November 29, 2010 § 6 Comments

“Get it wrong, and a speech can feel like an eternity;
get it right, and its words can last for a lifetime”

Last time out, I mentioned some techniques in the art of rhetoric. Another straightforward one is to use opposites, from virtually any word class, yet despite its obvious simplicity, employing dramatic sounding contrasts can have a pronounced and stark effect. The above language plant is an example I came up with. It’s pertinent too, as will become clear.

Dogme Challenge#8 is all about excuses, about why teachers say Dogme is not possible or ineffective in their specific teaching situation.

It’s a secondary school, my “specific teaching situation” where I’ll be speaking this coming week, in a morning assembly, about the benefits of studying a foreign language. As with many situations one finds oneself in, it’s a convoluted and twisted tale of serendipity stretching back over a number of years, and last week, so as to be able to engage with my captive audience the more so, I asked to watch and be part of some lessons throughout the day and get a feel for the classroom atmosphere. I have learned the plot of Macbeth and heard yelps of success in French. And I was both heartened and disturbed with what I witnessed.

I want to connect with the children, so they can see I’m one of them, just a bit older, and with a bit more experience under my belt. One teacher sent me a link to Steve Job’s inspirational speech, and which I’d encourage you to watch too.

I’ll probably intertwine my story, how I loved all the different countries I read about in books, and how I travelled across Europe on a shoestring in a camper van and ended up in Hungary in the middle of nowhere just after the fall of communism and knocked on the door of a school and talked to a lady who I thought was the cleaner but who was the deputy head and who gave me a job when I showed her my diploma and joined the English classes I taught because she wanted to learn English from the first western European to live in her little town. They’ll like that, won’t they?

I’ll tell them how my love affair with learning came after I had waved farewell to my formal education and had excitedly enrolled at the university of life and how daydreaming and drawing and an understanding of a theory of non-linear learning that Willy will be expounding in France and a theory of language that explores collocations and the dynamic relations and patterns among words (that Willy will be expounding in France) resulted in none other than those pretty little language plants that are now sprouting up in David’s classes too in his reflective post. I’ll invite a volunteer, young or old, to do an interactive activity from Language Garden that the school have just bought. That’s the main reason I’m there, after all. That’s the easy bit.

But will I have the courage to say some of the fragile thoughts that have been emerging in my head this week?

Will I say we cannot measure learning on linear scales, that learning is not assessable and predictable, and that continually testing is counter-productive, and appeals to the haves, but not the have-nots?

Will I tell them that teachers can feel just as prodded and pressed by forces beyond their control as they themselves often do? That teachers feel the love they have for their subject is often stifled and strangled?

Will I say that when a grown-up asks what you want to be when you’re older, it’s fine to say I don’t know, I have no idea, that it’s only when you look back that you can say ahhh, now it makes sense?

It’s an inner city school, 98% Asian, and bilingualism amongst them and their families is common. I will tell them how impressive it is to be able to speak another language with confidence and finesse, and how learning a language can be great fun and open many doors.  I think I will show them the little language plant I made in French with one French teacher.

But will I say that stolid teaching and rigid syllabuses, like Rick’s latest post on the politics of education, is anathema? This is treading on thin ice. Or that the next time you’re being naughty, ask yourself why? Alfie Kohn’s book Beyond Discipline, which is absorbing me currently, questions the rules and roles of authority. Should I let them in on this pernicious secret? Wouldn’t asking your teacher why you were doing something, and not accepting “because it’s in the exam” as an answer just hold them up as sacrificial lambs to Karenne’s rallying cry? And I’ll be sipping coffee and nibbling biscuits with the teachers afterwards, don’t forget.

Another simple rhetorical technique is to clash a negative and positive statement, a “not this but that” statement. This one is just beautiful.

“Courage is not the towering oak that sees storms come and go.
It is the fragile blossom that opens in the snow.”
Alice Mackenzie Swaim

Education (x3)

November 22, 2010 § 3 Comments

When I started this blog, I was fresh off the back of reading a highly illuminating and enjoyable book on the art of rhetoric, and had intended to include what I was learning as part of my posts. For example, the rule of three, saying three little words or phrases in a speech, is so paramount, that even just repeating a word twice more can warrant a standing ovation. “Education, education, education” is our mantra too, even if, without the need to repeat words visually, it ain’t much of a language plant. (The more observant of you will see the slither of red I couldn’t resist putting in running across the top, and the red “e”, showing the verb “educate” from which it is derived).

