Monday, 30 April 2012

One year on: My post Delta life

Board Work: Must dust down my action plan...

Last April, I embarked on a nine month journey towards ELT enlightenment: the DELTA course. Just over a year later seems as good a moment as any to reflect on how this experience has shaped me and my teaching.

Last April, I travelled to London to take part in the two week DELTA distance learning orientation course at International House. I have never felt as much of a yokel as I did on that sweltering spring evening at  Kings Cross Underground Station, tears welling up in my eyes as I struggled to figure out the Oyster card vending machine. 

I remained on the verge of tears throughout that first day in International House, as my cohort and I were subjected to what seemed like an endless barrage of acronyms: none of which I’d met before. LSAs, RSAs, LPs all sounded meaninglessly in my head. Everyone else seemed to be nodding knowingly, and making erudite contributions which hinted at years of experience in exotic locations at prestigious institutions.  Oh, what had I done? 

Day Two was an improvement. Although the many acronyms still baffled me, I began to feel the benefit of all the pre-course reading I had done before leaving Shetland. My cohort was fantastic, and the small teaching group I worked with, asides from being great fun, were the most supportive and generous people I could have hoped to meet. By the time my first observed lesson was in the bag, I was beginning to think that I might just get through the two weeks alive. Unfortunately, it was not just a case of surviving the fortnight.  What came next was infinitely harder: returning to “real life” in Shetland, and suddenly being faced with the task of reconciling an almost weekly deadline to family life and my day job (well, evening job in my case.) When I closed my eyes at the end of a long hard day, the course time table seemed stamped behind my eyelids: deadlines looming large and stretching to infinity. 

The distance diploma course is equivalent in length to a pregnancy, and the Delta was similar in many ways to my own ante natal experience. In the first three months I felt sick and fairly crabbit for a lot of the time. In my second DELTA trimester, I worried constantly and scanned the forums anxiously, seeking consolation in airing and sharing my doubts with peers.  Sleep eluded me, and I got into the habit of fixing myself midnight snacks.  On the homeward run, December the 7th (my exam date) assumed a mythical significance in my brain: it would be the end of a journey, but also the beginning of a new one. Afterwards, there were cards and flowers and people telling me my life would never be the same again. 

Well, I can honestly say that embarking on the DELTA journey was well worth the effort despite the curve it has added to my spine, courtesy of all these hours spent hunched over a computer.  When I started out, I’m not sure if I realised how life changing it would be. My teaching has improved immeasurably: my lessons have a focus that was missing before, and my ability to answer learners’ questions on language has increased ten fold. Most importantly, my DELTA year afforded me the opportunity to assess my teaching values. The year enabled me to pin point not only the areas in which I needed to improve, but to recognise my strengths, and to affirm my belief in the whys of my teaching practice.

While I am one hundred per cent convinced of the many benefits that the DELTA has afforded me, I have to be wary of what Thornbury has termed as returning to my “default setting.” I am an untidy, chaotic person, and this is reflected in my board work. My local tutor repeatedly flagged this up in observations, and I smiled, nodded, and in the heat of the next  lesson,  forgot all about it- until the final (scary) external lesson observation where I concentrated on the board work to such an extent that I was almost in danger of ignoring what was going on in the class! 

One year on is, indeed, a good time to take stock of all I have learned. It may also be time to blow the dust off my final RSA and revisit these targets!

Sunday, 22 April 2012

She was like...yeah, whatever....

It’s happened again.  I have ploughed my way through the pages on reported speech in the course book, watched my learners grind to a stand still as they struggled with backshift and deictic reference (“I’m fed up with this” → she said she was fed up with it) and dreamed up practice activities that were as close to everyday usage as I could imagine. Only to be hit with the thought : hold on, why have I not covered the (far simpler) contemporary way of reporting on conversations -  using direct speech with reporting expressions such as “like” and “goes”?

My children (age four and six) frequently recount entire conversations using “was like”. On the rare occasions they do use reported speech it is to upbraid me on promises I have broken: “But you said we could go swimming!”

“So she goes, don’t do that and I was like why not? And then she was like, yeah…whatever…” Exchanges such as this one can be heard everyday, and for the teacher and learner of English they have great appeal.  To paraphrase Phil Collins, no backshift required. 

This does not mean to say we should not teach reported speech to our learners. It is commonly found in written English (particularly newspaper reports) and used in spoken English by large numbers of  people who would regard expressions such as “like” and “go” to be sloppy, incorrect English.
However, like them or not, these expressions have become part of our language, and I believe we need to make sure our learners are able to use and understand them.

Thursday, 19 April 2012

Strange Wedding Guests

It all started last night. Wednesday nights are usually Headway nights with my intermediate group of learners and we had just started Unit 12. This unit is entitled “Life’s Great Events” and begins by looking at reported speech through a dialogue in which a woman gets chatting to a rather smooth talking man at a wedding. It turns out later on that the man has been economical with the truth on a few counts, and that’s where the reported speech comes in: “But he said he was thirty!  He told me he’d never been married!” etc.

