Simplicity: Flipchart rather than pinboard

How to build trust

In compact business seminars, the kind where the participants expect and get a full script to take home (so much for unplugged!), I usually use cards and a pinboard to collect, sort and focus the participants’ ideas. But you can drive a good thing into the ground. The act of pinning the card is a very formal performance, making a statement, punctuated by that punching sound of the pin going in through the cardboard. If they do it, fumbling fingers. If you do it, you’re in a dominant role. I realize cards are supposed to give the participants flexibility and agency, but in fact the card format can be limiting.

I usually use the flipchart myself, and do a cover sheet detailing the road we’ll take (with room for adaption) and do a lot of careful lettering and drawing as we go along. It’s my space, for adhoc presentation. I visualize concepts in ways I’ve standardized. I feel I owe the participants something reliable to flip back through to review where we’ve been. I’d use a dry wipe board for adhoc notes that can get wiped away, but there usually isn’t one available in these seminar rooms.

But this time, after Jason Renshaw posted an invitation to teachers to show their boardwork (with lots of responses, including Emma Harrod using stickies, which is nicer for sorting than cards, the “un-stick” sound is more pleasant), I thought about how I dominate the visual space in these very structured courses, and decided I need to get out of there, and them in there, and change and simplify things, asking everyone to collect their ideas on the flipchart. As I watched my lovely participants at Bender congregate, unceremoniously and in a very relaxed mood writing things up, talking things over, moving around, coming back to add something else, I thought: This is good. Next time I’ll have participants use the board more, and in more ways. Handing over.

PS: The next morning, looking through this, I’m thinking that perhaps it’s not just the sheet of paper I want the participants to have, after all. Maybe it’s more different materials and shapes to play with and collect in a collage that maps out our course and lets us retrace our steps. I should get a bigger sheet of paper for the pinboard to glue things to. In fact, I’ve just arranged for paper to be there at my next seminar in Cologne next week :)

Dogme – Schmogme

Karenne Syvester’s “Dogme challenge 1+2″, infused by Candy van Olst’s “CELTA -Schmelta”, dampened by yesterday’s “Failwhale” #Edchat, refreshed by Jeremy Harmer’s “No Dogme for EFL” combine to inspire this friendly response, the title an obvious take-off.

So Dogme means “emergent” and “co-constructed learning” on the one hand, and “essential bareness” on the other. It has little to do with whether there is in fact a book around. It seems like the most natural approach to take until you hit on some very specific snags that can’t just be solved then and there. You, the teacher, have the experience, authority and responsibility to point the way, even define the next steps once things stop “emerging”.  As Scott Thornbury’s approach is a philosophy, rather than a method, it’s more about your perspective than about what you actually do. Got that? Right. I think it’s only natural to be somewhat confused.

I started into EFL in small town Germany, with an academic background, and was, yes, a native speaker. It’s unfair, I know. I didn’t skill up beforehand because it was so easy to get a job. My very first gig was two weeks with a hospital professional on his way to Australia to manage a huge reorganization project. I knew nothing about hospitals, Australia, “TEFL”. We were given a gawdawful coursebook on the economy in general that contained a lot of utterly useless translation work from German to English. He was keen. We both did some thinking, adjourned for research, pooled our resources, made up tasks together as we went along. He was happy. I wish I could beam myself back and see whether I would be, now. Had I started out, inexperienced, wanting to apply “tried and tested” teaching tools without the option of “essential bareness”, eager to live up to a quality standard of some sort, things might have gotten pretty ugly.

My Director of Studies then promptly gave me my first company course: Deutsche Bank. Three tiers. Six learners each. Ten weeks. No guru, no method, no teacher. No CELTA. Yet an opportunity on a silver platter. On arrival, I found they had self-study materials that I wasn’t really supposed to know about, let alone use, but the participants eagerly handed them over for me to peruse. After they’d told me in detail what they actually did all day, what worried them and what they wanted to do in our course (in English naturally), we went about carefully setting up a great big simulation based on the skills featured in those books, with scenarios that all the participants were familiar with and needed to master in English. We didn’t do it all at once, I’d watch them and they’d watch each other and then we’d figure out what they needed. The atmosphere was very friendly. I was told by my advisor to “include some grammar”, and I brought along a horrid little book that thoroughly confused us all. What made most sense and came most naturally was teaching short phrases that came up in our simulations, and comparing sentences that used or varied them. Sometimes I’d show them phrases in their self-study book before we went into the simulations. Someone else would be responsible for notes each lesson. Chunks. Emergent. Co-constructed. Scaffolding.

I still like to work like that. No method, no guru, no teacher?

