Tag Archives: choices

My teaching unprinciples

This post is being written in an unusual (for me) manner, place and situation, and to me this fact is at least just as interesting as the theme of my writing today. More about it at the bottom of the page, just a few paragraphs down. At the moment I’m curious myself about how it’ll go for me. If the end product (=the post) turns out to be of a disputable quality/ value, I’ll blame the change. Because the original idea in my draft, to my mind, was not that bad. :))

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In this emerging space of a personal blog it’s time for more personal truths to emerge. They might not be flattering, as personal truths are likely to be.

I have previously mentioned here that I oftentimes envy people who are strongly principled and follow clear directions in their life while making choices, important or less so. I’m probably not always one of them and now is the time to examine briefly and casually how principled a teacher I am.

Following my recent pet trend to look into dictionary definitions for words elemental to my post themes, here’s what Merriam-Webster tells us about a principle:
– a moral rule or belief that helps you know what is right and wrong and that influences your actions;
– a basic truth or theory: an idea that forms the basis of something;
– a law or fact of nature that explains how something works or why something happens.

Keeping those in mind, I want to lay bare some of my personal teacher truths, give comments and drag in the definition ideas where possible. This is going to be so random. Enjoy.

(1) Dialogue.
– Do you give your classes following the communicative approach?
– Mmm… Can you explain what exactly you mean or want me to say here?
– (what sounds and impresses like a word-for-word quote from the approach description)
– Well, there’s a lot of group and pair work in some of my classes, less of that in others. There’s interaction, focus on personal experiences, but, I mean, that’s maybe obvious…? I hope I mostly teach to communicate, yes. I don’t stick to the points of the method description.

It’s not a new talk for most all of you, I know. What’s my point? Maybe it is that feeling class, as in both whole teaching process and a particular lesson, makes more sense to me as a teacher who teaches to communicate than reading into the lines of methods and methodologies and being their slave. CLT is not the basic truth or theory behind my teaching, but neither is any other type of teaching on its own.

(2) I can’t stand being lectured. BUT I have been noticing myself sometimes turning on a lecturer mode while being too emotionally involved in something that I believe (at the moment of conversation) to be right. The realization of this contradiction to my own principled view, when spotted, is quite sickening. Lecturing on the brink of preaching (or is it the other way around?) is going a bit too far in my understanding of what an ordinary teacher should be expected doing in an English class.

(3) I say openly and loudly at presentations, webinars, blogs and meetings: Go for social networks with your students! Explore them, try out with your class, have fun or fail, reflect and try again – that would be pretty much the summary of my belief on the issue.
Just sneak a peek into the Students Connected FB group and judge, by its happenings, how much of that I’m doing myself these days.

Quite often I find myself unconsciously steering the conversation or course line in my class the way I would not normally do, discussing texts and topics I would naturally not want to include (for the reason that they’re trite, mostly).
Quite often I find myself wishing for the calm, regularity and boredom of a coursebook while claiming to be all too pro-coursebookless teaching style (I’m sure that is not a word).

Why did I call those points my “unprinciples”? Many a time I catch myself thinking, saying or doing something that I generally don’t believe to be 100% true or right. And maybe that is so because I don’t believe most things to be 100% true or right, most of the time. I doubt and then I doubt more, but this hesitation, aside from being refreshing, can also prove frustrating.
As anything is possible, I can expect any kind of a choice from myself in class and I’m not always too happy with those choices.

Maybe those uncomfortable un- and semi-principles could be called a compromise?…

Thanks for reading.

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@KateSpringcait, who can usually be found blogging here, today could also be found blogging when sitting next to me in a cafe in the centre of Moscow. This was her *excellent!* idea and I highly recommend it to others, too. It is fun, it’s the first time I’ve blogged outside of the comfort (and distractions!) of my home, and I want to do this again. In the end, writing alone is not really a principle I hold on to too passionately either.

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16 question marks and a soundtrack.

I’ve read it somewhere that getting students to talk about their lives makes them more motivated in learning a language in general and quite excited about your class in particular. I’ve read it, somewhere, many times.

Disturbing moments, anyone? I raise my hand.

Set-up. Mood: feeling calm, confident, expectant.
I thought it’d be so cool to do this activity from Teaching Unplugged, “Up and Down”, in which you get your students to sketch a mood diagram to talk about how they felt during some period of time you choose to talk about (a weekend, a longer holiday). It’s speaking about my learner’s recent personal experience, it’s going to be practising adjectives and participles to describe events and feelings about them. I’ve done it before. Nice one.

Development. Mood: feeling suddenly less calm and more suspicious; the air is getting tense.
I’m so great, my choices are amazing today. I decide to record this activity to later on think about it and analyse. Press the button.
At that point I could have sensed something was going wrong when I glanced at the page and saw that sharp decline. This could have prompted me to stop this, or twist it, or be careful. But the ball had already been set rolling. In the flashback of the moment, now, I am sure I noticed the eyes becoming watery. I didn’t say a word but I could have (Did I have to? Did I need to? Would you?) Is it in fact a point to be concerned about that I could’ve prevented the bad feelings for the student? It was apparently something looking for a way out, for an excuse to stream out like that.

