Getting our teeth in #EarsPeeledProject

Time for an inquisitive look upon my own doings; as the EarsPeeled Project has taken up half of the last year, here’s some reflection on its second part.

It took the core group about a month and a half to get their heads round to what we were doing. I’ll admit to enjoying this process immensely, in spite of my concerns that they got there far too quickly.
Having spent twenty days brainstorming, keeping notes and deciding upon who should do what, it was simply uplifting to experience languages being used in all sorts of ways; all our languages, that is. We’ve been an odd bunch.
Things to consider:
1.Context: this is still general English, though not approached commonly.
2.Backgrounds: we share the current place and language (in Athens, with its ups and downs, naturally), but the linguistic legacies we carry differ. The immigrant framework we work within calls for very specific planning and welcomes four native tongues, other than Greek and English.
3.Age & Emergent knowledge: all this happens in a group of teenage learners of 15-16 years, all assured they know everything.
3.No Coursebooks – our own experiences and where they take us, readers and authentic texts.
4.Skills develop anyway; whether they develop with good purpose is a different story. Our specific aim here is developing listening and speaking, yet how could we possibly isolate those? Isn’t language one thing?

While writing this, I kept thinking what the best way to portray our gatherings would be, and thought that only a weekly development of thought and practice could do so.
Here is a week working with the project group:

Monday through Wednesday:
Collaborating on our dedicated Google Classroom.
Week Theme: Daily Interactions
Weekly Tasks (designed by students):
Sub-group 1 (four students)

  • -Create dialogues for the following scenarios
    -Record yourself performing those scenarios (remember: S(ituation)T(one)P(urpose)

a)You wake up because your sister/brother has just slammed the door of your bedroom.
b)You’re sitting around the table for breakfast. You think the bread is not fresh.
c)You’re getting ready for school. You have forgotten to do an assignment for your History class.

  • Sub-group 2 (four students)

-Listen to the recordings. Note down your answers on the folowing:
Where are the speakers?
What is the problem?
-What would you do in each of these situations? Leave a comment on the thread.
How would you react to those issues? Prepare and record your responses, then share them in the comment section.

Thursday and Friday (still collaborating online, only through both the Classroom and our whatsup chat)

-Group 1: collect responses and propose which recordings & follow-up questions should be added to the project portfolio.

-Group 2: give feedback on Group 1 proposals & share your arguments and suggestions.

Saturday – meeting face2face

-Perform scenarios, including suggestions/modifications by both groups

-Play recordings & compare with live performance

-Reflect collectivelly:

Differences/similarities between recorded and on-the-spot presentation of scenarios

Observation notes: 1) is what you heard understandable? 2) did you spot any problems, and which? 3)Ways to improve?

So, a typical week with the group really held plenty of wonder. I was quite happy to sit in the back and observe those goings-on, and actually found myself wondering when my input would be necessary. In such a week, I was probably just the motivator – yes, keep at this, yes, compare dictionaries too, yes, it’s fine to get emotional, all of this.

To me, being able to blend in the background but also hold the rule still feels remarkable. Especially because no rules have been pre-set, because I’m in the observer and contributor shoes – not the I-know-and-you-don’t ones.

It has been impressive, to say the least, to observe teens translaguaging their way to English – holding onto that in-between part of making sense among the group but then aknowledging and striving to make the effort commonly understood and acceptable.

This process repeated, with many different scenarios, all through the month that followed. We eventually reached a point where some form of more formal assessment needed to come in – the group needed to know if their work and choices were effective. And though my own input on that front was requested and provided through the rubrics I always prepare, it didn’t feel enough.

The truth is I usually panic when this feeling of inadequacy rushes in. Trusting your gut just isn’t enough. I’ve reached a point, however, where this is a forseeable feeling and I remember that somewhere inside me, there are mechanisms to transform it, shape it, make it work for the best. So my #teacherhub rushed in there too. I asked my RP group for help, forgetting I shouldn’t be apologetic about it. And it was a great reminder of why my practice used to make me feel insufficient in the past.

In practical terms, the project group prepared an audio performance – “blind theatre” might be an appropriate title for it – to showcase those three months of learning to their immediate environment: parents,friends and the local community. I suppose it was the ultimate challenge, at that stage, for them to know that among the audience there were six people – six teachers – who were silently assessing them; somewhat like the reviewer assessing the chéf in that optimistically freshly-opened restaurant in town.

