Tag Archives: writing

Dialogic reflective journaling as a way to see more

Recently, I’ve let my blog be another avenue for publishing the articles I write as part of obligatory semester projects at my workplace. Last summer the article had to do with me examining and articulating my teacher beliefs. In the winter I blogged in two installments (notes in part 1 and questions in part 2) what later transformed into a solid article on my dialogic journaling experience last fall. Here I want to leave this *slightly cropped* piece of written reflection. It is something that reads a lot more formal than the blogging me, but hopefully my voice can still be heard through the unnecessarily flowery language.

Enjoy, if you can (it’s long).

*****

Engaging in reflective practice for professional development through different means and especially by keeping a written account of my teaching has been an area of the utmost interest for me for over four years. For this reason I was enthusiastic about the prospect of continuous focused journalling during my second term as an instructor for English discussion class. The initial idea for this reflection project was threefold: (1) act on the goals I set for myself at the end of the first semester in the program; (2) experiment with a new format of reflective journaling; and (3) the primary goal of this project, i.e. observe students’ classroom behaviour and/or performance, analyze it, and initiate changes accordingly. Firstly, it is important to comment on my intention to act on my personal goals, stated at the end of the first semester corresponding to my teaching beliefs. Those goals included finding opportunities for a more reflective dialogue both with and among students, experimenting with micro-writing activities in class, giving individual students more focused attention, and above all, working to nurture a positive, friendly, and supportive classroom community. After meeting the thirteen groups of students that I was assigned to teach in the fall semester, I quickly came to identify the class that would become the subject of my journaling based on Thomas Farrell’s idea of critical incidents. According to him, one of the purposes of reflection in English language teaching is to explore and examine critical incidents, which pose “a particular anomaly for a teacher <…> and can cause teachers to perceive dissonance between their beliefs and theories and actual practice.” (Farrell 2016, p.102) One particular group of eight students from the very first lesson together posed what I perceived as multiple “issues” that would make it challenging for me to feel comfortable teaching this group. The main areas of concern that I noted down after Lesson 1 of the course compiled the following list: group dynamic, low proficiency level, low motivation, lack of active response to teacher instructions (and to the teacher in general), students’ reluctance to engage in communication with each other either in Japanese or in English, etc. The class appeared to be a rare accumulation of potential critical incidents that would indeed occur repeatedly throughout the term on a regular basis, thus making it a critical case in and of itself. It seemed like a suitable occasion to meaningfully apply my goals stated above, bearing in mind the priority of nurturing a classroom community that would ensure mutual support and understanding, a community responsive to each other and to the teacher. However, after the first few classes another potential problem surfaced for me: I was overwhelmed by too many issues that I wanted to “fix.” In a sense, that meant no obvious, clearly-stated observation goal regarding lesson stages or students’ performance in specific tasks. It was important to simply thoroughly document as many interactions happening in class as possible, both among students and with me as a teacher, in order to observe closely and facilitate as possible the process of establishing the rapport.

As for the format, having had a substantial experience keeping reflective journals in both online and traditional pen-and-paper versions, I was looking for a more demanding and interactive way of reflecting. I chose to experiment with dialogic journal writing, which as a type of collaborative reflection serves a means of further challenging the teacher’s thinking and reflective enquiry (Farrell, 2007). It is worth remembering that reflective practice, as defined by Thomas Farrell, is a process in which teachers not only systematically take notes of their classroom observations, but also “while engaging in dialogue with others, use the data to make informed decisions about their practice” (Farrell, 2015, p.123). Collaborative journal writing due to its two-sided nature enhances the reflector’s experience and broadens the understanding of observed classroom situations. In addition to writing regular personal entries about my class, I invited a colleague to act as my journal companion, who would read the entries and pose questions to help analyze the practice and even trigger some insights to further impact my choices both in lesson planning and teaching. Another idea critical to my decision to have a “second pair of eyes” in this project is the research evidence that data obtained from journal entries serve mostly as a reflection of what the person journalling perceives as being important (Mercer 2005-6, p. 67). Following this idea, the involvement of third party – my colleague – could enrich the reflection by clarifying my own perspective.

The structure of my journal remained consistent through Lessons 3 to 12 of the course and was shaped by my previous experience of reflective practice using a variation of the Experiential Learning Cycle, which asks the reflecting teacher to describe the event, theorize about its causes, and make an action plan. First of all, observations of every lesson were noted in-action during class time. They were later transferred to an online document under the following sub-categories:

  • What happened in class? (factual detailed descriptions of the events in class)
  • How did we feel about it? (notes on the emotional characteristics of the lesson, speculations about students’ emotional response to critical incidents)
  • What does all that mean? (hypothesising about the reasons for certain behaviour resulting in observed critical incidents and general critical tendencies)
  • What comes out of it? (ideas for future changes based on the observations, interpretation and analysis of this class)

Finally, my journal partner would read the entry information and leave 3-5 questions on average, all of which would be related to the events that I described, to my emotional perception of the class, offering with his questions new angles of considering the issues.

DISCUSSION

In the second week of the course, the students’ performance coupled with the general feel of the learning environment raised a number of issues that both constituted and blurred the focus of observations. While I would like to focus this article on my attempts to remedy three major problems that the students encountered (namely, the use of Japanese, persistent confusion, and difficulties building rapport), it is worth mentioning that the initial list of challenges I found myself faced with was quite substantial. Based on the overwhelming quantity of various challenges that the class presented, in week 3 of the course I came up with a preliminary list of ways to employ in order to fix these issues: help students in discussion time as needed; reduce student speaking time for fluency activity; reduce instructional teacher talking time to a minimum; focus on the communication skills, specifically on checking understanding and negotiating the meaning; be firm about Japanese use; proceed at a slower pace than usual.

