Let Things Grow

I’m sitting yet again on a train, heading to one of my many somewheres; in this surprisingly comfortable seat by the window – and this time being spared the typical odd companion who comes and sits next to me with an enthusiastic chatting fever – I’ve got about an hour’s journey ahead and the chance to indulge in blog reading. I’ve done my homework: the posts are bookmarked and have little notes on them already – following the habit of reading one blogpost per trip (which means I read through three or four per day).

Inevitably the twitterverse intervenes, partly because I like to share what I’m reading and partly because I just can’t help checking what everyone else has been reading. If anyone checks my twitter feed, it might seem slightly weird – but I have been branded with that term since my teens, so that’s ok.

In a couple of those interventions, Zhenya (as she always manages) prompted the thought – and this post, subsequently – on favourite tools for professional and personal development. I promised a post and then took something like two months to write it. It happens. I doubt you don’t follow her blog, but just in case, DO follow WednesdaySeminars.

I think that answering a question on favourite tools is a difficult one. It can’t be one or two, you see, it’s multiples of multiples. While pondering over the several ways in which we move ourselves forward, it struck me that it has more to do with habits and attitudes than with single tools. In my case- and I know how challenging people who know me find this – everything evolves around questions. What’s this? How does it work? Can I do that? Why/Why not? Sometimes those whys and hows burden me too much, but to be fair, I’m not sure whether things would have developed well if I lacked that continuous sense of wonder. Sometimes it would be better to stop wondering. And look. And listen. Closely. Other times, it’s worth more to think than to listen or notice. Making the distinction between those is also a burden but thankfully, I have found other, similarly weird teachers who share my quests: a lovely, informal and hugely productive Reflective Practice group; a place to wonder, practice,then wonder some more, and all among people who allow for both activity and silence.

Silence is something great. I’m not sure how others perceive it, but for me it is necessary. As a bookworm, there is little that can interrupt my reading and silence also allows for easy breathing, thinking and writing – journaling I should say, because that’s what it is; a habit I’m happy and lucky to have developed and sustained. There is safety in a journal, which cannot compare to anything else, and what normally strikes me is how easily silence is achieved even in the most crowded of places, given the right circumstances.

The safe circles are all well and good, but we are not here just for ourselves and those close to us. A good practice, a worry, a simple thought, all need that added bit of magic: sharing. Sharing in any way we feel comfortable with. I’m not massively happy with social media generally, and blogging is actually something I do whenever I feel like it. The last few months, for example, only two or three posts appeared here and that’s because I was in a terrible mood and state and all my writing equally just oozed negativity. I didn’t press ‘publish’ and I’m glad I didn’t. It seemed better to channel energy to further studies, teacher development events with TesolGreece and other Associations, project ideas, working on my website and preparing proposals/presentations. 

I suppose the only tool it’s worth using as the basis of our development is ourselves. Do we know what we’re comfortable in? Do we have limits? Do we know when we’re most and least productive? Can we distinguish between what’s necessary and what’s only hype? Are we happy? Can we formulate habits that make us happy?

It is up to us, really. If I’ve learned anything so far, that is to make efforts, head forward and let things grow. And things do.


The bravery of seeded apples

So we’re sitting opposite each other at the kitchen table, silent but determined. It’s a Sunday and we’ve got a crate of pomegranates to sort through; he has that faint smile, like he knows something he won’t share just yet.

“You always do them in fives. Hold it steadily and trace a line around the top, where you’ll be carving. There’s no need to rush”.
I immediately take six in front of me and begin. Tracing seems easy, I finish all six in less than a minute. Carving…now, this might as well be a full-time job. The skin is too hard, it just won’t give way to the knife. I change positions: tilt the knife slightly to the left, then to the right; maybe vertically? No. I move to the other chair, straighten my legs; then I sit up straight. Still nowhere near the desired result. Over on his side, five pomegranates stand carved and ready and he is still smiling.  I sit back down and as I take a breath, strictly-coursebook-day images begin to spring up: Maria is struggling with her sentence. how many pens do you have got? – do how many pens have got you? – how many pens do have got you?, and she flutters about in her seat and looks at the page in despair while everyone around her has moved on to the next sentence. Let’s make this a group activity – let’s work on something relevant – let’s play with those words. Yes, much better. A good argument to how your brain just downloads information in moments of need. In Maria’s case, group work made all the difference; here, however, it’s only me.

“Did I show you how to carve?” No. I assumed I could do it. “Did you ask me how?” No. I assumed I could do it! It’s expected of me (and is welcome) to seek assistance, but that doesn’t sit well with me at all – not until I’ve tried my hand at something myself. I feel slightly annoyed too, probably because it’s him telling me to ask for help. Could it be an authority issue? More importantly, is that how Giannis and Mike felt everytime I reminded them of my presence and my offer to assist? Possibly. I’m trying to think when and how we reached the point of good communication between us, but all I see is their frustrated faces.

