Tag Archives: professional development

7 Tools for Truly Effective Training Courses

Here you can download the resource documents presented in my talk “7 Tools for Truly Effective Training Courses.” You’ll find tools that can help you better organize your business English courses. They allow you to keep track of material covered (even if it just “emerges”), make sure you and your trainees know what you’re working towards, and ensure that your clients stay happy.

These tools have all proven effective in my own business courses. They help save time and energy and help you build coherent and effective courses. And if you’re wondering why the title of the talk claims there are 7 tools, but you only see 6 downloads, wonder no more! The 7th tool is a technique, not a document, but you’ll have to see the talk to find out what it is!

1. “Zero session” interviews

2. Needs discussion questions

3. Program storyboard

4. Lesson record

5. “The module that was”

6. Course log

In my talk at the 2014 TESOL France Annual Colloquium, I’ll explain how the documents work and how they’ve helped me to stay on top of the training courses I manage. In the meantime, feel free to post a question in the comments section and I’ll happily respond!

And of course, if you have any suggestions for improving any of the documents, please share it! We work better when we work together!


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iTDi + Shelly Terrell: Learning to go, webinar notes 1

At the beginning of March, I signed up for one of iTDi’s Advanced Teaching Skills Courses: Language Learning to Go, led by the brilliantissime Shelly Terrell, who is probably about as near to a living encyclopedia of apps, mobile learning, and the joys of Web 2.0-based learning as anyone’s ever seen.  Shelly and iTDi (International Teacher Development Institute) have set the course up on a private Google+ community (the course is not free, but for what you get out of it, it’s a steal at $50) and during the week the learners (me and about 30 other teachers in various places around the world) have “missions” to complete, consolidated by weekly webinars hosted by Shelly and iTDi faculty member Barbara Sakamoto.

Continuing with my experiment in sketchnoting, I’d like to share some of the tips and tools we learned about in the first weekly webinar. I have to admit I’m struggling to keep on top of teaching work, association volunteering, incoming projects and preparing for IATEFL Harrogate (in just one week!), so I’m a bit late with the notes. You’re all busy, busy teachers too, so you know what I mean!

Anyway, here are the notes–hope you get something out of them! (Disclaimer: I’m no artist, so apologies for the AWFUL drawing of Shelly–it looks absolutely nothing like her!) These are from the webinar back on March 9, 2014 but hopefully I’ll be able to catch up with the our “missions”! As you’ll see, we’ve already learned a lot in just the first week!

p. 1-2


p. 3-4


p. 5-6


p. 7-8


I’ll try to catch up and post notes from the other webinars if possible!

I’m really enjoying the course and have already started using some apps with a group of my clients, who have agreed to be the guinea pigs for the experiment. After seeing how engaging it can be to learn as a group on the Google+ community, I’ve set up a private Google+ for a group of 5 A2-ish level learners. I’ve also started giving “missions” for learners to do on Audioboo to help them practice their speaking skills outside of class. They can then post their Audioboo recordings to the Google+ community and comment on each other’s work. The group has just started, so we’ll see how they take to it. I’ll be blogging about that project as well in the near future, hopefully to encourage other teachers to try setting up something similar with their learners if they want to try!

And while working together in a virtual learning environment (VLE) is just plain fun, it is also based on sound theory. Here are a few resources that Shelly shared to help us understand how VLEs take advantage of social learning theories:

Howard Rheingold’s Peeragogy and Co-learning theories

Siemen’s Connectivism Theory

Vygotsky’s Social Cognitive Theory

To be continued…


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Qualification required: Native English speaker

Join our team of friendly gynecologists! If you’re female, we’re looking for people like you! A degree in medicine is preferred, but not required. Apply today and begin a new rewarding career!

Let’s hope we will never see job ads like that in the medical field. No one in their right mind would think that just being female will make you a good gynecologist.  So why do so many TEFL job ad writers think being a native speaker makes you a good teacher? Seriously. In the above announcement replace “gynecologists”, “female”, and “medicine” with “teachers”, “native speaker”, and “teaching English” and you’ve got the meat of far too many ELT job announcements.

