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Editorial - Theron's editorial Archive

I'm really excited about taking on responsibility to write monthly editorials for ELT News. I wanted to take this first column to introduce myself and some of my experiences which I hope to draw upon in the coming year. I'm the Co-owner of Noah Learning Center, a private English school in Nagano, Japan and have been involved in editing for JALT's The Language Teacher and the Asian ESP Journal. I've been living and teaching in Japan since 2000, and have been active as a teacher-researcher since receiving my MA in TEFL/TESL from the University of Birmingham via distance education in 2004.

As you can tell, I'm a wearer of many hats, but the perspective I would like to concentrate on in this column is that of my role in academic publishing. As both an author-researcher and editor-gatekeeper, I've experienced the challenges and benefits of publishing first-hand. Perhaps my greatest achievement to date was receiving the John Haycraft Classroom Exploration Scholarship, courtesy of International House London, which provided me with funding to conduct research on task-based language teaching in Japan and present the results of my research at IATEFL Cardiff in 2009.

That experience drove home for me the fact that while the conversation and discussion surrounding the study of second language acquisition has largely been driven by "center" countries (primarily the USA and the UK), there is a greater openness to researchers and voices from more international contexts, such as Japan, and that it's up to those of us based in these international contexts to take advantage of these opportunities and ensure our voices are heard and our experiences shared. ELT News is one such venue through which to hear about the experiences of fellow teachers based in Japan, but in academic circles the conversation of teaching and learning is driven through academic publications, so while ELT News is an important start toward entering the conversation, I would also encourage you to consider academic publishing. Along those lines, I recently wrote a guest blog for Barbara Sakamoto's Teaching Village about how to get your start in Academic Publishing, and am currently teaching a course along the same theme.

If you're interested in finding another venue for collaboration, please consider MASH Collaboration's Facebook page or visit our website. Thanks very much for your time and attention. For my next post in May, I hope to discuss the difficulties involved when teachers learn through on-the-job training, or learn how to teach through teaching.

If you don't want to wait until May, you can read more about me and my experiences on my Blog or follow me on Twitter.

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Steve touched on the topic of this entry in his first editorial for ELT News when he reflected, “I shudder to think back to some of the meaningless hoops that I forced students to jump through while I was learning to be a teacher.” And I think that his experience is a rather common one—it reflects my own experience of learning to teach, and in many ways the experience I relive every time I start teaching in a new context. It takes at least one or two cycles of teaching—one or two semesters or years, depending on the course—before I have confidence in how I approach the course, the needs of my students, and what will work (and what won’t) with that group of learners in that context.

Yet I wonder about the efficiency of this system. I very rarely teach a new course; it’s often the case that somebody preceded me in teaching the class, and yet I feel myself starting from scratch nevertheless; there is often very little contact with my predecessor, if any, and very little information conveyed from them to me.

On a larger scale, I can count on one hand the number of teachers or administrators that have observed one of my lessons. And I can count on one hand the number of teachers whose lessons I’ve observed—and they’ve all been teachers who taught at my private language school. I’ve seen them go through the same difficulty I remember experiencing in orienting themselves toward the students and classes they teach.

The concern I have for this common experience of new teachers is twofold—for students and for teaching as a profession. Without support from fellow faculty, potentially gifted teachers may decide to give up on the craft because they aren’t confident in their abilities to go it alone in discovering effective methodologies that work for them. At the same time, it takes one bad experience to turn students off from learning, even if they have years of otherwise positive experiences. And if it’s a reality that the majority of new teachers are going to be learning by trial and error, that means most students will have at least one relatively inexperienced teacher during the course of their studies.

So what’s to be done? I’m a skeptic of calls for more time, money, or investment in teacher education. Not because I think that more resources devoted to the profession would be a bad thing, but because it gives the message that addressing this issue effectively is out of our hands as teacher practitioners. Instead, my feeling is that it’s up to individual teachers to help advance and improve the experiences of those new to the profession and their students. I think this means more experienced teachers being available for newer teachers, and for the development and maintenance of informal support groups, such as local ETJ-- or JALT chapters, where teachers can gather and share information about the craft of our profession. I also find that Twitter, as it provides a PLN, helps to fulfill some of these needs.

But I don’t think I have the space here to thoroughly answer the issue I’ve raised, nor do I think the answer is the same for any two teachers. With this in mind, I’m curious about your feelings on the topic, and look forward to your comments.

All the best,
Theron Muller

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Part of the process of vetting abstracts for the Fluency in EFL book project Steve and I are currently working on has involved clarifying for myself just what we mean by a fluency-based approached to teaching English, and what that could look like in the classroom. Having gone through this process of defining and refining what I conceive fluency in the classroom to be with the other editors and authors on the project, I think those thoughts are ready to share with others interested in EFL teaching and research. The conclusions we’ve come to is that in a fluency-oriented classroom the focus is on students understanding and processing language extensively, or with a focus on meaning and understanding, rather than intensively, with focus on form and formal lexicogrammatical rules.

