Connections — TESOL 2016 in Baltimore

My #TESOL16 experience can be summarized in just one word – connections.

As a freelance teacher trainer, (very) part-time ESL teacher, and aspiring author much of my current day-to-day life is spent in front of a computer screen. So, at #TESOL16 in Baltimore, it was wonderful to be among “my people” – language teachers and teacher educators spending their time and energy engaged in professional development. At times simply watching attendees hurrying to another session was inspiring. So much dedication and love for learning under one roof!

Reconnecting with friends and colleagues from my old life in Japan, and teacher training gigs in Korea, Costa Rica, and the USA, was also wonderful. Life is taking us all on incredible journeys and I’m grateful that our paths crossed again!

In the “Twitter for Anyone” workshop led by Laura Soracco (@LauraSoracco) and Matthew Noble (@tesolmatthew), one of the tasks was to tweet out a burning question. My question – what are ways that students can use Twitter to improve their English? – was answered in 2 minutes (by @nathanghall). Two minutes! New connections were made and sitting in front of my computer screen seems a little less isolating now.

Conferences are good places to entertain different perspectives and examine our beliefs. (The definition of Dewey’s reflective attitude of open-mindedness.) In Aziz Abu Sarah’s amazing plenary, “Building Peace in a Divided World,” he talked about how his 18-year-old mind was opened by the caring and generous attitude of his Hebrew teacher. Education really can change the world, one student at a time.

I’ve also been making connections between my beliefs about teaching and learning and what I jotted down in the sessions I attended. Here are a few snippets (in italics) from my notes that I’ve been mulling over.

1. Whose (reflective practice) tradition is your reflection based on?
This question was raised by Thomas Farrell. He explained that John Dewey and Donald Schon, two influential thinkers in reflective practice, actually have quite different approaches to reflection. This is something that I need to clarify in my own practice and writing about reflection.

2. Usable. Delightful. Useful.
According to Nick Robinson, these are the qualities that all books should have. Now I’m trying to decide whether the book that I’m currently working on can be described as usable, delightful, and useful. And if I think it is, does that mean that everyone who reads it will think it is?

3. Teachers will change their practices but won’t be comfortable until their students are successful.
(a reference made by a presenter to a study by T. Guskey.) This sounds true to me, and I love the absolute positive regard it grants teachers. As a teacher trainer and writer, how can I help the teachers I work with serve their students’ learning?

1. Teachers Engagement with Research in Practice, Advocacy and Professional Growth. Wed. April 6.
2. Are Classroom Teachers and Material Publishers on the Same Page? Thurs. April 7.
3. Beyond Standards: What Success Stories Reveal About Student Learning. Fri. April 8.

RP Reading Club

My friend and colleague, Zhenya Polosatova, has posted an explanation of the RP Reading Club on her blog Wednesday Seminars which you can find at
[For some reason my live links aren’t working. When I figure out how the live links work, I’ll change that.]

Last week Zhenya posted her first response to the following article:

Teacher Training, Development, and Decision Making: A Model of Teaching and Related Strategies for Language Teacher Education, by Donald Freeman
TESOL Quarterly, Vol. 23, No. 1 (27-45)

Here’s my response to the same article.

I remember the first time I heard about “KASA.” I was applying to the SMAT program (summer Master’s of Arts in Teaching) at SIT (now SIT Graduate Institute) and a friend who was an alumnus of SIT advised me to “ say something about your knowledge, skills, attitude, and awareness.” And so I used those words, even though I didn’t have a deep understanding of what they signified. I must have made some sense however, because I was accepted into the program. Since then I’ve developed an appreciation, and deeper understanding, of the usefulness of framing learning and teaching in terms of KASA. This figure from the article helps me to see how the aspects work together. The “moving part” between the elements in this model is decision making.

Figure1Freeman article

(This figure is on page 36 of the article.)

Quotable quotes
“First, change does not necessarily mean doing something differently; it can mean a change in awareness. Change can be an affirmation of current practice…”

One of my beliefs is that changing one thing in your teaching can have a big impact on your practice as a whole, but this quote reminds me that even a simple shift in awareness can be a change because you gain a new perspective and affirm your current practice. Perhaps clarifying another reason why your current practice is effective could be a useful goal for reflective practice?

“…the outcome [of language teaching] is clear, but the process is not.” “…there is only a hazy grasp of the actual language-teaching performance that results in successful language learning.”

