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50 Ways Lists

The “50″ lists created over the last year have been a huge hit with teachers.

So happy to know that these simple ideas are being used in classrooms everywhere. That’s what web 2.0 is all about.

I thought it would be great to list them all in one handy place!  Just like our #1 in ELT directory. So here you go – in no particular order…..

You can get all these lists in PDF form here (purchase goes to help with costs here)

Educational Philosophy – a dialogue between Plato, Dewey and Marx

{this is part of the “Captive Mind” series of blog posts – publishing online and decommercializing thought.]

marxThis piece of reflection was inspired by a former professor of mine – Dr. Gerald Gutek, professor of education, Loyola University and author of many books on educational philosophy ( I highly recommend his A History of Western Educational Experience). But in particular inspired by this imaginary conversation between Confucius and Dewey which Dr. Gutek turned me onto.

To get started – let’s warm up with Philosopher’s Soccer by Monty Python!


A dialogue on educationbetween Plato,Dewey and Marx.

Setting:The lost city of Atlantis, in a time neither now nor then or to be.

Plato, Dewey and Marx are sitting around the staffroom table.

Plato very stoic in appearance. Dewey with a sparkly  eyed look. Marx, rubbing his beard and scratching his head.


Dewey: So let’s get to work men! We have to decide on the curriculum and materials for this course!  If Atlantis doesn’t learn English, they will fall back under the sea and I’m not just speaking metaphorically. Progress never stops and if we hesitate, Atlantians will be forgotten by history.

Marx: I agree, let’s start liberating them! They have been victims of the inexorable march of history too long.  Long live the proletariat!

Plato: I can agree with that Mr. Marx. They are so blind and us teachers must lead them into the light! So what do you propose, if I may suggest so “cratically”?   (hahaha – he laughs to himself)

Dewey: Well I propose we ask the students and citizens of Atlantis what they want to learn and what they want their schools to be like. We have to respect the individual! Let’s continue their emancipation cooperatively.

Marx: Respect the individual?What do they know, they are ignorant and until they know how they are oppressed “materially” no real education can take place. We have to get them organized and educate them on economics.

Plato: Well said Karl, we can’t have the blind leading the blind.But I wouldn’t want economics in our schools! That is a pseudo science and just mumbo jumbo. We need classic oratory, presentation, rhetoric and logic, math and of course ethics.

Dewey:Aren’t we teaching them English? What are you guys talking about? I recommend we bring them up to speed and get all the best technology for the classrooms. I’m not too concerned about the content – it’s the “how” that is big and to compete these days, they need computer skills. They need to learn the kind of English that they will use in their daily lives – English for Special  Purposes. ESP

Plato: ESP? What quackery! What they need is good training in the basics. Let’s get them drill and repeat books. They must master their subject through the use of their mind. Onlythen by control and rationality will they attain the “Good”.

Marx: What’s this about God? Keep him out of it, he’s just more opiate for the masses.

Plato:  I said, “Good” not “God”.

Marx:  Same thing, just some stupid, non material idea to lead people astray.

False ideology! This school needs books, books not written by the established powers but by those who see how the workers

are exploited and who see the bright future where there will be no division of labor. Paradise on earth, now that is GOOD!

Dewey: I also recommend that students talk a lot. Just talking and discussing will help them discover and test what experience teaches them.

Plato:  Only the teacher should be talking until they master the fundamentals at least.  And no materials except those from the great authors of the past!

Marx: What! That’s blasphemy!

Dewey: I thought you didn’t believe in “god”?

Marx: Well, you know what I mean. It’s outrageous, with all due respect Plato, to keep feeding the masses the same old content from the same tired “authorities” who keep enslaving the masses with false ideology and “carrots”. I agree the teacher should talk – forget books. But it should be about raising consciousness and not any blather about noble “fundamentals”.

Dewey: You guys are losing the point. We have to create good citizens and our curriculum should focus on the democratic ideal. We are free and we need a school where students can experience the world. In fact, why don’t we just have school outside, in the real world. Let’s learn English on the street  where people actual use it!

Plato:  Have you lost your mind?“Experience the world”????There is no real except for the forms. Our students must study and control their desires and  not run around the streets like “noble savages”. Good citizens yes but they should know their place.

Dewey: Again, man is free! Why do you see our students in such a poor light?

Marx:  I think John has a point, we should take students out of school but not into the streets but into the factories and offices. There, they can talk and learn English and truly learn how enslaved the capitalist class is!

Plato:  Nothing is learnt by losing one’s head. They need repetition, drill – that’s

how they acquire a skill. Let’s get lots of audio stuff for them to listen to.

Dewey:  Let them listen to each other! And what of the scientific method – have you forgotten that or is it unimportant?Our students will learn by us letting  them experiment and “use” English. We need controlled conversation and things like language gaps and carefully scaffold lessons so to support  student language acquisition through the forming of hypothesis and testing.  Students need to become good citizens by learning how to learn.

Plato:  Why so?Language is not so complex and it is also a means not an end. The end should be the Republic and the creation ofmen capable of “thought of  the good”.Form is good but it shouldn’t be left to the individual.

Marx: Ah, here you go again with “the Good”.There is nothing “good” except the conscious awareness of our role in history and the nature of “class society”.  Our schoolshould be a place to emancipate the working class, English for  the purpose of class liberation — forget the individual!

Dewey:  But they are already free and I don’t think learning English will help

people learn about “class consciousness”. They need to know how to read a recipe book or a menu, things like that.

Plato: But if they want to learn English they will, this has already been decided. We just need to teach grammar, the basic rules. All should focus on that.

Marx: The deck is rigged! We can’t have that!If we have to teach anything, let’s teach them skills and trades – not the poppycock, abstract stuff!

Dewey: I agree and so too would Voltaire, “ecrasez l’infame!” “Fight the infamy”. We need to really get utilitarian and ask “what will the students need to use English for?” and proceed from there.

Marx: Now I can see your agenda John. You are a capitalist dupe. A “dogooder” keeping everyone enslaved anon……

Plato:  Marx, you would make a formidable opponent in debate!

Dewey: Yes, he would. But he’d still be wrong. There is nothing practical about his world view and he hasn’t given one good idea for student learning except economics and “conscious raising”. These are good but are they pragmatic?  Marx, let’s give the people what they want, that’s what is good for history.

Marx: The people don’t know, nor will our students.

Plato:  Here! Here! Now that is an ideal I support. Some students are just not cut out for higher learning or “the way of the good”.

Dewey:  Why can’t we just cooperate? We are all on the same ship.

Plato:  Apparently not and I don’t think it is in man’s nature to cooperate unless  truth and beauty are agreed upon.

Marx: I’ll cooperate if you do what I propose…….or you both go back to your “superstructural” ideological illusions.

Plato:  Marx, now you are talking like a poet. And they have no place in my Republic.

Dewey:  Well, I have to run. Another meeting. Lots to do…..

Plato:  Yes, I have a book to finish also and then some writing.

Marx:  Yeah, let’s meet again next week and in the meantime I’ll get some  pamphlets printed from my printing house and call a mass meeting where  the workers can have their say.

Dewey:  Okay, let’s disagree to disagree. Until then.


Part 2:  Postscript. A discussion on educational views and philosophies.

Critical thinking means that teachers are objective and unbiased, encouraging students to examine all sides of an issue.”

The above statement is certainly something that would sit well with a liberal. The liberal views as primary, the process whereby the student is empowered through their own “critical awareness”.Whether that be Dewey’s “Complete Act of Thought” or just students coming to terms with their own individuality and freedom.

Education to a liberal is about both the progress of the individual and society in concert. A liberal would have no problem with this “relativistic” approach and this is probably at heart, why so many conservatives detest liberalism so much – for their faith in students and student centered approaches.

