Category Archives: misc

My Time in Japan, a guest post by Chris Mares

I find personal stories fascinating.

We can share or disagree with people’s beliefs, we can have dramatic differences in our interests and/or life priorities, we can value the same or opposite things in life – but a personal story is a story that, to my mind, will always bring us closer to understanding each other. And I think we should give each other more space to share our stories, which can largely explain who we are and why we are so.

Chris Mares is a teacher, teacher trainer, and materials writer based in Maine, the US. For me, a person who has never met Chris, he is a writer and a powerful storyteller. In fact, I share many of Chris’ views on teaching and on what being a teacher means. And when I asked him to write a story about his time in Japan (because I knew nothing about it and was curious to find out), he did, for which I’m grateful.

Below is Chris’s story about his time in Japan, and it’s a story well told. Enjoy.

 

***** My Time in Japan *****

Gosh. Something I have never written about. I went there, ostensibly for a year. And never came back, at least not to England. I was twenty-one. I had worked in France, lived in Israel, was idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous.

I was in Japan long enough to save money in order to do the Cambridge Certificate in TEFLA, the Cambridge Diploma in TEFLA, and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Reading University.  I was also there long enough to find a wife and co-produce three children.

I had never thought about being a teacher, despite the fact that both my parents were initially teachers. I had imagined being an author, actor, movie director, or some such – things that I never made any effort to do. I did become an author. But that’s another story.

I was in Japan long enough to become involved in the ELT writing business with my pal and best friend Steve Gershon. Some of my happiest memories involve giggling helplessly with Steve in various coffee shops along the Odakyu Line between our respective homes, laughing about faux listening scripts, when attempting to write actual listening scripts for our coursebooks.

I am a bundle of contradictions as will become apparent. I read Japanese literature passionately in English. I ate only Japanese food. I loved the rural geography, the sanctity of the temples and shrines, the chaos and order of Tokyo, the rush of the city.

I windsurfed at Enoshima and kept my board there. I would cycle 25 km to get there on my town bike. Then 25 km back. The wind always in my face.

When I left Japan, my windsurfing master, Toshiki, told me my Japanese was strange – a cross between a woman and a child. To my shame I never learned katakana or hiragana for that matter, and only recognized about four kanji. Though I had the greatest respect for my friends who studied hard and became extremely fluent. I never did.

Japan was a complex pleasure. I wrote book reviews for the Asahi Shimbum and will always be indebted to Jim Dalglish for the opportunity.

I never had a Japanese girlfriend and only slept with one Japanese girl. I never went to a love hotel. I learned to drink excessively but to use my weekends wisely, always heading for the hills or the coast or a hot spring.

The one year became many. They tumbled by. I loved to teach. To pick up my kids from the hoikuen. To chat with the hobo-san. To grocery shop. To ride past the rice paddies to the beer machine and back with all three kids on my bike.

I rode my mountain bike in the Tanzawa mountains. I would run from our little farm house to the top of the hill in Hadano and ring the temple bell, then run home, the deep tone resonating as I descended.

“We heard the bell,” Aya would say, when I returned.

I remember the smell of mosquito coils. The cicadas. Reading the series Master and Commander on the train between Hadano and Machida. Finishing all twenty one novels and then starting over.

And then I left. And here I am. In Maine. Happily teaching at the University of Maine. I’m still idealistic, romantic, unrealistic, and impetuous, though slightly tempered.

My energy and enthusiasm are the same. My kids are grown and gone. I’m divorced. Jackie, my beautiful black lab, is fifteen and on her last legs, her brother Steve long gone.

I’ve been back to Japan. It felt strangely familiar. In Japan I learnt that the world is not black and white. That contradiction is the norm and that Japanese culture is profound, complex, and simple all at the same time.

My best friend Steve Gershon is still there. I miss him.

And when we get students from Hirosaki University in Maine, I’m thrilled because I get them.

I never meant to go. I never meant to stay as long as I did. But that’s what happened.

And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

 

*****

You can read more of Chris’ stories, or rather blog posts he wrote for the iTDi Blog, here.

 

Examining listening habits

I have to break it to you: our monthly Reflective Practice Tokyo group meetings are great. While the two-hour sessions are normally planned, with the expected flow of discussions and activities outlined in my notes, I just never know what will happen. From my observations, it is 84% about the people who attend and 16% about the topic (random percentage, obviously). Most of the times we only do 1 point from my original plan, and while a year ago, at the group’s onset, I did not always take this fact well but rather as a flaw in either my preparation or facilitation, I’ve grown a lot more relaxed about it. I have a feeling other RP groups might be doing things differently. Some day we’ll try a different way, too (oh this reminds me – I wish there were a way to connect different RP groups functioning around, to share the ways of holding meetings, notes, topics, maybe even record some of our meetings and share those!…. dreams, dreams… if you’re interested, please get in touch!). At the moment, I feel that ours is a “fluid” style: we go where the current takes us. And at the next meeting I promise I’ll bring this up so that other group members can have a clear say in this themselves!…

Anyway, this afternoon we held our 11th meeting.  The topic I wanted to discuss was listening habits. Since the very first meeting, we have been focusing a lot on developing our listening skills – basically, trying very hard to be “good listeners” to each other while talking about things. I can hear you asking a reasonable question, “What makes a good listener?” The answers we arrived at in our different previous meetings mostly revolved around being focused on whatever the speaker is saying and asking “good”, useful questions instead of giving advice or referring to our own experiences (unless advice is explicitly requested!). At a certain point, I think I became curious to see more to it. For example, I noticed that I often fail being a good listener in my daily life outside that meeting (which is 99% of my life!))), and that the criteria, in fact, are more complex.