I have been out and about these last few days, so much so that my blog has been woefully neglected, neglected instead for the warmth of a handshake and the sweetness of a smile. I’ve actually been attending various conferences and exhibitions, and I know that many are looking forward to TESOL France and the brotherhood and fraternity it will foster. There have been some very informative posts on the value of conferences and teacher training courses from the point of view of professional development, and I concur with those who say that to be inspired, listen to a speaker; to change your behaviour, embark on a course.

I have particularly liked John, in Training ELT Teachers, Scott Thornbury
and, although wildly behind the times, agree that Marisa’s post on Kalinago English takes the biscuit.

I will watch and contribute to the growth of Shelly’s and Greta’s collaborative effort as something impressive and worthwhile.

I have met some lovely people these last few days. I really do enjoy it.

As part of my tour of the south-east of England, I was invited to attend one morning of a 7-module course for teachers of advanced EAL learners in UK state schools. EAL means English as an Additional Language, so here we are talking about children who speak English fluently in the playground, but do not have the ability to write well enough in exams to get good grades. The demographics of the UK necessitate addressing this head on.

A large offering of the course is grammatical knowledge, Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics to be exact, and the teacher trainers know it inside out. Scott mentions it in his video, it’s number 5 on his list, and pleasing to him because it looks at grammar in context, presents a sentence with its co-text. Sentences are still parsed into subjects, predicates, objects and adverbials, but learners generally understand these in terms of who is doing what to whom, and where and when, why and how.

Nominalisation is also key to improving EAL learners’ writing of academic genres. Well, I say EAL learners, but this too can merge into mainstream teaching. The amount of information that is packed into a sentence like “condensation falls as precipitation” is staggering, and a good science teacher will not just expose learners to this type of language, but draw attention to how the verbs have become nouns as an act of consciousness-raising. This last phrase is quoted from Scott’s video once more.

It is an uncertain time for many EAL teachers due to economics and the politics it spawns, though one teacher I met has used this to improve her standing and importance. It was quite funny too for, as is common for me these days, when a conversation directs itself towards current theories and advances in teaching, I bring up Dogme, especially with those who I feel agree with the principle of learner autonomy, even though I don’t expect them to have actually heard of the term, or of Scott or Luke. But this teacher had been taught by the very man himself in Barcelona, and although she had originally been employed as an EAL teacher in a massive private school, which like many in the UK are now relying on higher numbers of fee-paying international students to operate, had set herself up as a teacher trainer for the whole school, improving the language knowledge and teaching skills of her colleagues. I was extremely impressed with her and her career move.

The next simplest rhetorical trick is to come up with three different words, if possible with a rhyme or rhythm that catches the ear and changes the world. When you know what to look out for, you realise they’re everywhere, and I think I’d like to mention a few more of these over the coming weeks. After all, teacher education is riding high, especially in France next week. I hope you all enjoy it very much indeed.


November 17, 2010 § 10 Comments

“The fish in the water is silent
The animal on the land is noisy
The bird in the air is singing…”

You know Desert Island Discs? It’s a programme on BBC Radio 4 where famous guests interweave their life story with their favourite songs and, stranded on a desert island, also get to take one luxury item with them. My choice, and until I’m on it, I will defer plumping for either, is between a piano and reams of paper and pencils with which to make language plants. If I chose this latter one, any lost soul would in years to come, I hope, marvel at the magnificent tome I would have created with only the golden sands and white surf to break my concentration during an afternoon. Should I choose the former, then there would be no trace of all the sounds that had drifted out across past the moonlight and into the emptiness above the waves.

The debate this week has centred on the merits and drawbacks of NESTs and NNESTs. Cecilia, Rick, and Richard have all perfectly summed up the debate of Challenge#6, and I don’t feel I can add to them.

