What’s your WHY? (blogging challenge)

James Egerton shared a video by Simon Sinek called ‘Start with why’:

He used this is a prompt to examine his own WHY of teaching and to start a blog challenge. Here’s what he said:

Thus, welcome a series of ‘What’s your WHY?’ guest blogs from dear ELT colleagues from around the world, detailing their WHY-HOW-WHAT. You can read my own thoughts here, which I read semi-regularly and edit to make sure my ship is still pointing where I want it to go. Everyone’s will be different; it’s always interesting to get perspectives from other educators, and you might even be able to borrow an idea or two. Sharing is caring, so let me know if you’d like to contribute too.

Here are my responses to WHY-HOW-WHAT for teaching, training and being a Director of Studies.


To enable others to communicate.

To help to spread professionalism through English language teaching.


By ensuring that students feel comfortable experimenting with language in my classroom.

By finding ways to boost the confidence of students and teachers.

By being mental health aware.

By being as professional as I can be in everything I do (leading by example).

By investing time in my own development and that of the teachers I work with.

By sharing ideas for development online and face-to-face.


Experiment with methods of language learning myself.

Pass on the things that work to the students.

Try out different ways of approaching teaching to see which ones my students respond to, for example task-based learning.

Create a relaxed environment in the classroom, for example by playing music (if students want it) when they are talking in pairs.

Make sure I know all of the students’/trainees’ names, and that they know each other’s names.

Point out students’ successes in class.

Point out teachers’ successes.

Ask questions that remind teachers of the positive things that happened in their classrooms, not just the negative things.

Focus on a maximum of three things for teachers to improve on in their own teaching at any one time – any more than that can be overwhelming.

Show teachers Emma Johnston‘s talk:

Have an open-door policy.

Tell teachers about the things that I’m working on as a teacher, DoS and trainer.

Ask them questions about what they’re working on.

Record my own lessons for teachers at our school to watch as peer observations.

Encourage teachers to record their lessons and see themselves in action.

Continue working on staying calm, even when things are frustrating me. Displaying this calm through an even tone of voice, a normal or quiet volume, and neutral body language.

Write this blog.

Write ebooks that give guidance for reflection through structured tasks and questions.

ELT Playbook 1 cover

Contribute to journals.

Always explain things clearly – don’t assume that people already know what a term means for example. Use terminology when it helps, and avoid it when it will make something less clear.

Go to conferences.

Present at conferences.

Watch webinars.

Present webinars.

Read blogs.

Help other people to set up their own blogs or social media presence, but only if they want to.

Listen to teaching- and language-related podcasts.

Share links in general through social media and this blog. Send specific links to specific people who I know might benefit from them.

Participate in #ELTchat.

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


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


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…

Behind the scenes

in response to Sandy Millin:

A fascinating post, and I completely agree with Svetlana. Your blog is truly inspiring! Here’s to the next few hundred posts 🙂

Thank you Sandy. Let’s see if I can make it to two hundred first! Will you join #ELTbehindthescenes and share with us what goes into making your blog?

How could I refuse? Thanks for the invitation T!

Last week I put together a series of posts about the IATEFL Glasgow 2017 conference. It’s something I’ve started to do every year, and every year I forget just how long it takes 😉

While I’m at the conference I tweet throughout any and all of the talks that I go to, providing I can connect to the wifi. This is for two reasons:

  1. As notes to download later ready to put together my posts
  2. To help other people feel like part of the conference: I started out on the receiving end of the tweet stream, and I know how lucky I am to be there.

Here are some fascinating graphs from TweetStats that show you when I’m at conferences 🙂

Graph showing tweets per day in the last year
Tweets per day in the last year
Tweets per day April 2017
Guess when the conference was

If the wifi’s not working, then I use the iPad Notes app, but still write as if I’m tweeting.

I’ve been tweeting throughout conferences for six years now, and it feels fairly automatic. I’m also pretty quick now 🙂 I can take most of it in, but obviously I don’t always notice everything, so that’s where it’s handy when other people are tweeting from the same talk. I also look at the conference hashtag regularly to retweet things from other talks that I’m interested in.

After the conference, I look back at the list of talks I went to using my paper daily planners, and categorise them, so for example this year I had Listening and Pronunciation, Teacher Training, Materials Writing… It’s the first time I spot what the main themes of my conference were. I set up a draft post for each theme, plus ones for Miscellaneous, Things I Missed, and a summary to bring all the posts together.

I use Tweetdownload to get a .txt and a .html file of my tweets. I start with the .txt file open from the beginning of the conference/the bottom of the stream, deleting tweets as I put them into the relevant blogposts. If I want to embed a tweet or follow a link, I use CMD+F to find it on the .html file. Clicking the tweet in the Tweetdownload file automatically opens the original on Twitter. This is when the learning happens, as I have to organise my thoughts into something coherent and logical. It’s also when I go down a lot of rabbit holes, following up on things that I didn’t have time to investigate during the conference itself.

Normally I only have a handful of tabs open in my browser, but when I’m writing up the IATEFL posts, it’s a bit different:

My desktop as I prepare my post-IATEFL blogposts

The top right window has all of my posts. Bottom right is the Tweetdownload .html file, and a tweet I’m getting ready to embed. Bottom left is the .txt file to delete things as I write them. Top right has everything else, like the British Council IATEFL links for me to find videos, Amazon if I want to put in affiliate links (the only way I make any money from this), and various other things that I can’t remember now.

Because there were so many tabs open, I didn’t switch my computer off overnight, something I normally do religiously. It would have been too much faff to open them all again! This time round, it took me about five hours on Monday, and thirteen or fourteen on Tuesday to write everything up. It must always take me that long, but I’ve never really noticed it before!

I think in the past I’ve done one theme at a time and looked for the tweets for the relevant talk, so I’ve published the posts as I go along. This year I published them all simultaneously, apart from the last one, so that I could put the live links onto the summary straight away.

So there you have it: that’s how I turn just under 1000 tweets into 8 blog posts. 🙂

If you blog, I’d be fascinated to hear something about how you go about it. Let’s find out more about #ELTbehindthescenes

11 things (again)

1. Acknowledge the nominating bloggers/2. Share 11 facts about yourself

Clare Fielder recently nominated me to take part in the ’11 things’ blog challenge which she wants to revive. I originally shared my facts in December 2013 but I liked Clare’s questions so have decided to answer them here. I’ve also nominated a few more people to answer the questions who weren’t blogging last time I did this. I hope they’ll join in!

3. Answer the 11 random questions the nominating blogger has created for you

1. How are you feeling today?

Happy, for many different reasons 🙂

It’s Friday afternoon and I’m sitting on the train to Warsaw for my penultimate weekend of working on a part-time CELTA. It’s the fourth time I’ve been, and (I hope!) the first time I’ll actually get to see some of the city, due to a combination of (what is supposed to be) good weather and light evenings.

It’s the last week of the school year for most of the teachers at IH Bydgoszcz and we had a great swapshop of summer school activities this afternoon. Everyone is very positive as we finish off the year, and there’s a real buzz in the staffroom.

I also had the best night’s sleep I’ve had for a long time last night, which I suspect was because I managed to walk both to and from school for the first time in over a month. I sprained my ankle for the third time on 4th May, and I managed to ditch the crutches yesterday. Roll on complete recovery!

Life is good, with lots of great plans lined up for the summer (watch this space), and the fact that I’m taking the first steps to a long-held dream of buying my own flat. 🙂

2. What book is closest to you as you write this? And would you recommend it to others? Why (not)?

Because I’ve only got a small rucksack with me for the weekend, I couldn’t fit in my real book, and as I write this I’ve just realised that I left my iPad behind so I don’t have my ebook either. Oops! That means I have no idea what the nearest book to me is right now…something one of the other passengers is reading! If I was at home, this would be my answer…

I’ve read the first few pages of The Pickwick Papers on a free books app on my iPad which I’m using to catch up with classics I’ve never got round to reading before. I love Charles Dickens, so I’m pretty sure I’ll like this.

I’m also reading two paper books, The Song of Homanathe second in a fantasy series, which is fine, and The Rose of Sebastopol. I noticed it in our school library a couple of weeks ago, and obviously needed to read it because of my connections with Sevastopol and Crimea. It’s set in the Crimean War, which I know more about than I used to, but still not much. I’ve only read a few pages of it so far, so am not sure if I can recommend it or not yet, although they were very easy to read, so I probably would.

3. What’s your top tip for de-stressing after a hard day at work?


Being outside really clears my head and gives me time to think. As somebody who used to be allergic to exercise, I’ve noticed a massive difference since I started tracking my steps about four years ago, and I’ve drastically increased the amount of exercise I do. It’s gone from 1,500-2,000 steps on some days, up to over 10,000 most days. I feel so much better for it, and I now always try to live or stay in places which mean I can walk to and from work. It’s also helped me to lose weight.

4. Have you ever learnt any foreign languages? How has this helped you be a better language teacher?

Erm, just the odd one or two. I’m a bit of an addict!

I did French and German at school, and added Spanish at university, reaching C1 level in all of them, although they’re a bit rusty now, especially my French.

I’ve learnt Czech, Russian and (currently) Polish because of living in the countries. I’m about pre-int in the first two, and my Polish is improving all the time, especially since I started actually speaking!

I’ve also dabbled in Malay, Greek, Mandarin, Thai and braille, and am trying to learn some Italian ready for a CELTA in Milan this summer.

Being a language learner myself has made a massive difference to my teaching, because although it’s impossible for me to truly understand what it’s like to learn English as a foreign language, I do know what it’s like to feel like an idiot or a very small child, to be mostly or completely illiterate, to feel frustrated because you know you know that word…and on the flip side, I have hundreds of tried and tested language learning techniques I can share, and I completely get the feeling of achievement you feel when you manage to understand or communicate successfully, so I keep trying to push my students past the pain so that they can get to that point!

5. Describe your teaching style by comparison to an animal, and explain the similarities!

Sorry. Going to skip this one, as I find this kind of thing really difficult! Anyone who wants to attempt an answer in the comments is welcome to try… 😉

6. What are your areas of specialism & expertise within ELT / teaching, and your strengths as a teacher?

My main area of expertise is in knowing where to find the answers to questions I have, mostly through the amazing network of teachers I’m connected to both online and offline. I’m also very organised, which makes my life a lot easier as a manager, and means I’m often asked about how I manage to get so much done.