While doing some research online for communication skills activities for some of my higher level students, I found an interesting task, which I brought to the group meeting and which was the springboard for a deeper discussion about listening BAD – and consequently, GOOD – habits. Unfortunately, I lost the original link for this exercise, I will include it when/if I find it…!

The activity included examining 10 bad listening habits that people might be guilty of while communicating with others. Here they are, plus two more that I added to the list based on where our discussion took us:

  • interrupting often or trying to finish the other person’s sentences;
  • jumping to conclusions;
  • being parental and offering advice even when not requested;
  • making up your mind before you have all the information;
  • being a compulsive note taker;
  • not giving any response afterward, even after promising to do so;
  • being impatient;
  • losing your temper when hearing things you don’t agree with;
  • trying to change the subject to something that relates to your own experiences;
  • thinking more about your reply while the other person is speaking than what they are saying;
  • not listening to questions but rather seeing them as a personal attack;
  • not being present while listening. 

 

Guess what? We’re all guilty.

 

When I realize I wasn’t at my best as a listener in a particular situation, it’s always either too late or there are excuses (tired, busy, grumpy, not interested, “want to help”, etc). It was really great to look at this list of habits and think about myself through the lens it offers.

And I’d like to end this post abruptly with another important take-away from today’s meeting, which is also a take-away from last weekend’s Teacher Journeys conference in Kobe. Change does not have to always be the necessary outcome of reflection, well not immediate change. A better understanding of ourselves could be a more fulfilling purpose, and with a longer lasting impact, too…

 

As ever,

Thank you for reading.

 

Reflective Practice Tokyo into this academic year, Meeting #9

Thursday is the longest day. And yet, somehow today I had all the energy I needed to make it – three classes, each demanding a different focus of my awareness, different vibe to match and adjust to. Writing *semi* individual comments with feedback to each group. And then, a meeting of our Reflective Practice Tokyo group, after a three-month long break. And yet instead of being exhausted, I am typing up this post at 11 pm. Enjoy.

*****

My plan for the meeting was loosely outlined like this:

What’s important in the beginning of the term? Individual notes on pieces of paper, throw in one bag. Draw and comment, hear ideas.

Choose some, write an episode related (from recent weeks), talk to partners. LISTEN.

ELC (Experiential Learning Cycle) back to work.

As it goes, I overdid it with the plan. The first task on the list turned out to be plenty, more than enough. The group members were so amazing with their contributions, the important things so varied and yet so inter-related, the experiences and stories so vivid that we talked and talked and talked, until it was suddenly time to leave. And I would leave it at that, as I’ve done for months, but I feel this acute need to blog and I honestly don’t want to be so perfectionist about my writing and the timing and topic anymore…

So here’s the full list of important things that the six of us at this group meeting came up with. As I was typing it up, I was fascinated to see the variety of “zones” of significance for each of us, and how our current state in the similar (or completely same!) teaching context(s)  is reflected in our current priorities. I wonder if anything from that list speaks to you, too.

– balancing commitments;
– figuring out the feel/community of each of my class (what’s the culture, what’s the story);
– L1 use, comfortable atmosphere, expectations;
– thinking about how to reflect on teaching;
– getting ideas for activities;
– building routines/ learner training;
– risk, play, comfort;
– understanding the wider context of the course (not just lesson by lesson);
– rediscovering what I’m doing (a process that works, techniques vs self-conscious reflction);
– building relationships/ a connection with students;
– making students feel comfortable (in/with the course and with each other);
– see/set a goal and/or agenda for the time of the term (outside of this teaching context, for example articles, conferences, RP meetings, bigger professional goals);
– working on a strongly unified curriculum;
– getting enough sleep;
– remembering students’ names and breaking the ice;
– expectations; significance of the course beyond the classroom; philosophy;
– atmosphere.

I was quite intrigued to see that almost all of the notes were different. As I was walking home, I couldn’t help but think how important it is to listen and hear what others have to say. The thing is, if I feel strongly about a certain aspect of teaching, I feel like my vision gets blurred and many other things will be overlooked, because the focus is elsewhere. I miss out on something else that’s important. For example, I’ve recently grown very passionate about the role of relationships and connections we form in our job, as well as the crucial value and importance of a teacher (brought about and fuelled by Sarah Mercer’s work and talks, including her recent plenary at IATEFL 2017 in Glasgow). I want to talk about this, read about this, bring this view into discussions whenever there is a chance… But being so “aggressive” about one thing probably distorts my perception of the other aspects of my job…?

A Buddhist idea came to mind then, that people believe their opinions are so important and cling to them so fiercely… yet opinions change, so it really is almost a waste of mental effort. I wish I remembered this more often.

So that’s where our reflective discussion (followed by somewhat reflexive thought) is leaving me at the end of the day. This time, and almost every time – be more open. Listen and hear. Distance from my own opinion – but that’s the hardest one.

*****

Last week, as I was meeting 107 students that I am teaching this term for the first time, I said in my introduction that I like writing and one of my dreams is to write a book and/or write a column. After saying this outloud a few times to different groups, I started feeling like a hypocrite – in truth, I haven’t written in ages. There’s always a show to watch, a mandala to colour, a sketchbook page to fill, – and always a book to read. While all those have become increasingly important in my life and bring me a lot of joy, I deserted my one true passion. Writing always used to make me feel on edge, in a good sense. And caused many sleepless nights to my life, which I miss.

I know I am in a different place now. But maybe I can lower the bar and just write some.