“You’re too focused on the task. But what we’re doing here is simple: hold, trace, carve, scoop out. You just need to remember two things”.

What two things? What things? – I’m thinking but not asking out loud, as my first pomegranate sits in my hand and I’m ready to scoop out the seeds. They’re called arils, I inform him, and in some places this fruit is called a “seeded apple”. Do we have any other words for it in Greek? The spoon stumbles on some black, shrivelled seeds and I feel a sting in my heart. What happened here? And look, there’s a whole cluster of them – yet the fruit has grown around it, all red and plump. Life miniature in a pomegranate; isn’t that true about everything, really? No matter how many difficult moments come, we seem to manage to grow around them.

I know one word only. They must have had a reason to come up with more. Don’t worry about the rotten ones, it happens. Take them out”.

I place that dark cluster carefully on a napkin. Even though it happens to find some rotten ones, it seems unfair to just throw them away. In a rushed attempt to hide how profoundly this little chunk of dead arils has affected me, I explain the origin of the word pomegranate to him; but all this Latin and French and fancy descriptions don’t fool him – he’s still smiling. He might be right, maybe I focus too much and sometimes on the wrong aspect of something – no, not wrong, the less important one. Don’t miss the woods for the trees, shouts professor Katsivanou in my head, standing in front of that huge, scribbled blackboard. She was right too.

We’re nearly done, aren’t we? Two or three more and I can go back to finish that crossword. Popular French comedian and actor, first name Louis – who is that? I’m missing that one”.

De Funés; I remind him of the self-important conductor Stanislas, sneaking around in the kitchen with a lit candle, and he nearly bursts laughing. Somewhere in another pocket of my mind, Mike and Giannis are crying with laughter, while we are watching Peter Kay’s stand-up performance. That was the moment; a good laugh together. Not long after that, they both told me they are glad to know I’m there – they would always try on their own, but knowing someone would jump in if necessary. 

Now there are heaps of seeds and about forty hollowed pomegranates on the table; in keeping with our family Christmas tradition, the first will turn into liquors and jams, the latter into alternative gift wraps. But that’s for another Sunday. 

“What two things should I remember, dad?”

“Be brave but ask for help when you need it. But you remember them anyway, don’t you?”

Looking at that smaller heap of black seeds next to me, I suppose yes, I do. And I know that nothing compares to father-daughter moments.

on ends.

Normally I would begin with something along the lines of “it’s this time of year again” or “another school year came to a close”. But not this time.

This time things are different; deeper, more emotional and, in certain odd ways, more uplifting. The background seems familiar: a number of students trusted to you just about a lifetime ago, an approaching results announcement, a circle that has become so tight, so focused and so loved that it seems impossible to consider daily workings without it. The foreground though, oh the foreground…full of smiles and pats on the back and happy words of upcoming departure to new, undiscovered universes.

Don’t get me wrong. No one could feel more fulfiled, more elevated than me at this moment. We have achieved what we set out for. We have achieved the set goal and many more that came along the way – the ones we couldn’t plan, but embraced when they emerged. But.

But over the past months I went back to feeling weird – feeling caught in some sort of a standstill; caught in a web if you like, an odd tangled fusion of the things that were and the things that could be. I’ve done many different things during this period. I’ve undergone training and trained groups myself. I’m half way through an MA. I’ve studied. I’ve presented my projects in four languages (and French was a freakshow – must remember not to do that again). I’ve written (in Greek, so the depth was remarkable but frankly, who cares). I’ve become an editor. I’ve translated. I’ve travelled. I’ve taught. All in all, I have been out there and I have been quiet.

Freelancers ought to be quiet about certain things, I was told. I still wonder what those ‘things’ are. I’m a quiet person, not a quiet freelancer. In those freelancer shoes my voice sounds certain, deep and reassuring. It surprises me, even. Perhaps it’s an automated reaction, or an unconscious action. In any case, it has worked so far. The freelancer shoes still suit me (If I remember I have them on, that is).

What doesn’t suit me is this end. The idea of an end. I have been a language teacher for eighteen years and this summer feels like a tangible end. My ducklings have grown and flown, what am I doing? New flocks arrive but I’m tired and demanding of new terms. Everyone seems to bow to them but I’m sceptical, I’m selective. I have stopped adding and started removing.

And I have this niggling thought that maybe, just maybe, it’s time I reconsidered my position again. Out of all this rummage of tasks, the one I most feel at home with is teaching – where have I left teaching? Where have I left this incredibly active collaboration and research?

Even though it all seems uncertain, there is a whole month ahead for considerations. I’ve already half-planned some sort of a gap year. I’m already running about places and I won’t stop until I’m certain of what will take me forward. In the gut-feeling sense, I mean. It’s coming.