In the classroom, I think my strengths lie in my ability to empathise with the students due to my own language learning experience, as I said in question four. I’m also very reflective, and I’m always trying to improve my teaching.

7. Which are the most recently used smiley/emojis on your mobile phone/whatsapp or instant messenger programme?

The ones I use the most are :), 😉 and :p I don’t really know that many other emojis and I don’t have a smartphone, so it’ll be a while before I get round to learning any, I suspect.

8. What was the most recent photo you took?

Not quite the most recent photo (I suspect nobody really wants to see the progress of my sprained ankle healing, but if you do, I’ll be adding them to ELTpics ‘Health’ set when I’ve got the full set…)

This is the room in the hotel I stayed in in Warsaw three weekends ago, the last time I was there. For some reason I got into the habit of taking photos of all of the bedrooms I live/stay in, probably because there have been so many with the amount of moving around I’ve done, and now I can’t stop doing it…

Hotel Reytan, Warsaw

9. Where are you based, and would you recommend working there to others?

Answered that question recently as a whole blogpost, before I read this question 🙂 Here’s a nicer photo that I hope social media will pick over the hotel one when deciding what to highlight from this post! It’s my mum in the botanic garden across the road from my flat during her first visit to the city a few weeks ago:

Mum in the botanic garden under a tree covered in red blossom

10. What’s your best memory of a lesson you’ve taught?

When I was working at IH Newcastle, I had a group of B1 intermediate students who stayed together for about six weeks, and who I taught for twenty hours a week, two every morning, and two every afternoon. Having the same group of students for so long was very unusual there, as new ones normally joined the group every Monday, and left on Friday, either to go home or to move to a different level. We got to know each other really well, and we often talked about food. One week we decided to dedicate our afternoon lessons to cookery and food, with the final lesson of the week in the school flats to cook together.

Sandy, an Arabic student and a Czech student chopping onions

We represented five different countries and ate traditional food from Brazil, Saudi Arabia and the UK, which we all worked together to prepare. Some of the students had never really cooked before so it was a whole new adventure for them. It was a fabulous afternoon full of laughter and delicious food, and is one of my all-time favourite lessons. It is proof of the positive effect that English lessons can have, as it really brought us all closer together.

The whole class, featuring students from four different countries, plus me

11. What would you like to say to me, now that I’ve nominated you for this challenge?!

Thank you for encouraging me to re-read my previous answers, and bringing back some happy memories! And thanks for inviting me to play again on my blog – it’s so nice to have the time to do that at the moment, as these are often the posts I most enjoy writing 🙂

4. List 11 bloggers

Seconding a few of Clare’s nominations:

Joanna – https://myeltrambles.com/

Zhenya – https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/

Anna – https://annazernova.wordpress.com/

Hana – https://hanatichaeltblog.wordpress.com/

And my extra ones:

Elly – https://thebestticher.wordpress.com

Tekhnologic – http://tekhnologic.wordpress.com

Rachel – https://publishingandpondering.wordpress.com

Matt – https://muddlesintomaxims.com

Pete – https://eltplanning.com

Svetlana – https://eltcation.wordpress.com/

Katherine Bilsborough – she doesn’t have a blog, but she can guest post here if she wants to join in 😉

5. Questions for nominated bloggers

Again, I’m going to steal some of Clare’s questions and add a few of my own:

  1. What’s your favourite thing you’ve written (ELT or otherwise)?
  2. Do you have a favourite recipe you want to share?
  3. What’s the last photo you took?
  4. What’s the last piece of music you listened to?
  5. What was the last film or TV show you watched? Would you recommend it?
  6. Do you ever listen to podcasts? Any favourites? If you don’t, can I persuade you? 🙂
  7. What tip would you offer to a new blogger?
  8. What’s your memory of the best lesson you’ve taught?
  9. Have you ever made a mistake or been in a bad situation which felt huge at the time, but now you’re really glad it happened?
  10. Where are you based and would you recommend it to others?
  11. What question do you wish I’d asked you, and what’s the answer?


Russie nominated me on her list – thanks! I chose a couple of questions to answer to add to the ones above:

What would you describe as quintessentially English?

I was back in the UK for 24 hours in between two CELTA course last year, and had one of the most English days of my life. My mum, grandma and I went to a little village in Northamptonshire called Lillingstone Lovell for an ‘Open Gardens’ day. The village was full of traditional cottages and had a beautiful parish church. You could go into different people’s gardens and see all the beautiful plants and sculptures they’d got in them. We finished the day with a cream tea at the village hall.

Lillingstone Lovell church on the open gardens day

What was the last experience that made you a stronger person?

Over the last couple of years there have been two main things which have changed me as a person. I’ve written about both of them on my blog. One was being diagnosed with ulcerative colitis (warning: do not read if you’re squeamish) and the other was being in Sevastopol during the year when it became Russian. Both of them have made me even more determined to make the most out of everything which comes my way, because you never know when your life will change. They also made me appreciate just how little control you have over some things, and that it’s important to stay positive as much as possible.

Returning to the classroom

On 23rd September 2015 I went back into the classroom properly for the first time in over a year, teaching my first class with a B1 intermediate teen group who will be my students for the whole academic year. As a CELTA trainer in 2014-2015, the only opportunities I’ve had to teach English have been in one-off demo lessons, which aren’t quite the same. I’ve had a lot of opportunities to reflect on my teaching, seeing trainees do things I know I’ve often been guilty of, then offering advice about how to get over problems like over-complicated instructions and poorly timed lessons. Time to see if I could practise what I preached!

Anthony Schmidt started a blog challenge asking ‘What did you teach today?‘ Hana Tichá joined in and I decided to record my lesson so I could contribute too:

Out of curiosity and intrigue, and as a means of reflection, write what you did in your class(es) today, from checking attendance to giving a test to blowing students’ minds with the most dogme-inspired, task-based, mobile-assisted, coursebook-free, PARSNIP-full lesson non-plan ever. You don’t have to explain why, unless you’d like. Just give the raw, nitty-gritty details.

  • Circle game: to learn each others’ names. There are nine students, four girls and five boys, aged 13-15. This took about 10 minutes.
  • Setting up routines: I told students that they should only have pens, paper and books with them, and bags and coats should go on the hooks on the wall. They had time to rearrange themselves. (Five lessons later I still need to remind a couple of them!)
  • Getting to know you: I demonstrated a triangle on the board with three pieces of information about me. In pairs, students had to guess why the information is important to me. Listening back I didn’t give them enough time to guess (less than a minute), so only stronger students contributed in the open class stage. A couple of the boys decided the triangle was an Illuminati symbol, added an eye, and have since put it on the whiteboard at the beginning of every lesson.
  • Students wrote their own triangle with information on it. They had plenty of time to do this.
  • Mingle: students had to find out about their classmates. Instructions have always been a problem for me, and although they have improved a lot, the way I set up this activity wasn’t completely clear. The instructions themselves were fine, but to make it completely clear I should have done a T-SS and a SS-SS demo first. I thought the demo I’d done with my information would be enough, but I didn’t factor in that students needed to make notes based on what they heard. I also didn’t specify before the activity that I wanted them to speak English only, so some of the boys were making it a race at the beginning and doing it in Polish. They had about ten minutes, but it could have been shorter if I’d been clearer.
  • Pair check: students tried to remember one thing about each person in the class. Here I had to remind them to expand on what they said, as some of them started with e.g. ‘Sandy – blue, M – cat’ instead of making full sentences.
  • Open class: I moved students into more of a circle to encourage them to speak to each other, not just to me (although in a relatively small, rectangular room this isn’t easy!) ‘Who can tell me something about A?’ A then nominated the next person who we found out about, and so on. This stage was quite relaxed and there was a lot of laughter, but it was also long and the pace dropped. Students had written their notes on scrap paper, so I got them to put them in the bin before moving on. I do like a tidy classroom 🙂 )
  • K points: this is the school-wide points system used for teen classes. I introduced it to them, telling them what they needed to do to win points as a class, and what would mean losing points. Five of the students had the system last year, so I should probably have got them to explain it (especially because it’s new to me!) but I didn’t think about that until afterwards.
  • Break time: students have ten minutes to go to the club, a room at the bottom of the school with vending machines, tables and places to sit. The teacher goes with them, and if they behave well, they get K points on their return to class.

The second half of the lesson was based on a reading text from the coursebook. There are six classes at the school who are at the same level, and each week the teachers meet and plan together in a level meeting. I’m the level head, coordinating the meeting, but all of the teachers contribute to the plan. We work through the book during the year, but I aim to help the teachers adapt it to their students, as ages range from 12-16, and group sizes from 3-12. What follows is the plan we came up with together…