The practical classroom implications can be understood by considering how here in Japan the majority of language education is intensive, focusing on sentence and grammatical structure. This leaves students at a loss when they are expected to use or consume language outside of the classroom, as comprehension of grammatical rules does little to help students read a fiction novel, for example. By contrast, one of the fluency-based approaches that largely has its origins in Japan is extensive reading. Using the example of novels, the foundation of the extensive reading philosophy is that there are genre and discourse organization rules that they follow and exposure to reading books written in that genre is critical to developing student ability to read and comprehend those books. Thus an important part of language education should involve encouraging students to read books written at their current language level in order to develop awareness of writing conventions. On our project so far, we've had two or three abstracts submitted dealing with this theme of evaluating the potential benefits of extensive reading, and are looking forward to reading how extensive reading influences the language abilities of students in some of those researches.

Our concept for fluency--what we're calling a focus on fluency--is a focus on consumption or production of more text than has been included in language classrooms in many contexts to date. This is somewhat related to Nation's four strands, of which fluency is one. The question that remains unanswered is whether such focuses on fluency are effective in the classroom, and how to go about measuring fluency in research. We hope that our book project will address both of these, but are more interested in the former than the latter. As an example, the research I would like to include in the book investigates whether classroom time devoted to free writing increases the writing rates of my students.

Our call for papers is closed, but if you are interested in joining this exciting project and feel you have some research to contribute, please feel free to contact me directly.

All the best,
Theron Muller

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I’ve been reading Writing for Scholarly Publication: Behind the Scenes in Language Education, and have been struck by the number of established scholars in the book who share their initial reticence and apprehension regarding the task of academic publishing. Out of the 14 chapters I’ve read so far, only one of the writers shares how he feels empowered, and not disempowered, when seeking publication. Without exception the others share the obstacles they had to overcome, internal and external, in their initial efforts toward scholarly publication. Several even voice their continuing sense of insecurity regarding the practice.

Perhaps part of the story is explained by the fact that the 13 authors who express insecurity are representative of groups that are traditionally underrepresented in academia. They are female, Asian, immigrant, non-traditional, or a combination of several of those. The one writer who doesn’t express a sense of disempowerment is American, male, and white.

I think this says quite a bit about where academia was, where it is, and where it is going. It’s unquestionable that access to academic discourse in the past has been restricted to an arbitrary few, and that those few who benefited (and still benefit) from that privilege take the relative ease of their access for granted. But it’s also true that recently the demographics of those with access to publishing has shifted considerably. It is now much more representative of the authors featured in Writing for Scholarly Publication; there are many more women, minorities, and nontraditional students in academia now.

One thing I still feel is missing, though, is that the dissemination of knowledge remains represented by a central source shining outward rather than an interwoven net. Western countries’ journals tend to hold more clout, and the interests and evaluations of their editors and reviewers hold sway over researcher access to their pages, and thus to the legitimacy those journals embody.

While this bothers me in general on several levels, with respect to language teaching in particular, I feel that many of the researchers who tend to have their papers published in major journals are distanced from the classroom, exploring issues of only vague pedagogical relevance to teachers in language classrooms. This lack of a practical perspective in many cases hurts the field in general, because language teachers feel the journals in the field are too distant from their contexts to be of relevance to them.

One way I’ve tried to shift the balance from theoretical to practical is to encourage teachers to publish research they’ve conducted that’s relevant to them and their context. It’s something I believe in so strongly I’ve included a full scholarship for one participant in the online course I teach, MASH Academic Publishing, in the belief that participants, regardless of income, should have access to the course and the benefits it may offer in helping to have their voice heard. My main objective in the course is to make the occluded process of academic publication transparent for those seeking entry into that world.

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I’m in the process of organizing a one-day conference to be held at Nagano Seisen University in February 2011 with the theme of Inviting student voice, a topic on the forefront of SLA research, where the trend appears to be to make classroom content relevant to students and allow space for students to set their own learning objectives and goals.

As a general rule, based on my experience as a student, this kind of openness to students pursuing topics of interest to them has considerable potential. I recall one autumn, after having visited Muir Woods during my summer vacation, preparing a project for a biology class on redwood trees (the assignment was to write about a species of our choosing, and I was the only student who didn’t choose a mammal). But I’ve had trouble transferring similar success to my classrooms, with mixed results from some of the open-ended projects I’ve assigned. For example, a recent assignment for my Nagano Kosen 5th year students taking my travel English course was to produce a mid-term project detailing travel to a destination of their choosing, using a technology of their choice (blog, video, combination of both, or something else). One group really impressed me with the video they produced regarding travel to Spain, while a blog shows effort on the part of a different group but also blatant use of online translation tools to complete the project...“Though I was going to enter it with the opening of 9:00, it has taken 30 minutes to enter it in a terrible crowd”?

