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Phonetizer

I have been away from this blog for a little while now while I get to grips with the additional workload of a Masters degree on top of 25 hours of teaching a week.  Still haven’t come up with a new name for the blog yet but hope that will get rolled out in the coming week as well… not that much of this is concern to any of you fine people reading this.  Just thought I’d get my ‘housekeeping’ out of the way first. 🙂

I’ll be publishing a more substantial post soon on a short exam preparation exercise but in the meantime I just wanted to draw people’s attention to this website.

Phonetizer

Quite simply this is Google Translate for phonetics.  Just type (or copy and paste) text into the left box, click transcribe at the top and the English IPA translation will appear on the right-hand side.  Without a doubt, a very useful tool!

If you are following Nik Peachey (and you really should be) then you have probably already seen this website recommended on his blog, Nik’s Quickshout.  I just thought that I would pass along the knowledge to a few more people who might not yet be following him.

P.S.  I was at the English UK conference a couple of weekends ago, in which Nik, Luke Meddings, Sam McCarter and many others were presenting.  The closing plenary was by Professor Mike McCarthy and focused on building on corpus linguistic data to help teachers and assessors understand more about what various English levels actually mean.  His talk was insightful and thought-provoking as he started to map the findings onto the CEFR.  It motivated me to write up this small question to learners on my learners’ blog, “Are you ready for intermediate level English?”  Follow the link and have a read through.  There might be a few useful questions to pose to your own students this week.

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Posted by on November 21, 2011 in Conferences, Recommendations

 

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Why I suck at storytelling… and what I need to do to fix it! (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 2)

If you clicked onto this page then you are probably interested in storytelling.  So am I.  I think stories in some form or another must represent a large majority of our day-to-day communication: what we did last night, what someone told us once, what you learned from your parents, what the boss told you to do 5 minutes ago.  Not all of these are stories of note, but they are stories nonetheless.

For this reason, I think storytelling is an incredibly important skill and one which learners are hungry to have in L2.

Unfortunately, I suck at it.  As it turns out, I simply didn’t know enough.

Pablo Ponce de Leon’s Talk at ABS

I was very grateful to Pablo Ponce de Leon for his seminar on digital storytelling at the ABS International Conference for ELT Managers and Directors of Studies last Saturday in Buenos Aires.  What I particularly loved was that he didn’t cover the hows and whys of digital storytelling (covered very competently in his handout) so much as the hows and whats of storytelling itself.

I’ve told my classes plenty of times, “Now I want you to write/make a story.”  I recently tried this creativity-heavy exercise myself and it’s really not that easy.  So this left me with a problem; I love stories and I believe they should figure prominently in a lot of our language teaching/learning but I have no confidence in myself to produce an even half-decent story.  We shouldn’t really ask of our students what we cannot do or don’t know how to do ourselves, so I was stuck – no storytelling.

Here are a few symptoms of poor storytelling abilities.  You will probably recognize these as reasons that storytelling activities sometimes fall flat in your class:

  • What should we write about, I don’t have any ideas.” (The infamous blank page!)
  • How many words should it be?” (Perhaps my favourite quote of the whole conference, paraphrased here, “Teenage students tend to see the word count like a prison sentence – counting down the words until they are finished.”)
  • I’m stuck.  I don’t know what to write next.
  • A boring and un-engaging story
  • A poorly structured story, with shifting focus and that is difficult to follow
  • A story with an abrupt, unsatisfying end
  • A story with no apparent end
  • A story with no details (something that reads like a police report)

So how do we fix this?

Like everything else new or challenging, the students need support and structure, in other words, scaffolding.  Like a new essay form, the students need to be aware of every paragraph’s structure, every sentence’s purpose.  That means we, as teachers, need to know this too.

If you pay close attention to Pablo’s case study, Toy Story, in the slides (see slides 14-16) you start to get a better idea about the structure of a modern movie plot.  The point being, and it’s a good one, that the three-act structure usually employed in a Hollywood movie is a familiar structure that is easy to relate to.  So from this we have our structure and quite honestly, I think there is a lot of mileage to be had in an English language class from just exploring, discovering, discussing and picking apart a movie’s structure.