How does the line go?… anything that comes before a “but” is most likely irrelevant and quite pointless…
 Was it Stanford? Maybe. Whoever said it anyway, I couldn’t agree more.

Ventures in Vocation – rants and prospects

As months keep flying by in 2017, I’ve found myself in exceptionally busy and challenging environments, so blogging – or rather, posting – fell behind a little. Writing has always been a different story altogether; I always reflect in writing but, lately, sharing those thoughts simply hasn’t happened. Maybe it’s time it did 🙂

For about eight years now, half of my teaching and learning time has been devoted to adult esp courses – focusing on tourism & services, real estate and my long-lasting love with legal English. The new year, however, arrived with an uplifting challenge: teen & young adult groups attending vocational schools – studying in tourism again & automotive technicians for a change – and quite a change, as to this day I couldn’t care less for cars and all. I did ponder whether I should take that up, and for a substantial amount of time; given though that it was two former students of mine who were now pursuing further expertise that their general knowledge of English wouldn’t cover, I said yes. A ‘yes’ that brought me face to face with an inadequacy I didn’t really care to modify and fill into at first, but which also massively annoyed me – it just didn’t sit well in me to abandon the effort. A ‘yes’ that suddenly multiplied the learner group – as those two former students brought the whole class from school with them.

What I didn’t know in the beginning was how much more annoyed I would become during the first couple of lessons. It was annoyance on a multi-level scale too, which made it even more difficult.
Having mainly focused on teenage learners for over a decade, the challenge wasn’t the group, but the subject. How could I sustain my own and the learners’ motivation working on something that does not interest me at all and on which I have next-to-nothing to work with?
Any hopes I might have had for at least some relevant material from official sources, i.e. the vocational school, were very quickly shattered, as the only thing those learners had in their hands was a set of photocopied mainstream elt coursebook pages with grammar rules. Here’s where my annoyance levels begin to go up:

  1. It’s a vocational school. You’re expected to have bibliography on relevant subjects for all your students.
  2. “Just learn the terms by heart. That’s all” – the answer the school English “teacher” gave to the students’ questions about learning how to do their job in an English-speaking environment. When I visited the school, he refused to see me – well, there you go.
  3. There are amazing, passionate and hardworking colleagues in public vocational schools. Shouldn’t there be a database of their produced material available to all students?

I wasn’t trying to avoid preparing material – it just shocked me to see that even though those students were expected to study and take exams on their subject, all the material provided was on general English and several levels below their competency – something common, as I’ve been since informed. We’re in 2017. I might have been too hopeful but having known how colleagues put their heart in teaching and produce materials, I expected those students – and their school teacher – to have access to it.

*rant over*

I decided to make it all interactive – I might have known nothing about cars, but I’ve been good at completing tasks 😉 Obviously, so are my students. We’ve been working our way through terminology and functional language on Car Mechanic Simulator – found through STEAM. The students are divided in five groups of three and each group “owns” a garage – myself and a couple of colleagues pose each week as customers 🙂 The groups are responsible for the smooth operations in their garage, appropriate task allocation and production of three weekly reports (Tasks Performed, Financial and Weekly prospects) as well as a monthly report from the “manager” (selected and appointed by the team members).

I’m not sad to say that I still have no interest in anything automotive – not in handing it, I mean, I’m quite happy to enjoy their service. I am, however, thrilled to admit that my students’ enthusiasm fires me up beyond expectation!
Even though I remain angry at the lack of care, of perspective and of prospect – as  those students are seeking a future away from here and who can blame them? – it’s our duty to pursue shifts in anything that does not work to our own and the future generations’ benefit.

Keeping it Practical – TESOL with Greek pulse

Reviews and reflections coming soon…for now, the traditional yet unparalleled vibes of TesolGreece -well, a small taste at least…A big thank you and a big hug to all!

Here we are:

Just being there…#TeacherHub Discussions

It’s the first steps in March and things are on the whole going well. So well, it’s almost scary. There has been a lot of work and preparations in the background and it hit me once again that I haven’t posted for a very, very long time. I’ve been writing, yet not sharing. Somehow it seems I’m only just beginning to accept how much of a slow learner I am.

I keep going back to the posts on the blog, either because someone re-shares them or I happen to notice a “spike” in stats (thanks WordPress). And I can’t help but feel overwhelmed – not because of numbers, there are some 70 or so posts here – but because it’s a pretty weird feeling to see what you’ve actually been sharing. There’s always the urge of self-correction, but then again, each post represents a moment in time, how could anyone correct that? Though it is ultimately comforting to accept yourself exactly as you are, there is a constant self-doubt that emerges, somewhat unnoticed. Which is fine. We certainly know very little about the world around us and accepting that is a brilliant first step to becoming better.

