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Pat on the Back

Author and presenter Patrick Jackson looks at the altruistic side of ELT.

December 20, 2013

A Celebration of Light: Lara’s Foundation


This morning in Ireland at a 5,000 year old Neolithic structure now called Newgrange, built on a hill overlooking the Boyne Valley, some cold and wet people will gather to welcome the sun. At 08:43, if they are lucky, our nearest star’s light will pass down the narrow passage that leads to the chamber at the very centre of the huge mound. The light enters the passage at the very darkest time of year, heralding a day that is only just over 7 hours long. It’s about continuity, hope and life beyond death. It’s about making sense of our time in this world - and celebrating.

Lara Jones shone brightly. She lived her life with a smile on her face. By the time she was 26 years old she had achieved a great deal. She skied, sang, played music and spoke Spanish and Portuguese. She had also travelled widely, to Mexico, Argentina, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, and Chile. Like many people who love travel, learning, people and fun, Lara was an EFL teacher. She is described as having a warm, fun teaching style. She was somebody who was giving so much and had so much more to offer this world.

Lara sought out sunny places and in March, 2012 was on holiday in Havana, Cuba. It was there that she became the victim of an apparently motiveless crime, dying at the hands of a hostel security guard who has never explained his actions and is now facing 22 years in prison after a secret confession and trial. It should be mentioned that this sort of crime is unheard of in Cuba and that Lara was an extremely cautious traveller.

Rather than succumb to the despair and darkness that accompany such devastating loss, the response of Lara’s family and friends has been such as to ensure that Lara’s light will shine on. In celebration of and with a view to continuing her teaching work, a foundation has been created in her name. Lara’s Foundation is dedicated to supporting EFL projects in under-resourced communities around the world, seeking to bring key individuals (such as teachers) to the UK and provide them with English language tuition. The Foundation also enables UK-based language teachers to travel to these communities to provide support and teach English there.

Please visit the foundation’s website and Facebook page to find out more about their work and how you can help. Donations are welcome and particularly appropriate at this time of year from anybody involved in English language teaching.

All of our lives are hot sparks from a great fire, floating up into the darkness to join the stars. All we can really do is join hands with our Neolithic forefathers to face and celebrate the light and its continuity. In the face of a devastating tragedy, but also in our everyday life, that is all we can - and must do.

Lara's Foundation: website, Twitter and Facebook.

Over the past few months, this column has celebrated the work of people and organisations in the English Language teaching world that inspire us all by building awareness, and working hard on the ground to make this world a better place. It’s been a pleasure finding out about their work and learning how all of them share the common aim of shining light into the darkness. Whatever this time of year means to you (and apologies to my friends in the Southern hemisphere) may the lengthening days bring health, happiness, warmth and good work to English teachers everywhere.

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November 02, 2013

Balancing the Boy Band

In the world of ELT, what or who comes to mind when you hear the words ‘plenary speaker’? I think of Ken Wilson, Jeremy Harmer and Scott Thornbury; all charming gentlemen of a certain age. They are repeatedly asked to speak for a number of reasons, primarily because they draw an audience to the conferences that they headline. They have earned the right to have people listen to them by writing popular methodology and teacher development materials and/or ELT courses. Over the years they have become the rock stars of the industry. Like many greying rockers, they now enjoy an avuncular relationship with their audiences, feted, fed and fawned over by the organisers and attendees.

They all give a cracking good talk that hits the right spot, pitched somewhere between methodology and something fun to take home and try out in the classroom on Monday. They enjoy their special position and handle it with charm; wining, dining and posing for photographs with their BFFs in their PLNs. They also enjoy the camaraderie of the industry and to my knowledge and experience are unfailingly gracious and supportive to the younger generation of presenters and authors snapping at their heels. Following their progress online means one never really has to travel any more. It’s a constant stream of sights, smiles and delicious dishes. Not what you would call a bum deal. So why would anyone have a problem with that? What’s not to like?