A story I love to tell from my own classroom experience, but one I haven’t fully rectified how to address is from a oral communication class I taught last year. We were using a prescribed textbook which I could stretch to about 75 minutes of the 90 minute lesson. I decided to ask my students how they would like to use the extra time we had at the end of class—whether they would like to; a) practice recording some of their conversation and transcribing it, in order to improve their understanding of the language they were using; b) use some additional supplementary material to stretch the conversation out to fill the time; c) change groups and ask and answer the same questions with different students; or d) another activity of their choosing, which they were free to suggest, such as a language learning game. Out of the 32 students in the class, eight wrote on the feedback cards they would like to, “go home.”

That’s why I’m looking forward to the upcoming MASH JALT event on inviting student voice. I have a lot to learn, particularly regarding ensuring the student voices that are invited into the classroom are relevant and help to serve educational ends.

All the best,
Theron Muller

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I’ve got three of the same lessons on Friday mornings, 42 high school students for 45 minutes, and it always strikes me how the personalities of the classes are quite different. The second class I teach is the one I connect with the most often, and it seems I do no wrong with my lessons plans with them; the students are engaged and interested in learning. Not all of them, but a majority. So when, last week, we covered holidays and the task was to ask as many of the students in the class as possible in five minutes what they did on a holiday of their choosing, everyone was up and moving around. Some were certainly more successful in talking to more people than others, and it’s hard to guarantee they all spoke in English, but there was an energy to the classroom and they were obviously interested in the task. I then went into an impromptu research report activity, where they presented the results of their “research.” Their homework was to send me their reports of their survey data, which has yielded several emails like the following:

I asked the students what they do on summer vacation. I spoke to 25 out of the 42 students, about 60% of students. 8 students of the 25 said sleep. 4 students of the 25 said go anywhere. 3 students of the 25 said go to club. 2 students of the 25 said eat something, play and watch anime. 1 students of the 25 said go cycling, do a barbecue, dive and breathe so do nothing.

Interestingly, I also received pictures of their notebook papers, taken with cell phones, by email.

I had connected, I knew it, and I felt we made some progress in that lesson.

I followed the same lesson plan after lunch and it wasn’t nearly as engaging; not all of the students stood up for the activity, and the number of people each student talked to on average was significantly smaller. I hadn’t connected, and I wondered what the students got out of that lesson.

There was a time, not too long ago, when I would have left for the day thinking my efforts a failure, as I hadn’t connected to the second group. More recently I wonder about that; I increasingly feel that as a teacher it’s my responsibility to be open to forming connections when the opportunity presents itself, and to be confident enough to know when the whim of a moment in a lesson is a good direction to take, rather than following a carefully laid out lesson plan. Where I’ve changed is that I used to think it the teacher’s responsibility to form all the connections, but now I see the classroom as a two-way street. The students have to be willing to connect as well; it can’t all be effort exerted from my position at the front of the room.

This new perspective has certainly made me a more balanced person. I’m still on the fence whether it’s made me a better teacher.

Theron Muller

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I just finished wrapping up the last class in the second generation of MASH Academic Publishing, and one of the questions a participant on the course asked was how I stay motivated to do all the various things I do in EFL and academic writing. I was a bit taken aback by the question at first, because it hadn’t occurred to me that what I do is all that spectacular or different from what I know other people are doing right now.

For example, I know at least one person working on a new EFL textbook series, another working simultaneously, on several graded readers series’, and another friend sat down and wrote five different academic papers this summer, only one of which I helped to coauthor.

Like all good teachers who don’t know the answer to a question, I turned it back to the students to gain time to think, and after I had thought it through, I replied that it could be that where I work I have less power than I would like, and so I use the opportunity to be more involved, and more in control, in my academic writing, that my classes benefit from the different ideas that I encounter as I visit conferences, read papers, and talk to people, and that I use a variety of different techniques, like keeping my email inbox empty, to make sure that the time I spend working is spent efficiently.

All of that is true, but I think the way that I really maintain my involvement is by thinking that what I do is ordinary, because I know other people who are doing much more interesting and exciting things. When I take the time to tell myself how efficient, or how productive I am, I invariably find myself and my output slowing down. So the balance is a kind of controlled deception; I never realize that what I’m doing is impossible, and so I’m able to continue doing it.

And the connections help. Because I know people who are doing much more impossible things than what it is I’m working on.

I sometimes wonder what they think about me.

Theron Muller

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