Six completely useless things students often do very well

Twirling a pen between your thumb and fingers is a skill acquired sitting through hours of boring lessons...

As many readers know, I’ve been out of the classroom for a few months now. But there are some things you never forget, and among those are some of the useless things students do in class. Each of the following six things are skills, I’m convinced, that are honed over several years of sitting in boring classes (not mine, of course not my classes). Not necessarily the skills we want them to develop in English class but skills nevertheless. Here they are.

1 Twirling a pen between two forefingers and a thumb.

2 Leaning back on a chair just far enough to avoid falling over.

3 Drawing moustaches, devil’s horns and penises on photos in a book.

4 Opening the book to the wrong page every class.

5 Balancing a pen between the upper lip and nose.

6 Clicking pens quickly and noisily..

I seem to remember coming across a similar list in a book I used to have called Essential Lists for Teachers by Duncan Grey. I wish I could find it again. In the meantime, are there any other utterly useless things that your students are very good at doing? Useless mind, not just naughty. Sending text messages or passing notes secretly is a skill, but you could argue it’s more useful than the ones I posted above. Anyway, if you want to add then please post a comment.

Published in: on May 31, 2010 at 7:29 am  Comments (31)  
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Six jobs before becoming a teacher

Paperboy... my first job at age 13 (not me in the photo!)

This is always a fun topic of conversation among English teachers – what did you do BEFORE you joined the front lines of the teaching profession? I read somewhere that today’s young people can expect to have more than fifteen jobs in their lives. I don’t know if I had fifteen different kinds of job before becoming an English teacher but I certainly had at least six. Here they are, not necessarily in order!

1. Aid worker

I was an aid worker first in Croatia in the early nineties. I worked in a refugee camp, organising various social events and helping run the kindergarten. Actually some of this involved a bit of English teachng, but also aerobics classes and arts and crafts afternoons. I did this for a few months (they did not let us stay too long). I then worked as a volunteer for the UNHCR (High Commission on Refugees) in Guatemala the next year, accompanying Guatemalan refugees back to their villages. Interesting work, and one felt like you were doing some real good but the pay was not good. In fact, in my case the pay was inexistent as we were mostly volunteers.

2. Video store cashier and shelf-stocker

Much less glamourous than 1, I spent some time in Montreal working for Blockbuster Videos – a truly evil company. When I think back on the staff training… shudder. But I did get a couple of free rentals a week and experienced the joy of getting screamed at by outraged customers when we charged them late fees.

3 Children’s book consultant

An amazing job that put me through university. I worked for the biggest independant children’s book store in Canada (alas it closed around ten years ago). I started working on cash and in the warehouse before getting trained to be a consultant, advising librarians, teachers and parents on suitable books for different ages of children. I discovered and rediscovered many gems of children’s literature, great picture books all of which served me very well when it came time for me to get books for my own children. I did this job on and off for over six years, the second longest “profession” I’ve had after teaching.

4 Bartender and waiter

I actually attended a course and got a certificate as a bartender, can you believe such a thing exists. For a time I knew how to make all kinds of cocktails, but all that knowledge has now been forgotten. I worked in a bar in Toronto for a summer and hated it. A few years later, I was living in the UK and I went back to the service industry as a waiter in a hotel in north Wales. And hated it again.

5 Lifeguard and swimming instructor

In my much younger days I worked every summer, and part time during the year, as a lifeguard and swimming instructor in Toronto. Those were very good times, although I feel now that we were all quite young to have such responsibility. Got good tans though.

6 Newspaper delivery boy

My first ever job. I was thirteen and got a job delivering newspapers in my neighborhood. I had to get up every morning at six o’clock to finish my round by seven-thirty. Then I came home, had breakfast and went to school. That eventually ended when the government passed a law making it illegal to hire minors to deliver papers and pay them a pittance. I guess it would be called child labour now, although it didn’t feel onerous at the time.

So, what about you lot? What are the strangest most interesting, most awful, or most glamorous jobs you have held down before opting for ELT? Leave a comment.

