Random ideas for ELT people, plus guest blogs & travel notes

Pilsen - not just a Brazilian drink, also a conference venue…

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.

It's the Titanic that's looming here, but you get the picture…

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!

On stage and ready to rumble. The start of my ITK plenary...

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. 


Comments on: "IATEFL Glasgow looms – so here’s a suggestion about your presentation…." (29)

  1. Hi Ken

    Not sure I agree with you on this one: I often find the presenters that are least like me the most inspiring in the long run (yes, at the time there is often scepticism or doubt, but after some time to let things sink in I find myself making changes).

    Contrast this to a presentation that reinforces or is similar to what I do. I may be nodding along, but it’s unlikely to shake things up much.

    I personally aim to experience both types, probably in a 80:20 or 70:30 similar:revolutionary ratio.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for that, Ben!

      I kind of expected reactions like that from a NEST 😛

      These blog posts of mine are all narrative, sometimes at the expense of other good stuff, like research findings! There’s a bit of history to my thinking about this.

      For several years, I ran/attended focus groups in Central Europe and the Middle East, where the main aim was to provide input suggestions for new coursebook material I was writing.

      One of the main request was always – PLEASE think about how a non-native speaker will use this material. When I delved more deeply into their concerns about this kind of thing, the conversation extended to the problems they faced when native speaker trainers came to their conferences, with pzazzy ideas, which often made them feel a bit impotent.

      Much worse, these very good teachers often thought that they obviously couldn’t teach properly if they couldn’t do things the way the confident native speaker could.

      Do you see where I’m coming from now? 😛

  2. Muge Bilgili said:

    Ken, thank you so much for your wonderful comments about my presentation. I must have done something really good (philanthropy, feeding stray animals etc.) to deserve all the things you said. It encouraged me even more to do better next time. Yes that’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spotlight. Muge Bilgiliiiiiiii

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Muge,

      it says a lot about you as a teacher and a person that you have taken only positives from my blog. As you will see from the discussion here in the comments, not everyone agrees with me. The message is it’s good to be inspired, and it’s good to try to emulate the people who inspire you. And I absolutely agree with that.

      I would love to do a drama workshop with you, where I present some activities in my sit-in-the-corner way, and you dazzle the people for the rest of the time. 😛

      Maybe we should try to organise it for next year’s ITK conference. What do you think?

      • Muge Bilgili said:

        KEN, What do I think? What do I think? I cannot think because I’m having a heart attack. It is a big, big, big pride to be asked to do a drama workshop with you. I would do it in ITK, or even in the middle of Sahara Desert, or in the Arctic. You choose the place, I’ll pack and come there.

  3. Hello Ken
    Thank you for sharing your insights and tips. I might think about using it as a checklist of the DO’s and DON’T’s of a presentation. I guess I’ll add your questions to a workshop I presented some 20 years ago called “10 things you always wanted to know about a presentation (and were afraid to ask”) – how much more dramatic and theatrical could I have been? LOL. The rationale behind it was to help presenters improve the quality of their workshops. Naturally, my workshop was a great fiasco…

    What you said took me on a journey back to when I started my teaching career. I still remember one of the trainers I had who would often remind us of the need to sometimes put ourselves aside for a while so we could take better care of the ones in need. What (I guess) he meant then is that it is often too easy for a teacher to get carried away talking about something they like to the detriment of student talking time and limitations. It was a hard lesson to learn, especially when the subject of the conversation was music, one of my passions.

    Still, I think what Ben said above is quite true. When I first participated in a Luke Prodromu’s workshop, I thought to myself, “I want to do the things I do the way he does!” It was hard to accept the fact that I simply couldn’t.

    I felt exactly the same when I saw you for the first time .

    But you know what? Experiences like those above have the power of recharging our batteries and amplifying and broadening our horizons in that they offer new possibilities of rethinking what we do. I hope I don’t sound too silly, but here’s a case that is analogous to the feeling I’m trying to describe: After watching “Babete’s Feast”, I opened a bottle of wine, went straight to the kitchen and prepared Pesto with tuna fish and milk cream. It tasted like “Caille en Sarcophage avec Sauce Perigourdine”.


    • Ken Wilson said:

      Thanks for that, Ed!

      you and Ben make very important points about how good it is to be inspired by trainers, and then you make the self-deprecating extra point that you couldn’t be like Luke. By the way, I feel the same way! Luke is the number one presenter on our circuit for me, and it’s a pity he has chosen to wander off into a kind of retirement.

