Once upon a time…

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Frog prince
We can all be frogs or princes

Storytelling: a hot topic

Storytelling is a hot topic at the moment, at least judging from the popularity and enthusiasm of the tweeters on the recent storytelling #eltchat, where professionals from the EFL world devoted a frantic hour to exchanging thoughts and insights, resources and teaching ideas. One of the great things about #eltchat is that it is always followed by such well written summaries and resource lists and this one was no exception; written by Leahn Stanhope on her blog, who succinctly wove together the threads of the discussions, and provided a list of a whole range of great classroom resources. But that is not all!

We danced into the night

The party went on and on, sending ripples out into the world.

After the chat came  Tara Benwell’s brilliant Twitter challenge that  asked people to tell their everyday stories  in one tweet and publish them at #eltstory, resulting in a stream of stories and comments that was…, well, it was amazing, communicative and fun; a whilrlwind of creativity.  Then blog posts started appearing  right, left and centre, like Janet Bianchini’s  where she talked about digital storytelling and a course on this that she has just done with Ozge Karaoglu, who among other things, has, in the past provided us with 100 digital storytelling tools…another excellent place to go for even more classroom resources. So storytelling is causing a stir, we have lots of ways of doing it, but, at the same time, we may want to think about why stories are so effective.

Me at Lake Garda
Once upon a time there was a teacher who...

We are all Stories

Storytelling  is definitely something we all love; tales can take us back to the safety of childhood bedtime stories, and the magic of fairy tales and Narnia, or, of course, we can watch them on the evening news, or in a detective series on TV. We all love a good story, in fact we could go further than that and say, in the words of Jan Blake at the Istek Conference, earlier
this year:

 “We are all stories, we are all made up of stories, we all walk
around with stories within us, even if it’s the story of what happened this
morning, the story of why we’re late, the story of whay we haven’t got the

The idea of being stories really strikes a chord with me. We actually talk about our lives every day, telling friends and family what has happened to us, and what we have done, and as we do this we weave the threads of our stories into the fabric which becomes our lives. To go even further we could also consider that our countries or states and our
worlds are also their stories. In English we distinguish between “story” and “history” but many other languages do not.

Our world is the result of the past and its story, and to understand why we think the way we do today, or have the socioeconomic and cultural beliefs we do, we need to look to the stories of the past. Storytelling is one of the most ancient skills and a great storyteller like Jan Blake can tell a story that transcends the reality of space and time carrying you, the listener away with her into another dimension. When Jan wove her magic at the Harrogate
Iatefl Conference in 2010, I’m sure there was not a dry eye in the auditorium, and you can see some of this on Youtube:

This video gives you a taste for this type of storytelling but, although I’m a great fan of YouTube, I’m afraid that…you really had to be there. I can still remember the smell of the auditorium, the quality of the darkness and the emotions, and thoughts that these stories evoked as Jan swept us away on her magic carpet.

Fly away on a story

What do we do when we “storytell”?

So, all this made me stop and start thinking about two things: one is why some classroom storytelling activities may not actually work very well and the other, which is directly connected to this, is what is actually involved in the storytelling process.

Many exams used to have a section where candidates were given pictures and had to tell a story from them. I definitely remember having to do this for one French exam, and how we all hated it. In our world it is a component of the CambridgeESOL Young Learners Movers and Flyers oral exams. Candidates are given a strip of pictures which tell a story. They are given the start to the story and then told to “tell the story”. Some young learners can do this very well, much better, in fact, than many adults, but for others it is tantamount to a torture session and can actually put them off for the rest of the test. So, why does this happen? I have observed this in action and I wonder if the stories themselves are too complicated. We are actually giving them a lot of input in these strips, which may well be too much for some learners to process.  Adults tend to look quickly through the pictures, searching for the logic or the plot, whereas young learners may not equate stories with plots. They may get sidetracked by the characters or the location or any number of things. A story, of course, is much more than simply a plot, but that is often what exam questions are asking for. I sometimes wonder whether it might not be better, for this type of task to simply begin with less, a character or a place and, by asking a series of guided questions, lead the candidate into telling the story directly. It is easier for the student to tell a collaborative story, in fact, if you simply show them a character and say:

“Look, this is Mary: what type of house does she live in?” etc.

This works with adults too, by the way. What I mean is that by saying “Tell the story” you are already putting the storyteller at one remove. By going straight into it, without even mentioning that there is a story to tell, is somehow more direct. For a story to “come to life” it has to be relevant and to echo within the being of the storyteller and the listener. It has to mean something on a personal level. This is definitely not the case with these exam”plots”.  As I said, this is only a sensation I have but it is a strong one. So, how can we make sure our stories are real ones and not just “plots”?