A few years ago, my next-door neighbours were a lovely Sri Lankan family, three young boys under ten, two youthful parents and an aging grandmother. We first met when I went out into the back garden to throw their ball back over the garden fence that they were calling for, and within a few weeks or thereabouts, I was giving the eldest one lessons in English and maths. That stray kick cost the father more than he could have ever known.

I started playing the piano when I five, and gave up when I was eleven. Really, it wasn’t my fault, my first teacher moved away, he was nice, a plumpish jovial little bald old man who used to peer over his half-moon specs when he was reading the music and gave me nice pieces to play like Riding in the Park, just a little tune with the left hand clip-clopping along under the melody.

Sombreness took his place. Cloaked in the respectability of pastel cardigans and ruffed blouses and with a baby grand in the bay window overlooking the pristine lawn and flower bed, this talented pianist exhaled the very soul from my music, forcing upon me the most obscure ponderous washed out dirges that had ever seen the light of day. She wouldn’t even play them for me first so I at least had a fighting chance of working out all those grating chords and dismal melodies.

Priya’s English and maths were progressing nicely, and I suggested to his dad whether he’d like Priya to have piano lessons too, and that’s how I found myself teaching music. No exams to aim for, just Priya, a piano and me.

You see, my musical tale has a happy ending, one day at school, when I was 16, a friend of mine in the music room bashed out a honky tonk Scott Joplin ragtime, I came home from school and played my first notes in 5 years, and have kept it up ever since, so I felt able to teach this little boy, armed as I with an understanding and appreciation of harmony, rhythm and melody, and with Dogmeic principles of teaching that I felt could be equally well deployed in this sweet-sounding setting.

We got him playing two, three finger chords, and dueted all the time, me supplying a steady beat, Priya rhapsodising above, then vice versa, pink ponk pink ponk, and learning how to tuck his thumb under his fingers so he could start at the very bottom note and walk his way up, literally, with his fingers and feet all the way to the high notes and back down again without ever taking his hand off the keyboard or getting his fingers twisted inside out and back to front. He composed pieces about his teachers, big bass drumming for the heavy footsteps and booming voice of Mr Moore and tinkly trills for the high heels and happy giggles of Miss Peters.

I’ve had an opinion on NESTs and NNESTs for a long time. If I’m going to judge teachers, and I do, then I can say that I think I’ve seen and experienced good and bad of both. It personally doesn’t really bother me. I don’t think it’s the most important issue. Personality, subject knowledge and an ability to enable learning to take place in all its many guises, shall I even say teaching? don’t seem to belong to the preserve of, we can say, an arbitrarily defined group of people.

“…but man has in him
the silence of the sea
the noise of the land
and the music of the air.”

Rabindranath Tagore

By the way, I once taught this poem to ESOL learners and got them all to translate it into their own languages and recite it to the others. And of course they drew pretty pictures and lovely language plants.

Listen and observe

November 12, 2010 § 12 Comments

“Always aim at complete harmony of thought and word and deed.
Always aim at purifying your thoughts and everything will be well.”
Mahatma Gandhi

Cecilia and David found harmony together this week at Box of Chocolates. Willy literally found it with himself and his guitar at Authentic Teaching. On a different note, Ceri, in Close Up is searching for harmony in her classroom by integrating new technology with the “traditional” whiteboard and pen, which I am finding intriguing. There are many blogs where our learner’s voice is still resounding loud and clear, and for me one in particular shines through, Greta’s About a teacher, resplendent with stories where a learner’s voice can be heard only, we realise of course, after we first let ourselves love them. The stories have moved people to tears.

But it’s the windy weather that’s blown me towards this post. 60 mile an hour gusts, that’s 100km, if you need the conversion. The leaves were dancing all around yesterday morning, it made my mam (that’s the Welsh spelling) sing a song in the car:

“Come little leaves” said the wind one day.
“Come to the meadow with me and play.”
“Put on your dresses of red and gold
The summer is gone and the days are cold.”

It’s true. The landscape has been transformed in one almighty puff, and now the naked branches stand silhouetted against the red horizon, just like the one painted by our friendly scouser Kirsten in Kite Flying.

