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.

Learn Outside the Classroom #30GoalsEDU

For a change, let’s talk of something that we have done, not something that we plan to do 🙂

This is us:

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I have talked and blogged about our learning adventures together several times. Nick has been the student every teacher needs to have in their class and life. The student who from day one had made clear that ‘books don’t work’, that ‘school is classmates and not teachers’ and that ‘if it isn’t fun, I’m not doing it’. The ultimate challenge learner. Naturally, we took learning outside, to the place where everything happens at once and you can only cope if you’re up for it. The place where books are digital, compact and highly visual, where writing starts from single words and hashtags, where language comes forward because we need it to do so. For Nick, photography is his love and dancing is his breath, so that was what we worked on.

Our first step was to become tourists in our Athens (something I regularly do during my staycations, but this was the first time in student company). We role-played; we hopped on and off buses, we chatted with everyone, we explored what we knew and what we could discover. Each step was a photo, and each photo became a story. Language practice; effortlessly, because we needed to communicate our knowledge and feelings.

Dance came next. What does that have to do with language learning? How can it help you prepare for an exam? According to Nick, if you enjoy it, it will work. And judging by the experience and results, I have to agree. From dancing at home, then in the street, to a dance school and music videos, our learning took shape from within. I’m not much of a dancer, but Nick’s enthusiasm got me moving. His Tumblr posts are a must to many, including myself. He touches you because he loves what he does.

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Only two days ago we got his results; a High Pass on his C2 Certificate. An achievement owed to him doing what he wanted to do, have fun. We haven’t danced to celebrate it yet, but we will 🙂 And make sure someone can capture the moment!

#PBL Zone – The 1to1

It’s been quite a ride these last three months – didn’t do much on the blog, or nothing more like, decided instead to focus on 1) the students and our combined efforts to take learning forward and 2) a lot on myself (but that’s a different story and post altogether).

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I’ve always been a huge fan of projects, the ideas and series of activities that take whole classes out on magic rides and paths of discovery. I’ve also always wondered whether a project could work equally well for 1-to-1 courses. In theory, a private course is much easier to plan and handle than a school course; there’s one person there to work with, needs-assessment is easy, you can take personalized learning to another level and, as an extra teacher perk, you can build and work on your own material. The one issue to tackle: there’s only one person there to work with. Through the years, working in classes with varied numbers of students and implementing projects either as extension to the course or full project-based courses (not many of them sadly and I could never accept why most Directors were so reluctant to agree to them) , the common denominator of success has always been interaction. Peer learning was what brought hidden talents to surface and assisted skills building. A 1-to-1 course lacks that obviously, so I’ve held back from suggesting PBL to private students. This year though, I reconsidered the options and as students I’ve had for almost six years now have reached the point where they don’t really need me anymore, apart from when it comes to exam preparation, I thought it was time we took things further and worked on what they now want and need to put their efforts in.

While in the past we used at least some ready-made material, a coursebook here and a grammar book there, this September, me and three of my kids set off on a different journey: exploring our interests and how they shape our learning generally and learning English more specifically.
Three students, three projects. Literature, Music and Dancing. We brainstormed, we planned, we’ve been editing and shaping. We’ve been busy and happy. We’ve been learning; not from scratch, but from within. I’ve been keeping my notes and they’ve been reflecting on their efforts. Sample? Sure. Here’s Nick’s Tumblr. More to follow from all of them.

The whole universe can come into a private course and in all sorts of ways. To get that peer input, we went with assessment. All three students have been reviewing each others’ work, making suggestions, providing feedback. We’re moving forward hand-in-hand.

As all three projects are still ongoing, I’ll be posting updates and results along the way. And to close this first post on their wonderful work and our amazing time together, I’d just like to say I’m immensely proud of my kids and finally quite comfortable to sit aside, watch and assist them while they find their own way in learning.

And here we are…