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.