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

Posts tagged ‘reflection’

2016: things I’ve enjoyed this year

After a year that has come across as pretty negative in many ways, it seems like a good idea to focus on the positives that have been thrown in my direction. Here are some of the things I’ve enjoyed in 2016:

Reading other people’s blogs

It feels like Elly Setterfield (aka The Best Ticher) has been blogging forever, but it turns out that she only started out in March 2016. In that time, she has produced various gems, including but not limited to beginner’s guides to teaching kids, teens and beginners, a series of posts about surviving summer school, and tips on some of the non-teaching aspects of being an EFL teacher, like what (not) to pack for your first job, avoiding illness, and spending Christmas abroad. They are full of useful, easy-to-understand tips. I also had the great pleasure of meeting Elly last week. We spent nearly three hours chatting, and it could have easily been much more 🙂

Teresa Bestwick has moved back into teaching from management this year, and has chosen a different area to focus on every fortnight for her professional development. Each Fortnightly Focus is a post on her blog, and has given me lots of ideas for how I could work on my own teaching and to pass on to my colleagues. It’s definitely something I’d like to play with if and when I ever return to a classroom full-time.

It’s always worth reading Michael Griffin’s blog. His series entitled ‘Please teach them English‘ was prompted by an initial post he wrote, then continued with the help of a few guest writers. It looked at the clash between teaching English and 21st century skills from the perspective of a teacher, a language school manager and two different students in the ‘class’. As well as the fact that it was thought-provoking, I particularly enjoyed the unusual form, as it was written as a series of emails and diary entries.

Laughing at YouTube

I’d never really watched that many videos on YouTube, but this year that changed. When I’m looking for five minutes of laughter, I find myself heading over to watch clips of James Corden and co., listen to interviews with Benedict Cumberbatch or relive old Kermodian rants. Here are a few of my favourites:

Attending conferences

Two conferences particularly stood out for me this year.

IATEFL is always the highlight of my year, and this one was especially good for me because it was in Birmingham, just 20 minutes away from where I grew up. As well as learning a lot (as always!), I got to relive memories of my childhood and share them with my friends. Here’s a video made by the organisers that gives a taste of the 50th anniversary conference:

TWIST 2016 was organised by the LangLTC school in Warsaw in November. It was probably the most representative conference I’ve ever been to, with what I considered to be an appropriate balance of male/female, native/non-native, theory/practical across their programme. It was also great to be able to introduce some of my colleagues to teaching conferences for the first time.

Going to the cinema

For the past couple of years I’ve had an unlimited card from my local cinema, which has enabled me to see a whole range of things. Particular highlights were:

  • Arrival

  • Zootopia (though I’d like to see it again in English!)

  • Deadpool (which also allowed me to Vancouver-spot!)

Learning

This year I’ve been able to make massive strides in my Polish, progressing to what I would guess is around low B1 level. A couple of months ago I decided to return to Mandarin as well, largely thanks to memrise. Having a few other people who are using the site and seeing their points each week is motivating me to do more – clearly I’m a sucker for some aspects of game-based learning!

2016 has also been the year when I’ve finally started to get a handle on task-based learning, something I’ve always wanted to find out more about but never really had time to. I dived into the world of MOOCs, and the Coursera one about TBL and reading started me off with really investigating TBL. I’m now reading Doing Task-Based Teaching [affiliate link] by Dave and Jane Willis to deepen my understanding, and am hoping to experiment with some of what I’ve learnt once I’m back in the classroom.

Working abroad

I’ve been lucky enough to take my first trips to Italy and Kazakhstan this year, both helped along thanks to people I’ve previously met (thanks Marcus, Julie and Iryna!) This enabled me to experience the beauty of Italy…

View from the Duomo terraces

View from the Duomo terraces, Milan

Varenna

Varenna on Lake Como

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Bergamo from San Vigilio

Venice - gondola and coloured entrance

Venice – gondola and coloured entrance

Verona - view from Castel San Pietro

Verona – view from Castel San Pietro

…and the warmth of the hospitality of Kazakhstan.

Aktobe collage - top left = blackboard with Sandy's name and dates of her visit, top right = teachers using Quizlet Live, bottom left = teapot and bowls, plus food, bottom right = Sheraton hotel and sculpture

Hopefully it won’t be the last time I go to either place!

At home

Exploring Poland has also led me to further appreciate how under-appreciated it is. A few days in Gdansk and Sopot with my friend showed me some of its beauty:

Gdansk town hall

Sopot

Even closer to home, it’s been a pretty momentous year for me as I became the owner of my very own flat, something which I wasn’t sure would ever happen. Now I finally have somewhere to put all of those ‘things for my future house’ I’ve been collecting on my travels…I just have to get them over to Poland from the UK!

But probably the biggest joy is watching my cousin and friends whose families are expanding. It may sometimes feel like my facebook stream is full of babies and small children, but quite frankly that’s infinitely preferable to some of the negativity that it’s been filled with at certain points in the year (and yes, I have been guilty of adding to this). When you see the pride and joy of a new parent, and the happiness of a child exploring and experiencing the freshness of the world, it’s hard to stay negative for long. The Internet can be a wonderful place.

So that’s my New Year’s Resolution: focus on the positives in life, and notice myself enjoying them. When it all gets a bit too much, move away, and come back to a post like this to remind myself of all of the things in life that are there to enjoy. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all of you who read this blog, and thank you for your support!

500 (+1)

About two weeks ago I shared something without realising it was the 500th post to appear on this blog. Wow! That’s quite a scary thought.