As the course progressed, at different times there arose opportunities to implement this or that measure from the list, however it proved impossible and not always necessary to do so consistently. In the next part of this article I would like to give a more detailed overview of the actions taken on the three classroom challenges that, from my perspective as a teacher, most notably affected the learning process for this group of students.

In the first classes of the term the use of Japanese presented a big problem. A few students insistently kept resorting to Japanese during most stages of the lesson, either to painlessly and quickly communicate the meaning of their ideas, or to sort out tasks, or to ease the discomfort of having to have discussions in English. My immediate response was to be openly strict about it: in the beginning of class  I wrote simple, clear class goals on the board (something I didn’t normally do), one of which stated the need to “speak 100% English.” Explicitly bringing their attention to the shared goal seemed to help minimize the use of Japanese and there was no acute need to continue this practice on a regular basis. However, as the course progressed, an interesting pattern started to emerge: when the students were instructed to speak solely in English, the atmosphere in the classroom grew increasingly tense and stifled. As soon as they felt a “permission” to discuss certain things in Japanese, they could feel visibly more relaxed and communicate more actively. Noticing that, I decided to change my attitude towards the use of the mother tongue in this particular group. If their feeling of ease and comfort, or rather a lack of such, was what consistently prevented a satisfactory learning environment, then I as a teacher should provide an opportunity for that ease and comfort to happen. With this in mind, I loosened my rules and stopped aggressively promoting an “English only” classroom. Ample time was given to negotiate the meanings and clarify tasks before beginning the speaking activities in English, because the students needed this zone of comfort and benefitted from it in the end. Interestingly, by the end of the term the few students who were usually the most frequent and energetic Japanese speakers in the class, started to “police”  each other and remind of “English” only rule without my explicit commentary on that matter.

Another recurrent issue specific of this class was their confusion over tasks and provided instructions. By confusion I mean, for instance, being silent for 30-40 seconds at the beginning of fluency practice, test phase of presentation stage, or practice activities. Although confusions would appear at the beginning or during 10 and 16-minute discussions as well (not knowing how to proceed with the discussion flow, misinterpreting discussion questions or another student’s communicative intentions, etc), most often the first 30-45 minutes of class would create most pauses and, for me,  subsequent breakdowns in the lesson plan. It was easy to observe that the factual timing for activities rarely coincided with the planned range – some activities took much longer, so I had to cut others short, every lesson looking for a compromise and being stressed about not meeting my goals. Halfway through the course I came to one simple way of dealing with this issue. The core problem was the mismatch between the standard timing of the lesson stages and this group’s own learning flow. Through trial and error a few ways of dealing with this problem were proven valuable, such as: (1) modelling activities with students as much as possible instead of providing instructions, not harbouring expectations that the students would jump into a speaking activity straight away; (2) presenting the target language and desired related interactions in a heavily scaffolded way on the whiteboard and leaving it there for the duration of the whole class, noticing that they refer to it for help. Additionally, the students in this group were given a sufficient amount of time for them to figure out by themselves in both Japanese and English how to approach a certain activity. A crucial shift in attitude happened thanks to the journalling experience, which enabled me to take a distanced look at what was happening when the students were pressed for time. I saw the benefits of not only adjusting my teaching methods but also, on a personal level, of being more patient with their uncertainties. When the partners in a speaking activity fell silent, I was more prepared to wait for them to figure out what comes next before jumping to their rescue. They needed more time to start and I was prepared to give them that time. One very important result of analysing this observation was my conclusion that starting the timer did not necessarily mean the start of discussion with that particular group of students but more of a sign to start organizing themselves.

Finally, a crucial issue that bothered me in the case of this particular class was the rapport among the students and that with the teacher. The tension regarding interpersonal interactions and relationships exhibited a tangible mismatch of personalities, reluctance to communicate and thus develop a learning community. Building the rapport with the students and among students proved to be the most challenging task aggravated also by the fact that the majority of the learners did not talk to each other even in Japanese prior to the start of the lesson, often sat in silence in between tasks during class, did not look at me when being addressed or work together when instructed to combine efforts for some review activities. This was my first encounter with such seemingly shy, disengaged, and disinterested behaviour, especially disheartening since I always seek a certain level of personal connection with learners. As my journal partner pointed out in one of his questions, it was difficult to know how much the students themselves were actually looking to connect with me. The involvement of my colleague by way of asking questions without being personally emotionally invested in this teaching experience once again triggered an important shift in attitude towards this problem. I was reminded of the true significance of a teacher’s affectivity that concerns “‘intergroup behaviour’ in the classroom, the smooth functioning of which relies on teacher empathy” (Benesch 2012, p.8). That said, subconsciously labelling this group as troublesome, challenging and “strange” forced me to see our classes through the blurred lens. I became overly confused, annoyed and frustrated when these learners couldn’t perform the way other students did. I started taking precautions against activities that would put them in the zone of discomfort (such as eliciting ideas from them or activating schemata for the class topic by asking the whole class some questions in the beginning of class). After writing (and later interpreting) detailed notes describing both interactions and emotions they brought about, I slowly came to realize that part of the reason the class instilled discomfort and fear in me was my own predisposition towards it. At some point I was ready to admit that I had become more anxious about teaching them than they probably were of having to maintain English discussions. Labelling a whole group of students as not interested in each other might have affected their communication with me, too, as I was intentionally avoiding the communicative situations that I placed as challenging for them but which were, in fact, uncomfortable for me.