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking to a friend – a heavily burdened friend who I hold very close to heart for a number of reasons – and he kept talking about his place in the world, how he sees no reason whatsoever to stand and talk and do. I couldn’t pinpoint what was actually bothering me; his desperation, his lack of confidence, or perhaps my own inadequacy in helping him. He mentioned my persistent, stubborn take on positivity and how he finds that impossible and all I could answer was that I’m positive because I have a choice, as we all do. This choice, however, is not something simple, and I have no recipes to make it happen. We cannot shape the choices of others, not if we care for them, in my view. Everyone deserves to go on their journey, see what they can see, ask when they want to know, be who they wish to be – we can be there for them, that’s all. And this conversation led me to thinking further about the learners trusted to me – do I do enough to give them the space to be themselves? In theory, yes. I don’t feel happy in the know-it-all teacher shoes. But is that enough?

Probably not. The idea that we know and they don’t is something puzzling to me. We all know things, from different perspectives perhaps, but at a given time we know and we won’t easily give up on what we know – why should we? Being open to suggestions and advice is a very different thing, it doesn’t challenge exactly what you know, but rather the way you perceive the things you know. The more these thoughts twirl in my head, the more I think basing lessons on the people I work with matters. Is that a revelation? Well, no. As an educator, what I find most significant is to sit quietly and guide when I can. It has nothing to do with what I see fits best, because most of the times I’m not sure what fits best. The day-to-day interactions depend on who I’m working with –  and I’m blessed with a variety.

That’s more or less what I shared in last week’s TeacherHub and was greeted with silence. Even though at first this silence appeared as an obstacle, as a wall I’d managed to build up between myself and our Hub, it turned out that similar thoughts were running through each of our heads – only we couldn’t put them to words. Looking around the room, I could see those same thoughts on my Hubbers faces and stances, so it felt more efficient, applicable and awesome to put each thought to action. Show each other what our vision or fear looks like.

Maybe we should set our minds on recording those meetings. I mean, it’s nearly impossible for me to portray in writing everything we have experienced. In brief, very – very – brief, here are some of our trails:

  • We need a certain amount of standing, sitting down and moving around during class, listed from less to most. The most responsive and productive seems to be the moving around, the involvement in each instance.
  • Listening is easy. Comprehending is difficult. Adjusting practice and material based on what we observed always involves the danger of becoming too leading. (Reflecting on balance is next month’s task).
  • Music is crucial to all of us. Let’s choose a playlist for class.
  • Learning to keep silent -or unlearning to dominate discussions – is a huge challenge. Let’s just let them talk.
  • Involve them. Yes, how? We all come into lesson with one issue or another, let’s use that. No, we can’t have pre-prepared material for every single topic. Yes, we can modify – it’s our plan, after all, and it might as well go out the window when we notice that one sparkle in their eyes.
  • Our presence means something. Usually something different from what we expect. Often something we fail to notice. Can we practise in this?

Those Hub meetings, I love. Just being there.

To all good things coming up #spreadthejoy

January 1st, 2017 – sounds nice!

People say that however the first day of the year finds you, that’s how the rest of the year will go. If I take this literally, I’ll be spending the whole of 2017 with a slight cold, surrounded by people I love and who love me back, over a table full of homemade foods and drinks and with a head bursting with ideas. If I’m more philosophical and take this in a less literal sense, still it’s the overwhelming feeling of love, homely warmth and curiosity that will dominate the year. I’m happy with either.

Many things happened in 2016 and I’m grateful for all of them, the good and the not-so-good. Nothing bad, really, except perhaps for a little sadness and disappointment in some people – but that’s common, we can’t keep everyone happy and certainly shouldn’t focus our energy on that, especially when it’s a lost case. Still, I’m grateful for that disappointment too – it’s remarkably liberating to know exactly where you stand and have no regrets, only great memories.

On with the good things!

2016 came to an end with the completion of small and bigger projects with my students – but more work and new sparkling ideas are to become a reality in the new year. More projects, more collaborations, more sharing; it’s what we’re here for!

The end of 2016 also saw the end to several of my courses, but instead of keeping the bittersweet feeling of that last lesson before December’s exams, I keep the joy of growing along those students over the years and the pride in their accomplishments. 2017 will find me sharing and exploring with different groups, more teens and young adults and much more within vocational and ESP contexts – I see this as a challenge to my creativity and hope for the best!

Apart from teaching, I’m also looking forward to as much learning as possible and there surely is a lot around to choose from (I think I’ll put together a list (!) of seminars, webinars and courses sometime soon).

Last, and certainly not least, travelling will also take up a great part of this new year – some for projects, some for conventions and some just because I love travelling! 

I won’t make any resolutions (because I usually break those, almost on principle 😊) but will express the hope that I’ll make it through seeing the good things, will have the patience to write about it all and will carry the feelings of this first day wherever 2017 finds me.