October 29, 2010 § 6 Comments

I’ve come up with a few jokes in my time. Here’s one:

“When I was at school, if I didn’t do my homework, I got told off. Now I’m a teacher, if a kid doesn’t do his homework, I get told off.”

The ELTchat on Wednesday was about professional development. We are very much in favour of it. In fact, reading blogs, discussing issues, putting down your thoughts on paper and lapping up the views of others, trying out new activities and contemplating their effects, all this was posited as excellent ways of going about it. These last few days, for example, I’ve particularly enjoyed the stories from the business classes of Vicky Loras, and how Michelle Worgen is tiptoeing towards Teaching Unplugged in So This is English. David’s post on behaviour in Reflections of a Teacher and Learner was probably the most influential for this post, whilst the two guest posts on Ken Wilson’s Blog by Ania Kozicka and Vladka Michalkova show the creativity and imagination that teachers all around the world are coming up with.

The ELTchat got me onto Twitter as well, and here I really see how much people enjoy getting together at actual real conferences, meeting up, learning from and with others, daring against all hope for a moment of epiphany. I love conferences too, and although I’m new to the blogosphere, I notice the similarity in warmth and excitement. All of which got me thinking.

I liked school, but it was not without its moments. One seems especially significant to this mood. My geography teacher – and I really liked geography, and still do, it’s how I became an EFL teacher, I wanted to experience all these countries I’d read about in books – he showed me his folders from his university days. It was an attempt to make me pull my socks up, a call to arms. His folders were beautiful, and he was rightly very proud of them. They were A5 in size, so they had that dusty book feel. And his handwriting, it was so tiny, delicate but robust, slanting forwards like so many left-handers’ do, a dark blue fountain pen the tool of his trade, and it was all perfectly positioned just ever so slightly above the lines. There were paragraphs and indentations, sub-headings and footnotes, all without a single mistake. Here I was with the Venerable Bede, for it was his Bible to the physical landscape, an uncorrupted, incorruptible temple to the cause and effect of river drainage systems and soil erosion.

It reminds me of an anecdote, the author of which I’m afraid I cannot recall, but it was told by a lady, a lady who had spent time in the company of Gladstone and Disraeli, two heavyweight British politicians, both prime ministers in their day, round about the start of the last century, fierce adversaries who were always vying with each other for the upper hand.
“When I was with Gladstone,” she had said, “I felt I was with the most intelligent person in the world.” I admit, I didn’t feel my geography teacher was actually the most intelligent person in the world, but standing there in his office, being made to admire his perfect words, sitting pristinely above the lines, I knew I was a woefully inadequate school boy.

And so here I am, 6 years later, travelling and working and swimming with dolphins, doing all the things that we EFL teachers do, and I find this book, The Mind Map Book.

Would you like to hear my other joke?

“I’ve read two life changing books. So now I’m back where I started.”

But heavens! What a book. It’s where I first learnt about Mind Maps, like the one at the start of this post, where by clicking here, you can click on the little flowers to reveal more words. Before you do though, think about what words you’d fill into the Mind Map instead. It’s about things you can see in your garden, if you’re lucky enough to have one, or in someone else’s, if you’re nosy enough to peek.

Now this book did change my life. It activated a mental model in me that had been lying dormant, a way of looking at the world, in this case learning and pedagogy, which until this moment I was unaware existed. The superiority of linearity that I had been forced to laud was, I suddenly, completely and amazingly discovered, not the only paradigm of perfectionism.

And now you should see all my note books I’ve got around my study. I’ll happily spend time flicking through them with anyone who cares to look. Of course, they’re nothing like my geography teachers’. Absolutely nothing. No lines for a start, just blank white pages. Lovely pure white-as-the-driven-snow pages, when I first make one. I’ve got one of those big lever-arch hole punchers, and with a few bits of wool, tie the book together by looping them through the holes. Now it can be that a blank page is the most stifling obstacle to creativity known to man and woman. It’s too perfect to soil and spoil with incomplete, illogical and impractical nonsense. So of course the first thing I do when I start a new one is to just write something, usually carrying on from the end of the last one, usually somewhere in the middle of the page, a few words, maybe quite big, waving around in this lost expanse. Then follow little words, and maybe some bigger ones, and then there spring up lines and arrows and asterisks and symbols and pictures and colours everywhere. These are my Bibles, my Bibles to learning, and as such, they’re fluid, dynamic, and organic. They reflect my state of knowledge at any one time, which is different from yesterday and different from tomorrow. That’s why I only ever use a pen to sign cheques. All other times, it’s pencils all the way. I’ve got loads of erasers and at least four pencil sharpeners. I can see two just to my left as I write.

