Teachers Daring to Join the Change

I have just returned from four wonderful days in beautiful Costa Rica. The multitude of things one can do there is amazing – Costa Rica’s strikingly diverse terrain — lush forests, wildlife reserves, and tropical beaches — offers a little something for every traveler. Beach-lovers staying along the Pacific Coast can enjoy a palm-fringed coastline for sun and surf. Nature-seekers staying in the Northern Plains or along the Caribbean coast should pay a visit to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca before venturing inland to zip line above Monteverde’s Cloud Rainforest and hike Arenal Volcano. Whether you seek sun, nature or adventure, there’s much to discover in this paradise. IMG_9535

So which of the above took me there?  None. The reason that brought me to lovely Costa Rica was The National Conference for Teachers of English http://www.nctecostarica.or.cr/ – which gathered English teachers from all over the country and speakers from the US, Canada, Mexico and even from Brazil.

OK, I must confess I played truant one afternoon and went sightseeing at the Volcán Poás – up in the Costa Rican Alps. Unfortunately, I couldn’t see the crater though, since it is quite regularly covered in heavy fog, but I could most definitely smell it – sulfur and other intriguing aromas. IMG_9428

Who would have “thunk” that a Brazilian Teacher of English would be invited to participate in such an honorable event. Talk about breaking paradigms and stereotypes. “Native Speakers of English” never have and never will have exclusive rights to the teaching of their language, especially when it is to speakers of other languages.

I was invited via twitter by Jonathan Acuña, the program’s organizer, (may God bless technology)  and the theme – Dare to Join the Change – really challenged me to embrace the opportunity and say “Why not?”

First of all, I’d like to congratulate the organizers – I’ve had my share of TESOL conferences and some of them – dare I say it – were rather poorly organized and structured. NCTE Costa Rica did a wonderful job in getting together different speakers and workshops spread all around the “Centro Cultural Costarricence Norteamericano” – with every classroom having support personnel and dedicated staff. Loved it.

I had been warned of the Tico Time issue (which is not exclusive to Costa Rica, by all means), when things tend to follow their “own time” and tardiness is expected and sometimes even embraced. Not this time. Sessions started sharply on time – save some technological glitches. The plenaries also started punctually as scheduled.

The workshops tended to focus on English Learning in the 21st Century: diversity in the classroom, Fluent x Accurate spoken English, natural learning  and so much more. (Stay tuned for coming blogs on particular issues discussed in the conference).

My workshop was titled: “Dogme never fear, Technology is here” followed by the subtitle “How can media and dogme work together”  and was based on the premise that the simplicity in methodology and movement preached by Dogme in ELT can be enriched and empowered via the use of technology (including social media). The key is to reach a balance between effective language reception and production and unplugged learning. You may see my power point presentation following this link:  https://onedrive.live.com/embed?cid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07&resid=5FB2C8AB8B478B07%21835&authkey=ABRDhO-mHMCqr58&em=2

During the training session, the attendees were wonderful – all teachers highly Tech Monstercommitted to growth and improvement. One thing that was pretty common during the workshop was the fact that most teachers still resist to the use of social media. Technology can be really scary if you don’t know what to do with it. And less than 10% (at least in my workshop) were on LinkedIn. I urged them to create their own LinkedIn profile immediately because it is their professional digital card to their careers.IMG_9447

That’s just a brief insight of what happened on 3 days of intense and powerful collaboration. The conference was tuanis (“too nice” in Costa Rican slang).

My advice? Next time you hear about a teachers’ conference dare to join the change.

Never fear.

Cheers,

Mo

 

 

 

 

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Could you say that again, please?

This morning, my student Alice arrived all upset because she’d been stuck in traffic for nearly two hours and had missed 90% of her class. But despite all the rush she brought up a very pertinent question:

She asked: “How can I improve my listening?”

Could you please repeat that?She’s just returned from a week’s vacation in New York City and told me she had not had any significant listening problems – of course most of the time she’d been meeting up with fellow Brazilian friends and speaking Portuguese – but when she is watching her favorite TV series – Homeland or Scandal, for example, she misses much of what they say. Even the subtitles are too fast. So, how can she improve her listening to better understand native natural speech?

