Sunday, October 23, 2011

On teaching unplugged

*This post is modified from comments I made on Jason Renshaw's English Raven blog.

Getting lost... I think it how we all feel when we first step into the classroom!!
Recently I have discovered that there are other people out there who are willing to 'let the lesson go where it goes', and I feel like I have been found!

I remember my first 'dogme moment', though at that time I had no idea that that was what was happening and I came out of the class thinking that what could have been a disaster just turned into one of my most successful classes. I was teaching a group of 4 pre-int students 3hr classes at the airport. I was dutifully preparing materials and back-up materials and taking along at least 10 pages of photocopies to class 'just in case' I ran out of material (which induced the kind of panic usually only reserved for visits to the dentist).
One day I arrived at the airport with only 5 minutes to spare before class, opened my bag, and realised that I had left EVERYTHING in the office, right down to my MP3 player and speakers. Cue dramativ music and cold sweats!!! No internet, no support paper or listening materials, just me and the whiteboard for 3hrs. As conversation started with my students (and I was quickly preparing some failsafe games to buy myself some time to think) it arose that one of the students was going to be conducting job interviews to hire a new person for the HR department - bingo! And so 3hrs of job interview related class proceeded without a hitch. First the students wrote a job description together, keeping it to less than 30 words because it was to be published in the newspaper. Then we discussed questions that are frequently asked in job interviews at which point there was a lively discussion on the differences in the interview process between Chile and NZ/Aus (there can be up to 4 interviews in Chile and a couple of visits to a psychologist!) After some revision of question forms we moved onto possible answers, at which time we ran out of time! That's right, I ran out of time in a 3hr class with no materials. It left plenty of material for the next class (model answers, the difference between the present perfect and the past simple, and roleplays). Whatsmore, the students congratulated me on the class that had been one of their most enjoyable ever. What?? The class should have been the biggest disaster and I am receiving compliments?!  

That was about 2 years ago, and I have been teaching the same way ever since (and trying to convince others to do the same). Recently I stumbled across the Teaching Unplugged movement on the internet, ordered the book and read it cover to cover. I feel validated knowing that what I am doing is recognised by others as a valid and useful form of teaching (not me simply being a lazy teacher as a colleague once refered to me as I was walking into class without any photocopies). Forgetting my materials was the best thing that ever happened to me! Now I am trying to pass it on to others.....

The majority of the learners in Chile seem to respond well to the unplugged method as most of them are completely bored with books. Luckily, at my institute we are already running half of our programmes from a task based approach which makes it easier to step into a unplugged type of lesson. I wouldn't say my lessons are 100% unplugged as I usually provide a topic or initial stimulus (usually task based), but they are certainly flexible as to the direction they take.

They problems I see with an unplugged approach are related to the clients (large businesses who want to be able to measure student progress against a fixed rubric) and resistance from the teachers themselves. I recently ran a workshop on teaching from emerging language in our task based courses and it was met with significant resistance from some of our most experienced teachers. I encouraged them to try it, and I think maybe 50% of them I have given it a go, while the other 50% prefer to think that their Academic Director has gone completely mad. 

I am trying to find other ways of helping these teachers find value in allowing the students to guide the class, and it will be an ongoing mission of mine. I hope that I can share and gather other opinions here to help me and my cause!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

A little about me....

Originally trained as a scientist but always with an interest in literature and teaching, I have been imparting the English language on unfortunate souls since 2009.
Upon arrival in Santiago Chile with no home, no language and no job, I was taken in by Grant's English, a small independet school specialising in teaching business English to small classes of adults.
About 18 months later I graduated (probably somewhat prematurely) to the position of Academic Director, and now supervise a team of 18 teachers. A year into the job there is a hectic relatively predictable cycle of hiring, training, organising classes, juggling schedules, putting together workshops and trying to stay on top of paperwork.
Recently when I was preparing a workshop on tack based learning I stumbled upon the concept of teaching unplugged. The more I read the more excited I became, someone else does it the same as me, and my method has a name! In an effort to become more connected to this wonderful world of sharing of knowledge I have decided to jump in, and document my thoughts on the matter here in a blog. I hope to share my experiences and reflections both as a teacher and Academic Director.
And the reason for the name? I am a kiwi, one of 4 million flightless birds that just love to travel!!