You can’t be forced to admire something, or respect it, or emulate it. Or someone for that matter. So as teachers and teacher trainers, I think what we can do is carry on being who we are, so that if, fortuitously, someone does stumble upon our work, and they happen to be harbouring an inactive mental model that fits in with ours and which is just dying to be unearthed and engaged, whether by us or by them, then they will go away feeling that they can conquer the world, that they have found what they weren’t even looking for.

That lady had it right, I think, the one who had spoken so highly of Gladstone. Because she continued:
“Ah, but when I was with Disraeli, I felt I was the most intelligent person in the world.”

Sport is…

October 26, 2010 § 13 Comments

“Sport is the best.” That’s what a teenage boy wrote in Cecilia’s class at Boxes of Chocolates in response to English Raven’s Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge.

Shelly at her Teacher Reboot Camp, Mike Harrison, David, where he offers his Reflections of a Teacher and Learner, and Emma Herrod have some great stories and illuminating photos of their boards too, while at Sabrina’s Weblog, we get to hear about her lesson that involved extensive boardwork.

The challenge gets you to unplug your teaching and see the whiteboard both as a way of scaffolding learning, and as a product in its own right. The challenge fits in nicely with two other recent posts, by Andrew at Idle EFL Thoughts and Ceri in Close up. Both describe wonderful spontaneous lessons based around just one word, lessons made possible by having a sophisticated understanding of language, what it is and how it works, all the different aspects that one can draw on and pass on using a myriad of activities from the TEFL pool. Nick takes this a step further in Turklish TEFL, outlining things to consider when putting together your own curriculum.

I’m imaging the lesson, what could very well happen and probably has in one of my classes. I’m imagining the learner, a teenage boy, sporty and friendly, with a ready smile. He’s wearing a T-shirt and long baggy shorts. I like him. I think he’d prefer, at a push, to be actually playing sport rather than just talking about it, but he finds it an acceptable compromise. I read out what he’s written.

“Sport is the best.”
“Not school?” I confirm.
He lets slip a slight snigger.
“No. Sport.”
“Not history?”
“No.” He sniggers again.
“Nuclear physics?”
I can’t imagine him having ever heard this in English, but I assume he’ll understand.
He does.
There’s some eye contact. It’s his lack of words rather than desire that is hindering his communication.
“Is it better than…what other subjects are there?”. I open it up for others.
We get “astronomy” and “science” amongst others and look at their roots.

We continue with the theme and he offers an alternative: “Sport is the greatest.” I write it down. Interesting. Both “best” and “greatest” end in “est”. Although we always think of “best” as irregular, it’s only the beginning, not the end, I realise. Worth showing. I need a tissue to clean the board. I’m a guest teacher and I forgot the board rubber. I get offered three. None of the boys has one.

Sport is indeed his life. It’s what he lives for. It’s what he’d die for!
“Really? You love sport so much, you would die for it?”
“I would die for it,” he learns to say.

There are lots of affordances, as Willy outlines in Authentic Teaching, chances for error-strewn language practice, errors which I let pass or occasionally reformulate for them to repeat if they choose to.

He’s always playing sport. He talks about how he plays after school and at the weekend. This description hangs onto phrases I think are worth learning by heart. In fact, I say to him:

“When you’re not playing sport, you’re talking about it.
And when you’re not talking about it, …”
I hesitate, giving someone the opportunity to finish it off for me. One of the girls does:
“…you’re playing it.”
We practise those sentences, and mix them around, trying different combinations of “sport” and “it”.

Meddings and Thornbury say: “learning can be mediated through talk, especially talk that is shaped and supported, (i.e. scaffolded) by the teacher.”
Nick Ellis says: “language must be scrutinised, manipulated, personalised and practised”.
Using the language plant that’s been growing on the board as a visual reference, I think we’re squeezing in quite a few of these verbs.

Henrick has been Doing Some Thinking about how a beginner guitar player will model the hand positions of an expert guitarist. Learning by watching. It is a tenet of NLP, and it’s what I have planned.

I stand up, raise a finger and work towards my dramatic crescendo, referring to the board throughout.

“Sport is the best.
Sport is the greatest.
It is my life.
When I’m not playing sport,
I’m talking about it.
And when I’m not talking about it,
I’m playing it.
Sport is what I live for;
it is what I’d die for.”

My hand is clasped to my heart.

“Your go.” I say to him. He’s reluctant at first, but gets into it. Others have a go too, all versions slightly different, and there’s much laughter.

It’s another learners’ turn now, a teenage girl, the tissue giver in fact.
“I need music in my life – all the time.” She writes.
“Wow, lovely.” I enthuse. “I hear music in my heart – all the time.”

