My six favourite activities from iT’s magazine

Page design for the Language Academy activity, by the amazing Derek Zinger of iT's. We played this game during a whole summer intensive course!

One of my first writing jobs, if not THE first writing job I had, was with iT’s for Teachers magazine. It was back in 2001 and I’ve told the story many times of how I got published with them (you can read it again here, or hear it here) and I’ve always been proud of the way they’ve edited and presenting any stuff I’ve written for them since. For a few years I was editing biTs, the beginner level version of the magazine.

iT’s for Teachers has now gone completely online, but they still produce amazing lesson ideas and material. Although of late I haven’t written as much as I wanted for them I wanted to share with you all six things I wrote over the past ten years with iT’s that I’m really happy with. I managed to twist their arms to give up the material for free, so please do yourself a favour and check out their site! A subscription is worth every penny!

Here, then, are my half dozen best from this part of my writing career. Click on the title of each one to download a free pdf of the activity. Teaching notes for all the activities are available at the end of the post.

1. Planet of the Apps From issue 115 of the magazine, 2010

In Planet of the Apps students find out about typical and rather strange apps for mobile phones, and design their own!

2. Googlegangers! From issue 106 of the magazine, 2007.

In googlegangers students find out what a doppleganger is, then go online to discover some facts about their own googleganger.

3. Mind Reader From issue 99 of the magazine 2006.

I loved making games for the magazine, and Mind reader was one that I played over and over again with a class of teens. It’s a word association and picture game, with lovely photos to cut out.

4. Lost also from issue 99 of the magazine 2006.

Lost was an ambitious role play activity, in which students each had a role card with a job, an objective and a key line. All based on the series Lost (remember how good it was back in 2006?), this was lots of fun. So for example you have “The Doctor. You want people to help you look for medicine. Your line: I’m a doctor, are you okay?” but I also threw in things like “The Priest. You want everyone to stay together. Your line: God will help us if we all pray.”

5. Language Academy Issue 84 of the magazine 2002

How I begged and pleaded to make this activity! Just listen to the pitch: Bored with Big Brother? Fed up with Survivors? Disgusted by Fantasy Island? Tired of the same old songs from the X factor? Are you looking for something newand original? Then welcome to… LANGUAGE ACADEMY!. Language Academy is the newest concept for a reality TV show. In Language Academy you are a contestant on an intensive English course at a very special school… The activity itself is a board game of the language academy school, with cafeteria, classroom, a confessional booth (yes! yes!), multimedia room etc. In each room there is a different “task” students have to do. We used it over a whole summer once. Oh, I’m too excited to go on, just download it for yourselves and see.

6. A Work_in_Progress from issue 81 of the magazine, 2001

Ten years ago! This is the lesson that started it all. It was the international year of the refugee and I wanted to do something connected to it. The result was a collection of now and then stories of refugees who had fled their countries and become well known in their field. I’m still proud of this lesson.

There you are. Six photocopiable lesson activity ideas on a variety of themes. Some of these may feel a bit outdated, but with some small tweaks I think you could make them relevant. One thing I love about iT’s for teachers magazine is how they can be consistently relevant with smart-looking and very workable materials. Nine pages of detailed teacher’s notes for all these activities, by the way, can be found here: Deluxe Teaching notes

Enjoy everyone! And if you already know of the magazine iT’s for teachers and have a favourite activity, post a comment below!

Oh, and by the way, if you’ve never heard of this magazine, you can find out all about it here. Don’t delay…

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Published in: on November 24, 2010 at 11:49 am  Comments (6)  
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Six weeks left…

The end of an era... (by the way, the lack of the apostrophe is NOT my fault, the programme did not let me!)

The title of this post is Six weeks left. Until… what? Christmas? New Year? 2011? Not entirely. Hold onto your cups of tea or coffee dear readers because this is a special announcement…

Six weeks left until the Six Things blog project finishes.

Gasp! Shock! Horror! Yes, you did read correctly, I will be stopping this blog at the end of the year so I thought I’d better give you all a bit of a warning. I fully realise some explanation is in order so here are six things to know about my decision to close up shop.

1 I never intended this to last forever. I guess that’s why I called it a project. I never wanted this to be an endless project. I hadn’t thought about how long really it was to last (six months was too short, six hundred posts felt too long, six years way too long). I’ve been blogging now for two years and I think it’s had a very good run. Time to move on.

2. The blogosphere has grown. When I started blogging it felt a lot emptier out here in cyberspace. I took a look at a few “big” blogs (ones like Kalinago English and TEFLtastic) and started to follow a couple of others. A year later I had to install Google reader to keep track of the thirty plus blogs I subscribe to. It’s getting hard to keep up meaningfully with everyone else while delivering my own posts.