This is a very honest admission from a language teacher educator. Since this article was published in 1989 has the process of learning languages become clearer? Are we a lot closer to understanding how languages are learned? Recent brain-based research has given us more insight, but I’m not sure that we as teachers are still completely clear on what it is that we do that helps our students learn language.

“Blurring the distinction between language teaching itself and the areas of inquiry on which it is based (e.g., applied linguistics, second language acquisition research, or methodology) leads to two major misconceptions that have often jeopardized the success of language teacher education.”

1st misconception – language teacher education is transmission of knowledge about applied linguistics and language acquisition and skills in methodology
2nd misconception – “…transmission of knowledge will lead to effective practice.”

One of the key questions in this article is “What makes good teaching? What makes teaching good?” If knowledge of linguistics and the rules of language doesn’t lead to effective teaching, then what is it that makes teaching good? I read recently (and can’t find the source right now) that a teacher’s confidence is based on knowledge of their subject matter. If the above misconception is true (i.e. that the transmission of knowledge doesn’t lead to effective practice) does that mean that if a teacher is confident in their knowledge that their confidence is misplaced?

A Beginner’s Guide to Reflective Practice

…is the name of the book that I’m writing. It will be published as an ebook through a very cool initiative called

The-round was established to help new authors (and established ones as well) publish books for small niche audiences.

A Beginner’s Guide to Reflective Practice will provide a framework for thinking through the challenges of your classroom based on the concepts of experiential learning. It examines the attitudes of a reflective practitioner and includes activities that help you develop the skills essential to becoming a reflective teacher.

The solution to the challenges and puzzles of your classroom is inside your classroom. We can make changes, or decide to not change a thing, only when our awareness is rooted in experience and in paying attention to our teaching, our students, and the interactions that happen in the classroom.

You can download a sample here.

Finished the WNFIN challenge!

A short reflection on finishing the WNFIN challenge. (You can check it out here: )

My participation this month in WNFIN has been transforming and motivating. I have benefited so much from the posts I received everyday and really appreciate the writers who generously shared from their experience and expertise.

Although I do want to write a book (my goal for December is to get a good start on it), my goal for November was to get my blog [] up and running by writing and posting everyday on different topics related to reflective practice for teachers. I’m so happy to have accomplished my goal! Today I had 19 page views on my blog and on the best day there were 40 page views. This might not seem like a very high number, but it’s amazing to me that so many people read what I had written.

I followed the advice of writing short posts – most of my posts were 400 – 500 words. It was the perfect length to say something useful and beneficial without dragging things out too long. Especially since I was writing daily and regularly posted links to my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter, I didn’t want to discourage my readers with long, drawn-out posts. It’s possible to say quite a lot in 500 words.

Some tips from this experience.

  1. The best tip that I can give is “just start writing.” When I look over my list of posts I’m amazed at how much of what I wrote wasn’t planned. Rather it grew organically out of what I was working on and thinking through each day. Actually writing, and not just planning, helped me discover what I wanted to say.
  2. Short and finished is better than longer and not done yet. Now that I’m planning to post two or three times a week, I still think that I’ll try to keep to the 500-word guideline.
  3. Content is more important than bells and whistles. I chose a self-hosted website (rather than a free blog) and hope to jazz it up as time goes by, but readers come for the content not the spiffy images and graphics. Simple, honest content is best.

learning by experience – the only way to learn?

 We are usually convinced more easily by reasons we have found ourselves

than by those which have occurred to others.

Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) [Pensees]

When I read an inspiring or insightful quote, I often wonder what circumstances in the writer’s life led to that insight. You see, it’s my notion that compelling, succinct insights that exude truth have got to be rooted in experience. (Which is often the experience of not having done that which the quote cautions us to do.)

That’s why they are compelling and true. Because the one who learned it, learned it “the hard way.” Or as I think is often truer than we like to admit, “the only way.”

Here are just a few of the lessons that I learned not from a teacher resource book or a workshop but from and with my own students in my classes:

  • An activity that works with one class might fail miserably with another class.
  • It’s best to confirm instructions in more than one way – even if you think everyone has heard what the homework is, it’s a good idea to write it on the board too.
  • Meeting your students where they are at means accepting that some of them aren’t interested in studying English.
  • It’s all right if students aren’t interested in learning English.
  • “English only” policies in the classroom don’t always serve the needs of the students.