Thank you to everyone who’s supported me throughout, to the people who’ve offered me advice on how to improve my blog, pointed out my typos, shaped my teaching ideas, shared and commented on my posts, and to those of you who are reading all of this stuff that I write. I find it constantly amazing and humbling to know that so many people have spent time visiting and using my blog. It started out as a way of building up a professional presence online (that seems to have worked!) and of sharing some of my assignments from my IH Certificate in Advanced Methodology. It’s developed into a place to share activities, offer advice (hmmm…), and appreciate my luck in being part of this career and this community. Although I haven’t managed to write as many posts over the last year, I’ve still got a lot of ideas, and I keep hoping I’ll be able to put more of them out there.

Here are a few stats for you:

  • 500 posts
  • 350 views/220 visitors so far today
  • 825,948 all-time views
  • 440,570 all-time (or at least since they started counting) visitors
  • 11,180 views on 1st May 2014, my best views ever in a single day (on a post I didn’t even write!)
  • 31 comments by Rachel Daw, my number 1 commenter!
  • 1,493 subscribed followers/606 WordPress followers (no idea how much of that crosses over…)
  • Useful links for CELTA: my most popular post this year (ever?)
  • And the one I find the most breathtaking: countries people have visited from in 2016 (white means no visitors from there so far):

sandy-millin-blog-world-map-of-visitors-2016

Thank you so much to everyone who has made this possible!

On immersion

For the past six weeks or so I have been sharing a flat with a couple who only speak a few words of English and German. When I moved in my Polish was probably hovering around A2, having received a boost over the summer from my reading, writing and use of a grammar book. I was still quite hesitant about speaking, and had only really started to build my confidence during a weekend away organised by my flamenco teacher, again with a few people who didn’t speak any English but who still wanted to communicate with me. Both the people on the flamenco weekend and the couple I was living with were great interlocutors for me, patient, happy to rephrase and repeat themselves as much as necessary, and supporting me in trying to communicate my ideas. The woman I lived with was also very good at correcting me consistently which had a massive impact on my grammar.

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren't dancing flamenco :)

One of two kittens entertaining us when we weren’t dancing flamenco 🙂

Six weeks on, it’s like I’m a different person. I feel like my Polish is probably now into B1. I can speak about most everyday things, my accuracy has improved in quite a few areas, and my confidence is at similar levels to my much stronger languages. I’m not normally shy about pushing myself to speak, which is why the last year has been so strange for me as I was very reluctant to speak Polish if I didn’t have to. I felt like I didn’t really know what language I was speaking in, and it was a real mix of Polish, Czech and Russian. I’m very glad to be past that point, and feel like I’m now in a very good place to continue improving.

On reflection, I’m also wondering whether having such a long (almost) silent period has also helped me to speak more fluently and more confidently at this point than at the same point with other languages. A year of building my vocabulary and listening to and reading whatever I could has certainly helped me improve my understanding, and I feel it’s also made me more accurate when I finally did speak, although I’m sure Czech and Russian probably also had something to do with it.

This is the most conscious I’ve ever been of my speaking progress, as I’ve either already been at least B2 when I’ve been immersed in a language, or I haven’t been in a complete immersion situation for more than a couple of hours at a time. Six weeks of having to speak Polish most mornings and evenings for at least a few minutes meant I had no choice but to communicate. Talking about things which were relevant to me and trying to explain things which had happened during a very eventful few weeks, sometimes with Mr. Google’s help, extended my language and provided a huge amount of motivation.

I know that it’s theoretically possible to create similar situations through the use of Skype conversation partners for example, but I’ve never had the motivation to do it before, confident that I’d eventually learn as much as I needed to through constantly plugging away at the language. After this experience of immersion, I think I might try harder to recreate it with the next language I want to study (not sure what yet!)

I’ve only had two or three Polish lessons, and I’m wondering just how much and how accurately I can learn without having any, even though I know I definitely want some at some point as I need correction. Watch this space…

On leadership and teamwork

Zhenya has just posted her answers to the 11 questions challenge (Thanks! See mine here and here) and posed some of her own, including three which I’d like to respond to here.

Have you ever tried to lead a team of people? If yes, what are your impressions and learning? If no, would you like to (one day)?

I’ve now been working as a Director of Studies for two years in two very different schools. The first was small, with only a handful of part-time teachers and one other full-time teacher (the school Director) besides me. Most of the time I was teaching full-time as well as being the DoS. The second has about 20 teachers, including me, and I only teach for a couple of hours a week. I work in close collaboration with two ADoSes and the school Director.

I had an excellent induction, but have also learnt an incredible amount on the job, not least in the last two weeks. It has not just taught me about what it takes to manage a language school, but also about working with a team of diverse personalities, and about my own personality. It has shown me how I and my team respond to a crisis (or five!), how everybody’s personalities and characters can complement each other to complete a team and also how sometimes there are things I just don’t or can’t notice which I need other people to be willing to share with me.

It’s not an easy job, but it’s not impossible either, and the challenges it throws at me keep me interested and invigorated, if a little tired at times 😉

When do you think someone is ready to be a leader of a team?

Not long after becoming a full-time DoS, I wrote some advice for people considering moving into management. It includes a series of questions you can use to help you decide whether you are ready to be a manager.

For me, it’s important for a leader to have experience of being part of a team or environment similar to the one they are managing in. That way they are much more likely to be able to empathise with their team. If they are ready to learn what it takes to be an effective leader, then they are probably ready to become a leader. If they think they know it all already, then I would probably steer clear!

What’s your best tip on working with people?

Communicate.

And remember that part of communicating is listening.

Listening attentively

Without good channels of communication, it’s impossible to work effectively with people. There will always be rumours, backbiting and negative comments if people don’t understand what is going on and why.

You also need to be willing to listen when members of your team have something they want to tell you, whether it’s positive or negative (and let’s face it, it’s usually negative). Don’t get defensive or be accusatory – let them talk, and find out what they need from you. Sometimes it’s just to let off steam. Sometimes they don’t know what they need, and you need to help them work towards finding out.

