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Think Tank

This Month's Think Tank Panel

December 2009

Topic: What Are You Thinking About / Presenting at Conferences These Days?

Chuck Sandy

Connection, Collaboration, and Community

As a university student and later as a young teacher, I loved the line "only connect" from E.M. Forester's book Howard's End so much that I copied it out in my best calligraphy and taped it above my desk. In those days of typewriters and expensive travel, the best I could do to connect, though, was with classmates and colleagues on a local level in one sense, once in a great while at conferences in another sense, and through books in yet another.

Thirty years later, though, the Internet has opened the world up and increased the possibilities for connection – just at a time in my life when I found myself craving for it even more than I did in my younger days. I praise whatever powers made this possible, for as someone easing his way into his fifties while teaching in a small university department while living in a foreign country in an area best described as rural, I found myself not only craving connection, but also hungering for community and collaboration. What I've found is that there are an awful of teachers out there in the world who are hungering for the same thing.
What I wanted was a virtual teachers' room, a place where educators from anywhere -- no matter how isolated they might be in the physical sense -- could share concerns, float ideas, ask questions, reach out, and come together.
About a year ago, I started building an online teachers' discussion group on Facebook – that application which has become such a daily part of so many people's lives. What I wanted was a virtual teachers' room, a place where educators from anywhere -- no matter how isolated they might be in the physical sense -- could share concerns, float ideas, ask questions, reach out, and come together. This is exactly what's happened. At the time of writing, there are over two thousand people involved in the online discussion group I started, and while not everyone actively participates, a constantly expanding core group of a hundred educators or so have formed what can only be called a community.

Though I do not know these people in the traditional sense of knowing them, I've come to share their teaching lives in some very real way and have come to think of them as colleagues. And like with any group of colleagues who spend a great deal of time talking with one another, new ideas and projects come into being as connections form and take shape. To give you just a few examples: I'm currently working with a teacher in Iran on a paper about dissimulative motivation, cultivating a group of educators in Indonesia, Korea, Thailand, China, Japan, and the US as writers for a possible new online journal, while also developing ideas for a new textbook series with the community at large. This sort of collaboration from this diverse a community was not anything I even imagined possible thirty years ago when my aim was to only connect, and even now, I'm amazed every single day by this new world of possibilities for community and collaboration.

Meanwhile, I've also found myself thrust into the role of virtual mentor to hundreds of new teachers from around the world who join in to ask those most basic of questions: How do I motivate my students? How can I make my lessons more interesting? What sort of stance should I take in the classroom? How much homework should I give? How can I deal with difficult colleagues? How can I be a better teacher?" Though these questions get asked again and again and may seem old hat to veteran educators, they're brand new and of immediate and central concern to those asking them -- and it's essential that these questions get answered by someone, somewhere. Therefore, I now spend an hour or so every day giving whatever advice I can manage, and in the process help myself grow as a teacher, too. As I think through my responses or do a little research to find some material that might lead someone who's stuck in a new direction, I find that I'm learning as well.

Each day I wake up to find between ten and thirty new members in our group, and with each new member comes a new world of possible connections, new opportunities to collaborate and a new voice in the ever expanding community.

I can't overstate how grateful I am for these connections. Nor can I adequately explain how much I'm learning from this collaboration, or say in words how much richer my life as an educator has become because of this community. If you are a teacher hungering for the same things I've been craving, then please connect, collaborate, and become part of our community.

You'll find us online at …

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Marc Helgesen

Happiness in the classroom (and out): ELT and positive psychology.

I'm presenting on several topics. One that I'm quite excited about is the Positive Psychology ELT Activities that I'm doing at JALT. Positive Psychology – TIME magazine calls it "the science of happiness" – is the branch of psychology that studies happy, mentally healthy people (as opposed to traditional psychology which focuses on people with mental health problems). As teachers, we all deal with educational psychology, and I've been working for several years to create ways we can use ideas from positive psychology when we teach English. I have a website called ELTandHappiness where I give away materials I've developed.