A glance at most conference schedules shows a line-up that is completely skewed gender-wise both in terms of the audience and the speakers on stage. Overwhelmingly, the plenaries are men and the audience are women. It is also skewed in favour of international visiting speakers rather than home-grown talent. The discussion about gender and NEST/non-NEST* imbalance has gone on in depth on both Jeremy Harmer’s and Ken Wilson’s blogs. Both of them are as uncomfortable with the status quo as anyone else. To make this point, I have seen Ken Wilson ask an audience of five hundred people to stand up, then go on in turn to ask the local women, the foreign women and then the local men to sit down. When he had done that, only Ken, myself and another of the plenary speakers was left standing. He had made his point.

The Fair List celebrates excellence of a different kind; the achievement of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters or speaker panels at ELT events, annually, in the UK.

This is something that ELT author, Tessa Woodward has set out to address by founding The Fair List. It’s an awareness-raising movement that celebrates the achievement of gender balance in plenary speakers, presenters or speaker panels at ELT events in the UK. The Fair List website is clear, entertaining and very informative. It contains information about the issue and specific help for conference organisers choosing speakers. There is also support for women who might have been feeling reluctant to get up and present. Tessa has deliberately restricted it to the UK but welcomes contact from people who would like to set up similar lists in other countries. I have a feeling that the idea is going to spread.

Tessa Woodward (rear, 3rd from left) at the The Fair List awards at IATEFL Conference, Liverpool 2013

At last year’s aforementioned conference, I gave my first plenary talk. It was Ken Wilson’s 9th consecutive time giving the plenary at that same conference. He was fabulous as ever but it somewhat resembled a One Direction concert. Okay, the audience weren’t 12 years old, but the gender ratios were pretty much the same. Isn’t it time for the world of ELT to grow up, and for some more women to step up? The Fair List is just the sort of action required if this is ever going to happen.

The Fair List website

* NEST = native English speaking teacher
NNEST or non-NEST = non-native English speaking teacher

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September 16, 2013

Be Clever. Be Givish!

I learnt a new word yesterday. I was visiting our local lifeboat station with a member of the Finnish Coast Guard - as one does in the wild and wonderful world of English language teaching. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution is a wonderful organisation entirely funded by voluntary donations. They save hundreds of lives a year. Our lifeboat was purchased with a donation of £2 million from a Scottish benefactor. The master of the lifeboat, praised his generosity saying that the man had been very ‘givish’.

As far as I know, Tokyo-based ELT author Marcos Benevides does not spend much time at sea in life or death situations. He teaches, he edits, he writes, he presents, he barbecues, he dreams and he schemes. He has also achieved great things in ELT, having picked up both a British Council ELTon and the HRH Duke of Edinburgh English Language Book Award for his co-authored book Fiction in Action: Whodunit. That project certainly deserved a pat on the back for being the first ever Creative Commons ELT coursebook. Basically that means it’s free to anyone who wants to download it. That’s pretty givish.

Half way there, and with the clock ticking I imagine things are pretty tense.

And right now, as you read this, Marcos is on a new mission - to fund an original series of multi-path books in easy English, exciting stories where the reader makes choices to create a different storyline every time they read. All the details are over on the project’s Kickstarter page, an entertaining roller coaster of a read in itself.

By raising $10,000, Atama-ii Books (that means ‘Clever Books’ in Japanese) will be able to produce 10 titles over the next year. If those are successful, more will follow. Unlike the RNLI though, this is not a donation. Pledgers will basically be buying the books in advance at a socking discount. Half way there, and with the clock ticking I imagine things are pretty tense. With a new baby in the Benevides household, I’m sure there is already enough sleeplessness, so it would be great if together we could put him out of his misery.

And there’s more.

Atama-ii books could break the mould for how certain types of ELT publishing project are financed. That’s great for everyone because although it has become easier for individuals and small publishing outfits to produce materials, it is harder for them to get the finances required to compete with the big publishers with their large editorial, design and marketing teams and high production values. Bigger publishers are also going through a process of change that might make it harder for smaller projects to get approved. Choppy waters for everyone but a bit of biodiversity won’t do any harm and there’s space in the sea for whales and whitebait.

So why does Marcos deserve a pat on the back? Well, I was talking to him a while back about the project and he suggested I might submit a proposal at some stage. Money-grubber that I am, the conversation immediately turned to the royalties he was planning to pay authors and went something like this:

Patrick: So…er…what sort of royalties are you going to pay your authors?
Marcos: 40% of net.
Patrick: Why am I now covered in coffee?