This is a serious issue in our field, generally not among the teachers themselves (thankfully!) but among the people recruiting the teachers (and hence paying the salaries). For some reason recruiters, especially in private language-training centers, have come to confuse teaching qualifications and birth certificates. This is one of the biggest shames in our field if you ask me because being a native speaker is NOT a sign of one’s ability to teach the language well. It is not even a guarantee that the (native) English taught will correspond to the English that will be encountered outside of the classroom. I, for example, am American but the vast majority of my trainees don’t do business with Americans. They use English with Chinese, German, Indian, Scottish, and Brazilian suppliers and colleagues. My American-ness is not of any added value here. I don’t know much about those countries’ business cultures, I don’t speak with any accent other than my own American accent and my native English certainly differs from that of a Scot or an Indian. So why is it fair that I would likely be preferred over a Polish or Hungarian EFL teacher with similar qualifications? It isn’t fair. Period.

Nowadays, native speakers no longer are the majority users of English. So why do recruiters specifically seek out native speakers over non-natives with equal qualifications? To be honest, I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a way for recruiters’ to hide their own lack of knowledge of the field’s teaching qualifications. Between the CELTA, DELTA, Trinity DipTESOL, M.A.s in TESOL, and the whole gamut of sketchy “TEFL certifications” out there it’s no wonder that it’s just easier to slap “seeking qualified native speaker” on a job ad and leave it at that. The lack of clear professional qualifications within our field has led to an ersatz discriminatory qualification of “native speaker.”

I just ran a quick search for “TEFL job ads” and clicked on a few random ones that were posted on a few popular ELT sites. Here are some of the requirements I found (get ready to cringe):

  • Native-level intonation, accent, and pronunciation  (Which native accent?)
  • Requirements: teaching experience, degree in any field, British, American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand, Irish, South African or South American Passport holders (what a clever way of avoiding saying “native speaker”. At least it technically leaves the door open to dual citizens!)
  • We are looking for CELTA / TEFL qualified native English teachers to join our team
  • We are looking for native speakers of English to join our friendly teams
  • Qualifications required: Native English Speaker, some knowledge of Spanish

Of course some of the ads from which these examples are taken also mentioned teaching experience and/or teaching diplomas so at least they’re not stopping at “native speaker” as the only qualification. It’s the fact that “native speaker” is included as a qualification that irks me. Sure, arguments can be made that native speakers bring their cultural background and that they have intimate knowledge of their home culture. Sure but so do non-native speakers and if the learner is a French guy who is going to work mostly with Chinese businesspeople, what use–culturally speaking–is a teacher from England?

And I’m not claiming that ONLY teachers with recognized certifications or diplomas make good teachers. There are plenty of good teachers who got to where they are through experience, reflective practice, and participating in continuous professional development opportunities such as conferences, workshops, and webinars. It’s a damn shame that these people may automatically have their CV sent to the bin (or is that “have their resumé sent to the trash can”?) because they weren’t born in the right country.

TESOL France recently issued a message to employers who send announcements out on their Jobs List discouraging them from using “native speaker” in their announcements, explaining that trained, professional non-native teachers can be just as effective (if not more so) than native speaker teachers. This measure was unanimously applauded by the ELT teaching community on Facebook (which is rich in both native and non-native speakers 🙂 I hope other organizations who provide job ad services also practice this, even if they don’t yet have a formal statement on the issue. We as teachers can also be stewards for fair recruitment policies by addressing the issue with our hiring managers, by encouraging our schools/companies to seek out high-quality teachers who can show proof of their training and/or development, and by explaining why this is more important than the hollow requirement that one be a native speaker to teach a language.

I do have an idea as to why “native speaker” has wrongfully come to be seen as a qualification. It follows in the footsteps of why use of learners’ L1 became a taboo for much of the 20th century. But that, my friends, is for the next blog post!

P.S. There was a great post written recently on this same subject by Marek Kiczkowiak on his blog I see that it has been removed because it’s awaiting publication in the TESOL newsletter and in the Winter 2015 edition of the TESOL France magazine “Teaching Times”, which is fantastic. He says a link to the article will be published on his blog at a later date, but in the meantime, you can still read the many comments on the original post.


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Walk on the wild side and fly free!

Book cover - walk on the wild sideIn case you missed the announcement from the round last week, I’m happy to announce that our first book was published this week ! I say « our » because it is the fruit of a joint collaboration between Jennie Wright (who runs the fabulous TEFL Helper blog) and myself (who runs this blog, but you probably know that already).

Before getting into the book itself, just a quick word on the launch. When we posted the news to Facebook and Twitter, we got so many messages of congratulations from colleagues around the world. We really felt how much the wider teaching community supports each other’s efforts and it was an awesome feeling! Thanks a lot guys (and gals)!

