Shooting vocal arrows | Energizer

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TV adaptations of Indian epic mythology, particularly of the Mahabharata, usually involve warriors shooting utterly impractical arrows at each other from ornate bows that are surely the soldier equivalent of a stiletto. Impractical or not, they inspired me to design this energizer which I often use in business and teacher training and that participants find ridiculously engaging.


Objectives

  • Encourage participants to project their voices more effectively
  • Energize sleepy participants

Materials 

  • None

Pre-activity prep 

  • This is a really noisy activity. Ensure that the room is soundproof or there aren’t any neighbors to disturb.

Procedure

  • Divide the participants into two groups and ask them to line up on opposites sides of the room, facing the other group. Make sure there’s a gap of at least 4 metres or more between the two groups.
  • Ask each participant to wave to his or her partner on the other side to identify them.
  • Ask group one to get into warrior position (bow and arrows ready). You can use some culturally relevant banter to set this up. I usually tell my lot that they’re warriors from the Mahabharata on the great battlefield of Kurukshetra, about to slay their opponents with their powerful arrows.
  • Introduce the idea of the vocal arrow. Pull your imaginary bow as if you’re about to release an arrow. When you let go, project your voice on a single word like ‘no’ so that it arcs in terms of energy and volume (noooooooooOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo) across the room to hit someone on the other side.
  • Demonstrate to participants what might happen if you don’t put enough energy into your arrow (NOOOoooo) when the vocal arrow falls short of its target.
  • Ask group one to shoot their arrows at the count of three. Then nominate participants at random to shoot their arrows one by one at their opponents. Ask the opponents if they felt the arrow hit them. If they say no, ask the participants to try again.
  • Get group two to repeat this procedure. Give them a different monosyllabic word like mom.
  • At this point, I usually end the activity but if you have time to kill, you could give them longer words to shoot at each other.

Debrief & action planning 

  • Ask participants to go back to their seats and discuss in pairs how effectively they were able to project their voices and why this might be important in the context of their work (teacher training or presentations at their organization, or public speaking).
  • Elicit suggestions for projecting the voice with greater impact (breathing, posture, opening your mouth, voice clarity etc.)

Teacher training | An interview with Meena Sridharan

All the theories will start making sense only after some gruelling days out in the sticks.

Meena Sridharan is a teacher trainer who works extensively on large scale education projects in India. In this interview, we chatted about her experiences on the field and discussed some advice for developing teacher training skills.

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1. Tell us a bit about your background.

I grew up with a passion for English and history and all my degrees are in English Literature. There was a Linguistics and Phonology component in the course at University which I detested those days. It’s ironic that my work is only to do with English language teaching now.

During my post-graduate years, we had a mandatory social service requirement and I opted to teach English to bus conductors. I enjoyed that a lot, and one day, when I heard a couple of conductors speaking in English on a bus, felt really happy. To my uninformed teenage mind, this seemed to be a matter of course. It never occurred to me then that this was something I could do, and find rewarding, nor did it occur to me that I was actually listening to a demonstration of effective practice.

Many years later, I taught English language and conversation skills in Japan. There again, I just did it for fun, and to make enough money to put me through Japanese language school.

2. How did you get into teacher training? 

It was by accident. I had been teaching for over fifteen years all across the country. After I came back from Japan, I diversified into teaching Japanese concurrently with English at some very reputed management schools. I dabbled in some French language teaching very desultorily as well.

A friend was roping in large numbers of teachers and trainers for an assessment activity and I joined the crowd. That is where I interacted with a huge cross-section of ELT teachers and trainers, and was fascinated by the stories they were exchanging. This led to me thinking about revamping my technique, unlearning my previous teaching style, and taking a language teaching qualification.

The next step was a stint training a small bunch of teachers, and almost immediately after, a training program for the first in a series of large scale education projects. I got thrown in at the deep end, and learnt to swim the hard way.

3. What does teacher training involve and who do you generally train? 

Teacher training is a very broad term and doesn’t reflect the more complex parameters of the job.