For those who know…

October 22, 2010 § 24 Comments

I have very much enjoyed reading two recent complementary posts by Henrick, who has been Doing some thinking, and by Cecilia in her Box of Chocolates about the organic nature of language and learning. What tipped the balance and has inspired me to lay out my own stall was Tao Te(a)Ching’s beautifully-crafted post, where he slipped in the following quotation to eloquently sum up his perhaps fleeting views that surfaced during an educhat that had broached the subject of what Dogme actually is, and which is presented as a language plant at the top of this post:

“For those who know, no explanation is necessary;
for those who don’t know, no explanation is possible.”

And quoting from Tao Te(a)Ching again, here is what Thornbury and Meddings wrote in their original treatise: “STOP! Teaching a language can be more effective when you actually use the language to talk to each other about your thoughts and feelings. You don’t need books or DVDs for this. You just need people. The world itself is a panoply of existences that are waiting to be discussed.”

I got married last year, to a Kenyan, in Kenya. Nya nya, the grandmother, of uncertain age, but who was born before European forces brought their fight to her homeland during the First World War, and who chuckles with delight every time she remembers my dancing at the wedding, but that’s another story, nya nya had a helper, Auma, an old lady herself who dressed in brightly coloured garments that matched from head to toe. With my wife’s sister able to suck on her stock of sugar cane and act as go-between and translate Luo, the name of both their tribe and language, shared coincidentally by Barack Obama’s father, and the reason why the inauguration of the first black president of the United States was greeted with such euphoria in this neck of the woods, I orchestrated my first LLFL (Learning Luo as a Foreign Language) lesson.

“I’m going to the farm”, I wanted to learn. My wife’s mum was always back and forth from the farm.
“Adhi puodho”, Auma responded. “Puodho” translates as farm, garden; small-holding may be best, any of these really.
I repeated and practised, doing my best not to superimpose a Brummie-tinged RP onto the words.

“Nang’o?” Aumu interrupted. “Nang’o?”
“Why?” she was asking. “Why are you going to the farm?”
Good question.
“I’m going to pick vegetables” I ascertained.
“Adhi ng’weto alot”. “Alot”. That was easy to remember. “Alot. Vegetables.”
“100 carrots. That’s a lot alot!” Haha. My first bilingual Luo-English joke.

But I wasn’t allowed to rest on my laurels.

“And then?” Auma was asking in Luo. “Kaeto?” “What are you going to do once you’ve picked all these vegetables?” “Kaeto?” “And then what?”

“Kaeto adhi chiro!” “And then I’m going to the market!” I was soon able to say. This was fun. Relaxing in the early evening sun, surrounded by lush species of tropical spinach that I’d eaten many a time there, I was writing these phrases down as a language plant, which is very similar to what Jason, on English Raven seems to have had great successes with recently where he got his learners to write on wavy lines on the board. They are a way of putting down on paper in a non-linear fashion different possibilities, different collocations or structures, in such a way that the words branch out from each other. Grammatical mind maps I always say. “Adhi”, meaning “I am going…” was my nice big trunk. It is similar in meaning to English in that it can refer both to the act of moving and secondly as a reference to the future, to which we must be grateful to Shakespeare. All the other new words I was wanting branched out from it.

And it was taking shape. Something was beginning to emerge.

Scott Thornbury, in a recent private correspondence by email about which he is happy to divulge, acknowledged the “brilliant” way that language plants reflected the emergent language of a learner that he mentions in his video “Seven ways of looking at grammar”. Here, they were encouraging, prompting emergence too.

Auma took the next step. “Nang’o?” I’d been on my way to the market, and she was asking why again. She saw the pattern too.

“Adhi …I’m going… adhi… to buy meat. What’s “to buy meat?”. “To buy meat.” How do you say it in Luo?” I suddenly needed to know.
“Adhi ng’ieo ring’o.” Difficult. ““Adhi ng’ieo ring’o.” I stumbled. You can imagine I didn’t get these elided vowel syllables down to a tee, but I managed to make myself understood, and I contented myself with that, and recapped.

“Adhi puodho ng’weto alot …and? and?  gi…gi adhi chiro ng’ieo ring’o”. Wow. I had just said:
“I’m going to the farm to pick vegetables and I’m going to the market to buy meat.”

“Kaeto?” I knew this. What was it? Ah yes. “And then?”

“Kaeto … adhi … kitchen!” I was very busy, wasn’t I, laden as I was with such locally-grown produce.
“Kaeto adhi jikon” “And then I’m going to the kitchen”. “Jikon. Kitchen.”