Actually, if you have your own blog why not do a blog post on your past trades? How about a mini blog meme on the subject? I’d be interested to read them. There, the gauntlet is thrown down!

Published in: on May 22, 2010 at 7:45 pm  Comments (45)  

Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you are on the right track as a language teacher

Jason Renshaw’s Six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher

This week I’m extrememly happy to be joined by none other than the English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw. For those of you who don’t know him, Jason is a writer and prolific blogger based in Australia. He’s known for his coursebook series Boost, but also for creative and provocative posts on different aspects of teaching and methodology. I’ve been bugging him a long time to do a guest post, and he’s delivered the goods! Here are six signs that you may be on the right track as a language teacher. Enjoy!

1. Your classes almost never begin or end with coursebook material

This to me is a sign that a teacher is connecting with students as people, and sees their interests and daily lives as the first and final priorities. It is also a positive answer to a question I put to a lot of newer teachers: Who is actually running this class – you and your students, or a book?

2. The students in your classes talk more than you do, and speak to each other more than they speak to you

This is a skill and an important priority. It means you have started to see your role as being more along the lines of facilitator rather than leader or controller. In language learning, the students are the ones who really need the opportunities and time to talk – not you. Language learning is possibly more enhanced by talking to a range of people – not a single expert. Also, to really help students you need to be able to listen to them. If you’re doing all the talking, you’re probably doing very little listening.

3. Motivation has become the students’ responsibility

Teachers who try to overtly motivate their students either fail dismally, or become the entire source of classroom motivation (which is also a form of failure, but harder to spot and more drawn out). At some point, this responsibility for motivation and commitment to the learning process has to become an intrinsic part of the students. The earlier this begins, the better. Teachers who can let go of this perceived responsibility and find the right ways to help it blossom in students are worth their weight in gold.

4. You feel a constant need to create and apply your own material and activities

Some coursebooks are better than others, and some suit your learners better than others do. But none of them (on their own) can be perfectly ideal for your students. It is a very positive sign in a developing teacher when thoughts like the following become more frequent:

– I’ll skip this part, because it’s not all that relevant or useful to my students

– This part could be better. Here’s how…

– I can do this part better, and I will

These feelings often lead to teachers making more and more of their own material and activities, often to either supplement or replace sections of coursebooks, and more often than not they lead to more effective and relevant learning in class. They are also a positive sign of teacher self-belief and confidence.

5. There are more questions than answers

I would apply this on two fronts.

One is related to the point above about interaction in class. When students are answering a lot but not asking many questions, their passive and receptive skills are being emphasized at the expense of productive skills and creative thinking. We may also be creating situations where what students know takes priority over what they don’t know or would like to know.

On the second front, this is a good sign in teachers as well. As you become better at what you do as a teacher, you will find that answers lead to more questions, and more questions lead to more answers. It’s sort of like watching a tree grow. Teachers I’ve met who figured they had more answers than questions tended to be the sort who had started to plateau, or even backslide. They didn’t realise it (or didn’t want to realise it!), and had started to misinterpret the whole idea and role of experience.

6. There are regular surprises

Being able to predict what will happen in classes is a sign of good teaching in many respects, but in other ways it can be a sign of rot. A highly predictable lesson with predominantly predetermined use of language is rather like taking a single well-used track through a very large forest. Good teachers facilitate, expect, and embrace the unexpected. They thrive on it. Surprises in language classes not only represent what language experience is like in the real world, they also create the most effective bases for teachers to explore what the students (feel they) really need to learn about and experience more.

Published in: on May 17, 2010 at 8:42 am  Comments (25)  
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Six ways to exploit the ash cloud in class

I had some other things planned for the blog this week, but this ash cloud business is just NOT going away from the news. So I figured why not look on the bright side and see how something like this could be exploited in class? Here are six ideas.