There is more. Much more. Which means more blog posts coming. Thank you for reading, for showing patience and for unwittingly being part of this 😊

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The EarsPeeled Project – An Overview of Eight Learning Months

It has been some time since this blog has had a post published, mostly because sitting on the other side of the table took its toll on personal sharing. In the past few months, my time was divided between making sure I’m well (essential before we embark on anything), those PBL courses I adore and the organizing of events for the Greek ELT community – so the chance of presenting one of the projects at an event I’d had no part in the setting of was remarkably refreshing and simultaneously intimidating. Do others feel like this, I wonder. I’m not yet certain how that presentation went since I haven’t had the time to go through my collected data and reflect upon it properly. The immediate feedback has been great, teachers have already got on board and begun working on the EarsPeeled Project, yet I’m not entirely satisfied with myself. I need to reach a new level of balance (Presentation slides here). Thank you to TESOL MTh and the outgoing Board for giving me the opportunity to share at the 25th Jubilee Convention!

Back to the project: Most of the material my groups work on comes from their own interactions, as well as among them and myself. As all good learning stories, this project started from a frustrated student’s comment and the urge of the group to end that frustration. Should we speak in a particular way in order to be understood in our second language? Does it have to do with accent or diction? Do we listen in the same way as we’d like to be listened to? Is this an indication of our competence and knowledge?

I have to (re)state here that our starting point is trust. In order for a project to materialize, we need to feel comfortable with each other in sharing, offering suggestions, giving feedback and working through tasks collectively. In many ways, a project cultivates the above and sets effective learning in motion; in our case, eight fourteen to sixteen-year-olds, who had much more in common than they realized in the beginning, managed to come together and deliver tangible outcomes after almost eight months of designing and collaborating on the project. That particular group had had experience in the task-based approach and, as the questions multiplied and developed in complexity, their previously acquired skills were put to the test so as to make every task meaningful and constructive. Meeting face-to-face once a week and collaborating online in our Google classroom twice more, the group had sufficient time to discuss new ideas, resolve issues and reflect as a team.

The first stage was simpler in devising and implementing, with tasks like:
-students producing written dialogues in a variety of everyday contexts (breakfast at home, getting to school, discussion during intervals, etc), using prompts provided by the group, and progressively touching on subjects where they felt less confident to express themselves
-role-playing (engaging in a variety of activities and dramatization techniques)
-sub-group recording examples of the everyday discussions above and sub-group identifying the context
-assessing products within the group and brainstorming ways to resolve emerging issues and plan further steps

Moving to the second stage came much faster than I expected, mid-way through the second month. I felt apprehensive, I must admit it. My concerns were whether the group had had enough time to experiment with the techniques and tasks, and also whether it was necessary for me to interfere and stall the process. The driving question, however, had already been enriched with emergent follow-ups: “Does what we say depend on who is listening?” , “Should we change our words and tone in order to be understood?”. Seeing how engaged the group was in the new prospects, I decided to risk it and allow things to evolve, which thankfully led to some further intriguing results:
*Re-naming the project: the made-up idiom story
*The PM Board: task pin-board where the week’s team leaders left messages in the phonetic transcript (the group’s effort to make the most of – both printed and online – dictionary use within our project’s framework)
*The teacher infiltration:
1.opportunity for instruction and scaffolding of bottom-up and top-down processes simultaneously
2.initiating ELF attempts (a shout-out and big thank you, here, to https://elfpron.wordpress.com/)
*The decision to take steps out of safety:
1.presenting project tasks at morning school and involving classmates
2. organizing collective book read-aloud sessions for younger learners, peers in language schools and eventually preparing to contribute to LibriVox

We are currently in the third stage of our project, where the focus is on presenting the group’s work in detail through the final product: the Project website. The core group in Athens has been collecting their own and all material from other groups taking part and has been designing the webpage on the Wix platform. It has been a demanding task, as it requires careful planning, clear roles, and efficient time management, but so far it seems the group has got everything under control and will meet the end-of-March deadline.

No matter how many projects we work on, students never cease to amaze me – but more on that in the next post, along with my notes and reflections 🙂

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: