variety of situations, to help improve my confidence and make it easier to start conversations.

Have you ever done anything like that with your students? What kind of questions would you include on the list?

Minor tweaks, major changes

For the last couple of weeks one of my Ukrainian friends was staying with me. I love spending long periods of time chatting with non-native speakers of English, because it helps me to notice all kinds of things about my language which would probably never occur to me otherwise.

One of our discussions ended up being centred around ‘go’, and how adding or subtracting a single word to certain collocations could completely change the meaning, at least as far as I could tell without checking it in any reference materials.

Look at the photos below. Imagine you are talking to your friends the day after the photo was taken, telling them about it. Write one sentence that you would use to tell your friends about what you were doing. (There are 9 of them, so it’ll be easier to remember if you write them!) Start each sentence with ‘I went…’

1. You’re one of the girls in the photo.

Ballet class

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

2. You’re in the audience watching this.

Ballet performance

Image from Pixabay

3. You’re one of the people in the club.

Club in Mexico

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

4. You’re one of the people in the couple.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

5. You’re one of the people on the rink.

Ice Skating

Image from Wikimedia Commons

6. You’re one of the children.

Ice skating lessons

Image from Flickr, shared under a Creative Commons 2.0 licence

7. You’re in the audience.

Ice Skating show

Image from Wikimedia commons

8. You’re one of the people in the picture.

Football training

Image from Pixabay

9. You’re in the crowd.

Football friendly

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Hopefully you now have a list that looks a bit like this:

  1. I went to ballet.
  2. I went to the ballet.
  3. I went dancing.
  4. I went to dancing.
  5. I went ice skating.
  6. I went to ice skating.
  7. I went to the ice skating.
  8. I went to football.
  9. I went to the football.

I realised a few things when we were having this discussion:

  • I don’t think I would use the words ‘classes’ or ‘lessons’ in any of these examples, just the preposition ‘to’.
  • One little word, like ‘to’, can completely change the meaning of the sentence. (I knew that already, but hadn’t come across such a clear example outside the realm of articles before.)
  • I’m pretty sure I’ve never had a discussion like this with my students.
  • I really should do more work with contrastive forms whenever I can.

What sentences did you come up with? What things have you realised about English or your own language recently?

Staying healthy

I’ve written at length (when don’t I?!) about the fact that I have ulcerative colitis, and how it affects my life.

Having a stress-induced illness means that it’s particularly important that I find ways to manage how stressed I feel to avoid a flare-up of my colitis. September and the beginning of October are by far the busiest times of our school year, and can be very stressful for me at times. For the last two years, I was quite bad for most of this six-week period. Since Christmas last year, I’ve been on immuno-suppresants, which have stopped me from having any flare-ups (yay!) and seem to be keeping me mostly healthy right now (double yay!) I can still feel some of the symptoms though, and I need to look after myself to avoid the other pitfalls of a weak immune system, like catching every cold that passes through the school (!)

Here are some of the things I’ve been trying to do:

  • Making sure I stick to my morning routine as much as possible, doing physio exercises and spending 20 minutes or so doing cross stitch, both relaxing activities in and of themselves. I listen to podcasts at the same time to give me something to think about other than work.
  • Keeping active by aiming for 10,000 steps a day, which equates to about 100 minutes of exercise a day. When you’re sitting a desk doing timetables and setting up electronic registers all day, that’s not always easy!
  • Eating healthy food. I bought a slow cooker a couple of weeks ago, which has helped me to cook in bulk and not have to worry about exactly when the food will be ready. So far I’ve made soup and lasagne, and am happy to get any other suggestions (though I can’t eat anything spicy because of the colitis, so no curries!)
Soup in my new slow cooker

It might not look very appealing, but it tasted delicious!

  • Switching off the computer and blue screens by 9:30, before going to bed at 11pm. Having always been lucky to sleep fairly well, I didn’t think this would make much difference, but I feel much more refreshed by my sleep if I haven’t been using screens late at night.
  • Noticing when I’m stressed, particularly if I’m moving faster than I need to be, taking a deep breath, and consciously slowing down. For example, I realised I was rushing when I was washing my hands this afternoon because my brain was very active and I felt like I needed to get things done. I realised that taking an extra 30 seconds would calm me down a bit and make my work more effective in the end.
  • Blogging 🙂

I’m also really looking forward to my first flamenco class of this year – our lessons restart tomorrow night.

What do you do to stay healthy and to de-stress?

The TEFL Training Institute Podcast

I first came across this podcast when I saw one of the presenters, Tracy Yu, speak at the 2017 IATEFL conference in Glasgow. She mentioned it at the end of her talk, and as a huge podcast fan, I decided to investigate.