If you look at it superficially, it means delivering modules or specific training materials over a specific period to a group of teachers. This could mean skilling them up in various aspects of language, or customising the course to meet their specific, pre-determined needs. The length could vary from two weeks to two years. This is just the top layer. If you peeled away the veneer, you would find that it involves many more levels of skills and empathy.

I train teachers across levels – primary, secondary, tertiary, of all ages. Though the bulk of my work is with the government sector, I am involved with other organisations and schools where I train smaller cohorts of teachers. I like to keep in touch with classroom teaching, so there are instances where I might take on an assignment to just teach children. This comes as a refreshing break from training.

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4. What do you enjoy most about working with government school teachers? 

Their enthusiasm and passion, and their humility. They are not jaded. When you see the conditions in which some of them work, they are truly heroes. They are strong on theories about learner centred teaching and can spout Chomsky and Vygotsky at you, but when they find that some techniques can actually be made to work in the classroom, and succeed, there is a child-like wonder and transparency in their response.

There is no gainsaying the fact that some, I would say about 40% of them, are cynical and are in the job just for the financial security it offers. It can get very discouraging while observing such teachers. Nevertheless, the majority are enthusiastic, and handle their students with passion, and sensitivity. Their reactions and responses can be startlingly acute and quite liberal.

The challenges these people face in their classroom environments may seem almost insurmountable when viewed through the lens of an urban educationist. There is no consistent electricity supply in most states, and not very good Internet connectivity. Sometimes, when introducing digital tools and resources, I can feel the resignation emanating from them as I speak. Their technical skills vary from being very competent to not having even an e-mail ID or access to a computer.

I remember some years ago, before smart phones came to rule our lives, how a group of teachers from the far reaches of a rural district formed a motorbike pool and would take turns every weekend travelling about seventy-five kilometres to the nearest town and a cyber parlour to access the internet. They informed me through their very first e-mail sent from that location!

I have a great regard for the Head Teachers I meet. They are really outstanding but embattled men and mostly women, who are beset with problems of every nature and yet manage to sail through the day with ease. They deftly manage teachers, students, irate parents, authorities, and the constant flow of visitors and observers and keep smiling.

I have learnt a lot from just watching them at work.

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5. What are the challenges of working in this context? 

The challenges are numerous, and as I have said earlier, are outweighed largely by the motivation demonstrated by a majority of the teachers.

The lack of motivation and cynicism displayed by the nay-sayers is a major challenge. One has to keep the energy level up, and get them all involved. There are inherent challenges of mindset and societal norms. We have to work around these with some discernment and not hurt their sensibilities. (Grouping, for example, can be a big hurdle).

Sometimes it takes a couple of days of training to make them even start to rethink their attitudes, beginning with just having to get up off their chairs and stand in a circle for a simple ice-breaking activity. Resistance to change is the greatest roadblock. Convincing them to implement change is the consequent roadblock.

Lack of infrastructure and facilities are a given almost everywhere, but each new situation just adds to the experience and learning. It ceases to be a challenge once you know how to innovate.

6. How would you rate training vis-à-vis teaching?

This could be a topic for a thesis. Anyway, just to talk through the bare bones of the comparison:

  • Well, they both require the same basic qualities of energy, passion, motivation and stamina, and of course intensive preparation. However, many trainers tend to blur the lines between training and teaching. They tend to deviate into teaching, while trying to exemplify concepts.
  • I think we need to remember, as trainers, that we are teaching adults who come with a set of fossilised practices which you are going to be enhancing, changing or challenging. Their schemata will have to be consolidated by practice in the training room.
  • A teacher clarifies content and concepts to the student. She doesn’t need to explain the principles behind her technique, as they are implicit.
  • A trainer has to deal with teachers who come with a bank of knowledge and experience. Hence the trainer needs to respect that knowledge, but at the same time consciously articulate the principles of the technique or concepts. The trainer’s task is therefore far more demanding. You become an agent of change and that sets you at a disadvantage to begin with.

7. What professional development advice would you offer to Indian education professionals who aspire to facilitate teacher training in state or institutional contexts? 

