Thursday, December 22, 2011

A reality on the ground in Jerusalem

Well, it's CHRISTMAS!!! The elders and siblings are entering the arena in a matter of hours. We will celebrate Christmas in the Holdyland. These overseas Chrimbos are becoming more normal now, for me at least. We've had them in Marrakesh, London, Barnstaple (N.Devon), Holme (Peterborugh), even on the beach in Thailand.

The last few months have been quite something, I am pleased how fast I can adapt, and how my profession, and experience, creates opportunities for me straight away. As a UN spouse, it's good that I can find routine when faced with unfamiliar territory. My MA has been bubbling along too, so I've managed to progress as a student, and do something useful.

I have done some English language teacher training in the West Bank. The first was at Hebron University. It was a week's course. The programme is called Classroom Language and was well received (and even got press!) by the 24 participants. One saying to me that she really wanted to be an English teacher now! High praise indeed from my pre-service trainees. They were a really enthusiastic group (all female) who gave me an excellent (and my first of the year) Christmas card which takes pride, of place, in the centre of the sideboard.

I also attended the third Quality English Language Teaching Symposium at Birzeit University and delivered a practical workshop on writing, and feedback, that was marked in it's difference to the research paper presentations that seemed to dominate. It was very interesting and heartening to see Palestinian university lecturers share their research in short presentations with peers (I am a big supporter of sharing). This day also gave me a sense of the local standards about how research is conducted, shared, and critiqued. It is my area of focus this semester on my MA, as I develop my researcher competence (DRC).

The DRC is going okay, though I have suffered a number of stalls, I feel it is probably symptomatic of research generally. I have had to dust myself down after a few wobbles, and crises....why doesn't my f*&@ing research method give me the answer to my research question!!....why did I tell my interviewee the topic of my research?!!!....why didn't i read that paper, before doing the interview?! This kind of thing. :) All in all, this is supposed to be a learning experience, I am and I am nearly there.

I have applied both deductive codes and listened for inductive criteria in my data, and it's starting to give form to a 'theory'. By taking a grounded theory approach, I am able to use the data I have generated to make my own theory: there's no pressure to match to someone elses' already existing theory.

My research question is about one teachers thoughts on their continuous professional development. For me it was important to get to know the territory quickly, so that I could make a meaningful contribution or intervention, as an outsider, fairly quickly, as part of my dissertation, next semester.

Research has been a big chunk of my life this last three months, I have also been doing some research on pre-service English Language Teacher Education in the West Bank and Gaza, and also took part in the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language 's (IATEFL's) Research Special Interst Group (RESIG) online discussion of an article by Simon Borg. It was a good experience, though it was only a week long in its duration. It was definitely another learning opportunity.

This year has been pretty manic. I started it in Switzerland (that was a good party with some bad singing), jetted in to Jordan, 'survived' Syria, led workshops in Lebanon, went mad in Manchester for the summer, saw some beautiful sculptures at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, got taken to one side at Tel-Aviv airport, and queued at Qalandia checkpoint.

I look forward to 2012, and hopefully to less international movement, though Glasgow, Amman, Birmingham (UK), Muscat and Battle are all penciled in already, my stinking great carbon footprint. Best to you and yours, a peaceful season to all.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What i am up to...touched down in Jerusalem

So, i have touched down in Jerusalem. It's been extremely good so far, done a lot of visiting to schools and teachers and talking shop. This has coincided with my Master's Developing Researcher Competence module which so far has been very good and thought provoking. I can certainly feel the growth in my researcher competency, though there is quite alot of procedural crossover with other modules, in particular related to the brainstorming and focusing a topic for investiagation. For this module I am encouraged to write a researcher journal about my progress (or lack there of). This journal has some overlap with what's going on in this space, my blog. However, I shan't bother you with the details other than to say I have decided to focus my pilot study on English language teacher education, and find out more about how context affects a teacher's professional development. My research question is what does an English teachers think about their professional development opportunities and activities?
My hunches are multiple, but I imagine that I will find out that CPD activities are limited, and afforded by features of context. I also imagine that I will find out about people's views of outside organisations, and the work they do.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Five week pre-sessional course

image inside Manchester's iconic University Place Building. Pictured my class, me top right :)

This summer I was working in Manchester for the University Language Centre. In many ways it was an eye opener, and really gave me a taste for working in higher education. Working in Switzerland at Les Roches gave me some insight into university life, and this has perhaps been an extension of that work. However, Manchester is huge in comparison, and the students I am working with here are more diverse in their studies than those in Les Roches who were all doing hotel management, or similar. The bulk of my work was with a class are all 'social science' majors, most of them Chinese, all in their 20s. They are hoping to join schools as diverse as economics and education, dependent on their successful competition of the course. Most were potential master's candidates, but a few were going to join undergraduate programmes. They ranged from B1-C2 in language level, and were equally varied in their interpersonal / intercultural communication skills.