Another part of communication is about being open to the world around you. By learning more, you will be able to connect more easily and effectively with more people, which will hopefully benefit both you and them. By being open, team members are also more likely to be willing to share those things with you which you can’t see, as I mentioned above.

How would you answer Zhenya’s questions?

Things I’ve learnt about my teaching this week

This week I have taught:

  • 3 hours with my new upper intermediate adult class (who are actually mostly older teens);
  • 3 hours of cover with a low A1 kids’ group;
  • 2 hours with a 121 who I’ve been working with over the summer;
  • 3 hours of cover repeating the same lesson with two different high A1 adult groups.

This is easily the most teaching I’ve done in a single week for over two years, since I started out as a CELTA tutor and then a DoS. It’s also probably the largest number of students I’ve had contact with in a week since I finished my Delta. While it’s been pretty tiring on top of my DoS responsibilities, it’s also been very invigorating, and has helped me to realise a few things about how my teaching has developed over the last couple of years of self-reflection and training others.

I never used to enjoy teaching kid’s classes. Despite knowing the theory of how to approach them, I could never put it into practice. I’ve now spent a year working in an environment where there is a lot of training for teaching kids and teens, with teachers who are great examples to learn from, as well as tried and tested routines and discipline systems which are used across the school. I was also the local tutor for a teacher doing the IHCYLT for teaching young learners and teens. This was useful revision, as it’s six years since I finished mine. I discovered that I now really enjoy these lessons 🙂 It’s been a long time coming! Having the security of routines wasn’t just good for the kids: it also meant that I knew what to do at any given time in the lesson, especially for the all-important beginning and end of the lesson. It probably helped that it was a relatively small group, but I felt in control throughout the lesson, and felt that my plan was right for the level and interests of the kids. This is a huge step forward for me, and I’m even considering timetabling myself for a kids’ class next academic year, something I was very reluctant to do before (!)

Another area where I’ve noticed a massive improvement is my activity set-up and instructions. This is particularly important for lower levels, and between the four lessons I taught with them last week, I only had one activity where the students didn’t understand what I wanted them to do. This was entirely my fault, as I knew it would be a potentially complicated activity, and I hadn’t thought through the instructions carefully enough, but I managed to rescue the situation pretty quickly through a demonstration, which is what I should have done to start off with. Although I still forget them sometimes, demos have now become much more natural for me, and have led to a massive decrease in the amount of time I spend setting up activities and solving problems when the students don’t understand what to do.

With the upper intermediate group, I also set up a series of routines right from the first lesson. One of these is journal writing, and another is extensive reading, something which I already knew was useful, but now understand more of the theory behind thanks to the Coursera course I’ve just completed.

My 121 student showed me that my language awareness is now pretty comprehensive, as I was able to deal with pretty much any language question she threw at me without having to look it up. When I did need to use a reference tool, I was able to confidently access a corpus, something which I had no idea how to do a couple of years ago. I also managed to explain some of the fundamentals of grammar based on what Lewis says in The English Verb [affiliate link] using this diagram, something which I’d like to develop more in the future – this one was created on the spur of the moment!

Rough diagram based on Michael Lewis's The English Verb

The way that my own teaching has come on makes me feel much more confident about supporting all of the teachers I’m working with. We’ve got another exciting year ahead at IH Bydgoszcz, and another great team. I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes us.

The pains of being abroad

I have been so homesick that it hurt three times in my life.

The first was in Germany when I was 18 and working in a factory for six weeks at the beginning of my gap year. I was staying with a family friend, but two weeks after I arrived, she went back to the UK for the summer, as she did every year, leaving me alone in her house. She’d introduced me to a few people in the tiny Bavarian village she lived in, but it was during the 2003 drought, absurdly hot and with only 30 minutes rain during the whole time I was there, so I didn’t really want to go outside once I got home from work. I stayed in the house as much as I could, and ended up being by myself all the time. The only way I got through the day doing the dullest job I’ve ever done was the thought that at about 6pm every evening I could watch Will and Grace, one of my favourite programmes at the time, plus occasionally being on the same job in the factory as someone my age, who unfortunately lived in a completely different place and was impossible to meet up with after work. On the last weekend I finally did a bit of exploring, visiting Regensburg by myself. I wish I’d discovered I could go off on adventures by myself earlier, but I’ve certainly never forgotten it!

The second time was a few months later, working at a jungle school in a (very) rural village for the second half of a four-month volunteering trip to Borneo. I was there with two other girls my age who had been in the jungle with me. Unfortunately I didn’t get on very well with one of them, and the second one became more and more like the first as our seven weeks in the village went on. They spent all of their time together. I only had 8 hours of teaching a day, and spent a long time planning, but once I did that I didn’t have much to do to fill my time. Instead I shut myself in my room with the fan on (when the electricity generator was working: during school hours and 7-10p.m. every night) and wrote pages and pages in my diary, consisting mostly of lists of things I would do when I got back home, and all of the things I missed. Sometimes I would use my book to try and learn some Bahasa Malay, but I spent very little time with the people in the village unless we were explicitly invited to their houses.

Jungle Tree

The third and final time (I hope) was in Paraguay. I worked there from July 2006 to June 2007 as part of my year abroad from university during my languages degree. I’d decided to go to South America and France, but also need to practise my German. I knew there were a lot of Mennonite and other Germans in Paraguay, so wanted to find a German family to live with. The first person I found fell through in November, and my (very) split shifts meant that I’d had huge trouble making friends beyond the three people I went with, who had all found their own friends by this stage. Skype was only just starting to grow, and I couldn’t really speak to my family much and the bandwidth wasn’t good enough for video. It was the year that facebook was opened out to the world, proving very important to me, but it didn’t really become popular until the end of my time in Paraguay. This was my longest ever period of homesickness, lasting about a month. I was very disillusioned by Paraguay, sad that I wouldn’t be able to go home for Christmas, and feeling incredibly lonely. So what did I do? I stayed at home, cried, and generally felt sorry for myself.

