On Wednesday, I will be doing the first of three training workshops for the current teaching staff at International House London.
International House is where I trained and where I taught when I came back to London after working in Spain. The place means so much to me. It’s where I met my wife, and it’s where I started writing songs, as a result of which I was first published. It’s also where the English Teaching Theatre was born, a company that I devoted part of my working life to for 29 years.
So in a very real sense, I’m going back home. And yet at the same time, I will be stepping out of my comfort zone big-time.
International House back in the 1970s was an exciting, stimulating place to work. Names which are now legendary in the world of ELT worked in the London school at one time or another – Adrian Underhill, Jeremy Harmer, John and Liz Soars, Ruth Gairns and Stuart Redman – and the likes of Scott Thornbury and Jim Scrivener worked for the organisation elsewhere.
Working conditions at IH were the norm for a private language school in the UK – small classes (14 student maximum in a class), well-equipped classrooms, multinational, multilingual students who had paid big bucks to be there and seemed to be highly motivated. And of course, the moment they walked out of the school, they were immersed in an English-speaking environment. Well, mainly English-speaking – we WERE in Soho, a place which speakers of half the world’s languages seem to pass through at some point.
When I started training teachers, this was the only learning scenario I knew. As you readers know, it probably represents the circumstances of 5% of English learners worldwide.
When I started touring the world with the English Teaching Theatre, I started to become aware of the how the other 95% lived. We would do shows in state schools in small towns in Germany, Belgium or Holland, where the students of course had no choice, they had to be there. They often seemed listless and unmotivated and languished in classes of up to 40 students. Then we went further afield, and discovered classes of 75 in China, or classes with no technology – no electricity in fact in some cases – in less well-off parts of the world.
I got invited to do training workshops on these tours and very quickly realised that activities that private language school students seemed to find interesting were way beyond the abilities of students who on the surface seemed to be a similar level. I very quickly realised I had to produce some different material to help the very hard-working but often hard-pressed teachers I met in these places.
To help me develop material that would work with students from this less privileged but equally fascinating background, I started doing as many demonstration classes as I could, in state schools from Miranda de Ebro in Spain to Novosibirsk in Siberia. I soon found that a drama activity that was successful with fourteen students in Soho bombed with forty students in Siberia.
So I developed a whole new series of activities that played to the strengths of larger classes with less exposure to the language. And they worked. And I’ve been using them for a long time now.
And now I’m coming back home, about to talk to the new generation of talented and enthusiastic teachers who work at the London IH school, in its beautiful new (to me) premises in Stukeley Street, Covent Garden. Most of them probably weren’t born when I worked at IH’s eccentric premises in Shaftesbury Avenue.
Oh, and something else. Almost all the teachers who come to the training sessions will have absolutely no idea who I am. Thankfully, I have something up my sleeve.
At the ISTEK conference in Istanbul a week or so ago, I did a workshop with Özge Karaoğlu Ergen, the dynamic Turkish teacher who uses web 2.0 technology tools to help her young learners, producing amongst other things some amazing animations. Özge and I are fans of each other’s presentations, so we decided to do a workshop together. We called it The Joy of Tech and of No Tech. We wanted to show that teachers could have a lot of success – and fun – alternating between activities that involved using techno tools, and other activities that didn’t.
We took it in turns to do activities with the very willing and enthusiastic workshop participants and it worked a dream.
Özge and I had had several conversations about what we would do, so I thought I knew exactly what she was planning, but she did spring a surprise on me. One of her activities involved a Wordle based on a google search of yours truly.
It looks like this.
And it gave me an idea. I had been wondering how to introduce myself to the group at IH London and I’ve decided I won’t say anything at all when I start. I will push straight on with the activities I’m planning to use, then, when the teachers need a bit of a break, I’ll use the Wordle.
I’m still not sure what I’ll do with it. I could ask them to ask questions about parts of it, or ask them to imagine they have to introduce me before a conference talk and make a short speech, which may or may not be accurate.
Any other ideas of ways to use it?