Thanks for reading.

(and here I found the exact quote)

quote-we-cling-to-our-own-point-of-view-as-though-everything-depended-on-it-yet-our-opinions-have-no-zhuangzi-204496

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Another Textbook Issue

Image result for uchebnik angliyskogo

If you are reading this post and my blog in general, you are likely a teacher. Odds are English is not your first language. The chances that you are a Russian English teacher, or have experienced learning English within the Russian education system, are slimmer but still exist. But if you can imagine two English textbooks – one written by your country’s ELT authors and published in your country’s publishing house, and any coursebook by a big ELT industry name – you will understand what the discussion below is about.

I stumbled on this discussion in the comments section under one of my friend’s Instagram posts, was excited to lurk for a while, and then decided the topic could actually be relevant to teachers in other countries. So (with these people’s permission), go ahead and read my translation of their discussion, and let us know if it resembles the situation in your country or the country you work in.

 

*****

DS:  … For a whole 11 years of school kids study the language and the end result is zero! Why do they have to learn about London sights for the whole third term (cultural note: the 3rd term in this case probably lasts from around January 10th till the end of March). Who can possibly need to use that in real life, and when??? And the teacher is faced with a dilemma: to teach the way that will be good or to teach what the syllabus tells us to teach. ..

AZ: And then all kids have to hire tutors because of such syllabi…

DS: Exactly!! I feel so sorry for both children and teachers!

LB: Well of course, a whole term is too much. But it’d be great if after school kids had a little idea of where the UK in fact is, which city is the capital of which country, who the queen is, and knew a few sights. I’ve been tutoring kids for about 3 years and I’m in shock from their knowledge. There’s a feeling that they are all cretinous. By the way, if a child happens to get 5 in English in school (cultural note: “5” in the Russian education system is the equivalent of an A grade) and their parents happen to have enough money to send the kid to London to a summer school, then this knowledge would be quite helpful. But these kids are one in a million…

K: One can bend the system, one can fit something else, more useful in it!

DS: @LB There’s a billion of great travel guides which show where to go and what to see… I think it’s absurd to study the history of the Tower of London while living in Moscow area or in a whatever-it’s-called small town… I agree with the idea of teaching general notions, but not the way it’s done in the idiotic ****** textbook. If this author, as one of the authors of the standard (state educational standard is implied), writes such a textbook, I don’t have anything else to say about the standard itself… As for kids’ cretinism, it’s a complicated, multifaceted question that needs to be discussed…

LB: Well that’s you going to extremes here. Will they never go to see the Tower, or want to learn more about it in the future, study language more thoroughly, even if they live in this nobody-knows-its-name town? Or, what if a child is an invalid, can’t leave home at all, and their only chance to learn is English classes at school? Should students give up learning anything at all at school since they can grow up and buy a copy of “London for Dummies”? The content of what’s being taught is not made-up or accidental, it’s borrowed from foreign textbooks, which everything is copied from. The way that ****** textbook presents the topic of London only shows that it’s her personal choice and problem as an author and an educator. As well as it is the problem of your school which chose this textbook in the first place. There are better textbooks. And in general, the standard was not designed to match the textbook, but rather the author edited “old stuff” that already existed to fit the standard requirements. And this is quite manageable. So you shouldn’t paint it all with the same brush.

DS: There are much more interesting and visual ways to see the world without leaving your apartment for an invalid, other than studying about the Tower in old English. I agree about the brush here in this case. Regarding the choice of textbooks I agree as well, but I’m ready to argue regarding the copying of topics from foreign textbooks! *** textbook, for example, is a little less of a copycat, which makes me like it more, even though even this book is not without some amazing (weird?) things. I sincerely can’t understand, having the teaching experience that I have, why a language education standard can’t be based on such mastodonte materials as ones by Cambridge, for example, on the grounds that it is their language exam certificates that are accepted worldwide. But that’s not a question to you:) In any case, I agree that it falls on a teacher’s shoulders to find ways to get out of this situation and turn flaws into advantages 🙂

K: @J I wish you best of luck! Unfortunately, syllabus can be so imperfect that a teacher has to redesign it completely. One of my acquaintances teaches Russian using one of those prescribed textbooks. And if I were a foreigner, I would hate Russian the way it’s presented through that book!… But the teacher and students are working with it, every time trying to create something new, something of their own…

 

*****

Three years ago in the blog post here I wrote about my personal experience with this notorious textbook issue in a school I taught in Moscow. Since I haven’t worked as a school teacher in Russia for almost ten years now, I don’t think I am the best source of an opinion to contribute here (although my feelings towards textbooks in general have been established on this blog, I believe…)

Thank you for reading. I sincerely look forward to whatever comments this discussion can spawn.

 

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The Chuck Effect

I was reading a collection of essays by John Steinbeck and one on literary criticism had this simple idea that hit home with me:

“Here’s a thing we are most likely to forget. A man’s writing is himself. A kind man writes kindly. A mean man writes meanly. A sick man writes sickly. And a wise man writes wisely.”

After I wondered for a minute about how I write, I thought of different ELT blogs I’m most familiar with and the people behind those blogs that I met. It just made perfect sense. Steinbeck’s was instantly the clearest, most logical explanation of why I feel drawn to some blogs while others leave me indifferent (or even repel me) and where this connection comes from when we meet for the first time offline. Their writing exposes their character, whether they intend it or not.

Today’s post is the effect of one man’s writing.