Jan Blake, in the Istek interview mentioned above said that stories are powerful because, among other things:

  • they train us to listen;
  • they train us to use our “inner eye”;

So, there is value in listening to stories as well as telling them. There are conventions in stories that are told such as voices, repetitions of key elements: “Who’s been sleeping in my bed?” etc. that the listener can recognise, and that we learn to listen for. On the other hand, there is also an element of suspense and wonder that keeps us there (In the case of some Soap Operas this can keep the audience there for years, in fact.) For our language learners to learn to listen for the story means that they can stop worrying about the language, and can help that very language mean more to them. It becomes more than simply an exercise, something they have to grapple with to understand; it becomes a vehicle at the least, and a magic carpet, at the most, which can transport them into another world, which, at the same time becomes theirs, when they enter into the story. When you listen to Jan Blake you can see her characters, their world and their homes, and your inner eye really goes to work. This made me think of another teaching technique which is very powerful for storytelling: visualisation.

The Mind's Eye
Exploring the mind's eye

The Mind’s Eye

Using visualisation can help learners to tap into their subconscious world. I can remember using a guided visualisation once to encourage students to tell the story of a journey. They were encouraged to relax, to either close their eyes, or if they did not feel comfortable doing that, to focus on a point on the wall and to listen and follow my instructions in their minds.To do this they were asked to visualise the answers to a series of questions. The activity went something like this; they listened as I read this text in a quiet voice, pausing as I went to give them time to imagine the answers:

“We are about to go on an exciting jurney away from the classroom to somewhere you have never been before, so take three deep breaths and then, there you are in our magic plane… now you are arriving, the door opens and you step out into…. another world:

What can you see?  Are you alone or are there other people there too?  What happens next?  What can you hear?   and smell? Can you taste anything? Does anyone speak? What do they say? … Now it’s time to come home again so go back to the plane and get on. Sit down and now you are coming back to the classroom.”

The students were then given a list of the questions I had asked them and they used them as a starting point to tell each other where they had been. This was where the exciting part started, including one trip down through the sea to the centre of the Earth itself. The imagination that these adults used to tell their stories went way beyond the type of content usually produced. I had been rather unsure of how the visualisation would go down, but the results surpassed anything I could have predicted.  The stories they produced were both powerful and memorable and everyone was interested in the other people’s stories. This, in my opinion, is learner centred work at its most powerful, combining imagination and storytelling. One of the most useful resources that I have ever used for this type of work is the Cambridge University Press Handbook: “Once Upon a Time” by John Morgan and Mario Rinvolucri.

Of course, in this post I have only thought about telling stories and listening to them, but there is also the whole question of writing them… Well, it’s late so maybe I’ll leave that for another day. Time for a bedtime story and a mug of cocoa, I think 🙂


TDSIG Unplugged Countdown: “One…” (via Teacher Training Unplugged)

Unfortunately I can’t attend this conference, and it looks as though it would be an interesting experience. One important aspect of conferences, I think, is the chance you get to meet people, network and exchange ideas, which often isn’t done enough in the question phase of presentations. This unplugged conference looks like just the right way to explore this, so I’m looking forward to the mini-series. 🙂

TDSIG Unplugged Countdown: "One..." This mini-series sketches out some of the ideas that I would like to explore at the upcoming TDSIG Unplugged Conference in Barcelona on 21 May 2011.  If any of them chime with you and you would like to explore them as well – or if you would like to work on completely different issues, the conference is there to give you the open space to do just that.  It is never too late to join in, so if you haven't already, visit www.tdsig.org/unplugged and r … Read More

via Teacher Training Unplugged

Making the right choices… or Avoiding Living Death

The Walking Dead

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The Living Dead

I’ve been immersed in Justin Cronin’s new novel “Passage”, in my free waking moments this week, and it’s one of those intensive “extensive reading” experiences, where you don’t want to stop, a real feast of darkness with the odd flicker of light promising redemption somewhere along the way. Anyway, I came across this part on page 204 (Paperback edition ) that I thought I’d share with you on my blog for the week, he’s talking about “the living dead” that you find in horror films. I know this is not the usual style of my teaching blogs, but bear with me for a few lines, it is leading somewhere, I promise:

“They (characters in the novel) moved heavily, their movements clumsy and imprecise, their expressions benumbed and incurious, like the living dead in some old movie. Corpses gathering outside a farmhouse, moaning and tripping over their feet, wearing the tattered uniforms of their forgotten lives: he’d loved such films when he was a boy, not understanding how true they really were. What were the living dead, Wolgast thought, but a metaphor for the misgotten march of middle age?