3. I’m tired. During the past two years I’ve been keeping up with this blog while writing almost three levels of  Global (and the teacher’s books), co-writing a book for teachers (Teaching Online), being a series editor for Delta Publishing, going to lots of conferences, keeping up a blog of my travels, teaching online courses, teaching twice a week when I got the chance and trying to be a husband and father. Something has got to give!

4. Better to burn out than fade away. I love the format of my blog, I’ve become really comfortable with it. People refer to me as Six things guy, or Global guy. Maybe that’s a good reason to move on. I’ve had guest posts from many great people in ELT, legends and newcomers. The stats on the blog (number of visits, hits, unique visitors, time on site) have steadily gone up and up.  I passed 210,000 views a little while back, have around 145 posts and over 2000 comments. A far cry from the likes of some of my colleagues (like English Raven and Kalinago English who routinely top the Onestopblogs list and probably leave this one in the dust) but it feels like a lot to me. I’d prefer to stop now than hear one day someone say “What, Six Things? That old blog is still going?!?”

5. I feel like I’ve joined a community. I’ve given talks to teachers in more than five countries encouraging them to read lots of the blogs you can see on my blogroll. I’ve participated in many of the “challenges” (vale la pena, whiteboard challenge etc) I’ve met people via this blog who I then had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face. I’ve had a great laugh at some of the discussions that happened here. I had a lot of help at the beginning from people like Karenne Sylvester and Alex Case and was happy to help others (like Carol Read and Scott Thornbury) when they started their blogs. This has made my own work much more meaningful to me, and really given me a new lease on my writing and teaching career. Thank you!

6. I’m closing the blog, not my internet connection. While this blog project will be stopping (as well as Dispatches, the Global blog), I will still be out there reading and commenting on other blogs and sending out tweets of all sorts. I aim to stay connected to the community. I’m going to take a bit of an extended break, but I already have some pretty exciting ideas of what I want to do next in terms of blogging and other online stuff. And who knows, in a few years time I might start all over again with a blog called Six More Things!

So, there you have it. We’re into the final stretch here. I’ve got a couple of guest posts still up my sleeve, and will also be sharing (giving away) some of the favourite activities and lesson ideas I’ve written in other places. From 2011 onwards this site will remain online for people to wander through (like a museum) but will not be regularly updated. Enjoy what’s left while you can! 🙂

Published in: on November 19, 2010 at 12:33 pm  Comments (32)  
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Six ideas to brighten up your staff room

A few years ago, I wrote an article for the magazine It’s for Teachers about Surviving the staff room. It was based on my experience at a private language school that suffered from low staff morale (a familiar story for many private language school teachers). A colleague of mine and I managed to turn things around considerably, and one of the first places we started was the staff room. I won’t go into all the details here, but I would like to share six little ideas on making your staff room (if you have one, I know many of you don’t!) a better place to be and hopefully have some of this goodness rub off on the staff itself!

1. Plants and posters

Decorate the staff room with posters (and not just the publisher’s free giveaway posters of irregular verbs and maps of Britain etc) and, more importantly, plants. Plants in a room help lighten the atmosphere a lot. Make sure there is good lighting, and room to move – so even in a small space don’t pack it with too many tables, bookshelves etc.

2. Ideas

Have a corkboard on the wall where you can stick not just official announcements but teaching ideas, activities and so on. In one school I worked at we called it the Sharing board. It worked really well, there was always something interesting you could grab off it for class. Also perhaps have a “lesson idea of the week” section or “website of the week”. Staff members take turns suggesting things for those slots.

3. Food and drink

An electric kettle, fresh water, tea and biscuits can do wonders to a staff room and for the staff’s morale. Ideally paying for this should be the management’s job but I’ve worked in environments where we all took turns bringing things in. Warning: make sure you put in place a system of cleaning up. Dirty mugs and crumbs everywhere can have a very negative effect!

4. Fun and games

In one staff room I worked in I would put up the Guardian quick crossword every couple of days. We made it a competition on how fast we could solve it together. I think the record was just over 2 minutes by a group of three teachers. It was lots of fun. You could do something similar, or put up word games or puzzles. Another thing we did was top ten lists, where people had to write up their top ten films, activities, books, places they had been etc.

5 Photos

I’ve seen staff rooms which have a nice wall of photos of the various teachers and administrative staff. Photos of people at work, at the end-of-year party, on excursions etc. It always makes the place look more welcoming to see that. A nice idea would be for the school to invest in a digital photo frame and have a series of photos on a continual loop. These kinds of things can really help a sense of community.

