Monday, 16 March 2015

Getting de-disorganised

Yes, I know organised is a word. No, I'm not organised yet.
Last October I took up the presidency of IATEFL Slovenia. Long story.

No, not me. Probably not ever. Ugh, don't you hate that smug face?

Unfortunately for me, this meant I had to somehow adapt my normal modus operandi. See, I'm not really an organised person and I sort of like it that way. I like not knowing where exactly my next trip is leading, I feel stressed when someone insists on strict timekeeping and reports (seriously, you DO NOT need that many reports! Do you eat them or what?) after each step and I can never find anything if I keep it in separate folders.

I have a system of chaos and it works extremely well for me. Sadly, it doesn't work for others and it most certainly doesn't work for a whole organisation. So, I had to learn time management, organising content and timely correspondence.

Imagine, all your life you've lived in a rainforest, you know every branch, every twist and turn is familiar and comforting. The animals living there know you by scent and you know them all. You are safe and you are strong and you feel confident in yourself and your abilities. The dangers are familiar and you know how to deal with them all. Life, in short, is good and full of awesome.
Then, a right bastard comes and magically plucks you out of your safe haven of rainforest and drops you in downtown Manhattan. That is how I felt when I started de-disorganising my life. Everything was new, overwhelming and so frightening I wanted to curl up in foetal position.

I did my SWOT analysis for the n-th time recently, because I found myself slowly succumbing to pressures and nearing exhaustion. Numbers and managing time were definitely one of my weaknesses, but I'm willing to change that. Thankfully I have people who are willing to take my hand and lead me through it.

I now have a reminder tool on my laptop and it looks quite scary. Despite the scariness, I regularly write my tasks in it and tick them off when they are done. I have a calendar app and I write in my meetings and set reminders. It is incredibly frustrating to do that when everything inside me rebels against it, but I keep on doing it. I even take time for scary finances and I have stopped hyperventilating when someone mentions the word budget.

Not sure if the list is getting shorter because I'm doing more or because I am missing something vitally important.

There is also a focus app on my laptop, which gently flashes when I try to go on Pinterest instead of writing my tests or balancing the budget. I want to kill the app, but thankfully it is only on my screen. I've also blocked my Facebook for a whole week so I can focus on my paperwork and school tasks. I do not miss it, but I was extremely annoyed at all the messages FB sends about me missing activity on my page. Yes, I know I'm missing it, that's the point of the exercise, stop acting like a clingy ex.

Those things make me angry and frustrated and extremely unhappy, but I hope they will help me eventually. People told me I'll feel so accomplished when I can tick off my done task or cross it out, but all I feel is a rising panic because the to-do list doesn't go away at all.

Yes, I have improved. No, I'm not there yet. I still can't find any time to do the things I like, blogging included. But I'm getting there slowly and if I don't overwork myself due to my sucky timekeeping, I might even learn something.

Point? There is none, except that sometimes you should try things you never thought you'd be doing.

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Drawing on the local

I like travelling. Seriously, if there's something I'd love to do as a job, that would most definitely be travelling.

photo credit: Thomas Leuthard via photopin cc
I'd be the one ON the train.

I went to Budapest recently, my first visit as a tourist and not attending the classiest conference in the region. It was awesome! Lights! Buildings! Parks! Danube! Argh! I want this city to be my home!

Yes, I'll build my swimming pool right over there.
And I got a T-shirt. See, some people go and buy nice souvenirs, but I saw this T-shirt and I needed to have it. See if you can guess what drew me to it.

It must be the high-quality print!
HUNGARY It's a country. That puzzles me. Is it a self-deprecatory remark? Like a shrug and "Meh, not much, but it's ours" or is it a proud statement "We didn't use to be a country, but now we are!" or is it "You know what the others are, but let's clarify Hungary"?

So, because a teacher never stops being a teacher (why is this usually said in a proud way? It's a terrible thing), I spent a bit of time thinking about the lovely linguistic conundrum of the T-shirt and how to use it in class.

Here's what I came up with.

I sometimes dedicate the first 10 minutes of the first class in the week to little language tidbits, like culture quizzes, words of the week, sayings and quotes and stuff like that.

I wore my T-shirt in my Monday class and asked them to read what it says. Together we explained what each of the words mean and then we talked about the slogan. We came up with some ideas, but the one thing we could agree is that we don't really get it.

