Six talks worth watching

Professional development is often associated with attending conferences. In my experience, you can usually tell within the first five minutes if the talk or workshop is going to be any good. The positive effect of moving such events online is that you don’t need to worry about being spotted while trying to sneak away from a lecture that you find excruciatingly boring. To be fair to the speakers, it’s impossible to please everyone when you are talking to a group of teachers with varied experience, qualifications, interests, etc.

Fortunately, there are recordings of some useful education-related talks available on YouTube. I have already mentioned a couple of them on this blog, so I thought it would be a good idea to select a few more videos, write a short summary of each of them, and point out some moments I found humorous. If you’d like to recommend any other talks, let me know in the comments section.

Scott Thornbury: What’s the latest method?
You know that you can always rely on Scott Thornbury to deliver an engaging talk because he is an experienced presenter and skilled public speaker. This talk is an entertaining overview of teaching methods used throughout the years. There are plenty of references to literature and hilarious examples from obscure books for students. I think this talk serves as a pretty good argument against strictly adhering to a magic method that promises amazing results. The talk ends when some guy tentatively walks onto the stage to tell Thornbury that he has run out of time, which shows that issues with timing don’t affect only Delta Module Two candidates.

Stephen Krashen: The power of reading
Everyone remembers Stephen Krashen for his hypotheses related to second language acquisition. He later became involved in educational policy activism, and one of his priorities is improving access to books. In this talk that focuses on the benefits of reading, Krashen refers to relevant research and provides pretty convincing arguments for free voluntary reading. He states that reading influences more aspects of life than just academic results. The talk also includes a Bill Cosby reference, which is something that most likely wouldn’t happen these days.

Russ Mayne: A guide to pseudoscience in ELT
I wonder what strange contraption was used to record this talk because the video definitely doesn’t look like something made in 2014. Anyway, I highly recommend that you ignore the poor audio and image quality and watch this gem of a talk. It has everything you’d want from a guide on myths on ELT. Russ Mayne mentions horoscopes, refers to Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit, and provides a helpful slide with names of major organisations and authors who are complicit in spreading nonsense. Brilliant stuff!

If Karl Pilkington’s superhero idea ever gets made into a movie, I will personally contact film studios with a pitch for a spin-off. Imagine that: He’s just a normal guy who doesn’t need a special costume. When he hears someone somewhere in the world promoting the use of learning styles and multiple intelligences in the classroom, he flies in and…

Philip Kerr: The return of translation
This is a very useful webinar for teachers who work in places that ban using L1 in the classroom. Philip Kerr makes it clear that we should be more open-minded when it comes to using translation because our students can actually benefit from it. I like the fact that he shows practical examples of translation activities that you can use in your teaching practice. If you watch the whole video, you will be rewarded with a funny swear word and the speaker’s heartfelt Christmas wishes. Nice one!

Rod Ellis: Using tasks in language teaching
This webinar will provide you with basic tenets related to using tasks in the classroom, including focus on form. It was nice to see Rod Ellis confirm that TBLT can be used in the online environment because the theory of language learning isn’t affected by the fact that you’re talking to your students through Zoom. There is nothing revolutionary in the webinar, but it’s good to hear everything straight from Rod Ellis’ mouth. By the way, that body part features quite prominently in the top right corner of the video because Cambridge University Press forgot to include the upper half of the speaker’s face in the recording.

Luke Meddings: 3-2-1: A classroom for everyone
One of the main proponents of Dogme gave this thought-provoking talk on the approach twelve years after its creation. Luke Meddings makes some interesting comments about this alternative to coursebook-driven teaching. He briefly mentions learning styles and multiple intelligences. I guess Russ Mayne wasn’t in the audience that day because I didn’t hear any audible groans in the recording. To his credit, Meddings says that we should try to build a community and include a variety of task types rather than pay attention to those theories.

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?