CONCLUSION

Reflective journalling, especially when carried out  in collaboration with like-minded peers and on a regular basis, can offer unexpected strategies for handling the seemingly unsolvable critical incidents that arise in any teacher’s classroom. The case described in this article highlighted once again three vital truths about a language classroom that are easily forgotten in the attempts to create a perfectly functioning classroom and a “fun” learning environment:

  1. A classroom is more complex than we imagine or are used to thinking, and this becomes even more vivid when many issues surface. Teachers should always remember that a classroom is, first and foremost, the people in it – learners and a teacher, with their distinct personalities and histories, which affect a communicative learning environment greatly.
  2. In this complexity, emotions play a big part and teachers should both take them into consideration and distance themselves from their effect.
  3. Finally, it is the teacher who is responsible for establishing the rapport. Students, at least from my experience working in Japan, might be happy to follow their teacher’s lead but will likely not initiate building the connection.

In the future, I would like to keep these in mind before deciding to “fix” the issues. A way to make the learning experience work both for students and the teacher is to see students for what they are as a whole and teach people in the class, not only the target language of the course. It is important to step back and take a reflective, as well as reflexive, look at what makes the challenging classroom challenging in the first place.

REFERENCES

Benesch S. (2012). Considering emotions in critical English language teaching. Theories and Praxis. New York, NY & London: Routledge Taylor & Francis.

Farrell, T.S.C. (2016). TESOL, a profession that eats its young! The importance of reflective practice in language teacher education. Iranian Journal of Language Teaching Research, 4(3), 97-107.

Farrell, T.S.C (2007). Reflective Language Teaching. From Research to Practice. London: Continuum.

Kolb, D. A. (1984). Experiential learning: Experience as the source of learning and development. New Jersey: Prentice-Hall.

Mercer, S. (2005-6). Using Journals to Investigate the Learner’s Emotional Experience of the Language Classroom,  Estudios de linguistica Inglesa Aplicada (ELIA), 6, 63 – 91.

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No blog no more, I think I know why

I absolutely love it when reading academic articles takes a sudden turn, hits just the right cord – and I see in a new light what I was struggling to see or explain for a long time.

Reading Sarah Mercer’s article on the complexity of learner agency. Slowly, I get to understand that learner agency is a system of factors related to and determining  the learner’s capacity to act, language learning wise. In short, what makes me the learner that I am, at any given time, is a complicated universe of its own. Of my own parameters, that are, inconveniently for researchers, always changing. “Everything within the system is in the constant state of flux.” Mark that.

Page 52, the place of self-beliefs in the system. That’s when I am struck by the memory of a certain summer about 10 years ago, an experience I always, without failure, give to my students as an example when I want to address the importance of constant language practice.

It was too obvious but I was too young to see it coming. For the whole of the summer I did not touch a single English book (or textbook). I did not use the Internet in/for English back then so social media, movies, news was out of the question. As a result, the memory of my first class back in the university that September is still very fresh. Well, the excruciating pain of it. I could not make a sentence come out of my mouth! All the words I needed – and I knew I’d known! – were all but gone, just a faint trace left behind to tease me. I simply could not remember the vocabulary I had used in classes 2 months before. I felt humiliated, tricked by my own conscious.

Since that summer, I can safely say I made sure I’ve had English in my life every day, in this or that form.  So what, you might ask?

Here’s where this is going. Since I moved to Japan a little over 2 years ago, I have lamented my deceased blogging not once. The feeling of unfulfillment, failure to reach my own standards, inability to string myself up to WRITE… in general, being unhappy with both my writing and non-writing. These have kept me a prisoner in my own mind. And now reading the article, it struck me. The fundamental, unspoken reason why I blogged so feverishly and passionately was that it was my English practice. The practice channel that I could sustain independently. The language companion I could rely on at 2 am in the morning, my typical writing time of that life I had in Moscow. While I had a few hours of English classes to teach on most weekdays, my reality was all but English. So I unconsciously created my own self-regulated syllabus. It was an all-skills course:

  • extensive reading – always a book by my side;
  • watching movies, shows, and TED talks;
  • speaking in the classes I taught – and in the tweets, blog comments, Facebook threads;

Finally, there was the much loved writing. This blog.

So why did it all have to change in Japan? It didn’t all change, in fact, just the writing part somehow. My shallow self-analysis tells me that what would otherwise be the content of my blog posts, became topics for easily available discussions at my workplace. Suddenly, my colleagues are speaking English to me. The particular concerns of the class and the day are poured out on that same day. And then, the vessel is emptied. The mind is relieved. The hand pushes the laptop aside and takes to the coloured pens.

C’est la vie.

 

A book hoarder that I am, I keep buying the titles about writing. Books about the struggles of writers, their personal styles of managing and shaping the creative process and making it work, these fascinate and draw me in. They fill me with hope and excuses. Remember, everything is in the constant state of flux.

 

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Articulated beliefs

“Methods are of little interest” 

L.G. Kelly

I entered my current job with what could be called an average (for an English teacher in Russia) academic background – 5 years at an English Philology department of a pedagogical university – and approximately ten years of teaching experience. In those years, I taught in a variety of classrooms, from General English courses in a small private comprehensive school to an ESP course for Physics majors at a renowned Russian university. Yet, in that range of contexts, over the years, I did not deliberately consider the principles of Communicative Language Teaching when planning my classes. What I did in the classroom was not determined by any particular methodologies but rather by course goals, suggested materials (in the more rigidly structured workplaces that I had to work), and, more recently and importantly, by my students’ needs.

Were I to discuss the “best” ways to teach, I would state without hesitation that these ways, if they even exist, are not wisdoms encapsulated in methods. In fact, methods are nothing without contexts and the teachers and students that constitute these individual contexts. In this way, I am ready to confess that my teaching has been, knowingly or unknowingly, method-free. My teaching beliefs do not originate in methods but rather have developed from my own experience learning foreign languages, from my teaching experience, from professional discussions with colleagues teaching English in various contexts in different countries, and from attending and presenting at ELT conferences.