Society changes constantly and liberals view “issue” oriented education as a must. Otherwise, mankind is not ready for the world as it is. Reality changes and demands vigilance and individual responsibility. Society and democracy also demand it. As John Stuart Mills suggests, people need to choose and participate in society — this is the goal of all teaching, the creation of a meritocracy of respectful citizens.A teacher must encourage that through objective examination of the “issues”.Let the students come to their own conclusions and become “choosers” and not those who amorphously follow public opinion or their teacher’s opinion. Student government and leadership are encouraged, tolerance is a rallying cry and so too is pluralism. We must respect even the dissenting view.

Critical theorists on the other hand would be wary of the above notion of “teacher objectivity”. A critical theorist is acutely aware of the power structures within schools, educational bureaucracies and society enlarge. They would point out that one can hardly expect a teacher to be “objective” however well intentioned he or she may be. While in favor of critical thinking, they would point out that educational institutions maintain and reproduce the dominant group however well intentioned the dialogue and discussion. They challenge who controls the curriculum and the very nature / place of where this discussion takes place. It is not only what is said that is important but the underlying conditions – a critical theorist would argue.

Critical theorists would also be wary of the notion that school consists just in “discussing” values. Praxis is vital to a critical theorist and they believe ardently in the notion that schools and students should be involved in actions to change the world for the better. Empowerment is not just “knowing” but also “doing” and they value a more experimental and radical approach to education than the liberal.

Liberals on the other hand are wary of the “revolutionary” agenda of critical theorists. Issues like Illych’s deschooling, the home schooling movement or many progressive ideas are too radical.They would say that there is too much “fire in their kitchen” and they shy away from the collectivist ideas and more strictly adhere to the spirit of the above quotation – that of respecting values and individuality. In a word, civilized discourse.

I think about this, Henri Giroux outlines the translucent dividing line rather well. He speaks of his early years of education…..

Where I grew up learning was a collective activity. But when I got to school and tried to share learning with other students that was called cheating. The curriculum sent the clear message to me that learning was a highly individualistic, almost secretive, endeavor. My working-class experience didn’t count. Not only did it not count, it was disparaged” – from Border Crossings


Education, especially instruction in schools, should arise from the interests and needs of the students.”

This statement is at the core of the Progressive belief system. A full respect for the freedom and validity of the child. It is child centered and Progressives believe not just in the sanctity of the child but that education is for their benefit and thus should have their interests at heart.

Progressives firmly espouse the view that routine is a killer and that the teacher should try to arouse student interest and motivation through the use of student centered activities and interests in the classroom. The curriculum should in no way be prescribed and should come from the “interests and needs of the students”. It should in no way be “set down” upon students from above.

Nel Noddings, a major thinker in the Progressive camp outlines this succinctly when she writes, “There is more to life and learning than the academic proficiency demonstrated by test scores.”Progressives believe that standard curriculum leads students to hate learning and this in turn leads to many social ills in our society. A progressive believes there is something much greater than just “school” and thatschool should be less about “content” knowledge and more about what is and will be important for students in their lives ahead. The literally definition of “progress”.Noddings illustrates this point well with her quip that, “There are few things more central to our daily lives than money, family, and food. Yet our schools pretty much ignore all of them.”. Progressives focus as much on the emotional needs and creativity of students as the “knowledge” that is external to them.

The Progressive position is encapsulated by these wise words of Tsunesaburo Makiguchi,

“Teachers must not instruct students with the arrogant attitude of ‘Become like me!’ It is far more important for teachers to adopt the attitude, ‘Don’t satisfy yourself with trying to become like me. Make your model someone of higher caliber.’ True teachers (who are genuinely concerned for the development of each student), therefore, are those who have the humility to advance together with their students. Education must never be coercive. The heart of education lies in the process of teacher and pupil learning together, the teacher drawing forth the pupil’s potential and raising the pupil to surpass the teacher in ability.

Essentialists would argue that we have to give our students guidance and prepare them for the future with knowledge – facts/figures/focus.Students need to “know” before they can do and progressives are putting the cart before the horse. Essentialists are firm believers in tradition and the notion that a teacher imparts knowledge to which the students absorb. Thus, their belief as Bestor suggests in “fundamentals” which will provide the basis for success in life. Essentialist would never tolerate the notion that a student could decide what they wanted to learn.

Essentialists are conservative and believe in tradition and the proven time worn standards, like the 3 Rs. Accountability features high on their list and standards based approaches are their bulkhead. There is some “essential” knowledge that all humanity should know and it is for the teacher to instruct their students in these foundations and skills. A child needs routine andEssentialists through discipline, order and authority believe they can promote learning using the very condition ofteacher driven structure. The teacher sets the agenda, schedule, tone, mood and process. The teacher delivers time honored curriculum, the “canons” included – to which students should masters through memory and obedience.An Essentialist sees students reaching benchmarks and not wasting time on any student centered “fun” stuff..

These two educational philosophies (I’d rather say perspectives) are diametrically opposed. Very hard to reconcile the two and in one. Essentailists envision a school system where every student in a grade is learning the same thing at the same time. Learning is methodical and usually by the book. On the other hand, progressives would have children learning this or that dependent on the school or the local — the individual needs of those students.I would argue that there must be a middle ground. Life is not either/or, however much Kierkegaard proclaimed such….

Nationalism and in particular that peculiar breed of nationalism labeled, “ethnonationalism” are ideologies that I fundamentally believe are outdated yet continue to live on, in particular in our educational systems, simply because they can be used so easily to such horrible ends. Yet still, there are many, too many who believe that a nation state is the basis of all “being” and who suggest that education is a means of becoming not just a good citizen but a “zealous” and “proud” citizen.

Nationalists view the learning of other languages at a young age as detrimental to the proper development of a child. The mother tongue is paramount and almost godly. Nationalists suggest that he who controls language, controls the future. Children learning another language at an early age risk “corruption” and would weaken the nation state, a state formed through myth and collective narrative coated in language to become that “we-feeling”. In Korea, many suggest that learning English could destroy the moral fabric of youth and corrupt their “Koreaness”. Nationalists believe it wrong and are strongly against any foreign travel or “learning” at an early age. The nation is paramount and all resources of society should be used to “bond” the child to the nation state – their “mother”land.

Nationalists of today are not only those who in the past promoted raciallybased societies through the national agenda (racial purity – aryanism etc…). Presently, they might include many cultures in the “nation”– yet still schools should be about allegiance and patriotism and all the signs and symbols, paraphernalia and illusions of the “nation state”.

I believe the only proper response to a nationalist is to show them how outdated they are. As an English teacher, I would point to the innumerable studies that show that children who learn multiple languages at a young age suffer no ill effects. Rather, they excel far above other children in intelligence.The sanctity of the mother tongue at an early age is a myth. Identity is much more complicated..

I would also argue that given the world as it exists today and will exist, it is encumbent that we look more “internationally”. The children who succeed, and by succeed I mean that they leave a little more on this planet than they destroy, will be those who join in the global village and not those who seek to create a boogie man of it.Education is for the student’s own emancipation I believe and nationalism puts bars on each person’s windows. It is a prison and contains all the same violence and isolation despite the chants of togetherness from the cellblock.

As an educator, I feel sad seeing how societies, even the supposed “enlightened”like our own, hold up nationalism as a “beacon”.I believe it the role of all educators to bring the world together through encounters and knowledge of the “other”. Given the new technologies, this is becoming much more a part of education and I’m actively promoting this. Students will no longer have just the prism of their nation to view the world through – they will see as McLuhan suggested, “On spaceship earth, everyone is crew.”