So, the book…

Inside you’ll find five chapters, one for each selected experimental area : Dogme, lexical chunking, corpora, translation, and CLIL. Within each chapter, you’ll get the history & background of the approach/method, lesson objectives, a (beautiful) sample lesson plan, the principles and explanation of that lesson plan, a list of dos and don’ts for testing the approach/method, opportunities and risks that come with it, and a toolbox packed with resources for finding out more. All that for about the cost of large fancy Starbucks! Sure it’s got less caffeine, but it’ll last longer and you can’t spill it while on the bus!

Where did the idea come from? It’s pretty simple and is really just another story of necessity being the mother of invention. Jennie and I were doing our Delta module 2 together at ESOL Strasbourg in 2012. When we got to the experimental practice assignment, our trainers showed us all sorts of resources for exploring possible experiments.Wouldn’t it be great to have a single go-to reference with resource lists, an overview of experimenting with a particular method, and a bit about its background? And wouldn’t it be even better to have a compilation of a few possible experiments laid out like that to be able to compare and choose? “Oh, we could write that book!” we thought. So we did!

As for the cover, that’s the fine work of designer Mark Bain. The cage is open. The bird is free. Imagine the metal bars as the rut that we all get into at some point of our teaching careers. We start relying on the same old exercises, going through the same lessons and slowly we create our own cage. Then one day, we decide we’re tired of being locked in. We want out. So we experiment, try new things and shake ourselves up a bit. The cage door flings open and we’re free, just like the bird you don’t see on the cover. We’re out of our comfort zone and walking on the wild side!

Experimental Practice in ELT: Walk on the wild side is available on all Amazon sites and on Smashwords.


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“What do you get out of it?”

As we were driving back home from the Lyon airport, my husband asked me “What do you get out of it? Why do you do all this?” He was talking about conferences: spending hours researching and rehearsing a 45-minute talk, sacrificing entire days to traveling for a 3-day conference in a faraway country, and forking out hundreds of my own euros to do so. It’s a legitimate question. Why does one do such a thing? Madness, some may argue…

And I thought about it. My first reaction was “It’s just part of the job.” But no. It’s not. Think about all the teachers you know in your school, in your city, in your area. How many others do it? Teaching is part of the job. Doing a bit of admin is part of the job.  Professional development should be part of the job, but sadly it’s a bit like going to the gym. You really mean to, but somehow time always runs short. So it gets pushed into the endless string of tomorrows.

So I thought some more. “Because I like it.” I also like devouring plate-fulls of good tiramisu, but that doesn’t mean I do it regularly. Sure, there is a fun element to conferences—you get to hang out with colleague-friends (other than on Facebook), see a bit of the local landscape, and maybe even pull an all-nighter at a club somewhere. The perks of the profession, perhaps.

“What do you get out of it?” After scratching the proverbial surface, here’s how I answered that question.

I do it because conferences offer the chance to join a big international family who love what they do in life. We are all for sharing ideas. We help each other grow professionally in the classroom and on the conference stage. We come away feeling like we’re on a journey to becoming better teachers and, yes, better people.

Then there are the opportunities to grow your career, more like a tree than like a ladder. Teaching can branch out to (course)book writing, article writing, publishing work, teacher training, speaking gigs, creating your own company, and whatever you want to connect it to as long as you find a way. This in turn feeds back into your teaching practice, each activity fueling the other for fresh ideas, engagement, and interest.  I realized a few years back that I could either stay on the hamster wheel at my last company or add variety and excitement to my career. Let’s just say I never really cared for hamsters…

Also, I thought back to the people I’ve met since I started “conferencing,” just a few years ago. I know that if I need help, have a question, or just want to strike up a good debate these people are there. I have found my Personal Learning Network, my PLN. Ela Wassel, in her talk (which I unfortunately missed, but heard LOTS of people rave about) at the 2013 IATEFL Poland conference demonstrated the strength of a PLN:

Holding up a single pencil, she started to bend it. The pencil represented the teacher; the force she exerted, the pressures of teaching life. The pencil snapped and splinters flew into the air. Then, she held up a bundle of pencils. “This is you and your PLN. Just try to break this!” And tears were shed in the audience.

And if you’re looking to grow your own PLN, Ela’s blog has some great resources:

So what do I get out of it? All of the above and so much more.

And you. What do you get out of it? Why do you do all this?