Actually, my initial do-it-yourself learning curve in TEFL included:

  • how to assess what students need
  • how to use visuals
  • how to document what we are learning

It felt pretty good to figure these things out on my own, but I didn’t really get it right: An evening class student came back from an intensive course in Britain and had made incredible progress. That was very sobering. And then, one day, I met the first challenge I couldn’t handle: A woman with serious mental blockades connected to suddenly having to manage her company in English. She would shut down completely when she had to speak English. I was so sorry, and completely fascinated, and finally had the challenge I needed to make teaching my profession. So I earnestly started learning how promote language learning:

  • how to prepare students to process new language
  • how to review new input to really make it stick
  • how to get learners to notice and accept their own progress

I began going to workshops, soaking up accepted TEFL methodology, taking every bit of training offered by the different schools I worked for, and learned

  • how to facilitate groups
  • how to teach people who think they can’t learn
  • how to use media
  • how to assess performance
  • how to give feedback

I’d always used didactic approaches from museum work, e.g. responding to images and music, solving puzzles, creating and extending stories/ scenarios, acting things out, making posters etc. But there was an intensive phase where I overegged the pudding, using all sorts of therapeutic bells and whistles. I quickly realized it was just a way to keep people who like that sort of thing happy. Went mainstream again. Did the LCCI CertTEB with Mark Powell. Took the Cambridge TKT. I was always going to do CELTA, but there were always other extensive courses that seemed more applicable and interesting: intercultural competency; media in teaching; teaching ESP at college; setting up distance learning.

Today my classes are materials-light though I actually write self-study materials; I’m focussed on my learners and don’t make my students work online unless they want to, though my classes are permanently hooked up to the internet. I’d quite possibly fail CELTA, as my lesson plans hardly ever turn out the way I thought, and I hardly use my laminating machine anymore, though the guillotine does comes in handy for made-to-lesson cards. If a learner needs to be immersed in hands-on, friendly learning materials, I can still pull out the stops.

Looking back at my teaching life so far, I see I’ve missed the boat on CELTA. It should have come after about a year of teaching. I feel a bit naked around EFL movers and shakers who espouse CELTA, but that can’t be helped. It’s so easy to get too comfortable in teaching, so I’d still take a course, frankly, reviewing the whole of TEFL, with a trainer whose philosophical approach embraces dogme and who focusses on support and coaching, rather than on input and training.

Atomic Tom: Take me out on iPhones

This iPhone event must have been sponsored. Advertizing is generally no-go on this blog. But since my Apple gadgets have really helped me get from one home office to the other, more or less sane, I’m sharing the love.

I also like the title. “Take someone out” is NOT “jemanden ausnehmen” – which in German means to disembowel someone. I learned that the hard way, years ago, when I tried to chat up a cute guy by saying, “Ich würde dich gerne mal ausnehmen.” (I’d like to disembowel you sometime). No, I did not score that night.

This came twittering by from Gavin Dudeney and Shelly Terrell. It’s on Boing Boing.

If I was bold enough
I would follow you forever
but darling please
rescue me, take me out

some may say,
it’s my fate
am i just in time
or am i late
if you can, understand

Take me out
I don’t start, I don’t end
I don’t change on my own
Take me out
I don’t lose, i don’t win
I don’t do well alone
Love is what we make it
Take my heart and break it
Take me out
I don’t want to stay home

you make me dread
you make me sweat
but can you make
love mean something instead
something real, make me feel

i don’t want to stay here
i don’t wanna live half my life
and disappear
so if you want to take chances
take a chance on me

song of the week

Elevator speeches

The above links are pdfs of my presentation and handouts from the workshop I gave at the Uni Potsdam Graduiertenkolleg Geowissenschaften yesterday and today.

This is an extremely interesting challenge for me, as these scientists are more advanced presenters than the undergraduate students I’ve normally taught, and not as versed in the world of marketing as my business clients. As a group, they give a series of short 2-minute presentations as an invitation to later visit their science posters in the exhibit area.  Key issues are how to make their points memorable, and their listeners hungry for more. This opens up a huge area for micro-storytelling (adding the personal dimension), but also for memorable catchphrases that stay safely this side of rhetoric. Work in progress, I’m looking forward to the rest of the workshop.

Susanne Frölich-Steffen (her website), a scientist now working as a communcation skills trainer in the academic world (primarily in Munich and Bavaria) gave me wonderful tips. I’m hoping we can work together in the future.

Further reading:

  • Michael Alley: The craft of scientific presentations. Critical steps to succeed and critical errors to avoid. Springer NY 2003 ISBN-0-387-95555-0
    Book homepage
  • Nancy Duarte: Slide:ology. The art and science of creating great presentations. O’Reilly 2008 ISBN-13:978-0-596-52234-6
    Nancy Duarte’s blog