We also talked a bit about why people buy tourist T-shirts (other than silly teachers who get excited about linguistics) and souvenirs.

Then I asked them to tell me what would that shirt look like if it were made in Slovenia. Cviček, sausage, potatoes, šnopc (kind of similar to German Schnapps, kozolec, accordion, potica, Triglav, Bled, ... All the typically Slovenian stuff. It made me want to break out an accordion and dance the polka.

Then we talked a bit about the slogan, how can we encompass all the diversity that is Slovenia in one sentence. From neighbourly hate to our size through our love of wine, we mentioned it all.

Slovenia! If you're not our neighbour, we like you.
Make sLOVEnia
Slovenia! Not Slovakia.
Good food, good wine. 
I asked them to design their own T-shirts, with the option to either describe the pictures or draw them, whichever is easier. I didn't feel comfortable drawing when young, so I wanted to give them a choice.

I also asked them to justify why they chose the pictures words and slogans they did, so the language practice was a bit more meaningful. We wrote up some useful phrases for justifying opinions on the board.

  • I put Triglav on my T-shirt because it's our highest mountain.
  • Tina Maze is our most successful sportswoman and so she deserves to be on my shirt.
  • Potica is typical for my country that's why it's on my T-shirt.

Some people complained that they don't know Slovenia and they got the option to do it for their part of the city or their country of origin. Surprisingly, they suddenly decided they know enough. I was a bit disappointed, I'd have liked to see those T-shirts.

Wow. Theirs were much, MUCH better than any of the ones I saw on sale! If anyone reading this is in the T-shirt business, leave your contact and my boys will mail you at their convenience.

It's a dragon on top of Triglav playing an accordion. You don't get more Slovenian than that!
A lot of people focused on our traditional food, like sausages, meat, potatoes, Idrijski žlikrofi (see link for recipe), almost everyone mentioned our wines, beers, strong likker and general preoccupation with eating and drinking.

A lot of them also mentioned the Slovenia/Slovakia mix-up, one of them even suggested a map of Europe where Slovenia and Slovakia were clearly labelled, with "Slovenia is here, not over there" and arrows printed across it.

Because we're so small, of course some focused on that as well. Here's my favourite example, with a really detailed justification.

I love the phrase "moisten up our stomach", such colourful language! I know it's not standard, but still.
I was also surprised at how many of them commented on the current political situation. I am always happy to see my students thinking for themselves and it's refreshing to see some of them are interested in what's going on around them.
He even self-censored, but I censored it a bit more for the delicate eyes that may or may not be reading this blog.

I've included this activity in several of my talks and I was pleasantly surprised by the reactions. I even got a lovely new slogan for Slovenia from Ivana Kirin: "Small, smaller, Slovenia"
So cute. (For the record, we're not small, we're bijoux.)

The talk about drawing on the local context has been very much present at the conferences I attend, a side effect of hanging out with SOL people. The importance of building from the students and our own local experience cannot be overstressed. Of course it's important to know the culture of the language we're learning, but that doesn't mean we need to give up our own identity or even switch it. Yes, I'm looking at you, Mrs. Students-should-be-given-English-names-person who taught me at one point in my life. We extend it, we enrich it by adding a new components to it, but we will not replace it. And we shouldn't, our mother tongue is part of who we are, and it doesn't matter if we move to another country or adopt English as a means of communication. We won't replace our identity if we add a language.

Monday, 12 May 2014

Just like Indiana Jones - finding content

Okay, so this title might imply finding new content, such as articles, tools etc. is a terribly exciting past-time that requires a torch, whip and some inbred awesomeness.

Pictured here: Your average, every-day random teacher, totally normal.

That would be positively and unconditionally...false.

Most surprising question I've been asked after any of my tech-related workshops was : "Do you have a life?"
Scuse me?

The person in question was surprised at the sheer amount of tools I share. I wouldn't have paid much attention to it, if my bestie hadn't asked practically the same thing. Yes, I have bursts of productivity when I share bajillion of neat things I find all over the web leading some to suspect I spend all my days just searching for tools to use in class.

"Go away, I am terribly busy and important, I have no time for this 'fun' you insist I should be having!"

Answer: Yes, I do in fact have a life beyond the computer. It is filled with cooking, dancing and whatnot. Sometimes even in public!