Firstly, in some cases, the dialogues in TV series are not THAT natural. A quick search on the speech speed used in TV series brought me this info:

*Fans of writer-producer Shonda Rhimes are already used to the blazing speed with which her characters must deliver their lines, but her prime time dramas “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice” have nothing on “Scandal” when it comes to the sheer volume of words spoken per second.

Homeland in fast speech track
Homeland in fast speech track
Am I talking too fast?
Am I talking too fast?

Just ask lead actress Kerry Washington.

“In some ways I feel like doing David Mamet on Broadway was the perfect training for doing television with Shonda Rhimes, because they’re two immensely talented, prolific writers who value the English language, who require a real commitment to language,” she says. “Their work is so athletic – in film and in television. The physical requirements are so great.”

Asked why she demands that her “Scandal” cast rapid-fire their lines, Rhimes said the approach serves several purposes.

“Part of ‘Scandal’s’ pace was born of me not wanting actors to linger in the moments, in the sense of it’s a world in which everyone is really incredibly busy, and there’s no time to feel your feelings,” said Rhimes. “So part of it was that. Part of it was that I wrote a pilot that was, like, 75 pages long.”

Her co-producer Betsy Beers says: “It’s funny how much you can get in if you talk really, really fast.”

 Adds co-star Columbus Short: “The amazing thing about this show is really, speaking that fast in the dialogue, it’s remarkable how the emotion hasn’t gotten lost.”

Read more at http://www.eurweb.com/2012/11/why-is-the-dialogue-so-fast-in-abcs-scandal/#Kta2bugSQKDAuzId.99

So how could my students improve their listening comprehension?

It’s an easy-peasy answer: by listening lots and lots of English.

I notice in my own self-taught French lessons – I’m on a pre-intermediate level in Voltaire’s language – when I listen to tv shows, news, series and/or podcasts in French on a more regular basis, let us say, Monday through Friday for at least 15 minutes – my listening improves for the next time I’ll be listening to something in that language.

So my advice pearls would be:

  1. Make listening a fun daily habit – no point in torturing yourself listening to things you find boring. Documentaries have a slower paced narration but if you don’t like watching them try a cartoon, a soap, a movie, whatever appeals to you.
  2. Take advantage of “convenient” moments. Stuck in traffic? what’s the point in listening to the traffic reporter hovering over your head saying that there is a huge traffic congestion. Listen to your new target language.
  3. Listen to native English speakers (or any other native speakers of the language you want to learn). Use podcasts – tonnes of different ideas and interests. Try Online radio.
  4. Listen to non-native English speakers. Yes, that’s right. In today’s world you’ll come across people from around the around using English to communicate. That’s what you need, isn’t it?

Since you are so excited about developing your listening skills please  find below some more podcasts developed with the English language learner in mind

1.  6 Minute English podcast – produced by the BBC with 2 hosts always asking some challenging question found in the news

http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/learningenglish/general/sixminute/

2. All Ears English podcast – 2 chicks always teaching some cultural and language point in the English spoken in the US. Beware: one of them slurs and speakstoofastasifshecouldntbotherwhethershesunderstoodornot.
http://allearsenglish.com/

3. Aprende Inglés con la Mansión del Inglés – 2 dudes (one from Belfast and another from London) host the show with good humor and focus on a teaching point. Emphasis on Spanish speakers http://www.inglespodcast.com

4. Business English Q&A  –
US-born Ryan now living and working in Germany develops a great series of interviews with successful English language learners from different parts of the world trying to discover the common traits, tips and techniques to assist in learning a foreign language more effectively.

http://www.businessenglishqanda.com/

5. English Harmony Podcast – prepared by Robby, a non-native English speaker with tips on how to learn English more effectively.
http://englishharmony.com/english-harmony-podcast/

6. Real Life English podcast – a group of young teachers from the US, Australia and some other beaches I can’t remember they try to encourage students (female students, mostly) to learn and practice English. First produced in Belo Horizonte, Brazil now they’ve spread to Chile. Oh, yeahhh.
http://reallifeeng.libsyn.com/

7. English Experts Podcast – Produced by non-native English speakers focuses on the common needs of Brazilian English learners.
https://archive.org/details/EnglishExperts-Podcast

8. ESL Podcast – The host for the podcast is Dr. Jeff McQuillan, directly from sunny Los Angeles, and he helps read the scripts and provides explanations for them.