6 Resources

I think the saddest thing in a school is when every teacher is hoarding their own resources (activities, lesson plans etc). It’s a sign of mutual trust and respect to have a series of shared things that teachers can dip into. This could be a filing cabinet (or folders on a computer) full of activities that everyone can use. It could be a plastic box full of whiteboard markers, dice, pointers, cuisinaire rods or whatever. If you’re in a good school with some money and management who care about professional development I’d say there should be several resource books for teachers on a shelf which can be borrowed by the staff. These aren’t frills. They’re necessary for your job.

What about you? Do you have a staffroom? How good is it? What is the best staff room you’ve been in? Post a comment!

Note: this blogpost is based in part on ideas that appeared in the Language Teacher’s Survival Handbook (written by myself with Duncan Foord) and an article on Humanising Language Teaching also by Duncan Foord and I.

Published in: on November 15, 2010 at 11:58 am  Comments (4)  
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Six ways of letting unplugged teaching through the coursebook door

This week I’m joined by a repeat offender here on Six Things. The wonderful English Raven himself, Jason Renshaw, has been experimenting with ideas on unplugged teaching and coursebooks. You can see much more of this work in progress at his blog. Here though he asked me if he could share six general tips for people wanting to unplug their teaching bit by bit. Over to you Jason!

Okay, so you work in a school where coursebooks rule. Welcome to a rather large club, to put it mildly! Whether or not you like using coursebooks or think they encompass the best overall approach for your learners, perhaps you’ve begun to wonder about the potential of having a bit more “unplugged” time in the classroom. As a teacher or program manager, I would encourage you to experiment with unplugged teaching, but also remember that it can be hard to get the coursebook to shift its bulky influence over your program. Here are what I consider to be six essential rules for facilitating unplugged teaching in a context where coursebooks have – up until now, at least – tended to dominate the program from head to foot.

1. Think about how you pitch “unplugged”
If you walk into the staffroom or school owner’s office and announce you want to do “Dogme” or even “unplugged teaching” or (heaven forbid!) “learner-centred and generated dialogic learning”, in many cases you should prepare for a lukewarm or baffled reception at best, and a reaction of complete incredulity at worst.
Consider using terms like “free speaking”, “conversation class”, or “integrated speaking and writing” – terms that management and other staff are more likely to recognise and be able to relate to (but still potentially facilitate something along the lines of unplugged teaching). These are also terms/concepts that are usually only very vaguely catered to in existing coursebooks, so you could well be proposing something that helps to fill a gap your school and teachers are already aware of.

Also, try not to make this look or sound like a personal quest to overthrow a coursebook regime (even if that is your underlying motivation!). Try to show you understand and respect the current way of doing things, and just want to expand and improve it.

Finally, it’s also a good idea to show some evidence before you propose major change. Record some unplugged lessons or sequences of lessons, and copy and present some evidence from learners’ notebooks. Don’t go in with an idea or notion. Go in with something you can show, explain, and rationalise (see also rule number 6 below).

2. The schedule: Double or nothing

First work out how many lessons are required to adequately cover the existing core coursebook content, then take that number and double it. At a basic level, this creates a syllabus and schedule where there is potentially as much time for unplugged teaching as there is coursebook teaching. If this results in an overly-long or impractical schedule overall, it might be worth seeing if some coursebook units can be skipped, done in “fast forward” mode, or allocated as homework.
Other options, of course, could be to make sure the coursebook is a slim(mer) one to start with, or to abolish things like extra workbooks.
The chances of your school accepting such proposals could have a lot to do with how well you pitched unplugged teaching as per rule 1 above, but also how well you present and follow through with the other rules below.

3. Create options, not specifications
Make sure the system and schedule allow for teachers to choose between unplugged and supplementary options.
If you have doubled the available schedule as per rule 1 above, essentially what you want is a situation where a teacher can choose to go with some unplugged teaching, or use pre-provided (or teacher made) supplementary materials more specifically aimed at the coursebook content, or – probably the most attractive and feasible option – use a combination of both.

Many coursebook series now have a wealth of extra materials and supplements for their units. If a teacher doesn’t want to pursue unplugged teaching in the extra lesson time available, they might like to use these supplementary materials instead. And it is very important that they are not made to feel inferior or somehow deficient by choosing to do so.
Like any major change in teaching approach, it is more likely to appeal and spread when shown gently and by example, and without being forced. If you want teachers to respect your right to teach unplugged outside the compulsory core of the coursebook curriculum, you’ll also have to respect their right to stick to that core curriculum.