Posted by on October 2, 2013 in Random reflections


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IATEFL Liverpool: Colin MacKenzie’s 59 Seconds to Professional and Personal Development

I ducked into Colin’s session after another I wanted to attend was already filled to capacity. A lucky chance, because this was an inspiring talk about how to effectively develop in small ways, part of IATEFL’s Teacher Development Special Interest Group (TDSIG) Day. Plus, Colin has a really fun and refreshing presentation style—he’s one to watch for in future conferences!

First, he invited us to think of a professional problem we had. I chose irregular attendance in in-company groups.  Then we thought about professional goals. I want to diversify more in my career—blending writing, teaching, speaking at conferences, and teacher training.

Colin also asked for two volunteers before he really got into the thick of the talk: one to give him only positive feedback and one to give him only negative feedback after the talk. Why not do a bit of one’s own professional development while helping others develop? I liked this little technique and found it fitting for this talk.

Colin based his talk on a book by Prof. Richard Wiseman called  59 seconds: think a little, change a lot. Technically it’s a self-help book, but Colin said that it did help him in his teaching.

He asked us to  note three things to be grateful for in our professional life. I chose:

  1. Knowing great colleagues around the world
  2. Having had the courage to go freelance
  3. Having access to opportunities for professional development

Working in a group with Duncan Foord and Anthony Gaughan, we all came up with similar ideas. Having the freedom to do what we want in our classrooms was also something to be really grateful for.

Colin pointed out that we develop when we’re happy. Happiness and motivation are keys for developing as teachers. We also need the necessary tools and finally, creativity to develop. We can get ideas at conferences and from other teachers, but when we make these ideas our own, that’s when we develop.

In the book 59 seconds, the author recommends spending some time (ideally 59 seconds, but Colin admitted that it often really takes longer) keeping a “Perfect Diary.” You write about something positive in your life, for example, one theme for each day of the week. Here’s a suggestion for a working week Perfect Diary:

  • Monday: Thanksgiving—things you are thankful for
  • Tuesday: Terrific times—things that are going well in your present life
  • Wednesday: Future fantastic—something in the future that you are optimistic about
  • Thursday: Dear…–a letter to someone who means a lot to you or that you respect. You don’t actually send the letter though.
  • Friday: 3 things—these are things that went well over the past week

In studies done on people who actually followed this advice, there was a real difference in levels of happiness, so why not try it out and come back to tell us if it helped you?

Another way to cultivate happiness is by simply smiling. Colin challenged us to all smile for 30 seconds. It certainly got us giggling! It may sound a bit quirky, but Colin said he actually creates little reminders to smile, like smiling when he stops at a traffic light. However, he recommended not overly grinning on public transport—it tends to scare people!

Colin cautioned us about thinking too positively about the future, because studies show that imagining a too-fantastic future actually led to unhappiness. Don’t create an unrealistic future, for risk of never reaching your goals. Think of it as carefully dosed future fantasy.

Showing a photo of George Orwell, Colin brought up the notion of doublethink goals in which we define a goal, but also the benefits and barriers. These are supposed to be in one word, but it’s ok to add a few!

Here’s what I came up with:

  • Goal: do more  writing in ELT
  • Biggest benefit: professional development
  • Barrier: Lack of time or novel ideas
  • 2nd benefit: become more known as a contributor to our field
  • 2nd barrier: finding publication outlets
  • Elaboration: this was a small-group discussion of the above points

Ebenezer Scrooge from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol provided the perfect metaphor. He was most affected by the ghost of Christmas future—it sparked him to change. The future he saw and the way he would be remembered horrified him.  So Colin challenged us to do a very interesting, perhaps somewhat shocking, exercise:

Write your own eulogy.

Imagine you’ve died. What would you like a friend to say about you at your funeral? Avoid modesty, but be realistic. Include personality, achievements, personal strengths, professional success, etc.

The exercise felt a bit funny, but once you start, you begin to realize what’s important to you and where you want to go. It’s like you’re plotting the destination for the journey of your life. After that, it’s up to you to find the path to get there.

59 seconds isn’t really enough to do this exercise (it is your own eulogy, after all!) but it is an interesting one worth trying out.           

Colin also reminded us that the loudest part of our inner self is not always the most creative part—think silent, creative type.  We thought of a problem then kept our mind busy with a word search projected on the screen. Meanwhile, the silent part of our inner selves subconsciously mulled over the problem.


Think of a problem you’re trying to solve – do a word search or other mind-occupying idea – jot ideas to solve our problem.

In the final couple of exercises, Colin invited half of the group to think of typical behavior and characteristics of an engineer. The other half of the group had to imagine the behavior and characteristics of a punk.  Then in a standard test of creativity, we had to think of as many uses as possible for a hefty 200-page tome–the IATEFL conference program.