Success! I did not set anything on fire!

Finding content isn't as time consuming as you'd have thought. Let me share the steps one needs to undertake to share an ungodly amount of content.

Step 0: Play some music.I use Grooveshark for all my free music needs. This step is not necessary, but it helps to pretend you're Indiana Jones if you have an awesome soundtrack.

Aw yiss! Inspire the heck outta people!

Now that you're all grooved-out and ready to be awesome, proceed to Step 1.

Step 1: Acquire an RSS reader. We used to have Google Reader. It is now dead. I use G2 Reader, but any reader that you like will do.
Okay, this is slightly more organised than it usually is. With fewer unread posts.

Step 2: Decide what blogs and sites you're interested in. Collect said sites and feed them into your nifty RSS Reader.

Step 3: Check your feed twice a week, because more is too much work and less leaves you with unmanageable mess of 1654 unchecked links (ahem, that totally NEVER happens to me at all!).

I'm on top of it! I'll do it right after my Game of Thrones Marathon!

Step 4: If you're sharing tools and tips, think a bit about how you can use them in class and make a little note of what you can do with them.

Step 5: You want to save those buggers for later, right? You have several options, but I'd suggest either a curating site like or social bookmarks like Pearltrees or Diigo. Each has its pros and cons, so use whichever you like. I use Pearltrees to keep tech tools and to share articles. Both have add-ons for your browser, which will help you bookmark sites with one easy click.

Step 6: Share. Both tools have an option to share on several social networks, so take advantage of that, connect with them.

Don't share too much. But then again, I'm the one to talk, I usually post in batches of 345 links.
Another common misconception is that I use tools all the time in the class. I do not. I like my whiteboard just fine. I use tools when I judge that they bring an additional stimulus into my class or they enhance my class in some way. I don't use them in all my classes, some I use in 1:1 classes, some for homework, some in my public school classes and some I never use, but they might be useful some other teachers in other contexts and with levels/age groups I don't teach.

And that's all. No magic. Now go forth and find awesome stuff!

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Extreme Conferencing! Part Deux

Part of this blogpost appeared in IN magazine Spring 2014 edition.

The title of the two blogposts came from Sandra Vida (if I remember correctly, I may have been partly-asleep at the time) after she counted the number of hours I slept (not enough), the number of miles I travelled to get to Harrogate (ungodly) and the amount of workshops I attended (more than is healthy). Extreme conferencing, my young padawans, describes sleeping for amount approaching zero, going to workshops all day and in the evening seeing there's entertainment organised by either publishers or TA and saying "Okay, I'll join you but I'm leaving after an hour."

Spoiler alert, you don't. 

I may have a bit of a time management problem. I am quite confident that I can manage it, is what I’m trying to say, when all evidence points to the contrary. So when IATEFL Slovenia offered to send me to the BIG IATEFL conference in Harrogate, I looked at the dates, saw it was just after my TESOL workshop and said “Sure, no worries, I should be fine.”
Sleep is for pussies!

Lesson learnt: Do not go from one conference to another if you don’t have a day of rest in between. 

Especially if you calculate the trip will take you more than two days to complete.

Feeling only slightly the worse for wear I arrived in Harrogate after 45 hours of travelling and a night at what is now my least favourite airport in the world, my otherwise sunny disposition approaching a natural disaster.

I'm fine I tell you. That's how I always eat my food.

A hastily gulped cup of coffee and a short shower later I was in the Holiday Inn room, listening intently to the associates and pretending food and tea can replace sleep. Another spoiler alert: they can't.

I am not at all sorry to have sacrificed a day of rest, the ideas we heard during Associate’s Day and the colleagues I met there more than made up for the woozy sleepy feeling that was my constant companion in the next week. I especially liked the idea of the representative of one of the South American Associates – a regional conference!

It was great to hear how Associates all over the world organise their work and how they connect with their members. I was also beaming with pride when I heard the Hungarian representative, Beatrix Price, describe our own Slovenian conference as one of the best in the region. Thank you, Bea, for your constant support! Coming from one of the organisers of the classiest conference in the region, it's doubly flattering.

It’s the people that make the conference and I was much more active in Harrogate simply because I knew more people. In Portland I spent a lot of time taking pictures, writing up Facebook statuses, talking to family and reading the brochure, simply because I was alone and had a lot of time. Harrogate was a series of talks, coffees, conversations, workshops, evening beers and socializing. 