For those of you who haven’t dipped your toes into writing for royalties, they seem to range between 6% and 12% of net receipts. Atama-ii Books has somehow created a business model where they will be able to give authors a colossal raise of about 4 times the going rate.

The fundraising is now down to the wire so if you have any interest in how this story unfolds, please go over to the Kickstarter page and pledge something, however small. If you are a school owner or able to order books for your school, consider investing in a bunch of readers for your students. It’s a bargain. Also, as you will probably want to tell your friends about this, you could just cut and paste the following text into an email and send it to a few of your ELT contacts.

Hi ___,

I hope you don’t mind me sending this your way but Marcos Benevides, a good friend of mine in Japan is trying to raise funds for a very interesting publishing project and I know how you like to support a worthy cause. He is using Kickstarter to gather pledges that will be used to create the first ten in a series of innovative English language teaching readers based around the concept of the reader choosing their own path through the stories. All good fun, and a great way to make progress in English.

By pledging to support Atama-ii Books (that means ‘Clever Books’ in Japanese) you will receive the books as soon as they are published next year as well as some other presents, so if you are thinking of buying some readers for your students, now is probably the time. They have some good authors lined up, Marcos knows what he is doing and has an amazing track record and there is no doubt the final products will be great.

Warmest regards and thanks for being givish,


Here’s the link to the Kickstarter campaign page: Atama-ii Books: multiple-path stories in easy English!

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August 26, 2013

The NO Project: Rattling the chains of the 21st century slave trade

This is the third Pat on the Back. Writing these articles has brought me in contact with inspiring people. I’ve learned about positive changes in the world being made through the passionate commitment of these dedicated individuals. In the first article, I learned how the Good Child Foundation is harnessing the energy of tens of thousands of Celtic fans to progress the cause of inclusive education for Thai children with Down’s Syndrome. It seemed to be all about making links.

In the second article, I learned about the work of the Disabled Access Friendly campaign to raise awareness, through English teaching, of disability mobility and other issues surrounding disability. That was another story about action for inclusivity and fairness. It was Katie Quartano of the Disabled Access Friendly campaign who suggested that I contact Judy.

Judy is an English language teacher, teacher trainer, ELT author, actor and founder of The NO Project, a voluntary organisation raising awareness of the crime of human trafficking. It was Judy who gave me a very simple answer to the ever-nagging question, “How can I help?”

Would you really want to wear, eat or use a product that you knew was made by a slave? Another place, another time that could be your child. Or you.

K. S. Theodoridis (aged 15)
Artists against slavery

Human trafficking is an umbrella term encompassing a multitude of crimes against adults and children; crimes such as commercial sexual exploitation, the abuse of domestic servants, indentured labour and the mistreatment of agricultural and industrial labourers. There are an estimated 20-30 million victims of human trafficking in the world today.

While the term ‘trafficking’ implies movement of some sort, most of these crimes do not involve the movement of people but the exploitation of vulnerable people in various ways very close to home. Nowhere is untouched by this stain on our collective humanity. It’s global. It’s networked. In some cases it lurks in the shadows, but often it’s practiced openly, allowed to flourish by governments supporting industries that, put simply, use slaves. It is certain that some of your favourite products include slavery in the supply chain. This could be your morning cappuccino, a favourite T-shirt, the chocolate in your birthday cake, your wedding ring or the minerals in your beloved mobile phone.

The NO Project raises awareness and resources to fight these crimes.

If I were a human trafficker, I wouldn’t like to bump into Judy on a dark night. She’s filled with a relentless defiance, stoked by what she has seen and heard through her work on The NO Project. I’ve only spoken to her once and it was an eighty-minute Skype whirlwind. Based in Greece, she was just back in from Romania where she had been advising on a collaborative, nationwide anti-trafficking campaign with The NO Project. She was just heading off to Harvard for further meetings. I get the impression that she’s someone who keeps moving. Judy is descended from the 17th century scientist, Robert Boyle of Boyle’s Law fame. Like her ancestor, she is concerned with the application of constant pressure. Wherever Judy has found herself, she’s given of her time and energy to help victims of the dark side of humanity.