https://www.eslpod.com/website/

9. Luke’s English Podcast – produced and hosted by Luke from England – it’s a very good way to expose yourself to British English. But it requires a little patience usually no shorter than 45 minutes.
http://teacherluke.co.uk/

10. Richard Vaughan Live podcast – controversial Texas-born Richard Vaughan has painstakingly been trying to teach English to Spaniards. His ramblings are quite entertaining. I love the episodes when he loses his temper with some of his on-air students.

http://www.ivoox.com/podcast-richard-vaughan-live_sq_f180769_1.html

11. VOA’s Learning English Podcast –
dating back to their shortwave transmissions even before the Internet, VOA has been my companion with good quality of listening content on American history, words and news.

http://learningenglish.voanews.com/podcast/0.html

 

Phew, I think that will keep you busy until next year.

I’m sure this will help you out. And if you feel you still need to improve your listening comprehension repeat steps 1-3 as many times as necessary.

Cheers and happy listening.

Mo

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Can a student learn a Foreign Language (usually English and/or Spanish) attending classes at a regular school in Brazil? This question has surfaced lately here in this country and many reasons lead to a capital “NO, STUDENTS ATTENDING REGULAR SCHOOLS IN BRAZIL CAN’T AND WON’T LEARN A FOREIGN LANGUAGE”.

Some of the reasons are:

“Classes are too heterogeneous.”

“There are up to 50 students in a classroom. Impossible to teach a language.”

“Teachers are underqualified and unprepared to teach.”

“A regular school has more important goals than teaching a foreign language.”

“Teachers don’t care.”

“Students lack motivation and/or clear objectives.”

“The textbooks are not ___________. (multiple choice) 

a) adequate

b) in sufficient number

c) up-to-date

d) interesting

e) all of the above

“Students cannot fail English classes. They are automatically approved to the next grade.”

“English or Spanish taught as foreign languages have been devalued as school subjects. Not as important as Maths, History or Portuguese.”

“It’s impossible to teach a foreign language using the students’ mother tongue 90% of the time.”

English teaching in Brazilian public schools
English teaching in Brazilian public schools
ENglish Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil
English Textbook for secondary public schools in Brazil

Phew! The list is long. Should I continue? But I guess you get the gist.

The situation is so bad that some Brazilian congressmen have raised their voices proposing the end of the teaching of foreign languages at public schools due to their failure in reaching any positive results.

Well, let me tell you of my own experience growing up in Brazil and attending public schools from 1st grade to university.

Back in 1976 I was in 5th grade and according to the Ministry of Education, that would be the year for me to start learning a foreign language. Unfortunately, there were few foreign language teachers, and my school didn’t have an English teacher that year. In 6th grade we finally got an English teacher – we would have classes twice a week (each lasting 45 minutes). The teacher very wisely chose not to use a textbook – everything was based on copying from the blackboard and/or dictation. I must say that it was my best contact with English for the next 3 years. In 1978 we moved house and school, in the 7th and 8th grades the new teacher (new to me) used the same basic textbook that her students in 5th grade were using. Needless to say, I had learned more without a textbook. My wife, at roughly the same time – also studying at a state-run school, had her first contact with French (they had no English teachers available, either) but she says that much of the foundation of French grammar she learned in that first year. Both she and myself learned way more than the verb to be or “être”.

The goal and the expectations back then were different from today. Now the emphasis is on oral communication. Back then, we had to learn the grammar and to be able read and write for academic purposes.

But the key factor was that we were lucky to have as our very first foreign language models, teachers who cared, who were motivated and who had a teaching method imperfect as it might have been.

Could I speak English when I started high school? With the exception of isolated words, no, I couldn’t. But I was able to read and interpret basic texts which qualified me to proceed with my studies at university.

Can one learn a Foreign Language at a regular school?

Yes, if both teacher and students reach a consensus on their goals and motivation. And if the Ministry of Education reestablishes the teaching of foreign languages as a relevant discipline and not just one more public policy that looks good on paper but is void of any relevance in real life.

Cheers,

Mo

If I knew then: A letter to me on my first day of teaching

Hi Moacir,

I know you’re shy and sometimes feel out of place and time. But listen to me: your choice of a teaching career was not by chance. Your Secondary School English teacher saw in you a great potential for languages, in his case – English – and dear old Mr. Santiago – the green cab driver at church, saw your potential as a teacher; and God led the way.