As a contrast, the IATEFL conference has an overwhelmingly larger percentage of practical workshops, which is useful for my context but might lead some to suspect there’s not enough research in ELT. Still, it made the choice of what session to attend much more difficult and much easier at the same time. Easier, because I knew I’d be getting practical activities that I can use on Monday, and more difficult because there were so many to choose from. Luckily, my awesome friends went to different workshops and we could sit down and compare notes.

I was also extremely excited because my bff, Sandra Vida gave a talk focused on her fancy, brand-new MA thesis. She talked about using music in class, but not with gapfills and worksheets, but more like a starting point for conversation and discussion. 

Shameless Plug Pug says go check her website
My other friend Nina Jerončič was also there with her fancy talk on using memes in the class. She doesn't have a blog, for shame! She's very young, still attending University, which makes her success a Success.

I was happy to see my friends being so busy and important and for a split millisecond I regretted not submitting to IATEFL, so I could compare the two. But the feeling went away really quickly, because, who am I kidding, I was half-asleep for the first three days.

Another thing I found extremely useful is the way IATEFL organised their brochure. They had pages where you could note the workshops you wanted to take and pages with overviews of the day – a single A3 page for a day, which makes it much easier to organise your time. Also, the sections were clearly separated with markers. In the brochure design, TESOL could take a leaf out of IATEFL’s book. My day was much easier to organise in Harrogate.

My highlights were Sinead Laffan’s workshop, where she explained how her teacher trainees blossomed after she gave them more freedom; Sugata Mitra’s plenary, which proved we are capable of getting collectively riled-up and disagree constructively; Marcela Cintra’s Teaching Unplugged in a technological era, which showed me the way to a materials free lesson while still using my favourite tech toys; and above all the conversations and musings with colleagues. 

There was, however, one thing I missed at the IATEFL conference and that was the extra-curriculars during the day. TESOL offered a larger variety of short trips, like evening trips to food pods, a visit to the largest independent bookstore, a breakfast at Voodoo Donuts and many more. The number of participants was limited, but it gave us a chance to connect in a more intimate environment. IATEFL did offer a walk around Harrogate, but the variety of activities was much larger at TESOL. It helped me get a real feel for the city and I appreciated the local volunteers’ stories. It is important to come back from a foreign country with a sense of how the people of the city think, what makes them tick, so to say. It gives you a very valuable insight into the culture of other nations and helps you develop as a person and as a teacher.

Basically, that's why I go abroad. To see how the other culture functions, how they communicate, what they see as important and meaningful. If it were just for the workshops, I'd stay in my PJs and attend online conferences, which are extremely good. RSCON and VRT are my personal favourites. But while I can attend workshops online, I can't connect to the people online like we do face to face, or at least it takes more time. I can't discover strange haunts and hear weird language bits by people in the street. I can't sit down at lunch next to a random participant and strike up a conversation which might mean I learn about a new concept or get a book recommended. 

Or simply share my Mars Bar with a fellow educator and talk about growing tomatoes. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Extreme Conferencing!

Part of this blogpost appeared in IN magazine Spring 2014 edition.

This post took forever to write.
It's been a month and a bit since the best thing that could happen to a teacher who also sometimes presents at conferences happened. I presented at the TESOL Convention! Yes, the huge one! With 6,500 people! And where you can't throw a stone without hitting five doctors of Education or generally important people!


A year or so ago I gave a workshop at ELTA in Belgrade on teaching technologies and one of the participants was the former president of TESOL, Suzanne Lydic Panferov, who offered very kind words and even requested to use some of my materials. So I thought, hey, let's submit a speaker's proposal for a workshop in 'Merica, maybe in time I'll progress enough to actually get it accepted.

Imagine my surprise when the acceptance email came! 

Surprisingly enough, it was more stressful to get on the plane than it was to address a room full of people with PhDs. Those of you who know me, will also remember my panicked voice every time I mention flying. I am not happy with flying. Not happy at all.

Problem identified: I can't possibly afford this. 