In both Borneo and Paraguay, I managed to turn it around, and ended up crying my eyes out at the end because I didn’t want to leave. In both cases, this was because I found ways to fill my time and crush my homesickness. In Borneo, this was by helping the kids and the other two English teachers at the school to create a snakes and ladders board:

Borneo kids with Snakes and Ladders board

In Paraguay it was by finally finding a German-speaking family, starting classes at the Goethe Institute, and helping to sort out the resources in the school library.

The most important thing, though, was that I had to stop wallowing in the feeling, tell people about it, and go out and do something about it. Since then I have never really felt homesick for more than a day at a time. It’s never possible to completely avoid the feeling, especially if things aren’t going well at home, and you can’t be there, but you can reduce the likelihood of it striking. Remember: you are not alone, you are not the only person who feels/has felt like this, and you are not impinging on other people if you tell them how you’re feeling. Good luck!

This post was inspired by Elly Setterfield’s post Teaching English Abroad: What if I hate it? which is full of great advice for new teachers. I highly recommend reading her blog. Thanks Elly!

Two years as a CELTA tutor

Having written a post about my first year as a full-time DoS a few days ago, it occurred to me that this time two years ago I was training up as a CELTA tutor, and that it would be interesting to write a similar post about that journey. Then I realised I’d kind of already done that by reflecting on a year of CELTA 🙂 It turns out I’d already mentioned a few things that being a CELTA tutor has taught me, but here are some that I missed:

  • The mix of personalities in a TP group (the group of up to 6 teachers who observe each other and work together in teaching practice – real lessons) can make a real difference to how you need to work with them, and tutors need to learn to read this, as well as how to support the individuals and encourage them to work together as a group.
  • A lot of trees are sacrificed during a CELTA course, and many of these end up in trainees’ folders, which are often a good three or four inches (7-10cm!) thick by the end of the course.  Input session notes should therefore be as concise and easy to navigate as possible, and trainees should be encouraged (or sometimes told how!) to file them in a logical order. Sometimes it’s amazing to see how challenging organising a set of handouts can be for some people!
  • There may be a lot of right ways to do things as a teacher, but the amount of information overload on a CELTA course means that for some trainees it’s often better to give them only one option, walk them through it step-by-step, and let them see the results, before offering them other options later if they have the mental processing space with everything else they’re being asked to take in. Otherwise it can get too overwhelming. Simplify.
  • Whenever possible, showing concrete examples of things you’re suggesting is much easier for trainees to take in than abstract talk. This particularly seems to apply to requesting a more detailed lesson plan: showing trainees what to aim for tends to result in much more solid planning, and in turn, much more confidently delivered and useful lessons.
  • The CELTA is as much of a learning experience for the tutors as it is for the trainees. Through reflection and experience, we can become better tutors, but we also learn a lot from our trainees, who bring so much life experience to courses. For example, on the course I’ve just finished I learnt about daily life in South Africa, something I knew very little about before.

I’ve only done two courses over the last year, one part-time in Warsaw and one full-time in Milan.

View from the Duomo terraces

View from the Duomo terraces, Milan

I’ve also worked with a lot of teachers who are either fresh off CELTA or in their second year after the course, including doing formal observations. This has really shown the importance of the caveat (which should appear) on CELTA certificates that the candidate can ‘teach with support’. Although it seems to be forgotten sometimes, CELTA is an initial training course, and those who are newly-qualified continue to need support and development, particularly for the first year or two of their careers when they are building on what they have learnt. I’m lucky to work at a school which gives me the time and space to be able to really support our teachers in this way. An interviewer expressed surprise that one of our teachers only got a CELTA Pass when asking me for a reference for her, because she was so confident after her two years with us that the interviewer thought she must have got at least a Pass B, if not an A 🙂

The combination of these factors, plus having a bit more time to ‘play’ when preparing sessions, and often having 45- or 60-minute input sessions instead of the more standard 75 also meant that for the course in Milan I tried to make my input sessions more streamlined (as well as working on my feedback) and my handouts more useful both during and after the course. I always email them to trainees as well as giving them a paper copy, as I know that a huge binder is not normally a priority in your luggage if you’re moving around from place to place! I’m hoping to share more about how I design my input sessions in a future post.

In the meantime, here’s to another few years of learning and training 🙂

My first year as a full-time DoS

Richard Branson, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes. Then learn how to do it later.”

I saw this quote on Jane Cohen’s blog a few days ago, and feel like it sums up my job at IH Bydgoszcz pretty perfectly, as well as being from one of the managers I admire most.

When my predecessor, Tim, first mentioned the possibility of taking over from him as Director of Studies (DoS) managing a team of 18-20 teachers, I really wasn’t sure I could do it. After all, I’d only finished Delta a year or so earlier, and had done very little teaching since then to see if I could apply what I’d learnt. I was a fledgling CELTA tutor with only four courses under my belt, and still very much felt like I was learning how to do that job. Although I’d worked as the DoS at IH Sevastopol, it was a very different school with a much smaller team of only 3-6 teachers, and where I was still teaching 18-24 hours a week. Thankfully Tim talked me into visiting the school to see what the job really involved.

Less than a month later I spent four days in Bydgoszcz and Torun, visiting the school and the surrounding area and shadowing Tim at school for two days. I spent the first day continuing to think there was no way I could possibly do this job, and it took a couple of conversations with some of the teachers on the second day to persuade me that I would manage it. Thank you – you know who you are!