Generally, it was nice to be in a class with such bright people who I could share my MA experiences with. I am a good advert for doing an MA at Manchester, I have thoroughly enjoyed mine, so far, and rabbit away about how good it is to anyone willing to listen. This has bothered my sister, and some of my friends, given that now I talk about learning with glazed, fundamentalist eyes!

For the language centre managers, and co-ordinators, this was by far the biggest pre-sessional course run by the ULC (University Language Centre). There were 90 teachers, ninety! Thousands of students in a variety of buildings, studying a range of subjects, and so on. The scale of this meant that we were afforded generous amounts of freedom, which of course is a double-edged sword.

I was coming back in after quite a long lay-off, as they say in football, meaning I hadn't done much teaching in the months preceding, and I had never worked on such a course before. In essence I had a bit of classroom rust which manifested itself in perhaps being less reflexive in my actions. Ideas, and reflections had to be a bit more drawn out, and thought about, than perhaps would have been in a more familiar context.

The materials used were in-house produced, and generally pretty good, I was surprised how many activities I was able to supplement with my own materials-free/low alternatives. One major problem for me was that the majority of the texts (apart from those dealing directly with referencing) contained references, or were strictly speaking 'academic'. By strictly speaking I guess I mean used source material, and had a reference list of some kind, not perhaps the more spurious distinction between full, and contracted forms. My desire to have this kind of 'hard' text led me to reflect on a number of interesting points relating to my beliefs about teaching and learning.

This focus suggests that I believe we acquire language, and notice features of genres, by reading. The second is linked to the purpose of the course. Is it a language development course, or a academic preparation one? If it's language focused, then perhaps 'easier', 'shorter' more practical texts (newspaper articles, bbc news, etc) are relevant. Alternatively, I was more in favor of finding 'easy', shortish, academic papers (with referencing) for learners to read. Though I was only able to do this to a certain extent, a larger quantity of 'academic' texts, would have been preferable.

Linked to this was the ESP / EAP content. My students were from a variety of disciplines. This meant the shared knowledge base was fairly limited. More generally, we frequently found our selves in real, content-rich discussions linked to input material, sometimes I felt to the detriment of the emergent language. I.e, we / I got so involved in discussions that a focus on form was sometimes absent. Balancing this, or choosing between the two reminded me of the hard v soft CLIL debates, though I believe that a soft CLIL approach would have been more productive as their wasn't fixed content to be taught / learnt.

The positive feedback from students and observers was good to hear, but I felt I didn't end the course particularly well. This may well have been due to context factors, but I am still keen to end on a higher note in the future. Making more of the post project period (PPP) may be an avenue for me to consider. It seems obvious to me now, that using the papers more, after they had been assessed may have brought more learning to this period.

There were a number of other challenges that I faced in this context which I haven't covered. These included:

  1. the general sense that I talked too much, and dominated the space, more than I usually would have.
  2. the lack of taught mediation between people from different cultural groups.
  3. enabling learners to deal with others' rudeness, yet, avoiding being rude themselves
  4. a lack of chatting, and sharing, with other teachers (hardly the learning teacher that I want to be)
Overall, this was a significant and enjoyable experience. I now have a feel for this kind of work, and would like to be involved in again in the future. As I said, the students were wonderful, generally well motivated, and all were able to demonstrate what they had learnt.

As, I move on into my third, and final MA year, I am conscious that I should make an effort to include more citations in my writing here, 'stepping this blog up'. I am also entering into a new context, Al-quds/ Jerusalem, in which I can continue to grow as a language learner again. I am really looking forward to the journey, though am cautious of the territory.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Manchester University and Chinese English Teachers' refresher course

Chinatown Manchester - the arch way welcoming you in. It's quite a large quarter, not as old as Liverpool's though.

Me and the gentlemen teachers :)

And, me and a lady student :)

Yesterday my bit of the teachers' refresher course with the Chinese Centre for Scholarly exchange and the University Language Centre finished. I had a great time in many ways. My role was to deliver input on British Cultural Studies, Teaching and Learning, and Advanced English Language.

The teachers were from universities across China, including Bejing, Shanghi and some from Chairman Mao's hometown. They taught English literature, linguistics, history, cultural studies, and language, among other things, and were mega enthusiastic, as for 95%, it was their first time in an English speaking context. They were passionate shoppers, the ladies at least, and were astonished by the cheap price of clarks (made in China)! One interesting thing I noted was when asked about good, typical things to buy as souvenirs for people I couldn't name a single thing 'typically British / English / Manchunian' that was made here. From my travels around, there always seems to be a local handicraft, in Bulgaria there were the ladies who wove and spun and sold outside Alexander Nevski. In Thailand this kind of thing was bountiful, everything was locally made. In Syria there were the blue, evil eye things, prayer beads, all sorts. Even in Switzerland you could get a cheap Swiss army knife for £10. I was stumped and suggested a Manchester football top, made in Vietnam, and then books, and music, at least probably conceived locally. I am not sure if this is a product of me having been away for so long, let me know what you would suggest, non-edible. They are off to Edinburgh next week and I am pretty sure they won't be disappointed on this front, tartan teddies etc...