TESOL themselves have quite a number of opportunities for funding participants from overseas, so anyone thinking of submitting a proposal, go through the opportunities, perhaps you’ll find something. I wasn’t successful, so I turned to the Regional English Language Office (RELO) in Budapest. They were kind enough to sponsor my TESOL Experience and I can’t thank them enough. Without them, I’d surely stay home feeling very sorry for myself indeed, because even to buy a plane ticket would be beyond my financial means.

RELO stands for Really Extremely Lovely Office of people

The papers you need to fill in for the Grant are plentiful, but not overwhelmingly so, for an average person. As for me, I get confused even by my tax return and so I felt a bit like Don Quixote, if my giants were papers with little numbers on them. 

So, after a bumpy and very unpleasant ride, I was finally in 'Murica! It's big! And it's friendly! And people are not fat, contrary to what everyone would have me believe! I had a very childish reaction to every US flag I saw, because the flag meant my experience was real and I was indeed in US. 

So how does such a huge event differ from our regional conferences? 

The majority of the sessions I attended at TESOL were very research-based. At first I was disappointed, because I believed we are all professionals and we need practical ideas, but I’ve since adapted my thinking somewhat. In a recent blog post by The Secret DOS, he lamented the lack of academic rigour in our profession. I think TESOL might be just the ticket for anyone thinking there’s a lack of academia in ELT!

But even though there were so many university professors, the best-attended sessions were those that provided practical activities and just a mention of underlying theory. This proved to me that no matter how high up in academic world you are, you still need practical ideas the most.  

I must admit, I felt a bit lost at first. Practically everyone I talked to had a PhD and worked for a University. It was quite difficult to connect with people with whom you don't share the same teaching context, but those of us who worked with children on a secondary and primary level were extremely glad to see each other! The words most commonly uttered when we stumbled across one another were, "Thank God, someone teaches children!" It was a bit like meeting a long lost cousin and we pointed out one another to our colleagues.

"Sharon! Come here, this girl teaches in secondary too!"
I also made many cultural notes and talked to a lot of interesting people by stepping out the Centre, sitting behind the bar and striking up a conversation with servers, baristas, cashiers and random people in a park. Best conversation starter? The Voodoo Doughnuts pink box. Voodoo Doughnuts seem to be a Portland institution. 

You have to stand in line for a minimum of 20 minutes to get those buggers. In my case in the rain. Bloody donuts... But everyone wanted to know if the lines are really that long, how they taste and if they really have bacon sprinkles.
Yes, average, and yes.

I did a session on teaching technologies, as I normally do. And of course I had a series of technical mishaps. Not as bad as the time when I presented on Internet technologies and the Internet died, but for a girl stressing about her first time presenting in a HUGE conference, still more than I'd care to name.

First, the attendant was quite surprised when I asked him if the sound is connected. It turned out there was a mix-up in the dates, but I was assured everything will be in perfect order for my workshop. Next, I waltz in, all enthusiastic, and see there’s a person with Google Glass waiting to hear what I wanted to say. So, I’ll be talking about teaching technologies to a person who already has a gadget that maybe a fraction of a percentage of a population has. 

Ahaha, yes, I can see you Tech. I Tech too. A bit. Slightly. Don't ask me any difficult questions, please.
The man turned out to be very friendly and we ended up having a long and fruitful conversation after my session on what to do with technology in the class. He was a very productive participant, sharing his expertise with everyone and asking very meaningful questions – the kind of participant you dream about having in your session! My last mishap was the fact that the sound, despite assurances to the contrary, did not work. No worries, it happens all the time in the class and I had enough other material to buzz past.

Looking back, I have to say it was one of the best sessions I gave, mainly because even though I had 1 hour 45 minutes, I still managed to keep a lot of my audience for the duration. 


In a conference where it is normal to pop in a session for 20 minutes and then go somewhere else, I am happy with myself. Especially since my presentation was the last one in the day on the penultimate day of the conference. I also collected some feedback from the people who didn't need to be somewhere important and I was happy to see people rather liked it. There was some friendly advice about my time management and focusing.

Yes I saved the post-its with the feedback. I asked for people to write down one thing they liked about my workshop and one thing I should change for my next workshop.

I also learnt something very important about giving workshops on huge conferences: print little pieces of paper with links to your presentation and give them to participants. It will save you time, because you will get at least five questions at separate stages of your conference along the lines of "Where will this be published?"

