Guest post 11-10 – Luke Meddings reflects on the ISTEK conference

My last blog post before I leave for the IATEFL conference in Brighton tomorrow is a guest blog by Luke Meddings, co-author with Scott Thornbury of Teaching Unplugged, the dogme teacher’s indispensible handbook.

Since I met him properly for the first time at the British Council Innovations Awards (the ELTons) last year, Luke has become one of my best UK mates in the world of ELT. It was an unusual first meeting. I was presenting the prizes, and when the two authors came on the stage, Scott was in the lead, so I gave him a hug. I think I know him well enough to do that. When Luke got onto the stage, I gave him a hug too, which surprised us both a bit. Now I’m friends enough with him to give him a hug every time I see him…

…and the last time I saw him was at the ISTEK conference in Istanbul two weeks ago. It was his first visit to ISTEK and these are his thoughts about that special event.

If you don’t know what dogme is, or if you don’t know why an obscure Danish film style became an important buzz word in ELT, you can find out here.

Luke Meddings outside the Harem at Topkapi, Istanbul

Why I misstek

Some conferences end in tears; this one started with them.

It’s the end of Jan Blake’s second story – demba demba demba – and a strange sensation is affecting your normally composed and famously macho guest blogger. When I look round, I see that my immediate neighbour, Mr Ken Wilson of London, has also been afflicted by the kind of allergic reaction that strong men invariably suffer near floral displays. It certainly brought a new meaning to live streaming.

Jan Blake

Jan’s message was one of full engagement with the material, of commitment to the story one is telling. Here is my own story – an extended thank-you note, really – accompanied by some pictures from a long and happy day in Istanbul.

My first picture shows a mysterious space in Topkapı Palace.

It makes me think of books that haven’t yet been written – or bookshelves that are yet to be filled. (If you have the guidebook, and it was used for storing beans, I don’t need to know!) To me it represents the ideal way to approach a conference: with an open heart and mind. One never knows which idea is going to get our minds working, or what we will find in ourselves and one another.

My second picture shows a tantalising flight of stairs in the same palace.

Now there are two reasons to go up a flight of stairs. One is because you know where it leads, and one is because you’re curious to find out. Actually there’s a third reason – when there’s a Belgian bun on the middle stair. But that’s not what I want to focus on now.

Thus I took one flight of stairs to Scott Thornbury’s plenary talk on Six Big Ideas and One Little One (pretty sure the ‘little idea’ would appeal) – and, as always, came away with more to ponder, more to explore.

I was intrigued to see where Willy Cardoso’s workshop on Networks and Self-Organization would lead, and after disorientating us with an exercise in perspective he talked us through some fascinating ways to map the connections between people in a social network (a class, for example, or a school). You can read more about this workshop here

These mapping techniques really got me thinking about the different qualities people bring to a community. Sometimes we need new networks to move forward, and I do think Twitter and the blogosphere are changing our profession for the better. It isn’t about who you are, it’s about what you contribute, how you engage. This changes the way we regard one another, and it makes conferences an exciting, cross-generational experience.

There was a lovely illustration of this on the Friday evening when, after catching up with Andrew Wright, I met Ania Kozicka. Twitter was the ice-breaker and as we chatted, we noticed more new arrivals – ‘There’s Ken Wilson!’ – and in the same breath, and with the same pleasure of recognition: ‘That’s Dave Dodgson!’

Mike Harrison’s calm, creative workshop on using images and sound in class showed again that there are a hundred ways to ‘present’: the commitment is all. Thank goodness there’s no standardisation procedure for presenting, these things often do more harm than good. ‘Too quiet’, they’d be saying about one speaker; ‘too noisy’, another.

Soon there would be a four-week course, and in a couple of decades, we’d need dogme for presenters. No such problem for Ken, who had us in the palm of his hand in seconds, or Lindsay Clandfield, who had me in stitches listing the international variations on his name.

My final picture is of leafless trees: interconnectedness by the Bosphorus with its red ships moaning.

Much has been said about the generosity shown by Burcu Akyol and her team at Istek, and really it knew no bounds. Warmth of this kind generates more warmth.

As I wandered down from Topkapı Palace through the dark pansy-lined and yellow primrose park, I spotted a stork overhead. I found myself next to Jan Blake, and asked her if she knew any stories about them. She thought for a second, and without pausing for breath told me a beautiful story about Brother Crane as we walked!