 

Chuck Sandy writes here about the importance need for listening to each other, and this couldn’t have come at a better time. I’m deeply bothered by the fact that students are not talking to me or interacting with me in a genuine, personal way, the way I know it, the way my job works for me.

I want to tell them about my day, about my life, about what makes me not just “sensei” (oftentimes nameless). It’s invariably painful when I’m addressed like that, even if I know it’s in the culture. I want to find words to reach out to them so that they know how that feels.

I want to tell them that I took an online sketching course and felt so excited to see I could have a little success, one at a time, and create something. I want to show them those photos of my sketches I shared on Instagram, because that’s something that gives me energy for teaching, it makes me myself now.

I want to tell them I started doing yoga and swimming regularly, and that I feel proud of myself for taking my own baby steps and carrying on with it for about a month.

I want to tell them about the book I’m reading and how interesting it is (or not).

I want to tell them about my dreams and hear theirs and talk about them together.

I want to tell them about my desire to travel all across Asia. I would tell them that I spend many of my evenings watching travel shows and taking mental notes of where I absolutely need to go in my lifetime.

I want to complain that it’s tough for me, too, to get up early 6 days a week, but that spending time in class together with them makes me feel better. That I relish their smiles (it is true).

I want to do this and yet I can’t, or I can but I don’t – because I’m shy, because I have a plan to follow and this would be wasting time. Because I heard student-talking time should be maximized. Because after the bell goes, they pack up their things and rarely say goodbye to me unless I say it first.

I want to tell them that I feel distraught and lost when sometimes they come 15 minutes before class starts and sit together in silence, not uttering a word to each other. At the same time I want to tell them I understand that this is just another class, and I understand they don’t have to actually like the people they share a class with.

I wish I could tell those things. I wish I felt comfortable telling those things, and it mattered that I shared them.

 

As I’m writing this, believe it or not, there’s a lump in the throat and tears welling up (which I stopped as proceeded typing feverishly).

I guess it’s true what Chuck wrote about becoming part of their lives. I want us to be part of each others’ lives, even if a little, even if for a short while, but genuinely so.

The teachers that I have warm memories about were the teachers who were empathetic, who said I was special, who genuinely praised me, who were real people above all. The teachers I didn’t want to upset by not coming to class or cheating on homework. The teachers in whose classes I felt comfortable sharing my views, even if contradictory to most others’, openly. I knew that they would accept and recognize me for me.

 

I started by the wise words from wise Steinbeck. As reading Chuck’s post drew me to the keyboard in a way I couldn’t resist or delay at midnight, I conclude and confirm for myself yet again that Steinbeck was right. A man’s writing is himself. So I call this post The Chuck Effect, because inspiring me to be pulling out the uncomfortable truths and writing from my heart is this man’s effect.

 

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

Articulating beliefs

By 9 am next Monday, August 1st, I should turn in an article. In this article I should be examining how my teaching beliefs have (not) changed during the first term of working in my university. To set the scene and probably give more perspective into how one semester at a new workplace might very likely lead to some changes or clashes in one’s belief system, I should say that my new teaching context involves teaching within a unified curriculum. That is, teaching the same lesson 13 times a week to 13 groups of students in the way that is handed over to me (and 42 other instructors).  It is a course in English Discussion and I see it as a good course that does get the students speaking the way we expect them to speak.

Throughout the term I had numerous conversations with a few colleagues (hey, N., H., A. and others), basically discovering and “examining” my beliefs on a daily basis. I realized I had a few. I realized I could not articulate them well (I doubt I can now but that’s what this post is for, in part). I realized it’s a choice to feel frustrated or liberated and challenged by not being able to teach the way you’re accustomed to.

I still don’t know what the article will be about or what my beliefs are, and so this blog post is to help me see it. The notes below were typed at various points over the past 4 months with the aim to help me figure out what was happening and capture any changes. Some of those might not make much sense to you as I’m contemplating certain stages of my lessons, as stages are what I must have and follow in my plan. You might sense that I feel uncomfortable with this idea. Parts in red are what I see as important, for now or the future, for the article or my own thinking.

Please do ask me questions about things.

Also, enjoy.

*****

April 11th (Lesson 1)

First classes! Feel fussy asking students to change seats (I have no system or idea how to do that) and it’s not clear at all how to ensure rotation of partners for a 9-people class. Timing for practice discussions is random (note: discussions are supposed to be 10 and 16 minutes long). Hard to focus on feedback – what do I monitor for? How do I make it thorough and structured, especially for tracking progress for each individual student? Forgot to introduce “How do you say… in English?”

All in all, I’m quite satisfied. Concerned about lower level students – I should remember to give them time to prep/note down their ideas! (note: this didn’t happen)

April 12th

Significantly shyer, less talkative students. I forgot certain points that I aimed to mention and my monitoring and no grouping strategies are bothering me!

April 20th

  • Weird, not smooth, or no transitions between lesson stages at all
  • I need to find a way to talk less
  • Don’t elicit from some groups

April 21st

Left books open for the second, long discussion – for ideas and questions – I think it helped, especially lower level students! (note: it is amazing to me how in this context every little change in class seems to matter and make a difference… or maybe it’s like that in any context, but I never had a chance to see it because I rarely, if ever, taught the same thing again and in the same way – or paid attention enough!..)

April 27th

The idea of not having to correct or work on grammar or vocabulary is liberating!!!

May 5th

It’s interesting to see my opinions change.

These 2 days of Review Lesson I’m having problems with managing/fitting in Discussion 2 and subsequent feedback. I need to stop rambling at some stages of class! I should also be more ready to cut prep time (note: there are prep activities we do before each of the two discussions).