  • I showed students the image above. We have projectors and netbooks, but they were still being prepared when I did the lesson, so they were printed on a couple of A4 sheets in black and white. In pairs, students had to say what’s happening, who the people are and where they are. One student immediately said ‘capoiera’ to the whole class, which kind of stalled the conversation! I still got them to predict in pairs, then asked that student to fill in the gaps once they’d shared their ideas.
  • ‘Capoeira’ was drilled briefly as students would need to say it a few times during the lesson. I wasn’t bothered about spelling or being completely correct though, since it’s not a high-frequency word for this group.
  • Gist reading: students read the text and matched four titles to the four paragraphs.
  • Feedback: students checked in pairs, then I read the answers and they confirmed them. The whole feedback stage took less than a minute. From my monitoring while they read I knew most students had got it right already, but one student hadn’t.
  • Reading for detail: yes/no/not given task. I demonstrated it first, showing students they needed to underline the answer in the text and write the question number next to it. Students did this without a problem. Meanwhile I was monitoring, and checking answers from fast finishers. They became the teachers and checked specified students’ answers.
  • Feedback: We only focussed on question 6, as students had the rest of the answers. There was a problem with an item of vocab (‘slave’) which I should probably have pre-taught, but it came up in the following vocabulary task too, so I’d decided not to. Oops. I gave them an example and got them to look at the text again for number 6, making sure they all underlined the right sentence.
  • Vocab race: changed student groups so they were working in new threes. I read a definition, students had to find the word in the text, then one person from their team ran to the board to write it. The procedure for the task was clear, and I set up the room to make sure nobody would fall over anything, but I should have made the points system clearer, and drawn lines on the board to show where they should write – one group tried to fill the whole board so the others couldn’t write.
  • Written record: returning to their books, students remembered and wrote the words down. I rushed the set-up of this, and had to repeat my instructions.
  • Preparation for speaking: divided the board in half and elicited ‘martial arts’ and ‘dancing’, one in each half. Students worked in two groups to brainstorm as many of each as they could, then switched to add to the other list. I was prompting students for extra ideas when they ran out, and eliciting corrections of spellings if things weren’t clear. There was a lot of Polish at this stage – I should have offered K points before the task to encourage them to speak English, and perhaps fed in some functional language, like ‘Can you think of anything else?’
  • Speaking: students worked in new pairs (trying to divide up the boys who can be a bit crazy when they work together, and encourage the quieter girls to speak up) to discuss if they’d tried/would like to try any of the dancing/martial arts. To add some challenge, I asked them to see which pair could speak for the longest. They repeated it with a second partner. I could have done a bit of feedback in between the two tasks to make the repetition more useful, but hadn’t come up with anything to tell them! I was taking notes about their confidence when speaking, and some info about what they’d tried/liked.
  • Feedback on content: one student shared their experience of martial arts, and one of dance. Other students were interested in what they had to say, and only those who wanted to contributed – I didn’t force everyone to share something.
  • Setting up homework: students looked at the list of dances and said which three they thought I’d tried. I told them a little about my experiences of dancing, and what I do to keep fit. Their homework was to write 50-100 words about what they do to keep fit – I made sure they wrote it down, and reminded them that if everyone had their homework in the next lesson, they’d get K points.


I’m much happier with my lesson pacing now, particularly at feedback stages. They often used to drag, but now I have a range of techniques to call on, and feel like they’re much more appropriate to the stages of the lesson. My monitoring has improved too, which also contributes to making feedback more efficient and useful.

Although my activity set-up has improved a lot, and I’ve drastically reduced the amount of waffling I do, I still need to remember to demonstrate activities clearly before setting students off on them. Since this first lesson, I’ve been making a conscious effort to do that (I had lesson six on Friday) by writing it on my plan – I don’t always remember to do that though.

I sit down a lot more in my lessons now, and that’s made a real difference to the dynamic in the room. I feel like the atmosphere was quite relaxed and comfortable throughout, but that I could still be authoritative when necessary.

I was a bit worried about teaching teens as they haven’t been my favourite age group in the past – I normally prefer adults. However, with the K points system, I feel like I finally have the classroom management technique that was missing from my previous attempts, and I’m looking forward to the challenge of keeping lessons interesting and motivating for the group through the year, and helping the other teachers in our level meeting to do the same. Five lessons later, I feel like I’m getting to know the group well, and am enjoying the lessons a lot more than I expected too. I just hope they are too!

I know who I am, but who are you?

I’m totally stealing this idea from Joanna Malefaki. In fact, I’m going to steal her words too:

I would really appreciate it, if you took a minute to say hello, tell me where you are from/about yourself, and what you like reading in the ELT blogs you read.

I am doing this cause I want to get to know the people who actually read my posts. Reading your comments really puts a smile on my face!

I’ve often wondered who reads my blog, and while I’ve had the pleasure to meet many of you *waves!*

Not that kind of waves!
Not that kind of waves! (my image)

I know there are a lot more of you out there. So, don’t be afraid, say hello!

Outside influences: the women in my family

This month the iTDi (International Teacher Development Association) blog was all about ‘Outside Influences‘, or the people outside education who have shaped our teaching. Many bloggers have added their own posts to this, include Vicky Loras and Anne Hendler. They have inspired me to write about the women in my family, all of whom have had a big influence on the person I’ve become.

My dad’s mum

When my dad was four and his brother was two, my granddad had a stroke which affected his language and movement, and meant he couldn’t work again. If I remember the story correctly, he was sitting opposite my grandma on the train on the way to a holiday in Cornwall when it happened. This was in 1964.

Thanks in large part to my grandma’s care, he lived until 1999 and I was lucky enough to know him. She made him persevere to communicate clearly with her because she wouldn’t respond until he’d made himself understood. She supported him, brought up two children, and worked to bring in money for the family (although I’m not sure exactly how these three things fitted together, and I can’t ask her about it any more).

When I knew granddad, he could look after himself and contribute to the house and garden, but he needed a stick to get around at home, and a wheelchair outside. Grandma and granddad looked after my brother and I for a couple of weeks each summer and took us on day trips to various places. I have lots of happy memories of those times, and that typical childhood haze of blue skies and long summer days 🙂

Grandma’s strength of will was amazing, and she never let anything get in her way. She never left the UK, but loved hearing about my travels. I used to take her to various places around the UK too. One of the reasons I got into the habit of taking so many photos was to share them with her.

Grandma at Hadrian's Wall
Grandma at Hadrian’s Wall

My mum’s mum

My granddad was in the Merchant Navy, meaning he was away for long stretches of time. Grandma stayed at home to look after the family. At one point, she had four children under the age of five and was effectively a single mum when grandy was away. Money was never easy: she made clothes for the family and learnt to be a great cook, with nothing ever wasted. Nobody ever did without.

My brother and I also stayed with them every summer, and my memories from their house are no less happy than with my dad’s parents. They used to live in a huge Victorian house with a magical garden that has unfortunately now been divided up into three properties. They helped us to explore England and Wales, and encouraged us to be inquisitive and ask questions about the world.

Now grandma helps us to keep our extended family together. If I can have a family as strong as the one my grandma has built, I will be a very happy person. Both of my grandmas taught me to appreciate what I have, to avoid waste and to realize how lucky I am.

My aunt

At the age of two, my aunt was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. Inevitably this has had a huge effect on her life, and it has had other knock-on effects with her health too. I’ve watched her go through hip replacements and a cataract operation, and carry on regardless, with a positive attitude to life. Watching her has helped me with my own health problems, because I know that they don’t have to stop me from doing what I want to with my life. She was also part of the inspiration for making me and other members of my family start to exercise more when she began doing walking challenges. This was the beginning of my weight loss and general move towards being a healthier person. 

I’ve also been influenced by the way my aunt managed to stay in touch with so many of her friends in pre-internet days, through meeting them regularly and making a real effort. I think this is so important, and I’m lucky that I have it easier with facebook, email and Skype. Finally, she inspired me to learn to play cards, and I’ve enjoyed teaching her kids to play many card games in return.

My mum

Mum is another very strong, very independent woman. She built a career in librarianship, moving on to high levels of management within the UK council system. I’ve watched and learnt from her about many aspects of management and communication, and we’ve often discussed her work in ways that I hope will be useful to me as I move into management myself. When I was young, she used to help my dad with his pet shop too, working at the library during the week and the shop at weekends. Time management was key, and I’ve inherited this from her (I hope!)

My parents split up when I was 12, and although this was obviously not an easy process, watching mum get through it and continue to look after my brother and I has also shown me what it means to be strong. Mum has been so supportive of me and my brother throughout our lives. She has never told me what to do with my life, or complained about any of my choices. We’ve always been told that as long as we’re happy, she’s happy. I know other people who are badgered about when they will get married, or have children, or why they choose to live so far away, but I’ve never had that once. Mum has let me live my own life and make my own mistakes.

My aunt, my grandma, my mum and I
My aunt, my grandma, my mum and I

I’m incredibly lucky to have four role models like this, women who are strong, and yet know how to support each other and the people around them, and ask for support when they need it. Of course, this isn’t all I’ve learnt from them, but I’ve already cried a few times while writing this, and I need to draw a line somewhere 🙂

Thank you ladies!

To my #youngerteacherself

This is a response to a blog challenge set by Joanna Malefaki, asking what advice I’d give to my younger teacher self. Now that I’ve written it, it turns out most of my advice is about being outside the classroom, but I’m not sure what else I can say!

Depending on how you count it, I’ve been teaching for:

Like Joanna, I think I’d give different tips to each of those ‘me’s’.

On your gap year

I got incredibly homesick for the first three weeks of the six I was at the school in the middle of the jungle. When I left, I was crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to go.

Don’t wallow. Go out and talk to people.

Explore the place you’re in, however small it might be.

Our House


Find out about the culture.

Immerse yourself in the language.

Don’t be afraid to find out about the people you’re living amongst.

Fill your time.

On your year abroad

I didn’t learn from my experience of homesickness in Borneo, and repeated it all over again when I was in Paraguay, so the advice above would work for this me. There’s more though:

Just because a resource book looks old, doesn’t mean it’s not useful.

Just because a coursebook looks old, it probably means it’s out-of-date and irrelevant 😉

Plan more than 5 minutes before the lesson.

Make sure you know something about the grammar you’re teaching, and don’t just try to wing it.

Learn what those funny symbols on that strange chart on the wall mean – they’ll come in really useful!

Asuncion from the 13th floor

My first job

I spent my next three years working in Brno, which I loved, but…

No matter how much you think it might help, spending every weekend of the first six months of your time in Brno at school planning lessons is neither healthy nor an effective use of your time. Allocate a shorter time to plan, and you will magically be able to do it.

Spend time exploring – don’t wait until you’re about to leave to start, or you’ll never get to the planetarium (still haven’t been!)


Make more of an effort with the language right from the start. Get a teacher – you need one to make you do the work.

Back in the UK

Two years in Newcastle:

Use the fact you’re in the UK. Take the students on trips. Get them out of the classroom, especially in the summer.

At the park

Invite people into your classroom.

Observe other teachers. Observe yourself.

Remember that however much you might love the north-east of England, it’s a long way from family and friends, and just because you’re in the UK, doesn’t mean it’s any cheaper getting to see them than when you live in Europe!


Do Module 2 full-time. You’ll get so much more out of it that way.

Do the modules separately, not concurrently.

Make sure you dedicate the time and the effort to actually following through on the PDA (Professional Development Assignment) properly, rather than just hurriedly doing whatever you can to make sure you’ve ticked the boxes. You might find it actually solves some of the problems you have.