1 Learn about volcanoes, ash and airplanes! Create a lesson all about volcanoes and the ash cloud. One of the best sources of information I found was of course at the BBC website special page about the ash cloud. I’d happily use any of these as a reading text or live listening (i.e. you the teacher use the text as a basis for a lecture that you give).

2 Discuss what you would do! Tell the students to imagine they are stranded at an airport for an indefinite amount of time. They brainstorm what they would do to pass the time. To make this activity more local, tell them they are at their closest airport and they need to get to London. How could they do this?

3 Do a roleplay! Roleplay a “giving information/complaining” situation: Student A is at the airport and wants to know why his/her flight has been cancelled. Student B works at the information desk. To make it more interesting or give more support provide the students with more details (e.g. student B you are getting married tomorrow!)

4 Learn about Iceland! Prepare a reading or listening text about Iceland. Might be nice to learn something about this country which isn’t only ash clouds and bankrupcy… Another possibility is to make a quiz (or have students make one). Don’t just rely on Wikipedia for your information for this, why not go to the Icelandic government site? You can find the basic facts about the country here.

5 Use the Ash Cloud’s tweets! As a warm up, use some the Ash Cloud’s tweets, which you can find here (I have no idea if this is an official site or not, but it’s funny). Write some of the funnier ones on the board and explain what twitter is. Then ask the students who, or what, made these tweets. My favourites for this activity would be: “It looks like I’ll be spending my summer holidays over Europe!I was hoping for a relaxing time at home..” and “Wonderful thank you, how are you? Oh you know the usual…drifting, sorting out my particles, that sort of thing” and “I’m being pesky again-its that fresh pulse of meltwater thats caused it-awfully sorry!”

6 Fill up those last ten minutes of class…with a game of hangman using the volcano’s name Eyjafjallajokull. This will probably take some time 🙂 but you could argue it’s good practice of English letters. Once students have finally got it, ask them to find out three facts about the volcano in English using the net and bring these to the next class.

Finally, as an extra bonus for this post here is my latest venture into film subtitling (those of you who follow me on Twitter will have soon other similar films I’ve made like this). Now I’m trying my hand at horror. The link below will take you to a film called Ash Cloud ELT. It works best if you don’t understand Russian! Enjoy…


Published in: on May 12, 2010 at 8:24 am  Comments (14)  
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Six rather strange “English” things

Six "English keys", according to the Spanish

It has been awhile since I’ve done a language list. I’ve had this at the back of my mind this list for some time. My father, who teaches French cultural studies at the University of Toronto, often does an exercise at the beginning of his course where he asks students to make a list of all the expressions with French in them (e.g. French toast, French kiss etc) and uses that as a starting point for examining attitudes towards the French in the English language.

For us as English teachers, what does English give us? Here are six “English” things, taken from three different languages that I think are curious.

1 An English rose (from the English language) not the name of a flower, this is an expression used to describe an attractive English woman with “an appearance traditionally thought to be typical of English women”. What could THAT mean? It makes me think of a pale-skinned rather fragile kind of person (maybe a bit like Keira Knightley in Atonement?).

2 An English muffin (from North American English) This is a kind of round, toasted bread thing. A bit like a crumpet, but more doughy. I can’t really explain it. It’s good for breakfast. I have not heard the expression in British English.

3 An English rubber (from French “capote anglaise”) the French slang for a condom. Could also be translated as an English hood or bonnet. Now, what does THAT say about the English from the French point of view?

4 To disappear like the English – (from French “filer à l’anglaise”) a French expression meaning to run away or disappear discreetly without telling anyone. To slope off or sneak off I guess.

5 An English key ( from Spanish llave inglesa) – A wrench. I don’t see what is English about this piece of hardware but there you go.

6 An English letter – (from Spanish letra inglesa) A sort of handwriting, a bit like italics but in a thicker font.

Now, I’m really interested. I speak French and Spanish, but are there any expressions in other languages that contain the word “English” and refer to something that does not necessarily have anything to do with England? Please post a comment and share.

Published in: on May 4, 2010 at 8:58 am  Comments (59)  
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