Reflection post-MA and the onward movement

Some of you who know me a bit or have delved in the archives may know that I just finished my MA Applied Linguistics and TESOL (Distance Learning) through University of Portsmouth. Nothing is finalised yet but my work has been marked and in the next couple of months I believe I get a lovely new piece of paper.

Would I do it again? Yes. I loved reading up on stuff I am interested in and then chatting about it. Would my wife let me do it again? Perhaps begrudgingly. There are reasons for her antipathy, none of which are to do with the University of Portsmouth but to do with work-life balance.

My workload (as in paid work) right now is 15 hours university teaching (and does not include planning, preparation or assessment), 16 hours of school teaching, planning, preparation and assessment, and 3 hours thirty minutes of ESP/Business English teaching (not including preparation, planning or assessment). While I was doing my MA, I was teaching 3 to 6 hours less at university but instead teaching 3 hours more Business English, teaching YLs for 7 hours and coordinating YL courses with 2 assigned hours. A colleague told me a couple of weeks ago, “Marc, you should be really proud if you do pass because you have the workload of two full-time lecturers while completing the MA reading and writing.”

I am proud, but I wish I had controlled my work-life balance better, what with having a young son. I also started the MA when I was finishing up the teaching practicum of my Trinity DipTESOL, as well, which was stressful in and of itself. This was not simply unwise but totally stupid and irresponsible. I did all of it by sacrificing family life, mainly by burning the candle at both ends.

Why did I do it, then? I am not a pretty paper collector. I am stuck in a situation where I need money and it needs to go up quite often seeing as I have basically no pension, not really enough savings, and there are social norms in Japan about extra-curricular stuff that costs the kind of kind of money I will probably start to balk at come April. I can talk about the inherent edification of completing work above my comfort zone, and it is a huge factor in what got me through. Learning stuff is fun, kind of. However, I have to at least be a bit utilitarian. MA is basically the new BA. Perhaps I even understate it.

I also work for four different employers, plus myself. I am tired of this. I would love a full-time job that pays a similar amount to my current earnings, after taking into account the social insurance differences and such. Unfortunately, there’s a bit less job security there unless I were to chance upon a tenured position immediately. This is as likely as discovering a magic lamp at the bottom of my bag. However, an MA makes the probability of this at least a sporting chance. It also means that I can move countries if I absolutely have to. It also means that I can advertise my services as that of an expert rather than as a journeyman, and get more money for them. Alternatively, it means I can find better paying part-time work.

Anyhow, studies are finished, kind of. I just have to wait. My dissertation supervisor said in an email, “you should follow up on this research.”

“Hey, let’s move to New Zealand! I’ll do a PhD!” I said, in the mania of knowing I passed everything as opposed to the gnawing fear that I had failed. Also, I am a workaholic, which is definitely not a good thing but a side effect of impulsive decision making.

“Do they have good trains?” my son asked.

“Eh?” asked my wife, with the stoniest stare since Medusa. “No.”

So, not quite that. Instead, I am doing stuff, sort of a long-term research project come side business thing that I hope to use as a PhD by publication in the next few years, to increase the chance of finding a permanent, well-paid, full-time job (don’t laugh, PhD holders; I did say ‘chance’) . Luckily I have good library access with my jobs.

In the meantime, I am trying to find time to transform my dissertation into a research article and figure out how to get my jobs to let me use students as research subjects or else find time to get volunteers for research. Or get the time to try finding a magic lamp.

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“This is gold!”

I’ve been using Saboteur with an adapted Kotoba Rollers framework by James York with my university classes. I want talking with authentic tasks, which games provide. There is also transcription of language used. It isn’t all fun and games though.

In the game, players are either good, hardworking miners or saboteurs. None of the players know the roles of the others but they hardworking miners need to work together to get the gold. The saboteurs need to ensure the pack of cards is exhausted before the treasure cards are reached. There are also action cards such as breaking tools, fixing tools, causing rock falls and checking maps for gold, which may lead to cooperation or subterfuge.

The published rules are a bit tricky to understand. I had set the reading for homework, figuring that if there were a lot of difficulties the students would use dictionaries or Google Translate. This means my students skim read them superficially and did not bother to understand the rules fully before game play. Dictionaries and Google barely got looked at.

However, the rules needed a bit of clarification. This led to some good negotiation of meaning (Long, 1983). There are cards used to destroy the mine path above or break other players’ tools but they weren’t always easily understood.

The transcription is the main part I changed. I ask students to write three parts.

What did your partner say? Did they say it differently to how you would say it? How would you say it?