When people tell you your instructions are crap, do something proactive to sort it out. Don’t just nod and carry on in the same way. They are, and you’ll save yourself so much time and effort in the classroom by doing something about it.

It’s not worth making yourself ill over – have a proper break before you start.


Start exploring straight away. You never know what’s going to happen that might stop you.

Don’t be afraid to ask people to do things with you in your free time – you’re not interrupting them, and you never know, they might say yes.

Sandy in Sevastopol

CELTA tutoring

Observe other tutors’ input sessions whenever you can find the time to do it.

Get copies of their feedback so you can become more effective, faster.

Collect as many different ways of conducting TP feedback as you can, experiment with them, and try to find ones which work in different situations.

Don’t overwhelm the trainees with paper – be picky, and get to the point.

Timing, timing, timing – be strict with yourself.

Most importantly of all…

Don’t think twice about diving headfirst into TEFL. It will take over your life in the best possible way, give you experiences you never even knew could exist, take you all over the world, and give you the most amazing life.

Don’t change anything.

Am I bothering you? (paragraph blogging)

Or at least an attempt at paragraph blogging (I find it hard to stop writing, so maybe this will help!) The idea was proposed by Ann Loseva and Kate @springcait.

Today two different trainees on my current CELTA course mentioned that they didn’t want to ask for help because they felt like they might be bothering people. This is a feeling I often used to have, but I’m hoping I’ve got over now.*

What I’ve realised is that most of the time when you ask somebody something, they’ll say yes.

Need help? Ask: you’ll get it.

Stuck at home and bored? Invite somebody to do something with you: they’ll do it.

Nobody to spend your birthday with? Tell your friends: someone will be free.

What’s the worst that can happen? They might say no.

And if they do? At least you tried.

We’re normally a lot more worried about bothering other people than they are about being bothered.

Of course, it’s a two-way street. You have to be prepared to say yes when other people bother you. After all, you never know where it might take you.

Me in a fighter plane on the USS Midway
When travelling alone, you don’t get photos like this without bothering other people!

* I still have trouble getting started on a new social life when I move somewhere new, but four months of CELTAs and moving round a lot have (hopefully!) made me a bit more proactive. We’ll see what happens when I move to Poland!

Blogging habits

I’ve recently discovered Zhenya Polosatova’s blog, Wednesday Seminars. She posed three questions about blogging habits which have been answered by many people. You can find links to them in her original post, along with the thinking behind the questions. Here’s my contribution:

What are your 2-3 favorite writing habits/rituals you find helpful?

If it’s in your head, get it out! Writing really helps me to formulate my ideas, especially if I know other people are going to read it (I also keep a diary for myself), and to let go of negative thoughts by pouring them on to the page/screen.

Having said that, for some posts I like to think about them for a while, so that when I finally get to writing them, it’s quite a quick process. Sometimes I don’t have a choice about this – over the last few months I’ve had lots of ideas for posts, but little to no time to do anything about them!

What are 1-2 writing habits you find less helpful, (and would like to get rid of in the new year?)

This is a difficult question. I think this is the flipside of the previous question, in that some of my posts take quite a long time to write, and while I love doing it and love the response I get, I can end up spending way too much time in front of the computer, so I need to find more of a balance.

Pacific Ocean with the sun reflected in it
More of this needed…


What is one new idea (tip, habit) you would like to start in 2015, and why?

Not sure about this one either – perhaps it’s something I started doing towards the end of last year. I began to create a draft post for each of the ideas that have been kicking around in my head, in the vain hope that when I have some time to write, I already have at least the title and perhaps a few ideas already written on the paper.

Reading Mike’s comments on Zhenya’s original post, perhaps I should also try to make some of my posts shorter, or break them into separate posts. Not sure if that’s a good idea or not though, as I find trailing through lots of different posts can get a bit annoying sometimes!

[At IATEFL 2014, Adam Simpson and I were asked a series of questions about our blogging. You can watch the video by following this link.]

Drawing challenge

At IATEFL Harrogate 2014, many of us were very impressed by the artistic endeavours of Christina Rebuffet-Broadus, who introduced us to the idea of sketchnoting.

I have to admit that her beautiful, and beautifully-organised, notebook made me a bit jealous, since my artistic skills are somewhat lacking. Carol Goodey and James Taylor seconded this, and I thought it would be fun to make us all feel a bit better by setting a drawing challenge, and proving we can all make our artwork understandable! Maybe it will be the first step towards out own sketchnoting at future webinars and conferences 😉

The rules

1. Choose four things you often have to draw in the classroom, or that you’ve had bad experiences drawing in the past (!). I suggest a person doing a particular action or job, an animal, a vehicle, and a miscellanous object, but you can draw whatever you like.
2. Draw them in any way you see fit (on a board, on paper, on a tablet…) but don’t spend any more time on it than you would in a lesson.
3. Share the results for us to guess what they are. 🙂

My offerings


My drawings

After that, I think you’ll agree, it’s a good job I’m a teacher, not an artist, as I often tell my students!

I look forward to seeing your artwork. 🙂

Challenge accepted!

David Harbinson was the first to take up the challenge, and has also shared his version of sketchnotes from a recent webinar.

Martin Sketchley shared his version of a skeleton from his YL classroom, and added four drawings for you to guess.

Maria Theologidou added a twist to her contribution by sharing a great activity for practising past simple and past continuous through drawing.

The chain of 11s

Two blog posts today, because I’ve seen this challenge going round for the last week, and don’t know when I’ll next have time to write for it! I love finding out more about the people I connect with online 🙂 Apologies in advance for the verbosity…I don’t know when to stop! I was tagged by Rachael Roberts and Adam Simpson, both of whom I’ve been lucky enough to meet, and whose blogs are full of excellent ideas and resources.

My task is to…

  1. Acknowledge the nominating blogger.
  2. Share 11 random facts about yourself.
  3. Answer the 11 questions the nominating blogger has created for you.
  4. List 11 bloggers.
  5. Post 11 questions for the bloggers you nominate to answer, and let all the bloggers know they have been nominated. Don’t nominate a blogger who has nominated you.

11 random facts about me

  1. I lived in the jungle for four months during my gap year. It was my first big adventure, and it definitely gave me the travel bug. It’s very nearly the 10th anniversary of the expedition, and I can’t believe how quickly time has gone past!
  2. I’ve done a parachute jump. It was part of my fundraising for the trip to the jungle.
  3. My dad used to have a pet shop, but before he opened it we already had over 100 animals at home…rabbits (he bred them for show), 2 dogs, a cat, a chinchilla, hamsters, gerbils, rats, mice, guinea pigs, budgies, cockatiels, canaries, finches, chickens, pigeons (for a very brief period, thank God!)…
  4. I love dancing, although I don’t have any particular skill at it! I took tango classes for a while in Paraguay, and did belly dancing in Czech Republic, something I was very resistant to at first, and ended up really enjoying.
  5. My whole family is English, as far back as we’ve managed to find out. Not British, English. No Welsh, Scottish, Irish, or anything else. Despite that, when I tan, I’m always very dark. This has led people to ask me, variously, if I’m Spanish, Argentinian, Brazilian, Indian… After I came back from the jungle, I lived in my aunt’s village in rural England for a month, and one of her friends asked who the foreigner was who was staying with her! 🙂
  6. Everywhere I go, I seem to meet, and normally become good friends with, someone with a name which is a variant on Katherine. My mum, my best friend, one of my best friends from uni and at least one person from most of the jobs I’ve done, generally the one I’ve stayed in contact with, all fit into this pattern.
  7. I think I was always meant to be a teacher, although it took me a long time to realise it. I’ve stayed in touch with one of my primary school teachers, and a few years ago she told me that when she was very busy my classmates would come and ask me for help. I don’t remember this.
  8. My original life plan was to work in business for about 20 years, then become a teacher when I was about 40 and had money. I came up with this plan when I was about 15, because I was worried I didn’t know what I would do with my life. I’m a forward planner!
  9. During my gap year, I did door-to-door sales, which I hated. It did, however, give me a lot of thinking time. It was at this point that I realised that TEFL was the way to go. “What, you mean people will pay for me to go and live in their countries? And I get to teach? Duh!”
  10. I really enjoy writing letters.
  11. Poor formatting frustrates me, and I will spend hours trying to sort it out.
Our chinchilla
Our chinchilla