Below I would like to introduce and comment in a little more detail on the teaching beliefs about learning languages that I value the most, hold true, and attempt to apply, in this or that form, in my lessons. 

  • Language learning should be centered in human nature. Language learning, above all, is a social activity. The people in a classroom are the most significant elements to the learning and teaching that takes place and their interaction determines the quality of classroom experiences. The emotional “bridge” of a connection between students and a teacher, the rapport that is gradually and mutually established, both students’ and teacher’s motivation and involvement in learning process and class activities – these are top priorities and necessary conditions underlying successful learning environments.
  • A language classroom should have plenty of room for flexibility and spontaneity. I see language as more than an entity encompassing combinations of vocabulary chunks and grammar structures, but rather as our interaction with the world in real time. Dogme as sort of a teaching philosophy, in which the central idea is teaching from students’ emergent needs and limiting the reliance on ready-made materials, has been one of the most beneficial influences on my teaching style for the past four years in all of my classrooms.  
  • Writing is a necessary, even crucial skill in language learning. Writing helps and reinforces speaking as it provides sufficient time and focus for organizing thoughts, structuring language both in form and content. Overall, consistent and varied writing experience improves language learning in aspects other than writing itself.
  • Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process and it is a teacher’s job to equip learners with tools for reflection, such as portfolios, learning logs of different types, a chance to co-construct a syllabus, etc. Students need to be aware of what they are doing for their learning in and out of the classroom and why, as well as consider the ways to improve their learning experience and results. Reflection in a systematic way may ensure progress and consistently high levels of motivation.

It might be argued that a few of the aforementioned beliefs could lead to somewhat unstructured classes in which it would be an additional challenge for both a teacher and students to chart progress. While this has sometimes been the case, I have always managed to find balance, remain on track, or adjust initial study plans. I consider myself fortunate to have taught in working environments that allowed me, to a large extent, to practice what I preach and experiment with new ideas. Consequently, my view of language learning as a social, emotionally engaging process that benefits from being, in a sense, unsystematic was confirmed time and again through positive feedback from my students.

During the FEELTA-AsiaTEFL conference held in Vladivostok in July 2016, in his presentation “What drives your classroom teaching?” Dr. Philip Chappell suggested a framework for interrogating teaching beliefs for all practicing teachers. His studies have shown that what teachers believe to be true about language learning and teaching and what teachers really do in class can either converge or diverge. For me in my current position, the dramatic change that this new teaching context brought about for my behavior in class makes more transparent than ever the converging and especially diverging nature of my current teaching practices and my own beliefs. For the sake of clarity, I will classify the beliefs I’ll be talking about into the following three types:

  • converging beliefs – previously held principles that match with my current teaching practice;
  • diverging beliefs – previously held principles that clash with my current teaching practice;
  • emerging beliefs – principles that arose from my current teaching practice.

Converging Beliefs

Language learning should be a conscious, reflective process. From the first lesson in my new job, I could see the significance and potential of using suggested self-assessment lists. The idea of allocating time during class for students to make a reflective pause, analyze their performance, and set their personal goals for the next stage in class (or future lessons) accordingly appealed to me. For every lesson in the term I was using my own variation of a self-check list with every group of students, redesigning it as needed, and developing it to suit my students’ needs as I saw them. New versions of self-check lists incorporated more than the original ticking of the boxes for the used target language: the reflection included gap-fills to assess their own strengths and weaknesses, questions to ask and answer in pairs, and questions to reflect on group discussion performance.

Although the implementation of this way of self-assessment has proven to be quite effective with the majority of students, in the future I would like to bring this reflection to a new level by experimenting with a more extended reflective dialogue. It might include open-ended questions for student-student discussion and/or micro-writing reflective activities for a teacher-student dialogue.

Diverging Beliefs

Language learning should be centered in human nature. In his book “50 Ways to Be a Better Teacher: Professional Development Techniques” Chris Mares suggests that “…we should not only be sensitive to each student in their individuality and entirety, but we should also treat the class as a community that requires nurturing. In this way, the teacher is an integral part of a shared experience, rather than simply a director of activities… Last semester, for what could be the first time in my teaching career I felt very strongly like a director of activities. This “director” leads students through the stages of any given lesson towards expected results step by step, task by task, without an odd minute to pause, breathe, acknowledge the people in the classroom, their moods, needs, real-life problems, and their possible impact on the performance. By the middle of the term I realized that I had failed to establish the quality of rapport that would be satisfactory and in accordance with the expectations that I have of myself as a teacher. A relationship between a class and a teacher takes time to develop (especially so here in Japan, to my observations), but with the rigid plan to stick to at all costs, the very notion and necessity of building a relationship slipped from the area of my priorities, which had quite a negative emotional influence on me. In the first half of the semester there was a significant shift of focus for me, both intentionally and unconsciously, from the people in the classroom to the plan to follow to the letter, from the learning that was taking place to the plan I was/am to follow to the letter. In the next semester I plan to pay more deliberate attention to the process of building and nurturing a community with every group of students that I teach. I will try to remember to communicate more openly and willingly. I will try to remember to acknowledge my students as individuals to empathize and connect with, not merely as recipients of instruction, no matter how student-centered it is.    

Emerging Beliefs

Consistency breeds success. The idea that for most teachers must come as a self-evident matter of course was quite a powerful realization for me: language learners benefit greatly from learning with consistency, learning within a clear system. I have mentioned before that one of the ways my personal teaching beliefs affected my teaching practice in the past was a rather fluid, unstructured, emergent nature of the courses I taught. Last semester, teaching in the *very structured* way I had not taught before, I could observe a tangible, huge improvement most students made in meeting the course goals, and I was convinced.   