A few more scribbled notes from Judy’s rip-roaring life: Upbringing in a ‘forestry village in New Zealand (‘volcanic territory’…’pig hunters’). Campaigned against misguided sports teams playing in apartheid-era South Africa. Moved to London in the seventies to work as an actor. Worked with ELT teachers of refugees in Australia. Arrested for unlicensed street clowning in the heart of London. Worked with Sesame Street creator, the developmental psychologist Dr. Gerry Lesser. Researched ways in which children raised in chaos develop survival strategies (ask her about crib talk). Anti-racism work. Media messaging. Challenging status quo. Proactive. Fighter for Justice. Happened to read an article on commercial sexual exploitation that described a young foreign woman in Greece who hung herself in a toilet. It was the only apparent way out of her situation. Judy’s world flipped upside down. The NO Project.

Meanwhile, (where do these people get the time?), Judy has lived ‘the ELT dream’ and tells the story of it in a way that would inspire anyone to enter the industry; teaching and teacher training at International House, studying at Harvard Graduate School of Education, and authoring materials for Longman Pearson.

Human trafficking is not an ‘issue’. It’s the world’s fastest growing crime.

Myra Dracopoulos (aged 19)
Artists against slavery

But back to The NO Project. It stems from Judy’s belief that we should be using two main raw materials to teach; the energy, experiences and talents of our students themselves, and what’s going on in the world. Awareness of human trafficking is being raised through student creativity, particularly the visual arts, dance and film. The NO Project is relentless. Large scale public awareness campaigns have just run in Bulgaria and will be taking place throughout Romania starting in September – thanks to the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department of a European bank. Everyone involved in The NO Project works on a voluntary basis.

Judy explained to me how important it is that teachers should understand how every person, through their choices, can make a difference and that some of our students will become the policy makers of the future. She also described to me the feeling of satisfaction it gives her when a student tells her, years later, that a lesson she taught them changed their worldview. So, please take a look at some of the links below and spend some time on The NO Project website and Facebook page. And please share this wonderful work with your students.

As an ELT author, Judy is frustrated by how the global publishing industry has largely turned its back on content about human trafficking in their materials. It’s on her wish list that the major publishers should cease hiding from such an important educational matter that is directly concerned with the protection of people of all ages all over the world. Judy makes the powerful point that, 20 years ago, no ELT materials included content about environmental issues and nowadays you can’t open a course book without finding units on global warming, recycling or other eco matters. Judy hopes it will not take so long for our industry to address the global crime of human trafficking as further tens of millions of bodies and lives are bought and sold.

So, once you’ve spent some time on The NO Project website getting up to speed on the facts (and Judy reckons it is a very fast learning curve – a couple of hours is a good start), what can you do to help? This is the nagging question that I am grateful to Judy for answering for me.

Just do what you love to do.

If you love painting, paint. If you love writing, write. If you love talking to people, talk. If you love filmmaking, make films. Whatever it is that you love to do can be put to service of the good cause of raising awareness of human trafficking, or any other good cause for that matter.

I would love teachers to realise that there other educators all over the world confronting the crime of human trafficking in a respectful, dignified and creative way.

The more awareness there is of this crime, the more pressure will be put upon the powers that be to do something about it. Societies will be compelled to protect their most vulnerable members; the victims of traffickers who sniff out and prey on that very vulnerability. That millions suffer a living hell in our clever, high-tech new world is unacceptable; abandoned children driven around from apartment to apartment, repeatedly raped and then discarded, people who are so badly damaged by others that they never have the chance of anything resembling what you, reading this now, would call a life.

Just do it. Whatever it is. If you know what’s happening, and now you do, there really is no excuse.

Links to know more:

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July 26, 2013

Hey, Teacher! What are YOU for?

A friend of mine got a promotion and was being introduced to the team he would be managing at a well-known publisher. The person showing him around asked if anyone had any questions.

“What are you for?” came a voice from the back.

For good teachers, it’s an easy question to answer. They make the world a better place. Simple. Through their teaching, and the transformations they bring about in their students they have the power to initiate lasting and positive change. This month’s Pat on the Back goes to Katie Quartano, Paul Shaw and all who have volunteered their time and energy in support of the Disabled Access Friendly campaign.