As the world burns, still burns with the fanning effects of nationalism, I would argue to a nationalist that nothing but destruction has come of this creed and thus, it is not the “knowledge” or way of being that we should impart to children. The nationalist denies that the student needs to participate in and be a part of other cultures. I would suggest they must – that isolation as in the case of the U.S. and much of its passport less population only allows rabid violence through nationalism to ensue. Travel at a young age, encountering other cultures at a young age breed a “healthy” pride of country and temper nationalism. We have wisely secularized our schools but I now believe we should begin the process of “de-patriotizing” our public schools.This indeed was Dewey’s call so many years ago and I’ve returned to him again recently through this course(and I thank you, he is inexhaustible). I’ll end with his wonderful words:

We are now faced by the difficulty of developing the good aspect of nationalism without its evil side; of developing a nationalism which is the friend and not the foe of internationalism. Since this is a matter of ideas, of emotions, of intellectual and moral disposition and outlook, it depends for its accomplishment upon educational agencies, not upon outward machinery. Among these educational agencies, the public school takes first rank. When sometime in the remote future the tale is summed up and the public as distinct from the private and merely personal achievement of the common school is recorded, the question which will have to be answered is, What has the American public school done toward subordinating a local, provincial, sectarian and partisan spirit of mind to aims and interests which are common to all the men and women of the country – to what extent has it taught men to think and feel in ideas broad enough to be inclusive of the purposes and happiness of all sections and classes? For unless the agencies which form the mind and morals of the community can prevent the operation of those forces which are always making for a division of interests, class and sectional ideas and feelings will become dominant, and our democracy will fall to pieces.

– John Dewey, Nationalizing Education

Why Do I Blog?


“I knew that I had a facility with words and a power of facing unpleasant facts, and I felt that this created a sort of private world in which I could get my own back for my failure in everyday life.”
― George Orwell, Why I Write

I’ve been blogging about education without much of a break since 2005, going on a decade. Before that, for years I was in many forums, list servers and groups talking about education and writing replies that were much like blog posts. I’ve seen and experienced a lot in the realm of blogging.

Since I’m right now self-reflecting on my own future as a blogger, stepping back to jump farther forward, I thought I’d detail a little about why I blog. Find at the end, some of the other posts where I’ve already touched on this subject.

Note:  all of us “bloggers” have a little of all these orientations within us. Some stronger, some weaker. All of these mix and mingle with each other. My divisions are just that, “convenient” and one way to  draw a circle around reality (however failing). None of these orientations are more important than the others, we all have our own reasons for the ratatattat of our fingers and brains that becomes text, video, sound – a blog.

Why do I (and we) blog …….?

1. To Become, To Learn

A formative goal of all educators is to become  and improve as a reflective practitioner.  That’s one of the ways we improve, develop, grow as a professional.  We review, we think, we assess, we make changes, we test, we improve. And so the circle continues. One way to do so is through blogging.

There is something about the process of organizing one’s thoughts, communicating what you think and feel about a subject, something about this private conversation with oneself that “clears the air” and brings in light/knowledge.   I never really ever have a hard time writing about a topic. Why?  Because all the hard work is the thinking, the digesting and thinking that precedes the blog post. It sits with me an afternoon, a day, a week. Sometimes more.  Then finally after many times in my head during a cycle, a run or on the toilet or just laying in bed or reading – it pops out and something new is born.  I’ve grown, I’ve become more ……..

2. To Connect, To Share

The advent of more communicative “Web 2.0″ technologies has brought blogging out of the closet and allowed so many to connect to so many more.  Through blogs, comments, friending, micro blogging, we can connect with fellow educators the world over. It’s a marvellous and miraculous thing, sharing your thoughts, getting comments from others and becoming “community”.  I blog to connect with others and share what I’ve learned during my years.

Blogging is really like a slow, very slow conversation (and in being slow, one can savor it so). As such and as “slow”, it is very human and bonding.  We savor the communication and comradery of others and it brings us back, to once again start anew, the conversation.   There is something so motivating to me, to be able to share and make a difference in the lives of other teachers. Maybe it is just my altruistic bent, I don’t know. However, I think there is a bit of this in all of us, the need to “keep what we give”, the need to share and nurture something more than just ourselves. And isn’t that what teaching is all about? To be more than just a captive mind?

3. To Influence, To Identify

This is a tricky one but a powerful one.  I say “tricky” because the ego can be a very addictive thing. We can like Dorian Gray, fall in love with our own words, our own “blogging selves” , the likes, the mentions, the comments.  We might start blogging more to “get a buzz” than to really share, grown, nurture, instruct.  I’ve seen it happen and see so many bloggers fall into the lake while looking at their own blogger image –  posting stuff just to get clicks and visits, posting in desperation of being noticed and applauded.

This isn’t all bad.  It can really be motivating but you have to keep it in balance, remind oneself what it truly is all about. Influencing, teaching others is great but don’t let it go to your head.  Let the audience decide who is the expert and the worth of your words and self – they put the crown on your head, not you alone.  I’ve been energized as a blogger through a healthy dose of “ego” and my own wish to influence others  and declare, to voice and say, “This is me, the teacher, here I am!”.  Blogging gives us “voice” and identity and this is of necessity, it sustains us. However, it shouldn’t be the only thing or even the dominant reason why one blogs. But it would be interesting to hear from other bloggers about this contentious point – how has your identity as a blogger been a help or a hinderance?

4. To Help, To Serve

I blog to serve, just like why I teach.  Sure you have to pay the bills but there are next to no bloggers who make their money blogging (and don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise – they are like gamblers who never count their loses and always think they are in the black, only remembering their wins). We do it to help others, in service. It is a vocation and a state of mind that wants to give and to serve.

I see all the time, many bloggers start up with furious energy. Post after post each day. Then, baaaam, nothing, it’s over. Why? Probably a multitude of reasons but the most common is that they were doing it for the wrong reasons. Deep in their heart, it was about something other than service. Finally the deck of blogging cards fell, there was no proper foundation. To help, to serve is the key to longevity in blogging, most definitely.

But don’t think you have to be Mother Teresa to be a blogger. You don’t. But you do have to have a little light burning within you that says, “I’d do this even if nobody were reading and nobody commented or clapped”.

5. To Curate, To Collect

This is a not so obvious reason but one that is very valid for many a blogger. It is sparkling, motivating to each day, each week, post on a subject and catalog it. Make a living, wordy inventory of your own mind. Collecting is a passion and human trait within us all and no less so the collecting of ideas, of words, of writing.

It is rewarding to look back after a year or two and see your blog posts sitting there, still shining in their own way, still representing who and what you are.  Still able to give you insight and acting as a beautiful reference to those things you made part of yourself and learned tacitly but have now forgot.

I could add other orientations: money, career, personality, curiosity, professional development, competition etc…..  But I think these I’ve listed cover most of these, even if I’ve been remiss in detailing how.  But really, I blog to blog.  I’m not being cryptic. I blog because I enjoy the ratatattat of my brain and keyboard. It has become like coffee for me. A good friend that takes me into a very amazing, always overwhelming, special world of being a teacher.   That said, why do you blog?

A few other posts I’ve written related to blogging

The Top 5 Blog Turn Offs                 Is Long Form Dead?

7 years of blogging, no slogging       Blogging: What Set You Off?


Stories from the trenches: The Creative Teacher

Over the years, spending time with thousands of new or budding teachers – I’ve thought and thought and thought about the major factors that make a “great teacher”.   It’s not an easy thing to pin down, given that there are so many different teaching environments, so many different students and subjects.  However, this story from my past speaks towards one that I feel is important and especially important in ESL / EFL teachers.

I was teaching grade 4, regular classroom of all second language students,  in a portable, out in the hinterlands of the school yard. Demanding job, any grade 4 class – but especially this one.  During recesses and lunch hour, I enjoyed the quiet time in my class while the students played outside or had lunch in the main building (unless I was on yard duty!).  During this time, I collected my thoughts, recharged my battery and took one step back to jump ahead during the following classes.

Rose Avenue Grade 4

Rose Avenue Grade 4

However, if it was raining (which seemed all the time), the students stayed in the classroom during recess.  It was a portable so it was loud! Plus the rain pounded down on the tin roof.  My head would feel like it were bursting and those days without my “alone time”, really were trying.

One such day, I was sitting at my desk watching the students play a game which seemed to engross them. They behaved and cooperated well. It was ordered and fairly quiet. Heaven!  But from my perch, I watched and studied the game they were playing, “zip-zap“.  Lots of fun.  Plus, my headache was less and recess inside didn’t seem so bad anymore.