May 31st

INCIDENT.

I am really worried AND, again, I’m in a situation when I’m uncomfortable being too distant from students as per rules. Am I a teacher? What’s the definition of me as a ‘teacher’ in this course? How is ‘instructor’ different from ‘teacher’ and why does it have to be so different (or seem so for me)??

June 16th

I’m considering ideas for my reflective paper.

  • Students’ awareness of their own learning, why I feel it’s needed and is currently missing, how I could achieve that
  • Students and teacher in reflective dialogue

The first half of the term I was so focused on and anxious about my PLAN – teaching all I have to teach, correctly and well – that I forgot to connect to students. Make personal comments, greet the way I would and have small talk, engage in simple conversations unrelated to my ‘teacher talking script’, rehearsed and acted out time and again. I think now I am getting better.

I want to be involved.
Some time mid-July

Some of my unarticulated as yet ‘beliefs’:

    • L1 is OK
  • (1) Writing is necessary in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking.
  • (2) There should be plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity in *my* classes. 
  • (3) I need to feel at ease with time and syllabus to teach ‘unplugged’. Dogme, teaching from students’ emergent needs is beneficial for students (and comfortable for me).
    • Reading is just as important as writing, ideally they should come together, in a meaningful combination. 
    • Technology has been part of my teaching for about 5 years, every time assisting in various ways depending on the context. I don’t rely on it but I feel its benefits very strongly.
  • (4) Connecting emotionally (building rapport, being involved in class) is one of top priorities in my teaching. I can’t feel good or motivated to teach if the connection is not there.
  • I believe in co-creating the syllabus of a course together with students, which means different goals, different materials, different approach every time. 
  • Vocabulary is of crucial importance. 
  • Everything I’ve written above happens through communication in class. Does it make these classes CLT-type classes or the opposite of such? I don’t know, neither do I care much. Maybe I believe in non-labeling.   

 

Many of those beliefs might have led to (?) unstructured, for the most part, classes in which it was often hard for me and students to chart progress.  

Are my teaching beliefs influenced by my own language learning preferences?… I’m not sure. But I wonder what was it that formed those beliefs in me over time.

***** end of notes*****

 

 

I would appreciate any comments, thoughts, links, criticism, support, likes, or other. I wonder if any of you have experienced teaching in a similar context. I wonder if you have recently “examined” or stated your teaching beliefs and what happened. I wonder if you think it’s important to stick to your beliefs.

Thanks for reading.

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#RPTokyo, May 27th

One of the things I took for myself out of the Reflective Practice meeting (#RPTokyo being the unofficial hashtag used solely by me *so far*)  that we had today is that I can write every day. I’ll set the timer for 10 minutes and just write. Write those blog posts I want to write. Write NOW and not expect myself to have them clean and perfect and ready to publish.

So here I am, just back home from an RP meeting on a Friday night, dying (metaphorically) to put on the screen what this meeting was all about. Setting the timer for 10 mins and…

 

Below is my plan (annotated where necessary) for the second RP meeting that we held today. I post it as it is, copied and pasted straight away from a Google Doc I have created for that #RPTokyo purpose. Afterwards I will walk you through what actually happened and how.

*****

Second Meeting

May 27th, Friday

LISTEN (note for myself to remember to keep it a priority for us to listen to each other)

Plan

  • Quick intro (Who are you? Why are you here? What’s your experience with RP?)
  • “Fluency” warm-up. Talk to a partner for 3 minutes about the questions. The listener should ask questions.

Remember one or two challenging moments in class: What happened? How did it make you feel? How did you respond to it?

  • Whole group recap of the ways people respond to challenging, stressful situations.

(?elicit and write on board adjectives to describe emotions people felt?)

  • ELC as one of the tools to learn to reflect on our teaching in order to make changes.

(discuss the cycle in pairs?). Any comments? —> “experience” that we look at doesn’t have to be a negative experience. It can be any stage of class or a success. (my own note I wanted to remember to say)

  • Let’s explore the ELC together. In pairs, go through a moment you shared before (or a different moment?) with the help of the Cycle.
  • Wrap-up. Share what you’ve learnt today (if), any thoughts before leaving?

Give article to read just FYI. About RP groups in Korea.

Resources to share in the group:

Zhenya’s posts

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/elc-or-the-art-of-experiential-learning/

https://wednesdayseminars.wordpress.com/2014/03/21/elc-questions-and-answers/

*****

Lessons learnt, Lesson one

Trust myself to plan and organize, trust the group to follow and adjust.

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You might notice in the rough plan I shared above the many question marks I used. Thinking of how to facilitate a meeting to the benefit of all proved not at all equal to planning a workshop, as the underlying thoughts I had were, “Does it help us feel a community? Can we open up? Will we listen to each other? Who has control?”

One of the main concerns I had in anticipation of the first meeting was that, as an organizer,  I’d risk coming across as knowledgeable. That my role of an organiser and facilitator would have me pushing people to do what I think RP meeting is about, what I saw it to be (in Daegu, Korea, in the autumn of 2014). I sweated  and panicked over this. Two meetings later, I realize that being a facilitator is a package deal – it goes with those concerns and responsibilities in hand. Fear of the unknown, anticipation of negative reactions, unclear set-up, unmet expectations – those were some factors that triggered a massive lack of confidence in me. And while to a certain extent they still do, now I know I’m not alone. In this second meeting, it did feel like we were a group. We were making choices together and it proved painless to trust each other and share the reins. It was painless, too, to get the reins back and ensure we’re on track.