4. Provide training
Teaching unplugged is not an easy endeavour for a lot of teachers. Make sure you provide good training that is rich in practical tips and demonstrated through actual examples. Let curious teachers observe your classes or look at the videos and materials that have been generated in your unplugged lessons. Request for your school to get a book like Thornbury and Meddings’ Teaching Unplugged, which presents unplugged teaching in both a practical way and through demonstrable theories about learning. Provide links to a spreading corpus of blog posts that demonstrate actual unplugged lessons.

But again: don’t force this training or exposure onto the teachers. Let them come to unplugged teaching as a result of curiosity and their own choice, and also accept that they may never want to come to it – and if so be careful not to hold (or look like you are holding) that against them.

5. Match unplugged learning to specific learning goals

Document or create some broad learning objectives that unplugged sessions can end up targeting. Official tests are a great one to use – especially the speaking and writing sections of such tests (as I demonstrated for business English classes preparing for TOEIC here). It’s actually really feasible to manoeuvre unplugged lessons toward a variety of test task formats – and not just for speaking and writing. They’re mostly like building plans, really, and it could just be a matter of finding ways to let students decorate and furnish them according to their own tastes and interests towards the end of an unplugged lesson sequence.
Things like the CEFR specifications (and others like it – for example the framework I have to address for migrants and refugees here in Australia) are even easier to lop onto the end of unplugged lessons in a coherent way. I have generally found that doing this goes beyond making unplugged teaching acceptable in a learning context: it can actually help rationalise it and make it feel very relevant to learners and school. Dare I say it… it can even help to make unplugged teaching very popular!
6. Ensure there is evidence of learning (and teaching)
Evidence is really important in ELT in so many of the contexts in which it takes place, and it would have to be one of the most powerful rationales for using coursebooks.

All of the major changes I have achieved within school systems (and learners’, teachers’ and managements’ minds) have come about through careful attention to providing practical and accessible evidence. Even when unplugged sessions go well and appear to be enjoyable and worthwhile at the time, I have seen the approach become unravelled because there is inadequate follow up.

It is a good idea to make sure there is something organised and on (web)paper to show for any unplugged teaching. Notes should be appearing in learners’ notebooks, and we should be showing interest in them and helping the learners make their notes coherent and useful.

Given the relative lack of lesson planning notes associated with an unplugged approach, we should be providing good post-lesson reports that document what was learned and why. Creating a blog (or series of printed handouts) for students, summarizing activities, emergent language work, etc. can be a great way to rationalise and extend what you are doing in your unplugged lessons.

And of course, once your learners hit a certain level and familiarity with unplugged teaching, they could be generating most all of this evidence themselves. Just bear in mind that many contexts still want to see indications that a teacher is ‘working’ and ‘doing’ things, so you should be willing to provide the relevant follow ups that demonstrate this.

Published in: on November 11, 2010 at 9:18 am  Comments (7)  
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Six utterly random laws

Clandfield's Law of Procrastination clearly states that...

Time to put your thinking caps on readers! One of the things I enjoy watching are the TED Talks (I’m sure many of you know them, but in case you don’t then be sure to check them out here). One of the latest I saw was Dan Cobley talk about everything physics had taught him about marketing. It was an ingenious little talk about theories of physics and how they could be applied to marketing.
It got me wondering, could we not do the same with ELT? I seem to remember fellow blogger Alex Case writing once that anything, absolutely anything, could be made to relate to ELT if you were ingenious enough. So here’s my idea. Below are six utterly random laws from various fields. Can you take one and form it into a law relating to ELT? For example, Murphy’s Law states “If anything can go wrong, it will”. So I could change this to be Clandfield’s Law of lesson observation: “If anything can go wrong in an observed lesson it will”. Get the idea? That was the easy one. How about the following laws?

1 Newton’s First Law. Every body remains in a state of rest or uniform motion unless it is acted upon by an external force.

2. The Second Law of Thermodynamics. In a system, a process that occurs will tend to increase the total entropy (disorder) of the universe.

3. Heisenburg’s Uncertainty Principle. It’s impossible to measure the position and the momentum of a particle because the act of measuring it, by definition, changes it.

4. Parkinson’s Law. Work expands so as to fill the time available.

5. The Peter Principle. In a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his or her level of incompetence.

6. Tobler’s First Law of Geography. Everything is related to everything else, but near things are more related than distant things.

Try it out with your colleagues. Can you make one or more of these relate to English teaching? Or perhaps another law of your own invention? Post a comment – you may assure yourself a place in ELT stardom!

Published in: on November 5, 2010 at 1:13 pm  Comments (9)  
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