The result was that when the end of August 2015 rolled around, I found myself moving to Bydgoszcz, and entering a near-empty school just waking up from the summer break for the best induction I could possibly have hoped for. Tim spent nearly three weeks with me, introducing me to various procedures at the school and helping me get a handle on many of the things I’d need to do the job. He’s always been on call to help me throughout the year, and I’m immensely grateful for his help.

At the beginning of September, the senior teachers arrived and together, with Tim’s help, we planned the induction week for new and returning teachers. Throughout the year Luke, Sam and I have worked well as a team (in my opinion!) to support the teachers and keep everything running smoothly. I have relied on their prior knowledge of systems at the school to help me work out what needed doing, when and how. This is also true of the admin staff, and especially of the school Director, who is amazingly supportive, and one of the best bosses I have ever had the pleasure to work with.

Together, we have:

  • placement tested new students and organised the timetable
  • done drop in and formal observations to help our teachers develop
  • provided weekly professional development workshops
  • run collaborative level planning meetings covering about half of the groups at the school
  • had weekly meetings and senior meetings to keep everybody up-to-date
  • organised a teacher training day, two adult social events and two young learner socials
  • run a day of Cambridge mock exams
  • coordinated and checked reports for students
  • organised tutorials and parents’ meetings
  • recruited new staff and organised accommodation for them
  • dealt with problems that teachers, students and parents have had
  • chosen new course books for the next school year
  • and probably many other things which I’ve forgotten!

Needless to say, I had no idea how to do a lot of those things before I started the job! I was lucky to have inherited a lot of systems which I’ve been able to build on, making the whole thing a lot easier for me. A selection of the skills I think I’ve learnt or developed over the past year include:

  • using many features of Excel I had no idea even existed before!
  • how to use Outlook (something I’d thankfully managed to escape before – I hate it!)
  • communication skills: when to listen, what to ask, when to talk, what to say, how to say it
  • awareness of relationships around the school and how they impact on people
  • recruitment
  • balancing timetables fairly and taking into account the needs of teachers, students and the school
  • helping teachers fresh off the CELTA to build on what they’ve learnt
  • classroom management with teen classes (I had my own teen group for most of the year)
  • time management, and knowing how to manage my office door
  • balancing school work and out-of-school activities (I’d say ‘life’, but a lot of it has still been work this year – already have plans afoot to change this next year!)

Of course, there’s still a lot I need to work on, including many of the areas mentioned above. To help me with this, I’d like to get some more formal management training, as like many people I’ve been learning on the job. So far I’ve been relying on a combination of instinct, past conversations with my mum when she was managing a large organisation, Business Studies from school, management books I mostly read as a teenager, and asking for help from my ever-supportive network.

As I enter my second year at IH Bydgoszcz and am now more aware of the background I’m working with, I’m starting to make deeper changes, beyond the occasional rewriting of a document or update of a system. These include modifying the already very strong professional development structure, changing the way registers are set up with the aim of making them easier to fill in, and introducing some shared groups. Watch this space to find out what works and what doesn’t!

Future Learn Italian course – week 3

This is a continuation of my reflection notes made while doing the Future Learn Beginner’s Italian course. You can also read about weeks 1 and 2.

One of the benefits of doing the Future Learn course in the correct weeks is that you benefit from the moderators being online. It’s possible to sign up for a course and complete it whenever you like, but during the set period of the course (in this case six weeks), various moderators are available to respond to questions in the discussion thread, normally within 24 hours. Last week I posted a comment to ask about online dictionaries, and was referred to a list by one of the moderators which included both translation and monolingual online dictionaries. I was impressed at how quickly I got a response. This was useful, though in future it might be more beneficial to have a page on the course where you can go to for extra resources like this, as I would never had found it without the moderator. Moderators would then be able to refer participants to it if they can’t find it themselves.

Another advantage of studying the course in the specified time is the ability to use the tips sent out in the summary email at the end of each week. These are pulled together based on comments and questions from the discussion threads. At the end of week 2, this included a response to user requests which I was very pleased to see:

To help you to practise listening comprehension, a downloadable audio version the dialogues will available from next week.

Perhaps the dictionary links could also have been included here?

Week 3

The video story is working well for me. I’m enjoying learning more about the characters, and am quite pleased that they don’t seem to be going down the line I’ve seen before in this kind of video of boy meets girl, lots of slightly strained sexual tension, then they fall in love at the end of the story. Instead, Mike and Anna both have partners (Sarah and Leonardo) who they tell each other about in the first video for this week, introducing descriptive language. As mentioned previously, I also like the fact that the videos are at normal speed, but you have lots of options to help you: no, English or Italian subtitles; watching at half speed, downloading the transcript, and from this week, downloading the audio.

Generally, the videos are very well produced, both for the story and the language introductions.

As in previous weeks, the ‘Try it yourself communication’ activity again relies on you being able to use the four or five phrases they’ve introduced so far, or going off and finding your own phrases/using what you know already. These are examples of what has been introduced: https://quizlet.com/132508088/focus-on-communication-7-flash-cards/ If they don’t have long, black hair or aren’t tall or thin, there aren’t many people you can describe 🙂 I know they’re trying to separate the functional language and the vocabulary sections, but I don’t really feel like commenting because I don’t know what to say. I feel like a more specific prompt would be useful. This is the task at the moment:

Do you have any questions about how to describe people and things? Are you unsure about something? Share your comments and questions in the discussion below. Don’t hesitate to help other learners if you know the answer, or to share links to helpful resources.

I clicked ‘mark as complete’ without adding anything.