 

Notes, thoughts, practicalities

There’s a mental trap it’s easy to fall into – to consciously or subconsciously expect to come out of an event/presentation/workshop/meeting with real take-aways. Well, when I’m present and listening, it’s easy to. Here are the notes I took which count as take-aways.

1. I did take notes of the emotions that were named during the 5-5-5 activity during our group recap of our stories. Challenging situations left the teachers feel frustrated, confused, overwhelmed, helpless, frozen, ignorant, grateful for students’ good communication skills, guilty, caring, angry… Feeling like they’re not doing enough. I’m glad we looked at the bright side, too.

2. Two out of six teachers present at the meeting were Japanese, and it was from them that I heard the following idea: Japanese teachers are culturally more inclined to be negative towards their teaching experiences. In the same way, Japanese students might not be used to praise.  But then, is it really so culturally exclusive? Aren’t we all too obsessed with dwelling on the negative sometimes?…We’re probably more likely to revisit in our minds a tiniest classroom failure than a little classroom success.

3. … And that was when it dawned on me that, in the short time in the very rigid structure of my class that I have for feedback and potentially connecting to the students, I should aim at making my class a more positive experience. Limit the points to improve, extend the praise. Today was the first day when I drew smiley faces in my students’ self-check sheets.

4. I will use a timer for my own writing! I have. We’re reaping the fruit.

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5. In connection with the same idea of obsessing over the negative, I remembered a plenary I attended three or four years ago at a conference in Turkey. The speaker asked us to write down the answer to the question – What am I good at as a teacher? – and tell about it to the partner. Is it an easy question to ask yourself? I struggled to do it back then, I’m not sure I’ll easily do it now. The plenary speaker was Chuck Sandy.

6. During our discussions at the meeting I formulated a couple more things that teaching at Clark taught me. (A) Have students busy with a task all the time; (B) Minimize teach-talk to students – what is an important message for me is likely a mere noise for them. (C) Do not fear to show strength and character, do not fear to not be soft and friendly. (D) I hadn’t realized before teaching in Japan just how much code-switching from Russian to English and back I was doing in my classes and how big the impact was. I never had to think about it!

 

Final thoughts

I have said it many times, to myself and others, that I’m good on my own. I have said it so many times that I believe it to be true. Indeed, imagining me spending a Saturday night alone sketching, colouring, reading, writing this, one might agree that there’s a lot of an introvert in me. Yet there’s no denying the fact that reflecting in a group for two hours gave me so much energy that I nearly finished this blog post in an hour’s time. After struggling for months to get my momentum back.

Maybe there’s something to it, even if it only were a once-in-a-month kind of effect.

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… and they lived happily ever after.

*** Prologue ***

I had my doubts. Thirty-five teenagers in a mixed group of levels from low B1 to near-native language ability jam-packed in a stuffy room, listening to me reading a Russian folk tale about the frog which was, in fact, a princess – I just was not so sure. Many things could go wrong. The text is long, the room is small, the kids are probably expecting games as the tests are over and holidays are near. I don’t know how big the interest of teenagers for a tale about a frog could be (I mean, I might not be too excited about it myself if I were them…). The text, even after my amateur adaptation, still has words like “a spindle”. It’s after lunch. I’m not at all good at storytelling or even story-reading. I don’t believe my reading could engage 35 young active minds and make them follow a long story and keep quiet.

So, entering this class, as any other for that matter, I was filled with concerns and assumptions. Yet, I wanted badly to try have this class my way and see what happens.

*** Class ***

Here’s a dry step-by-step run-down of this 45-minute class proceedings:

1. Instructing the students to organize themselves into pairs of mixed levels (Level 5 and Level 4 students within our course system). This took about 10 minutes and did not result in exactly all pairs consisting of students of both levels. All of them sit facing the whiteboard (and me).

2. Distributing the text. Below you can see the PDF version, but note that the kids only had 5 pages out of ten. As it goes, the office printer had got out of order and I could not print out those extra illustrations to the story. Please also note that I had adapted the text from this webpage, keeping the images and adding a super simple half-picture half-text glossary for the weirdest sounding words in the tale. I’d also divided the text into 4 parts.

3. Explaining to the students what is going to happen. Only half of the group sitting in the classroom are familiar with the practice of reading in class in this way, with an ideal objective of enjoying the text (aka extensive reading class). So I explain and write on the board the following, aiming at bringing some clarity:
– Part 1. Anna reads –> students talk
– Part 2. Anna reads –> students talk
… repeat till the end of story.

I split the text into four more or less logical sections for the reason of giving students a break while processing the long narration, too long (I feared) for many to handle. So my plan was to read the part and then give students 3-5 minutes to discuss it in their groups, in Japanese. Clarifying meanings, discussing, rereading parts, etc. There is no real task as such for this time, it is more like space to take a breather and probably “connect” with the tale.

4. It took around 30 minutes to do as I’d planned, reading and providing the talking time. In that talking time I also gave some extra cultural notes (Ivan’s clothing-related; my random thought that Yelena the Fair in the image on the second page looks much like an image of a woman saint in the Orthodox icons; the explanation of the Little Hut in the Russian woods that always greets the main character with its back).

5. The students are given a piece of paper each to write their impressions of the tale.

*** Students’ impressions of the tale ***

“I want to read many tales like this!!”

“I know that it is just a story and it can’t be reasonable and realistic sometimes, but it feels funny that Yelena changed her mind so easily, though she was going to marry another, to go back home with Prince Ivan.”

“I was surprised with the end of the story. The frog is so amazing!”

“I thought Prince Ivan is so poor. However, it wasn’t like that. Finally, they obtained happiness. I like this story.”