This reflection ties into the work I did on the British Cultural Studies with them. I presented the UK, in one lecture as a group of islands that have grown and influenced through migration. It's a presentation I first gave in Bulgaria in 2007, when BG first joined the EU. It was well received at the time and it was great to re-work it and add sections on Chinese UK migrations.

Apart from British Cultural Studies, I also was involved in input sessions on 'advanced language'. Essentially this was teaching idiomatic and colloquial language. This was possibly the weakest part of my work. I did a dictogloss that told a story but this was riddled with unfamiliar idioms, and lacked context. It needed a series of pictures, a movie, or a broader context to offer support. This was also weak due to the nature of this language. How often will these guys, or their students use 'pop your clogs' for example....It was quite fun, they liked the quiz, drawing, and the other recycling activities, but I think whether or not to actually these language items needs reconsidering.

The final section on teaching and learning was enjoyable, and motivating. The teachers were complementary about how I managed their participation, and varied the interaction. However, when asked to reflect on how doable these techniques / activities were in their context, the answers were usually negative. Also, in this section there could have been a journal keeping task, with prompts for response to. This could link to student journals and how to manage and encourage constant reflection on learning.

It was an absolute privilege and I look forward to working in China, one day.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Working with faculty from the Arab Open University / الجامعة العربية المفتوحة/

The Lebanon is one of a handful of countries that takes the definite article in English. The Congo, the US (although we don't usually write it). I was reminded of this by the teachers who I was working with there. We were discussing common Arab English 'mistakes' and over use of 'the' is one of them. The Britain, the Syria and the Lebanon. It is also the case for days of the week in Arabic, which are the Monday, the Tuesday etc...Anyway, I was reminded of this song by the human league. And, the accusatory / generalizing tone when people use the definite article before the nationality the English are...., the Lebanese are.... though I sometime fall into this trap I am consciously trying to avoid it!

On the plane from Riga I sat with two returning members of the vast Lebanese diaspora who told me that (the) Lebanon was the best country in the world. I have heard this kind of talk from a few Lebanese students too, Lebanese food is the best, Lebanese women the most beautiful (for more on Lebanese women by a Lebanese woman, see here). I retorted that no 'regular' English / British person would make such bold claims. That said, I am quite far removed from the UK and given the links between the English Defense League and that Norwegian Terrorist you never know. Just then I fell into a classic liberal trap which is associating patriotism and nationalism. Admittedly, it is difficult for me to disassociate the two, and I wish I could be a patriot. I probably am one secretly. The flight, via Riga, was fine, and I was fresh and ready on Monday to start the course.

I was well prepared but the teachers I worked with for the week were highly experience and well qualified teachers were more experienced and better qualified than me. They had MAs and PHDs coming out of their ears! However, they needed to learn about the IELTS exam as they are planning to introduce it to their university context as a minimum exit criteria, and it is something I have experience of from a variety of perspectives, mwah the power!!!

In many ways it was great to be back in the Levant. The weather was riotously good, the food good, the people still generally amenable (though Manchester folk seem very nice, more on this soon). I still have my reservations about the prevalent culture of 'maiding', amongst the wealthy. One guy I spoke to compared life in the states to life in Beirut: " here I can have two cars and two maids. In the States life is hard". Beirut Bill also wrote briefly on this here.

Having four participants in a workshop perhaps adds demands, and though I did set up some pair work we usually worked en-masse around a big board room style table. Each day was devoted to a skill with the Friday planned to be used for more general Academic English and professional development content. However, I must have eaten something bad during the week so had to bail out halfway through the last day which was really embarrassing, but i was very unwell...The participants were kind enough to drive me back to the hotel which was sweet, but god I was rough!

We had a few jokes through the week, mostly to do with my poor Arabic (Syrian Fus-ha) pronunciation. The 5 hours on teaching writing was a bit tough going, it could have been this or the fact that it was midweek, the volume of experience, it's unclear. Anyway, the participants did well considering some of them were working and attending the training, and others attending in their holidays. Thanks for all the effort.

For me I learnt, among other things:
  • not everyone with a role in language teaching speaks 'TEFL', some speak pedagogy or applied linguistics. The meaning of key terms to describe teaching and learning needs to be established and shared in order to make accurate distinctions between terms and actions.
  • the need to develop as a facilitator of discussions. I struggled at times to deal with the enthusiasm of the participants. Open prompts do this, I perhaps should record a session to analyse what went on and where I lost control. Did I need control at all?
  • giving academic articles to academics is a good idea that was well received. IELTS themselves commission alot of research and there are also many critical voices too.
Overall it was a positive week (until I got sick), I hope it was for the participants too. Drop me a line of feedback if you read this, it would be great to have your input into my development. I would also love to know how the IELTS project went a the AOU. Thanks for reading. More on my 'new' role in Manchester soon.