Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where You Come From - An Inexhaustible Lesson Topic

I come from Kansas City, well better said I grew up in the suburb of Overland Park, Kansas.  When I meet most people in Europe, neither ring many bells.  Kansas City is one of the non-descript cities of a few million people which litter the middle two-thirds of the country.  In fact, if you landed in KC, Cincinatti, Minneapolis, Dallas, or Pittsburgh you could forget where you are because they are all the same.  This is 'fly-over' country which many people only see from 36,000 feet.

Of course, the residents of these place would deeply disagree with this statement and could talk at length about the unique features, culture, and legends of their hometown.  I distinctly remember a taxi ride in Springfield, Missouri in which the cabbie insisted on giving me 100 years of the city's history in 10 minutes.  He even stopped the meter to take me past the next performing arts center.  It would not be any different in Omaha or Louisville.  I found the same in Glasgow and Liverpool.

But with the invention of the internet and the flattening of the world, these places have generally lost their uniqueness and developed into carbon copy cities with nearly identical cultural traits.  I bring up this point because much the same has happened here in Germany as well.  Local variety has been diminished by global sameness.  But superstores and chain restaurants are boring.  Because they must attract the global masses, they avoid risks and anything which might offend the local consumers.

I find that local flavor, local traditions, and local culture make for highly interesting lessons.  I like discussing the exceptionalism of our region.  The students are proud of their perceived uniqueness.  I believe this also has a distinct business function.  Many business small talk conversations revolve around such topics.  They are useful in business.  It gives the parties the chance to talk about something they know and like.  But it also allows them to get a sense of the values, motives and background of the interlocutor.  These topics leave space for stories and humor, but also provide a certain distance from dangerous personal opinions.

It is interesting to see, for example, how foreign trips are arranged.  Guests are often hosted in a hotel or neighborhood which has retained traces of the local culture.  Guided tour events are arranged to give guests a short journey through the traditions and legends of the region.  There is always the desire to give the guest the 'authentic' experience.

With this in mind, here are a few discussion topics which I often use in training.

  • How did your hometown get its name?
  • Who is the most famous person from your hometown?
  • Is there anything from your home which is 'world famous'?
  • Tell me about the special food from your home region.
  • What unique traditions does it have?
  • Does your hometown have any 'rival' cities?  Why?
  • What are the most famous buildings in your town?  What happened there?
  • Tell me about a festival you have every year.  Why should I go?
Google maps and street view are great resources for this.  I also find that these topics can often be captured and turned into skills training.  The simplest is something around tourism but I try not to use this too often and instead look for something more creative.  For example, I once had a student from Herzogenauerach here in Germany.  The most famous story about this town is of Adolph and Rudolph Dassler who founded Adidas and Puma respectively.  The two brothers fell out and never spoke to each other again.  But this little town is still the headquarters of these two sportswear giants.  I took the story (which all are familiar with) and set the task of negotiating a merger between the two firms.  Their goal was to 'heal the wounds' of the past.  The students did some internet research (due diligence) to gather some financial data, worked in teams to prepare for the negotiation, and then held the meeting.

This is just one example of how these lessons can turn out.  I will be heading to Kansas City next week for a short trip to say hello to friends and family, but at the same time I will be sniffing the winds of cultural change in my hometown.  Perhaps I will find a few lesson ideas along the way.

So, I encourage you to look into where the students come from and capture these topics to develop engaging and personal lessons.  It works for me.  But sadly, we never did get Adidas and Puma back together... the loyalties simply run too deep.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Communicating Internationally - A Survey

Dear Readers,

I would like to ask for your support.  I am currently conducting a market research survey to complete a university project.  I would be very grateful if you participated or forwarded the survey link to others who might provide valuable insights.

First a little background.  My first attempt toward a Bachelor's degree at American University in Washington, D.C. ran aground due to the tuition.  I then spent seven years in the military.  One of the veterans' benefits is free tuition paid by the United States government after leaving the service.  I am now in my final two semesters at the University of Maryland University College pursuing a degree in Marketing.

For one of my final projects, I have decided to assess the market for English language awareness training among native speakers.  During my past four years of Business English training, I have often heard that native-speakers are more difficult to deal with than other language learners.  A survey by Business Spotlight in 2009 on conference calls seemed to confirm this.  A colleague and friend of mine, Matt Halsdorff, has even dedicated his whole blog to this subject.

