Interruptions | A meeting skills activity

Business meeting

Interruptions … it’s something most my learners struggle with and it’s a skill they require daily because no one in a corporate setting can escape attending at least one meeting a day, if not more. To complicate matters, turn taking varies across cultures. In the US, Northern Europe and Japan, interruptions are uncommon and generally considered rude. In France, Brazil and India, interruptions are more common and are sometimes seen as a sign of being engaged. I’ve also observed that some of my learners in India tend to completely shut up when they are in meetings with overseas clients and seniors, to the extent that even when they genuinely need to interrupt to clarify something or provide some information, they don’t.  Here’s an activity that addresses both these issues. For learners who sort of talk over each other, it offers statements that can help them more politely take the turn. For learners who don’t interrupt at for fear of causing offence, it provides practice with interrupting.

Materials 

A deck of playing cards, whiteboard, WB markers. You’ll need to install Triptico and download the interruption spinner file – ideally you’ll need an LCD projector to project the spinner. Alternatively, you could just use an ordinary computer or a laptop.  Fair warning! Triptico unfortunately doesn’t run without internet connectivity but I’m sure you’ll be resourceful enough to find a tech free equivalent.

Preparation 

Divide the deck of cards according to the number of Ss but spread evenly across the same cards from the four suits . For example, if you have 16 Ss, take 2, 3, 4, 5 of Hearts; then 2, 3, 4, 5 of Diamonds and repeat across Spades and Clubs so you have 16 cards in all.  Open up Triptico and access Text Spinner under Selectors. Click on ‘Load from cloud’ and then ‘Load a text file’. Navigate to wherever you saved the interruption spinner file and you’re all set.

Procedure

  • Stage 1
    • Shuffle the cards and distribute them to Ss.
    • Ask Ss to find other Ss who have the same suit as them. Allocate different corners/tables to each suit.
    • Ss work with their groups to come up with phrases that can be used to interrupt during meetings. As groups settle on a list of phrases, ask them to send up group members to write the phrases up on the WB.
    • Elicit corrections if required and add any other expressions that might be appropriate or useful. Organize language into frames and chunks if you’re lexically inclined. Alex Case over at the TEFLtastic blog has a list of expressions for turn taking.
    • Ask Ss to decide whether some expressions are more appropriate for conference calls and which ones for in-person meetings.
  • Stage 2
    • Now ask Ss to regroup. To find their new groups, they’ll need to look for Ss who have the same number as them. So 2 of hearts, 2 of spades, 2 of diamonds and 2 of clubs get together etc.
    • Assign any meeting role play or scenario that’s appropriate to the groups.
    • Bring up the interruption spinner on the LCD projector. Explain to the Ss that once they start the meeting role play, you’ll spin the interruption spinner. If it lands up at Hearts, anyone who has a Hearts card will need to interrupt using one of the phrases listed on the WB and take the turn. There are three googlies as we like to say in India – Red, Black and Random. If the spinner displays Red – anyone who has hearts or diamonds can interrupt; likewise with black. Random means anyone can interrupt (this one’s a whole heap of fun!).

Debrief

  • Ask Ss which phrases were used most frequently and which ones least. What could be the reasons for this?
  • Ask Ss why interrupting might be easier in an in-person meeting (paralinguistic cues) than in telephonic one.
  • Lead a discussion about different perceptions towards interruptions across cultures and encourage Ss to talk about their discomfort if any with interrupting colleagues, clients and stakeholders in meetings.

Triptico Text Spinner

Image attribution: Meeting by John Benson | Creative Commons by 2.0 

The teaching learning cycle

Teaching Learning Cycle

I hadn’t seen the teaching learning cycle till yesterday when I quickly flicked through a handout that OUP sent out for a webinar they’d organized last week on Genre-based Writing Instruction. It’s such a simple but elegant way of framing a writing lesson. This is essentially what I do in most of my writing lessons. I’ve never been too comfortable with all that cumbersome staging that’s generally expected when teaching writing.