While I still hold on to my firm belief that methods are secondary in the success on the path of learning a foreign language, the past four months of teaching gave me an important opportunity to reconsider my beliefs by “doing it another way.” It has certainly been a most eye-opening experience to teach against and in spite of ingrained beliefs. Such an experience, as I have learnt, can be liberating given the right attitude and perspective. Beliefs are not or do not have to be postulates rigidly regulating our teaching behavior and choices for the whole length of our careers. In fact, a lot more can be learnt from the exact opposite context of what we are accustomed to than from persisting in teaching the same way for years on end.

*****

Thank you for making your way through this article to the end. What you’ve read is about 73% (also slightly edited) of my self-reflection “paper” that I was preparing myself for writing in the previous blog post. It was not easy to identify those beliefs but I can recommend anyone to sit down and do so.

And I am thinking now… it is true that we as teachers should be open to change and learning what we can from it. But we should also stay true to who we are, no matter what conditions we find ourselves working in.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

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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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It will get better, it always does.

***** Part 1. Frustration. *****

  1. Write.

  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.

  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.

 

This is the procedure I haven’t been through for quite some time, at least in a way I would find satisfying, for the writing I would consider coming from my heart. And I want to know why, because it is devastating to my soul and literally makes me feel sick. In these months, everytime I traced a thought worth being expanded in a post, I opened the blog and saved the notes, or more often the title, in a draft. I then stared at the blank screen of the new post, blankly. The right word would not be found. One word would not follow another. My mind would drift away, unwilling to witness the shrinking of self-esteem. For whatever excuses my mind would gratify me with, paragraphs would simply not form. This fact undoubtedly adds to my adjustment to living in Japan, and by “adds” I mean aggravates it. Writing in the staff room is not possible as I cannot hear my thoughts. Writing at home is not happening as I am exhausted of the heat and mental pressure of the day, so all I can force myself to do is mindless cooking, watching endless shows on ororo.tv, or colouring mandalas. Considering my *ridiculous* dream to one day wake up a regular contributor to a magazine, a columnist, and/ or eventually a writer, the situation I’ve landed in, well, in one word, sucks.

WRITE. The word keeps ringing in my head. It is unbearable as I know I will suffer through the process and with every minute I will spend racking my brains for words, I will hate myself more and more.

 

***** Part 2. Drowning. *****

The term is over, students are gone, school is empty, my day at work is anything I make of it. So I started reading, as I see it one of the major reasons why my wrtitng does not tick anymore. First, I got back to reading The Tale That Wags but I can only read at home in the comfort of my bed, which seems to be the most welcoming area in my apartment. At work I turned to reading the blog posts I missed, the iTDi Blog issues, and the brainpickings. A more thorough look through my Facebook feed led me to this page. Reading Malcolm Gladwell’s essays got me all warmed up inside once again, as I returned to imagining my own writing on the digital pages of The New Yorker some day. Laugh all you can and scoff at the daring, one can dream.

The most extraordinary, shocking thing happened- I realized my eyes slip line over line, not concentrating, drifting further and further away, hands clasping mobile phone suddenly and unnecessarily. What is happening??! Reading brings about just as much pain as writing. Trying to balance the unbalanced, reading to revive writing, I ended up drowning.

 

***** Part 3. Questionable wisdoms. *****

Desperate in my search for reasons I fall through with my attempts to write successfully in Japan, one click after another and I found myself on this page, where Stephen King details everything one needs to know to write successfully. So here’s what disturbed me:

 

4. Remove every extraneous word

You want to get up on a soapbox and preach? Fine. Get one and try your local park. You want to write for money? Get to the point. And if you remove all the excess garbage and discover you can’t find the point, tear up what you wrote and start all over again . . . or try something new.

5. Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft

You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule. You think you might have misspelled a word? O.K., so here is your choice: either look it up in the dictionary, thereby making sure you have it right – and breaking your train of thought and the writer’s trance in the bargain – or just spell it phonetically and correct it later. Why not? Did you think it was going to go somewhere? And if you need to know the largest city in Brazil and you find you don’t have it in your head, why not write in Miami, or Cleveland? You can check it … but later. When you sit down to write, write. Don’t do anything else except go to the bathroom, and only do that if it absolutely cannot be put off.

 

The questions I asked myself and found my answers unsettling:

Would my writing have a point after the excess garbage is removed?

Would I “impress” anyone (most importantly myself) should I choose to not look for better, more suitable words in thesaurus?

Will I ever be content with my vocabulary?

What’s my problem with sitting down to write and just writing?

Why is it that my brain hates me so these days?

 

***** Concluding complaints thoughts. *****

I feel hurt by my own self. Not same as guilty, but causing myself true pain – all because I can’t seem to do what my whole being craves. I struggle to transform my daily classroom and life experiences into letters and words on page.

I feel jealous of people blogging incessantly. I feel down I cannot find the right words.

I keep losing faith in myself.

I am not publishing this post to attract attention or fish for head-patting. I am not finding more excuses, rather spilling the heart and pain in it (which is real and tangible) on the page, in no hopes it cures or magically causes catharsis.

It is so different now, and while I’ve certainly settled down in my routine both at home and at work, this one aspect is my daily torture. I do not clear the bar I set myself.

 

Yeah, it will get better.

 

Thanks for reading.