11 questions from Rachael

  1. Why did you start blogging and how has differed from your expectations?
    I started blogging because I’d seen that lots of people on Twitter had blogs (I was still lurking at this point) and I thought it would be a good way of raising my professional profile. It’s ended up being something I HAVE to do – I wake up with ideas in my head I have to write about. When something goes well or badly, mostly in class but sometimes not, I write about it on my blog to get the thoughts out of my head. I love sharing materials too. It’s also been amazing that people come up to me at conferences or during courses and say “You’re Sandy Millin. I read your blog.” It’s very flattering, and has led to some very good friendships, but I also find it a bit freaky!
  2. What’s your earliest childhood memory?
    That’s a hard one. I think most of my childhood memories are connected to photos, so I don’t know if any of them are real or not. I can’t think of one particular thing.
  3. Tell us about someone you admire, and say why.
    Another hard one. I think it would have to be my mum and both of my grandmas. All of them had difficult times for various reasons and are very strong women. I don’t think I would be anywhere near as confident as I am without having the three of them as role models.
  4. What was the last book you read and what did you think of it?
    This morning I decided to give up reading The Brothers Karamazov after 200 pages (and about 6 weeks!). It’s a shame because I loved Crime and Punishment, but it’s just not motivating me. The last book I finished was Adventures of a Language Traveller by John Haycraft, one of the founders of IH. I wrote about it here. I’ve been reading A Dance with Dragons on my iPad for about a year now, and am a third of the way through. I’m trying to read it as slowly as possible in the vain hope that George R. R. Martin might finish the next Song of Ice and Fire (aka Game of Thrones) book before I’m done. I realise this is highly unlikely.
  5. Do you prefer walking or running? Why?
    Walking. I tried running for a couple of weeks a few years ago, and really didn’t like it. I have a dodgy knee, which doesn’t help. I love taking the time to enjoy the scenery (or people watching in a city). I’ve also been using a pedometer app on my phone for about a year, and when I realised how little exercise I was doing every day it really motivated me to try harder. Did you know that 10,000 steps is the recommended daily amount for a healthy lifestyle? It’s helped me to lose weight and to feel a lot healthier.
  6. What was your first paid job?
    I worked as a librarian doing cover work, which then morphed into three hours a week every Sunday for a year. My mum was a librarian, so I’d often gone there in the holidays and always enjoyed helping. It was nice to be paid for it 🙂
  7. What five famous people would you invite to a dinner party, and why?
    Stephen Fry – I could listen to him for hours.
    Terry Pratchett – I’ve read all of his books, and his documentaries about orangutans and Alzheimer’s are fascinating. I cried when I found out he’d been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. (On a side note, my first poster was an illustration of the Discworld)
    Dame Judi Dench – one of my favourite programmes as a child was As Time Goes Byand I always enjoy her films. She’s also a very funny woman.
    Bill Bailey – another fascinating man – he’s interested in so many things. I was lucky enough to see him perform last year, and it was brilliant.
    Douglas Adams – I’ve written before about how much he’s influenced me.
    It strikes me that these are all pretty similar people… 😉
  8. What’s the first website you check/go on each day? Why?
    Facebook. I can’t imagine having this lifestyle without the internet, and facebook has made it a lot easier to feel like I’m still part of people’s lives, even when my friends live all over the world.
  9. What can you remember about the first class you ever taught?
    I can’t remember a specific class, but the first time I was responsible for my own groups was in Malaysia, during my trip to the jungle (see fact number 1). I think the first group I had was two girls (I had three classes there – only 8 hours a week, and I was very bored in between!). I’d observed their class before teaching them, and their teacher would hit them behind the ear with his knuckle whenever they didn’t know anything. Unsurprisingly, they could never answer his questions, and they were petrified. We got into a routine of using a word monster. The final lesson I taught with that group was the first time I ever realised I’d taught someone something, and that what they’d produced was my doing. It still brings tears to my eyes when I think about it.
  10. Flowers or chocolates?
    I would always have said chocolates before, but over the last year or so I’ve come to prefer flowers. They last for longer, and I’ve even started buying them myself.
  11. How do you feel about reality TV shows?
    I can’t stand them. I watched the eviction shows for the second series of Big Brother because it was between Friends and Will and Grace, and meant I could join in with conversations at school the next day. That was more than enough naval-gazing for my whole life. I don’t see the point in people putting themselves in situations where they are likely to be humiliated and mocked – I think it shows the mean side of humanity.

11 questions from Adam

  1. I am aware of the phenomenon called ‘twerking’ but I don’t really know what it is. Do you? Would you explain it to me in one sentence?
    Any kind of word which spreads like this and I don’t understand frustrates me, so wikipedia is my friend here. 🙂 Twerking is sexually provocative, completely unnecessary dancing, generally designed to annoy other women.
  2. The Soviet Union still exists. Why does this make you happy / sad?
    Since I’m living in the Russian-speaking remnants of it in Ukraine, echoes of it are very much still around me. I don’t particularly feel one way or the other for it though, since I don’t feel I know enough about it. The main thing that living in Paraguay, Czech Republic and Ukraine has taught me is just how many opinions there are about oppressive regimes.
  3. What did you eat for dinner last night?
    I’m currently on a dietary regime that requires me to eat every 3 hours, and I have to have 200-300g every time. This does not combine well with teaching. So dinner was either chicken, vegetables and rice from the canteen next to school at 4pm, or Tuc biscuits, cheese and a couple of cocktail sausages at 9pm. Neither of these meals was ideal.
  4. I’m new to this planet. Tell me what a dog looks like.
    About 80cm tall, about 1m from nose to the tip of its tail. If a cat can take it in a fight, it’s not a dog.
  5. Go to YouTube and basically surf around until you find a song that you’ve never heard before. Share that song with us here.
    Katy Perry – Unconditionally
    I first really listened to her music thanks to Mark Andrews, and think her lyrics are generally pretty clever, although this one seems to have dropped the ball.
  6. The 60s or the 70s? Why?
    Neither. I was born in the mid-80s, and am pretty happy with life right now 😉
  7. Invent a word for something that doesn’t have a word to describe it. Share your word and description here.
    Ermm…no idea!
  8. Would you prefer to be that guy from Memento who wakes up and can’t remember the previous day, or that guy from Groundhog Day who wakes up to exactly the same day over and over again?
    Groundhog Day, mostly because I’m a romantic!
  9. Go to this YouTube video. Be honest, how long did you last?
    About 10 seconds. The music was already annoying me 😉
  10. What are your thoughts on becoming one of the first Mars colonists?
    That would be amazing! I’ve always loved space. My second poster (after the Discworld) was the lifecycle of a star, and one of my dreams is to see the Earth from space one day.
  11. Based on the way things are going, which language should we learn to be a good world citizen by the year 2030?
    English and Chinese, but generally you should just learn any other language to make sure you don’t have an insular view of the world. One of my favourite sayings is the Czech proverb:

Learn a new language and get a new soul.

And the nominees are…

A lot of the people I wanted to nominate have already been tagged and written their posts, so I thought I would spread this challenge to a wider community, not just EFL people. You don’t have to respond to the challenge if you don’t have time. I’d just like to find out more 🙂

  1. Lizzie Pinard
  2. Fiona Mauchline
  3. Anthony Gaughan
  4. Mike Harrison
  5. Phil Bird
  6. Chia Suan Chong
  7. Mike Griffin
  8. Ceri Jones
  9. Kevin Stein
  10. Kate Millin (my mum!)
  11. Liz Broomfield (a great proofreader and editor)

My questions to the nominees…

  1. What advice would you give to someone starting out in your profession?
  2. Are you a tidy person or a clean person, or both, or neither?
  3. How often do you go to the cinema?
  4. Do you have a favourite word (in any language)?
  5. What’s your favourite meal? Can you cook it?
  6. What’s the phrase you constantly hear yourself saying?
  7. What’s the worst job you’ve ever done?
  8. What’s your favourite method of procrastination?
  9. Do you like classical music?
  10. I don’t know much about poetry. Is there a particular poem you think I should read?
  11. And, a little bit of advertising. 🙂 What’s your favourite eltpic? (You don’t have to justify it!)

Update: answers to questions posed by Sharon Hartle

  1. Have you ever wanted to have another name?
    My name is actually Sandra, and I was called that until I was 18. I used ‘Sandy’ in my first email address, and to this day I have no idea why. When I went to Malaysia, I met the people I was going with by email first, so naturally they called me Sandy, and I found I preferred it. Now I get confused when people call me Sandra!
  2. What is the strangest thing that has ever happened to you when travelling?
    Having the same conversation again and again with taxi drivers in Patagonia after I fractured my leg, sprained my ankle, and ended up on crutches for two months:
    – What happened? (I was walking down a mountain in Ushuaia and tripped over.)
    – Why are you in Patagonia? (I’m working in Paraguay and have two months off)
    – Why would anyone go to Paraguay? (Because I’d never been to South America and wanted to go somewhere unusual)
    – Do you have a Paraguayan/Chilean/Argentinian boyfriend? (No)
    – Do you want one? (No!)
    This conversation was very good for my Spanish…Sandy with a fractured leg
  3. If you could change one thing about your house, what would it be?
    I don’t have my own house or flat, so that would be the main thing I would change! One day…
  4. What is your ideal holiday?
    One where I go somewhere new, with lots of interesting things to see and do, with people I can spend hours chatting to (either who I take with me or meet there!)
    On the other hand, a week of lying about by a pool reading now seems to hold an appeal it never did a year ago…
  5. What is your favourite moment of the day?
    I love being up early in the morning before anyone else is, especially in cities. One of the best times I ever did this was on New Year’s Day 2007, when I wandered around the deserted streets of Buenos Aires at about 9a.m. – it was like a different city. Something similar happened to me in London in 2012, walking through the city for three hours on a Sunday morning, starting at 7a.m. It’s quite magical, and I really should do it more.
  6. Where do you listen to music?
    Wherever and whenever I can, although I probably listen to more podcasts. When I’m doing mindless things like cleaning or washing up, I always have music on.
  7. What is your favourite classroom activity?
    I don’t really have one favourite, more a whole bank of them.
  8. What would the five things be that you’d take with you to a desert island?
    Ermmm…too difficult!
  9. Are you a lark or an owl?
    Definitely a lark, as number 5 will attest!
  10. What is one adventure that you’re planning for 2014?
    A trip to Kiev with my best friend and her fiancé, and learning to be a CELTA tutor (I hope!)
  11. What is the one thing you know you shouldn’t do, but… you do it anyway?
    Spend hours and hours and hours on the computer 😉

(And thanks to Ceri Jones for including me in her post)

12 from ’12

After the successful 11 from ’11 challenge which Adam Simpson did last year, he decided to run a 12 from ’12 follow-up. Not having much time to blog at the moment, it’s taken a while for me to reply to the challenge, so I hope it was worth the wait!

The biggest thing I’ve ever been involved in…

…and not related to teaching at all! Regular followers of this blog will know that my summer was mostly taken up with two things:

The Olympics

The Paralympics

where I worked as a volunteer, or Games Maker as we were called. It was an amazing experience, probably once-in-a-lifetime, and I still get tears in my eyes every time I talk about it. If you ever get the opportunity to be involved in a big sporting event, whether it has -lympics at the end or not, grab it with both hands. My posts about the Games include my selection of the best of my photos from back of house, the events I saw, the technical rehearsal for the Olympics opening ceremony and the athletes’ parade celebrating the success of TeamGB and ParalympicsGB athletes.

2012 Gold Medal in the British Museum
2012 Gold Medal in the British Museum (phot0 by Sandy Millin)

The teaching

Delta has taken over my life, and my blog. I explained what it is in this post, and have started a series of posts reflecting on some of the things Delta has changed in my classroom. There aren’t many yet, but more will be added over the next six months, time permitting!

In April I had one of the best weeks of my life at the IATEFL conference in Glasgow. I learnt a lot, and really enjoyed meeting so many people from Twitter and the teaching world. I wrote about it here. I presented about how to help your students take advantage of online resources.