One of the topics I'll be stressing in the JALT presentation is gratitude. When we take the time to thank people, naturally the person thanked appreciates it. But research shows there's a perhaps unexpected bonus: the person doing the thanking gets both psychological and physiological benefits, including an increased ability to deal with stress, more energy, and fewer physical health problems. Pullout quote:
When we take the time to thank people, naturally the person thanked appreciates it. But there's an unexpected bonus: the person doing the thanking gets both psychological and physiological benefits.
One activity I do with my students is making "a gratitude list." This is a spin-off of an idea from in Daniel Pink's A Whole New Mind ( Pink suggests that, on your birthday, you make a list of things you are grateful for, listing one thing for each year of your age. Then next year, make a new list with one more item. Do it every year as a way of taking time to notice the good things in your life. How I've modified it for my classes is this: I give students a worksheet that has topic ideas and model ways to express gratitude and explain reasons. Students draw a series of ovals, one for each year of their age. Then in each oval, they write one thing they are grateful for now. It is important students understand that the list is for things they are grateful for now, not something they were grateful at age one, age two, etc. Then they exchange their lists with a partner. The partner looks over the list and asks questions about the items that interest the partner. Learners end up talking about the things they appreciate. The act of talking about those things that you appreciate makes you really notice, experience, and share feelings of gratitude.

Another "thanking" activity I'll be sharing is the "gratitude letter." This is a fairly standard exercise in positive psychology. A google search for the topic will get you nearly 7000 hits (as I am writing this). In brief, you think of someone who has made a real difference in your life who you want to thank. You write them a letter explaining what they did, how they helped you and why you want to thank them. Ideally, you present the letter to the person it is addressed to and read it to them. If that isn't possible, you mail it to them. Christopher Peterson, Professor of Psychology at the University of Michigan and author of A Primer in Positive Psychology, says of gratitude letters, "they work 100% of the time in the sense that the recipient is moved, often to tears, and the sender is gratified as well." My ELT variation is to have students write the letter twice, once in English and once in Japanese. I tell my students that it doesn't matter which order they do it in. Some like to write their letter in Japanese first to organize their thoughts, then they translate it. Others do the English version first, then write the Japanese and see how much of the native-tongue nuance came through in the English. Usually, the writing is done as homework. The next week, when it is time to turn in the homework, I ask them to give me the English letter. I encourage them to give or mail the Japanese letter to the person they appreciate. I provide stamps and envelopes. There is a paragraph in Japanese on the sheet where they write that letter, explaining that they wrote the letter in class and the writer wanted to actually give it to the person who had helped them. The letters are often emotional, and in Japan we don't often express emotions publicly. The paragraph explaining it as a class assignment "makes it OK" to be so direct.

I've been doing something similar for years with "a thank you letter to someone in your family." This year I expanded that to let it be addressed to anyone the student wishes to thank. Parents are still the most frequent recipients but some students have chosen to write to former teachers, coaches, and homestay families. I don't require students to give the letters to the person they wrote it to but most choose to do that anyway. And I've heard wonderful stories about the results.

You can get free photocopiable copies of both of these activities and many others at my ELTandHappiness website.

While I'm on the topic of positive psychology, I'll mention two new books you should know about. Tal ben-Shahar, a former Harvard psychology professor and author of the bestselling Happier and The Pursuit of Perfect has a new book called Even Happier. It is a week-by-week guided journal with 52 positive psychology exercises. As English teachers, this is a good source of potential classroom activities. More importantly, it makes the point that positive psychology activities need to be done regularly, over an extended period, to be effective.

Another new book, Positivity by professor and researcher Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill presents very important scientific information about positive emotions. She has found a tipping point for positive emotions. In short, a "3-to-1 positivity ratio" seems to be the point at which most people find their lives become more filled with joy.

One final thought (and recommendation) concerning presentations. And this isn't even about one I'm doing. A few months ago, I read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds. He suggests very useful ideas on how to improve PowerPoint/Keynote presentations to make them simpler, more effective, and more powerful. I happened to read the book on the way to the TESOL conference in Denver. It made me more aware of how bad many – even most – slideshows are. If you are presenting this fall, consider reading the book. If you are attending JALT2009, Garr Reynolds will be doing a special "Technology in Teaching" workshop on November 20, the Friday evening of the conference. Preregistration is required.

I do hope teachers reading this will be able to attend JALT, one of the EXPOs, or one of the other ELT conferences taking place during the next few months. They are a great way to connect with new ideas and with other teachers.