  • Read up on national and state level education policies and the curricula of various states.
  • Be familiar with their academic patterns.
  • Be prepared to feel frustrated and helpless.
  • Be flexible.
  • Be prepared to relearn your so-painstakingly acquired academic knowledge and adapt to totally different contexts.
  • All the theories will start making sense only after some gruelling days out in the sticks.

Be excited about what you do always and never lose sight of the ultimate outcome. Motivation is contagious. If you have it, you infect your learners.

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One of the little perks of doing teacher training on government projects is that you get to see unexplored parts of the country like these 2500 year old Jain Caves in the Samanar Hills, a stone’s throw from a venue that I trained at.

If you have questions for Meena, please put them into the comments section and I’ll pass them on to her. 

Building as a Learning Aid (BaLA) | Frugal edtech

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Image source: TheIforinnovation.blogspot.com 

While BaLA isn’t exactly tech in the conventional sense of the word, I think tech solutions for countries with lots of systemic issues often need to be non-tech in order to achieve the same learning outcomes. For instance, in India, electricity supply is very uneven. Some states have a surplus and others have a chronic deficit. Some of the less developed states regularly have 5-6 hour power cuts daily. Running gadgets in this kind of environment is challenging.

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Image source: Designpublic.in

Building as a Learning Aid (BaLA) is an intriguing little hack and an outstanding example of frugal innovation. BaLA uses existing infrastructural elements at a school like the floor, walls, pillars, staircases, windows, doors, ceilings, fans, tree – anything and everything in and around the school building as learning resources.

Some examples of BaLA include:

In resource poor  environments where it may hard to procure and or maintain learning aids, BaLA offers practical alternatives which generally don’t require anything more than paint and cement.

Links to explore:

  • Here’s a video from a government school in Gujarat who’ve really embraced BaLA. The BaLA elements seem to not only make learning more fun and tangible, they also make the school look and feel more appealing.
  • A Teacher’s Manual for using BaLA in elementary schools is a catalogue of ideas and practices for using BaLA for teaching and learning, funded by UNICEF and created by Vinyas, an Indian architectural research body. The focus is on literacy, numeracy science, and language learning.
  • A short concept note on BaLA with lots of ideas.
  • An interesting article from Teacher Plus on how it started in the desert state of Rajasthan and current developments.
  • A visual inventory of BaLA ideas implemented at a school in Northern India. It does however seem to be a private school. It’s interesting to note that schools that are well funded also seem to see value in an initiative that was originally conceived for  underprivileged rural schools.

What kind of frugal innovation have you implemented in your school?

A task-based approach to reading | Module 4 Reflections

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This is the fourth in a series of posts I’m writing to review and reflect on my learning from this Coursera MOOC . This week’s materials explored the integration of language focused activities in task based reading sequences.

Pre-task/Before reading 

We generally introduce language focus into reading lessons by exploring lexis either by pre-teaching blocking words or recycling vocabulary. The course suggests that this practice is controversial because it …

Can increase fluency and promote successful task completion

but

there is always a danger that pre-teaching vocabulary will result in learners’ treating the task as an opportunity to practise pre-selected words

Ellis (2003)

This school of thought proposes that the pre-teaching of vocabulary threatens the integrity of the task by “diverting learner’s primary attention from meaning to language.”

I rarely pre-teach vocabulary these days unless it’s in some sort of demo lesson where I’m modelling ostensibly ‘good’ practices to teachers. Not being able to understand parts of a text is natural and mirrors what happens in real life. I believe it’s more productive to have the learners work out strategies that will help them deal with these situations.

During task/ While reading

This generally manifests through incidental focus on form techniques.

Focus on form refers to how attentional resources are allocated and involves briefly drawing students’ attention to linguistic elements … in context as they arise incidentally in lessons whose overriding focus is on meaning or communication.

Long (2000)

While the learner’s focus remains on processing the content of the text, they also concurrently and incidentally pay attention to language. Textual modification, such as glossing and textual input enhancement, is often used as a way of drawing attention to language while reading.

Glossing refers to the linguistic information provided in the margin of the reading passage. For example, the meaning of a vocabulary item might be presented in a gloss.

Textual input enhancement refers to making target language items more salient through typographical manipulations such as coloring, underlining, and bold-facing.