Peak point. Mood: feeling… uneasy? uncomfortable? damaged? psyched? I wouldn’t mind somebody teaching me some words to describe this state.
I hear myself asking “Are you scared?” And I’m pretty sure now I was asking myself. Hectic racking of the brain, but not for what’s in my activity sandbox… Do I have a box of ready-made emphatic solutions? Some plans maybe, worksheets, activities explaining step by step how to fix this. It’s an extreme emergent emotional reaction which I haven’t read in books how to deal with.
Apparently, it was an unhappy vacation.

From that point on something was happening but it’s all more or less a mess in my head now. In the end, the best of all choices I made at that lesson (probably) was choosing to read aloud. My luck to have one of Kevin Stein’s short stories with me, and the one that the student could relate to. Heart thumping subsides. It’s all fine in the end, it seems so, but I only know what I feel and that’s only 50%.

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Post-lesson notes made 10 minutes after the class in an unstoppable flush of extreme emergent emotional reaction of a sensitive teacher. Random, of course.

~ Sometimes at my weakest moments I just feel doing a safe coursebook would spare me (and students) the embarrassment and pain.
~ Is it indeed so very exciting to talk about personal experience?
~ How emphatic do you teacher need to be? Is there any assessment of this ability? Is there anything I can do to learn it? Do I need to learn it? I might not be so sensitive as to cry in front of other people myself, but I feel the pain of others acutely and I’m not at all sure I know how to manage these moments.
~ What did the student learn? It honestly doesn’t matter to me, since the thin fabric of the psyche of my lesson cracked in seams and caused trouble.
~ Now talk about students remembering the knowledge we teachers give, not the teachers themselves (or moments).

I’d like to make it clear that this one is the second post in my impulsive blog post series. It is not about how I handled this particular situation (and a couple of similar ones that I’ve had in my teacher life). It is a story of how we can unknowingly trigger a reaction we are not prepared for, and not necessarily know how to deal with. I think I *half* failed this time.

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The weirdest thing about all this is that I now have 45 minutes of this lesson recorded.

And here is the promised soundtrack.

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I hated that fellow (c) C.G. Jung

This is an impulsive blog post. The idea came about after (during, in fact) watching this interview which this article linked to.

Story #1

Carl Gustav Jung was going through training to be a doctor and was writing his thesis. Once a certain teacher was discussing the papers of his students and took the best first. Jung’s paper was the last on his table. That’s what the teacher said then (these are all quotes from the video, watch the first part of it):

“That would be by far the best paper, if it hadn’t been copied. You’re a thief!… and if I knew where you’ve stolen it I’d fling you out of school. You are a liar!”

Jung’s comment on this, many years later: “I hated that fellow.  And that was the only man that I could have killed, you know, if I had met him once in the dark corner…”

Story #2

My friend was studying at a university here in Moscow. Once a certain teacher was announcing the grades (supplying these with comments) for the papers the students had written and he/she took the best first. My friend’s paper was the last on his/her table. What the teacher said then could repeat the words of a certain teacher of 100 years before. It looked to be the best paper but it had “surely” been copied.

While in fact my friend was the only student in that group who had written it by himself.

Story #3

I was teaching a group of insurance specialists, all ladies 5-7 years older than me. Once the task was to write a review of some film we’d watched. One of the students, actually the brightest one in that class and the one who always liked to “test” me (I was 23 then), handed in a page with printed text which didn’t sound like her writing. I checked online and found the text of the review down the first link in Google. I pulled myself (and my courage, and my sense of fairness) together and scribbled a message for her on that page, something saying I knew she could do better than that. Next class she brought a good review she’d written herself, and I never felt any slightest hint of disrespect again.

I know my students copied and stole for their writing tasks. I always (??) know when that happens. In most cases I make a personal note on that paper. Sometimes I ask to speak about the topic. Sometimes I call the student out on the cheating. There have been moments I can’t be proud of, when I thought the student had copied but he/she hadn’t in fact. There have been worse cases I can’t bring myself to tell about here.

Here’s what this all leads to for me, in the end.

What’s happening in a classroom relies a lot on the choices I make as a teacher. The kind of choices is not limited to picking materials, methods, tasks, tools, management strategies, considering learner types, acting on emergent language and reflecting in/on action. These, and everything else that matters in a classroom (and we know by some blog titles there are the other things that matter), constitute the flesh and bone of a lesson. In a lame attempt to tie Jung in here, let’s say that there’s also psyche of a lesson. Maybe it is the choices we are making (as humans), which are not necessarily rational or right all the time. We are making impulsive choices (ok, maybe I am making impulsive choices, not you). Some of them are intuitive and correct, others can be..well, not disastrous but leaving me feeling awkward, even ashamed at times. 

For all we know there could have been lethal consequences to poor choices teachers made. This exaggeration doesn’t serve to prove anything.

I apologise to those who don’t find psychology enthralling or connected to this post. It’s night time writing again!

Let me know what you think, if there’s anything here to think about. Thanks!

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UPD, because there IS something here to think about. Thank you for this.

Plagiarists and cheats – a blog post by Graham Stanley

The Cheating Art – a blog post with a lesson plan, by David Petrie

Digital Plagiarism vs Digital Citizenship: a war of words – a 2013 IATEFL Hungary talk by Sophia Mavridi, shared by Bethany Cagnol in her post-like comment below

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