To give you an example, I watched a few of my favourite movies (it was a tough job but someone had to do it).  I believe it is customary here to give a Spoiler Alert and say, if you haven’t seen these movies yet and don’t want to know what happens before you see them, don’t read further (or at least, don’t click for the bigger picture).

So how and where should we use this?

The recommendation for this was simple.  Digital storytelling works best as the end of something, a unit or level, as a way to give closure and to produce something creative.  What I also took from a sample video that was shown is that the grammar point doesn’t need to be complicated for digital storytelling projects to be worthwhile.  A slideshow of few pictures with some present simple narration, either text or voice, is a fantastic achievement for a low-level student (a visual family tree, for example).  We were also reminded that “the journey is as important as the destination” and that the process, of course, yields its own language learning opportunities.

A warning we were given was that student projects, if they are young learners, should not be made public, through youTube for example (of course youTube has privacy settings that still make it a viable way to share class videos).  There is a temptation to publicize the great work that our young learners do, but I couldn’t agree more with the speaker here – we have to be very careful what goes out into the public domain.

For a more creative project at higher levels, the following procedure was suggested (see slide 23): submit a story outline, go into preproduction, continue with production, finish off with post-production work and then take pride in your work during its presentation.  We were also given homework, again!  (I’ll learn from this because I haven’t been giving homework in my PD seminars.)  We were told to download Microsoft Photostory 3 and start playing around with it.  I’ve got to apologize to Pablo here and say, no, I haven’t downloaded and tried it out yet – but I’m about to move country so I’ve got a few other things on plate.  BUT, I will because apparently it is very easy to use.
Microsoft actually has a very detailed pdf, Digital Storytelling in the Classroom, that provides links to real examples of students work along with a step-by-step ‘how to’.
Pablo Ponce de Leon’s experience inside and outside of ELT, as a teacher as well as professional screenwriter/producer/director made his talk something really informative which answered a very simple yet difficult question: how to I tell a good story?  Even in Microsoft’s guide, the tendency in the activity plan is to simply say “identify the key elements, and arrange them into a beginning, a middle and an end” or “Collect/sort/decide which ideas to pursue”.  This is simply not enough scaffolding for students or their teachers, but now I will be far more confident to plan out and try not only a digital storytelling project but just a storytelling project with my students.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
You can follow Pablo on Twitter (@storybusiness), on his blog (HUX Consulting) or on his website (The Story Business).
Thanks Pablo!
 
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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Activities, Conferences, Recommendations, Review

 

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Neil McMahon’s “Professionally Developing” (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 1)

I’ve just got back from my first conference this year. Disgraceful, I know, considering it’s already August!  Actually, I’m very lucky to have made it to this one, the ABS International Conference for ELT Managers and Directors of Studies, just before I return to Britain next month, thanks to colleague Celeste Batto. And I’m very glad I did made it because it gave me the opportunity to finally meet one of my digital PLN in person.

Neil McMahon has been part of my PLN for a while now and it was great to finally meet someone who, up to now, had just been a small box on Twitter.  Neil was giving a talk on professional development which I really appreciated and I’ll tell you why: it confirmed I am on the right track more or less, it gave me more information on course options available for further development, it filled in some gaps in my knowledge and it has given me some direction and focus for my next teaching project.

Before I go into any more details I’ll come clean and say that this post, a review of the talk, is actually homework given by Neil – yes, there was homework!  Homework #3: “share the ideas in the conference with your peers”.  If I’m completely honest, Neil, I was going to write this anyway but it’s good to know I’ve got your blessing. 🙂

So a lot of avenues for professional development were covered, all of which I won’t go into here but one in particular that piqued my interest was action research.

Action Research

Time being short we had to choose from the handout what we wanted to know about in more detail (a dogme presentation of sorts?).  Along with many other attendees I raised my hand for ‘action research’, mainly because I had a vague idea about what it might be but really was just guessing.

So boiled right down, action research is a project whereby one specific ingredient in the class is added or changed to see if it has a measurable positive effect.  This one change must be based on a specific hypothesis or question with the goal of proving or disproving it after a set period of time, like a month or a semester.  Here is a silly, basic example:

“Will the giving of a cookie to everyone who arrives on time improve the timekeeping of my students?”