Post-task/After reading

These tend to be explicit language focused activities; Michael Long calls these focus-on-forms activities. Ellis suggests that the threat of the task being undermined by a focus on language, becomes minimized at stage. Willis explains that consequently language focus should only occur during this stage of the lesson. However, there isn’t consensus on this among TBL researchers and many of them hold the view that drawing attention to form in the during-task phase is possible and of value.

To pre-teach or not to pre-teach

We tend to assume that repeated presentation and practice of vocabulary will enhance textual comprehension. However, first language researchers’ findings in this area have been inconsistent. Some studies have found that the pre-teaching vocabulary appears to have negligible impact while others have reported a positive effect. Nevertheless, there is broad agreement that pre-teaching vocabulary can be useful if it involves “rich instruction of frequent vocabulary items.”

Nation suggests that rich instruction “involves several meetings with the word, focuses on many aspects of what is involved in knowing a word. Including fluency of access to the word and meeting the word in several sentence contexts and getting the learner actively involved in processing the word.” For instance, the learner might explore the written and spoken forms of the word, synonyms, co-text, and register.

This kind of deeper processing has apparently been linked to enhanced retention. However, the target words for rich instruction need to be drawn from high frequency items that learners may also come across in other texts. Some researchers suggest that the pre-teaching of infrequent words may actually interfere with comprehension.

While the course presented a comprehensive, nuanced take on pre-teaching vocabulary, I can’t help but think some of the examples they presented on rich instruction would lend themselves to entire lessons. In a 40 minute really lesson, can you really afford to spend 20 minutes or more on pre-reading language activities?

Glossing 
Glosses provide information about linguistic items in the text, typically in the margin of the reading passage.
Some common glossing techniques including providing a definition in L2, offering synonyms, providing a translation, and including digital media. Glossing may contribute to contribution through bottom-up processing of texts.

 

Research on glossing has found that it is beneficial but the findings have not been conclusive. Providing a gloss may stop learners from investing any effort in understanding a text.

The extent to which information is retained in long-term memory is dependent on how deeply information has been processed at the time of learning.

Craik & Longhart (1972)

Laufer and Hulstijn defined three components of task-induced involvement:, need, search and evaluation. Need refers to the learner’s motivation to understand the target word. Search refers to how the learners find this meaning; and evaluation is the comparison of the target words with other words.

Textual-input enhancement 

This involves calling out linguistic features in the text using typographical devices, such as bold-facing, underlining, and italicising. For example, if learners often omit past tense endings, the teacher could use textual enhancement to highlight past -ed endings in the text.

Hussein Nassaji and Sandra Fotos suggest some principles for textual enhancement:

  • Choose a linguistic feature that learners need to focus on
  • Highlight the feature using one of the textual enhancement techniques
  • Avoid highlighting too many forms or constructions that are very lengthy (for example you highlight entire clauses in the text which defeats the purpose)
  • Employ techniques to keep learners focused on meaning by giving them a task to complete so that their attention is not diverted to an exclusive focus on form
  • Avoid metalinguistic explanations to maintain the integrity of the task.

If this technique is indeed “implicit and obtrusive”, will learners really notice the target language? Meta-analysis by Sang-Ki Lee and Hung-Tzu Huang found that input enhancement can facilitate the internalisation of target language but that learners tend to perform slightly worse on comprehension i.e., they understand slightly less in an enhanced text. So, there seems to be some kind of trade-off between focus on meaning and focus on form.

This week’s assignment involved the designing of either pre-reading or post-reading activity with a language focus characterized by rich instruction. Here’s mine:
Lots of interesting stuff on reading in module 4 but I’m chomping at the bit for a more detailed exploration of designing authentic tasks for a TBL reading lesson.

Hei tama tū tama | A Maori energizer

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Some of you may think energizers are a waste of time but I doubt you lead eight hour five day intense teacher training courses in 1970s style brutalist government buildings in the heat and/or humidity of the Indian interior with just a couple of creaky ceiling fans for relief. Participants, particularly after lunch breaks or in the arvo, need an opportunity to be let loose and do something zany to paradoxically keep their wits about them.