I would like to get responses from native speakers with international contacts.  My goal is to find out how native speakers assess their international communication and how they are prepared for their task.  While not directed at ESL teachers and trainers, some may fit the desired sample for the survey.

The survey is strictly designed as an academic project and my tuition is paid from public funds.  Therefore, I will post a detailed summary of my findings here on my blog for everyone to review.  I do not intend to use the information as intellectual property or for competitive advantage.  I hope this will entice you to forward the link.

Link to survey:

Thank you very much for your help.

Charles Rei

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Terrain of Teacher Training

My background is military, specifically as a sergeant in the combat engineers.  I have mentioned before that much of what I have learned about training methods comes from the U.S. Army.  I find that many have misconceptions about the training and management style of the armed forces.  There is considerably less yelling, cursing and threatening than outsiders believe.  Not only are non-commissioned officers continuously trained on motivating, coaching and mentoring methods, but they are also used continuously in practice.

But the focus of this article is simply to draw connections between military training and ELT teacher training.  Originally, this was to be a comment on a recent post by Chia Suan Chong on the English Teaching Professional website.  But I quickly found that I had too much to say for a comment block.

In the article, Ms. Chong rightly states that teacher training methods fall along a continuum between prescriptive input/evaluation and a guidance-driven method based on exploration, critical thinking and creativity.  My position is that introductory teacher training should include both.  Fundamental and routine tasks should be taught and practiced to the point of 'muscle-memory'.  Then higher tasks should emphasize responding to the environment appropriately and decision-making.

As an example, let's look at how the military teaches land navigation.

Step 1 - Know Your Tools

During the first steps, the new privates are methodically taught how to use a compass and a map.  This includes testing their knowledge of marginal data on a map, symbols, colors, etc.  They are also taught to identify the ten major and minor terrain features like hill, ridge, valley, cliff, spur, etc.  They must also find accurate grid coordinates on a map.  This is very basic stuff, but also very important.  These simple skills are augmented by more advanced skills like intersection and resection to determine a point on the map from two other known points.  Finding accurate grid coordinates is the key to calling for air support, medical evacuation, sending reports and directing artillery.  These simple 'mini-tasks' of navigation are practiced repeatedly until the failure rate is near zero.

The tools of the trade.
Source: Quique251, Wiki Commons
Step 2 - Plotting a Route

This step again teaches fundamental navigation but adds in an element of critical thinking.  The privates are given a point A and point B to plot and told to draw a route on the map which will take them there.  When plotting a route there are right and wrong answers.  For example, sometimes the straight line route is the best method.  Sometimes 'hand-railing' (following a linear terrain feature like a river) is best.  Sometimes, the best route is a series of determined checkpoints which avoid impassable areas or keep the group on the best tactical ground.  The privates must be able to justify why the route is the best.  If they fail to see the problems with their route (it takes the group over a cliff, it goes through an open field, it takes too long, etc.), it is wrong.

Note, at this point no one has even stepped foot in the forest.

Source: FM 3-25.26 Map Reading and Land Navigation,
U.S. Dept of the Army, approved for public release

Step 3 - Following and Deviating from a Route

The final step is to go into the forest and actually move from point A to point B.  Using a planned route, the soldiers start moving.  At this point they are using the 'muscle memory' skills to ensure they are correctly following the route.  They are constantly checking to ensure they are on track.  In fact, during a movement, one soldier will continuously keep the pace count (how far) and another will repeatedly check the compass (direction).  But here's the thing...  The terrain is never identical to the map.

Most maps are drawn with 10 meter contour lines.  So, many small depressions, swamps and ridges do on appear on the map.  This is where the privates learn how to read micro-terrain.  They will need to go around small clearings, minor cliffs, etc.  They will also need to continually keep the group in a defensible position.  So the movement should always have places for cover (large rocks, small ditches, etc.)  The ability to read micro-terrain is life saving.  Foot patrols in Afghanistan are supreme experts at this skill.  But it is taught starting in basic training.

The key to deviating from the drawn route is to constantly know where you are... within 10 meters.  Once you have 'lost your grid' it can take quite some time to find it again and you can no longer call for help.  This is a very dangerous situation and causes the whole patrol to become nervous.