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Curtis Kelly

What are you presenting these days?
What Brain Science Teaches us About Learning

English teaching has always been a mixture of science and art. The science is what we do in the classroom; the art is how we do it. The science is in what we decide to teach; the art is in how we decide to relate, how we help the learners grow. Science is in the syllabus, art is in your heart.

We have always needed both, but there are problems with both too. The art is pretty much uninformed. You can't learn it from a textbook. You can only learn it from years of experience. There is a problem with the science too. Traditionally, it was pretty much just drawn from the science of Linguistics, with a touch of Psychology and Education. The problem is that while we know a lot about the English language, this knowledge just forms one side of the language learning formula. The other side is learning and we need to know about this too. Theories of language acquisition have helped us understand what learning is, but they have pretty much been just theories, difficult to translate into practice. To put it simply, we have been shining the light of science on language but we have pretty much left learning in the dark.

Until now, that is. Advances in technology, have, for the first time ever, allowed us to look inside the brain and see how learning occurs. We can even see neurons reach out and connect to each other. Our understanding of how the brain works is growing by leaps and bounds and the current advance of neuroscience is often compared to the way computers advanced in the eighties. Unfortunately, while we are discovering fantastic things about learning, our teaching methods are not following suit. As Knowles pointed out, our standard educational pedagogy hasn't changed much since the 11th century when it was developed to train monastic scribes. Teachers still lecture and students still memorize. Some educators, however, are working to change our lack of progress. They believe the discoveries of neuroscience should be used to promote "brain-compatible" teaching methods. A quick look at what brain studies have told us about learning might help us start down that path as well.

Simply put, learning is memory. Memory represents the neural pathways that are forming in our brains all the time, even now as you read this. Dendrites reach out to the axons of other neurons to form synapses, thereby creating the circuitry of a new memory. In this way, a brain is like a computer – an analogy most of us grew up with, but one that most of today's neuroscientists have abandoned.

When information comes in, certain neurons are stimulated in a process of recognition. They trigger higher sequences of neurons that identify patterns, which if stimulated, again access even higher sequences. The neural sequences do not need a whole picture to identify something. Our brains are pattern recognition machines that first predict and then confirm. Our brains are highly interactive with the environment and work best when discovering, recognizing, and interpreting. So, unlike computers, that remember whatever you type into them, our brains are more oriented towards filtering and working the environment.

Having students learn language in situations similar to those they will encounter in the real world – with something at stake, with knowledge gained by discovery, and with problems to solve – causes the deepest learningMemory is fleeting.

Even the information you are reading right now is at risk. Almost all of it might be going into your short-term memory, but only a small part of it, or maybe none at all, will go into long-term memory. You are bound to forget most of this piece even before you finish it, and you'll forget more each hour afterwards. Some of it might be retained longer, and over the next two weeks, some of it might even be integrated into the rest of what you know, meaning you'll probably keep it for the rest of your life. Something happens to short-term memory that makes it long term, and if you think about it, this is the holy grail of learning. If we can find out what makes long-term memories form, then we'll have found the secret of effective teaching.

And this is what I have been presenting on. Much of the process of learning is still a mystery, but we do know a few vital factors that affect retention. Physical factors include stress, which inhibits memory formation; while happiness, exercise, and sleep promote it. See my "ideal classroom" Think Tank piece.

Of greater relevance to us are the factors we can influence by how we teach. They include deep processing (total mental engagement), brain compatibility (information in stories is retained longer than information in lectures), and maybe the most important of all, meaningfulness. Our memory system is integrated into our emotional and sensory systems, so, each memory has both an emotional component and a sensory (i.e., situational) component that influences its retention. Something that is meaningful to us is more likely to be recalled later, especially if we are in the same sensory and situational context as when it was learned.

Having students learn language in situations similar to those they will encounter in the real world – with something at stake, with knowledge gained by discovery, and with problems to solve – causes the deepest learning. It is no wonder that students who take part in a one-month study abroad program learn so much. But I'll bet it is the home stay interaction, rather than the classroom study, that has the biggest impact.

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Dorothy Zemach

What are you presenting about this season?

