Omitting Others? A(nother) case for Dogme

During the last few months and to an extent the last year or so there have been a few bits and bobs about diversity in ELT. Two examples off the top of my head are:

The queering (or actually not) OF ELT materials by Angelos Bollas (talked about at Innovate ELT 2016 and this year’s IATEFL). 

Emily Hird’s post on diversity in ELT materials (by big publishers). 

All of this leads me to believe that one OF the best tools we have at our disposal as teachers is Dogme, going materials light. This gives greater opportunity to go to places prompted by the learners and teachers rather than hem in conversation by implicitly suggesting a norm in a textbook. 

A case in point would be the usual heteronormative, racially homogeneous family tree. One might get into hot water from bosses in very conservative institutions. If the work is learner centred, the basis of learners’ families is the basis of discussion. The way other families are portrayed on TV and in movies often come up in questions. How many learners have divorced parents? Step-siblings? Half-siblings? LGBTQ relatives that are married or living together? Heck, even straight people merely living together is risqué on coursebook land.  That’s just an example of what could come up when talking about one topic.

If you have a diversity problem in your materials, are you sure they aren’t overly simplistic? If they are overly simplistic in diversity, as well as language that learners may require  to meet their communication needs, why are we pussyfooting around the deficiencies of expensive dead trees and not instead boldly using our learners’ lives to teach real life. 

“Are you seriously going to do that?”

I’ve been experimenting with board games in the classroom, sometimes in a bit of an impromptu way.

“Seriously, Marc? Aren’t you anti-game?

No, I’m not; I’m anti time wasting. I’m going to write a bit about things I’ve done with them below. Both, coincidentally, are by Oink Games. They are pocket sized, due to the boards being made up of chips. Both games require collaboration as well as competition, with shifts between both states. 

Troll

This is a game of guessing card values and ‘betting’ on the value in order to gain treasure. It’s simple and addictive. The game works by guessing the value of a Troll card only one player has seen and as a group being lower (or not being the individual or one of a couple of individuals that takes the total over the Troll card value) in order to win gems. 

I’ve played with children in small groups and in a big university class using teams, and this has tended to work well to encourage English use by penalising unnecessary Japanese use with a one-gem penalty. There’s a tendency to play risky but that’s the fun of the game. There’s negotiation among groups, as well as explanations of betting strategies. 

Deep Sea Adventure

This is Troll with movement and is difficult to win points from without a bit of restraint and cooperation. 

You go around the board as a diver collecting treasure but there’s an air ration, you only know the approximate value of the treasure and carrying it reduces your own movement and also reduces the air for everyone. Because of the game complexity, there is inbuilt need for communication, like “You can’t move five. You need to go back two because of your treasure.” or “you forgot to move the air meter.” My favourite utterances were a very ladylike “Oh, shit!” and “Are you seriously going to do that?” 

Never mind a deep sea adventure, it’s a deep adventure into stuff students never say to one another. 

Further reading

Rose Bard’s blog posts tagged with game-based learning.  

Japan Game Lab

The Line Between Hare-Brained and Useful

notebook picture

I’ve had this post going on in my head for a while and probably the catalyst for getting it out of my head and into pixels is Sandy Millin’s Incomplete Thoughts post.

I was having a chat with a colleague yesterday and he said, “I don’t know where you get the time for all your ideas.”

“It’s a massive pain in the arse,” I replied, “because I can’t concentrate on other things when something pops up.”

I don’t know if this leads to a condition of not following things through properly, or even just dilettantism but a few things that have got me going all over the internet are:

Open Badges for Accreditation of Some Kind

This blog being about development (ostensibly, though probably more my own), actually having evidence-based accreditation for continuing professional development (CPD) would be a good thing in a landscape of expensive qualifications, cheap qualifications that mean nothing (20-hour internet TEFL courses) and absolutely nothing at all. ITDi provides this, with certificates available and whatnot, too. However, something that can also contribute to teacher-centred, teacher-led teacher development has bugged me for too long. Open Badges seem to sort if fill a gap in that people sit in webinars for certificates but there’s no real proof that they didn’t just leave the laptop on and play games on their phone. How about an open-peer-reviewed bit of writing that helps contribute to the community? Keep your eyes open at #TBLTChat.