Reaching the destination is a combination of several key elements.  They properly conducted key prescribed tasks, they made a correct plan based on the terrain, they deviated from the designed route to respond effectively to unexpected ground, and they always knew where they were.

Can you spot the micro-terrain?
Source: Oliver Herold, Wiki Commons
Okay... back to English Teaching

I believe that beginning teachers should be taught how to 'navigate' a classroom.  At the beginning this includes several fundamental skills which can be repeated in a variety of situations.  They should understand various types of activities, what they are for, and how long they take.  They should be able to spot errors and lacks (finding grids).  They should also be able to identify needs at a larger level (terrain features).

Next, they should be able to make a lesson plan to navigate through the terrain.  Note, in the military we don't make a route for every footstep, that is handled in the basic compass/pace counting skills.  The teacher trainees should also learn that there are several ways to get from point A to point B but some are wrong.  The technique of hand-railing is useful in land navigation but is sometimes dangerous, just as using a linear terrain feature (a course book) is not always the correct answer in the classroom.

Finally, the live practice teaching sessions should be used to train and assess how the teacher responds to the micro-terrain of the class (emerging language, unexpected gaps, unexpected topics/wishes).  Teachers should be taught (just as soldiers are) that deviating from the route is necessary as long as they constantly know why they left their planned course and where they are.  Watching a teacher 'lose their grid' in the classroom is just as painful as watching a patrol lose their way in the forest.  They start going in all directions at once and charging up mountains to find their way.  At the end, everyone is exhausted, frustrated and confused.

So, let's teach new teachers the art of class navigation.  But here's a reminder for some... we never taught privates navigation by simply taking them to the forest and telling them to start walking.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

I Only Have One Lesson Plan

Over the past several years, I have been asked numerous times to share lesson plans with other trainers.  I have no problem with this and I think it is great.  I think Claire Hart's blog (please keep it up Claire) is simply magnificent, as well as the work of 'lesson plan gurus' like Phil Wade.  I would love to be able to produce such clear and structured ideas which support the students.  So, for the past several months I have been trying to write posts about lesson plans I use in class.

The problem is I don't have lesson plans.  Or better said, I only have one lesson plan.  I recently filled up a my teaching notebook (I use a traditional spiral notebook) and I began transferring the information I needed for continuity into my new one.  Since mid-July I have had many great lessons and some which were not so good, but they all started with the same plan.  The differences were the choices I made during the lesson.

This became readily apparent to me a few weeks ago.  In one training project, I run two technical English mini lessons (45 min each), one in the morning and one in the late afternoon.  Each lesson has the same plan but they never cover the same thing.  Sometimes both are great, sometimes one is disappointing.  For example, I wrote down "Examine the electrical system of my car" in my notes, but the only commonality between the lessons were the words fuse and circuit breaker (and the difference + collocations).

So, here is my lesson plan.

Click on the flow chart to enlarge.
Let me walk you through the steps.

Step 1 - The Students Start Talking

I don't use lots of scripted warm-up activities.  In most cases, my students have 60-90 minutes in class each week and they want to talk.  Sure, there are some confidence issues at first, but it doesn't normally take long for them to come in and start chatting.  Indeed, teacher input at the beginning or framework materials can direct the topic and in some cases, I have a specific pathway to follow.  Either I have announced (or we decided) the focus of the lesson beforehand, or I have certain needs which must be covered in a specific way.

If they do not start talking right out of blocks (or the class is consistently dominated by some) I may use targeted questioning to manage the discussion.  But mostly, I want the learners to talk about themselves and ask each other questions.  Usually it works easily, but I may need to provide structure (e.g. pair discussions) to assist.

Here are some simple examples of framework tasks or targeted questioning if the students don't start talking.

  • Draw a picture of your desk, workplace, apartment/house, etc.
  • What did you do yesterday evening when you got home from work?
  • Have you ever...?
  • What do you think about...?
  • I'm curious, why...?
  • Let's have a short update meeting, give us a one minute update on your current tasks/project.
Of course, the possibilities are endless.  In most cases, I consider this phase complete when the conversation moves from teacher driven to learner driven (either in topic or dynamic).

Step 2 - What is the topic?