By imagining a creative, non-conformist type of person like an artist, a punk, etc. just before doing a creative-thinking activity, you will think more creatively. Don’t think about the perfect creative person—no Leonardo da Vinci! That’s setting the bar a bit too high, but you get the idea. 

Colin admitted that while these activities may not have allowed him to measure their effectiveness in his own life, they have helped him to feel more positive and creative.

I may just try out the Perfect Diary this week and then try out some of the creative thinking techniques while mulling over proposals to submit to future conferences.

And which ones will you experiment with? Let us know what you try and if/how they affect your creativity!


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IATEFL Liverpool: Catherine Walter’s How to Give a Presentation at an International Conference

“Among the most traumatic experiences in many people’s lives is giving a public speech.” Catherine started by admitting that she herself has made mistakes in past presentations and that she learned a lot from these mistakes. To save us from having to make all those mistakes ourselves, she offered advice for giving effective talks.

In a nutshell, came down to:

Tell people what you’ve got to tell them
Tell them what you want to tell them
Tell them what you’ve just told them

Simple enough, but she went on to give lots of useful tips. If you are planning to present at a conference, Catherine’s advice is indispensable.

Getting an audience
The summary and the title are really important tbecause they will first get you onto the conference program and get you an duaidence. You must make them transparent to make sure people understand what your presentation is about—don’t disappoint them or give them a talk they weren’t expecting. You can even make your abstract a bit sexy, but make sure it’s accurate first.

Make sure you stick to the word limit. The easiest way to get thrown out of conference selection processes is to exceed the word limit.

Give yourself two extra days. Don’t submit on the deadline, submit two days before.

Although this may sound obvious, Catherine reminded us to find out about the audience while preparing your talk. Don’t pitch too high or too low intellectually-speaking. If many are non-native speakers, don’t speak too fast and with a lot of idioms. Find out who your audience is!

Find out how long you’ve got. It’s much better to say a few things well than to rush through a lot of stuff. Give a good presentation this time and you’ll likely be invited back.

A lecture means an audience listening to you speaking, not listening to you reading. It also means the audience depends on your structure. They can’t rewind you to go back and re-listen to a part that wasn’t quite clear. When presenting new ideas, you have to be careful in how you present it.

Catherine illustrated this by introducing the topic of working memory by telling a short story about a work bench in her dad’s barn when she was little. She talked about the purpose of the work bench and what her dad did with it. This led up to what working memory is. The metaphor and building up to the idea, which was new, helped the audience connect to the concept.

Include varieties of interaction types in your talk, much in the same way you would vary interaction in class. Have a bit of pair work perhaps. Include pauses. Pepper the talk with stories in between the hard facts.

Make structure clear. Tell your audience when you’ll take questions so that they know this. Also, to be sure you get a quick round of applause, make sure you clearly signal the end!

If you must read from notes, mark your notes clearly so that they’re easy to glance at during your talk. Staple your notes together or put them on a ring. This way, if you happen to drop your notes, you just have to pick them up and keep going rather than also try to order them. Shuffling through your papers looks unprofessional.

Practice, practice, practice. This way you can plan pauses, which are key. Pauses are even more important than speed, so plan them!

Leave time for questions. Don’t plan to talk right until the end of your time slot. Sometimes the Q&A session leads to some of the most enriching discussions.

Mark timings on your notes so that you can pace yourself. Also include some parts that can be cut. There’s always a possibility that you’ll start late, so be prepared for this. You can’t simply run over into the next speaker’s time slot because you got started late.

Make sure important words are understandable. Don’t lose your audience because they spend time trying to understand an important word while you continue speaking.

Before you go
Prepare and check all the materials you need.

If possible email your powerpoint to the conference organizers and have extra copies on a USB key, just in case.

Find out how many people will likely be at your talk and make a few extra handouts because there may not be copying facilities at the venue.

When you arrive
Check that the details on the program are accurate regarding your talk. This will also help make sure that the audience comes to the talk they think they’re coming to.

If you’re away from home, make a little safe haven

Try to recruit a helper for the day. They can run out and get you water if needed, check computer plugs, etc. It will cut down on your stress.

Drink water, not coffee or tea. Not only are they stimulants that may make you jumpy, they make your voice a bit rough. Your voice is important in your talk, so don’t damage it with coffee and tea.