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A bizarre case against nice colleagues

I was wandering around a park in Tokyo today and my mind was filled with … nothing. It was, in fact, not a bad feeling since I could enjoy the moment, uninterrupted. This is what I’ve been facing lately, still much to my regret and frustration – absolute lack of a connected stream of thoughts in my brain, a trace of something that could lead me to writing. I’ve written two blog posts since I got to Japan, which is more than 2 months already. As it goes, I’ve given myself excuses:

(1) This new life is exhausting to both my body and brain. I simply cannot muster up enough energy for writing, much as I want to.

(2) Speaking English all day long, as well as actually being social all day long, is way beyond my endurance. I want to seal my mouth (figuratively) as I step out of school.

(3) I’m getting less and less confident of my English speaking, let alone writing ability. I don’t read much, which also has a negative effect. I’ve often felt down for those reasons.

(4) With this new lifestyle I can’t afford nighttime writing anymore. Since that type of writing has been found most fruitful and fulfilling for me, the shift of regime for writing, a new habit has not yet developed (to be honest, I don’t even know where to start building it).

Today I’ve been hit by Excuse number 5. It can be an interesting and unusual answer to my pains and struggles, an unfair treatment, or  just a nonsensical supposition that tomorrow will look bizarre. In any case, I’m going to blame my colleagues.

Did you just sniff? Raise your eyebrows? Did you jump straight ahead into judging me? That’s understandable. Yet there is some truth to what I just typed.

 

As I’ve written before, I consider this new job to be the first real experience of working in a team, shoulder to shoulder with colleagues. I used to teach a class and commute to another one, replaying scenes from the lesson in my mind, typing out my thoughts on the phone, talking to and questioning myself. I had long stopped labelling myself as a “lonely teacher” since I have this astounding and precious online community on Facebook, Twitter and blogs. It’s more support and wisdom than any staff room could offer. Actually sometimes more than I can handle without being overwhelmed, but that’s the beauty of the online staff room – it hurts no one if you shut it down (since it is literally just the browser closed). Anyway, here, this blog used to be the place to talk teaching and life for me.

Now what? I teach a class, go down the stairs, flop into my chair and … talk about this class. Out loud, to my colleagues, who listen and empathize, nod and join me in breaking the lesson down to little pieces. I vent, speculate, describe, reflect, and think of alternatives for my next class. I share funny moments and uncomfortable moments. I think out loud and learn to listen. And in the evening, as I walk home, all that fills my mind is … nothing. All that is left on my blog is the titles of drafts, those clever paragraphs I could have written.

About classes which went wrong and made the teacher shrink inside.

A letter to this teacher’s older teacher self.

A message to students about the things the teacher will not promise to do.

About n things that the colleagues (who we are still blaming)) taught me this week.

About n things that the students taught me this week.

About a training day with John Fanselow.

About 9 towns of Russia.

About my decision to go to teach in Japan and people’s reactions to it.

 

 

 

Of course, I don’t seriously blame anyone. I do feel bitter about missing the mark.

If you can, give me 5 counter-excuses, powerful enough to send me to face the keyboard…

 

Thank you for reading.

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Paragraph 2. A year on, still writing.

This paragraph blogging style is liberating and infectuous. It’s just my hunch that it might help me turn my many drafts into actual paragraphs some day. For now, here’s this sequel to the post from a year ago. I recommend you read it first, it’s short, light and will entertain you with three images.

 

 

 

*****

In this year that has passed by only too fast, we’ve talked about any number of topics a teenager could be interested in and could have something to say about. If you’re interested in particulars, we’ve talked about our families and relationships within these families; about our personal dreams and why they were these particular dreams; about my work and her school life; about friends; about how I became a teacher. We’ve talked about movies, literature, traveling, reading, writing, music, talents, and goals. I have been trying my best to keep the flames of the conversation burning, always noting something she could pick upon and develop. I asked questions not because I was a teacher who wanted to see her use of Complex Object or target language. I opened up myself and welcomed her to do the same, as much as she’d feel comfortable to. Emotions filled the pages, displaying sincerety, pointed out by exclamation marks. ……… “I shall never cease to marvel…” As my eyes stared at this turn of a sentence she used in one of her recent letters for a good couple of minutes , something clicked. Last week I asked the girl in my regular letter in the journal to sift through all of her *12* letters to me and notice any kind of progress. That’s what I got to read in response (note: this is an unedited, genuine piece of teenage writing): “I think my writing has improved a little bit. … Because earlier I always sat with an interpreter and tried to translate your letter and then sat and looked for many words to write a response to you. Now it became much easier. I translate from your letters up to 5-7 words and when I wrote too I looked in the dictionary very little.”

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She sometimes excuses herself for writing too little, a mere page. Just keep writing, I say. Some people blog no more than a mere paragraph and are not in the least ashamed of it.

 

Thanks for reading.

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A very interesting post about blogs, bloggers and their blogging.

Now I’m feeling something. Something of a nerve to write a messy piece about many things at once.

 

Thing number one, about blogging habits.

In her recent post Zhenya Polosatova asked her readers the questions that brought about a storm of responses, both in the comments and as separate blog posts. It’s amazing just how easily *some* bloggers are drawn into analysing their blogging ways, how excited they get. Well to say “they” would be wrong since I’m normally the very first in that eager line. Here’s my short (see Thing number two) take on the topic.

Last year my blogging habits underwent quite an upheaval. I blogged in a cafe, on a beach, on the floor, in a train station, on a couch, on a bench in the park, on a tatami mat (at home at my desk being the habit). I blogged with people and alone (which is the habit). I blogged both in daytime and nighttime (the latter being the habit). I posted without liking my writing (… liking or disliking can’t be called “a habit” I reckon))). I blogged about teaching and about things far from it.

I really don’t know what else I can do. All in all, I’m more than pleased with how my blogging is developing and I feel desire and energy to proceed the way that will feel right. One new ritual I’m looking forward to establishing this year is going through my WP Reader once a week to balance my blog reading. Hope to see you there.