In May I appeared in print for the first time. This was very important for me as it marked the next stage in my career. I’ve now had two columns in the IH Journal, and two articles in the IATEFL Learner Autonomy Special Interest Group journal.

I’ve shared quite a few posts with ideas for activities this year. These are my favourites:

And finally, at the start of the year I put together a list of Useful FCE Websites. This has become by far my most successful blog post ever, with three times as many hits as the next most popular post on my blog. Pretty good for a few hours’ work, even if I do say so myself!

Best of the rest

To stop this post sounding completely self-indulgent, I’d also like to share a few of my favourite blogs which I’ve discovered this year. These are:

Kevin Stein’s The Other Things Matter

Carol Goodey’s new blog

Chris Wilson’s ELT Squared (I think I discovered Chris’ blog this year, but even if I didn’t, it’s always worth recommending!)

Leo Selivan’s Leoxicon

That’s it!

I’ve had a very eventful 2012, which I’ve really enjoyed. I’m quite tired now though, so here’s hoping 2013 is a little more relaxing…

11 from 11

A month or so ago Adam Simpson posted an 11 from 11 challenge, inviting bloggers to choose their favourite 11 posts from 2011. I’ve enjoyed reading other people’s selections (there is a list of everyone who has taken part at the bottom of his original post), and have finally got around to choosing my own.

10 + 1
1+10= : Photo by @cgoodey from #eltpics


What I learnt on #eltchat today (Materials / Online Professional Development)

This was a summary of two of the first eltchats I took part in. I was in the middle of a week at home off sick, and therefore I had lots of time on my hands. Taking part in eltchat, looking at Twitter and writing on my blog kept me sane. It was also the start of a long line of eltchat summaries.


Videoing my students

This video has great memories of a great lesson. I really enjoyed helping my students to film the parts for this video, which as then excellently put together by Matej, one of the members of the class. It was our entry for the ‘Learn a language with International House’ competition. The video which won is now on the IH World homepage, and ours was highly commended 🙂


Authentic Listening with British Accents

The videos collected here were an ongoing list with my students. It was fun to collect the videos with them, and it’s turned into one of my most-visited posts.

Cuisenaire Rods

Ceri Jones and I wrote this post together. It was the first attempt at cross-posting for both of us, and I’m really pleased with how it turned out. Since there, Ceri has helped me out with many things on Twitter, and I met her in November in Paris (see below). She was the first person from Twitter who I collaborated with, and it was a great way to start!

Diary of a Beginner: First Lesson

I used my blog to write post-lesson plans for this series of lessons with an adult complete beginner. It was really useful to reflect on the lessons, and the posts also allowed me to keep track of the materials I made and shared with my student.


Tools for the 21st-Century Teacher

One of my most-read posts, based on a plenary session I saw at a conference which didn’t go as well as it could have done. Most of the tools were ones I was already using, and it gave me the chance to share them with others. In the process of putting the post together, I also discovered how useful Quizlet is for learning vocabulary.


How to join in with #eltpics

One of the first things I did when I joined Twitter was start to contribute photos to eltpics, a collection of images by teachers for teachers, shared under a Creative Commons license so that copyright infringement is not a problem. In March I became one of the curators for the site. I wrote this post to help people work out how to join in if they just stumbled across the site. I’m really proud to be part of the team, and to see how the hashtag and collection have developed over the year. We even have our own blog now, Take a photo and…, where you can find lots of ideas for how to use the nearly 6000 pictures we have in the Flickr collection now.



I discovered Edmodo back in September 2010 when I was still lurking on Twitter. I found it the day before I started teaching for the year, and it completely revolutionised my relationship with my students and the way that I gave homework. At the end of the year I asked the students to fill in a questionnaire about their use of Edmodo, and this post was the result.


Brno and the Czech Republic

In July I moved to Newcastle, UK after three years spent teaching in Brno in the Czech Republic. This post contained a video including many of my photos and memories from my time there, which makes me cry every time I watch it.


Twitter for Professional Development

Over the last calendar year writing a blog and participating in the teaching community on Twitter has completely changed the way I approach my teaching. It has also given me my first topic for seminars and helped me to get into presenting. This post was the result of the third seminar I did, and was the one I am happiest with. The previous posts I did contained the presentations I showed the attendees (1,2), whereas this one is (hopefully!) a step-by-step guide for anyone wanting to take advantage of the amazing world of continuous professional development, whether or not they are standing in the room with me 🙂


TESOL France a.k.a. meeting my PLN for the first time

My final favourite post was the appropriate culmination of a year on Twitter, since it covers meeting a lot of the people from there in real life. I will never forget the first time I walked into the conference venue and saw all of these avatars come to life 🙂 It was an amazing weekend, and I’m looking forward to repeating it at IATEFL Glasgow in March 2012.


Thank you so much to everyone who has helped me out during my first year of blogging, and to Adam for posting this challenge inviting us to reflect on the posts we’ve written this year. 2011 seems to have flown by. Here’s to 2012!

Compare and contrast: two cities

This is my contribution to Brad Patterson‘s Compare and Contrast Photo Challenge.

I chose to share with you pictures of two of my favourite cities. The first is Durham, UK.

DurhamThis view was taken from the railway station, where many people get their first view of the city. This includes Bill Bryson, who became Chancellor of Durham University while I was there, and who I was lucky enough to get my degree from. The weather is fairly typical! It shows the cathedral and castle, which together form a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Durham Cathedral is my favourite building in the world 🙂

The second is Brno, Czech Republic.

BrnoThis view was from the balcony of the second flat I lived in there. You’ll understand why it was difficult to get any work done, with my desk positioned so that I was looking out onto this! This was an early morning shot, one of probably about 100 shots at various times of day and in various weather conditions which I took while I was living there. If you want to see more about Brno, you can watch a video I made about it here.

My questions for students are:

  • What do you think it’s like living in these two cities?
  • What might be the advantages and disadvantages of living in a city like this?
  • What tourist attractions do you think each city has?

Thanks for setting the challenge Brad!


When Sandy met Lizzie

Yesterday, @Lizziepinard and I were having one of our many chats on Twitter, and I proposed collaring her as my second interview victim (after Naomi) for Brad Patterson’s excellent PLN interview challenge. We originally planned to do the interview in June, but after chatting for more than an hour, it was clear that neither of us had anything more exciting to do on a Friday afternoon (me)/evening (Lizzie)…so off to Skype we went.

What I already knew

I first became aware of Lizzie as a contributor to #eltchat, the weekly meetings of ELT teachers from around the world which take place every Wednesday. Unfortunately, as she is teaching in Indonesia at the moment, Lizzie can only make the first chat, but she’ll be in England over the summer, so hopefully she’ll be joining us for both soon! Lizzie’s participation in #eltchat has also taken the pressure off me a little 🙂 as she’s now the number one summary writer, having done three summaries in the last month, all of which are easy to read and very entertaining:

Lizzie’s history

In her own words:

Lizzie Pinardborn in Chichester (and got family in East Sussex), grew up from age 2-16 in Botswana, A-levels East Sussex, degree Warwick Uni w/a yr in France, a few months in Durham when among other things I worked at Northumbrian Water in Pity Me [that’s a real place if you were wondering!], then landed in Sheffield for a few years, then Indonesia!

Read on to find out more!

The Big Five

  1. If your students were to label you with three adjectives, what might they be?
    By @VictoriaB52 on #eltpics on Flickr

    This is one of those questions that is pretty difficult to answer, but after much um-ing and er-ing, Lizzie eventually said enthusiastic, creative and…unpredictable (this was the best word we could come up with!). She later qualified it in a great way:

    “Just to clarify on the “unpredictable” point… it’s not in a scary, kids don’t know where they stand with me kind of way, more in a surprising instead of boring kind of way. But maybe energetic would be a better word! In ELT speak (well, in Jim Scrivener’s Learning Teaching book anyway!), I like to go the parabola way instead of the direct way :-p”

  2. What would we find in your refrigerator right now?
    By @dfogarty on #eltpics on Flickr

    Next week Lizzie is leaving Indonesia for the summer, so her fridge is pretty empty right now: just some biscuits, a quarter of a papaya and some milk (we decided this was very English!).

    Normally it would be much fuller, ideally with:

    “lots of salady things, fruit, hummus, cheese, yoghurt, decent milk (the long-life milk you get in Indonesia isn’t the same)…”

  3. If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?
    By @ceciELT on #eltpics on Flickr

    Before becoming a teacher, Lizzie did disability support work at Sheffield Hallam University, working with people with a whole range of disabilities. She was employed to go to lectures and take notes for the students. It was a great job, but paid by the hour, so that when the students went home there was no money coming in. Biology lectures were fun, but anything involving a lot of numbers, like Economics, Physics or Applied Mathematics where difficult when she didn’t understand what the lecturers were talking about. If you find yourself in the same situation, her advice is “Let the words go in at your ear and out at your hand – if you try to process them, they will melt your brain!”

    If not doing that, Lizzie would like to be a writer or work in a library – anything with books really.

  4. What do you find most difficult about the teaching profession or what has been your most difficult class as a teacher?
    By @mk_elt on #eltpics on Flickr

    Any of you who have read Lizzie’s summary and comments about the #eltchat on using coursebooks will already know that she has been having to teach under very strict constraints for the past year, with “a hefty coursebook, too-short courses and zero freedom to stray from the coursebook”. The students and my colleagues have been great though! She’s leaving next week, so hopefully this situation will change soon and she’ll be able to experiment with all of the things she’s learnt from her PLN over the last few months.

  5. What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read too many times?
    Not quite the right kind of leopard (by me!)

    The last book Lizzie read was Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was OK, but not earth-shattering, and the section set in Indonesia was interesting. At the moment she’s reading Tales from Firozsha Baag by Rohinton Mistry, which is a series of short stories about the inhabitants of an apartment block in Bombay [which I now want to read!]

    The last film she saw was National Velvet with Elizabeth Taylor, which was being played on the plane as part of an Elizabeth Taylor tribute. Her comment: “a pleasant watch, good if you like horses”

The DVD extras

After I’d asked Lizzie the five questions for the challenge (with a blip in the middle when we lost the connection, and another as I accidently hung up!), we then carried on chatting for about half an hour. Two questions I really wanted to ask her were:

How did you end up in Indonesia?