Get to the room early and check everything—make sure your visuals are visible from the back of the room. Also, save your powerpoint to your desktop. It’ll save time when you boot up your computer because you don’t have to go through your files. Also, you won’t risk forgetting your USB key in the computer provided on site.

Compose yourself. Take a few minutes to breathe slowly. It tells your body to relax and helps you feel composed. Catherine also said she sings to herself a bit before, just to prep her voice. You may want to try this.

During the talk
There may not be many people, but treat them like the biggest and most important audience in the world.

If you are not introduced, introduce yourself and what your presentation is about. This can give people who may be in the wrong room to get up and leave before you get started rather than a few minutes into your talk.

Use a presenter aid like a remote control to flip through your slides and liberate you from the podium or the computer.

Power point
Keep it simple—not too many numbers because people just spend time copying them?

Make sure your slides are clear with a sans serfi font like verdana or arial, with 24-size font minimum.

Remember that white letters on a dark background are hard to read.

Don’t try to make slides that are too fancy—they’re visually tiring in a long talk.

Be prepared for powerpoint failure. It happens to everyone and if you’re prepared, you won’t be stressed at the last minute. Have a plan B.

Remember that your audience can read—you don’t need to read your slides to them if you have a lot of text. Simply leave some silent time and let your audience read for themselves.

If you’re going to record yourself, make sure everything is in place well before. Check the microphones if you’re going to use it.

Decide what kind your handouts you will give
-sets of data
-key points

Also decide if you’ll give the handouts before or after your talk.

Your body
Dress appropriately for the context of the talk. Find this out before.

Wear similar clothes the day after your talk if you want people to approach you. It makes you easily identifiable.

Decide if you will move around and how much. Also, keep your gestures calm and measured. Don’t be really explosive. Also, make gestures across your body, not in front of your body. This will be more visually impacting for an audience sitting in front of you.

Other people: dealing with the audience

Latecomers: Carry on. You may want to recruit a helper who is sitting near the door to give handouts to latecomers if you give them out before your talk. If the latecomers are wandering around looking for a seat and distracting you and attendees, point out where there’s an empty seat and invite them to take it.

Respect questions. Repeat them if necessary and remember that it’s ok to stall and admit you don’t know the answer. You don’t have to know everything!

There is always a risk of hecklers. Keep calm when dealing with them and don’t let them get you riled up. You can turn their provocations into a discussion point, but don’t let them dominate.

This can be done by saying that you agree that you both disagree and that you’ll be happy to continue the discussion afterwards. Point out that other people may have questions and that you’d like to give everyone the opportunity to ask their questions. Be diplomatic and don’t get defensive—they’re not attacking you personally!

And true to her own advice, Catherine finished up by summing up her presentation and taking a few questions from the audience.


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IATEFL Liverpool: Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley’s “From Preparation to Preparedness”

“The dark matter of teaching.” That’s how Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley describe the spontaneous interaction, the improvisation, the here-and-now of lessons. It’s not about the planned, the prepared, the unquestioned road map. True to their word, they let us know that they had not planned this talk down to the minute. Practicing what they’re preaching, I suppose.

We watched a video clip of two jazz pianists playing, or rather improvising a duet. The concert wasn’t scripted and they weren’t following sheet music. Then came a video of two people in clown school, team drawing something then acting out a scenario. Neither knew what the other was doing. They had to find out as they went along. It absolutely captivated the audience, so much so that I stopped typing this post to avoid breaking the silence.

In both videos, the duos are simply there, in the moment. The clowns don’t know where exactly their improvised wordless story begins, but something gradually emerges and they run with what the other is doing, reacting and building on it—the excitement of the unknown.

With the musicians, they know some things—it’s a 12-bar blues, played as a duo, but that’s it. They react to each other’s music, flowing together. It’s risky. They could make mistakes but at the same time, mistakes are part of the process. Mistakes can be picked up on and worked with.

The clowns are practicing improvisation and spontaneity in clown school. The musicians are thrilling the audience because they’ve developed this skill through practice. See the metaphor for teacher training into spontaneity?

Rather than risk and fear, we should rejoice in the unknown. We should get excited about it. Alan and Adrian offered a few ideas about what spontaneity is:

  • interplay with what is happening now
  • risking the unknown rather than making it like last time
  • drawing ourselves into a different world of existence because we co-author the existence
  • playfulness
  • free flow rather than a hard effort.

So how can we develop our teaching dark matter?