Some of the suggested tasks for each stage include:

Deconstruction 

  • Analyse the genre of the model (What type of text is it? Who is the audience? What are the features of this genre?)
  • Analyse organization (How are paragraphs structured? How are ideas logically connected? How is cohesion achieved?)
  • Analyse language (How are clauses combined? What types of nouns or verbs are used? Has the writer used hedging devices?)
  • Analyse how language might differ across the sections of the text and vary by purpose.
  • Analyse vocabulary and word choice.

Joint construction 

  • Write a short text in pairs or groups
  • Rewrite a poorly written paragraph
  • Order jumbled sentences
  • Write a text from notes
  • Complete an information gap exercise
  • Participate in whole-class joint construction

Independent construction 

  • The tasks suggested here largely conform to the stages of a process writing lesson – brainstorm, plan, draft, peer review, revise etc.

References

  • The original source of the image is Martin, J.R. Genre and Language Learning: A Social Semiotic Perspective in Linguistics and Education, Vol. 20, Issue 1, 2009. However, I got the image and the classroom tasks from the OUP webinar handout on Genre-Based Writing Instruction, Oct 24, 2014.

News Exchange | A structured sharing activity

Some of my learners have jobs that require them to keep abreast of what’s going on in the world. In fact, for most of these professionals, the focus of their work is the United States where their clients and key stakeholders live. It’s a good idea to know what’s going on there. I came up with this activity to address this need and also provide a segue from the work that Ss are constantly wrapping-up on their laptops as they walk into my class.  The activity uses a Japanese news aggregator called Newsmap which visually represents trending news stories. The more space a news item takes up on the map, the more buzz it’s generating online. When you hover your cursor over a news item, you’ll see the first two or three sentences of an article linked to it. The newsmap can be customized based on a number of countries and the type of news (world, financial, tech etc).

I quite like this activity because it helps me meet multiple goals. It gets Ss connected to trending news. It serves as a warmer and a quick reading cum speaking activity which requires Ss to mingle and talk to each other.

Newsmap

Preparation

No preparation necessary.

Materials 

WiFi enabled classroom & digital devices (BYOD) to access Newsmap, timer (old school version or an online timer such as the ones available on Triptico). Noisemaker such as a whistle. Check variations for a low-tech version if you don’t have a connected classroom.

Procedure 

  • Ask Ss to close all their work related applications and open up their browser and connect to Newsmap.
  • Bring up the timer and set it for between 90 seconds and 3 minutes depending on your learners’ reading ability.
  • Ask learners to skim trending news items – hovering their cursors over these titles and getting a sense of what’s being talked about.
  • Call time and ask Ss to pair up with someone from the other side of the room. In pairs, Ss should share top news stories of the day and should ask each other questions to get more details. Encourage them to speculate and make predictions if they are not certain about the details.
  • Blow the whistle after a minute and ask Ss to find a new partner. Repeat exchange. Continue this procedure as long as time permits

Debrief 

  • At the end of the activity, ask Ss the following questions … Was there any news that …
    • you missed on the map which you found about later while talking to your colleagues?
    • you found interesting or exciting?
    • you found boring?
    • you think might be relevant to your project, work or to your clients?

Variations 

  • Low-tech version 1: Take a screenshot of the Newsmap before you head into class and simply project using your LCD projector so all the Ss can have a look. The downside is that they won’t be able to read the first few lines and make predictions about the content of these articles.
  • Low-tech version 2: Ask Ss to access Newsmap before they come into class and come prepared to discuss trending news.
  • Low-tech version 3: Take a few printouts of the Newsmap and post them around the room.
  • Mobile version: Newsmap has an Android and an iPhone app but il y a un problème. The app requires flash which doesn’t work on all phones.

Your response | An intercultural competence activity

Business conversation

One of my favourite resources on activities for exploring intercultural skills is 52 Activities for Improving Cross-cultural Communication by Donna M. Stringer and Patricia A. Cassiday.  Here’s a tweaked version of this activity that I used in a recent program for a global pharmaceutical firm to get Ss to think about different styles of communication and the cultural orientations that may underpin them.

