Going home, and out of my comfort zone

International House London, Stukeley Street, Covent Garden

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.

Ozge wowing the troops at ISTEK

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. 

ImageAnd 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?


26 thoughts on “Going home, and out of my comfort zone

  1. Why don’t you use Wordle to introduce yourself? Make a Wordle of words and numbers that are related to you and let them guess the connection. This activity is called ‘Biographical deductions’ and I believe it was Bob Hastings who presented it 5 years ago at ELTA Conference in Serbia. I always use it at the beginning of a school year with my new students. Thus they get to know me and they feel more comfortable when it is their turn to say something about themselves. It could work. Engage them from the very beginning.

    By the way, I see you are coming to Serbia this summer. Hopefully I will hear you once again.

    Best regards,

    1. Hi Gordana,

      the thing is I don’t want to start with bio-stuff. I want to do 30 minutes of activities before I say anything about myself.

      Would be nice to see you again at Summer School.

  2. Well, you don’t have to use it at the beginning. If you want them to introduce you before a conference talk, you can put words they could use for that purpose (the names of places where you worked, the titles of sketches, songs, and plays, adjectives that best describe you, etc.)
    Or, the Wordle may be somehow related to your activities. I’m sure you’ll think of something interesting and engaging. You always do. (I say this from personal experience.)

    Good luck! 🙂

    1. Thanks for this, Gordana – I definitely want to use this wordle, rather than create a new one. Although I might create a more traditional wordle (what a thought, to be able to describe a wordle as ‘traditional’) where the most common words are bigger in the image.

  3. Get the participants to put the ‘events’ in chronological order and see whose sequence is closest to the real ‘you’. Wish I could be there, by the way. Have a great time.

    1. What a cool idea! If I use it, I will credit you. I guess the problem is that some of the items aren’t chronologisable (hey, great new word). I’m wondering if I should make a new wordle that meets the needs of the activities people are suggesting. 🙂

  4. Hi! Why don’t you ask them to pick one of those words to talk about themselves? Later on, you could show the kinds of connections you and the participants may have. Finding out coincidences sounds interesting to me 😉

  5. Hi Ken,
    I understand how you feel, but I guess that’s just the first couple of minutes, “just relax, be yourself, take a deep breath and smile. You’re a star.” :)))

    If I got it right, you want to use this wordle (the one that Ozge made)? Anyway, even if you made a new one, you would probably use more or less similar “data” 🙂

    You already gave two wonderful ideas for the activities you can set to the teachers. I cannot think of anything else. The first one is easier, the second more challenging.

    One more thing – when I go to seminars I usually google data about the speakers, I want to know more about who I’m going to listen to. Maybe these teachers will do the same 🙂


  6. We all have fun if we start the class activity with me silently gesturing the instructions. Piques their interest, and it’s a good way to set the pace to keep Teacher Talking Time way down, too, so your planned approach without an initial bio sounds great to me. I’d love to see an example of at least one of your activities for larger and potentially less motivated classes.

    1. Hi Starleen (great name, by the way, what’s the origin?)

      re larger classes. As the audiences for my talks and workshops have grown over the years, I’ve had to abandon anything that involved, eg, a couple of students doing something in front of the class in favour of team and mingler activities. Nowadays, I have no fears about asking an audience of 800 to get into teams of five. The noise is deafening for a while, but then I just get on with the activity.

  7. Hi Ken,
    I would ask the participants to imagine it was a brief summary of THEIR bio and then make sentences where they would introduce themselves. After each sentence they make, give feedback 🙂

  8. Hi Ken,

    Show this wordle and then switch to another wordle that would have described you as a person when you were 25-ish, at a similar age and life stage to those in the audience…… If that is actually the average age of the people you’ll be talking to.

    Then get everyone to quickly create a wordle (real or imaginary) of themselves as they believe they are now. Next, everyone draws up a ‘desired’ wordle of what they would hope it would look like in 30 years time.

    Then, the audience can compare and contrast the ‘Now’ and ‘Future’ wordles for similarities and extreme contrasts.

    Could lead to nice chat on realistic expectations of teaching career. Or how people do not see teaching as their future and it’s only a stop-gap etc.

    Students could also make
    – 2nd conditional sentences: “If I do …….., I’ll probably end up….”
    – 3rd conditional sentences: “If I had(n’t)…., I would(n’t) have….”
    e.g. “If I hadn’t set up the English Teaching Theatre, I probably wouldn’t have travelled the world” 🙂

    A nice example of how a communicative or mingle activity can run … of which I’m sure you’ll have several more killer examples!

    Good luck with it.

    1. Love your ideas, Bren and will work them in somehow. I’m not keen on trying to direct students to grammar-oriented responses in this kind of activity. You may have seen from past blogs that I have an aversion to classes where grammar responses are seen as success, and spoken activities that don’t include target language are somehow seen as a failure.

  9. Hi, Ken!
    I am sure you are a rather modest (to a certain degree))) man and this Wordle is a perfect way to present yourself without telling a word! The info given in it is visual, basic enough and laconic to get the idea of your many-sided personality. I would suggest the audience to ask you questions on the Wordle words (facts from your bio) that interest them most of all. (otherwise, if to speak on each word – it will take too much time)))
    Good luck!
    Come to Siberia again!)))

    1. Thank you Margarita! I should maybe blog more about my visit to Novosibirsk, a truly fascinating chance to get away from the Moscow/St P axis that most ELT visitors stick to. Also pleased to be able to get to Rostov-on-Don recently for another look at how Russians learn English. I note that you are from Kazakhstan, another place I’d love to go back to.

      1. Oh, thanks for the answer, Ken! Yes, I am from North Kazakhstan, now I live in Omsk, South Siberia. You are absolutely right, Moscow and St P differ from Russia! And we want ELt visitors were not rare guests here! Are they still afraid of bears on the roads?))) Welcome!

  10. Dearest Ken

    What a wonderful post! After so many suggestions for your IH training for novice teachers I guess you are spoilt for choice now. However, I think you might like to add the photo I forward to your email.

    Looking forward to hearing how the training session developed and how trainees reacted to the Wordle and all the rest of it.

    Cheers mate!

  11. Hello, Ken,

    I don’t know where exactly to write it, but I want to share my joy with you. I’m French, and I teach English in a “collège” (to 11-15-year-old pupils). Today, while tidying up her classroom cupboard, my Spanish-teaching colleague asked me if I wanted English-teaching material… She found the teacher’s books for “Speak English”, in which I learnt English at the end of the 70s, and… guess whaaaaaaaaaat?

    your LP, Mr Monday and its “teacher’s notes” booklet… Oh, dear, how moved and happy I was!

    I was back in 1979, I was 11 years old again! I can read vinyle records any longer, but I took it nevertheless, it’s a real treasure for me. There’s a piece of my childhood in this record.

    1. That’s truly made my day! And you chose a very good post to write it under, as it was International House that gave me the unique opportunity to write and publish the Mister Monday songs. But shame on you for not having a vinyl record player!! 🙂

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