My last two-day compact for PAs didn’t go quite as well as they usually do, leaving me pondering what went wrong. As I’m teaching quite a number of similar ones in the upcoming weeks, I need to pause and think things through in depth, because I want the next ones to go better.
The conditions are always a big challenge:
We have just one or two days to go through the world of back-office communication, and/or handling international guests and teams.
The PAs come from various companies and regions and in fact have rather different kinds of jobs.
Their English skills range widely, from basic school English and little experience at work, to having a background in English correspondence and doing business in English on a daily basis.
The participants want to take home specialized answers to their needs and some want general reference materials for future use.
Now, I love a challenge. My compact workshops are very interactive, not presentations. To make them work I find I need the following:
The participants must be willing to accept the basic concept that they will learn by doing things themselves in the course.
Everyone needs to put their personal experience first and share it in order to learn in the group.
They get a general all-purpose handout for professional back office skills that I’ve written, along with published self-study materials (including a CD).
There’s a clearly structured outline, as announced, but I’m flexible and adapt it to their needs.
I bring a big and diverse selection of tasks to choose from over the course of the two days, and tools to make up new ones in line with the participants’ needs as we go along.
Some of the tasks are built around the errors that individual participants make. This gives the seminar a more tailored feel than anything “off the rack”. I ask for writing samples from each participant in advance to target their special errors, and collect emergent good and faulty language in the course and incorporate that into new tasks.
I do my best to enable individuals to perform well and experience incremental learning as empowerment.
The big facilitators are fun and humor, warmers and relaxers, discussions and a focus on problem-solving.
This time I feel I failed at some of these.
I tried to get my participants to open up, asking for formative feedback, but too little came from those who were dissatisfied.
Those whose English was above average spoke German to those whose English was weaker. Usually I pair up strong-weak duos, and the strong one is a teacher’s helper, but this time they just wound up speaking German to each other. I tried to encourage total immersion in English, but that just shut them up.
At least one of them didn’t like group work at all and would have preferred a very tightly structured presentation. I wish I’d had the opportunity to work with her individually. Another person was simply not particularly motivated to be an active member of the course.
One of the participants had a learning blockade that needed sensitive handling. I’m a specialist for such learners, but it does mean being very focussed on that person for a while, which means others don’t get the attention they deserve. The seminar would have been better if I had had more energy to really see all of the participants all of the time, even as I was focussing on the weaker learners.
How to deal with this?
Next time I’ll have to be sharper. More sleep, more exercise, more meditation.
This time the group was too diverse. Unfortunately I have no say in who gets to participate, but I simply must insist on getting writing samples from everyone in advance.
The gap in skills made it impossible to follow the course I had plotted in the handout. We had to work through far more basic English issues, and then those who were a little bored with what we were doing would jump the gun and address some other issue, and I’d find myself giving the group a new task to keep them happy, one that messed up the sequence of the script. To avoid this, next time I’m going to bind only the reference sheets and, as the need for each new task emerges from our class interaction, I’ll dip into my loose leaf collection and hand out materials as needed.
Pigeon Impossible, the silent animated film by Lucas Martell released on 9 November that took 4 years to make, passed the 1 million views mark on YouTube after less than 2 weeks online. The film is set in the neighborhood of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C., where two of my nieces and I spent an enjoyable afternoon in October. I grew up in Cold War D.C. – I hope other teachers haven’t had exactly the same idea yet: Here’s my contribution of a lesson plan to the upcoming EFL blog carnival.
Target group: Adult education, Business English(group and one-to-one)
Level: multilevel, ca. B2
Language goals: 1. Speaking 2. report writing 3. spy/ thriller vocabulary (a one-to-one student is reading Le Carré) 4. predictions; 5. could/ coudn’t/ was able to (describing general ability vs. single achievements)
Pre 2: Hypothesize content of film. Brainstorm spy and Cold War vocabulary (e.g. for reference: to gather intelligence, secret agent, espionage, operation, operative, screen someone, be in disguise, conceal your identity, code/decode, crack codes, cypher/decypher, wiretap, detect surveillance, brief/debrief; Cold War, Berlin Wall, Iron Curtain, Star Wars, rocket, target, cruise missile, explosives)
During: Watch film, and stop at likely places to ask “What will happen next?”