      But yes, let’s say it loud and clear – first and foremost, we want to be inspired by presentations.

  4. Hi Ken

    Thanks for the follow-up explanation. That does make sense, although I got the impression you were talking about the content rather than the presentation style.

    I do agree that knowing your audience is vital if you want to keep them on board (I sometimes run workshops for Japanese English teachers, not all of whom want to be there).

    However, I have also been to workshops run in Japanese that I have learned so much from, despite only being able to follow about 60% of what was being said. There is no way I will ever be able to implement the content as shown, but it was still very thought-provoking and I found it useful.

    I guess what I mean is that I want to see what people are good at, and if it is different from what I am good at, so much the better. I don’t want the watered-down, accessible to everyone version. Of course, ultimately it depends on the presenter, the content of the presentation, and the audience.

    I admit I have only presented once in a country where I was not familiar with the teaching context (Thailand) and that was a very factual presentation. I’ll keep your advice in mind if I manage to expand my horizons and present more internationally.

    • Ken Wilson said:


      you have made some very pertinent points here, and ones that i should have made in the original blog (thank God for comments!)

      I like this part very much: ‘I guess what I mean is that I want to see what people are good at, and if it is different from what I am good at, so much the better. I don’t want the watered-down, accessible to everyone version’

      I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to see a watered-down version of Muge. 😛

  5. That’s some fantastic advice, which I’m sure many presenters (including myself) often don’t consider. I will certainly this season though. Of course, being told by you that no one could replicate what I do would be taken with a smile.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      More Canadian self-deprecation! 😛

      The important point is that for some people, including me, there is no better way to learn new techniques than by watching someone who feels comfortable with them doing them. Reading about them in books is simply not the same (at least for people with short attention spans, like me)

  6. Anastasia said:

    Ken, such a great post =) that I feel like I’ve been to Muge’s workshop and seen all the things with my own eyes! And of course, as many people, I agree that dazzling presentations by talented-in-their-own-way teachers inspire others, though after a while you might think it’s ONLY possible to replicate in YOUR classroom the same activity by THAT particular presenter, so you start thinking of ways to adapt the thing for you. Really good points raised for presenters-to-be!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Anastasia!

      you’re right of course. Teachers DO go away, reflect and work out ways to do an activity in their own way.

      Having said that, in my drama workshops particularly, I get a lot of questions along the lines of: ‘Instead of having three teams, ARE WE ALLOWED to have four?’

      Capital letters to emphasise that people sometimes treat the material with too much respect. 😛

  7. A timely post as the ‘conference spring’ begins! My own employers are set to have their national conference in about two weeks in Istanbul (as usual, clashing with IATEFL – with most of the best Turkish conference presenters sadly out of the country!) I’ll be there as ever in the concurrent workshop slot and your post caused me to go back through my abstract and workshop out line (not quite got round to slides or anything fancy like that yet) with that third set of questions firmly in mind.

    I’m pleased to say very little of what I aim to cover in my workshop is based on what I do or what works for me – it’s all based on what my students do and how we let it roll from there. 😉

    But then again about the only ‘skill’ I have when it comes to presentations (and teaching!) is using the computer to make things that look fancier than they really are!

    • Ken Wilson said:

      Hi Dave,

      student-based examples! Way to go! 😛

      That’s a bit of a bummer about the clash with IATEFL UK, but I imagine the problem in Turkey is finding a spare weekend when there isn’t a competing TURKISH conference.

      i will be back in Istanbul for the student conference at Boğaziçi University on the 14th April. Maybe see you there.

      • Unfortunately not. I was planning to attend/present but travel costs and the need for time off work limits me to one or two conferences a year outside Ankara. Nevermind as you seem to be in Turkey several times a year so I’m sure I’ll catch you at some point in the near future!

  8. eslnotes said:

    great Ken advice and what this represents i feel is that conference goers want to use information more rather than sharing information.

    does anyone happen know the ratio of lectures/presentations to workshops/participative sessions at IATEFL 2012? i have asked this on the IATEFL online forum but have not yet received an answer.

    some views of this on a blog post here http://wp.me/pgHyE-47

    • Ken Wilson said:

      very good question about ratio talks/workshops. My own perception was that during the 90s, the balance moved in favour of talks, making it more like a TESOL conference, where most people seem happy to just talk about their research into use of the colon in academic fiction. Why anyone would want to go and listen to that kind of stuff is beyond me.

      I think there has been a swing back in the balance, partly because technology presentations are getting more hands-on and workshopy. But I’m probably wrong, and some genuine stats would be useful.