 

Thing number two, which tries to devalue part of Thing number one.

I can’t believe I’ve just written the above first thing! Because in fact it makes me sick to realize just how much I write about myself and my relationship with my writing. Seriously, look:

In this post I say I blog for my own pleasure but hope for shifts in the classroom. Then in no time I come up with a follow-up which is 800 more words about blogging and writing. Here I keep mentioning myself and my plans for writing in what some say are most powerful parts of a blog post – opening and closing paragraphs. If you need more proof of how obsessed I am with writing about (my) writing, don’t hesitate to look here, check this out and click this link.

First I wanted to make a difference. Then I turned into an ego-busting persona. Hedonism? I’m *possibly* done with it. At least with the part which whispers to me that it can be interesting to anyone to go on reading after my “I think that…” At the moment I think that I could think of writing something more exciting.

 

Thing number three, about us Russians.

I am, just like Vedrana Vojkovich here, continuously stunned as I check my blog stats and see that the overwhelming majority of my readers are from Russian Federation. Who are you?! I know a few and I am grateful to them for being ever supportive, plus last year several times my former students left a line or two and it felt great. Otherwise, I am unaware of names and faces of my ghost Russian readership. In any case, everybody is most welcome.

There is yet another, far more critical point to be covered in this part. Russian and Russian-speaking ELT bloggers. A little pre-story: a while ago, in my more energetic Twitter years, I created a public list EFLRussia which I updated with handles of Russian teachers of English who I happened to come across on Twitter (70 now). I haven’t done that for over a year and I’m sure there must be many new faces to be added (my confidence comes from seeing quite a lot of people tweeting at annual E-merging Forums). The situation with the blogs was different. I’m talking about blogs that Russian(-speaking) teachers of English would run in English, so they could be accessed by teachers from the world over. Fortunately, there are now interesting, thoughtful, different blogs that I irregularly follow and will now share the links to here:

iamlearningteaching by Ekaterina Makaryeva aka @springcait

The aforementioned Zhenya Polosatova aka @ZhenyaDnipro and her Wednesday Seminars

Elserga ELT by Elizabeth Bogdanova

ELT Diary by Alexandra Chistyakova aka @AlyaAlexandra

TeachingEnglishNotes by Svetlana Urisman

 

That’s about it. If you happen to know of any other blogs that fit the Russian category, please do share, even if that’ll shamelessly be your own)

One last bit, which is my sincere wish. I wish the following three people started to blog:

Fatima Baste, who has a blog in Russian and also writes about a million things in captions to her pictures on Instagram: languages, teaching, culture, trends, psychology, ideas. Thoroughly enjoyable, entertaining, and educational, so I’m quite certain Fatima should start a blog in English =)))

Masha Andrievich, whose Instagram gives a peek into fragments of her teaching at own school (right?) and her learning (DELTA?). I’d love to have a #livebloggingparty one day, when she starts her blog. =)

Ludmila Malakhova, who is a fantastic lady from Yekaterinburg that I had a real pleasure to meet twice at the Forum I mentioned earlier and who suppported me in a very indecisive time with just the right words.

 

Thing number four, untitled for lack of creativity.

In connection with the previous part, there’s a story back from March 2014. Ludmila reached me and asked to participate online in the teacher training she was doing on-site in Yekaterinburg. That was my first (and only) suchlike experience, and in Russian! For 15-20 minutes I talked to a group of teachers sitting several thousand km away from me, and I talked about Facebook and blogs for English teachers’ PD. It was, as you might understand, a brief and general introduction and of course I am not at all sure what impact it eventually had on the participants, practically, if any. However, it was remarkable to me that the teachers sounded mildly interested and asked me post-session questions, such as:

Which blogs do you follow?

How do you find these blogs in the first place?

There are so many, how do you keep up?

Which platform would you recommend to start own blog?

Should we blog in English or Russian?

All these questions. One might think it’s not a topic that could be conference session worthy: too simple, no activities-interactivities, limited feel of innovation. Yet I’m thinking of doing it. There are so many aspects of online ELT community that I’ve grown to take for granted that it’s easy to forget some of these things still may be new or interesting. Even if a plain session on ELT blogging the way I experience it will not lead to a massive influx of Russians into this particular blogosphere, I’ll personally have a fun time spreading the word about you and your blog… =) What do you think of this idea? It’s a shame the Forum AGAIN does not give a chance to talk/ learn about the things I’m interested in by adding Professional Development strand. (Can it possibly be Russian EFL teachers are NOT interested in PD and the Forum organisers go by some survey results?..)

 

Thing number five, Final Thing, or the Thing of Importance.

It’s been on my mind lately. Namely, from December 2nd.

What else can we, English teachers who are united by ELT blogging addiction, blog about?

I took immense pleasure in taking culture notes in my travels and then publishing this post, as well as other, exclusively personal posts that I had out during my time in Asia. I was thrilled to NOT have it in my mind to make any connections to teaching/ learning, because frankly, I don’t believe a teacher should always, at all times in all situations think about his/ her classes. And while I’m sure we/ you all have our interests that might or might not be reflected in the classes we/ you teach, I don’t really know much about them. I do imagine, though, that there are words to be put into long beautiful/ eloquent/ funny/ witty/ touching  etc sentences.

 

What would you blog about if not ELT? 

 

Thank you for reading and, of course, – happy blogging =)

 

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More about 30 questions

So I blog sporadically here and there (and there) but this particular emerging space is my comfort hub. There’s no, or little if ever, sense of a critical eye frowning over what I post on these pages, which fact makes me feel free to blabber my way from month to month, all through the year into the next. Namely, into Orthodox Christmas day 2015, right into this post about how I asked myself and my students 30 questions.