But I got to thinking.  This game is fun but could be much more fun if the students were using English! Meaning, instead of just “zapping” each other as the original game does – the zap was a letter of the alphabet or a category and the students instead of responding by “zapping” another student had to both zap them and reply in English.

So I got up out of my chair and started playing with the students. Sneaky me.  I played and played both recesses but during the last recess I stopped the game and said, “This is boring.”    I then convinced the students to try my version – and being Grade 4 students they bought it and a new “zip-zap” game was born.  One where they were having fun and learning English – even during their recesses and lunch time!

I think back fondly on this adapted game. Since then I’ve designed many games, helped teachers use them effectively in their classrooms.  But what I really look back fondly on is my own ability to adapt, adapt creatively.  There was a classroom, there was the curriculum but it was up to me to see it as a canvass that we could create into something personal, beautiful, fun, happy.

And that’s the quality of a great teacher and what I especially love about teaching English. You can take the core objectives but wrap them up, deliver them with sparkling creativity.  And when it comes together like “zip-zap”, it is truly satisfying.  The creative teacher is the basis of the great teacher.

If you enjoyed this, you may enjoy reading: It’s Not A Box: Synectics

Not just playing a part

I’ve been working on a new post this weekend, a reflection on my own development as a teacher and all the footprints that truly led me to where I am right now. Something for myself but which other teachers might find some truth therein.

I’m not even near finished, so many footprints, so many seminal events that one after another pointed me to the here and now. But I’ll share one of the them and how it set me off towards an understanding that we teachers need to know when to break out of our roles, our routines, stop “playing the teacher”.

It was in the early 90s and I was in the storied, most beautiful movie theatre in Toronto, the Runnymede. It was way past its hay day but still could make any movie special. I was watching a movie I’d missed years before when it appeared, “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” – one of Woody Allen’s most treasured films.

There is a scene where Baxter who is playing the lead actor in the film, spots Cecilia in the audience. She’s been coming to watch this same movie for weeks. He literally “walks out of the movie” and into reality. The scene has always stayed with me and listen to Woody Allen explain it in the video below.

In the days that followed, I thought and thought about the scene and it really hit me hard as a teacher. I realized I’d been sleepwalking through things. Playing the part. Handing out worksheets, ticking off boxes, giving homework and smiling and nodding and punishing like a teacher. I wasn’t real. From those days on, I began to awake as a teacher, to keep slapping myself and keeping things real in my classes. I started to have a compass within myself that told me when I was just playing a part and that I needed to “walk out of the dream and into reality”.

Thank you Purple Rose of Cairo and Woody Allen. One of those footprints that I walked in and which pointed me to where I am.

Stories from the trenches 4

This story comes from my time teaching at Bloor and Bay, 5th floor, N.E tower – Language Connections International. I was teaching new immigrants to Canada part of the day, foreign students the other half. Small classrooms with one wall all windows facing busy Bloor street, downtown Toronto.

I was teaching a usual class, reviewing how to open a bank account and role playing this. All of a sudden there was incredible screaming and shreeking, squealing. I turned around and saw two of my students jumping up and down and pounding on the windows. The noise was deafening, the teacher in the next classroom came busting into ours. All the other students were looking at these two women, two classmates, jumping up and down and screaming.

What was it? They had seen small, tiny, tiny flakes of snow coming down. They were Brazilian and this was the first time they’d ever seen snow!


Suffice to say, the rest of the lesson was a bust. We brainstormed words about snow and talked about the first time we did “X”. A great teachable moment and I just went with it for the next 40 minutes.

But this experience really stayed with me. I’m sure there are a lot of take aways for a teacher but for me what hit home was that each student was so unique, bringing so much of their own lives and experiences to the classroom. It is incumbent and even mandatory for teachers to harness this and even more, try to be sensitive and aware of this as part of the language teaching dynamic. There are no “students” only this student, that student, this student, that student ……. Even in a class where all the students are from the same culture, we still have individuality and students who will bring their differences into the classroom …..

Standardized Learning

One conclusion I’ve come to after years teaching – testing and assessment are poorly used as a way for students to learn.

This is curious and unfortunate because students for the most part DO get motivated and energized through tests and quizzes. The pickle is, the way they are designed doesn’t make the test a learning experience and rather is meant to trick students.  I’m calling for all teachers to review the way they test and I’m offering one example using the popular convention of testing – multiple choice questions.

I recently began one of my classes by writing the following on the board. A typical, 3 truths / 1 lie activity where students try to guess the lie.

This year I resolve to ….

1.  grow my hair long

2. plan my classes better

3.  travel the world and teach

4.  get a new coffee maker

It’s a great activity for teachers to share themselves and also for students to do and allow the teacher to get to know them. However, I’m teaching teachers so I took this opportunity to go beyond the activity and ask them what this multiple choice question might say about assessment and how we decide / design these questions.

What’s remarkable about this question is that you can pose it two ways.  One – which statement is the lie?   Two – which 3 statements are the truth?   Now you might think this is just semantics but I believe if we created multiple choice, standardized assessments where the students were asked to not choose just one right answer but  three right answers – they’d learn a lot more. They’d be encountering a lot of “right” knowledge and not trying to side step through a labyrinth of wrong.

Here’s another example.

A typical standardized multiple choice question for language students might be;

Beth ___________ to the store every day.

a) has   b) is    c)  went    d) liked

A multiple choice test that would actually give students more success and help them learn would be them choosing the 3 appropriate language forms.

Beth ________ to the store every day.

a)  went      b) likes    c) goes   d) has gone

It’s important that students choose 3 right answers and not be asked to choose the 1 wrong answer. This way, we can give marks for right answers. This way they feel “success”.

This is just one of many ways we could rethink assessment and make it more about “learning” and less about tricking students. Do you have any other ways?

PS.  The 3 correct resolutions for this year are 2,3,4!

Keeping going …..

Slide6Today, went out for a nice bike ride with “my old man”. He’s almost 70 and he kicked my butt! Truly. I’ll admit I’m not in great shape anymore but watching my dad, “power in” the last 20 k of our ride, me lagging behind – gave me pause. The guy just doesn’t age and “keeps going”. I hope I’ll be so lucky. But as a metaphor, it got me thinking about what it takes to stay teaching, as I huffed and puffed along (and to be honest, he had a nice $1,000+ racing bike, I had a few hundred dollar mountain bike – but still).

A while back, I wrote about “teaching endurance”, reflecting on the commitment it takes as a teacher to “keep going” and stay in the game. Today, I am due for some more directed reflection and maybe it’ll help some teachers.

Teaching isn’t easy. Here in Canada between 35 to 45% of new teachers leave the profession permanently by their fifth year. It is higher in the States. I think IMMENSELY higher in EFL, given  the very transient teacher and “tourist” teacher body that fills our ranks.

There are many outside factors that lead to teachers “giving up” despite liking the job (and I’ll admit, some give up after discovering they aren’t cut out for the job which probably is good, all things considered). Outside factors include; poor salaries, poor benefits, poor schools and quality of schools, low professional status, little professional development or teacher training / support, government policies and supply and demand side factors. These factors, the teachers themselves have little control over. Think of them as the “fixed costs” of teaching. But what about those things a teacher can control? What can they do to better their chances of not being a teacher turnover statistic?

Here are a few of my suggestions based on my own years teaching and I like to think, “longevity” and passion. Also see this nice write up: How To Keep Teaching When You Feel Like Crying

1. Find the school that suits you.

Yes, money counts but it isn’t everything. When looking for a job,  find a school that supports “how” you teach, your own teaching style. Most teachers are unhappy because they end up teaching in a way that doesn’t suit their beliefs about teaching or learning. Go for the money at your own peril!

