Today is one of those days when you know that the ELT spring conference thing has kicked in, or taken off, or leapt up in front of you – whatever it is that spring conference things do.
I drove my wife Dede to Heathrow to catch a plane to Prague for the ICC Conference in Pilsen. At the airport, she bumped into Michael Carrier, who was hurrying to catch the same plane. They will meet Barry Tomalin when they get there.
I’m also aware that TESOL Arabia has started in Dubai – I followed the tweetstream about Jim Scrivener’s talk there. And this weekend, yet more of the usual suspects are gathering in Bilbao for TESOL Spain.
And looming ahead, like an iceberg in the path of the Titanic, is the big daddy conference of them all, at least here in Europe: IATEFL UK 2012, which starts in Glasgow on 19th March.
So I have a recommendation for all those of you who are planning to do a presentation there…
But first, some background.
Last weekend I was at the ITK conference in Izmir Turkey, and the weekend before that I did the opening plenary at the Çevre conference in Istanbul. Turkey in particular seems to be very well served with spring conferences – there seems to be one just about every weekend from February to May.
In common with meet-ups in many other countries, Turkish conferences usually have a theme/title. It’s often amusing to see what speakers do to include a reference to the theme, however tenuous.
This year, Çevre had a really interesting theme – Teacher and student in harmony, the language learning duet. They also had a dynamic way of illustrating it.
The conference got off to a roaring start. When the curtains in the main auditorium opened, a rock band pounded into action. When the dust (and dry ice) had settled, one was able to see about five musicians and four singers on stage. And it was soon clear that the singers were not all the same age. In fact, two of them were teachers, English teachers as it turned out. It also transpired that the youthful piano player was a music teacher. What a great way to start a conference called Teacher and student in harmony!
Then there was ITK Izmir, whose theme was Liberating the Learner. Both the other plenary speakers, Luke Prodromou and Jeremy Harmer, managed to mention the conference theme on several occasions in their talks. To my eternal shame, I didn’t mention it once.
The last time I did this one-day conference, I think two years ago, the format was all-plenary, with four presentations. Thankfully, this year the organizers had gone back to their original format of three plenaries, plus a set of concurrent workshops in the middle of the day.
I say thankfully because it’s a better format for the participants, and also because I attended one of the most electrifying drama workshops I have ever seen.
It was presented by one of the most dynamic teachers I have ever set eyes on. She was also wearing the highest heels I have ever seen on someone doing a presentation.
From the first moment, I was enraptured by the things she did and said, whilst at the same time constantly alarmed that because of the way she ran around the room, she was going to end up breaking an ankle as she tipped off the heels.
Thankfully (x3) this didn’t happen.
The aims of the presenter, let’s call her M, were manifold – firstly to show how incredibly useful and memorable drama activities are, secondly to remind us that teachers are also actors, and thirdly to make us feel that we weren’t really experiencing the joys of teaching if we didn’t throw ourselves around the room like a Hollywood movie star, or possibly a Hollywood movie director.
These were not all stated aims. These are merely the most memorable messages I came away with from the workshop.
M had eight of her students to help her with the presentation, all aged about 16. The first thing to say is that they clearly adored her, and the second thing is that they had obviously done a lot of rehearsal before the conference of what they were going to do. And part of what they did was to show a lack of interest in the whole classroom experience, so that M could sweep in like Superwoman and rescue them from terminal boredom with a drama activity.
Many of the activities involved students interpreting written dialogues. In one instance, two students stood in front of the class and lamely read out a dialogue from a book. They were doing it badly on purpose, so that she could appear like a wild demon and demonstrate how to breathe fire and brimstone into the words. This is the way to do it, she was saying, with passion and FEELING!
Two of the students acted out an end-of-love affair dialogue. ‘No, John, I don’t want to marry you, I don’t love you any more.’
M ran between them and yelled: ‘Why are you SMILING?? You don’t LOVE him any more! And STOP holding his HAND! YOU. DON’T. LOVE. HIM. ANY. MORE!!!’
At the end of this breathless performance, we gave her a big ovation, and another one for the wonderful students, who had been brave enough to perform in front of other teachers. It must have been hard for then to act badly on purpose, but they did it brilliantly.
It was all astonishing. Amazing. Soooo memorable.
And pretty well unrepeatable by any other person in that room, including me.
So when I went to talk to her afterwards, this is what I told her. You are clearly an amazing teacher, with energy and talent to burn. And you must never change the way you do things, because those kids adore you. M smiled with pleasure at these remarks, which were genuinely felt.
‘Everyone in this room will never forget the experience of watching you,’ I continued. ‘But nor will they be able to replicate what you did. And that’s the problem.’
M looked a bit disappointed by this. ‘So what should I do differently?’ she asked.
‘When you’re in class, don’t do anything differently,’ I said. ‘Your students love your style, and they are clearly all confident English speakers, so it’s really effective. But when you come to a conference, you have to think about teachers who..’
At this point I had to stop myself, because I was going to say ‘teachers who are less talented than you’ but this would have been unfair on the other teachers, who are all talented in different ways.
So I said … ‘You have to think about teachers who do things in a different way to you. And find ways to use these same activities, but in a less … um… theatrical way.’
I hope by the end of our conversation, M understood my message. You are amazing, your students clearly benefit from your methods, now think about how other people can use these same methods in a different way.
So, here are a couple of questions for the hundreds of presenters who are heading to Glasgow next week.
1 Are you going to use classroom activities that ‘work for you’ in your presentation? Great.
2 Is there anything that you do in these activities that might be difficult for someone who isn’t like you? For example, old-fashioned skills like singing, dancing, mime, speaking with an accent, doing quick and memorable drawings on the board? Or new-fangled stuff like switching media during the activity? Also good.
3 Do you have alternative ways of doing the activities that don’t involve using these skills in the way that you do? Can you recommend a way of doing them for people who can’t do stuff the way you do?
You don’t? It might be worth sitting down and thinking of some.
Final message – don’t present an activity that ‘works for you’ in a way that ONLY works for you. Find ways to make it work for differently-talented teachers.
M – if you read this and want to reveal your identity in a comment, I can then post the nice photo someone took of us!
M is happy for her identity to be revealed. She tweeted this after reading the blog:
Her name is Muge Bilgili. After my talk, another teacher, Nihal Yildirim, interviewed me. Muge helped by holding the camera during the interview. After about ten seconds, it was clear that Muge was frozen solid, so I lent her my coat while we did the filming, which meant that I was a bit cold during the interview. I think you will agree that the coat looks better on her, even though it’s a bit big.
Ken will be at IATEFL Glasgow with a new talk – Ten quotations (and a few cartoons) to make you think – in the Lomond Hall Thursday 22nd March at 5.35pm.