Watch film to about 1:50. Look at still of pigeon inside the briefcase. Collect and write up predictions (note grammar: I think, will probably, is likely to). (If teaching a group, let separate groups develop and present their scenarios.)
Watch to about 2:32 (pigeon has discovered that the suitcase can fly and is armed; man finds bagel again). Again, predict.
Watch to 4:04 (bagel has hit red button, Washington Monument turns into launching pad, rocket is underway to Russia). Again, predict.
Post 1: Reconstruct and summarize what happened: Contrast outcomes with predictions “I/we thought he would… and/but he…”
Post 2: Write “Incident on F Street” on the board. Make three columns. Headers: pigeon could, man couldn’t, man was able to
Tell students they are the man and will have to write a report to their line manager about the unforseen incident with the pigeon. (If you’re teaching a group, do this in pairs.) Tell them to concentrate on describing what the pigeon
could do with the additional powers at its disposal,
what they (as the man) couldn’t do to interfere and
what they (as the man) were ultimately able to do to stop pigeon and end the incident
Note grammar: contrast “could” for general ability with “was able to” for ability in a specific situation; couldn’t is more natural for negatives.
Have them use the film stills as guides. If they ask for it, watch the whole film again as they finalize their notes. Then they write reports. They pair up with another group to read each other their reports.
At least that’s what I’m planning to do. This is an action enquiry. I’ll let you know how it went later on this week in the comments. If you’re using this film in a different way, or have other ideas about how you would, I’d be delighted to read about it.
Marvin Minsky of the MIT Media Lab and MIT AI Lab has a very pragmatic approach to robotic engineering and artificial intelligence based on systematic redundancy. “I’ve never seen any mechanical device that actually shows any thought about reliability,” he says (4:40) and goes on to explain his approach (from 4:45):
“My theory is that there are lots of theories about how the brain works. And you can see some guy saying “I have a neural net theory about how to make a machine that’ll learn anything.” And this one has a statistical theory of how to learn anything. And this one says “I’m going to make a simulated evolution.” And this one says “I’m going to make a rule-based system.” And there are about 10 movements in AI that, since about 1980, have gotten some good results, but stopped making progress. And the reason is, everyone’s trying to find the best way to do something.
Well, what you want is something like this” (he shows his mechanical leg model) “where you havesix pretty good ways of doing something, and if some of them don’t work maybe the other ones will.
… To me, we’re just big gadgets, and made out of lots of little gadgets. And the important thing is to figure out how to put them all together, not holistically, but reductionalistically, so that if anything breaks, something else will take over.”
Now, that’s a widely applicable approach, I’d say.
This is how I teach. Aiming too high can cause negative stress. I’ve learned to break learning down into small, productive, rewarding steps.
I was thrilled and very priviledged to be sponsored by Cornelsen to present this at BESIG, the Business English Special Interest Group, in Poznan last weekend. It was a great event. This presentation was sponsored to promote Up to Speed by Carole Eilertson and Louise Kennedy. Carole mentored me in this presentation.
My favorite BESIG presentation was actually the keynote by Vicki Hollett, who emphasized that we need to teach dialogues and focus on the pragmatics that allow us to communicate effectively. To see some of the other presentations, go to the BESIG website.
Thanks to Markus’ very kind recommendation on Der Englisch Blog, last week’s Grammar guru question went off like a rocket: What’s the best alternative to “You don’t really need to register for the event”?
“You don’t necessarily have to register for the event.” (86%, 36 Votes)
“You mustn’t register for the event.” (14%, 6 Votes)