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.