Preparation

Write out the four scenarios on four separate bits of flipchart. The authors suggested four thought-provoking ones that would generate a lot of discussion. I changed a couple to make them more relevant for my Ss. You can choose any communication scenario which requires Ss to think of an appropriate response where the response may vary based on personality and culture, eliciting a range of output.

Scenario 1: 

One of your colleagues harshly criticizes all of your ideas and suggestions in team meetings. You are currently attending a meeting and you have just shared a recommendation. You are particularly proud of this idea because you put a lot of thought into it. However, your colleague immediately shoots it down. How will you respond?

Scenario 2: 

You are asked to make a 45 minute presentation to senior leadership on an important initiative. The morning of the presentation, your colleague tells you that the plan has changed and you now only have 10 minutes to present. You are irritated by this change. How will you respond?

Scenario 3: 

One of your colleagues likes to pop in to your cubicle at various times during the day, perching himself on your desk, going through your things and chatting about non-work related issues. You are currently on a very critical project and your colleague has just come into your cubicle and said hello. How will you respond?

Scenario 4: 

You overhear one of your team members who reports into you praising you to another manager. The compliments seem over the top and make you uncomfortable. You are attending a networking event where you are in a conversation with your senior manager when your team member joins the conversation and praises you excessively. How will you respond?

Stick the flipcharts around the classroom and place some post-its near each.

Materials 

2 flipcharts cut into halves so you have four pieces; WB markers (preferably in four different colours); post-its; A brief description of the five communication styles either provided on a slide that you can project or on pieces of paper.

Direct: You are brief and linear while communicating. You get to the point as quickly as possible and confront conflict situations explicitly. You believe issues should be addressed openly and face-to-face to reach a quick resolution.

Indirect: You try to step around conflict and tense situations in order to avoid direct confrontations. You like to minimize the appearance of conflict and criticism so that the people involved can ‘save face’.

Circular: You provide many examples or narrate a story or convey a lot of information in an effort to help the other person come to his or her own conclusion about your intention, need or request.

Being-oriented*: You prioritize building personal relationships and see a person’s ideas as closely connected to their identity. Therefore, you are careful about the way you convey criticism or negative messages because you don’t want to harm the relationship.

Doing-oriented*: You prioritize engaging critically with ideas and feel that passionate discussion shows your commitment to the people involved. You feel that candid debates that lead to quick resolutions can in fact strengthen relationships.

*Called person-centred and idea-centred in the original activity. 

Procedure

  • Step 1: Ask Ss to go around the room, reading the scenarios, writing their responses on the post-its, sticking them around the flipchart, and then moving to the next one. I was insistent that they write what they would actually ‘say’, rather than ‘do’ which is a bit different than the instructions in the original activity.
  • Step 2: Ask Ss to stand next to any of the scenarios. You can even out the numbers if everyone’s clumped around one or two scenarios. Ask Ss to work with their groups, read the responses and categorize similar ones. Debrief this stage by asking groups what was the most common type of response and which one was an outlier.
  • Step 3: Distribute or display communication styles. Ask Ss to decide which of their responses fit each category. Have them write the communication styles on post-its and group the responses around them. If they’re not sure about the category of any of the responses, they can put it to one side to revisit later. Multiple styles may characterize a single response.
  • Step 4: Have Ss move around to other groups and read the responses and discuss whether they agree with the responses. An an optional discussion, you could ask Ss to select the response they think was particularly appropriate.
  • Step 5: Ask Ss to work in pairs or small groups to consider the cultural orientations that might be driving some of these communication styles and what could be the potential risks of the differences in styles.

References

  • Adapted from Stringer D.M. & Cassiday P.A. (2009) What would you do? in 52 Activities to Improve Cross-cultural Communication. Intercultural Press.
  • Image is sourced from Flickr | Smart Spaces Symposium by Central Asian | Attribution under Creative Commons 2.0.