2. Switch it up, now and then.

Might be contradictory but every few years, a teacher needs a change. Throw yourself into a new teaching environment, change it up. It takes courage but if you want to stay in the game, you almost have to. Teaching kindie? Why not take a few years teaching adults and regain that old energy?

3. Make friends on staff.

This is crucial. If you don’t like the people you spend hours upon hours around, you won’t survive. You’ll burn out quicker than a faulty lightbulb. You need people on staff that you gel with, that you respect and return the respect. Do you have that?

4. Set Goals.

I’m avoiding the cliched, “professional development” because that is a real broad term. If you set goals for your own teacher development, you’ll benefit and it might include traditional forms of PD like conferences, online PLNs (personal learning networks), peer workshops, courses etc… However, the goals might just be something personal like, “using more games in class” or “relating to students on a more personal level”. Each year, I set a new goal for myself. This year, my goal is to “walk the talk”, meaning actually teach students online. I’d always been telling teachers about this but now I want to do it, experience it and test those waters. And it is working out. Not easy but it keeps me invigorated.

5. Use your downtime well.

You have to “have a life” as we say in the staffroom. And I don’t mean just your family/kids. I mean, a teacher to survive needs a place for themselves, for their own “recharging”. Teaching is very, very, very people intensive. It is heavy on one’s psyche. So teachers need to find their own outlet, for their own sake. It will keep all things running smoothly. For me, it is my bike these days.

There you go – a few remarks about things that might help you, the teacher, stay in the game and survive.  What can you add?

Interested in what other teachers say? This Education Week article has some great comments!

A Hierarchy of Classroom Needs

A Classroom’s Hierarchy Of Needs

I just got home after a morning of observing two classrooms. One was wonderful, a place that all students would long to be in. One was dreadful, a place that students would only just barely tolerate and where one student actually said, when asked to make a metaphor using the word school, “School is jail”.

What made them different? On the face of it they were both nice looking places. The teachers both looked “teacherly”. Everything seemed to transpire as teaching should. Objectives were noted, tasks were given, worksheets completed, reviewing done. Still, I was left with this stark difference. From where did the light shine on the one and the darkness overcome the other?

So I got to thinking about Maslow for some reason. Good old Maslow. Boldly stating the obvious, he clarified a lot for us. Like a true genius he made us see what is always there. That life does have a purpose and it is to become “self-actualized”, a being that participates in their own creation and growth.

I got to thinking that we could well apply his findings not only to students but even more succinctly to “classrooms”. What are the “needs” of a classroom? What makes them different and helps them achieve the ends and their purpose? Here below is a summary of my afternoon’s ruminations.

1. A Classroom’s Physiological Needs

Every classroom needs the basics. Adequate lighting. A cool and controlled temperature in which to “think”. Resources for which learning may be enabled. These might be chalk and a board or a Macbook. These might be paper, scissors. This might be evidence of learning on the walls and around the classroom. There should be in the classroom, a look of a place that respects knowledge. This is a classroom’s most basic “need”. Design it so that this is apparent. It could be just a few books in a treasured spot but make sure your classroom has an appearance of a place that worships “thought”.

2. Safety Needs

Of course classrooms should be places that are physically safe. No sharp edges, fire extinguishers checked and ready, windows secure. However there is a bigger “safety” concern – that of its soul. Is the classroom a place where the child trusts the teacher and feels warmth and security? Is the classroom a place where a child would come to, to feel safe and “at home”? Is the class bright and warm – not just in look but in spirit? Make your classroom into a place where student’s feel “safe”, every student.

Nicolas Hobbs in his “Re-education Process” outlines how vital trust and security are in education.

“Trust is the glue that holds teaching and learning together …. The first step in the reeducation process is to help the young person make a new and very important distinction that adults can be counted on as predictable sources of support, understanding and affection.

3. Belonging and Love Needs

A classroom is a place where human beings gather. As such, it needs to be a place where every member feels at home and “belongs”. Each student needs to feel ownership of the classroom – that it is his/her classroom and not just a place they have to pass so many hours or a place to drop their backpack.

We should ask, “Do the members of the classroom care about each other, really care?” Do they have each others back? Is the “power” of the classroom leveled, so that caring might occur. Nel Noddings, who has written so eloquently about this issue states,

The caring teacher strives first to establish and maintain caring relations, and these relations exhibit an integrity that provides a foundation for everything teacher and student do together.

Meaning, that if there is to be a caring classroom, teachers must first commit to this as a priority and investigate why it isn’t occurring. A teacher must forge a “relational” view of learning by getting all students to participate and also by lowering the “power threshold” and making the classroom a community not a kennel.

Activities where students cooperate and get to know each other are vital to this. Without them – a classroom is a vessel full of tedium, weighed down, it goes nowhere.
4. Esteem Needs

I have arrived at the conclusion too many classrooms do not offer students real “success”. Our classroom’s are about competition and “a winner”. They are about comparing and ranking and assessing each to each. How in god’s name can we ever create self-esteem when there is only one king or queen and so many lowly failures?

“If you want to live a happy life, tie it to a goal, not to people or things.”
Albert Einstein

Classroom’s have to be places built upon the fundamental tenet that each student will experience success. Teacher’s must create classrooms where success is contagious and an ongoing event. I’m convinced, through thousands of hours of observing classrooms – I’m absolutely convinced we’d have a lot more “successful” people in society, if only teachers simplified everything. We teach to the top and try to pull everyone up. We shouldn’t. We should join the principles of special educators and teach to the bottom, letting everyone ride that wave as they wish.

There isn’t enough success in our classrooms. Thus, there isn’t enough self-esteem. Too often, classrooms are rooms where people are sorted. This one left, this one right. The teacher is the SS guard and students can hear the german shepherds nipping at their heels. Classrooms should not be “concentration” camps – they should be places where children feel and experience the elation of achieving something and tasting their potential. They find this on the sports fields and in gyms and music rooms – ask yourself why they don’t find it in the regular classroom?

If a child leaves your classroom without tasting the delicious food of success. If you haven’t reminded the students of what they’ve accomplished and achieved — your classroom has a dark cloud hanging over it.

“Men were born to succeed, not to fail.”
Henry David Thoreau

5. Self – Actualization

This is what it is all about. Every classroom should be a place where students can realize their full potential and participate in their own development and creation.

The only way this can occur is if the prior conditions have been met. Further, there needs to be a freedom for the student to choose for themselves, what they want to do and what they want to be. Teachers need to control less and put the onus on students to find their own path towards the goals of the classroom.

If Johnny wants to learn about tigers – let him! If Janet wants to describe osmosis through a dance – let her! Teachers need to give students more opportunity to express the curriculum in their own manner and style. If this happens as it should (and I’d even go further – schools also have to give students more opportunity to control when and if they go /come to school), if this happens, true happiness is the result.

I remember, a tiny, skin and bones, 99 lb grade 8 boy. I wanted to do my end of term class speech (to which winners would “advance”), on guerrilla warfare. My teacher dissuaded me, as only a teacher knows how – I had to talk about volcanoes. The day of the speeches, I went up there and at the last moment, changed my mind. I spoke about guerrilla warfare. Sure, nobody knew who Ho Chi Min was, sure, all students thought I was speaking about “gorilla” war, sure my teacher was aghast — but I was never happier. And never happier to leave behind that classroom. And that is what self-actualizing is about – happiness. The end goal of all our classrooms and teaching.

If you help create one happy individual through their participation in your classroom – you are making a difference. I know Maslow would agree.

PS. If you read this far – you might be interested in A.S.Neill’s tenets of education, as elaborated by Eric Fromm. Absolutely bang on and will never be out of date. Also, my own resources and lecture on Happiness in the Classroom.

Sharing Yourself (Online)

profileAs a teacher trainer, one of the things I have trainees do many times, is to reflect on themselves, their personal qualities and their accomplishments. Just this little bit of reflection sets a teacher on more solid ground from which to progress.