Hugh Graham-Marr describes in his excellent post push and pull (and ZPD and dogme) a way of looking at student-teacher interaction. A Push activity is one where language is pushed onto the student. “Read the text and answer the questions.” That’s Push. Pull, conversely, is when a student pulls, or draws the language out of the teacher. It is student-led, fulfils a need, is very much here and now, and very Dogme. I think it’s a wonderfully vivid analogy.

We were pushing and pulling, leading and following, prompting and persuading. I once did an evening course in Tai Chi, and just loved the activity where you both ever-so-lightly touch the back of your partner’s hand with the back of yours and mirror their movements. Throughout it, there are times when it’s you who is directing, and then you’re aware that your partner has gained the initiative. A silent hand dance, an activity brought to EFL by Mario and his peers, and when it works, you both know. Yin and yang. A team effort. It had been like this with Auma.

“Adhi jikon gi kaeto adhi tedo”. “I’m going to the kitchen and then I’m going to cook”. “Tedo alot gi ring’o”. “To cook vegetables and meat”, I affirmed.

“No salt?” She laughed. But that was for another day. I was exhausted. And hungry. “When’s mum back from the puodho?” The sun was getting low and night falls quickly at the equator.
“Ah, here she is! Mum, adhi tedo with you. What are we having?”
“Alot gi ring’o!” she called back.
“Ummm, sounds delicious!” And it was too.

She, Auma has of course never heard of Dogme, but for her it seems, no explanation is necessary.

I’ve learned that…

October 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

Inspired by Henrick’s post about creating the right conditions for learning, here is a language plant of Maya Angelou’s lovely quotation. Maya Angelou is an American author and poet, highly respected for her work on black civil rights.

Suggested activity:

Who makes you feel happy?
Who makes you feel scared?
When? Why?

Can you work out the quotation?

“I’ve learned that
people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget
how you made them feel.”

Kind words

October 20, 2010 § 2 Comments

“Kind words are short and easy to speak,
but their echoes are truly endless.”

Mother Teresa of Calcutta, 1910 – 1997

Mother Teresa was a nun from Albania with Indian citizenship. She worked with the poor and helpless in the streets of Calcutta, and won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

Suggested activity:

Can one of you be an echo for another learner? One “shout”, the other make the echo.

When was the last time someone said something nice to you? What was it?

When was the last time you said something nice to someone? Go on! Say something nice to your partner. And all the other learners. And don’t forget your poor, overworked teacher!

What does “echoes” mean here?


October 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

Here is a language plant in Portuguese. Can you work out the quotation, and a translation?

“Não tenhamos pressa,
mas não percamos tempo.”
José Saramago, 1922 – 2010

“Let us not rush,
but let us not waste time”

José Saramago was a Portuguese poet and Nobel Prize winner.

Suggested activity:

Present the language plant to the class. Can your learners work out its translation? Which words directly translate into English? If you have Portuguese speakers, what do they think is a suitable translation?

What quotations or proverbs exist in your learners’ language(s)? How do they translate?


Thanks to Cecilia Coelho for supplying this quotation.

I stand here…

October 18, 2010 § 5 Comments

Suggested activity:

Who do you think said this? When?
Why do you think this?
What is the actual quotation?

“I stand here today,
humbled by the task before us,
grateful for the trust you have bestowed,
mindful of the sacrifices borne by our ancestors.”

Barack Obama, 2009
The first words of his inaugural speech
as President of The United States of America.

If you would like to do interactive activities, please go to:

Within the heart…

October 18, 2010 § Leave a comment

Suggested activity:

What beautiful things are there in the world?
Which ones can you touch? See? Or hear?

Try to work out this quotation by Helen Keller, who was a deaf blind American author.

Copy the quotation in your books.

Using the language plant, try to make variations of the quotation.

“The best and most beautiful things in life
cannot be seen or even touched.
They must be felt within the heart.”

If you would like to do Puzzle, please visit:

Walk beside me

October 16, 2010 § 7 Comments

Suggested activity:

Do you have a best friend? Why do you like them?

Try to work out this quotation about friendship.

It is by Albert Camus a French Algerian author and philosopher, 1913 – 1960.

“Don’t walk in front of me: I may not follow.
Don’t walk behind be; I may not lead.
Just walk beside me and be my friend.”

Can you act this out and include dialogue to represent this quotation?


October 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

Here is a lovely quotation by Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884 -1962, wife of the US President, Franklin Roosevelt, and celebrated author and civil rights activist.

Suggested activity:

Elementary+ Learners work in pairs. Try to work out what the quotation is.

“Yesterday is history,
tomorrow is mystery,
today is a gift;
that is why we call it the present.”

Points to consider:

The two meanings of “present”.
The different spellings of “mystEry” and “histOry”

Where Am I?

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