I personally find harmony in creating language plants. It’s when time stands still, as they say. And if, like Mike Harrison and Kirsten, who seems to have caught the bug, and her teenage learners too, if you fancy having a go, well, go outside and stare at a bare wintry tree, or find one from your window like I’m doing now standing proudly behind the garden fence and observe, there are no straight lines in nature, not when the trunk turns into boughs, or when the boughs become branches, or the branches break up into twigs.

Mike’s posted another activity. Don’t worry, I’ve asked his permission, and he’s happy to see his linear post metamorphose into something more organic.

The activity he describes gets learners to use more descriptive vocabulary. It’s a problem he’s encountered throughout his career, and me, and it is something I hear primary teachers pleading for too. Mike’s written a letter splattered throughout with the word “nice”. Everything is nice.

Nice food
nice weekend
nice weather
nice day

How unappealing. So:

Write “nice”. Write it big, like a trunk of a tree. Branch these other words off from it. Spread your fingers wide and see how they point out at different angles.

But let’s increase our learners vocabulary:

Write “meal”. Write it big. We’re going to attach different adjectives to it. Look at your palm again. It’s so much bigger than your fingers. It has to be, so they can all fit on. What’s your favourite meal? Ummm, delicious! Very tasty. Can you cook it for me? Oh, well can your mum? I know, next lesson, get you mum to cook it for me and you can bring it in. Will you do that? Will you ask her? What do you mean 20 euros!

We’ll attach these adjectives onto “meal”. Oh yes, you’ll have to quickly calculate how much room you’ll need. I bet you’ve laughed too when you’ve seen a shop sign start off boldly and brazenly and then, uh-oh, not enough room, the final letters are sheepishly squeezed and squashed in. Give the learners the pen. The Wandrous Whiteboard Challenge is about giving learners a written voice.

You can use colour too. Do you remember Mike did in the last post? He used it systematically, there was thinking behind it. Personally, I love using colour, and encourage my learners to beautify their books. Have you ever done that? It touches many, and I’m sure you can imagine how much nicer their notebooks look. I think scientists say our brains produce lovely smooth beta waves when we do it, a relaxing calming effect. I will hopefully never forget two little girls, like the two in the picture I have for the language plant “Walk beside me”, who came hand-in-hand in delegation to me after a lesson I had given with language plants to offer me their conclusion. “We like the colours” they quietly affirmed, and I just had to agree. Pride in their work, revision and recycling, a visual voice, if I may resort to synaesthesia. These are strong beliefs I hold.

As Kirsten’s learners said: “Cool”,  and “This lesson was funny”. When I listen to my learner’s voice, these are the kind of words I want to hear.

A warm smile

November 9, 2010 § 13 Comments

I have been enlightened and educated by some recent blogs on grammar and how to teach it, and on the nature of education in schools and the role and respectability of the teacher. Rick’s gloomy thoughts in Doing some thinking are not new. On BBC Radio 4 at the moment, the book of the week is about Mark Twain, who one hundred years ago and counting was a fierce critic of formal, institutionalised learning. “I have never let schooling interfere with my education” he quips, with serious undertones.

There are of course always rays of optimism, such as the inspiring interview that Shelly conducts with Tom King in the Teacher Reboot Camp, founder of the Saturn school in the US, where he describes how he paid the teachers more than the principal, music to Rick’s ears, and where students learn from each other, and where competition and assessment is relegated. As they both concur, standardised testing, and multiple choice in particular, is not and cannot be an accurate measure of a learner’s understanding.

In relation to language plants, and the organic nature of learning that I adhere to, I picture continual testing as like digging up a tender shoot every few days to see how well the roots are bedding in. I can only imagine the anguish this would cause the poor little plant, but we all too often see it on the faces of learners. Woe betide Willy if he has a Christmas test on Fractals lined up for us all, after asking us to rejoice at their beauty last week. His latest post, Conform to Conformity fits with this theme, and has a little rap to boot.

The recent ELTchat on grammar has been excellently summarised by Richard, at I’d like to think that I help people learn English.