  9. I’m very late to the party here, Ken. I just wanted to say thank you – as ever – for a great blog entry. I also agree with you that the Comments section is a useful add-on, especially the debate about what we want to see. So, am I the only person here who enjoys debates about the use of the colon? 😉

    Some colleagues went to a conference in Barcelona recently. It was an excellent conference by all accounts, but they both came back rather depressed, the general conclusion being, “We’ll never be able to do what they are doing”.

    Hope Glasgow goes well.

    • Ken Wilson said:

      I rest my case! People shouldn’t come back from a conference feeling that way. Could you maybe elaborate on what it was that depressed them? If it’s the level of technology available to other people, that’s a hard problem to solve. But if it’s what people are doing with the technology, then what you need is a local how-to workshop.

      • Muge Bilgili said:

        And Ken, do boys who have just started playing basketball feel depressed when they see Michael Jordan or the players in NBA playing? Or new actors; do they feel intimidated because of Brad Pitt ( I would definitely. Thank god I’m not a man. Angelina? My husband says I look better. So no worries.) I mean I should have killed myself after watching you on stage. I didn’t. I survived. 

      • Ken, I truly believe you are the best webmaster around (True, I don’t surf out much, but…). I mean, you answer *everybody*, and I know you’re a busy man. Such a gentleman.

        Anyway, yes, it seems that the main reason for my colleagues’ depression was that they see other schools – competitors – with far more sophisticated equipment than us, prettier classrooms, more time, more money… Of course, the grass is always greener on the other side, isn’t it? And don’t feel too sorry for my colleagues – they got an all-expenses paid weekend in Barcelona!


        PS. Muge, pleased to meet you, and congratulations on your wonderful performance. If Ken likes you, you must be doing something right!

    • Muge Bilgili said:

      Mike it’s very nice to meet you too. I totally agree with you about Ken saying those wonderful things about my presentation. I MUST HAVE done something right. About your colleagues, how lucky they are to be sent to Barcelona. You know what; if only we enjoy what we are doing, there is no reason to feel down. Love and enjoy our jobs. I think that’s the key to success whatever your job is.

  10. Hi Ken. I guess you’ll be in Turkey again in a couple of week’s time, if I’m not mistaken?

  11. Hi Ken,
    I was presenting at the same TED (Turkish Education Association) conference as David and Deniz Atasok. Tmely post indeed.

    I agree with everything you pointed out and would like to add to it. People take time and expense to join a session. The lengths I’ve personally gone to in choosing a session that is worth my time has been borderline batty. I really want to learn, and learn a lot; so, I want to take minimum risk. Time is a precious commodity and there is so much I have to learn.

    Sessions I look for are either jam-packed with info and perspectives, or inspirational ones that motivate and force me to see outside the box that is my experience, knowledge, and intellect.

    A session shouldn’t be something that people can easily learn all about online, or in a few notes. It can be more like what you’ve learned from an action research; something that teachers can use immediately without all the time you’ve put into it. It can also be a unique, simple, creative solution to a common problem that can become part of a teacher’s life-long repertoire.

    (A plenary speaker who joined my session said that I should present it at the next IATEFL. What a shock I had, but it does prove my point.)

    I would add to your points for teachers that the memorable messages should connect to our aims. It always helps to have a run through of the presentation with a fierce critical friend. I did and learned I needed to better clarify some terminology I used, and what slides, (though meaningful to me) to weed out of the presentation.

  12. I want to thank you for allowing me to watch one of your brilliant lectures (http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/comment/reply/27371#comment-form). Seeing what you have spoken in there, it confirms of my actions into the classrom and contributes of my teacher learning process. I’m not a native speaker, but I have a great enthusiasm for teaching. People like you makes me love more what I’ve been doing for 5 years in a classroom. I know that lecture was paid, but I’d like to thank you somehow (as I didn’t pay for that…lol).
    Thanks Ken Wilson.

    Pedro Urbano

  13. Good night Ken, from Mersin, Turkey 🙂 I have just read your post and the comments.I just want to comment on your blog: I love it. After a British Council Webinar, I started to search what was spoken about in the conference.I don’t exactly remember but maybe it was Müge that mentioned about your blog and then I search for this blog. Thank you so much for you and your blog.As being an English teacher, I try to draw the attention of my students, break down their prejudices and make them love learning a foreign language. I think your blog will help me. Again good night.
    P.S.This is a facebook group site of my English classroom. I share what we do during the lesson:

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