You can do this many ways. Many times, I get teachers to write out a mini educational philosophy (see mine in this post). It could be a series of reflections like my Zen and the Act of Teaching.  However, I also think it good if teachers have the opportunity to share with others, “who they are” and online tools offer some great ways.

First, one caveat. Facebook is something I don’t recommend teacher’s using to share their online self. For many reasons but mostly for how complicated it is to control the flow of information on the site.  I know others might have a different opinion but that’s my feeling after using it extensively. Also, cluttered and “too active” for this sort of thing.

One basic way to share oneself online is for teachers to fill out a profile online. This could be something extensive by way of making a website (try weebly for this!). Here’s my own profile website. However, you can also do something quicker by filling out an online profile. Here are some options for this, with my own examples.

1. Google Profiles:  Probably the easiest and clearest. What doesn’t google do good?  Here’s mine , the process is easy. You just need a gmail/google account.

2. FlavorsMe: You get a full page to personalize and share your online self. My example.

3.  DooID:  Probably for those with a more serious online presence. Nice, well designed “badge” with contact details. Also, a nice password can be given to selected information so not everyone can see it. My example. Very similar to About.mehere’s my example page using it.

4. LinkedIn: This is an absolute must for anyone making ELT a career. Post your resume and connect with likeminded professionals. My example and also, join our ELT Professionals around the World group!

5. Who Hub – interesting variation and interview yourself by choosing the questions and answers. Here’s my in depth interview with myself!

6.  Other options: These offer a lot of different approaches to sharing yourself online.  Retagr / Card.ly / Gravatar / DandyID

Educational Absolutism

BALANCE-SCALE-3One thing that has slowly happened to me in my own development as a teacher – I’m now less absolute and sure of myself. Now, that may seem a contradiction and that after 25 years meandering through the fields and mountains of schools, classes, education, I’d have some solid land to sit upon. But I don’t think it a contradiction – let me explain.

When I was a younger teacher, I clung hard to ideas/beliefs/practices that I felt were researched, valid and worked. I’d cry out into what I believed to be the dark wilds of teaching and education like a prophet of yore, bright eyed, loud and a beard of locusts and honey. I’d come down from the mountain and I’d seen the light. In fact, I had seen nothing except what worked for me and a faint shadow of what the future could look like. Nothing more. Yet, I shook my fist and forsook so many who took a different path and climbed a different mountain.

Through time and through observing many other classrooms. Through discussions with many teachers and reading about the experiences of many others by way of connective technologies and social media – I have come to believe that in education, there are many ways to arrive at the holy land, the objective of an informed, critical thinking, curious, happy citizen of the world. There is no set “one way” and despite how many cling to their absolutism, I reject that kind of thinking. We too often mistake “my way” with “the way” – as would children.

Let me just give two brief examples (but I could share many).

I used to think using the L1 in class and translation was an evil beyond all else. I’ve come to see this isn’t so. I’ve met many successful teachers using the L1 effectively in class, to help and support student learning.

I once thought that new technology had to be used by each and every teacher. If not, they were a discredit to the teaching profession. Dinosaurs with dictophones would not do. I now know that technology can be such a blessing but there are other ways to get to the same destination and reach the same objectives.

The past few weeks, a number of the people I think of as my mentors showed me signs of absolutism that despite their great minds and wonderful deeds, I have to reject. It is a warning to us all – there isn’t room for moral or empirical absolutism when it comes to education and even more so the truth. It is a dark road this way and we should reject it. Here are these examples.

1. Diane Ravitch tells us what a “real educator” sounds like. I reject this kind of holier than thou cry, however well intended. Teachers can sound in many ways, come in many forms. To paraphrase the Buddha, “he who knows what a teacher is, does not know what a teacher is.” Besides, I also find the notion that there is a line between good / bad educators very revolting and patronizing / divisive. Exactly at which point does one start to become a “real” educator?

2. Ira Socol tweeted the following.

iraI had to protest, this is too absolute.  Great when discussing knowledge/thinking but education is not just the neck up. With skills like language, sports, music – repetition is necessary and also part of learning.  The body does think …..

3.  Sugata Mitra posted on FB that we should ignore all blog posts, Facebook comments, websites – they only sell opinion and the only truths to be had, can only come through peer reviewed research.     Sorry but this too is terribly absolutist and it was disappointing coming from someone who I feel is pushing against the gatekeepers of knowledge and for allowing students to discover truth on their own.  As an academic, I know well so many of us are full of shit. Even the peer reviewed stuff and nobody has a monopoly on the truth – it is a construct and we do well to listen to our peers, converse and come to our own conclusions. Especially in the human, so human science of teaching / education / learning. I think back at how only a few scant decades ago eugenics was peer reviewed and accepted, so too behaviorism.

So there you have it – my own call  for us to be less cocky and sure. To discuss and allow that others might come to the same conclusions through different practices, approaches, methods, means …….   This message is especially to our administrators and governments who so quickly launch programs, edicts and musts and have tos …… This is mere cosmetic posturing – the real work is on the ground with those walking along their own path. Come walk with us!


Back To School: The art of possibility

glasshalffullA story.

Two teachers visit the principal’s office to get their new class assignment for the school year. The principal assigns them each to a class of new students. Both teachers don’t speak a word of the student’s mother tongue. The students don’t speak even one word of English.

The principal explains to the first teacher, “This class of students is full of students who aren’t the brightest lightbulbs in the bunch. They are dull, slow, lazy. Go do your best and I want them speaking some English after a few months.” The teacher heads off down the hall to the new class.

The principal explains to the second teacher, “This class of students is bright, each one a genius. They are energetic, eager, hard working. Go do your best and I want them speaking some English after a few months.”

genius2A few months later the principal visits both classes. He enters the first class and starts a conversation in English. The students look at him as if he were from Mars. Nobody understands a thing, not a student responds. They cry out in their own language how difficult English is, how discouraged they are, how they don’t want to take English anymore.

The principal enters the second class. He is greeted with “How are you?” and “What’s up?”. He has an engaging conversation in English with the class and they explain how excited they are about making new English friends and reading stories in English.

Facts of the story: Both classes had equally capable, intelligent students. The principal had lied.

The moral of the story? Your expectations of who your students are – what they can do – is EVERYTHING. See the research about expectancy results.

We can also view this another way, like Benjamin Zander’s description of the Art of Possibility in the video below. A teacher on the first day can run back to the principal’s office and scream, “How can I ever teach these students! They don’t know a word of English, I don’t know a word of their language! Ah!!!!” Or the teacher can skip back to the principal’s office and inspired, say, “Wow! What a great challenge. They don’t know a word of English – think of how much I’ll be able to teach them!”.

Let’s all begin the school year with our cups half full!

Might be of interest. Carla Arena has written a nice description of Carol Dweck’s work concerning the fixed vs the growth mindset. In part what I’ve described here. My own growth in this area has been very much influenced by Carl Rogers and especially his: On Becoming A Person.

Find more videos like this on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0

Stories From The Trenches 3

In the mid to late 90′s I was teaching new immigrants to Canada, downtown Toronto. It was a government program and all new immigrants with lower level language fluency would get paid for up to a year, if they regularly attended language lessons. I’ve written previously about this, here.

It was a great time. Friday potluck dinners with dishes from every corner of the globe (I mention this first, since I’m such a gourmande). Bright-eyed, enthusiastic adult students that were like little lost puppies and us teachers, their new Canadian step mother or father. Often, us teachers were their first friend, the first Canadian they got to know well.

One day, I was teaching a standard lesson using a required video from immigration Canada. I hadn’t watched the whole video prior, just parts. But it seemed safe enough – it showed new immigrants being interviewed at the airport by government officials and then other interviews after arriving.

During the video, one of the students, a quiet Vietnamese man left the room quickly. I was wondering what was wrong, it wasn’t what he’d ever do. He was a dedicated student, to the nth degree. His sister quickly followed behind him, rushing after him. I didn’t understand what was happening but followed them out of the class.

In the hall, I found him crying and his sister holding him. He was visibly upset and shaking. I caught the eye of his older sister and then left them alone, in this private moment.