“Prince Ivan looked for his wife but she almost married another. I think it is very bad.”

“The story told me not to lose chances to marry a girl.”

“I can’t imagine life with the princess frog… This horrible story gave me shivers. I know the princess frog is a perfect girl (?) because she can do needle work, dance and cook, but she is a frog!!! OMG!!!”

“There were many scenes that made me confused. Such as the part when the prince’s wife was decided with a bow…. I wonder why it took over one year for Prince Ivan to go look for his wife, because if I were him I would go straight away to find her.”

“I think they are emotional people and Prince Ivan often cried. That’s too much for me. He is a man, he shouldn’t cry too much.”

“I think Prince Ivan was impudent, because soon after going into the house, he asked them to serve him food and drink, put him to bed. I couldn’t empathize with him.”

“I think the story is very interesting. The people in the story and their acting is so unique, as in many tales. I’m glad the prince and the frog became happy finally.”

*** Teacher’s impressions ***

1) I realize I probably never thought that the frog is amazing. In fact, I might have not given the frog a single thought in 20 years.

2) There’s no point (or sense) in asking a group of 35 Japanese teenagers “What do you think is gonna happen next in this story?”

3) While making a choice to read this particular tale I did not consider the message, values and the moral of the story. In fact, I did not think of it at all, maybe because the story and its plot are already too deeply ingrained in my consciousness through my cultural background. And so I was taken aback (in the best of senses) by the students’ reactions, their raw emotions, true and unaffected by comprehension questions and vocabulary gap fills. A single read was enough to spur a wide range of feelings, wonders and judgements… Yes, very humanly so, judgements of the characters and their actions. I had to do exactly ZERO lead-ins and ask exactly ZERO questions to bring up the topics of moral values, quirks of behaviour, relationship struggles and challenges, life choices. Just one read of this tale, that to me to tell the truth is already rather “flat”, was deeply emotionally affective for them. Which coursebook text could provoke any more sincere reactions from students?? It is a rhetorical question.

4) Can we just imagine a school in which we teach by reading?… just for a brief illusory moment.

5) Teens believe in the permanence of love. Why did they expect Yelena to wait for Ivan? We don’t get to learn much about that other man, but if she chose (?) him, he might, for all we know, be a good fella)))

6) The frog tale to my surprise left no one untouched and unconcerned.

7) I did not ask if they liked the story.

8) A student did use the word empathize all on his own, with no prompts OR dictionaries involved.

9) Bookclub. After winter break I am organizing a bookclub in our school!

*** Epilogue ***

This class made me feel so passionate that I couldn’t help but sit down and blog for the first time in four months. The students’ sincerity and genuine emotions was a spark that inspired and energized me. They are fantastic. And I, well, I just love my job.

When we finished I asked them to read something during their winter break.
Read. Just read.

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Drafted to be written

***** Abrupt beginning *****

Time dragged on … And then I had an idea. If I ever come to actually realize one of my deeply held aspirations to become a contributor to a magazine or a columnist, I need to learn to write on demand. So here’s an unnecessary test, consciously self-inflicted pressure: below are the original, unedited titles of my 44 (!) drafts currently saved on this blog, with a few words of an explanation of what I initially had in mind for this or that idea. As it goes for drafts for me personally, they largely hang out in the “Drafts” section. To change that, I appeal to you to choose one blog post idea that you might be interested in reading about and leave it in a comment below. In my turn, I will do my best to write up those posts, which otherwise might just stay neglected, and thus lost forever.
Game on.

1. going, going, gone – reactions of others to my decision to go to Japan and my own emotional storms regarding the same thing

2. in japan, notes – more random culture observations (part I to be found here)

3. Look at my food – lesson plan on Instagram

4. about Peter – what I have to/ want to say about my boss (brave post))

5. answering Sandy’s questions – responding to the questions Sandy Millin left for me in her comment to one of my recent posts

6. read an essay, give it a thought – there’s a quote copied and pasted from somewhere, which obviously sparked an idea in my mind back then but was never followed up on

7. 4 months in Japan. Classroom challenges. – a post based on my presentation at EFL Teachers’ Journeys conference in June 2015

8. things I learnt from my students today – a focused day reflection, an idea which might have been inspired by one of Anne Hendler’s posts

9. Why and how English teachers Instagram – just letting the word out

10. A post-training listicle, or … things I thought about – notes I took during my training days at school

11. TTT (and not what you think) – on my first experience team teaching

12. classes gone wrong – really terrible classes that I whined about on Facebook in May, I guess

13. A paragraph letter to my older teacher self – an inverted response to a popular blog challenge

14. message to students – about how I don’t want to play games in class

15. things my colleagues taught me this week – results of a conscious, focused reflection

16. things my students taught me this week – read above

17. Fanselow training notes – first training in my current job and my thoughts on it

18. 9 towns of Russia – a video my students took for me to share with Japanese students (shame on me for not sharing it months ago!!..)

