What I bring home from conferences

As most conference-goers know, our suitcases are generally much heavier when we travel home even if we had originally arrived at our destinations with gifts for friends and colleagues which we distributed while we were there. But somehow a number of books, magazines, brochures, business cards, souvenirs, etc. seem to gather, causing us to have to squash in our clothes and tug at zippers or sit on our suitcases to get them closed. But that is certainly not all we bring home with us.

As I am on sabbatical this semester from the university, I was able to go to conferences that I normally can’t attend. The first conference of 2015 was IATEFL Slovenia, http://www.iatefl.si/en/ which I have been to before; the big advantage this time, however, was that I could stay for the whole event. As usual, I found it to be an inspiring conference with an incredibly enthusiastic group of teachers and student helpers and a first-time experience of a plenary in the pool and a fantastic networking event in which delegates brought food from their home countries. With a wide range of nationalities represented at the conference, we had our pick and could sample food from around the globe. What I especially brought home from this conference, however, was the knowledge of a network of Teaching Associations (TAs) which partner with each other to send representatives to each others’ conferences. It was wonderful getting to know teachers not only from Slovenia but also from Croatia, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Bosnia, Hungary, Poland and Greece.

 

Lea Sobocan, President, and Sandra Vida, Vice President, of IATEFL Slovenia

Lea Sobocan, President, and Sandra Vida, Vice President, of IATEFL Slovenia

Student helpers at IATEFL Slovenia

Student helpers at IATEFL Slovenia

Getting to know each other with food from around the world at IATEFL Slovenia

Getting to know each other with food from around the world at IATEFL Slovenia

Speaking of Greece, the next stop on the conference tour was Athens where I delighted to have the chance to experience the TESOL Greece convention. http://tesolgreece.org/ It was a superbly organized event and the range of speakers and topics was impressive. The fantastic hospitality that I have always encountered in Greece was out in full force as the speakers were welcomed with a private tour of the Acropolis Museum and dinner on the night before it all began and an evening party for all attendees on Saturday evening. It was really a treat to have the chance to meet people I had only known through Facebook. There were some great ideas that I took home from this conference including a new way to hold a raffle and a moderated discussion among the plenary speakers which I thought was brilliant. One lasting impression was the wonderful performance on the NO Project which is an award-winning global anti-slavery educational campaign that specifically targets youth awareness of human trafficking through music, art, dance, theatre, film, animation, sport, creative writing, journalism and social media. http://www.thenoproject.org/english/

Enjoying the view with Chris Stanzer and Vassiliki Mandalu in Athens

Enjoying the view with Chris Stanzer and Vassiliki Mandalu in Athens

Athens

Athens

Judy Boyle and friends -  the NO Project

Judy Boyle and friends – the NO Project

Then it was off to Thessaloniki to the TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Convention. http://www.tesolmacedoniathrace.org/  The warmth we were met with here was incredible. The event also ran smoothly, my Facebook friends were a major part of the conference and I felt totally at home. This conference flew by quickly and afforded my first chance to try a Pecha Kucha which turned out to be less scary than I had envisioned. As my plenary at the conference dealt with the topic of getting unstuck and trying something new, I was happy for the chance to practice what I preach and the knowledge that I was able to take on this new challenge came come with me along with a slew of new friendships and ideas on teaching and learning.

Pecha Kucha poster for TESOL Macedonia Thrace Convention 'Back to Basics'

Pecha Kucha poster for TESOL Macedonia Thrace Convention ‘Back to Basics’

TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Convention - with Ken Wilson

TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Convention – with Ken Wilson

TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Convention with Alec Williams

TESOL Macedonia-Thrace Northern Greece Convention with Alec Williams

What can I say about the Annual IATEFL Conference? http://www.iatefl.org/ This year in Manchester was of course very special for me as I was voted in at the AGM as the IATEFL President. As I spent most of it in meetings, I didn’t get to many presentations but was glad to have the chance to see friends and colleagues and to catch up over coffee or dinner. Again, meeting people for the first time who were Facebook friends made this a very special event. It was great to see the increased support, however, for initiatives like The Fair List http://thefairlist.org/ and the Disabled Access Friendly Campaign http://www.disabled-accessfriendly.com/as well as the wide range of plenary speakers who covered topics I had little experience with. What I took home from Manchester was the feeling that IATEFL is like a family – many people commented on how welcoming they felt the conference was and this is something I hope we can continue to build on in years to come.