Storks, I note, are serial monogamists. How they pursue this lifestyle choice in lofty and exposed nests is a mystery to me, but then they aren’t as spontaneous as the protagonists in Roger McGough’s At Lunchtime A Story of Love.

Mark Andrews stood up on the mist-steamed coach into Istanbul that morning and declaimed the poem in broad Scouse, without introduction or explanation. The expressions on people’s faces as they listened to this paean to improvisation were priceless, and Mark’s reading reflected his wider commitment to telling the story of the conference. He embraced the role of roving reporter and in turn transformed it. You can catch his still developing record of people and events here.

My fourth and final picture is of the Bosphorus Bridge, from the boat: what currents below, what traffic above, what journeys from one continent to another!


Mr Meddings’s red scarf by Marisa Constantinides (or I would have frozen worse than a computer screen)

Luke with red scarf, and also with Ania Kosicka, previous guest blogger here

Emergency charger by Russell Stannard (or I really would have been unplugged)

Final call for London Heathrow by Maureen McGarvey (I agree, they probably did mean it)

Permission to blog by Ken Wilson

Unforgettable experience by Burcu Akyol and ISTEK team

Conference organiser Burcu Akyol, with scarf organiser Marisa Constaninides


9 thoughts on “Guest post 11-10 – Luke Meddings reflects on the ISTEK conference

  1. Hi Luke & Ken,

    Thanks for shaaring your thoughts and insights from ISTEK. First and foremost, it was a great conference and I enjoyed every session I attended with the only problem being that I couldn’t see all of them (Ken is top of my list for next time ;)).

    And everything else – Friday night in the restaurant, the PK and karaoke and the coffee breaks – was a bonus. It was certainly a strange experience to walk into the restaurant the first night and recognise a room full of people I’d never actually met before!

    As you said above, the whole dynamic of conferences is different now. Had I not been active online, I might still have come over to introduce myself to the likes of you and that other guy you wrote the Teaching Unplugged book with (you know – the one who couldn’t finish his sentences because he kept getting interrupted!) and mention my stuttering attempts to introduce a dogme approach to young learner classes but that would have been that. With the ‘PLN effect’, we were able to bypass introductions and get straight into discussions, which only added to the experience.

    Hope to see you both back in Turkey soon!

    1. Spot on about how the conference experience can be so different these days, thanks to the professional element in social media. As you say, you’re probably confident enough to approach someone you’ve heard of but haven’t met, but the twitter/blog connection at least gives you a way of introducing yourself.

      Hopefully, less brash people than you at IATEFL will feel they can walk up to Luke, knowing that they can start by thanking him for being such a great presence in tweet-world. 😛

  2. Hello Luke & Ken & Dave!

    Fabulous post and reflection on ISTEK Luke. You make us feel we’re still there walking and admiring the Topkapı Palace. Thank you:)

    I’ m brand new to the ELT International conferences playground, however I’ve already realised that it is an amazing place to learn, make friends, have fun and play the best educational games. Luke said that conference participants should be coming to such events with open hearts and minds. Open hearts and minds to unexpected brainwaves, inspirational ideas and learning. BAs, MAs, CELTAs, DELTAs don’t make the teachers geniuses or simply- best teachers in the world. Small local workshops don’t have such great impact on us. I think, as the former ignorant, the great crowd of people ready to learn from the great bunch of fabulous presenters at International conferences may be the best refreshment for all the teachers, especially newcomers. They feel united, part of the great team. It may be the best psychological treatment for the teachers who suffer from stagnation. However, what is the point of writing it here? Probably similar to the one when priests say during sermons that people don’t attend masses. Who are they mentioning it to? Exactly… 😉 😉

    For those who are not familiar with the best ELT playground- all that had the chance to play there do suffer MISSTEK.

    Why? Friday night- meeting friends I haven’t seen before. I do remember the ‘pleasure of recognition’ that I shared with Luke – so hilarious:)
    Saturday – amazing stories by Jan Blake, plenaries and keynotes ( Dede’s and yours Luke:) and the Pecha Kucha & Karaoke evening- will never be forgotten! 🙂
    Sunday – another great day seasoned with Ken’s and Jamie’s talks, Mike’s workshop and sprinkled with Scott’s dressing. And chatty times to finish the day with..
    Monday- sightseeing, admiring the beautiful city of Istanbul from the boat board. And Mark doing great job interviewing us.
    There’s loads more to say, loads. ISTEK people could write books about their experience, reflections, inspirations. I’m sure the space on the bookshelves (from the Topkapı Palace picture Luke is refering to) would not be enough.