It was possible, he understood, for a person’s life to become just a series of mistakes, and that the end, when it came, was just one more instance in a chain of bad choices. The thing was, most of those mistakes were actaully borrowed from other people. You took their bad ideas and, for whatever reason, made them your own.”

I apologise for the rather gruesome feel to this but the character Wolgast expected to die at any minute, so of course his thoughts turned to his life and what he’d made of it. The point that struck me though was:

Time to wake up “Why wait? Any day is a good time to think about the choices we make, both professional and otherwise, although I was thinking, of course, about teaching. This was my alarm clock ringing to tell me it was time to rethink some of my own choices.

Why wait to question your choices?

This struck me so forcibly, perhaps, because I am very much aware of certain compromises that are made everyday in the workplace. Quality is sacrificed, or limited, because of financial factors, the god money is alive and well, and we all dance to his tune, particularly in Berlusconi’s Italy in the 21st Century, but I’ll ty to avoid politics for one day. I find myself doing certain things because they are expected of me, such as adopting a coursebook in class, when I would rather not, or spending an inordinate amount of time preparing learners for exams that I do not always consider to be the best assessment methods available. There is never enough time to do what you want to and there are often too many learners in one class to even monitor at all, much less really help in a substantial way.

I could continue in this vein ad infinitum but that would be a choice too and it is not one that I want to make, so I’m going to stop, right now, and think about the choices I’m making.

Choosing to give free public classes

I’d better add that it is not all doom and gloom and that many of my university students are making a lot of progress, and feel that their lessons are helpful, so I mustn’t get too carried away in my criticism of our work. I, however, have no intention of becoming one of Cronin’s living dead middle aged relics dressed in the tatters of her earlier idealism. Idealism is not only for the young. It can be preserved into middle age if it is tempered by experience and practicality. I recently made an idealistic choice to start doing free public classes on WizIQ, as some of you know, and was very enthusiastic both about the site and the people who are using it. The amazing Edupunk group, founded by George Machlan, whose approach is pure anarchy and who is supportive of just about everyone on WizIQ,and its whimsical teachers like Piyush Khatri, who does creative lessons such as “Draw your English”, just to name one, have been both a delight and an inspiration for me. There is also the laid back, but incredibly expert Nellie Deutsch and so many others, and that’s just in the few months I’ve been there! On WizIQ the line between teachers and learners blurs and this makes for something new, and exciting. Learners come from all over the globe and teachers go to each others classes to learn from each other and even… yes, for fun too!

Fun learning( I went to a wonderful storytelling class by Terasee Morris for instance) and another great thing about this site is that there are video recordings of all the lessons so if you miss one, and sometimes the timetables mean that you just can’t attend, you can watch the recording later.) Obviously it is not all roses, there are lessons that teachers schedule and then do not show up for, and some teachers are not too skilled, but the good more than makes up for the bad and I love the feel of the whole thing.

I did a series of five lessons on this platform and was thinking about doing paid lessons too, but I have decided not to choose this route. It seems to be the norm: you sell your work, and I, like everyone else, do my fair share of this. It always, however, inevitably, seems to lead to compromise of the type mentioned at the beginning of this post.

That is why I have decided to keep to the free public classes and will be doing a series of them this summer on WizIQ. Why? Because if I do it like that I can experiment with exactly the type of teaching I want to do, learner centred, creative language production. I can choose, with my learners, what we want to focus on ranging from poetry and creative writing to discussions, songs, videos and vocabulary quizzes, and I can help my university students to have a place where they can continue their English in an unusual (for them) context, just for fun! I want to do this because I am fascinated by the learning process and the technological side too, and I want to do something, which is not determined by the economics. OK, this is just a small choice, but it is one that, I think, makes a difference, and it means that I will not be simply following the established route.

So, sorry for the slightly negative slant to things this week, but the outcome, at least, is positive, and WizIQ is well worth a visit.