Manchester Central, the venue of the 2015 IATEFL International Conference

Manchester Central, the venue of the 2015 IATEFL International Conference

At the 2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Eleanor Broadbridge

At the 2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Eleanor Broadbridge

IATEFL BESIG committee receiving the Fair List award at the 2015 IATEFL Annual Conference

IATEFL BESIG committee receiving the Fair List award
at the 2015 IATEFL Annual Conference

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Prof. Yvonne Pratt-Johnson and the Patron of IATEFL, Prof. David Crystal

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Prof. Yvonne Pratt-Johnson and the Patron of IATEFL, Prof. David Crystal

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with  Teresa Gomez Carvalho, Carol Read, Sergio Juan Gómez, and Priscila Mateini

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Teresa Gomez Carvalho, Carol Read, Sergio Juan Gómez, and Priscila Mateini

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Carol Read, Vicki Hollett and Dorothy Zemach

2015 IATEFL Annual Conference with Carol Read, Vicki Hollett and Dorothy Zemach

A conference I had long heard about was the BELTA Day and this spring I was really glad to be able to go. http://www.beltabelgium.com/ Again, meeting online friends in person is a real treat and at this conference I was even able to reconnect with a teacher whose class I had visited over ten years ago when I was in Brugges on an Erasmus mobility exchange program. What I took home from Brussels, were new ideas from the talks and a wonderful swap shop at the end of the conference.

Brussels

Brussels

BELTA Day 2015 with President James Taylor

BELTA Day 2015 with President James Taylor

Meeting up with old friends - BELTA Day 2015 with Bruno Leys

Meeting up with old friends – BELTA Day 2015 with Bruno Leys

This past weekend was the last conference of the summer semester 2015 and afforded several new experiences. For one thing, it was in Budapest, a city I had last visited in 1975, so forty years ago. I was delighted to see parts of the city I had never seen before such as the castle district. It was also the first joint IATEFL BESIG http://www.besig.org/- IATEFL Hungary http://www.iatefl.hu/ conference and seeing how an IATEFL SIG (Special Interest Group) and a TA (Teaching Association) can work together on an event was a valuable experience. Presenters came from all far and wide including Hong Kong and Australia as well as neighboring counties in Europe. As the conference was on ESP (English for Specific Purposes) in Business English, I got to attend presentations on topics I usually do not deal with in my every day routines. Having the chance to extend my knowledge was valuable and I once again realized that it is simply not possible to stop learning. The speed networking held at the end of the conference was something I had never seen and is one of the ideas that is on its way home with me as well as the sheer joy of having time to sit and chat with other ELT professionals over a meal or a drink.

Budapest

Budapest

IATEFL BESIG and IATEFL Hungary committees at the joint event in Budapest, June 2015

IATEFL BESIG and IATEFL Hungary committees at the joint event in Budapest, June 2015

In conclusion, I think that we as ELT professionals are lucky that there are so many opportunities to attend conferences to share knowledge, meet up with colleagues, make connections and feel part of a wider community of support and friendship as well as experiencing different cities and cultures. I am very much looking forward to the next conference and hope to find new things to put into my suitcase.

 

What advice would I give my former self?

Background
This is a really interesting question to consider at this point in my teaching career. I actually started teaching for the first time in 1972 when I was at university finishing a Master’s degree in music. We could register as substitute teachers and would be called when needed to cover classes when someone was ill. It was an experience that taught me flexibility and survival techniques in the classroom. At the same time I was finishing up a certification in music education and the combination of reality versus theory was enlightening. I then spent two full years teaching what we now call ‘at-risk’ students in a school in the one of the poorest areas of the city. The lesson I learned then was ‘it was often more important how we taught than what we taught’, something I have kept in mind all these years.

a day out with the school kids at the park

a day out with the school kids at the park

a school performance of 'Rubber Ducky'

a school performance of ‘Rubber Ducky’

Starting off in Austria
When I arrived in Austria in 1981 I began auditioning for opera houses but needed a ‘day job’ and started off with two types of jobs. One was tutoring children which helped me to learn the names used by German speakers for English grammar points (such as tenses) and the other was at an adult education center where I quickly discovered that I enjoyed working with grown-ups to help them learn the language. I think my advice to myself would be that one of the most important things to understand is how German-speakers think and how they make sense of concepts in English. I found that my learners often were able to memorize rules and recite them but as the concepts of tenses are different, I needed to better understand where these problems lay. A few years after beginning to teach, I did a diploma in Adult Education which gave me theoretical background which I was able to implement in my practical sessions.