Adrian suggested breaking rules–reflecting on your teaching and the rules that you follow, the things you always or never do. These are your rules. Take one and break it. Try something that goes against your grain and go with it. In doing so, you’ll have to improvise in some way and confront the dark matter. This doesn’t necessarily mean the new thing will be better, but it will help you avoid routine and think about what could be better.

And this can be a very small thing—teach at the back rather than the front. Move your students around in a different set up. Teach with a board instead of powerpoint or vice versa. Think about something small you could change in your teaching this week. Try it out and enjoy the excitement of change. If you make mistakes, learn from them. Trust me, learners make for better teachers.

How can we regain the joy of the unplanned, especially in teaching?

Experiment! Try new things, think creatively how you might teach a unit of a coursebook for example. We are constantly making decisions in class—do I correct that mistake? How long do I let the activity run? Who do I call on? Think about what determines how you make the decision and make it differently.

In teacher training, we need to prepare trainees to  manage  the unprepared, not simply teach them how to write lesson scripts. Adrian and Alan  gave  7 suggestions for developing “being prepared-ness” in teacher trainees:

  1. Theatre games
  2. Presentation skills
  3. Reflecting on methodologies that eschew pre-planning, such as Dogme and Community Language Learning
  4. Have them provoke unpredictability by doing the opposite of what they would normally do
  5. Include spontaneity and improvisation in post-lesson discussions of lesson observations
  6. Encourage them to see teaching as an act of inquiry rather than in the hope of being right
  7. Discuss ways to spend less time trying to control people and more time trying to connect them with each other and with what they’re doing

For us as teachers, we can also prepare ourselves for spontaneity:

  1. Bother less about trying to control. Encourage connectivity instead
  2. Work with what is happening, rather than with what you wish was happening
  3. Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there
  4. Give up trying to be interesting and reach out and connect
  5. Make plans but don’t expect them to happen
  6. Increase intuition—follow hunches, be vulnerable, risk fear, leave gaps, be messy, hang loose and welcome student spontaneity
  7. See your school as an adventure park for YOUR learning not just a place to work

To finish, they particularly recommended several books to help teachers experiment with creativity, spontaneity, and the joy of the dark matter:

-Casenave, Christine P. and Miguel Sosa. (2007). Respite for Teachers. University of Michigan Press.

-Fanselow, John. (1987). Breaking Rules. London/New York: Longman.

-Lutzker, Peter. (2007). The Art of Foreign Language Teaching. Tubingen und Basel: Francke Verlag.

-Maley, Alan. (2000). The Language Teacher’s Voice. Oxford: Heinemann/Macmillan.

-Pugliese, Chaz. (2010). Being Creative. London: Delta Publications.

-Thornbury, Scott, and Luke Meddings. (2009). Teaching Unplugged. London: Delta Publications.

They ended by pointing out that we are perhaps seeing a trend in ELT where this spontaneity and reactivity have a place in teacher training alongside lesson planning skills. Of course it may be a long time before spontaneity as approach becomes mainstream, but it is no longer a dark art, despite dealing with the dark matter of teaching.


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IATEFL Liverpool calling: Nick Robinson and how to get into ELT publishing

Nick reassured us that his talk was going to tell us all about how to get published, not just how to write. Nick is head of the recently-created MaWSIG (Materials Writing Special Interest Group) of IATEFL and as such is in the perfect position to help aspiring materials writers get their foot in the door. Plus, he’s also been involved in writing and editing for many years so he also knows all that mysterious stuff that goes on backstage in the world of publishing, including why the way publishers recruit new authors is not altogether different from how MI6 recruits spies!

Today, there is about .000001% chance of f sending in an unsolicited idea and getting it published. Sorry to burst any bubbles! Today, publishers bring new books into the world through focus groups, market analyses, collecting requests from teachers. From these processes to publication, it can take between 3 and 5 years! Publishing houses have very systematic publication plans and they generally stick to them.

Nick gave us a few precious pearls of wisdom for moving into the publishing world:

  • Never try to sell a book to a publisher. Sell an author. This is perhaps the one key thing to take away according to Nick. Sell yourself as a potential long-term business partner. You have to get onto publishers radars and the best way to do this is go to conferences. This is where the commissioning editors are and the IATEFL conference has one of the highest concentration of them out of all the conferences in Europe. In America, you’ll want to go to the TESOL conference. And if there’s a publisher-sponsored event after the conference, GO! This is the perfect opportunity to meet editors informally!