Learning how to learn | An infographic

A couple of months ago, I took the Learning How to Learn MOOC from the University of California San Diego on Coursera. This was a course on cognitive strategies for learning more effectively, and addressed issues like procrastination. While it wasn’t revolutionary, the lecture videos were quirky and endearing and there were a few useful tips. The final assignment asked participants to create some kind of artefact that summarised their learning and highlighted personal take-aways so I created an infographic. If you suspect that it all sounds a little self-helpish, you would be correct although to be fair to the professors, they did try to provide empirical evidence and research to back up their assertions. The pomodoro technique, which I hadn’t heard of before, is something that I found kind of helpful – it’s one of the reasons I’ve been cranking out more blog posts. You don’t need to have an actual pomodoro timer – I’ve been using a regular kitchen timer.

Learning how to learn mooc

 

Please feel free to use this infographic for your learners. Here’s a PDF version.

10 Interactive storytelling activities

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I recently watched a webinar over at the Training Magazine Network by the celebrated learning game guru, Thiagi and his associate Tracy Tagliati on interactive storytelling in which they offered techniques for transforming the conventional approach of the facilitator narrating a story and participants listening passively to one where the facilitator sets up activities within which Ss “actively create, share, analyse, debrief, modify and roleplay stories.  Many of these ideas will be familiar to those of us in ELT but nevertheless it’s potentially useful to see them all consolidated in one place.

1. Co-constructed stories 

Ask Ss to pair up and stand facing each other. Each S contributes a few words that go towards building a c0-constructed story. Ss take turns to extend the story. Turn-taking could happen sequentially or randomly. The story could be written instead of spoken and Ss could pass a piece of paper back and forth. Ss could also be challenged to create the longest sentence through the shared story. Thiagi and Tracy derived some interesting learning from this activity. It could be used to draw Ss’ attention on how both people in each pair completely focused on each other and worked towards a common goal so they didn’t multitask or engage in one upmanship and how this may have helped achieved a better outcome. They also pointed out that the activity could be used to debrief more substantive content. For example, you teach your Ss the seven principles of customer satisfaction and then conduct the activity asking them to incorporate the seven principles into their co-constructed story.

2. Shared stories 

Apparently this activity is also called story exchange and based on an idea borrowed from Appreciative Inquiry. Ask Ss to take a couple of minutes to write the outline of a story they want to share. Now ask them to stand and pair off with someone from another part of the room. Ss should listen enthusiastically to their partner’s story and then narrate their own. Ss then find new partners and repeat the procedure. After exchanging stories with half a dozen other Ss, form groups and ask Ss in their groups to find common elements in storytelling from all the people they heard for example what made it a positive experience.

3. Unfinished story 

Ss listen to 80% of a story told by the facilitator (or another S) and then complete the story by themselves. Upon coming up with a version for completing the story, they could work in groups and come up with more alternate endings. This activity could be used to explore assumptions, stereotypes and perceptions and could also be used to challenge Ss to be creative. In fact, one of my favourite activities in the same vein also comes from Thiagi. It’s called The Sentry . You give Ss copies of this science fiction short story without the last line and ask them to try and complete it. After they share their responses, have them read the original line for a powerful ‘aha’ moment.

4. Zoom stories 

In this technique, borrowed from improv, pair off Ss. One S narrates a story while her partner, from time to time, says ‘zoom in’ or ‘zoom out’. Zoom in means the storyteller should add more details and zoom out means that she should reduce the level of detail. I really liked this activity – I see a lot of potential for application in the business classroom where professionals are often required to gauge audience and context, and adjust their level of detail in order to ensure that they convey their message effectively in meetings and presentations.

5. Roleplayed stories 

T starts recounting a narrative and stops when she gets to a critical juncture. At this point, she asks Ss to assume the roles of different characters. Ss roleplay the scenario until T stops them and introduces a new twist and then repeats the roleplay bit. Their example was that there’s been some sort of nuclear holocaust and the earth is completely irradiated. The Ss seem to be the only survivors, having found refuge in a bomb shelter. Ask them to create a plan for restarting civilization in three month’s time when the radiation clears and they’ll be able to go out into the world. Now have them role play characters in this narrative. Then introduce a twist; one of your friends is just outside the door. She’s used the intercom to tell you that she’s in a bad state and needs medical help. If you open the door to let her in, there’s a possibility that the shelter may get contaminated by radiation. Debate the issue and obtain a two-thirds majority to open the door and save her life. Ss roleplay the scenario again.