I wanted to go there, saw that English First had lots of schools there, and decided it seemed like a safe bet, especially because you get a contract before you arrive in Indonesia, rather than having to do a demo lesson once you arrive with no guarantee of getting a job. I’ve got a new job at a different school for September, this time based in Jakarta. I’m in South Sumatra at the moment, so it’s going to be like going to a whole other world.

What was Botswana like when you were growing up?

Completely different to now! When we first arrived in the mid 1980s the capital city was not much bigger than a village. There was only a ridiculously small number of paved roads in the country! Botswana is the size of France and currently has around 2.4 million people living there, even fewer, much fewer, when we first went there! Now it’s more like a mini-Joburg. (Unfortunately with a crime rate to match! Well, not quite that bad, but heading in the wrong direction!)
We lived in a government house (which we nick named the matchbox) and memories of childhood include running around outside barefoot and climbing over the fence to play with the neighbours.
One Christmas when we were going to the UK, when I was still very young, we got to the airport and THEN my parents noticed my bare feet! Them: “Where are your shoes????!!!!” Me: “Er, in my bedroom…” (Where else would they be?! …did I mention I used to go barefoot a lot? :-p)

Lizzie climbing

Eventually I had to go as there was a parade of masks in Brno that night, but I’m sure if I hadn’t we would still be talking now! We’re going to try and meet at some point in the summer when we’re both in the UK, and Lizzie is also trying to get a scholarship to take her to IATEFL next April, so we should meet there too (good luck!)

Thanks again Brad for challenging us to these interviews!

On top of a mountain
On top of the world...
In the pub
...and in an ELT teacher's natural element!

The Eternal Teacher: Interviewing Naomi

I’ve just finished interviewing Naomi Epstein (@naomishema on Twitter) as a response to Brad Patterson‘s great blog challenge. As soon as I saw his challenge, I knew I wanted to interview Naomi. She’s the most regular commenter on my blog, and her own blog, Visualising Ideas, is a fascinating read. After a few technical hitches, we eventually managed to chat through Google video and here are the results.

The Bio

Naomi lives in Kiryat-Ono, Israel with her husband and two sons (one of whom has his birthday tomorrow – happy birthday!). She has been teaching English to deaf and hard-of-hearing students attending Yehud Comprehensive High School for 21 years. As well as five days at school, she works as a counsellor on Thursdays, helping other teachers who have deaf or hard-of-hearing students in their mainstream classes.

The Questions

For the challenge, Brad gave us five questions to put to the interviewees. This is what Naomi had to say:

1)    If your students were to label you with 3 adjectives, what might they be?

Naomi with booksI’ve been thinking about this, and it all depends on which student you ask and what day it is. The kids I work with don’t mince words, and will tell you exactly what they think of you with no inhibitions. I think they would all agree that I’m unfashionable – I wear sneakers to class, don’t paint my nails and always wear casual clothes. But they would also say I’m patient and always there. I don’t go to the teachers’ room very often, and the kids are surprised if I’m not in the English room. Some of them must think I live there!

2)    What would we find in your refrigerator right now?

Most of the interviewees seem to have pretty empty fridges, but mine is the exact opposite because I have a whole family to feed. I cook all of the time, although blogging seems to have got in the way a bit! It’s time-consuming too because my husband and younger son are vegetarians, while I and my older son aren’t, so I need to make something for everyone. I have baked ratatouille pie and majadera (a local dish of rice and lentils – not something my parents ate!) in the fridge at the moment, and it’s well-stocked with basics like bread, milk and cheese too.

3)    If you weren’t a teacher, what might your profession be?

This is a really difficult question. I’ve wanted to be a teacher for as long as I can remember and I can’t imagine doing anything else.

When I was in my first year of college I worked in a chain store selling everything you could possibly need for a new baby. The best bit about the job was explaining to people why they needed all of these things, but I wasn’t a very good salesperson because I would explain, then tell them to shop around and come back if they wanted to. So it was the teaching I liked, not the selling!

4)    What do you find most difficult about the teaching profession, or What has been your most difficult class as a teacher?

You’d think that after teaching for 25 years, I would tell you about something from the beginning of my career, but actually the hardest thing about my job is and always has been behaviour problems. In Israel, there is a strong push for children who have hearing problems, but regular intelligence and no other problems, to be put into mainstream education, so the children who attend self-contained classes become more and more difficult, especially behaviour-wise. Some can be agressive and it never gets easier teaching them. For example, this year there is one boy who comes to my classes even when he’s not supposed to, because he wants to be there. The problem is that he’s the class clown and wants everyone to look at him – it’s hard enough teaching him when he’s supposed to be there, without him coming for extra classes!

But I love adapting materials for the students [you can see lots of these materials on Naomi’s blog] and it can be very rewarding sometimes. There are real ups and downs: one hour can be great, and the next really depressing. [This is one of the reasons I wanted to interview Naomi – I wanted to know how she could have stuck at what seems to me to be an incredibly difficult job for such a long time. It really proves how patient she is!]

5)    What was the last book/movie you read/saw, and what have you seen/read way too many times?

I’m a book animal! Every Saturday I blog about the book I’m reading. At the moment, it’s a book calledStones from the River by Ursula Hegi. It’s set in Germany, starting after World War One, and I know it will continue to World War Two. It’s beautifully written.
My husband and I enjoy watching international films. Some of the good ones we’ve seen recently were a Turkish film called On the Edge of Eden and an Iranian film called Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame, about a girl who desperately wants to go to school to learn to read and write (highly recommended, especially for teachers). We also loved The King’s Speech. Most of the films we see aren’t at the cinema. We tend to record them off the TV with our DVD recorder. I would recommend getting one! We both work very hard, so we watch them when we have time.

Naomi by the water

The DVD Extras

The main thing I wanted to know was how Naomi got into teaching deaf and hard-of-hearing students in the first place. On her blog she says “I got my B.A in Education of the Deaf, my B.E.D in EFL and my M.A in Curriculum Development.” but that doesn’t tell the whole story. When she was little she always wanted to be a first grade teacher because she loved reading so much. After high school she did some substitute teaching at an Elementary school and decided that 40 kids per class really wasn’t for her. Now she teaches up to ten students, although with that many students, each with their own problems, it can be very challenging. Ideally, she has six in any one class, which is made easier if she has help/good volunteers.

Her other motivation is that she shares her birthday with Helen Keller, so it was clearly meant to be!

Naomi supporting the walls (as well as her fellow teachers!)

For her counselling job, Naomi supports teachers across Israel. The tendency towards mainstreaming mentioned above means that many teachers have one or two students with special needs in a class of thirty to forty students. She sometimes visits schools, but mostly sits at her computer/on the phone giving advice about how to help to adapt classes so that these students learn too.

The End

I really enjoyed interviewing Naomi, as I find her such an inspirational part of my PLN. She definitely deserves her holiday in Alaska this summer!

Naomi relaxing
Thanks Naomi!

Clouding my blog

Here’s my response to Dave Dodgson’s mini challenge based on his wordclouds presentation from the 2011 Virtual Round Table conference:

In word cloud format (using wordle) you can see that I’ve just done a post on Cuisenaire rods with Ceri, hence the large ‘rods’ and ‘one’, the latter of which also comes from the articles post. I didn’t realise how much I’d used the word ‘one’ until it appeared here! As with Dave and Vladka, I’m happy that the word ‘students’ is so large in the cloud too. You can draw your own conclusions from the rest of it!

To see what I’ve done with word clouds with my students, take a look at the first part of the presentation in this post.


Planning Evolution

I read Cecilia Coelho’s most recent post with interest, wondering what prompted her to begin her adventure as a blog challenger, having been a sucker for any challenge that came her way. Being just as much of a sucker myself , here is my response to What’s your plan?

Having only started full-time teaching three years ago, I actually have copies of lesson plans on my computer from virtually every lesson I’ve taught at IH Brno. I had done some summer school teaching and a year of pre-CELTA, where my planning largely consisted of opening the book for 10-15 minutes and trying to work out if I knew the grammar (my poor students!) already, but when it got serious, I decided my plans should too.

The first format that I came up with was based on the CELTA plans I’d done, as I think many fresh teachers’ plans are. This is the plan for the first ever lesson I taught in Brno:

1st plan

If you look closely you’ll see I still had an aims column on there. By the end of October, I stopped writing the aims, and a couple of weeks lately I deleted the column from the lesson plan. One thing you can see on the plan is where I’ve edited it after the lesson – this shows any changes I made, things we didn’t get through, ideas on how to improve the lesson if I teach something similar again and more.

It just so happens that this 1-2-1 student is the only one who I have taught for the entire time I’ve been in Brno, so here is a plan for the first lesson I taught with him in my second year in Brno:

2nd plan

Again, you can see where I’ve edited the plan after the lesson – this is a great way of reflecting on the lesson for me. I used highlighting in my plans when there is something I really didn’t want to forget, although this is gradually disappearing now as I settle in to my teaching and planning. Another feature is a list of notes at the bottom of the plan; these are things which have come up in discussion and could be potential themes for future lessons. I copy and paste them from plan to plan, adding and taking away from them as things are covered.

The plan from my first lesson from my third year in Brno, is essentially the same:

3rd plan

What you’ll probably notice though, is that the plans are getting shorter and shorter. This is because there are fewer and fewer reminders which I need during a lesson. The main one here is for before the lesson: something I need to remember to copy is in red.

This year I’ve made one more change to my plans: originally I would print them to take into class, but since the end of October 2010 or so, I’ve started taking my computer everywhere with me, so it seemed a bit of a waste to print plans as well. This means that I can edit lesson plans as they are happening – it’s easy enough to move lines up or down as I decide to change something. It also means that anything unfinished can be copied to the following week. (Of course, I only do this when the students are busy and don’t need my help – the rapport is good enough that they know they can call on me whenever they need me).

This is my latest plan, from  last Monday’s lesson:

4th plan

The biggest thing here is the amount of empty space – I’ve become more and more comfortable with the lesson taking the course required by the student, rather than imposing my own will on it. This is especially true in this class, where I’ve got to know the learner very well.

