One year later...

There must be something about public holidays and blogging.

One year after my last post on this still incipient blog, I came back to Squarespace (the host server) after being notified that my account had expired.

I hesitated between giving it up and starting anew on a free platform, and then thought of all of the information I would have lost.

So, I caught up on my monthly fees and am back here -- at least for now.

I'm a bit disappointed that the Squarespace platform doesn't seem to be bursting with new features since I last used it, and am wondering if my $8.00 a month fee is really worth it.

I was also pleased to discover that I had actually managed to write a couple halfway decent posts about teaching here. There is food for thought, and there are thoughts to come back to...




Letting the students run the show

In my business school courses, I'm lucky enough to have the same students for three years. In between their second and third year, they do an internship abroad, and they come back pretty keen and capable as far as their English skills go.

Giving their third year class some extra zip and zing is always a challenge; not that my classes in years one and two aren't zippy and zingy --at least at times! But there is a risk of getting into a routine when one has the same students over a long period of time.

Last year, already inspired by my PLN and various ELT-related reading, I tried to open up the class to student-led or student-found projects, subjects and material.

"Tried to" is the operative here. The idea was a flop.

The course itself wasn't, as I had plenty of other tricks up my sleeve. But I was a bit disappointed that my venture had not worked out.

The group of students in question had seemed motivated about the idea of a partially "open format" class where their "work" (I gave little if any homework) would consist in coming to class with ideas for activities and other contributions. But in reality, when I "opened the floor" at the beginning of each class, there was never anything there.

My post-game analysis of the situation hinged on 3 points:

1.) Cultural differences: students in France are virtually never confronted with this sort of approach, and likely had no idea of what to do with it.

2.) I gave up too easily: when I saw the lack of feedback, I didn't insist or reiterate the idea. I felt we had communicated well about it at the beginning of the course and if it didn't work, maybe it just wasn't meant to be.

3. My set-up was too open-ended: I think I had communicated well about the philosophy of what we could do together, but had kept the expectations and possibilities so vague that the students didn't have anything to build on. This point may be connected to my first one, but looking back I still find my explanations hopelessly fuzzy.

The idea kept working at me, though, so this year I decided to give it another go in a clearer and more structured format.

So now, at the end of every 3rd year class, two students are "assigned" to prepare and lead about 15 minutes of classroom activity during the next class. Other than that, there are only two rules:

1. Volunteering is preferred, but if nobody volunteers, one student will be chosen at random and that student can choose his or her partner.

2. The prepared activity must involve a high proportion of discussion or other speaking time.

Two classes ago, I assigned our first student-led activity, and was pleased to see I quickly got volunteers. And last week, classes (I have two groups doing the same course) kicked off with it.

I was astounded by the results.

Both pairs had obviously taken their task seriously, but without over-preparing either, thus leaving enough room for letting discussion happen. Their approaches were clearly different -- how could they not be? -- but both captivated the class and led to engaging discussions.

The first pair presented, with no notes or other supports, a brief history of the cinema, then moved onto the subject of 3D movies and, especially, whether they could represent a solution to the problem of illegal downloading. The student leaders then got the class to give their opinion about 3D, downloading movies, and the connection between the two.

The ensuing discussion came to a relatively quick close as the subject was a bit narrow -- but admirably so, as the pair totally avoided the banal "what sort of movies do you go to" exchange, and probably actually taught something to some members of the class. (I for one was not that aware that 3D was being bantied about as a way to slow down illegal movie downloading.)

As the students discussed, I was able to note a few grammar points that I turned into an impromptu "work in pairs to find the error" activity that seemed to be a very natural extension to the presentation. I had done absolutely no correction or commenting during the discussion, and while I noted a number of grammar errors, during the 10+ minutes of student-led time, I was able to calmly sort out a few that were worth dealing with.

The pair in the other class had prepared a short Powerpoint about tattoos, briefly explaining their history and quickly leading into a debate about whether students would get or already had tattoos, if tattoos lead to discrimination in the workplace, and what they had noticed about tattoos during their foreign internship.

This was a dynamite topic, and the debate carried on far beyond the 15-minute "suggested time" period, but I just let it flow. I came to the conclusion that this was a topic that was much better off student-led; I would have felt a bit uncomfortable asking the class "So, who has a tattoo?" But the question, when asked by other students, went over without any discomfort.

This group did not "benefit" from any grammar feedback, but they went further in reaching points on the class syllabus (employment issues, cultural differences...) so I figured it all balanced out.

The two pairs involved definitely set high standards for future student-led activities, and I can't wait to see what comes up next. And the best thing is, I'm quite sure my students can't wait either.




Oh, I just don't know where to begin

It's been at least a year now since I got swept into the TEFL/TESL Twitterverse, and also since I started this modest website that is used to an even more modest extent by my students.

Writing a teaching blog is a logical step in this progression. In fact, it's probably the step that logically should have preceded my involvement in tweetville and setting up a teaching website. But things didn't happen that way, and as I often tell my students, it's never too late.

Although I'm no stranger to blogging, plunging into the educational blog world is somehow especially daunting.

Teaching can't be compared to a quaint photo of Aveyron, or what I cooked for Easter in 2007. It's my life's work, I care about it deeply, and well, of course I want to come off as someone with at least half a brain.

But then again, I'm no shimmering star in the TEFL firmament, so I know that I'm not going to come up with anything earth-shaking in this first post...or perhaps in any post in the near future. So we're looking at long-term thinking here.

And where to begin?

Thankfully, I got a nice suggestion from -- of course -- a Twitter contact. After I got rather awkwardly involved in a dogme debate on her blog The Island Weekly, Anne Hodgson encouraged me to start this blog simply: "How about just a list of issues you want to deal with?"

So, here we go.


  • Why do I feel that liking grammar needs to be my guilty little secret? One of my co-teachers and I admitted to each other last week that we had both adored learning French grammar in college, but we almost felt like we needed to make some sort of pact that this wouldn't interfere with our English classes.
  • In the EFL blogosphere and Twitterverse, where are all of the French teachers of English, or anyone teaching English in France for that matter?  Oh yes, besides her of course. Is it really normal that I have so many more online teacher contacts based in Turkey than in France?
  • How can we make teaching business English lively and relevant to college/university students who aren't in the business world yet? I actually have some ideas about this since it is pretty much the only type of teaching I'm involved with, but I do think it's an interesting question.
  • How can I balance my teaching beliefs with the fact that all of my students have to take a national exam or a standardized test? I'll probably have a few things to write about on this one too, including examining another of my guilty little secrets...
  • How can I better integrate strategies to deal with multi-level classes?  ALL of my classes are multi-level, and when I say multi-, I mean multi-! In a class of 16 students, it's not unusual for me to have a range from low A2 to bilingual. I'm sure I've figured out a number of strategies already, as the majority of my students do make progress, but I'd like to better qualify what these strategies are and pick up new ones.
  • Pick up? Of course, how can I get my students to use phrasal verbs more? My students seem to have an uncanny ability to get by without them, but I may be their enabler...

Tout a un début...