TEFL Training Institute Logo

Each TEFL Training Institute podcast is about 15 minutes long, with about 12-13 minutes of actual content, once you’ve taken away the introduction and contact information. They’re normally presented by Tracy and Ross Thorburn, though they often have guests too. The podcasts are structured around three questions, which helps to keep them focussed. The questions are always listed at the beginning so you know what to expect. They cover a range of topics, both inside and outside the classroom.

One of my favourite episodes was when Tracy and Ross interviewed Ross’s parents about how they’d managed to stay in teaching for so many years without getting bored or burning out. Other recent topics have included how to make role plays interesting, how to recruit the right teachers and find the right school, and how teachers move into training.

The podcast is great because it’s concise, to the point and has a very clear format. It often makes me think about how I’d answer the questions myself. It feels a bit more practical and relevant to me than some of the other TEFL podcasts I’ve listened to. I also like the fact that it’s put together outside Europe (they’re based in China) as I feel a lot of the TEFL stuff I’m exposed to is highly Euro-centric, with only some things from the Americas or Asia. It therefore broadens my perspective. The one thing I find slightly annoying is the music, but I can skip past that 😉 I’d definitely recommend listening. Which episodes did you enjoy?

What are you thinking about?

When I was a full-time teacher, my thoughts went something like this:

  • Why do I have to get up this early?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • I hope my students are enjoying their lessons.
  • I really hope I’m actually teaching them something!
  • Hmm…that didn’t really work.
  • Oh my god, how could that lesson possibly have gone that badly?
  • This blogging malarkey is fun. I’m learning so much from everyone.
  • I don’t want this year to end because I’ll really miss my students.
  • …and so on.

Now, I’m a Director of Studies, CELTA trainer and materials writer, and my thoughts have (mostly!) moved on.

  • Why can’t I get back to sleep?
  • When will I find time to eat?
  • Where am I going to find the last teacher I need?
  • What teacher development should we offer this year? Is it giving everyone what they need?
  • Will this timetable ever be finished?
  • How can we make sure everyone feels comfortable at school?
  • That was really snappy/short/sharp/angry – apologise now and don’t let it get worse.
  • I wish I had more time in the classroom and to work on my own teaching.
  • I wish I had more time.
  • I really want to work on that CELTA course, but the dates don’t fit.
  • Where will my next CELTA course be? When will I know?
  • How can I encourage people to buy my book?

Richer Speaking cover

  • I’m really excited about this project – I can’t wait to be able to share it!
  • Don’t forget to put in your IATEFL proposal.
  • I need to make sure I still find time to get thoughts out of my head onto my blog.
  • I have too many ideas for my blog and not enough time!
  • Switch your computer off at 9:30. You know you’ll sleep better if you do.
  • Stop it. Look after yourself.
  • …and so on.

What are you thinking?

A timetable metaphor

Last week I started trying to put together the timetable for the new school year. This is the third time I’ve done the timetable for my school, not counting changes that happen through the year. I’ve worked out a few systems for myself now, and as I’ve got to know teachers, students (especially 121s) and what does and doesn’t work, things have got a bit easier, but it’s still an all-consuming task. I have no idea how those who do timetables at schools with continuous enrolment manage it!

What my head feels like right now! (Image from Pixabay)

It’s like you’re trying to do a jigsaw, with people adding random extra pieces all the time, and occasionally taking them away.

There is a deadline, but you know that the picture will still have to change for at least a couple of weeks after the deadline has passed – it’s never truly finished.

The end result has to be a picture that is as pleasing as possible to various different groups of people: students, staff (approximately a third of whom you’ve only had a couple of hours of conversation with during interviews and have never met in person), admin staff, businesses etc. You’ve never seen this picture and have no idea what it’s supposed to look like.

Said people are also looking over your shoulder, offering advice, asking questions, and sometimes telling you that the picture just doesn’t look right that way or that they’re not happy with that particular part of the image.

You go home, sleep on it (or not, as the case may be!), and occasionally wake up in the middle of the night thinking ‘Duh! How could I possibly have forgotten that?’ or ‘Oh yeah – that would be a much better picture.’

You’ve been on the other side of the process as a teacher, and you have a pretty good idea of what is manageable in terms of a timetable. You try as hard as you can to make things as easy as possible for your teachers, a lot of whom have never taught before, while at the same time matching up students and groups to those who you believe will be most likely to teach them successfully. You also try to balance timetables, so that they seem ‘fair’ when the inevitable comparing begins. You also know it could be a lot worse for them.

Three or four weeks later, after many hours of work and countless to-ing and fro-ing, you hand out the timetables to everyone. And then the complaints roll in.

But at the same time, there is a sense of satisfaction. This giant, ever-changing logic puzzle has coalesced into something that looks like it just might work. Now you just have to wait and see…

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