The experience was one of the most profound I had as an educator and I think everyone should try to submit their proposal to an international conference. The sense of accomplishment is priceless for a young educator and in the world where our work is underpaid, under-appreciated and where we are basically treated either like lamps or like parasites upon the productive society, we need that feeling to keep on functioning. 

Just don't spend too much time talking to Finnish and German teachers about salaries. Jealousy is such an ugly colour.

And my life would have been perfect and nice after that conference if I weren't an overachiever and went to the Big IATEFL right after Portland.

Part Two features The Big Awake, Cambridge wine and how the collective TEFL world got an aneurysm from a talk.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Sparks of inspiration, Headway and Georges Melies

Do you know those little moments in life, split seconds, that everything just clicks? I was lucky enough to have one in my class today.

It was my first day back from what will forevermore be known as Lea's Extreme Conferencing Feat, where I went without sleep for two whole days at one point. Needless to say I was intending to stick to the book and hope for the day to pass without falling asleep in my coffee.

I was staring at my Headway Intermediate book, where they were kindly offering a listening about space and space tourism. There were a few pictures of rockets there, one of them a tiny segment that I recognised from a 1902 film Voyage Dans la Lune. The school bell signalled the beginning of my lesson and rockets went off in my head. I decided in a split second to ditch the book and do the following instead.

First I wrote Space in big black letters on the whiteboard and invited students to come up with any and all words connected to the concept and write them down. That gave me the three minutes that I needed to find the version with music only.

This is the one I used:

There is nothing but music and moving pictures, so no language input.

We put up all their ideas on the whiteboard, they came up with words and phrases like keyboard, Star Trek, meteorite, rocket, and many others. By then they knew what the general topic of today's lesson will be.

I then showed them a still of the film and asked them when do they think it was made and we speculated about different years and why they thought that.

Then it was time for their writing assignment - watch the film and write down the story as it happens. The narration is slow which gives them time to think on their feet. I didn't help with any vocabulary, but I wrote down questions that might help them write the story as we were watching. They're only in their first year so I thought it would be helpful for them to have a frame to which they can refer.

There was much giggling when the rocket landed in the Moon's eye.

They were herded together into groups of four and instructed to add all the information that other students got and they didn't to their own work.

While they were busy doing that, I took a picture of the questions I wrote up so we can refer to them tomorrow when we do the rest of the activity.

There were thought up as the video was playing. Mind, if I didn't know the video extremely well, this would be impossible to do.
The lesson ended with us talking very shortly about how differently they imagined the Moon landing way back then. This is important for the last activity, as you will see below.

Tomorrow, they are going to finish comparing their narratives and then we will spend a bit of time discussing what makes good feedback and how to give constructive feedback. Then they will exchange their narratives and comment on each other's work, perhaps paste the narratives on the walls and I'll give each student two post-its and they will be required to write two comments on narratives other than their own.

Next step, we'll compare our narrative with this charming version which has a narrator telling the story as it happens.

I'm pre-watching this version now and I anticipate these are a few words that my munchkins might need pre-taught to understand the main gist of the film or I think might be useful for them in their later studies and/or life.

Made with If you want your words to stay together, write them with a tilde ~, for example to~ascend makes it stay together in the word cloud.

I am not expecting them to understand everything, this is just a bit of support to help their own unique narratives. I decided for this version as the one I like best has a pretty heavy French accent. It can be found here if you have a more high-level students that would enjoy the charming accent.

Here you can tell them the colourised versions were quite popular back in the day and it took immense skill and patience to do them. If they show any interest, I'm doing a cross-curricular lesson on technology of film.

After that, we revise the texts once more to get a complete text that will be used as a basis for the next activity.

As a final step, we're watching this lovely music video, which was inspired by the film.
(Fun fact about your resident blogger: I used to be obsessed with this song. I would play it five times in a row. Aaaand I'm doing it again.)

We're going to write down the similarities and differences of the two films, which gives us a lovely chance to practice linking expressions (also, however, but, in comparison, while, whereas, likewise, same as, just like,...).

We might round up the series of lessons with a short debate on history of film, the long way special effects have come and are they important for enjoying the film. We will definitely talk about how people viewed the future in times past and what we can learn about predictions of the future from that fact (protip: They're all rubbish). The topic we are covering, is in fact, Life 50 years from now.