Yes, you will be scared sometimes. At times some students will seem to know more than you. And more mature as well (Chuckles). But you will inspire them to keep on learning and you will learn to get them to contribute to your lessons with what they already know.

Yes, teaching 8th graders will not be easy and due to your lack of experience and support you will feel as if you’ve failed and want to quit.  But years later you will come across some of your former students who will thank you for the lessons and for the inspiration.

You will have to wake up really early in the morning (5:30am) in order to get to your in-company classes in time and your last class will finish at 10:30pm. Hard work will not make you sick, though, just keep focused and do your best. Those crazy hours will also pass.

Mo in his first year as a teacher - July 1988
Mo in his first year as a teacher – July 1988

Remember to stay professional at all times with your students. Yes, you may socialize with them – but remember your job is to teach them not to simply be their friends.

Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are “simply” a teacher, or because you are a language teacher who has never been able to travel abroad and who lacks international exposure.

In a few more years you will have had the privilege to visit and even teach in different countries. You will preach in English at a church in Cape Town, South Africa. You will be a teacher of English in the US, Canada and Ireland. You will speak English and Spanish in China. Hard to believe? Yes, but God has amazing things in store for us all. Just wait and see.

In 27 years you will have reached the top of your career as a self-employed teacher but there will not be time to rest in your laurels, you will have to be continuously reinventing yourself and selling your services, training new teachers, presenting conferences on ELT – yes, I know it’s hard to believe me since you don’t even own a landline phone  at home or a car but some day you will be teaching via FaceTime video (better than via satellite) across the globe. Don’t ask me for details, not even I know how it works today.

Keep on learning, growing, doing your best and you will reap the rewards. I know.

Cheers and great teaching,

Mo

When enough is enough or not

How long should a student stay with the same teacher? That’s a question quite often asked.

Answers may vary – some schools rotate teachers at the end of a stage/level. Others change teachers month. There are schools which rotate teachers every class (which is a strategy to keep students attached to the school not to a particular teacher, given the high turnover in the industry).

My wife started learning English at a language school years ago, which rotated teachers at the end of every stage, but she had a teacher – Wallace* – who had noticed that students were not reaching higher levels at the expected pace. So Wallace tried an experiment staying with the same group of students from beginner to advanced in order to identify where the weakest link was. When reaching the Advanced level -C1 – students were more confident in language production and more fluent. But the experiment  was inconclusive whether the positive outcome was due to the same teacher or whether Wallace was a better teacher than average, or the rotation made students fluctuate and slide back in their progress.

A few weeks ago, my Student Rosie* told me of a dream she’d had that I was in her bedroom answering phone calls on her landline and had asked her not to disturb me. What would have triggered such a bizarre dream?

Well, the night before she’d been talking to her mother saying she’d have to get up a little earlier the next day because she had English class. Her mother asked her if she was still having lessons with that teacher who wore glasses and had a captivating smile (author’s imagination) and Rosie* nodded. Her mother asked how long she’d been having classes with me and she said “nearly 10 years maybe”.

Then I told her that it would be around 19-20 years – on and off of course. I moved to the US for a period and then to Ireland. But it made me wonder what would make someone pay a teacher almost long enough for the latter’s retirement.

For many years she was what we would call a regular student – using textbooks, doing or trying to do homework, etc. But in recent years, we’ve been basically having “communication-based” lessons, sometimes throwing in some work-related material or presentation she would have to go through.

She has achieved a fluent advanced English level – which does not eliminate mistakes. She still confuses he/she  and his/her/your. Sometimes, tenses are a nightmare, but she feels perfectly capable of carrying on a meeting or phone conference, or making a presentation.

Now, am I taking advantage of a situation and should tell her to terminate her classes? or is she still benefiting from those classes?

After a serious and hard analysis, I came to the latter conclusion. Both psychologically and linguistically she still can improve and she does, although slowly and haphazardly.

Sure, most people will benefit from a 3-5 year language program, but the same way that some professionals seek continuous improvement so some language learners require and can afford long-term language assistance.

Cheers,

Moknowingwilling

* all names have been changed to prevent any legal issues.