The vocabulary introduction is the next stage. To me, it would make sense to flip these two steps in the course. There is an extra practice activity though you have to do a bit of guesswork – are her eyes green or light? Is her hair short and black, curly and black, short and curly?

Noun and adjective agreement video: refers back to previous grammar units very clearly, so it’d be easy to find them again if you wanted to. Slight confused by this random question at the end of the grammar quiz, which doesn’t appear to practise noun and adjective agreement, and must have slipped past whoever was checking the course!

Mike e Leonardo sono _____. gentile/studenti

The ‘Exploring Italian’ section throws out a whole load of new language again, and does nothing with it apart from showing us a couple of example sentences. The phrases include: “stare insieme con (to date someone)” and “essere fidanzat-o/a/i con (to be engaged to)” Questions in the comments section reflect this: can we have the audio or hear the pronunciation? Speculation on the grammatical forms… On the plus side, the examples mostly use the characters from the video, so at least the context is maintained. [In the end of week email, the moderators said that audio files will be available for these sections from next week. Great to see how they respond to the comments.]

Italian sounds: vowels. Aha, it turns out they can easily put in sound files, as there is one to accompany each of the words used to introduce the vowel sounds. I feel like this would be a more useful way of introducing the vocabulary, or at least they could have a vocabulary list with the audio to accompany the videos so you can listen repeatedly to particular words you want to practise with ease. Lots of comments in this case to show that the differences between /e/, /ε/ and /o/, /ɔ/ haven’t been made clear. It’s OK for me because I understand the phonetics, have lots of practise differentiating sounds, and the example words they’re using to equate the sounds are from English, my mother tongue, but a lot of the course participants will have trouble distinguishing these pairs as they are so similar. A little more explanation would be useful, or indeed, a video showing you the physical differences between the sounds, rather than just an audio file!

The directions video goes nicely with where I’m up to on the Memrise Learn Basic Italian course: level 5 is called ‘Here, there and everywhere‘ and covers directions too (and, randomly, numbers and times!) The first question in the comprehension quiz asks you where Mike wants directions to. The answer was given in the introduction to this video, when the phrase ‘post office’ is pre-taught. This is an example of the importance of choosing which language to pre-teach carefully and/or ensuring that comprehension questions actually require you to comprehend the materials! The use of a map in the video with Mike and a stranger is also reflective of my experience as a tourist. I’m enjoying seeing clips of Sienna, and like the fact that it’s not just in the sunshine! Mike feels like a real person in a real city with (fairly) real reasons for needing to speak Italian.

I like the fact that the ‘focus on communication’ video begins by the teacher acknowledging that although we often use GPS nowadays, it’s still useful to be able to ask for directions. The communication quizzes generally test passive recognition of collocations, which I think is fairly useful. There was another quiz on Learning Apps to help us, this time matching the two halves of sentences. It’s good to explore this app, which I learnt about last week. Lots of people have been motivated to post in the comments, mostly writing short conversations with directions in them. These add extra reading practice. There is also peer support when people have questions about the language, for example what ‘vicino’ means, which was mentioned in the video, but never explicitly taught. I learnt it from memrise yesterday! (They teach it in the next video)

More vocab for directions in a video (the previous video was focussed on communication, or what I would class as functional language). It’s noticeable that the previous three or four stages have had about 200-300 comments, but this stage has nearly 1000. This is the difference when there is a clear task to complete. I’m not sure if this would be possible, but perhaps the interface could be adapted so that you can post your comment, then read the others. At the moment, you have to view all of the comments to see the box to post your own, so often it’s difficult not to look at other people’s answers before you write yours. There are so many different ways that people have chosen to give directions to Mike to help him find Anna – a genuinely engaging and motivating productive task, probably the first one on the course so far!

It’s now two days into week 4 and I haven’t finished week 3 yet, and didn’t have time to do any over the last three days since the last things I wrote…

Because I know I won’t have time to catch up next weekend either, and want to finish the whole thing before I get to Milan, I’m tempted to rush (though not enough to stop writing this!) Instead of watching the full video for the conjugations of ‘andare’ and ‘venire’ I listened to enough to hear the pronunciation of the verb forms, then looked at the transcript. This was probably more useful than watching the video more times as I spent time thinking about and trying to memorise the verb forms, instead of just listening to the next thing the teacher said. I’d like to be able to see the forms and listen to them individually, as I’ve said before about the vocab. Managed to get most of the quiz right, but have trouble with tu/lui/lei endings because of Spanish – I feel like there should be an -s for tu!

Introduction to consonants – good that there are Italian example words which you can listen to as many times as you like. However, I don’t really like the fact that there are English example words because these can be misleading. For example /p/is aspirated in the British English ‘pit’, but not in the Italian ‘papà’, at least that I can hear.

Discussion point task at this point:

Write a description of you or someone that you know in the comments. You may include:

  • Hair colour
  • Eye colour
  • Height
  • Etc.

For example: Mia moglie è bionda, ha gli occhi marroni, non è molto alta, ma è molto carina e simpatica!

I have no idea! I can’t really remember any of these words and initially thought we hadn’t even studied them, then looked back up this post and realised they were at the beginning of this section. Directions in the middle confused me – seems like a very random order! Having looked back, this was my contribution, which required quite a lot of effort to produce:

Mia mama ha capelli longhi. Non ha capelli neri. Lei non è alta, non è piccola.

The final section for the week promises to introduce these things:

You will learn to ask for the time and the related vocabulary. Moreover you’ll also learn the names of public places and the present tense of the verbs ending in –ere and –ire.

This feels like a lot, though it may be the fact that it’s 21:30 as I write this. Not sure I’m mentally in the right place to manage all of this, but I want to try and finish the week!

