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. 

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