I learnt of this energizer from a New Zealand travel cooking show called Kitchen Diplomacy where two sisters, Karena and Kasey travel the world using Kiwi ingredients in local recipes. A recurring trope on the show involves the sisters deciding who goes where using Hei tama tū tama, the Maori version of rock, paper, scissors.


Objectives 

  • Energrize sleepy students/participants.

Materials 

  • None

Procedure

  • Ask participants if they’ve heard of the Maori of New Zealand. Tell them that they’re going to play a traditional Maori game called “Hei tama tū tama”.
  • Get participants to pair up.
  • Ask for a volunteer to pair up with you so you can demonstrate.
  • Introduce the four positions:
    • Position 1: Clench your fists and place them on your hips
    • Position 2: Clench your fists, bend your elbows and raise your arms
    • Position 3: Clench your fists, raise your right arm and place your left fist on your hip
    • Position 4: Clench your fists, raise your left arm and place your right fist on your hip.
  • Face your opponent and begin by saying “Hei tama tū tama” and placing your hands in one of the four positions.
  • Your opponent needs to quickly follow suit by saying “tū tama” and placing his or hands in a different position from the set of four.
  • You then keep challenging your opponent repeatedly while saying “tū tama” until he or she repeats your position. For example you say “tū tama” and do position 2 and your opponent responds with position 2, you call him or her out by saying “Hei tama tū tama rā” which means you are the winner.

Confused? I thought you might be so here’s a site with helpful visual instructions as well as a video that might simplify things.

It seems a bit insane but it’s super quick and it works like a charm. I’ve had participants rolling around on the floor laughing. I think it’s because the Hei tama tū tama sounds oddly familiar and simultaneously meaningless to the Indian ear. I have tried this with both children and adults (teachers and business professionals) and funnily enough, it’s the adults who really enjoy this game.

When I’ve done this energizer in the past, participants have debated over what repeating the same position actually means if you are facing each other i.e., is it the mirror image or whether for instance both left hands are clenched at the hip so the inverse image? I’m honestly not very sure and also don’t really care so long as participants get quickly energized and are back in the chairs within three minutes. But, if you’re a stickler for rules, I suppose mirror image would be the easiest way to go about it.

Hope this helps you energize your learners!

Image attribution: Maori Dans by jvdgoot | Flickr | CC BY-NC 2.0

A Handbook of Spoken Grammar | Book review

Title: A Handbook of Spoken Grammar. Strategies for Speaking Natural English

Authors: Ken Paterson, Caroline Caygill and Rebecca Sewell

Publisher: Delta Publishing

Year of publication: 2011

Companion resources: Audio CD

Source: British Council Library

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I actually assumed this was a book on methodology but it is in fact a study book for students. There isn’t much by way of information for the teacher except a cursory note that suggests the book is meant to be used for self-study but could potentially also be used in the classroom. However, the pages are not marked photocopiable and at  1,734 ($26), I don’t see how this could be used as a student resource book unless you infringe copyright. 

It would have been interesting to see a more detailed comparison of written and spoken grammars beyond a tiny note in the introduction. The authors suggest that “the features of spoken grammar help to create an easy-going, natural kind of English.” They also add that this type of grammar is more economical (Any luck?), simpler (I said to Anne, ‘look are you sure?’), less direct and therefore more polite (What sort of job do you do, then?) and provides the speaker with choices about when to reveal the subject (It’s such a wonderful place to spend a few days in, New York).

There are 20 units and each contains guided discovery and practice exercises for  specific focus areas, with answers at the back. For example, the tenth unit titled Say Less focuses on spoken ellipsis (A: Would anyone buy anything at that market. B: Oh, I would). In a sense I feel the title of this book is a bit deceptive. The units seem to largely cover language features that would help the speaker perform discourse and/or pragmatic functions such as sounding more polite (unit 7) and being vague (unit 8). For instance, sounding more polite is a round up of the usual suspects: softeners (would you mind …?), preparators (I was hoping) etc.