The video has a few lines of dialogue, then some text messages. I think that’s the first real reading practice we’ve had so far on the course, and it’s an interesting and different way to introduce it, again well-produced too. The subtitles have the times in numbers and in words, which is great. In the comprehension quiz, I have no idea what some of the words in the final question mean ‘Anna incontra Mike oggi pomeriggio:’ but have managed to guess the answer. ‘incontra’ is like ‘encontra’ in Spanish, so I know that means ‘meet’, but I have no idea about the last two words.

How to tell the time: “You have already learned the numbers.” Hmm…not really. I’d recognise them at a push, but I wouldn’t say I’ve learnt them yet. Just started doing them on memrise, which will probably be what helps me to remember them.

There’s a Quizlet quiz to help you practise some of the questions. This is good for recognition, especially the scatter mode, which is the only one I can be bothered to play at this time of night. One of my bugbears in general (not just on this course, but in many online materials) is the disregard for punctuation, especially capital letters. Learners need to see how and where capitals are used correctly, as rules for capitalisation vary and some languages don’t have them at all. There are no capital letters at all in the set at the moment 😦

The second video about time has lots of examples of times, in sentences too. Very clear. It was also good that they clarified that in informal spoken Italian you normal use 1/2/3, but when talking about official things e.g. opening hours or train times, you use the 24-hour clock. The ‘try it yourself’ quiz tests whether you recognise if times are formal or informal, rather than your understanding of the numbers themselves.

The extra practice quiz involves writing out a time in words, but only accepts one possible answer in each case, which is a bit frustrating when you have something like 20.45 and there were three possible ways to say it in the video. I couldn’t be bothered with this after one question (again, time of day/tiredness).

The next grammar video introduces new conjugations for verbs ending in -ere and -ire, comparing them to -are. It’s all in a clear table on the slide, so you can see that many of the forms are the same across all three conjugations, reducing the processing load needed to retain the information. “Don’t worry if it seems difficult. It will become familiar very quickly.” – I like these supportive messages 🙂

The grammar test always puts the options in the ‘correct’ order (I, you, he/she/it etc), so if you can understand the question, you don’t necessarily need to remember the verb form very confidently, just the order. Having said that, it’s helping me to remember that -i is a second person ending, not third person (Spanish again), because I keep seeing it in the same position in the list.

The last set of consonants are introduced to round of the unit. These ones are different to English, or have no equivalent. If they have no equivalent, there is an example from Spanish, though I’m not sure these match up, at least to my South American experience. I guess many people may know those sounds, but otherwise it seems odd. I’ve just noticed that all of the phonetic symbols are there too – my eyes had completely skipped over that column with the consonants! Two new symbols in my IPA arsenal now: /ɲ/ for ‘gn’ in ‘gnocchi’, /λ/ for ‘gl+i’ in ‘figli’ and ‘gli+a/e/o/u’ in ‘familia’ etc. The latter sound is equated to ‘ll’ in Spanish ‘llave’ or ‘llamar’ which I don’t think is the same sound.

OK, it’s 22:11 now, and I’m not sure how much of this I’ll actually retain, but I’ve at least seen it. Numbers continue to be a challenge, and I clearly can’t remember the description vocabulary, so should probably revise both of them. I know it’s not going to happen though, because I’m busy and unless it comes up on the course I won’t make the time to do it.

I haven’t downloaded any of the slides or extra resources yet, and just go back to the page I need using the ‘to do’ list if I’m not sure about something. Still feel like I’m learning, but pretty passively. This is mostly my own fault, but I also don’t feel like the course is making me be particularly active at points when I should be able to produce target language. It tests you at various points, but normally before rather than after the fact.

Roll on week four…

FutureLearn Italian course – weeks 1 and 2

I’m in the process of completing the FutureLearn beginner’s Italian course, which is free to participate in, although you need to pay if you want to get a certificate of completion.

While I’m doing the course, I’m hoping to write notes on my responses to the activities from a teaching perspective. Week 1’s are a few general thoughts on the course, and from week 2 onwards they’re quite in-depth reflections on how each activity is set up, my responses to them and what I feel I have learnt/could learn from them. Not sure how useful they are to anyone other than the course creators (or even to them?!) but since I’ve written it, I thought I’d share… 🙂

Very happy that due to a couple of weekends with no other plans and a national holiday, I’m on track with the course (it’s halfway through week 2 on the timeline at the moment). I’m mostly watching the videos in between doing other things, like my physio in the morning or the washing up in the evening, so it fits nicely around life. Not sure if that will continue, but I hope so, since week six is timed perfectly to end on the day that I fly to Milan for my first ever trip to Italy 🙂

Week 1

Videos at normal speed – options for half-speed, subtitles in English/Italian, can watch as much as you like. Pre-teaching some vocab and set up context beforehand – all positive points and help the learner get supported exposure to ‘normal’ Italian. Comprehension task is more of a memory test – can you remember which city she said?

Multiple-choice questions can sometimes be guessed without having looked at the content, but better on this course than on the dyslexia one, where you really didn’t need to read the content to answer them! (By the way, I’m half-way through the dyslexia course and will write about that when I’ve finished it…currently looking like that will be at some point in August)

Jobs – spelling test. Useful! Interesting activity design.

Spelling Italian vocabulary

Scaffolded nicely through the week. Could be useful to have the vocabulary in some kind of clickable form so you can just listen to the words you want to, not all of them (they’ve done this a little with some Quizlet grammar quizzes, but not with the vocab) All slides are downloadable for review, but would be more useful with the sound too

Grammar videos, e.g. intro to regular -are verbs and fare is clear, and he says that it’s normal to make mistakes at the beginning – supportive message. Would be useful to have more time to repeat the phrases after each one, and perhaps a ‘can you remember’ type activity within the video to aid memorisation, though I know it makes videos longer than current 4 minutes.