This has been done pretty well and is usually the best part of my RPG-based classes’ sheets, too.

What communication problems did you have? Why?

This sometimes ends up being a wishy-washy “I need to speak more fluently” but a lot of my students have gone a bit deeper.

If you spoke Japanese, what did you say? How can you say it in English?

This has an obvious function but students do sometimes half-arse it and just use Google Translate one way without checking the translation in a (monolingual) dictionary or Skell.

Still the work got done and there was another game of Saboteur in the following lesson to review. I was satisfied with this little Kotoba Rollers cycle, and so were my students, though I needed to buy 4 lots of the game for my big class.

References

Long, M. (1983) Native speaker/non-native speaker conversation and the negotiation of comprehensible input1. Applied Linguistics, 4 (2) pp. 126–141.

3 home truths about research evidence in TESOL

Research doesn’t affect anything except practice among some university teachers or a small number of school teachers. It does not affect materials to a degree significant enough to affect teachers’ general classroom practices. This is OK; those of us with lab coat envy can feel good about our principles while others can feel good about being in touch with teaching realities.

However slavishly you believe that you follow a method or approach, you’re probably following your interpretation of it rather than something the developer would regard as a practice they prescribed. This is fine because it is also informed by judgment of how the people in the classroom would respond to your methods.

We can talk ourselves blue in the face about IATEFL, but I have met approximately two members of that organisation in the time I have been teaching. For most teachers, IATEFL has as much bearing on our professional life as Paris Spring Collection has on the clothes sold in Topshop. You can choose to enthuse or dissent about points of view expressed there there but your enthusiasm or dissent is irrelevant to most teachers. It is your own, and it affects mainly your own practice.

Managing Monkeys (and Dragons)

Do learners rely too much on teachers to do the ‘heavy lifting’ in the classroom? I’ve had a couple of things happen this week that have had me on this train of thought.

One of my colleagues put me on to Alan Waters’ (1998) article, Managing Monkeys in the ELT Classroom. The monkeys are not learners but the task at hand. Who is dealing with the task, and who should be?

Today, I had a review class with one of my RPG-based classes. It was the worst I have seen them. For a minority of students, when they should have been planning, they were talking about nonsense in Japanese (yes, I eavesdropped). I reset the task, asked to give support, but in the end I can only do so much. Perhaps they thought the task retry was too simple in spite of initially claiming otherwise. Next week, I have students managing proverbial bonobos rather than the capuchins they have had so far: they will control the role playing and the points for the game themselves. They have been given a basic scenario and have to imagine possible events. I shall see what happens next.

Request to change to editable formats on TeachingEnglish.org.uk

letter_to_TEI was on Twitter (and I know I came off: different story) and was involved in a thread with the EL Gazette. I suggested that the status quo of white-centred, unrepresentative materials will never change until OER (Open Educational Resources) become standard.

The EL Gazette’s answer was, the British Council/BBC have open resources (i.e. freely available and copiable) on TeachingEnglish.org.uk . I replied that they are not open because they are not editable. PDFs are a pain to edit. The Gazette urged me and others who share my concerns to contact the British Council and BBC. So I did, through the contact page. Feel free to use my email as a basic template but add your own ideas as you see fit, of course.

To those it may concern

I am writing to suggest a change of file format for the resources on Teaching English. As you may be aware, some teachers are becoming more concerned that the materials they use may not adequately represent or relate to their learners’ lives.

The Teaching English website provides quality materials that teachers can pick and choose from easily; unfortunately, what is useful for one teacher may be less useful for another for reasons of region, context and setting. Bearing this in mind I would like to request that the format of lesson plans and teaching materials on the website be changed from PDF, which is difficult to edit, to another format such as Word document or Powerpoint presentation, which can be opened and edited by a wide range of computer software. This would allow teachers to adapt materials to better suit their learners and also, in turn, result in a likely greater uptake in use of the website’s materials.

I do hope that you bear my request in mind. I look forward to future contact regarding any decisions made.

Yours sincerely

[your name]

The Personal Side of Evidence-Based Practice

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My classroom after laying Post-Its to track where I went and who I monitored.

“Evidence based”. It’s so trendy, it’s science-tastic, you the forensic teacher in CSI (Classroom Sciencey Instruction). How many research papers we have found Open Access, through Sci Hub or requests hashtagging #ICanHazPDF!

It’s not all about reading research. Sometimes it’s more about doing very small-scale research to see what happens. Sometimes using recording media, sometimes just paper and pens.