Later, I found out the problem. They both (and I apologize, I can’t remember their names) were refugees who had spent over 7 years in a crowded camp in Hong Kong before coming to Canada. During that time they both had worked very hard to study and get an interview to enter a Western country. Finally they got an interview with Canadian officials. However, during the interview, the brother was so nervous he couldn’t speak very well, he stuttered and had a terrible difficulty communicating. The officials were also not too kind. He left the interview quite scarred and thinking he’d blown their chances. Luckily, they were accepted as refugees.

After this, I was always very much more on the ball about trying to find out more about my students. I know you can’t know everything but you should try – we teach students, not subjects or topics. Further, and I always stress this when I do workshops about using video, always watch all the video before showing in class. Watch it with a thought towards your students and how they’d view the video. Lastly and most importantly, it made me see how powerful a thing language is, even a second language. Our identity is so wrapped up in it, it is a conduit for power and expression. There are some languages, like Vietnamese, like Japanese, where it is so very difficult to form the sounds of English. So very difficult to speak so you’ll be understood. This can be very discouraging and even traumatic to students who despite their hours and hours of practice, can’t make any ground and be understood better.

I often wonder how they are doing – this brother and sister that overcame so much and worked so hard in my classes. Worked so hard and taught me so much.

Stories From The Trenches 2

jana palachaI had the luck to start teaching English at a school where I basically had free reign to teach as I saw fit.  It was just after the fall of communism in the Czech Republic (then still Czechoslovakia), a beautiful spa city, Karlovy Vary.

I taught mornings at Zkladni Skola Jana Palocha and then in the evenings at The English Center – in a class, in the same big, brick school (our class windows in the top floor of the photo).   I touched upon this time briefly in this post – Then and Now.

It was a challenge just being tossed into a classroom without much support of any kind. Fresh out of  teachers’ college, idealistic and energetic, I hit my stride given the opportunity to be in front of eager, intelligent students and the freedom to teach.

One class was a real challenge.  They were a group of 13-14 year olds who spent most of class giggling and playing jokes on each other.  I had to make a pact with them – if they buckled down and got their work done and our agenda completed – they could play games for the time remaining.  A typical teacher tactic!

One day, the boys had plenty of time to play games. All of the boys were eagerly playing a discussion board game – eager to test each other and get their competitive juices flowing.  I was glad that I could have some highly cherished “down time”.

However, one young boy who was also the quietest, the not so bright one and biggest troublemaker wasn’t joining in. He just sat there slumped over his desk, head down.  I went over to him to find out why he wasn’t playing and ask what was up.

When I asked, he just looked up at me, rolled his eyes and said – “Teacher. This is bored game.”   And I looked deep into his eyes and I knew  that he knew that I knew, what he meant.  He was making a pun, using language in the highest order. Wow!  It wasn’t a mistake but pure second language gold and poetry.

I didn’t challenge him further and was smiling for the rest of the class as he remained slumped at his desk.

This taught me something profound early on in my teaching career – that

1.  Don’t assume student fluency is low just because they aren’t speaking a lot.  There is a lot they are learning, a lot ticking on inside their brains even though we teachers might assume they’ve shut off.

2. Language ability  is not directly linked to intelligence. In fact, intelligence and being a star student might be detrimental to ones success as a language learner. (think of how so many Harvard students fail their language requirement – more about this here. ).  Just because one is intelligent and does well in school, does not automatically mean that this student will be a great language learner. Language is not just about the brain’s processing power (intelligence in its gross form) but also about so many other things.

I remember fondly the years I spent in the then, dirty, coal dusted, Cinderella in waiting town of Karlovy Vary. I fondly remember this one boy who in one little statement helped me learn so much.

Stories from the Trenches

musadaqIf you’ve been to any of my training sessions, workshops, presentations – you’ll know I often start with a story  They are a perfect way to frame conversation and get us thinking about our teaching.  We are hard wired for narrative and I think for both language teaching and teacher professional development, we should be using many stories!

So over the next few months this summer, I’d like to share some of my own stories from my decades in the English language classroom.  I’ll be asking readers to reflect on the story and also saying what it means to me. Could mean something completely different to you and that’s the beauty of stories.

Today’s story is from my days as a grade 4 teacher at Rose Avenue P.S.  downtown Toronto.   I was teaching a class of lovely students, a patchwork of eager kids from all over the world. In my one class I had students from  Sri Lanka, Korea, Iran, Somalia, Egypt, Phillipines, Ethiopia, Jamaica, Japan, India and probably more that I’m forgetting ….   It wasn’t easy, bringing all these kids together and creating a classroom community.

We “lived” in a windowless portable set off from the main school. We called it “the ghetto”.  It was a horrible place to teach. Every step students took, the building creaked. It was freezing in winter and sweltering in summer.  At times it seemed worse than jail.  Students would just blow up, anger would build.  I had to do something.

So I decided every time I felt students getting tense, felt the energy waining, we’d just throw on our coats and head out for a run. Yes, a run. I was a runner and this inspired the kids.  So on my whistle (yes, used to wear a whistle around my neck for class control!) we’d all just run outside and students would do laps around our small, barren playground. They’d try to do the most laps and then record them on a large chart I’d made.

This worked great.  Student energy and happiness increased. They loved seeing their lap count grow.  I had troubles with other teachers reporting me to the principal but I argued with him about what I was doing and he eventually agreed or didn’t fight with me on this issue.  We even got a TV program filming us and some press (read about it  here - Treadmill champ inspires kids to be fit).

But I had one student Musadaq, a tall, skinny, skinny, always quiet, reserved Somalian not involved at all. (see him in the photo, right side of a Canadian Olympian I invited to speak to the class). He’d just walk or slowly jog. He never tried to compete with all the other boys always racing up front and then tiring but courageously continuing. No, he’d just saunter along at the back of the pack.

One day I kept him behind and berated him about how few laps he had done. I was terribly hard on him, telling him he was a failure and I was terribly disappointed.  Immediately, looking into his eyes, I regretted my words. But words are permanent, you can’t take them back.  I was disgusted with myself.

Musadaq put on his coat and went out of the class. I walked behind him as he slowly started to jog.  Then something amazing happened – he just took off like a cheetah. I had never seen him move so fast nor thought he could.  It was startling.  I expected him to slow down but no, he just kept going faster and faster. He passed all the lead boys and they took off after him. But they couldn’t touch him.  He just kept going and going, lapping everyone several times.  I let the session go on longer than usual to just test Musadaq but he never stopped, never slowed.

Back in the class, everyone looked at Musadaq differently. And he also in the days that followed was a different kid. He walked tall and glowed. During our running sessions, he’d take the lead and just run free, his lap count becoming astronomical.

I don’t know what Musadaq is doing today. He’d be finishing high school or entering university. I hope he is running but if he isn’t, I still think he feeds on the self confidence that he got that day.  For me as a teacher, it taught me that sometimes saying the wrong thing is saying the right thing. That being wrong is sometimes right. Teaching isn’t paint by numbers. It happens moment by moment and is an all too human endeavor. There is no guru, no code, no system – only that we face each day.

Long may you run Musadaq!


I’ve previously shared a number of stories from my own teaching – here are just a few, if interested:

Saying Hello In Many Languages

Manufactured Teachable Moments

Letters of Reference from Parents

What Teaching Gives Me

Also see my post about Stories and teaching – Stories to Inspire and Teach


Doing What Works For You

teachingThroughout my teaching career, I’ve often found myself  in what I term, “the rut”.  Not bored of teaching nor unexcited but rather teaching without any “spice” and just going through the motions.  Settled is what I call it.  Finding myself feeling like I’ve figured it out and knowing exactly what I’m doing and how to do it. Finding myself in a house with a solid frame and foundation – even inviting in others and showing how I’ve made such a great home.

So you are probably asking, “what’s so wrong with that?”  My answer, “everything and nothing.”