Modular Materials

Again, with my Task-Based hat on (which is a beautiful purple crushed-velvet and Kevlar deerstalker), and my ‘I hate coursebooks‘ T-shirt on, how better to address a gap in materials availability than to actually get cracking and make some through refining them. Think less of a Minimum Viable Product than a ‘actually see if students react positively’ approach.

A Co-Op (ad)Venture

I am still investigating the possibility of sorting out a Tokyo/Kawasaki/Yokohama-based co-op of language teachers. Yes, inspired by Serveis Linguistics Barcelona. Viability? Time, Marc? It’s more the client liason that’s a problem but still something I’m looking into. Sometime in 2047.

Real Alternatives Need Alacrity

It’s that old Corporate ELT is killing me slowly trope. Hang on to your hats, comrades, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

So, the coursebooks palaver came up again on Geoff Jordan’s blog. I have written on this before. The main change in my ideas is that instead of Dogme or Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) being the utopia we should all aim for, what is needed to get teachers to go with something better than a textbook is an alternative.

In the aforementioned post, Steve Brown said that what is needed is not any other kind of alternative but for teachers to take agency: choose what the materials are, or choose to choose with the learners, or whatnot. He is right, but I think there needs to be a bit of handholding to get there.

I’ve seen comments saying that it takes bloody ages to plan a TBLT lesson, and it does when you first start. Similarly CELTA-type lessons take bloody ages when you first start. No qualifications? Think to your first week on the job. Lesson plans took forever. Anything takes ages when you first start.You need to think about whether the initial time investment will pay off or not. You are reading a blog about teacher development, so ostensibly you are open to this seeing as you are reading this instead of playing video games or trolling Trump supporters.

So, let the handholding begin. Or the push to start.

What can I use instead of a coursebook?

Have a think (always a good idea) about what your learners need. Asking them is often a good idea, though teenagers might tell you they need about 3 hours in bed and that they need to do gap-fills of A1 vocab. They don’t. Assess. What can they do? What can’t they do? What aren’t you sure they can do? The answers to this should rarely be “They can’t do the past tense with regular verbs” or something. Maybe “They can’t answer questions about the weekend” is better. Cool. That is something we can chuck into the syllabus, if we think that our learners need this. If they don’t, don’t put it in. But why did you bother assessing it otherwise?

With all this information, you can create a syllabus/course. Sequencing it is a bit of a bugger because you want to think about complexity, what is likely needed toward the start and middle to get to the end, recycling language and such. However, you and your learners have control. This is not the kind of thing to put on a granite tablet. If it seems to need a bit of something else, do that.

But what do I do?

Teach the skills you need to teach. Potentially this is all four skills of reading, listening, writing and speaking. There are books about ways to teach these. You might want to browse Wayzgoose press. Also The Round minis range has some very interesting stuff, as does 52. If you get a copy of Teaching Unplugged, I find it useful.

You and your learners can then source texts from the internet (which a lot of textbooks do anyway so you are cutting out the middleman), edit for length (nice authentic language) or elaborate and spend longer with (that is, put in a gloss at the side or add clauses explaining the language). You can create your own, too, which sounds time consuming but might not be the pain in the arse you think it is. You can also put in some stuff that is rarely covered in textbooks like pronunciation and how to build listening skills, microlistening, and more (a bugbear of mine).

There are also lots of lesson plans on blogs (including here). If you have some good lessons that have worked for you, they might work for others, who can then adapt them. With a book, there are sunk costs and learners will want to plough through the lot if they have bought it. If you have a lesson plan to manipulate, without having sunken money into it bar some printer paper, you and your learners get more control and hopefully smething more suited to them than something chosen by an anonymous somebody in London or New York.

If I’m going to use texts, I might as well use a textbook!

You could, but think of all the pages of nonsense you have to skip. Think of the time spent with learners focussing on pointless vocabulary like ‘sextant’ (thanks Total English pre-intermediate). You have an idea. You know your learners, or at least the context. There is also a ton of stuff on the internet. May I point you to the Google Drive folder at the top of this blog. All the stuff in there is Creative Commons Licensed so you can change it if it isn’t perfect, copy it for your learners, and because I already made it and was going to anyway, it’s free. There is also Paul Walsh’s brill Decentralised Teaching and Learning. There are also ideas to use from Flashmob ELT.