 

A lot has been written about Action Research by much better brains than me. Anyway, this is a guide to what I might do in a personal action research project.

Gather thoughts

Research for the sake of it is just making work for yourself. What might be better is having a think about what you’d like to understand more about in your classroom(s). Write it down, and keep asking yourself probing questions, for example:

What about this could be a problem?

Is there simply a difference in personal values?

What would do I think is happening? Is this ideal? Is it definitely true?

This is likely to make your findings more compelling to you because they’ll be less superficial and you will understand already what the connections may be to other aspects of your practice.

Design your evidence capture

How you gather your evidence depends upon your classroom and the people in it. You might ask learners to help, or not. You might track your movement, or not. You can use post-it notes to stick in places, on items, etc. You can tally things on paper. You can record yourself on video, audio, or even log your steps taken with a pedometer. What and how you capture it is an important thing and you want accuracy but also ease of use if you don’t have a team (or peer) to help.

Check it before you forget it

You need the time to check your gathered data. Can it be interpreted in more than one way? Which way has most significance for you? It’s likely to suggest further action/intervention or continuing the action you were already doing. If it’s something different, you might need time to prepare and read up on how to do this, or get advice from someone who already does it. Also, keep your information somewhere you can find it. If your new action gets challenged, you want to be able to say why you’re doing it.

More data

As you take your new action/intervention, you may want to write down what happens when you do it, both positive and negative. It may be that any information is not strongly suggestive of anything: rather than stop, give it time or tweak it according to your intuition but write down what you did differently. You might find that the first way was the best way (or not). You might find that this intervention is not as good as what happened before. This is fine, because at least you know that this does not work for me/this class/this situation.

Decide what happens next

This could be a repetition of the same cycle, it could be that you feel you’ve finished it, it could be a return to the status quo. Keep your findings, though. It might be grist for the mill if you or a colleague have a similar train of thought in the future.

You can lead a horse to water…

This is a post that has been fermenting for a while, a lot of it coloured by long-term experience, but much of it much shorter term. The stimulus for getting it out was this great post about teacher beliefs by Mike Griffin.

Teaching EFL can be a weird thing. We look at our classes and wonder about how to make our classes better and reminisce about our students who did something notable. It’s all rather insular. To develop, often we need to see outside, if only to see the inside again but from a different perspective.

Some people don’t want to see the outside, though. Comfort zones are difficult to push through. Unfortunately for me, in one of my teaching situations, my work depends upon somebody who needs to be forcibly removed from their comfort zone.

Harsh, Marc.

Remember this blog started as a mission to make my little freelance corner of TEFL a bit more conducive to being better. Making myself better. I suppose I am lucky in that most people I work with share this orientation. Unfortunately, the one person who doesn’t has a knock-on effect on my work.

I have observed. I have been observed and team-taught. I have supplied a file full of materials and an unwanted copy of The Practice of Teaching English. Yet things have not changed.

We have a grammar syllabus with carrier topics, which I fudge by choosing ‘structure trapping’ tasks (Skehan, 1998). I wouldn’t care if my partner teacher taught PPP, Test-teach-test or even Suggestopaedia. Instead there is a 20-minute warm-up about something strange and unrelated to the topic or grammar of the lesson. It’s highly teacher focused. When the part of the lesson comes to deal with the topic/grammar it basically involves students taking notes in Japanese and resulting in poor output all round. I shall make the point that our remit is speaking and writing, but mainly the former, and all English. There is no effective monitoring of students or elicitation of correct output after error treatment. There is no rationale behind the chaos, just a smile and knowing that this has always seen them through every lesson.

When challenged, my partner gets defensive. “I’m a great teacher!”, “I’m a good person.”, and “The students like me.” have all been used to defend their position.

Myself and another colleague have attempted to engage them in conversation about teaching and learning but this has been shot down. I don’t know if the problematic colleague has any beliefs beyond ‘Students must be motivated’. I would agree to an extent, but how they are motivated by chaotic lessons unrelated to their tests or ordinary situations puzzles me.

I know that teachers have to want to develop but what about if they have to develop but just don’t want to? Help has never been requested, though offered several times. Lesson plans and materials supplied have been ignored in favour of “Which Disney princess should I fight?” and “Do I look more like a cat or a dog?” where ‘I’ is the problematic colleague.

Should I attempt to talk about teaching beliefs and philosophy? I have no idea. I only know I’ve done almost all I can.

References

Skehan, P. (1998). Task-Based Instruction. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 18, 268-286. doi:10.1017/S0267190500003585