And even with all the different perspectives on learner autonomy and coursebooks, it seems grammar is at the heart of everything we do. David, at Reflections of a Teacher and Learner describes his communicative grammar lessons with young learners. Simply by taking a pencil case in hand, “I’ve got a pencil case” suddenly has meaning in the here and now. Karenne always takes great pains to state she is not anti-grammar. But then again, how could she be? A grammar defines the rules that a language employs so words can connect together to give meaning. Otherwise would learners her words order put any in. Focusing on emergent language, I understand it to mean, means focusing on emergent grammar and emergent words, the new little branches that sprout naturally in human minds.

The thing is, grammar, and here I refer to those cumbersome rules encapsulated by the term “Third Conditional”, is easy to teach, and to test. Easy to teach in the sense that it is easy to get through a pre-packaged amount. Easy to test, because you can make a gapfill and get the computer to mark it. Conversely, a Dogme exam could really only be prepared after the course has taken place. Well, some bits would be predictable and predicted, but there would be many unplanned language chunks that had cropped up as part of natural conversation, and which is what help make Dogme courses unique, personal and so potentially rewarding.

However, my favourite post of the week is the one by Mike Harrison. Just a little post. Nothing spectacular. No big words. Few words at all actually. But what he’s done is what Tao Te(a)Ching mentions in his post, where the Tao describes how by losing the unnecessary, we gain. What has Mike lost? Redundancy. Redundancy of words. Repetition, unnecessary clutter. What has he been rewarded with? A language plant! And he’s been kind enough to post it for everyone to see at It’s actually the one at the start of this post, the one with a warm smile. Look how he’s used colour to show singular and plural nouns, and matched “a” with the singular ones. That’s nice, don’t you think?

So, for people like Rick and Willy, and Shelly and Tom, and Diarmuid and Mike, and anyone like them, I offer these words by the German philosopher Goethe.

“I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element.
It is my personal approach that creates the climate.
It is my daily mood that makes the weather.
I possess tremendous power to make life miserable or joyous.
I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration,
I can humiliate or humour, hurt or heal.
In all situations, it is my response that decides whether
a crisis is escalated or de-escalated,
and a person is humanised or de-humanised.”

It’s all about them

November 6, 2010 § 14 Comments

Some people have just got it, haven’t they? Magnetism I’m talking about. Meeting someone with it makes me proud to be alive and part of this wonderful universe that Willy is so excited about too in his Authentic Teaching. I’ve cheated here and used a language plant I’ve used before by Maya Angelou, but it does sum up the sentiments I wish to express here perfectly.

“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.”

I was visiting a school a couple of weeks ago, observing a class of eight 12-year olds with special needs who were having extra support with literacy. I was escorted to the classroom by their teacher and came across the children waiting quietly outside. They were polite, issuing timid hellos and gentle smiles with pursed lips, without wanting to hold my gaze. And then there was Annabelle-Jo.

“Hello, are you Mr Warr? We’ve been expecting you. Welcome to our class. I like your tie! My name’s Annabelle-Jo by the way, but you can call me AJ. All my friends do.” Mirroring her words, she was reaching out and offering her hand in a warm welcoming gesture.

“Thank you most kindly, AJ. It is a pleasure to be here,” I beamed back at her, giving her hand a good firm shake.

So here’s a question for you. You’ve been invited to a party, but you’re going to know hardly anyone there. How does this make you feel? It can be daunting when you first walk in to the room, scan for friendly faces and, shock horror, not a soul you know. What to do?

Well, you should read this book, First Impressions. In it, you learn how you’re not alone, how loads of us are self-conscious and worry about what others think, how embarrassed we can get about the most trifling of issues. In fact, most of us go through three predictable stages when we meet someone for the first time. Of course, some cut these stages out all together, either consciously or intuitively, and leapfrog to stage four. They’re the ones with magnetism.

I see it in Cecilia’s post on Ken Wilson’s Blog about really listening to the student, and it resonates with the Dogme Challenges, including the most recent, #5, giving students a voice.

So you find yourself talking to someone at TESOL France, a young man let’s say. He’s introduced himself, he seems confident and sociable, and before you know it, you find yourself at stage 1: How am I feeling about myself? Let’s take stock here. I’m still alive, that’s a start. He’s not laughing at me, that’s good. Have I got anything stuck in my teeth? Hope not. It’s all so self-conscious. It’s all so me me me.