19. on losing it – on losing confidence and motivation for teaching (after my Asian trip of 2014)

20. Let’s forget it is a lesson. – trying to formulate my belief for this type of class when students study/ learn but don’t feel they are being taught

21. teach travel write about it – my desire to continue travelling, teaching online, visiting classrooms, writing about it

22. Ridiculous vocabulary for EFL learners – examples of such vocabulary items I encountered in textbooks and materials (are now still sparse, collection in progress)

23. something else – about teachers writing something other than ELT-related things

24. 2 countries, 8 classrooms, 8+ teaching ideas – pretty much covered in this post for iTDi, but there could be more to say

25. intro into any post – a template! But it might have already been partially used))

26. challenges ahead analysed when over – challenges I had outlined for myself before going to Asia in the fall of 2014, analysed upon return

27. how Skype classes fail – based on experiences from that same Asia trip

28. learning from spam – classes we could teach using junk mail as material

29. communicative aptitude and emphatic listening – contemplating on my personality flaws in those areas

30. random thought post-holland trip – culture and laguage related notes I took on a trip to the Netherlands in the summer of 2014

31. teacher face – on how I sometimes struggle to maintain a “serious” teacher face and behavior

32. Japanese 9 months – should be born and breathing now – much outdated idea, but there is still a post I could write on my studies and progress in Japanese, or rather a devastating lack of such

33. Focus – rambles on how I sometimes find it hard to keep the focus on, and what it leads to

34. Google doc for building up syllabus – this is one area that can’t already fit into one post since it’s become a prevalent part of my teaching … anyway, this blog post was promised to be written for a joint project with a wonderful lady you all know but the promise came at a wrong time (for me) and was, to my big regret and shame, never fulfilled… With conference presentations on this topic approaching, it just makes sense to finally do it.

35. Camp memoirs – notes I made during the three days I spent in the forest near Ryazan, doing workshops for kids in UP!Camp (June 2014)

36. creativity – paragraphs that did not go into this post for iTDi

37. As teachers, we need/ should/ must… – supposedly my thoughts on these, but the draft is merely a blank page..)

38. superficial elt – another blank draft page! But sounds so promising

39. blog about reflection (possibly doing challenge) – I was honestly determined to participate fully in the reflective practice blogging challenge.

40. withdrawing self – learning to be less of an “I!” kind of blogger and teacher.. failing miserably!

41. annoying words in elt – buzz words that at some point started to seem almost empty to me

42. good school stories – trying to remember bright moments from my two years of working in a school in Moscow (to balance out the blue feelings brought about by this post)

43. making excuses for my expertise – musings on the way I seem to make excuses for expressing personal opinion in my posts, provoked by a discussion of my most recent post with my boss

44. excerpts from tips on writing – processing and summing up the multiple tips and advice from writers

***** Abrupt ending *****

Thanks for reading (and participating, if you choose to). AND for believing I will have enough will power to pursue this! If …

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On the courage of losing sight of the shore (or lack of such)

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So I’ve moved to Japan, like I dreamed to, like I made it my Goal to, like I planned to. Yes dreams do come true once you stop thinking of them as of dreams. Now it’s time to find out how it feels to have made your dream come true, how to live that dream. That’s what they don’t prepare you for. How to remember why you aspired for this in the first place.

And if you can ever get close to regretting your choice of dream.

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Inspirational quotes tell us in powerful phrasing to be strong and aim high, yet they don’t mention how many tears there would be shed after you’ve made it. Because that’s where and when you’re most fragile. Having a goal you believe in and smashing everything on your way towards it (or taking each and every step with care and due precision) is like running your distance. As you cross that long-awaited finish line, you’re thrilled but out of breath and your heart aches. Well mine does.

It’s all good to have the courage to lose sight of the shore, yet in order to actually cross that ocean you need more than just that. You need all that courage to keep going all the way you have so bravely planned, plus a whole lot of other supplies.

 

*****

The following part of the post was typed at various times during my first days in Japan – in the street, on the metro, at my workplace (more about that in future posts).

 

***** First day things *****

As soon as I’m out in the street or even better on the subway, I start smiling involuntarily. That’s when I remember what I loved about this country in the first place and why I’ve come here at all.
Everything around me so far seems right and close to heart, like I got to know it and knew it to be. Streets, neat houses, pavements, cleanliness, small private businesses, trains with their warm seats that make you drowsy any time of day, people who I’m not afraid to address for help, shop windows, little details I pay attention to, like a bronze owl placed on top of a very ordinary tiled column at a metro station. The language that I want so much to learn as soon as possible so that I could belong to this place more. Because I want to.
It is now more home-like in my apartment thanks to the things I brought from home, but it’s cold and lonely.
***** First week frustrations *****
When the initial shock of being away and alone wore off a bit and with the day spent at school, for a couple of days life got down to almost normal. However, Friday brought me back to tears in a new way. Frustrations that came out were about me not being able to communicate in Japanese. For the first time out of all my time in Japan I felt an alien, clearly an outcast.
In a nutshell, I went to a bank to open an account but the lady refused to deal with me because I could not speak the language. She kept repeating the same thing over and over again and it just did not help – besides, I got stuck, paralyzed and couldn’t utter a word in Japanese, or English, or even Russian. My face must have looked dumb and eyes welled up with tears. When I was out in the fresh air and about 3 minutes passed, I knew it was all fair. I am a foreigner, they don’t have to speak English, I should have taken care of this communication issue myself as opening a bank account means you need to discuss important points and security. I felt low for the rest of the day and it even rubbed off on my English as I felt unconfident while talking with colleagues.
This unpleasant situation made me feel sorry for students who struggle understanding English in class if it’s the only language spoken by teacher. I’m sure I’ll have more to say about it in my future posts, as soon as I get into an actual classroom and lessons begin.
*****
I would like to thank all those people who have wished me luck, supported me and keep doing so with their good words in public comments or private messages. I appreciate it ever so much. I would like to give a mostly useless but 100% sincere digital hug to the people who tell me they know it must be a hard time. It is.
Bottomline: a week and many tears past, I don’t regret my choice of dream yet.
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Thanks for reading.
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