So

You have these ideas to use, modify, whatever and put into timeslots. You can move them around. You have the means, now, if you decide it’s worth a go, stick with it for a few weeks at least, so you can get into the swing of it. If you like it, leave a comment. If you hate it and I’ve ruined your life (and be warned that not all supervisors, managers and even learners are open to this at first. Check, or at least be aware of this. If your learners say they want a book they might just mean they want materials provided and a plan from week to week) leave a comment.

If you think I’m talking nonsense, I’d seriously love you to leave a comment. Tell me why.

If you want help with this, I’m thinking of using Slack for a free (yes, really, at least initially) course type thing, say an experimental three weeks, where I help you sort out how to go about things (together; top-down isn’t how I do things), help with any teething troubles and so on. If you’re interested, contact me.

Well, Sunday night, eleven o’clock and 1000 words. I’m going to bed. Let’s sleep on it.

Book Review: 50 Activities for the First Day of School

Walton Burns (2016) 50 Activities for the First Day of School. Alphabet Press. US $1.95 ebook. $6.95 pbk.

You know me. I am cynical. I am down on every kind of thing. I do not review products – I rail against the status quo. I only do Dogme and task-based teaching because of their cool, outside-the-mainstream-ness. I don’t do book reviews.

Didn’t.

I had never been asked before, and while I more or less knew that Walton Burns’ book would not be my kind of thing. His Alphabet Press indie publishing venture is an admirable thing; some say that self-publishing is vanity publishing but I think this is a myth put out by big publishers to avoid doing anything worthwhile but keep selling dreck. Anyway, he asked nicely, I said are you sure you want me to tear you apart and then stich you back together with gravel where your soul once was and he said he was sure this wouldn’t happen. I am trying to be less of a negative person, so I said yes.

Still, the book is not my thing really though there are some things I really like.

Things I liked

It is obviously rooted in practice. You can imagine that these activities have been tried and tried again. The variations of the activities are good, and usually more difficult than the original. Some activities are quite contrived but they get students talking. Though I say contrived, it’s no bigger a contrivance than the average EFL classroom. There is also a lot of moving around which can be good for young-ish learners. There is a very good activity about having learners talk about their strengths in the language. The time capsule activity is good as an activity to later compare to the baseline to see progress. There were rough time limits, too, and I’d think about making these subheadings (of which more later).

Things that weren’t for me

I knew the book wasn’t my thing. It’s very icebreaker heavy and I’m not an icebreaker kind of guy. I normally ask learners to find out about each other but not “five things”. Life isn’t constantly numbered.

I think the memory chain activities were rather over represented, too. Memory chains for names in particular. There could have been more for vocabulary (there are some, however).

The English names thing has always made me feel a bit uneasy as it’s often an excuse for monolingual teachers to get out of trying to actually pronounce real names. “Yasuhiro? OK: Joey.” Sometimes I think this is a (this specific) teacher annoyance more than a student one but I honestly don’t know. I’ve taught on courses where students were obliged to pick an English name and there were some amazingly bizarre ones, possibly picked as a piss-take.

The learning myths bit was a bit less student-centred than most other activities.

Would I buy it?

No. But I have been teaching since before my hair was grey. I have seen almost all of these activities before in one iteration or another in various in-house resource books in language schools or just from observing other teachers.

Would I recommend it to anyone?

Yes, maybe. If someone is new to teaching, fresh off a certificate or just on-the-job ‘training’ it might be useful and saves them reinventing the wheel, especially if they have a real academic year (unlike most EFL language schools who take all comers all year). I’d say the ebook would be useful for planning on public transport. There are worksheets available to download for some of the activities which might be nice for those with little experience.

So, I hope this was a fair review. If you write materials and have a desire to have your dreams torn to shreds you can always get in touch.

 

Materials/Task – Family tree puzzle

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I made this to have learners build their family member vocabulary. A lot of elementary learners know the basics: ‘sister’, ‘brother’, etc. but not ‘nephew’, ‘niece’ or ‘~-in-law’.

I followed it up with learners giving easy definitions in English (and Japanese or Chinese if required1), quizzing each other using different relationships, and then writing about their own families.

I used very Anglo-Saxon names. Feel free to change them as and if you feel the need to. It has a Creative Commons license as usual.

Available as PDF and editable PPT.

 

1

Seeing as my learners can’t use L1 in their tests I wanted them to build upon extremely basic knowledge and substitute a possibly forgotten word with a half-decent explanation.