  • Have a 15 or 30 second elevator pitch ready to go and mak sure the editor can clearly remember a specific interest you have. Even better, scribble it on the back of your business card just before handing it over to the commissioning editor. Imagine when they get back to their office, they will have collected hundreds of business cards and they probably won’t remember your little elevator pitch. But a quick “business English, functional language” on the back of your card will easily make you memorable.


  • Make sure you’re visible. Get your name out there so that when an editor googles your name, they see you’ve got influence and that you engage an audience. Speaking at conferences is a good way to do this, but so is keeping a (regularly-updated) blog. 


  • Editors don’t want to work with writers who are surly, hard to work with, or inflated with their own ego. Personal rapport is a key element, so be a good person. It’s as easy as that. And don’t try to be too whacky. Anything that’s just way to out there is not going to make editors happy.


  • On a more technical side, you’ll need to get used to writing closely to a brief. This is a short description of the specifics of a book—target audience, type of activities, do’s and don’ts, etc. It is NOT a jumping off point. You must write exactly to the brief. Publishers will love you.


  • In terms of pay, there’s a changing shift in pay schemes. Publishers want people who’ll write for a fee rather than royalties. It means signing your work over to the publisher once it’s finished though, but Nick reminded us that this is the reality of the game. That being said, the fees tend to be pretty nice. 


  • Don’t think of yourself as just a book writer. Become a “content creator.” Editors want creators of books, apps, workbooks, and whatever types of materials that could help sell. You’ve got to get comfortable writing for multiple platforms. Versatility equals added value.


  • Today, digital writers are a hot commodity. By this Nick means someone familiar with the specific characteristics of online learning and how online content works.


  • To succeed, you’ll need to be thick-skinned. Getting your first feedback can be completely awful. Getting hard punched in the stomach is about what it feels like. You have to remember though that it’s a way of making your work better. Criticism hurts. Get used to it.

If you’re looking for help on getting into writing in ELT, definitely contact Nick Robinson. He knows the trends in materials creation and he takes his own advice–he’s a good guy who’s just easy and fun to work with.His web site is


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Talking Dogme at TESOL France Lyon

Just got back from doing my first teacher-fronted presentation (you know, where you stand in front of a room full of people staring at you, the PowerPoint projector glaring in your face). It was TESOL France Lyon’s inaugural event and I was there in the name of Dogme…

The crowd wasn’t huge, around 15 people or so, which:

1) made it less frightening and

2) meant we could actually do a demo Dogme lesson because you guessed it—I presented the experimental semester.

Only a few people in the room had heard of Dogme and fewer knew what it was. Sonia, another speaker of the day came up with a pretty good summary. Something like “not planning too much what you’re going to do, but taking what students say and building a lesson around it, based on what needs to be worked on.” Sounded like a good start

So on we went through a bit of student feedback from their time with Dogme, the background of the movement or the Danish connection as I call it, and some key components of the approach:

  • Conversation Interaction-driven
  • Materials-light (not necessarily mats-free!)
  • Focused on emergent learner language

I also talked about POST-planning lessons as a sort of bird killer (as in “kill 2 birds with one stone”—nothing “afowl” of course!) It keeps a record of what was done in class in case another teacher needs to sub for you one day and helps you track what’s actually been done rather than just what you had planned to do. Plus it provides a chance to reflect on how the lesson went, what worked, and how to build on that.

Maybe the best part though was actually going through a demo Dogme lesson with fellow teachers. We did an accelerated, condensed lesson, talked about how it unfolded,  then brainstormed how it could have gone differently. The demo lesson was heavily inspired by the first half of Lesson 7 and suggested alternatives looked a bit like this:

From feedback I got, they really enjoyed this part because it offered the opportunity to see what the lesson looked like and how it could have gone in alternative directions, depending on the interests of a particular group of students.

The participants asked lots of stimulating questions, leading to lively discussion (and thankfully no one just wanted to pick a verbal fight—I was a bit nervous about that, I must admit!)

Two questions came up for which I didn’t have answers, so fellow Dogmeticians, I need your help here!

  • (How) could you do Dogme with an ESP class or an exam prep class like a TOEIC class?
  • What suggestions do you have for doing Dogme with 5-year olds?

I’ve done non-Dogme TOEIC prep and kids aren’t really my thing, but if anyone has any responses to these questions, I’m all ears and will transmit the answers to the people who asked them (crediting you, of course!)

Finally, a touch of advice for anyone thinking about presenting for the first time—GO FOR IT!!

More to come on that subject, though!


Posted by on June 2, 2012 in Dogme


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