Week 2

Clear task before you watch video: “Watch the conversation between Mike, Anna and Lisa. Who is oldest? Who is youngest?” Advice to switch off subtitles, or use Italian only – little bits of learner training are useful.

Focus on communcation (ages) – one brief question and answer, then a little test – good way to introduce functional language.

Numbers and age (vocab) – all of the numbers, plus six phrases connected to stages of life (e.g. baby, teen, middle aged) in about 5 minutes. Woah! First time I’ve struggled to keep up (thanks to French/Spanish) – information overload. Receptively (the numbers he asked at the end and the multiple choice – can guess from three options), not too difficult because of other languages. Productively, no time to repeat, though you can watch the video again as many times as you want to and download the slides – lack of opportunity to drill yourself repeatedly on one word. Perhaps better to break into separate videos (0-10, 11-20, 21-100, ages), with some practice between each. A Quizlet set would also be very useful at this point (there have been a few scattered through the course so far, mostly for conjugations)

Grammar – conjugation of ‘avere’ (to have) – practise it alone, then combining it with ‘essere’ (to be) – good to see some revision. Comments on the quiz remind you of which forms you’re using once you’ve answered, though that only helps if you know grammar terms like ‘second person singular’ All quizzes have short sentences – good that it’s not just matching person to conjugation, but giving you a tiny bit of context.

Exploring Italian gives you some useful extra phrases for conversations from the original dialogues, e.g. ‘Veramente?’ ‘Really?’ – not accompanied by audio or any practice at all though. For example, maybe you could watch the original video again at this point to hear them being used in context. Or a little gapfill? Feels like this is extremely useful language that isn’t really being taught

Personal details comprehension questions are pretty impossible – the address one is OK, but you need to memorise an entire phone number, then answer a question using the word ‘indirizzo’, which hasn’t been introduced previously. ‘Mike ha un indirizzo di posta elettronica.’ – I interpreted this as ‘Mike doesn’t like email.’ (!), not Mike has an email address. Again, comprehension questions should be at same time as video, not a memory test.

Introducing formal/informal in a clear, easy way – the clips from the videos are great because they put all of the functional language into clear contexts and add a bit more language around them.

Culturally the difference between via/viale/strada is interesting, and sets you up for the quiz afterwards where you have to decide whether a word is connected to an address, email or telephone number, but that’s a minute that would perhaps be better spent elsewhere.

Lots of grammar terminology being thrown at you in the grammar videos at this point, without necessarily checking/glossing e.g. singular/plural, definite article. Should become clear as you work through the video, but a brief definition/comparison to English the first time it’s introduced might help e.g. ‘singular, when you have one, or plural, when you have many’ (see later…)

Discussion point 2/3 of the way through week two asks you to describe your family. There’s an example, but it’s before you’ve been introduced to any of the family vocab (which is the last third of this week’s course), so it relies on you understanding the example, making guesses, and using what other people have written. I guess it’s test-teach-test, but could be off-putting. Why not get us to do this after we’ve been introduced to the vocab? On the plus side – lots of reading practice in the comments. 859 things for me to read if I so choose 🙂 Comments demonstrate that a lot of the people doing the course have some level of Italian already, as they’re adding lots of things which haven’t been introduced. Fairly normal for a beginner’s course in any of the big languages, but could be off-putting for someone who is genuinely a complete beginner.

Good to see a Quizlet set after the communication video to help you practise some of the family vocab (family, sister, father, mother), along with some of the other things which have come up – extra jobs, one or two numbers. Would be good to have other key family words in there (brother, child, son, daughter, husband, wife) rather than using ‘sister’ so many times, though all sentences seem to be taken from the video – good for context. There’s one English mistake in there ‘How is your family?’ rather than ‘What is your family like?’

Family vocabulary video is good because finally the words are introduced twice over with time for you to repeat them, once in the context of Marco’s family tree, then repeated again. At the end, they ask you to find some words yourself (cousin, grandchild, uncle) ‘using the family tree and a dictionary’. It would be useful if they recommended an online dictionary to use, as for learners with no experience, they will probably just go to Google Translate. Actually, that’s what I did too. From that, I don’t know if ‘cugino’ is the same for masculine and feminine – there’s no information to support the learner as there might be in a learner’s dictionary.

For practice, there’s a link to a crossword. Would be useful to see more of this kind of thing throughout the course as an option to go further. This really tested whether I’d taken it in, and made me go back and look at the words again, something I haven’t really been motivated to do at any other point in the course so far. The only other repetition I’ve done is to watch each video in Italian twice, and to watch the numbers one twice. I didn’t bother to do any more practice with them, as I know I can recognise them, but I’m also very aware that I can’t produce many of them at all. I learnt about a new app in the process which looks brilliant – lots of options for creating interactive activities.

Definite article video is much more scaffolded than previous grammar videos, with an explanation of what that terminology means and when you use the definite article. Grammar quizzes separate the singular and plural articles, and as with all the grammar quizzes, if you get it wrong, there’s a comment underneath to help you self-correct. Might be useful to add one more quiz pulling them together and making you choose between singular or plural. I know that adds time to the week, but the two 10-question quizzes could be reduced slightly to balance it.

Summary of the week video seems a bit pointless to me (but then I’ve never been a fan of that kind of thing!) I just clicked on the transcript as it’s faster to skim. To me it would make much more sense to have the discussion task where you share family info at this point in the week, after you’ve studied it, so you can actually put it into practice.

General feelings about week 2: useful language has been introduced, but there’s a lot of it, and not much opportunity to practise. Receptively, I feel like I know more; productively, I’m not so sure, especially the numbers, and the family words which are more different to English.

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