Moving into teacher training
This started fairly early in my teaching career. I often took the opportunity to to take part in professional development and began discovering new and exciting methods from people such as Jim Wingate, Charles Schmid, Simon Greenall, Sheelagh Dellar, Michael Grinder and Eric Jensen on topics including suggestopedia, NLP in the classroom, communicative activities, cooperative learning and brain-based learning. These courses encouraged me to work as a facilitator and offer to teach other teachers what I had learned. I went to the UK and the US four times in  summer and I think my advice here would be to have continued spending time in the summers taking intensive training courses.

Conferences

My first presentation was in 1994 and I but I think I attended one or two conferences before working up the courage to present myself. Since then I have been at over 70 conferences and spoken on a variety of topics ranging from using texts to activities in the Business English classroom as well as NLP and writing activities for Business English learners. Advice I could have used then would have been to go to as many presentations as possible and keep a journal on what made presentations work and what didn’t. This would have been a fascinating piece of work to refer to today.

giving a plenary at the ELTAF conference in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2014

giving a plenary at the ELTAF conference in Wiesbaden, Germany in 2014

Teaching Associations
When I first heard about TEA (Teachers of English in Austria) in the early 1990s I realized that joining an association would be a great way to start connecting to other English teachers. I slowly became more active and eventually joined the board and was Chair from 2001-2003. After standing down from this position I realized I missed working on a committee and ran for the position of Events Coordinator of IATEFL BESIG in 2008 and for Coordinator in 2009. This has become a major part of my life and after joining the membership committee of IATEFL in 2013 I was encouraged to stand for Vice President which I did and am now the Acting VP of IATEFL. Looking back, it would have been great to start being active in a teaching association even earlier in my career.

Writing
Writing has been a big part of my life since I first published a book in 2001 with photocopiable activities for business English. Since then I have written other books in the business English field as well as course books, workbooks, CD ROM activities and a methodology book. I am just now looking into ePublishing and am still exploring the possibilities of this as well as self-publishing. I suppose I could have tried this earlier and taken the chance to publish without a publisher behind me but that is still an area in which I have much to discover.
photo of books MJR
PLN

It wasn’t until I got my first smart phone that I began to become part of a PLN (or personal learning network). This opened up so many doors to me through the eltchat, eltpics, Facebook groups, Twitter and so on. I can’t imagine today what I did before this and wish I had started doing this much earlier.

compiled by Roseli Serra

compiled by Roseli Serra

Blogging
I also came to blogging rather late, having started  in 2014. It is difficult to find the time and then it takes me awhile to find the appropriate photos to illustrate my points.  But I do wish I had taken the plunge and done it earlier. On the other hand, it is never too late to begin a new phase and I am glad I went ahead and tried out this wonderful way to be reflective.

Learning a new language
Living in Austria meant having to learn German but I don’t remember much about how I went about it. There are some aspects which have stayed with me but I didn’t learn it very systematically. I went to some classes but as we only read from a book and did gap fills it wasn’t really a learning process for me. I always wished that I had written out the three types of nouns in red for feminine, blue for masculine and green for neuter to help me remember. I am now learning Hebrew which has been a fascinating experience. Not only it is challenging to deal with a different script, but it is a language which is very different from English. I am happy to have the chance to both observe myself in learning as well as how my teacher works with me. I wish I had started earlier to learn a new language as I think this type of self-reflection is one of the most valuable things a teacher can do.

Finding the balance

Is teaching a job just like any other? Is it something we do from ‘9 to 5’ and then go on to do something else entirely such as spending time with family and friends, or taking part in different activities and hobbies, etc? Or is it more ‘something we are’.

Observing my friends and colleagues, I tend to think it is the latter. Many of us spend our free time involved in what we do during our ‘work time’. This doesn’t just include the preparation, grading homework and tests, turning in grades, etc. But we also attend online training programs such as courses or webinars, go to conferences to hear about the latest trends and materials in our field and even spend time attending sessions with colleagues online such as the #eltchat http://eltchat.org/wordpress/ or uploading photos we take to #eltpics http://www.eltpics.com/. In fact, I find myself looking around and considering whether or not my surroundings would be interesting for the eltpics collection and have even contacted friends on Facebook to ask if I can upload their photos and credit them when I see outstanding ones. In addition, freelancers in adult education may find themselves spending time with our students outside of work or becoming interested in topics that go beyond the English classroom such as coaching or learning about cross-cultural awareness.