Normally, I do three kinds of conference presentations: plenary or featured-speaker type talks, that I prefer to give on a humorous topic; skills-based demonstrations on areas of interest to me, such as academic writing or business English; or publisher-sponsored promotions of materials I've written. This year, however, has been unusual. I've undertaken two trips to Libya as an English Language Specialist with the U.S. Department of State to deliver teacher training workshops in graduate schools, universities, high schools, and private language schools. I went for two weeks in April and for a month in October.

Libya attracted me as a destination because I'd never been there, and also because I knew it was unlikely I'd get there any other way; ordinary tourist visas simply aren't issued to Americans. In fact, the Embassy has only been open there since 2005. English teaching was outright banned in 1986, and was not resumed until sometime in the 1990's (I couldn't find anyone who seemed to know the exact year). Now, though, English education starts in elementary or middle schools, and private language schools teach English as well, and signs point to English becoming increasingly important in the future.

What seems "old" to us because we've done it for so many years is not necessarily old to our audience.

The mission seemed, on the surface, somewhat vague: "Just teach whatever you think is best!" The challenge, then, was to determine what would be "best" for an audience I'd never met and knew little about, and about whom almost no concrete information seemed to be available.

Fortunately, I was able to email an English Language Fellow teaching regular English courses at Al Fatah university, who explained that while Libyan graduate students, even those in applied linguistics, receive a strong and thorough education in theory, they get little to no explicit instruction in practical teaching methods. Not theory of teaching methodologies, I mean, but the nitty-gritty, the what-do-I-do-with-my-grammar-class-on-Tuesday stuff.

I decided, therefore, to give a series of workshops on extremely practical teaching techniques. I devoted one day each to the teaching of reading, writing, speaking, listening, vocabulary, and grammar. I went low-tech, too, since I couldn't predict what kind of conditions these teachers might face in schools outside of the bigger cities. I also decided to bring a lot of games and props—the "fun stuff" that I find works well with students of all ages, but which had been absent from my own graduate school training. It was, in short, like a "best of" all those Sunday JALT workshops where I learned how to teach.

I don't have space here to describe everything I did in 30 hours of workshops. But what struck me the most was how new all of my "old tricks" seemed to this audience, and how delighted they were with everything. How often these days, at conferences, do we get the feeling that we're really doing anything new? And yet here were teachers saying, "Oh, wow, I had never thought of using a song as listening practice" and "This ‘concentration' game is a wonderful way for students to memorize vocabulary!" and "Flashcards—what a good idea!"

The second biggest realization I had was just how basic instructions on how to teach need to be, if you're dealing with an audience who really hasn't had any experience with what you're talking about before. I want to emphasize that these were smart, motivated, educated teachers, some of whom had been teaching for years. However, no one had ever taught them how to write discussion questions, for example, or make a poster, or extend a page from a textbook, or adapt a game for a different level, or write multiple choice test items. If I go back to Libya—and I certainly hope I will—I will prepare more workshops on this type of issue.

To sum up my realizations, then, and apply them to a broader context: 1) What seems "old" to us because we've done it for so many years is not necessarily old to our audience. We might feel tired of dialogues about introducing one's family or ordering meals in a restaurant, but for students encountering this for the first time, it's necessary language. What we need to renew might be our enthusiasm for the material and our appreciation of its appropriateness. 2) People who are preparing to teach need explicit instruction in how to teach. This may sound almost ridiculously simplistic, yet it does not always happen. An M.A. course in linguistics or even in TESL can be rigorous, interesting, and enormously beneficial in many ways and still not necessarily prepare teachers for what they have to do in class. In the U.S., there is an ongoing debate about the place of M.A. programs—if their purpose is to graduate classroom teachers, then some (such as I) feel they should be terminal degree programs, specifically address classroom teaching, and qualify their graduates for tenure-track positions. If their purpose is to prepare their graduates for Ph.D. research, then that should be clear, and some other course of study should be made available for those who intend their careers to be in the classroom with ESL or EFL students.

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Peter Viney

What are you presenting about this season?

First off, it's not the presentation season in Europe. The main conference / presentation activity in Europe is March to April, around Easter when it's easy to arrange conferences in the school breaks. European school systems select books in April for the school year beginning the following September, and private language schools will be making their choices for the busy summer season around the same time. We always skirt around the relationship between ELT publishing and conferences, but if it weren't for publisher support, most conferences couldn't afford to run, because speakers wouldn't be able to attend for no fee, as so often they do.