6. Analysed stories 

This is essentially the case study approach. T reads out a fairly short scenario or provides copies to Ss to read. Ss individually analyse the story before analysing it collectively in a small group and then analysing it in a larger group or as a class. Tracy had an interesting cross-cultural example for this technique. She talked about an American trainer who is sent on a secondment to an organization in South India where she trains the local trainers on interactive learning techniques which they lap up enthusiastically. Later, in a meeting, the director of the company tells the training team that trainers should be respected and that humility is most important on the part of those who attend training programs. The American trainer interrupts, openly challenging the director’s views suggesting that recent research in cognitive science demonstrates that questioning the trainer is a sign of deeper engagement with the knowledge being taught. The director however ignores her and the training team vocally support his position. When the American trainer confronts her team about what happened, they agree with her views. Some time later, her company abruptly recalls her to the US. This incident could fuel an interesting discussion about differences in cultural orientations.

7. Shrunken stories

These are really concise stories which are either read out by the T or read by the Ss individually. They can be of several types such as short-short stories, 99 word stories (Brian Remer who I’ve been subscribing to for yonks is particularly famous for these), six word stories (like Hemingway’s famous “For sale, baby shoes, never worn”), hint stories and espresso stories. Provide examples and ask Ss to write their own using the same structure and have them share it in groups.

8. Debriefed stories 

The shrunken story is immediately followed by a discussion where Ss reflect on the story and discuss their perspectives with peers.

9. Summarized stories 

Recall a famous novel or plot and condense it into a one minute summary. Alternatively, read a case study, research report or business proposal and narrate it in one minute or less. This could be really useful for business students.

10. Prompted stories 

Specify a theme or topic and provide a prompt such as pictures, comics, titles, first lines and opening paragraphs and ask Ss to incorporate it into a story that addresses the theme.

You can access the recording and associated handouts from here. However, you’ll need to sign up for Training Magazine Network. Kudos to T&T for sharing these great ideas and encouraging people to “creatively plagiarize” these activities.

A king’s ransom at a teacher’s pay scale | The pricing of methodology books

Teaching Unplugged Scott Thornbury

Several months ago, I was browsing through some online book stores to see if I could get a good deal for Scott Thornbury’s Beyond the Sentence. On one such site, I was shocked to discover Teaching Unplugged on sale at the magical discounted price of ₹154,010 (that’s $2566 for all you muggles). I suspect that this was probably an error but it got me thinking about the pricing of ELT methodology books. I have Teaching Unplugged and I bought it for  ₹250 ($4).  You see, in India, books across genres, are generally priced at a lower range than in the rest of the world. I usually think twice about buying a book which costs more than ₹500 ($8) and many of the books I’m interested in are priced for the Indian market such that they fall well within this limit. It’s something I was aware of and hadn’t paid much attention to – like the disclaimer on the backs of Cambridge Univ. Press books – ever so slightly beyond my peripheral vision.

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It was only when I did my Delta Module 2 in Bangkok that I in fact realized how expensive ELT books can actually be and oddly, the catalyst  was Christine Nuttall. Nuttall’s opus, Teaching Reading Skills from Macmillan was much in demand among my peers so much so that you weren’t allowed to spend more than a night with her. And it’s quite a read. One of the other students was fed up with waiting and found a book store dedicated to ELT resources from where he promptly purchased Nuttall. That weekend, I explored the back sois of Phetchaburi in a bid to find the shop, which I did after much looking. I’d never seen anything like it before – a fairly large space that catered almost exclusively to language teaching resources and specifically to ELT. Two walls filled with dictionaries. An entire atrium of course books organized by theme. And finally a large corner shelf stacked with books for teachers. I couldn’t contain my excitement at this point and began to quickly pull out titles I wanted to buy. No prices were mentioned on the books so I took my pile over to the cashier. The cheapest book in the pile was 800 baht! And the most expensive was a whopping 4800 baht! Something was wrong. I went back to the corner shelf and took out a couple of books whose Indian prices I could guesstimate. Natural Grammar for which I’d paid $2 back home was being sold at over four times that price.  Almost nothing was less than 800 baht. Not even old, old Penny Ur books with stylized illustrations from the 1980s.