Katie Quartano and Paul Shaw

If you’re reading this there is a pretty good chance you’re an English language teacher. There is also a good chance that you have a disability. How so? Well, according the World Report on Disability as many as 15% of people, that's 1 billion people worldwide are living with a disability, making up the largest of all minorities. Even if you don’t have a permanent disability or a disability right now, there is a good chance that at some time in your life that will change, perhaps when you get old, have an operation, or have an accident.

Listening to Katie Quartano talking about education and the work of the Disabled Access Friendly campaign will give you goose bumps. In my case, it has made me question my decision to leave day-to-day teaching five years ago. Learning about the Disabled Access Friendly campaign reminds us that education is not just about acquiring skills and knowledge but that it also embraces social improvement. Teachers are in a unique position to impact on the future through their teaching of well being, fairness, equality and truth. But you probably knew that.

“When we became teachers we all had a vision – the belief that making the world a better place lies at the heart of education”. Katie Quartano

The Disabled Access Friendly campaign goes back to an article written by Paul Shaw, an English teacher based in Greece. He wrote about his experiences as a wheelchair user. This article attracted attention and led to discussions and a decision to start a campaign that would harness the power of language teaching to bring about social change. The campaign meets a need. Issues about disability are often not addressed in the curriculum or in course books and students often know little or nothing about disability. They may or may not know someone who is disabled. It’s impossible to care about something you know nothing about so teachers providing information about life as a person with a disability are building the pathways for caring and action.

The Disabled Access Friendly campaign is centred around a website from which teachers can download free lessons and graded readings about mobility disability for all ages and levels with teacher’s notes. The materials, which come with teacher's notes, are arranged according to topic, target language and the students’ CEFR level and are easy to browse and download. There is no need to sign up, create a password, or any other barrier to entry. They are all completely, 100% free. There are approximately 60 lessons and 60 graded readings at the moment and the number is always growing. There are also guidelines about how to use the materials.

It’s a lot of work to create materials of this sort from scratch. If, like most teachers, you are run ragged and never have a moment to spare but would like to do something to sensitize your students to and inform your students about mobility disability, then the campaign’s supporters have done the hard work for you - and people doing your hard work for you is always a good thing! Judging by the great success of the website, which is getting 10,000 visits a month from 110 countries, this is a model that could be useful to all sorts of campaigns for all sorts of social issues.

There are also plenty of ideas and resources for ways to make real and immediate improvements in, for example, access to buildings or people’s care and consideration when parking cars. There are lessons that challenge attitudes to disability. There are lessons that put us in the shoes of a person with a mobility disability. There are lessons that teach people without disabilities about the etiquette around disability. There are lessons about overcoming barriers. Those are often barriers of the mind that people without disabilities have to overcome. As Quartano says, it’s about getting our students to question what they see and hear, and to give them the power to fill the gap between ideals and a real situation.

Has teaching the difference between the present simple and the present continuous become more important and more pressing than opening your students’ eyes to the world?

Another thing to love about the Disabled Friendly Access campaign is that this is an on-going group effort. The lessons on the website have been written by teachers and authors from all over the world, including some very well known names. They are always looking for contributions and this is a great opportunity to help by writing a lesson plan or a graded reading. It’s not just about the lessons and readings though. There is also an army of volunteers and people contributing in other ways, from presenting at conferences to editing, to putting up posters in schools. The campaign welcomes being contacted by people who are able to help in any way.

Writing this article has been an education for me. I’ve found myself angered at the widespread apathy and broken promises when it comes to creating fair access to even the most basic aspects of society, and disappointed in myself for never caring. It’s been interesting to learn about wheelchair etiquette but I embarrassed myself in pretty much my first email exchange with Katie by asking a question about Paul and how he had become a wheelchair user. There is a lot I would have been unaware of such as whether it is appropriate to offer to shake hands with someone with a prosthetic arm. Is it good manners to turn the conversation towards other people one knows who have a disability? There is also the discussion around how people with disabilities are portrayed in the media; heroes or victims, spongers or super-cripples, rarely just as ordinary people first, always with some sort of ‘angle’ that draws attention to how, well, disabled they are.

The Disabled Access Friendly campaign is fundamentally practical. They have some very specific calls to action. It’s really easy to get on board. You’ll be in good company and will have made the world a better place. It’s what you’re for, after all.

Things to do:

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