The one thing that has remained constant throughout all of my planning is the materials column. This is the most important part of any plan for me – I can check it just before the lesson and make sure I have everything I need quickly and easily. I also copy and paste file names of specific worksheets I’ve made in there, so that I can just search for something on my computer and all of the lesson plans featuring that sheet / activity appear so I can see how I’ve used it in the past. This works in reverse too: for example, if I think “I had a great activity for second conditional, but I don’t know what I called it”, I can search for “second conditional” on my computer, and see which lesson plans come up. I was very careful right from the start to give every file as clear a name as possible, and thus far it seems to be working!

Many of my colleagues would ask me if I was being observed when they first saw me planning like this, but they have gradually become used to it. I type much faster than I write (although I still write often), so plans don’t take long to produce. I have a database of all of the lessons I’ve ever taught, ready at hand on my computer whenever I need / want to consult it, and as soon as I see a plan, I can almost always remember exactly what happened in the lesson when I taught it. Best of all, I don’t have reams of paper all over the place.

So, these are my plans. Thank you to Cecilia for prompting me to write this post!


Invite them in (30goals)

This is my contribution for this week’s 30 goals challenge, set by Shell Terrell.

Goal 6: Invite them in

The first challenge of the week was to invite colleagues and those around us in to see what we do in our classrooms. I always have the door open at school, or the blinds open on the meeting room windows at company classes. I’ve always enjoyed having other teachers come into the room, and peeking into my colleagues’ rooms when their doors are open too.

But what I’ve not been doing is sharing my students’ work outside the room – it’s always been for myself and them only. So for the last couple of weeks I’ve been trying to encourage students to (allow me to) share what they’ve been doing. The result is a new blog with work from as many of my students as possible. This has been positive for them, allowing them to see that there is a wider audience for their work, and for myself too, allowing me to get feedback from both teachers and students on what we’ve been doing.

Be a Beam (30goals challenge)

The view from my balcony - another inspiration
The view from my balcony - another inspiration

This is a response to Shelly Terrell’s 30 goals challenge. Goal Number One was ‘Be a Beam‘:

Offer a student or other educator you see struggling support. It could be a colleague who is stressed or a student struggling with another subject. Who in your life needs your support?

On Wednesday night after evening classes at our school, I was in the staffroom getting ready to go home. One of my colleagues came in and told us about her elementary-level class. She’s struggling with it, as one student is very strong and talks all the time, while the other three students in the class are much weaker (below the level of the coursebook) have real trouble understanding, and find it difficult to speak. She asked for some help, and through the many ‘beams’ in my own PLN, I was able to pass on some tips:

  • record the students in class (with permission), email it home and ask them to give feedback
  • encourage the students to record themselves at home – this may make them more confident and willing / able to participate more in discussion at home
  • differentiate tasks, so that the stronger student is asked to record more than the weaker ones
  • take a look at the eltchat discussion on TTT and STT for some ideas about how to improve the quality and quantity of student talking time.

Being able to help my colleague with something I would have struggled a lot with myself only a couple of months ago really is testament to the quality of my PLN. Thank you!

Picture Boards

This post is partly in response to English Raven’s “May I call a meeting of the board(s)?” and particularly this paragraph:

“Hence, I feel this urge to encourage more ELTers around the world to show us their boards. It doesn’t need to be in response to a specific methodology/activity/technique challenge. I don’t particularly care what you are teaching or how, I just reckon I and a lot of other teachers could learn a lot just by getting a quick look at your board!”

It’s also a chance for me to share one of my favourite vocabulary revision games, especially popular with my YLs, although I use it for adults too.

The photos I’ve chosen to share are actually a year old, but I think they’re a good example of the boardwork I regularly did with a very small YL class I taught last (academic) year. Both of the SS loved writing and drawing on the board, so I made it a point to include this in every lesson I had with them. I tried hard to vary what we did, but this was one activity they loved so much we did it over and over again!

In our last lesson before Christmas I had taught them a set of 10 Christmas words. After the holiday, I wanted to revise them quickly, so I said the word and they had to draw pictures on the board. It was their own idea to create a single picture incorporating all of the words.

When they finished they then switched sides. This time I showed them the word card and they had to circle the correct picture on the board. Much hilarity ensued as they tried to work out what the other student had drawn!

One variant is to borrow a board rubber from another classroom. Instead of circling the correct drawing, they rub out the picture that you ask them about.

It worked really well with such a small class. You could probably do it as a team game in larger classes, or use mini-boards or (laminated) pieces of A4 paper and work in small groups.


Video poetry

Karlstejn Castle, near Prague
Karlstejn Castle

For the last couple of days I have been ‘stuck’ in Prague as my flight to Bristol was cancelled. I use inverted commas deliberately as I’ve been making full use of my time here to explore places I’ve not been to on my previous two visits to the city. To that end, yesterday I visited Karlstejn castle, built to house the Czech crown jewels in the 14th century.

“What does that have to do with ELT?”, I hear you cry.

Well, once I’d left the castle, I decided to walk up the road away from the town to see if I could see anything. There was nothing much except for snow and forest, but this inspired me to create what I have dubbed a ‘video poem’.

As a slightly obsessed EFL teacher, I thought about how I could use this with my students, while I was walking back down the hill, and decided to create another ‘poem’ in Czech. When I want my students to do something which I think they might be reluctant to do (I know a lot of them hate listening to themselves speak), I often try to do it myself in Czech to show them that I’m happy to put myself in their position.

So, how does this relate to my teaching? I’ve decided to set a Christmas challenge for my students through Edmodo. It goes like this:

“Find something which inspires you to think in English during the holidays. It could be a place, a person, a picture, anything. Film it and say a few sentences about what you can see. If you don’t have a video function on your camera, take a picture and write a few lines. I’ve made an example in both English and Czech when I was inspired by the snow near Karlstejn castle. I’ll collect them and we can all share our Christmas experiences…and practise your English at home!”

I hope it inspires my students to use their English outside class, and I’m looking forward to the results. As this is not based on lesson, but purely on Edmodo, it’ll be interesting to see how many (if any!) of my students respond. If you have any ideas of the best way to collate / publish their work, please let me know in the comments.


Vocabulary box-ing (with added monsters)

I’ve just read Cecilia Coelho’s post about using a vocabulary bank with her classes, which was a response to Emma Herrod’s vocabulary blogging challenge. This is the first challenge which I’ve taken part in, so here goes…

As a relatively new teacher, I’m still constantly finding new activities to revise and practise vocabulary. The one which I use most is very popular at my school (IH Brno), and was introduced to me by Lily-Anne Young. With all of my groups, especially the adults, I have created a vocabulary ‘box’. All new words which are introduced to the students are written on folded slips of paper. The word / phrase is on the outside of the paper, with a definition and example sentence on the inside. I then use them in most sessions with a variety of activities, often variations on a theme. Here are some of them:

  • I / a SS read(s) a definition. The SS call out the word. The first person / team keeps the word.
  • Spread the cards on the table / floor. SS are divided into teams. Each team has a fly-swatter. Somebody says a definition and the teams swat the correct word. The team that gets the word gives the next definition. (from Anette Igel)
  • A selection of cards are placed around the room. Each SS / team has a ball of scrap paper. Somebody reads a definition and the SS must through the paper at the correct card. They then get to keep it. (from Lily-Anne Young)
  • Divide the cards between all of the SS in the class. They mingle and give definitions. When the other SS guesses the word correctly they take the card. If you want to make it competitive, you can give them a time limit and the winner is the person with the most cards at the end.
  • Give SS 5-10 cards each. They have 20 minutes to write a story including as many of the words as possible.
  • Put the SS in teams. One SS comes to you to see a definition. They run back to their team and tell them the word. The team must create a grammatically correct sentence using the word / phrase. (based on a game for pronunciation revision from ‘Homework’ by Lesley Painter)
  • Use 9 of the words to create a noughts and crosses board. SS must use the words/ phrases in a short conversation to win the square.

In order to avoid ending up with too many words in the box – you could easily have a couple of hundred by the end of the year – I ask SS to put a small mark in the top corner of each card after the activities if it has been correctly used. When there are three marks in the corner of the card I ask SS if they think they know the word. If they agree we remove it from the box. I normally keep the cards and a couple of months later pull them out and do a quick revision activity with only the old cards.

With most of the groups I encourage SS to write the words on the cards during the session, then take them home to write the definitions / example sentences. Occasionally the words don’t make it back to class, but there are always more than enough cards to keep us going!

With teens I use a pared down version of the vocab box. We just have large slips of paper with only the words (generally I can remember the context of most of them). They fight over who gets to write on the cards after each vocabulary activity!

For YLs, I use a variation of the vocabulary box, called a vocabulary monster. I got this idea from a book in 2004, but I have absolutely no idea which book it was – if anyone can provide me with the source I would be eternally grateful, as it’s stood me in good stead through the years! This is how to make one:

  • Stick two A3 pieces of paper together along the short side, making a long thin piece of paper.
  • Fold a piece of A4 paper in half and attach it to the bottom of the paper to make a pocket – make sure the sides are sealed, but not the top. This is the monster’s plate – you can draw a picture on there or ask your kids to do it.
  • Use two pieces of A5 paper to make a mouth and stomach and draw your monster around this. I’m not an artist, but I can manage a monster 🙂
  • The final result should look something like this (the second pair of legs was added by the confused software which I used to stitch the photos!):

You can use word or picture cards with the monster. At the end of the class put the words into the monster’s ‘plate’ pocket. At the beginning of the following class, take out the cards and show them to the SS. They should call out the words / draw a picture / do the action / use the word in a sentence. If they do this correctly, the card goes in the monster’s mouth. If not, it stays on the plate. In week 3, any correct words from the mouth go into the stomach. In week 4 any correct words are taken out of the monster. If SS use the word incorrectly it always goes back to the plate. Obviously if you have a large class, it’s your call whether to move the word on or not – it depends what percentage of the class you think is comfortable with the word. I’ve used this with 5 or 6 small classes and they’ve always really enjoyed it.

These activities are just a taster – the great thing about the vocabulary box is that the cards can be used for literally hundreds of activities, and require almost no work at all to prepare. It’s great for warmers, coolers, revision lessons and waking up sleepy students half way through a lesson. And the best thing is, you can use scrap paper for all of it, so you’re not even wasting resources 😉