Later that week, when I was having a bit of a whinge about this to my Delta peers, I discovered that everyone else seemed habituated to paying these crazy prices. One of the other teachers who’s English and lives in Japan confessed that her ELT collection was probably among the most expensive things she owned and on her way over to Bangkok from Tokyo, she kept gems from her heavy, prized collection in her hand baggage to ensure that they wouldn’t experience anything untoward.

I can’t speak for the rest of the world but even in India despite that differential pricing that OUP and CUP practise with some of their titles and efforts by Delta to bring out some books through a local publisher, the majority of books are out of reach for most English educators. CUP India prices Listening in the Language Classroom at a reasonable ₹306 ($5). But The Language of Business Meetings, a book I’ve always wanted is listed as ₹2534 ($42). Alright, so the average English teacher probably wouldn’t invest in The Language of Business Meetings. Let’s have a look at Teaching Multilevel Classes – surely that’s a book most teachers would be interested in – ₹2219 ($37).  This one too states that it’s only meant for SAARC countries which means that this is apparently a low priced edition for South Asia. But, the price seems in line with the UK. It’s a mystery how CUP determines prices for its South Asia editions. Some are truly priced within a very reasonable range and others completely out of reach. Fairly arbitrary. I have to appreciate OUP in this regard because at least with their Resource Books for Teachers series, they seem to have consistently priced titles below ₹500.  Delta offers many of its methodology titles through Viva Books in a range between ₹120 and ₹250 ($2 – $4) although they haven’t brought out anything new through Viva since The Developing Teacher. Macmillan does not publish any of its methodology books locally and for example Amazon India lists Uncovering Grammar as an import at ₹2342 ($39).

English teachers in India who work with institutions in urban areas earn on average ₹25,000 ($417) per month before taxes. In rural areas, it’s probably around ₹15,000 or less.  A book like Uncovering Grammar works out to be 10% of the monthly income of the average English teacher in urban India. I can’t claim to know why books are priced the way they are. I do wonder how much actually ends up going to the author but I suspect it’s not that much. So, the question that’s been bugging me is … who are all of these methodology books written for? The core audience couldn’t possibly be English teachers because the vast majority of them live in the developing world where just one of these books could cost between 10 – 20% of their monthly salaries – an unreasonable demand on a person who’s chronically underpaid and must prioritize all sorts of other essential needs before accumulating intellectual wealth in activities and approaches. Which leads me to infer that these books are in fact intended for institutions, well-off private language schools, expatriate teachers and teaching professionals in the West. And yet skimming the prefaces of these books reveals that some of these authors operate under the delusion they are somehow making the world a better place by improving the professional practices of ALL teachers and making life easier for them by distilling research into implementable little chunks and techniques.

I wish that were the case. Methodology books are clearly written and priced for what is referred to in Indian English as the creamy layer. If you can’t afford to buy it, then you and your learners don’t get to profit from the insights it contains. This line of reasoning is all to familiar to me as an Indian. My ancestors used it as a guiding philosophy to run a closed system for over three thousand years, denying access to books to all but a select few. Everyone else (if you were lucky) had to be content listening to second hand sermons gleaned from libraries.

The strictures imposed by the ELT ‘Brahmins’ prop up an enormously inequitable system, one that many authors themselves are uncomfortable with. Some seem to think the answer lies with initiatives like The Round and others are taking matters into their own hands, much to the chagrin of authors.

Scott Thornbury piracy

This is my ELT bookshelf. While it’s not huge, I count my blessings that I’m fortunate enough to have the financial ability to access far more books than most teachers in my country. I hope the day is not far when fair access to knowledge at a reasonable cost makes the seminal books of our profession available to all.

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