Ideally you would have two groups in similar need of improvement, one is asked to improve timekeeping and rewarded with cookies, the other is just asked to improve timekeeping.  This second group is the control group and at the end of the month or however long you choose, the two groups are compared to measure for change.

So why do I like this?

Students tend to have a beginning, a middle and an end; the end coming in the form of a certificate, big exam, dramatic production, etc.  However, teachers often don’t have this end.  Even a new year is often a repeat of the previous year and new students still need to prepare for the same old exams in many cases.  However, something like an action research project can provide that arc and closure to a period of teaching.  It also turns the teacher back into a far more active learner of their profession.  It provides a wonderful opportunity to inject some enjoyment and interest back into your teaching, especially if you are tiring from doing the same level/course year in, year out.  On top of all this, such a project can provide a finished product to be shared with your peers for them to read, consume, consider and benefit from.

One other excellent point raised was that such research lends itself to closer work and collaboration with colleagues as one of you might teach the control group while the other does the experimental teaching, with collaborative assessment, review and write up.  I look forward to an opportunity to implement this soon.

Twitter, Blogs and PLN

It was reassuring when Neil moved onto this topic and highly recommended it.  I’ve been convinced of the benefits and opportunities afforded us by these amazing tools, but it’s always nice to hear someone else champion the cause as well.  He mentioned the recent online debate about EFL teachers as professionals or tradesman.  I’ve got to own up and say I missed that discussion but an idea put forward in the talk was that professional development was the tool by which we as teachers continue to improve, stay fresh and keep our work interesting, both for ourselves and for our learners.  I’m not sure if this really addresses the question of professional vs tradesman as both, if they are dedicated, will continue to actively grow and hone their skills.  Another suggestion I found on Twitter from Neil was this,

twitter is the realm of the tradesman, perhaps you need to blog to let your professionalism out?

It is here where I will put forward an idea of my own, which might be a little controversial.  Twitter, blogs and a virtual PLN are professional development for people who are serious about professional development (PD), those who only do the conferences and leave it at that are falling short of how much they could be developing.  Please don’t misunderstand me here.  I like conferences.  I enjoyed this one.  I think they have an important place in PD.  However, even Neil McMahon in his talk admitted that sometimes the most rewarding parts of a conference are the chats we have and the connections we make during the coffee breaks.  Well, those chats and connections are my digital PLN on Twitter and the blogosphere and I’ve loved every minute of it!  (Thank you to all of you!)

I think what puts people off further PD through a virtual PLN is how time consuming it can become.  “I just never have time.” is something I’ve heard far too often.  Further to this, there is no certificate awarded for 10 hours spent reading teaching blogs or for contributing and debating on #eltchat.  I find the idea of certificates for a conference somewhat ridiculous to be honest.*  I got one from this ABS conference and it probably won’t make it into my suitcase for my return to Britain.  Not because I didn’t value the conference, far from it, but the conference is the start of a chapter in my professional development, not the end, so a certificate to say “Congratulations, you started!” seems to be rewarding achievement before it’s happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed this seminar by Neil McMahon (check out his blog here, A Muse Amuses) and the whole conference in fact.  From the 15 pages or so of notes I’ve got plus a list of websites to get further handouts and view presentations again, I’ve got a lot to think about, consume and try out.  Thank you Neil and thank you Laura Lewin, coordinator of the event, for providing me with so many ideas to think about, organize and act on over the coming months of my teaching.

* I discussed this with a colleague of mine who informed me that career development and promotion for teachers in Argentina is based on a points system, these points being achieved by going to events such as these conferences or other extra-curricular activities.  Hence, the certificates act as necessary proof to aid career advancement.  OK, I understand the obsession over certificates that I’m seeing a little better now… however, I’m worried that it has moved the focus of PD from development of abilities to accumulation of certificates.

P.S.  Having read over my post I feel the need to make clear – this is definitely not an attack on conferences.  I’ll reiterate my point that Twitter, blogs and the virtual PLN define a teacher who is serious about professional development and that those who are only attending the odd conference and not following that up with one or all of these web tools are really kidding themselves.  This might seem harsh but I also reckon I’ll get away with it since anybody reading this blog, by definition, falls into my category of “serious about PD” 🙂

 
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Posted by on August 30, 2011 in Conferences, Reflections

 

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