If it’s Working you don’t need to Give it a Label

The debate about Unplugged teaching or technology rages on

over the blogosphere and I was just feeling rather confused. I strongly believe that the learners should be at the centre of the process and I agree that lessons determined purely by materials (which is often the case, when, for whatever reason, teachers have to follow a coursebook) are not necessarily relevant to the learners and may lead to misuse. On the other hand there are some excellent materials around and it would be a shame to reinvent the wheel. I use technology (as you probably know) all the time and yet I think that this very technology leads to a more learner centred classroom, or learning experience beyond the classroom, so where do I stand on the Dogme vs. Technology debate. Well, as I said I was feeling a bit confused and I said so on Twitter, and then Andrea Wade made a comment which made everything fit into place again and the comment was this:

“If it’s working, I don’t think you need to give it a label.” A simple comment but, you know, she’s absolutely right. I simply don’t think there needs to be a debate at all. If I want my teaching to revolve around my learners, to help them in the best way I can then I can use all the tools I know about to do so. In fact, I don’t think teaching unplugged means that you can’t use materials either; that would be far too simplistic.

One example of learner centred teaching without coursebook materials

What attracts me to Dogme is the idea that the materials should be relevant to the learner. Why use photos of places the learners are not interested in and will never visit, on a lesson about writing descriptions of places ( a common activity which s useful for learners who need to do this type of descriptive writing in exams, for instance), when you can:

1)  brainstorm a list of the cities they have visited,

2) ask them to post photos of those cities on your blog or wiki;

3) then set up a discussion thread on a blog or wiki where they write short paragraphs describing one of those cities;

4) we all guess which ones they are describing in the next lesson;

5) we analyse the language and develop or extend areas that need to be worked on.

This is what I think of as learner-centred teaching using technology. In our case, where there are very large classes in the university the wiki actually brings us all closer to each other, but even in other teaching situations using a blog or wiki like this means effectively extending the learning process beyond the four walls of the classroom transforming it into something intangible that is akin to communication within a community rather than mechanical exercises in a foreign language.

All that glitters is not good for learning

There is, in fact, a very real danger for all of us to be attracted by the glitter of the coursebook and the Web 2.0 tools, and we have to go beyond that to be sure that when we use these tools we are really using them for a purpose, and that they really are relevant both to us as teachers professionally as well as to our learners. Twitter, for example, has proved to be an invaluable resource for me in my professional development because I have learned so much from other educators by following them and by participating in groups like #eltchat. There are so many generous people on Twitter, who are enthusiastic enough to share their findings with everyone else that there is almost always something connected to just what you were looking for when you go online. It is a phenomenon which is close to synchronicity, I think. One instance of precisely this is a blog post by Sue Lyon-Jones which was retweeted by so many people who found it useful. It is a sort of guide, or checklist,  about when to use technology. This is a useful list for all of us whether we are new teachers who have just qualified or whether we have been around for a bit longer than that. It shows how useful Twitter proved for me and underlines the idea that whatever we are using in the classroom we should be using it for a reason.

What are we arguing about?

So basically we seem to be saying the same things and teaching unplugged does not mean going back to Prehistory, but as Anthony Gaughan said in his Iatefl Interview (well worth watching for an interesting discussion of what Teaching Unplugged means) a pedagogical diet can be a good thing and he is right. If we stop eating all that rich food for a while it will taste even better when we return to it. It is not a matter of not using technology at all, but of using the learner’s technology or the teacher’s so that what is in the classroom is relevant. So, I still don’t know what label I should put on my teaching but my learners are flocking to my wiki to add their posts, Wordles and photos so surely that’s the best of all worlds….

T is for Times as well as technology, oh yes, and teaching

Technology at workToday has been an exciting 1st May, what with everything being closed when I wanted to go to the swimming pool, the Pope… and the invasion of ants that seems to be moving into a really aggressive phase in my kitchen (and they don’t even bring their own beer with them), all I can say is thank goodness I have the technology to fight the ants (something that has a strong smell to frighten them away), drive out into the countryside (my car) and my book, so that I can switch off and read a novel. These are just some of the different forms of technology that we use all the time to make our lives easier and maybe just a little bit better, and this is just as true when it comes to teaching.

Scott Thornbury posted an interesting discussion today on the subject as a follow up to the ELTJ debate at Iatefl, It is true, as he says, that the debate got sidetracked into the issue of technology in our lives, rather than technology in teaching, but are the two mutually exclusive? Scott raised four important issues, and I was going to post a comment directly on the blog but it got too long so I decided to write it all here instead. (Sorry!)

1) The Delivery Model Problem

Scott rightly underlined the problem that many of the materials that are appearing, custom made for tefl, on the Internet, are simply materials that were originally designed for “in classroom use” transported into a digital format. This is, in fact, a major problem, and Gavin Dudeney pointed out in his presentation at the Brighton Iatefl that many of the apps that were developed for other things, are possibly more suited for teaching than the tefl ones.