2014 BESIG Bonn banner

IATEFL BESIG Conference in Bonn, Germany

What has this meant for me personally? When I lived in New York City in the late 1970’s, I had an office job buying TV time for advertisers. It was interesting, I met wonderful people and had the chance to do a bit of travel and find out about the world of TV. In my spare time, I studied music and the two worlds occasionally touched each other when friends came to hear me perform. But since moving to Austria and beginning to teach English, my life is more balanced. I teach for a local bank which is also the main sponsor of the opera house in the city I live in. For the last several years I have been attending the opera regularly and often see students there or chat about the productions in my lessons with them. My university students I run into on the bus or the tram or at a local restaurant and we often have the chance to chat outside of class as we live in the same small city.

Sculpture in City Hall Park, NYC

Sculpture in City Hall Park, NYC

Market on the Main Square, Graz, Austria

Market on the Main Square, Graz, Austria

As teaching has led to so many other opportunities, I have also had the chance to do teacher training in other cities, gotten to know colleagues all over the world and share ideas and experiences. As I began to approach the age when many of my friends in ‘9 to 5 jobs’ were retiring or looking forward to it, I realized how lucky I was to be in a profession where I could keep working and making a difference for as long as I wanted. And it is a profession that can be changed and adapted to different times in one’s life as there are so many choices we can make. Some choose to take on translations that they can do at home, others write, some colleagues become language school or department heads, others stay in the classroom, some get more involved in research, and a number of us become volunteers for local or international teaching associations such as IATEFL or TESOL and their associates. In most cases, at least those I know about, colleagues have been lucky enough to make those choices themselves, giving many of us the chance to grow, develop and be productive members of the ELT community for as long as we choose to do it.

Coffee in an IATEFL mug

Coffee in an IATEFL mug

Making lessons personal

Over the years of working with a variety of learners in different settings (in-company, tertiary, private tutoring, teacher training) the aspect I feel appeals to all of them is making lessons personal. I realize that this cannot be done in every case, especially when we follow a course book with defined tasks or need to prepare students for exams in which they are judged on how well they understand reading, listening and writing tasks. But when we have the choice to add in a task or activity which allows them to tap into their inner feelings, opinions, and thoughts, this can be beneficial to both the engagement of the learner as well as helping their recall of the language at a later time.

In my lessons at the university I have created a number of activities in order to personalize the lessons. We are required to give homework and I use it to help learners practice the grammar points we cover in the course. But the input I give is general enough so that the output can be determined by the learner. In practicing the future I asked them to write out what they know is going to take place as well as what they think will happen in their own countries in the next 30 – 50 years and the texts I received (in a B1 multi-national course) were astounding. My students come mostly from central and southern Europe and their thought-provoking essays were not only fascinating to read but clearly provided them with practice of the target language. The next written task involved them writing about an important first event in their own lives. I got stories about learning to ride a bicycle and the trust they needed to have in the person who taught them, the first time they took a trip by themselves and that feeling of independence, the first time they cooked a meal and how it turned out, etc.

Main building of the University of Graz

Main building of the University of Graz

In class, we also do a number of activities which involve a great deal of student input. Even a simple ‘find someone who…’ activity requires them to talk to each other and get information from others in the class. In a worksheet I created called ‘All about me’ All About Me 1 they had to compare notes with another learner about things in the past such as their favourite colours, food or types of clothing, what they wanted to be when they grew up, what they were good or bad at doing, etc. This pair work got them chatting and exchanging information. They were not only interested in what the other person had to say, but also finding commonalities with others in the class which can help to build a positive atmosphere and make them more comfortable within a learning community.

Students finding someone who …

Other possibilities to make lessons personal can make use of music or art as the impetus. You can give learners a replication of a painting and asking them to describe their feelings when they look at it or a photograph and ask them to imagine they are in the picture and have to describe what they see. A piece of music can be played and learners then asked to choose adjectives to talk about it. In these cases, they may have very different impressions leading to discussions in which they can explain why they feel the way they do, again lending a personal touch to the activity.

Uni students what are you going to do with that

Uni students what are you going to do with that 2 Students finding their own answers to a board game

Of course we cannot only do activities such as these as we often have to follow a syllabus, prepare learners for assessment, train them to write for academic journals, present at conferences or run meetings. But adding such activities to a lesson can be motivating, fun and give them the opportunity to experiment with the language in a meaningful way.

And as a final thought: ‘Is there anything more personal than learning a new language to express yourself in?’