But the conversation progresses and you move on to stage 2: how do I feel about him? Do I like him? Is he interesting? Does he slurp when he drinks? You start making judgments, assessments. And if these turn out positive, then you will naturally be curious about what he thinks of you. That’s stage 3. Does he find my anecdotes amusing, my wisdom insightful, my new hairstyle chic?

And that’s where most of us remain, wondering what others think of us.

But stage 4! The only combination not yet explored, but the most powerful by far. As I said, you can jump straight there, and people will like you, because you have their interests at heart, you’re putting their feelings and needs before your own. You’re thinking: how do they feel about themselves?

Magnetism comes in many different shapes and sizes, that’s the beauty of it, and it matches teacher roles closely. So in class, learners can feel truly valued, that their voice is heard, as they do in the delightful story at Sabrina’s Weblog. They may find they have a connection with us in some way, as all the learners seemed to get in Candy’s autumnal collection. At times, they may feel enlightened, like Willy’s doing to us with his fractals. And sometimes our learners can feel entertained, so that their spirits are raised and their worries fade. It’s simple. It’s about reaching out to others, just like Annabelle-Jo.

Sense and memorability

November 2, 2010 § 9 Comments

I have found the discussions and lesson feedback on materials-light lessons very interesting and useful. The Wandrous Whiteboard challenge has inspired many teachers. Karenne has unwittingly been involved in a number of tête-à-têtes, with Willy at Authentic Teaching and Diarmuid at Tao Te(a)Ching. Both David at Reflections of a Teacher and Learner and most recently Nick at Turklish TEFL raise an interesting point, the crux of the Dogme issue it seems to me. They argue that materials-light lessons are not necessarily Dogme lessons, while teachers using a coursebook can still unplug their teaching at different stages during the lesson. I mention this as it seems to be important to many, if not all teachers, and I have read comments about being tied to a coursebook but wanting to escape somehow. I’d like to present a favourite activity of EFL, which takes a bit of nerve to try out at first, but which is definitely worth it! It’s a Guided Visualisation.

Just quickly, there is a very funny talk by Sir Ken Robinson. He is talking primarily about teaching children in schools, not EFL, but I feel the point he makes applies equally well in this context. The tenet is that literacy and creativity must be taught together whereas currently, creativity is stifled in many schools where exam results take precedence. Where I see the connection is that I understand Dogme theory to be essentially about trying to create optimal conditions, with plenty of affordances, where learners, adults in many cases, are in a childlike state of wonderment with the world and everything in it, and want to talk about what they are having for dinner later, or why they like the colour green, or who they would rather be with at this particular moment (Teaching Unplugged, p.47 “Where I’d rather be”).

As Picasso said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.”

So, there’s a reading text in an EFL book about the Sultan of Brunei’s house. The Sultan is, or was maybe, the richest man in the world, and as one would expect of the richest man in the world, his house is rather opulent. And you are going to read the text about it, and then answer the questions. But before that, imagine…close your eyes if you feel comfortable doing so, imagine you’ve been invited to this house. You can look around the richest man in the world’s house! You arrive at the front gates. What do they look like? Are they big? Strong? Can you see through them? How high are they? You walk inside, into the garden. Stop and look around. Take a deep breath. What can you see? Trees? Flowers? What do they smell like? Can you hear anything? Birds? Animals? What do they sound like? You walk up to the front door. Touch it. Feel it. What does it feel like? And finally you enter the house. What is the room? Is it a hall? How big is it? What does it look like? Is there a carpet? Or is it a wooden floor? You choose a door and go through. Where does it lead to?

and so on.

As the trainer said, and as has happened every single time I’ve done a guided visualisation, by building up the story, but not letting your learners talk too soon, when you do eventually say “OK, tell your partner everything!”, they can’t contain themselves. There’s just too much to say! And the number of follow-on activities, you can imagine, is enormous. What can’t you do with so much imagery in every learner’s head?

What would you do?

Where Am I?

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