At some point, I capture the topic and start to drive the conversation in a productive direction.  I have yet to find a topic which does not afford a variety of lessons.  Even something seemingly routine and mundane can be manipulated to achieve great results.  But some connections are clearer than others.  For example, sports leads quite easily into finance.  Depending on time, I will need to capture a topic quickly and work toward a focus.  Prescribed warmers, framework materials, and immediate input activities (like an article) will, of course, help drive a topic, but I prefer to let them express themselves freely.  I tend to remember that they have just left their desks and are looking forward to a few minutes of relaxation.  Constraints on the conversation may only cause negative feelings.  I am prepared to leave 15-30 minutes to finding a topic.

Step 3 - Determine the focus of the lesson

Once the topic has been captured, I will select a focus of the lesson.  This is not a lottery.  I have genuine expectations for the learners to improve and I have a duty to the customer to provide effective training to improve job performance.  I will quickly weigh three factors in determining the focus of the lesson.  Part one are the needs (and/or lacks, as Jeremy Day calls them), part two are the expectations for the training and lesson, part three is lesson continuity.  Depending on the situation, I will balance these factors.

For example, if it is an unusually stressful time in the company/department, it may be best to limit the demands of the lesson and take what you can get.  If the company goals trump what the learners expect then the training will have a different focus.  But note, this does not mean changing the topic, simply driving the lesson toward a tangible goal.  So, I have seven types of lessons which also determine teacher talking time and the quantity of input.  I prefer to continuously change the focus of the lesson and I feel uncomfortable (as do the students) when the class repeatedly follows the same pathway.

Step 4 - Focus on Language

Once I have selected the focus of the lesson, I have taken control of class.  In other words, 'We are going somewhere, and I'm going to take you there.'  The question is then, how are we going to get there?  What is the method?  The method often depends on my calculation of resources.

Here is a summary mind map of the resources I consider.
Click on the image to enlarge.
Part of this is a complete understanding of what resources are available.  As we remove each resource from the equation, we constrain our ability to design effective exercises.  If you have everything mentioned above, the activities are endless.

This is also where methodology comes into play.  For example, I may use a TTT, PPP, or guided discovery method to teach grammar.  I may focus on collocations for vocabulary.  Sometimes I even switch to the Silent Way mid-lesson.  In some cases, I may even get the idea that we should just keep chatting and have a mainly conversation class punctuated by occasional feedback interludes.  But this is not the default setting of the lesson and I'll often clarify this with the learners, "I get the feeling everyone is a little tired from work, is it alright if we just keep talking and I'll give you some feedback?"

From this methodology and resources balance, we'll have role plays or listen to a recording and dissect the language.  It all depends on the three factors.  This is why no lesson is the same.  Note:  I almost always ask the learners to design their own role play.

Example Lesson

A 90 minute lesson with tax consultants (B1-B2).  They had talked about the need to understand contracts in the previous lessons.  The learners have different offices, some work in the consultancy offices and some have offices embedded with a major client.  These students travel to the consultancy offices for the lesson.  One of them arrives in class with a giant stack of papers (possible resource!).

I am curious about the stack of papers and she tells me that it is training material in German (damn!) about recent tax law changes (topic?) and she has to learn it.  I ask if she feels 'out of the loop' (boarded) because she's away from management.  After a few minutes the conversation centers around the 'milk issue'.  When you work at the consultancy, coffee (plus milk and sugar are provided), but they have conflicts when using the milk and sugar at the client (coffee is negotiated and paid by the consultancy).  I recognize a prime a topic here (free coffee and the office kitchen are perfect for a variety of lessons).

I capture the topic and set a focus.  "That is interesting.  Okay, today in the lesson we are going to write a contract for the use of the kitchen and the 'milk issue'."  I have several resources.  First, the learners have probably read more contracts than I have.  I know register.  We have the internet so template/example contracts are searchable but printing is difficult.  I have a whiteboard with five markers.  Four are dry, so I have one color.  One learner has paper but no pen (I have an extra).  There are four students so pair work is possible without an obtrusive trainer.  I don't have a private space so while a negotiation might be nice, there is no real place for the two pairs to prepare.