Anyway, as is usually the case, this rather inconsequential scenario is illustrated by a large photograph of a wedding scene.  However,  the photograph does not appear to have anything to do with the three characters in the dialogue I have just described.  On first glance, it looks like a typical course book photo peopled by smiling white teethed models with inoffensive facial features.  My learners and I looked at the picture and I elicited the usual vocabulary: bride, groom, confetti etc. Then someone pointed out the eerie figures standing in the cemetery, looking on.  A youth with a camera.  A middle aged man so pale he is almost transparent, standing  among the tomb stones and far removed from the rest of the party. And finally, a white clad woman in her fifties, watching the wedding party with a most curious look of rage and bitterness.

If you have access to this book, please do look at it closely so you will know I do not exaggerate. And then ask yourself: why? Is this the work of an ambitious course book photographer with secret ambitions to be the next Cartier Bresson? Or a disillusioned course book photographer who has failed to get into film school and amuses himself by injecting subversive elements into his photographs?

We may never know. I would, however, like to thank whoever took this photograph for providing such excellent inspiration for tonight’s lesson.  My learners chose the five most interesting people from it (the five people above, actually) and as a class we wrote detailed character profiles for each one, and created a story around the central relationships.  Each learner chose a character to write a dramatic monologue about, and we will continue these monologues next week.

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

A Year in a Book

We are moving into a spanking new custom designed new building in a couple of weeks. Glossy it may be, but bigger it isn’t, and so my boss has had to purge all of our out of date and no longer used resources.

When I arrived at work tonight, the back of my classroom was lined with five or six green crates, all of which were stuffed with student books, teacher books and cassettes going free to a good home.  I’m normally a fairly ruthless purger myself, but there was something sad about this huge pile of past their sell- by- date publications. It might be because I’ve been working on the same sixty minute course book spread for over a week, and I can only imagine the hours of mental exertion and toil which go into producing an entire volume.

I have a pile of rescued books strewn across my table as I write, and if you look beyond the casual sexism, perms and a-line skirts of one of the really ancient ones, there are some pretty neat ideas in there. And, while I can see why Reward Intermediate 2002 has to go (it contains references to the Spice Girls, Oasis and Macaulay Culkin) I realise (too late) what an excellent book it is. Wouldn’t course books last a whole lot longer if they avoided such ephemeral cultural references? Or am I missing the money spinning point of the whole industry?

On a happy note – I rescued a dog eared Headway elementary (1993) from the pile: the first course book I ever used. It was through this book that I learned (along with my class) about the difference between the present simple and continuous and when to use an apostrophe with its.  Flicking through the tattered pages vividly evokes moments from my first year in teaching English:  my class of army officers, the bridge over the Tisza, purple plum trees and long hot afternoons by the pool. Happy days: a proustian madeleine worth finding space for on my own bookshelf.

Friday, 13 April 2012

Another Busman's Holiday

Every time I go on holiday I usually spend at least one - child free – day in Edinburgh.  And every time, without fail, I end up whiling away a couple of hours in Blackwells on the city's  the South Bridge.  

Blackwells is a truly fine book shop, and with all its nooks and crannies has an intimacy that eludes other larger retailers. This visit, I  balanced a pile of ELT books on the arm of a comfortable sofa, and perused my selection while spring rain pounded the windows and turned passing shoppers in the streets below into a cheerful blur.

I was looking for inspiration, as I am currently writing a chapter for an elementary level ESOL course book of my own. Ever since I started teaching (back in 1998) I have been pretty much a one-book woman.  As a shy young novice teacher, the Headway series swept me off my feet with its instructive and helpful Teacher’s book and flashy graphics. Later on that same year, I was too often embarrassed by its bad cover versions of great songs and its royal family obsession and finally dumped it in order to go solo. 

Over the years, I had many a flirtation with younger, trendier models, but there was always something missing. Imagine my delight when, on joining the ESOL team here in Shetland, I found out that their course book of choice was, indeed, Headway. What is it I love so much about this book? As I scanned the competition in Blackwells, I thought I knew the answer. Compared with so many other student books, the layout is wonderfully clear. So many rival publications are just too cluttered and confusing.  Or are they? Is my admiration of Headway’s structure and layout just another old habit?

So, what has this helped me to decide about the course book I am planning? Like Headway, it will have nice graphics and uncluttered pages. It will also have units of four or five pages rather than two. But – (and this is a big but Mr and Mrs Soars…) there will be no fawning texts on hard working royals. No Madonna (or any other a-list star, for that matter) reading comprehension exercises, and  - this, I swear - no more Beatles classics murdered forever for the sake of a five minute gap fill.