After and before

Yesterday we had our second EULEAP meeting, and I’ve just put together the minutes and tried to do some more networking to get people involved. EAP practitioners are notoriously shy about networking – or could it be a lack of interest, after all? There is #EAPchat, which is connecting up many of the players, and we’ve got this baby Ning going, which will soon grow into a Ning Plus, sponsored by Cornelsen, which will allow Calendars and Groups for a more Ivory Tower feel.

Done with that. And now I’m just putting together everything I need to go to Paris for the BESIG Summer Symposium: Laptop, headphones, cables and connectors, my flip mino and recharger, and some notes on the people whose sessions I’ll be recording, and those I’ll be interviewing. It’s daunting, the number of skills needed to be a part of the BOT – Besig Online Team: You need to be able to run an Adobe Connect session with satellite partners; to use a handheld camera to record several hours of talks without a glitch; to interview someone you haven’t met before and only know a few things about, for an international audience and all online posterity; and to keep all of these different activities sorted on computers and the camera, with the power infrastructure in place, all on the road and without a quiet space to come back to, to collect your thoughts. Yesterday I also made some video tutorials for the BESIG Ning, since we’ll be closing the Yahoo group soon, and opening up the Ning, so we’re expecting a flood of new users needing support. I hope everything works out, both in Paris and online.

On Monday and Tuesday after the conference I’ll be teaching in Cologne for Management Circle. And before I start off, tomorrow I have lessons that I haven’t begun to prepare, so there’s quite a bit of materials to coordinate before and after the main event, too. And tonight I’m expecting a dear visitor who’ll get a nice dinner. Oops, and then there’s the laundry and ironing. OK, well, back to work.

Passive students

This semester I’ve had huge problems with twin classes of very passive students. These are mostly East-German adults in their twenties and early thirties who had vocational training e.g. as accountants or bankers, and are returning to college to get a BA on a part-time study program. Their English levels are very mixed, and they have to pass an exam. This is a compulsory class for them. We meet for 4 hours each on 7 days spread across the term. There is an online platform, and they are expected to do work at home.

For the most part, in class, they sit there like so many fish, expectantly, silently. And I try to energize and engage them, and give them things to discuss with each other (study on their own, pair up, then share). Yet if they ever do open their mouths to each other, it is to speak German. In any class of 30 about 3 will say something out loud in English, and another 3 will say something out loud in German. Any task I give them will take lots of discussion of how to approach things – all discussion among themselves taking place in German – and at least one group will need step-by-step hand-holding, and so bring the class to a grinding halt. Other individual students are far more advanced, and will be bored quickly and become disruptive. I know the initial level of English is quite low for some of them, though it’s hard to tell since many of them are real clams, but I really think it has much more to do with the way they tend to learn – most of them are introverted, and are used to learning content by heart. I’ve tried to explain that you can only learn English by using it, but my message is just not getting through to them. They’re not doing it. It’s positively maddening. I don’t have a solution.

My husband reacted to my frustrated description by saying “Sie lassen die Puppe tanzen” – they let the puppet dance”. So they’re pulling the strings, they’re in the drivers’ seat. It’s well over 30 in each class (officially 35 and 36, with some not attending and just taking the exam), and just me in front.

I have this vision that they’re treating me like a teacher in the GDR, someone to hide from, not someone to open up to. There is no sense of trust. That sense of distrust poisons our communications and makes me so tired I go home and have to sleep for 14 hours.

To be fair, one of the two groups is more communicative, and I do sense more trust and willingness to negotiate a solution, but the same learner types are prevalent in both groups. And just because they are ready to communicate doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to take responsibility for their learning progress. There are quite a number who are trying to test me to see how little learning they can get away with. They even told me point blank that they didn’t want to learn English, they just wanted to pass the test.

This is one of the main reasons I’m giving up my teaching engagement with this group after only one term, and after only 4 lessons with them. I really regret not being able to become a part of this institution, which is something I would dearly have done, as a freelancer ever on the lookout for good partners, but I can’t take any more. I have three more lessons with them, and will just lay low and try not to invest too much.

I gave them a model exam in class so they know exactly what to do for the exam. I’ve formed them into groups, so each group leader can approach me if they want to solve any problems.

They may have won their fight with me, sort of, but they’ve lost a great opportunity to learn how to learn English. I feel sorry for them, even as I’m licking my wounds.

Tandem teaching

Could tandem teaching work as a business model?

So: The corporate client books a two-day course for a large-ish group of staff  and gets not one, but two trainers to come in to run the session. The trainers take it in turns: One runs an activity while the other collects vocabulary on the board and runs the feedback session. This would solve an issue I have with compacts (my mainstay as a trainer), namely that it’s often difficult to organize feedback because I’m only just getting to know the learners, and focus more on fluency/ natural exchange/ focused input than on structured feedback – especially since the level of English tends to be very mixed in such groups. Obviously, monitoring large groups is also far more effective if there’s two of you. My large classes of over 30 students at Wildau are making me appreciate the value of a better teacher-learner ratio.

Working in tandem also solves another issue: It makes it easier to arrange group briefing, a very valuable tool in communicative methodology, whereby one group gets one set of information while the other gets another, and clarify issues as a group, before individuals from one group go and pair up with someone from the other.

I recently heard Stephanie Ashford and Tom Smith present their excellent Business English Simulation “StartUp Emterprise” and soon after started turning over in my head how I could run a two day course using it, or create something similar. I’ve taught groups of assistants back office skills in English for years for Management Circle and Verlag für die Deutsche Wirtschaft, and those courses usually run for 2 days. Now I was wondering whether the engineers, project managers and trainees might also have time for a two-day session covering a wider range of business English language and skills. Would they find a simulation compact valuable?

Working on skills makes more sense in a compact format than in an extended one, this much I’ve found from my university courses. I provide training in hosting visitors and running international teams, and have given presentations compacts, both of which could easily be done in tandem. So how about trying it with a general business English skills compact.

Stephanie and Tom generally run their StartUp Enterprize simulation  with college students. It might be great to do their simulation (or a similar one) with my Masters’ and PhD students from various disciplines in Potsdam. But I’d frankly really like to try it out first in a company. They’d have to be willing to volunteer their time in exchange for training by a highly motivated and professional but experimental tandem duo, either using the StartUp Enterprize simulation or creating another content package.

I have some tandem experience, and it has frankly not always been 100% good. I mean, when you’re not together, when you’re competing rather than moving in sync, the tandem tips over, right? Bruises ensue. Stubbed toes and bloody noses. That’s why I want to do this with someone I really respect and like and can play with, someone who shares my vision and would make it worthwhile to take home less pay and enjoy the experience. In the long run I don’t think that I’d necessarily earn less by sharing, since this might take the quality to a new level, and in business training, quality can be marketed accordingly. But at the moment I’m frankly just curious about the ride together.