I elect for a scaffolded approach to the productive skill (well, it is actually a receptive skills lesson through producing the language).  I say, "Okay, before we write the contracts, I'd like to give you a little support because contracts use a specific language."  I have 60 minutes left so I am looking at a limited scope, mainly focusing on word choice when changing register.

Input Segment

I point out the word shall.  Shall has different meanings between everyday British English (which the learners had in school) and contracts.  Shall = should + will in everyday English, but must in contracts.  A big difference.  I bring up a template contract (actually my rental agreement for my condo in Washington DC) to show how shall is used in contracts.  This reinforces the point.

Discussion Segment

I point out that shall is a signal word in contracts and I rely on their experience in contracts to find more (and to gauge their ability).  I am looking for words like guarantee, continuous, unobstructed, etc.  They offer a few, I offer praise.  We clarify, with the learners explaining meaning, and move on.

Eliciting Segment

My estimation of their language is that they are fairly proficient in socializing and that they struggle when they have to increase their professionalism.  On my list of needs is switching register and tone to speak to clients.  If you have read my blog before about need analysis, I create a table of needs instead of a linear pathway.

This topic and focus creates a great opportunity for addressing word choice to affect register.  I pull up an old PowerPoint presentation (actually, I disconnected the computer and pasted the table into the client's template) which had everyday informal words on one side and a blank column for formal words on the other.  For example, give = provide (this approach was inspired by the The Business coursebook from MacMillan).  I wrote down in my notebook that we should look at the Open University video on French influence later.  I also wrote the word 'Leo' because Leo Selivan has covered the various lexical layers of English in his talks.  The students are tasked with giving formal words with similar meanings.  The pair compare results and I add a few missed words (e.g. get = obtain, acquire).

Production Segment

Okay, I have 30 minutes left and it's time to get writing.  The students write the contract in pairs, I check it over their shoulder for accuracy, they read it aloud to the group.  I board key words like aforementioned.  We rephrase a few sentences by comparing and contrasting.

Done... its all about milk (which costs €.52/L but has an immense emotional value).

Step 5 - Transfer Design

I have become convinced that it is important to explicitly highlight how the lessons can be applied to the job.  During my talk at the BESIG conference Stuttgart on need analysis I said, "The learners don't know what they don't know."  I similarly believe that "The learners don't know how to use the lessons unless you tell them."  I like to end the lesson with a short reflective session on how the vocabulary, skill, etc. can be used in their job.  This is tantamount to commitment and I often record this in my notebook.  I may check up on this transfer in a later lesson.  In other words, this is part of the continuity factors when deciding the focus of the lesson.

Step 6 - Check on Learning

I like to have a review session at the end of the lesson.  In general, I expect that if I teach it once, they learn it.  Of course, this is completely unrealistic and I did not start out this way.  But I found that the students themselves felt guilty if they could not give the learning objectives of the previous lessons and said "Ach Schei├če!" if I corrected them on a mistake we had covered.  So, I expect the highest of standards.  If it is written on the board or sent via email in a PowerPoint... it should be learned.  I am understanding, but I don't let them off the hook or justify their non-performance.  If it is something I have covered repeatedly with one learner I will put them on the spot in front of the class.  Granted, it is wrapped in humor and rapport.

But the last phase is to check that they learned.  They will often say that they will apply the lesson (response bias) but fail the quiz at the end.  My most common method is to remove all supports (erase whiteboard, turn off projector, put away notes) and ask them to summarize the lesson.

Here are some example questions:

  • "Joachim, give me one word you learned today."  Then go around the class... it becomes progressively harder.  Periodically challenge other factors of understanding (register, spelling, etc.)
  • Use higher cognitive levels of understanding (Bloom's Taxonomy of verbs will help you devise questions).  "Sophie, what is the difference between Thanks for calling and I appreciate your call?"
  • "Okay class... I've erased the board.  Andreas, please come take the marker.  The class will help you recreate everything on the board."  

So, that's it.  That my lesson plan.  I wish I could tell you that I control what happens in every lesson, but I am simply a guide to the language.  I can only selectively direct each session to meet a specific need or expectation.  I would hesitate to say my approach is dogme because my default setting it attain maximum value, which I question about totally free-form teaching.  I still follow traditional teaching methods like task-based learning, but within the context of learner content.

I cannot give you lesson plans... I can only give you lesson reports.  They are quite different.  Sorry.