I am full of win!
The general outline of the lesson took me three seconds to decide, the rest came together in a series of quick flashes. I actually wouldn't be able to do this at all if I hadn't been a huge fan of silent films and that film in particular. As I said, a magical, once-in-a-career moment.

The hornet's nest plenary

Recently I've had the utmost pleasure of attending two of the biggest ELT conferences around, the TESOL 2014 in Portland and, immediately after, the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate. A complete account, including what to do when you want to escape from a plane that just took off will follow shortly, when my sleep-deprived brain recuperates.

What got me thinking more than any other thing in both conferences is the last morning plenary in IATEFL, Sugata Mitra's talk on Schools in the Cloud. I refer to it as the hornet's nest plenary, because one of my PLN referred to the fact that IATEFL decided to invite prof. Mitra as kicking the hornet's nest. After seeing the responses on Twitter and Facebook, I'm inclined to agree. Personally, I enjoyed the plenary as it offered food for thought for days to come and was well executed. I think everyone's ideas deserve to be listened to and the listener is then free to either agree, disagree or just simply not care enough to make up their own minds.

Let me make it clear at the very beginning, I don't think anyone will ever replace teachers. We are more than educators and sorry to burst some techie's bubble, but a machine will not replace a teacher any time soon. First it will have to learn how to listen empathically, grade instructions for different levels as well as different moods and times of day (after-lunch dead-period, y'all know what I'm talking about here!) and patiently explain to parents why their darling will not learn if his idea of studying is falling asleep with a book under his pillow.

Learning by osmosis, totally legit.

Nor do I think that all students will teach themselves/each other just of their own accord. Left to their own devices if my boys, 15 - 19, are left with a computer in groups of four and instructed to find an answer to what is molecular biology, they will start playing games three times out of five. Or looking up naughty pictures. Or looking up things that are interesting to them, like the newest tech gizmos. I'm not saying it happens all of the time, but in some classes it does often enough that it would seriously impede their education if I wasn't there giving them the stink-eye when they try it.

I can hear your thoughts, go wash your brain out with soap!

Maybe the idea of minimally invasive school works for his context. I don't know, I haven't seen any numbers that would back-up this claim long-term, over generations. What I can be almost sure of (again, I can't be completely certain, I have no numbers to back up my claim, only anecdotal evidence) is that minimally invasive school for teenagers will leave a massive pool of children who can't see beyond next weekend sadly under-educated.

I'm sure many of you educators have noticed that some children tend to be excluded from groups. That's one of the reasons why groups need teachers, to ensure the excluded ones are included, that no-one is hogging the resources and that the Facebook status updating and Instagraming are kept to a minimum.

To be honest, I was surprised to see that the experiment with the hole-in-the-wall computers was evidently such a success. I'd anticipate the computers would be used mainly for playing computer games.

That being said, I'm also convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that the educational system is in dire need of a revamp. I work in a public school and I can see that although it's full of very dedicated and knowledgeable individuals, the system itself could stand a bit of a make-over, starting with the size of classes and the classroom itself. Collaboration is, in my opinion, the way to go, but excluding the teacher might not be the best move. Although probably half the population in Slovenia is convinced we're good-for-nothing freeloaders that only hog the public finances.

There are some lessons to be taken from Sugata Mitra's experiment and from his talk. The bus ride back to London was a good chance for sitting down with my two good friends Sandra and Nina and coming up with a few thoughts we will take back to our classrooms.

  • Don't underestimate the little munchkins. Don't hold back the knowledge because you think it'll confuse them, they're smarter than they look.
  • Let them do some work on their own. Step back and let them organise themselves. Sure, it might backfire. It did in my classes often enough, but it succeeded more often, just enough to give me a reason to not stop doing it.
  • Never underestimate the power of praise. Yes, it's important to let them know when they're wrong, but it's also important to let them know you see when they're trying. I try to do that, but I know I don't do it as often as I'd like. Sometimes I'm afraid they'll stop trying, sometimes they tick me off (I'm only human) and I don't tell them what good boys they are.

So, my post-conference resolution? I can't ditch testing, and I can't, with a clear conscience, just step back and let students teach themselves, and I can't ditch instruction completely, with 30 people in a class that's a bit idealistic.

I can, however, make small changes. Let students participate in test-building perhaps. Let them do collaborative tasks. Let them alone for a bit and give them more freedom, within limits.

And give a kind word or two more.