I'm only giving two presentations (so far) between now and Christmas, both in England, and both on teaching initial reading for students unable to cope with the Roman alphabet at speed. It's a cause dear to my heart, and it relates (as it so often does, and not necessarily coincidentally) to my new book, Fast Track to Reading. The biggest problem for this particular book is getting over the mystifying nature of the book when teachers do the "flick test" -- flicking through the pages to get a first impression of what is in it. Fast Track to Reading doesn't look like any other ELT book you've ever seen, and its function is to enable students to crack the code of reading the Roman alphabet (if it's new to them); or for the larger number of false-beginner users, to learn to read the Roman alphabet faster and with more confidence. To do this, many of the activities focus on "code-cracking" sound / letter relationships without teaching meaning. This sounds heretical, but it works. For students with reading problems, it exercises the brain in a Sudoku type way, which retains interest. The greatest number of users will be speakers of Arabic, followed by speakers of Farsi and Chinese. Initially I'm presenting in England, because it relates strongly to the problems of recent immigrants. For me it's a new and very different enterprise without the major characteristics of my other books. There are no dialogues; there's no humour. I have striven to make the pages visually appealing, by including many photos of authentic signs, and relating exercises to computer screen images as well as to standard text. For the last two years, I've rarely gone anywhere without a camera, and most of the signs you find in the book were photographed by me.

As ever nowadays, I'm presenting off a laptop. I use Keynote on a Mac rather than PowerPoint, because I've survived with computers since 1985 without ever using a PC. It's easier to prepare a presentation in Keynote than in PowerPoint, and in any case you can save a PowerPoint copy of the Keynote presentation. I carry a PowerPoint backup on a memory stick in case my Mac fails / gets stolen / dropped or whatever. I should take the trouble to import all the phonetics as "pictures" rather than in a font, in case I have to use someone else's PC (without the Times IPA font), but instead I lazily hope the Mac will work every time, and in five years I've only had to use the PowerPoint version of a talk once.

This year I'll avoid the computer in the middle, I'll switch it off for a bit and use flashcards. The best way of understanding the concept of the reading program is by trying it. Lesson one checks numbers because they're the guide all the way through the rest of the lessons. I take lesson two (which is the letters a / i / n / t), and present it on flashcards using shapes instead of letters, a square, a triangle, a circle, and a star. So participants learn to read a, i, n, and t, then they learn at, it, in, and an. After that we move on to tan, tin, nat, nit, tat, and nan (though not tit in print, but I'd do it in class as it's just a sound / letter combination). You can teach this thoroughly in six to ten minutes with totally unfamiliar symbols representing the sounds. Note that some of the words are incredibly low frequency, bordering on nonsense words, but we're only decoding the sounds, not teaching meaning. Phonics schemes for kids advocate the use of non-words to check the sound / letter concept. I find this flashcard section of the presentation particularly hard work, as the teachers participating are always faster than I am at picking up the symbols. The basic method takes the student through fifty-six lessons, and covers all the vowel sound spellings, plus difficult areas such as two letters representing one sound (ck, wh, th, qu), consonant clusters (nd, st, cr, str, spr, scr, and so on), silent letters (h, w, ph,). A lot of this is necessarily mechanical. But you can't say to non-readers, ‘So what do you think about the silent H, Abdullah? Discuss it with a partner.' With readers completely new to the Roman alphabet, I suggest linear patterning exercises for a minute or two before you start. This just means drawing zigzags, or loops or whatever from left to right.

It's not only phonics, as every unit has keywords, which are the highly frequent words which native speaker readers see as a kind of pictogram rather than as a linear compilation of phonemes. These are words like the, you, our, I, your, don't, and won't, that are continually recycled. As the program continues, short phrases are introduced.

All the exercises are recorded on recorded on five CDs because we know most students will benefit by doing the program a little at a time and often, in their own time. Short intensive bursts on a daily basis work best and we wish to encourage the students to use it in this way. The recording was a marathon exercise with just three of us: myself, Karen Viney, my wife and co-author, and our friend, the co-author of the Skills in English series, Terry Phillips. So all the recordings were done by teachers, not actors. It was a change to be on the other side of the recording console, and the concentration required is enormous. As ever, it's always terrifying to present a new book for the first time and have to gauge people's reactions.

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