379 days and counting

It has been a long time since I last taught in a physical classroom. I remember the lesson very well because I had just started working with a new group of students. The news coming from Europe wasn’t good and I knew that Colombia would inevitably get affected by the pandemic as well, so I prepared my students for the eventuality that the following week’s lesson might be postponed. Schools in Colombia were closed the next day and I haven’t been back to the classroom since then, which is something I certainly didn’t expect at the time. This post is my reflection on a year of teaching online.

379 days and counting: teaching online

The first weeks of teaching through Zoom were pretty exciting because it gave me and the students an opportunity to try out new things. Like many others, I just flipped my lessons to the online environment, which was quite easy thanks to using breakout rooms. We were all happy to see each other through the screen and it all felt like a cool adventure.

However, the novelty wore off after a few weeks. I believe that most students thought the suspension of in-class courses was just a temporary measure. People started getting frustrated with the fact that they couldn’t meet their classmates face-to-face, and their energy levels dropped a little. We were originally supposed to return back to our classrooms in August, but that obviously didn’t happen and we had to endure a very long quarantine.

When it dawned on me that this would be a long-term issue, I decided to change my approach to lesson planning. I knew that I had to make more effort to adapt to the new reality, and that teaching from my living room was going to be part and parcel of my professional life for more time. These days I feel much more confident about being able to deliver good lessons online, and it’s great to work with students who are now used to learning in this environment.

A lot has been written about teaching online and there are numerous courses, lesson plans and tutorials for teachers that can help you with that. I think it’s important to choose an approach that works for your learners. For example, most of my students enjoy working on tasks that require collaboration with their peers. This may range from serious topics like job interviews to creating hilarious infomercials about useless products, and I love it when my students get involved in such activities. Of course, it’s necessary to take your teaching context into account.

I know that some teachers don’t find it easy to work with technology in their classes. Everyone seems to be using Jamboard, Padlet and other tools, and you may feel that it‘s something necessary for a good online lesson. I understand that you can do some pretty cool stuff with those tools and I do use them from time to time, but I think we shouldn’t lose track of what’s important. Being able to build rapport with students is more useful than the ability to use the latest technology. I enjoy including a few Dogme moments in my lesson and just letting the lesson flow in a direction decided by the learners. I always look forward to unexpected deviations from the plan when someone shows us something interesting on their screen or when we have a conversation about a topic relevant to the students‘ lives.

There are differing opinions on the use of cameras in online classrooms. Since I usually teach small groups, I encourage my students to have their camera on. I think everyone feels more comfortable when they have visual contact with all the participants in the group. ‘My camera doesn’t work’ is one of the most common sentences I have heard in the past year, but in reality very few students are truly unable to use it, and the ‘broken camera’ usually gets fixed during the course of the first lesson. I understand that not everyone wants us to see their apartment. Fortunately, it’s easy to use a virtual background to resolve that. If someone doesn’t want to show their face for some reason, I just ask them to use a filter because I’d much rather talk to a banana floating a space than try to communicate with a black square.

Inevitably, teaching online hasn’t been all fun and games. The internet sometimes brings out the worst out of some people and there have been a couple of students whose behaviour made them really difficult to work with. My priority in such cases is to make sure that it doesn’t affect the rest of the group. Fortunately, most of the students have been amazing. When you work with people interested in learning, it’s very easy to enjoy the lessons and forget that you aren’t sitting in the same room.

The main issue with synchronous online learning is the fact that it isn’t accessible to everybody. Many students in Colombia can’t rely on their internet connection, so it doesn’t make sense for them to pay for online courses. Learning through a cell phone isn’t great either and it may make the learners’ experience less enjoyable. I am looking forward to returning to in-class teaching, but it’s good to know that for some students online classes provide a viable alternative when we can’t share the same physical space. Going forward, I can imagine myself working on blended courses or working with some groups exclusively online. How about you?

Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

If you are an English teacher involved in professional development, you have most likely come across Scott Thornbury’s work. I remember that when I was chatting with other teachers right after finishing my Delta Module One exam, one of them found something relevant on his phone and exclaimed, ‘Bloody Thornbury again!’ He has written so many books, articles and blog posts that when you search for ELT-related information on Google, Thornbury’s name will probably appear

What I really like about Scott Thornbury is that he isn’t afraid to challenge the status quo. His ideas inspired me to start experimenting with the Dogme approach in my classes, which seems to work surprisingly well even when teaching online. I also recommend that you read his article Window-dressing vs cross-dressing in the EFL sub-culture. It’s common to encounter texts dealing with those topics now, but Thornbury wrote it in 1999, and I think that he deserves a lot of respect for that. All in all, he comes across as a genuinely good guy. He has written plenty of good books, but if I had to choose one that I enjoyed the most, it would be Beyond the Sentence.

Scott Thornbury: Beyond the Sentence

When I was at university, I took one semester of CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis). Since I studied journalism, we focused mainly on the media and analysed how one event is reported differently depending on the newspaper’s political leaning. Even though I found it quite interesting, I still didn’t fully understand what discourse was. It started to make sense to me only after becoming an English teacher. When I decided to study for Delta Module One, I knew that it was necessary to explore the subject of discourse much more, and Beyond the Sentence was recommended to me as a must-read.

As its name implies, this book invites you to go further than individual lexical and grammatical items. We use language to achieve something, and focusing only on single sentences isn’t enough. This has clear implications for language teaching because we have to think of the context in which communication takes place. Asking students to fill out exercises full of random sentences without any connection to each other probably isn’t the most motivating way to teach English.

I think that discourse is one of those ideas that aren’t that easy to grasp because it involves so many concepts. Fortunately, Thornbury is very thorough when it comes to terminology and providing practical examples. Words like cohesion, coherence, theme and rheme don’t sound very exciting, but Beyond the Sentence makes their importance perfectly clear. I guess that all Delta candidates are familiar with the phrase ‘activating schemata’, which is something we use in our teaching practice all the time.

What I really like about this book is that there are some genuinely funny moments in it. Scott Thornbury is a frequent speaker at conferences, and as you can see in this talk about methods, he is a very witty man. He can’t resist including humorous comments in his books, and that’s always nice to see. In Beyond the Sentence, he points out how contrived and unnatural some coursebook texts are, so there is no need to take them too seriously. Even if you are expected to use a coursebook in your classes, you don’t have to use the texts exactly as they were intended. When I see a stilted dialogue in a coursebook, I sometimes ask my students to create a backstory for the characters or come up with an alternative ending, which is always good fun.

Thornbury seems to enjoy referring to news articles, particularly from tabloids, which is another way of making English learning a more interesting experience for your students. Authentic texts, if utilised correctly, can definitely serve as a helpful resource. Even when you are supposed to teach something like the passive voice, showing real-life examples of how and why it is used is better than just doing gap-fill exercises. Beyond the Sentence also deals with ideology in texts, which is another area worth exploring.

I really like the fact that the book includes useful text-adaptation strategies and other ideas that can be used in your teaching practice. Beyond the Sentence has provided me with plenty of inspiration for my own lessons, particularly when it comes to teaching writing. I was a little worried that a book about discourse might be a bit too academic for me, but Thornbury managed to write it in a way that helps you understand the subject and its practical implications. Beyond the Sentence is a great book for developing teachers and you certainly won’t regret reading it.