 

***** Taking personal (and a personal journal) into class *****

 

As much as I’d like to fantasize about myself being special, I really am no different. Every end of the year I look both back and ahead to come up with reflections and resolutions that are then shaped into something on paper. These have been lists, mindmaps, structured passages, incoherent passages, questions and answers. Well, frankly speaking, this is the first time the year analysis came round as answers to 30 questions. You can find the questions themselves in this post I just wrote for TeachingEnglish Blog, and to make your life even simpler here’s an extract from that post to shed some light:

 

In the end of December I decided to do a certain exercise that I’d found on the Psychologies mag webpage (here’s the link, but I feel the need to warn you that the page is in Russian). The idea of this exercise is to help you shape your reflections of the year by asking yourself 30 questions. These questions were picked by the author of the article from the book “My 5 years. 365 questions, 1825 answers.”

 

Unimportant note with a possibly more useful link: after 2 minutes of googling and finding this page for the English (original?) version of the diary book, I realized I’d seen it before. Josette LeBlanc would know where =)

 

As I was thinking, smoothly and effortlessly retrieving the highlights of my year, and methodically writing my way through the questions, I saw this as a perfect task for my class. The following day the following class happened:

* Students (2 girls in their twenties) and I worked together on translating the 30 questions from Russian into English. The task was good for their level, but more importantly, it was a useful time to collect their thoughts for the future answers.

* The task assigned was to pick any 3 questions to talk about; any other 2 questions to write about; 1 more question to ask their partner and ensure some dialogue happens. As I’d brought my journal into class, they could see I’d already answered a few questions myself and kept writing as they were writing. Initially, I had not planned to actually share my answers or participate in the 3-2-1 task but I had no problem doing so when they invited me to.

 

Then we ate gingerbread cookies that I’d cooked and brought, drank cherry tea and were off for holidays, more deserved for the students than for this idle travelling teacher this term. The class was as pleasant and smooth as I’d seen it to be, but the most exciting thing was to find the impact of it in my Instagram feed right on New Year’s Eve. One of these students tagged me in a long post she’d written there (in Russian)), which summed up her reflections of this, important for her, year. It was the first long Instagram caption (post, I insist!) for her, and of this sort, and she mentioned that our class had inspired this. It was undoubtedly the best present and, in plain honest words, – just made me feel happy and even somewhat special for a fleeting second.

 

That’s all that happened. It took me 2 more days to finish my 30 questions which, in fact, did not cover most significant points and shifts in my own year 2014. It was a truly special year and parts of it I have been sharing in this space throughout the year. I will continue to do so with no promise of my posts to be solely about teaching. In the meantime and to finish the first post 2015, here are three of my *23* resolutions for this new promising year, accompanied by 1 image:

1. I will try to write one blog post or an article once a week (“What a lame resolution it is”, I thought to myself as I found this new blog project by David Harbinson!).

2. I will try to look for a chance to write freelance for some online magazine. NON-ELT. Challenge of all types – to create more opportunities for writing with deadlines; to see what I can write about if not about English language teaching. It’s a resolution with roots all the way back to my teenage years, you gotta start some time.

3. I will be this (see the picture). In my class and out of it.

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My current personal journal, thanks to Cecilia Lemos, still true 3 years after.

Thanks for reading.

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Who does your language belong to?

Who does my language belong to?

I don’t mean faceless vocabulary that course books are filled with. Here I’m talking about my distress in attempts to claim my own English. That is, are there words that would define my Self in both speaking and writing, the words that would bring colours, wrap up my most mediocre sentences to look nice?..

This thought has long, really long been unsettling for me. I realize in any language I speak or would choose to learn to speak, I’ll be a borrower. I borrow some words for a post or two, and others I never return. At times the realization that this particular word or phrase initially belonged to *name* is almost literally painful.. and the word or phrase is oftentimes dismissed from my list of options to fill the blank.

Just to give you a real feel of what I’m talking about:
I’ll always know swell, lousy and phoney come from Holden Caulfield. Tenterhooks and bated breath from Laura Phelps. With a nonchalant air from a unit in my university course book, year three or something. Scavenge from Morcheeba. On the bandwagon from Kevin Stein. Hubris and listicle from Mike Griffin. Fluid and compassionate from Josette LeBlanc. Lukewarm from an episode of Modern Family. And so on and so forth… books, songs, people own these words in my imagination – because that’s where I first saw them, that’s how they finally got stored in my brain (hopefully, for good).

I may wish to type or say this or that word, because it truly and uniquely fits, but every time I feel like I’m stealing it right out of their mouths. They will know. Everybody will know. It’s just not safe vocabulary for a vain writer. Thesaurus is good at such moments, a true friend.

I’d so much like to cast off those thoughts bugging me but they’re rooted too deeply. I feel like cheating and I’m surely going to be caught red handed.

That is, suddenly, the end to my post. I would like to know if I’m weird and alone in feeling this, or if I’m weird and there’s more of us, pondering the imperfections of acquired language and acquiring language.

*****
Ironically (because this), I’ve bought a guide on creative writing today. I’ve read 7 pages of this book and written 5 pages of my own since then, at a frantic pace. I stopped to think about a certain word choice every now and then, but generally it was a true spasm for writing that I couldn’t hold back. Every line I read found a response in my mind, heart (or chest, to be more anatomically correct regarding the feeling), and pen in hand in the end. And I’ve thought of this commonplace idea that my writing (as well as my speaking?) might be authentically mine through means other than merely words I use.
*****

warning.
Soon this blog might become even less of an ELT-related space than it already is.
But then I never promised consistency.

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