Meaningful technology in Action

I’d just like to pause here to decribe one example of how technology has helped me and my learners, and it was not developed for tefl:

One tool, of many, that I have found to be ivaluable, for instance is Voicethread (see the activities on my wiki) This is a tool which I used to practise in preparation for oral exams where my learners need to talk about subjects at some length. The tool enables you to simply post media, photos, videos in a format where others can comment on them. I made a video talking about my friend’s house in Berlin, where I have often stayed and asked learners to post their comments.

Initially I intended them to watch my video on Voicethread and comment on it and then make their own videos that other learners could comment on too. You may well ask why it is necessary to go to all this trouble, embedding a voicethread onto a wiki and setting up a discussion thread on the same page where learners can leave links to their own videos later. Well, the answer is that my classes often have up to a hundred learners or more in them, and technology has actually made it easier for me to come closer to them. Not all of them, I admit, but many of them, and it has motivated them to learn in ways they would never have thought of doing just a few years ago.

Learners taking the process into their own hands

What was even more interesting was what happened in this activity. The learners became very interested in the idea of Berlin and started posting questions. Not everyone could record their voice as not everyone has access to a microphone, but on Voicethread you can either record your voice or you can type in a comment so nobody need feel left out. I saw this was happening so I took those comments and made a document working firstly on their language problems and secondly on answering their questions and providing a link to another voicethread about Berlin. This work was extremely successful and everyone was motivated by it. What made it such was, in fact, the learner-centred nature of the work, even though it began with a video of me speaking, and was designed to help learners prepare for exams. This, then, is just one example of how technology is enrichening my teaching and my students’ learning. So, yes it is true that some of the custom made tefl materials are mundane to say the least but let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water.

2) The theory Vacuum problem

This was also a point worth making, that there are so many blog posts of the “20 things to do with Wordle” type, and I must admit that at times I think… Oh no, not again. But this actually reflects an underlying need. Teachers desperately want to use new ideas (and this, by the way, is just as true of activities whether they are connected to technology or not) and by learning what other people are doing, and sharing what we are doing we can actually develop. We could say that there is no theory often behind coursebook selection either which often depends on administrational decisions by language schools. The theory comes from training and individual intellectual curiosity which motivates dedicated teachers to look into the whys and wherefores of what they are doing. So, yes, we could do with more analysis and theory but I think it ties in with the next point too.

3) The attention deficit problem

There was a lot of discussion of Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows at the conference and Scott refers to the danger of distraction, a phenomenon which we are all aware of. Jim Scrivener mentioned it too when he talked of preparing for the conference. You click on Brighton Conference Centre and then you find that there’s a Sealife Centre too oh, and Quadrophenia etc. etc. and before you know it you’re a million miles away from where you had originally intended to be. (very freely paraphrased by me )

Distraction has always been a part of classrooms, because of what Buddhists refer to as the “monkey mind”. It is basic human nature to be distracted. So, does this mean we should abandon technology. Well, no, that isn’t going to happen. We have to adapt to the world we live in and our learners, like us, tend to navigate in this way, so don’t we have a responsibility as educators to help our learners develop their “deep thinking” skills? Surely this is where we can help them by teaching them to how to use technology in a meaningful way, or even by introducing moments of contemplation into our lessons? This ties in, perhaps with the last point too, because if we are going to help learners use technology or anything else (language?) meaningfully then we need to know what works and why we are doing it, just as with anything else. The conscientious teacher has always developed his/her curiosity in this way, and now, thanks to technology, I add, we can do it by blogging and developing the discussion even further.

4) The added value problem

Here again, it is all too true that the “monkey mind” is often attracted to novelty for the sake of novelty and there has been a lot of inappropriate use of technology in particular by institutions who think of it as a way to save money and solve all their problems, so introduce online platforms without training the teachers or invest in interactive whiteboards which are never used, again because nobody has trained the teachers. This is a problem that we are all too aware of but once again it is surely a question not of the technology per se but of the way it is being implemented and misused. This is a human problem and all we can do is to try to use it meaningfully ourselves. So I agree wholeheartedly with this point. We should only use any type of activity when it adds value to what we are doing and we need to ask ourselves how it does that.

A Poor Workman Blames his Tools

Finally I think, before I sign off and go and take part in an online class, we must remember that the problem is rarely the technology although cost and lack of access are issues here. The main problems are still the way people use technology and that it what we need to address.

So, in case you were wondering about the title, T is for times because we have to adapt to the times we are living in and the way our learners learn in these times. It is also for technology being used meaningfully in learner-centred teaching.