    Non-ISTEKs – you missed so much. Hard to explain how much.

    ISTEK 2011 was the greatest ELT playground you could imagine. Actually… no one would be able to dream it. Too fabulous to dream it. Proud to have the chance to be there. Thank you Burcu and thank you ISTEK friends for this unbelievably inspirational time. Thank you Ken for making me your guest blogger, that’s how the adventure started for me 🙂

    Good luck at Brighton everyone- make it a great ELT playground too! 🙂

    Ania 🙂

    1. If I may be so bold as to reply on someone else’s blog 😛

      Lovely thoughts about a wonderful event, Ania – but one line worried me: ‘Small local workshops don’t have such great impact on us.’

      Small local workshops are all that some teachers can afford (time and money) to go to, and it’s important that participants, presenters and attendees, approach them with the same sense of excitement and anticipation.

      And always remember, now that you’ve been to a couple of international conferences, you can pass on the good things you experienced there to people in your local area. Cascade training as it was meant to be. 🙂

      Having said that, the sense of wonder that was clear in the faces of people like you who were attending ISTEK for the first time was a joy to behold.

      Hope to bump into you at another conference soon.

  3. No need to be worried Ken:) I didn’t mean to underestimate local workshops. The international events wouldn’t probably take place if there were not small ones in the first place. All I wanted to pinpoint that it’s hard for local conferences to impress and inspire the participants and speakers in the way the great events do even though the level of excitement and anticipation is the same.
    That’s my indirect way of encouraging people to attend Big Events 🙂 Very often there’s no need to travel abroad to attend such conferences. Very often it’s all about enthusiasm and engagement and passion. Not always though, I do realise that…
    However, the task is to spread the ISTEKs, IATEFLs, TESOLs and so on and so forth experience and passion during baby conventions! 🙂 Let’s do it!

    Ania 🙂

    ps. I’m sorry for going crazy without the 140char limit:)

    1. Hi Luke, Ken et al,

      What a great post of your ISTEK experience. I think I write as someone like those who Ken describes above as a first time ISTEK goer with a ‘sense of wonder’ on my face, but I certainly take the point raised via Ania and Ken’s comments that international events like this are not the be all and end all. Giving a workshop was a huge huge highlight for me, but I think that the road there started at my college, giving some sessions about things I had done, and offering advice.

      I’m a naturally shy person; to be honest, I’m not sure I would have ever thought possible doing something like ISTEK without the support of those I interact with online, and having the pleasure of them attending my session. Really though, it was simultaneously great and nerve-wracking at the same time; I mean, what can I say to these people?! But more than just playing to an in crowd, I found most humbling and rewarding the comments online and f2f from actual teachers and student-teachers in the audience – that’s what made it for me.

      Above all, ISTEK was for me a moment when what I had thought impossible, or near impossible, in fact became possible. I think that was the beauty of it, at least for me anyway!

  4. Hello friends! Thanks for all the generous comments and memories of our first hug Ken…

    I’ve been thinking about local and international events too, and while I agree that signature events need to be seen in the context of ongoing training and networking, Ania’s comments got me thinking about when I really started to engage with ELT.

    It wasn’t when I did my Celta. It wasn’t when I saw my first author’s workshop in London – I saw this through the lens of a reasonably cynical staffroom. It wasn’t even when I saw a great talk by Jimmie Hill about the lexical approach that set me on the road to dogme! I started experimenting much more in class, but I still didn’t feel connected with the wider profession.

    It was when I stopped teaching for a couple of years and went to work on the EL Gazette. It was when I started to edit reports from Iatefl and Tesol chairpeople, when I met and interviewed a whole range of dynamic authors and organisers.

    It was when I went to my first Iatefl conference in Brighton, probably in 1996 – this completely opened my eyes to the breadth and depth of ELT worldwide: not just spotting Michael Swan or trying to get a quick interview with Michael Lewis, but meeting committed teachers from all over the world who had come to participate. My access to this world was thanks to my job as a journalist – and when I left the Gazette to go back into teaching it felt so remote all over again.

    Now, to return to the theme we’ve shared above, this world isn’t anything like as remote as it once was. We meet each other on our own terms; we stay in touch in the same way. Sometimes the scale and diversity of an event is key to its impact. We need to reach out to the wider world, feed back into our local context, reach out … do I feel a hug coming on?

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