Teaching is what can be termed, “transactional”.  There is no daily recipe or any day the same. It consists of hundreds of hourly human, so human encounters and decisions. Teachers need a strong belief system that can underpin and guide their activity which appears so chaotic and otherwise would be so chaotic. But there is a danger, a danger that we just “stop believing”, that we teachers feel like we know our beliefs, this is how it works and should be and that’s it … pass the mustard please, next customer.  I don’t think this should be the case, we need to continually refine our teaching belief system, continually be creating our own system.

Thoreau said we must all follow the beat of our own drummer. Exactly. And we do so by continually listening to the beat of that drummer, our drummer,  day in and day out. Not that of anyone else.   We have so many “this is the way to teach” methods, so many principles and precepts, so many that want black and white answers for what they do as teachers day in and day out. As a teacher trainer, I’ve gone from telling to just showing what works for me and insisting that teachers figure things out for themselves, on the ground and in their classrooms. The worst thing we can do as a teacher is to swallow whole hog the newest trend, the latest PD topic, the philosophy and advice of our latest certificate, course, trainer or professor.  Do what works, test and try.  Continually create your own system – that’s the only way.

And I’m not advocating wrapping this up as being “post method”.  That would defeat the purpose.  The philosophy of teaching that espouses that each teacher continually develop and listen with their ear to the ground (not a head in the ground or above the clouds), this philosophy doesn’t fit in a box or come with a label. It just is a way of being and a way of teaching.

Go forth, keep doing what works, even if all the researchers and PhDs say it doesn’t work. You alone, as the classroom teacher have the authority to say what works. I’m going forth and making some changes over the summer. I’ll let you know more about them soon.  Got to deal with that rut and do what works for me.


Teacher Training

make things clear

Please see my Teacher Training page for loads of presentations I’ve created and delivered throughout my teaching career.   My new glossary is also a steadfast reference.

This list and video library of Educational Thinkers has a lot of valuable learning.

Please be sure to see the  Professional Development category on EFL Classroom 2.0.   I’d also suggest my “50 Professional Development ideas for teachers” for some inspiration.

My free Basic TEFL Certificate course is a great refresher course any teacher or program can use. 15 modules with videos and a certificate included.

Teacher training is a growing area and the more shared learning we can make possible, the easier it is on all of us!

Need a reading list for the summer? Here are my own recommendations. 

Further GO HERE for a full series of podcasts featuring all the components of Linguistics.  Or take a listen to my collected podcast library of huge proportions.

Finally, the TED HD player I created has them all – all the presentations since the dawn of TED time.

Wishing everyone a great summer/winter break and a wonderful time renewing our teaching batteries! Here’s my fav. advice about how to unwind and chill as a teacher: How To Stay In Teaching Even When You Feel Like Crying.

If Teachers Were Doctors …..

rx-symbolThe other night I watched an interesting news program profiling a doctor who writes out prescriptions for exercise to many of his patients. He writes out what they should do every day and like medicine, expects it to be done and completed just like we should take our medicine until the bottle is empty.

I thought this pretty cool and it got me thinking …. what if teachers were doctors? What would we prescribe as a natural remedy? What do our students REALLY need so that we aren’t just masking symptoms and giving false hopes to students (which we do by giving them class lessons, grammar pills, explicit error correction etc …. by playing teacher and not “healer”).

Here are a couple things I think teachers should prescribe in a perfect world, if they want their students to really get educated, learn and achieve in the classroom.

1. Money, money, more money. Yes, the number on reason so many students do poorly in school is tied to their socio-economic status. We’d do much better pursuing public and equitable education where each student has access to the things they need to succeed – be that books, technology, 3 meals a day, a family life not stressed by need …… Research shows dramatically that this is the most effective remedy for student achievement across the board – just like exercise in many cases is the most effective way to achieve health.

2. Friends. Yes, I’m serious. Connect students with friends who have the same interests and get them connecting. Education is constructed and so strongly constructed through peer relationships. In TESOL, we should not be teaching but prescribing friends from overseas so our students can use their English purposefully. Why not a project which entails connecting daily / weekly with a real buddy overseas? So easy now with skype and SN (social networking). Unless English is purposefully used, classroom study is futile and it is a waste of money on teachers, classrooms, resources. A colossal waste. I spent 13 years, 5 hours a week, being taught French in school. I always passed, did well but couldn’t even ask where the washroom was after all that “study”. Not until I lived in France did I ever begin to speak and REALLY learn French. A pox on all school systems that teach English without a connection to the real world.

What would you prescribe as a teacher-doctor? What could we prescribe to really solve the major illness of our students studying English in class for years but never learning a thing? Be honest!

The #1 Reason To Use Tech In ELT

Number One** Not your ordinary, endless list – just what’s number 1.


I have thought about this long and hard. I’m not a big proponent of using “tech for tech’s sake” or just because it is there and students like it. I sympathize with the argument that we should use technology because it is such a ubiquitous part of our life/living (or that of our student’s). However, I still think we need a reason, a rationale for its use.

In general, technology is valuable for what it does to the continuum of space and time. Technology allows us to access knowledge like never before – the library doors are wide open and so many can enter. There is no bottleneck and no 9 to 5 access. So I did consider the #1 reason to use tech as being “time on task” or “connectivity”. Students have more access to language, the distinctions between ESL and EFL are blurring, they can have more contact with language through online immersive experiences and contacts. Still, I’m voting for differentiation when it comes to “teaching”, when it comes to the typical language classroom.

Technology allows students to encounter language in control. It provides levels and support so the language learner won’t be bewildered and overwhelmed. Think of our typical language classrooms and be honest – 70 – 80% of students are usually tuning out after the first 5 minutes because there second language brain just gets too hot and they can’t cope. Technology makes the chaos of authentic language manageable and can provide students with material at their own level and pace. This is, if it is used correctly and in a self directed fashion not just as a one size fits all thing on a screen. Here’s a wonderful example of a school in South Carolina.

No matter how good your placement test, you are going to have so many students with such different levels and knowledge in your language classroom. It is impossible to cope, to find a common space. Technology solves this problem and gives learners the tools to learn what they want, at the right time and moment. This is why I’m working hard and so excited about the video corpus and suite of tech tools for language learning we are creating on EnglishCentral. Learners can acquire language in a safe, controlled environment. They can practice and repeat, review, rewind, rerecord, redo, respeak until they feel ready to speak and test themselves in the town square that is life.

Differentiation – so important in language learning for language is a type of knowledge that is so personal and so close to us.

It’s About Relationships

There is one thing that too often gets left behind in all the post it notes stuck on the door of educational reform: Teacher – student relationships.    Not enough do we hear the message that what education really is about is what invisibly transpires miraculously when a teacher and student connect, really connect.

All of us have had a teacher who really made a difference with us.  Rita Pierson in this piercing (pun intended) talk really explains this well. Her talk is sterling, a must watch. I’m glad someone else is pounding the pulpit on this important facet/core of teaching – here’s what I’ve written previously. Teaching is an art, the art of relationships. (this article so finely describes this)

I took away a few more messages from her talk beyond that of relationships.

1.  The most important factor affecting student achievement is what a teacher deeply, truly believes a student is capable of.  Here’s the research about this. 

2.  The relationship a teacher has with students is about trust. And trust takes time. Too often it never happens because teachers are pushed to wade through knowledge without regard to it ever really being learned, understood, synthesized, digested by the students. Here’s my view on this. 

3. Lastly, the thought that maybe technology will free up teachers from being disciplinarians and will allow them time to truly become conductors of the human spirit. With technology driving self directed student learning, teachers will have time to think of how to connect with students and form the important relationships with students, the relationships and mentoring that is truly needed.  Technology won’t take over a teachers job, it will allow teachers to do more of the job they were born to do. 

Here’s Rita’s amazing talk. Sit back and enjoy! Hat tip to Larry Ferlazzo for putting me onto this great talk!


Find more videos like this on EFL CLASSROOM 2.0