As the book is intended for learners, it omits metalanguage of the sort that I’ve just mentioned. This, however, would have been interesting input from a teaching perspective. The authors make no mention of what language level these exercises are pitched at in the book (although the book’s site says B1 and above). Some units seem appropriate for students with a lower proficiency (Unit 16: Make short responses to agree or show interest & Unit 12: How to use oh, ah, wow, ouch, etc.), and others seem positioned for more advanced learners (Unit 18: Follow your partner which explores a sort of backchanneling but using synonymous phrases – A: It’s hot today isn’t it? B: Boiling! Shall we sit in the garden).

There is a dearth of good classroom materials on spoken discourse and A Handbook of Spoken Grammar might address that need.  I tend to get excited about incorporating discourse and pragmatics into my courses only to find that I introduce it at the wrong time, treat it too subtly, make it far too explicit, or overestimate my learners’ abilities. It would have been useful to have some more guidance on using these units effectively and an exploration of the challenges of facilitating a more natural speaking style.

Delta Publishing offer the contents page and sample units as free downloads.

Have you used this book with your learners? I’d love to hear from you about your experience.

Ticktock | An intercultural activity

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This activity looks at differing perceptions of time by exploring some intercultural critical incidents.


Objectives

  • Explore varying perceptions of time causes by intercultural differences and their impact on work and relationships.

Materials 

  • Making tape
  • OHP pen or similar
  • Critical incidents listed below

Pre-activity prep 

  • You’ll need to do this before participants come in. Stick 12 fairly long pieces of making tape in a large circle as if they were points on a clock face i.e., the masking tape takes the place of hour marks that run along the periphery of your imaginary clock.
  • On each bit of tape, write one of the critical incidents.
  • If you don’t have enough space for a clock, you could stick the masking tape on the floor along the walls of your classroom or anything else that works for you.

Critical incidents 

  1. When you mail your Japanese colleague to ask for his opinions on anything, he takes days to get back to you.
  2. Your Belgian French team members come in 5 – 10 minutes late for meetings after lunch, even important ones.
  3. Your Indian direct report commits to deadlines he can’t meet and asks for extensions only after you request for a progress update.
  4. You are debating a critical issue with your German stakeholders and the meeting runs over. You ask for 5 – 10 min to conclude but they refuse to stay.
  5. Your Dutch colleague gets annoyed when you send her reminder mails about upcoming deadlines.
  6. Your Thai client tells you that he will send you his requirements tomorrow but tomorrow never seems to come.
  7. Your Swedish coworker asks you to stop sending him mails over the weekend although you don’t expect him to respond until Monday.
  8. Your American team members want to implement ideas immediately often without spending time thinking through challenges and issues.
  9. Your Brazilian clients spend a lot of time in meetings on social conversation instead of focusing on the agenda.
  10. Your Australian team members stop responding to emails by 4 PM Sydney time and often leave for the day by 3 PM on Fridays.
  11. Your Omani counterpart refuses to commit to a specific timeline, preferring to focus on outcomes and whose support will be required.
  12. Your Filipino direct reports never seem to be able to submit their deliverables per the deadlines you’ve established.

Procedure 

  • Ask participants to stand up and find a partner.
  • Stand at 12 o’clock and signpost the clock on the floor of the classroom and ask the participants to quickly move to their favourite time of day with their partner. Make sure there isn’t more than one pair at each point.
  • Participants read the critical incident on the masking tape and discuss it with their partner. They should look at the situation from the perspectives of the two parties involved.
  • Ring a bell or strike a gong to signal that each pair should move clockwise to a new point and repeat the procedure.
  • You can have the participants process as few or as many critical incidents as you have time to cover. You can also stop and take whole class feedback in between.

Variation

  • Use fewer critical incidents.

Debrief 

  • Ask participants to talk about the critical incidents from this list that they have personally experienced or that they found interesting.
  • Point out to participants how easy it is to become judgmental when dealing with cultural differences over time – she’s inefficient – he’s lazy – they’re wasting time etc.

Action plan 

  • Ask participants to reflect and discuss how they would address or resolve intercultural critical incidents caused by different perceptions of time.
  • You could assign a critical incident to each participant and ask them to research different cultural orientations and report back to the group either in the next lesson or through asynchronous online forum.