What insights based on experience have you had recently?

ego is the elephant in the room

This really is an important aspect of having the courage to reflect on one’s teaching. It speaks to both awareness and attitude. Once we become aware of something that didn’t work well in the class, do we have the courage to admit that and then work to make the necessary changes to improve the situation?

Reflection really does take courage.

It takes courage to admit that, although we always want to do our best, we are not perfect and can always improve our teaching practice. That’s both the challenge and the joy of teaching.

(In my rush to post this before midnight, I don’t think I really did this wonderful idea justice. Consider these my initial thoughts on this idea. I plan to revisit them at a later date.)

Be micro-ambitious

“…passionate dedication to the pursuit of short-term goals. Be micro-ambitious.” Tim Minchin

Two days ago I wrote about the phrase “way leads on to way” and how it reminds me of the drawbacks of trying to plan our lives out. We really have to take a step before we find out what the next step will be. And simply taking that first step changes the map.

We don’t know what will appear on the horizon. If we only dream about what’s possible now, how will we be able to recognize new opportunities when they appear? Passionate dedication to short-term goals, because you’re committed to excellence, can also help you prepare to be ready for what is coming next.

Here’s something I read today that’s connected to the topic of this post.

Make small changes

After 20 days of successive posts, something a little different. I’m off to Portugal today for eight days and I don’t want to forfeit my “WNFIN” challenge. I won’t be able to write 500 words every day, but I will post something connected to my declaration daily.

Make small, little, tiny changes.

Small changes can have big impacts. (Think jalapeño peppers in a salsa!).

I-Thou-It – I

We teach who we are.

Parker Palmer

At first you have space for only one question – what am I going to do in this lesson? You might say, “What are we going to do?” But what you really mean is “what am I going to get them to do?” And the next day the same question, “What are we going to do?” And the next day and the next, until you think that the teacher’s most important task is to get students to do the things you want them to do.

This lasts a while as you figure out how to plan lessons and choose supplemental activities. You read the textbook and study the teacher’s manual and follow its suggestions and sometimes venture outside of your comfort zone and do a variation on the activity.

Then one day you try something different, maybe an activity that you created. And it works. At least, it seemed to help the students learn the material and be able to do something with it that they weren’t able to do before. They learned. And you helped them do it.

And you know that you are beginning to understand what helps student learning. Actually, that’s not completely true. You’re starting to figure out what helps your students learn.

And you’re hooked. It’s that pure joy when your students achieve their goals. When they are communicating, talking, laughing, using the words, phrases, sentences that you taught them. They’re communicating with each other – new information is being shared.

Some people think that because you’re a teacher you are noble and selfless, but you know that you need your students just as much as they need you. Maybe even more so.


Poem — Dust of Snow

This afternoon I was reading through Teaching with Fire: Poetry that Sustains the Courage to Teach looking for a poem to write about today. (In the future I probably won’t be posting everyday, but for November I’m going to stick to the challenge that I set for myself). The book has a lot of great poems, but none of them really spoke to me and they aren’t ones that I used myself. Then I remembered my favourite Robert Frost poem (not just because it’s short and I can recite it…) It’s called Dust of Snow:

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree


Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

As I reread it here again I have to admit that this poem doesn’t really have a lot to do with teaching. It’s not particularly inspirational or life changing. But Dust of Snow has a lot to do with attitude and how we respond to the things that we can’t control in life.

I’ve mentioned in an earlier post, (here’s a link), that the only thing we can control is our attitude or response to what happens in life. Basically, we can think of the things that we don’t expect as either nuisances or gifts. In the poem the crow and the hemlock tree could be seen as signs of foreboding and perhaps even danger and, of course, the snow is cold. Yet the poet’s attitude towards what has happened actually changes his mood and turns a bad day into a happier one. The quick, light rhythm of the poem further emphasizes its positive feeling.

When teachers make lesson plans we tend to try to control everything to make sure that the class stays on track. Five minutes for warm up, ten minutes to present the topic, ten minutes to practice and so on. It’s understandable. There’s usually a lot of material to cover and limited class time to cover it all.

But there are so many things going on inside and between the students in each class. We can’t really control everything that’s going to happen. When something does take us off course, how will we react?

When a student’s interesting, yet slightly off topic remark leads us away from the lesson plan, is it a nuisance or a gift?

Be open to the unplanned, to the things that you don’t expect in a lesson. They really are gifts that can help us understand our students more deeply.