Wednesday, 27 April 2011

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IATEFL 2011 - A Summary in Springtime.

I wrote most of this post last Wednesday but I needed a week to sit on it, just to dwell on it a bit longer...

It's a funny state, feeling tired and energised at the same time. It's how I feel now, writing this on the Eurostar, winding its way from London to my current hometown of Brussels. I'm actually in the tunnel right now, and it's not half as interesting as I expected. Exactly what I was expecting is another matter of course, especially since it isn't made from glass and the view isn't much to write home about.

Anyway, I'm feeling this way because I am returning from my first IATEFL conference in my lovely original hometown of Brighton. I'm tired, because frankly, it's intense. Three and a half days of sessions until six o'clock. Every aspect of English language teaching available for discussion. Dozens of people to meet, from the lowly, everyday teacher (I can say that because I am one) to the high and mighty or, as they are otherwise known, the published authors. And then it's off to the pub until late, when we go our own ways and reconvene for the morning plenary at 9am. Who wouldn't be tired after a weekend or so of that?

And I feel energised, for exactly the same reasons. All those sessions and all that fascinating and useful information and experience to draw upon. New research and opinion to challenge our beliefs. A reminder that sometimes the old ways were not too bad, and that sometimes things need to be ripped up and you have to start again. And the people, all those wonderful people, who, for a Tweeter like myself, are suddenly avatars come to life. Their kindness, intelligence and enthusiasm for their profession is reason enough to go.

Now I'm not much of a note taker, I prefer what I call 'the cream rises to the top' approach. My theory is that if I take reams of notes, when I return home, I'll take my carefully crafted notebook and place it gently on a shelf, where I'll never look at it again. I prefer to think that those ideas that are really profound and worth remembering are going to pop into my head just when I need them. So far this technique has been pretty successful for me, but the sands of time affect us all, so I'm naturally concerned that at some point my ability to recall those nuggets just when I need them will diminish, and I'll have nothing to fall back onto. So this, the day after the conference has finished, is my halfway house solution, a summary of what I saw, plucked from my still reliable brain.

I started with Peter Grundy's plenary and a reminder of how the importance of the complex context that 'known' words and phrases can present themselves in.

Then Ceri Jones unleashed the power of images, and showed us that there is so much potential when using pictures in the classroom. I loved the ways she used the shadows, imagined what was outside the frame, got students to record and present their own images and encouraged exploration, debate and used their full power for dynamic and effective classes.

Philida Schellekens presented recent research that suggests that the reading sub-skills (skimming, scanning, meaning from context etc) are not as effective as previously considered. It may be more effective to teach them at a later date. Asking them to skim and scan before reading in detail is artificial and possibly irritating for the students, as they just want to get on with reading it 'properly'. I loved having my beliefs questioned in this way. 

Jamie Keddie led us in The Authenticity Trap. Has the march towards authentic materials had a cost? For publishers, maybe. The wealth of genuine materials not created for an ELT setting is too great nowadays to ignore. The trap is feeling that they cannot somehow be adapted and that they are sacrosanct. Jamie effectively showed how this is not the case, and how even difficult cultural concepts can be explained by the teacher and then engaged with by the students.

Karenne Sylvester, Tara Benwell, Peter Ryley and Berni Wall presented The Blogging Symposium. They showed us how the opportunity for teachers to blog is great, and the networks that it can provide offer support and inspiration that can be difficult to find in other situations. This was amply demonstrated by Eva Büyüksimkeşyan's testimony. Furthermore, the chance for students to blog provides them with a way of interacting with English language culture and each other in an equally beneficial arrangement.

On Sunday, Sue Palmers's plenary created a fascinating portrait of our contemporary society and the potential damage it does to children. However her criticism of screen based media could have mentioned content (surely different types of content have different effects, and therefore differing levels of damage?). 

As always Russell Stannard gave us some great ideas for how to integrate technology into our classroom. Russell always manages to find technologies that embellish our teaching experience, and I'm grateful to him for the work he does in sharing these great resources. He was followed by Ken Wilson, who is surely one of the most entertaining speakers on the ELT circuit. He told us about 10 things he thinks he knows about teaching and learning and it's hard to disagree with such an engaging and experienced speaker. His thoughts about translation in class (a little doesn't hurt) were food for thought.

I followed this by attending Raymond Sangabau's account of his teaching EAP in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It was amazing to hear someone who has only been teaching for one year and who has 300 to 350 students at a time. A real reality check, it reminded me of how most of us are in a privileged position to the majority of teachers around the world. Janet Bianchini then gave us some fun ideas of how to tackle that often thorny subject of idioms. That Sunday ended with Pecha Kucha evening and it's hard to summarise how enjoyable this evening was. The presentations by Bethany Cagnol, Petra Pointer and host Jeremy Harmer in particular will stay with me for a long time. A great evening and a great format.

Monday began with a plenary by Tom Farrell who reminded us of the importance of reflective practice, something that all teachers and schools need to take more seriously.

He was followed by Jim Scrivener's warning about the dangers of modern reading and how technology has changed our reading habits. Gavin Dudeney continued on the hot topic of technology in the classroom by talking about how mobile devices could be used in various ways to add to our classes. This afternoon concluded with the much anticipated Dogme symposium. With all the main players in attendance, it was a fascinating and insightful discussion and there were too many issues for me to deal with here. This is something I will definitely be returning to in a future post.

On Tuesday, Ingrid Wisniewska gave us some great ideas of how to develop our one-to-one lessons, continuing on from her excellent book for Cambridge on the same subject. Carla Arena presented on how she has created a social network of sharing and development within her school in Brasilia. An inspiring and remarkable piece of work, I was impressed by the way she looked outside ELT to deal with her particular problem. 

It was appropriate that the final presentation was also on the subject of technology and this was presented by Sue Lyon-Jones on her plan B and how to deal with technology when things go wrong. It was useful and sage practical advice from someone who knows. All of this it was all wrapped up by Brian Patten in his plenary session with some wonderful poems which displayed a great mixture of nonsense and romance -  a great way to end.

And in case you're wondering the picture refers to another happy memory - beating English teachers at Scrabble. Priceless...


  1. I'm with you there on the cream rising to the top approach - it's all about the process I think, not product :)
    and thanks for including me in this great summary!

  2. James, that's a great summary. And as I didn't attend the same sessions as you I can learn something new:) IATEFL really was an amazing experience, being able to talk to great educators and exchange views and find out that we all have the same passion - teaching:) And the socialising bit wasn't bad either - just exhausting at times:)

  3. Thanks, James. It is like you brought us back to IATEFL in a better personal way. I really enjoy the conference this time. And look forward to next year. :) am just trying out tweetdeck. You are very active there :) will keep following you.

  4. Thanks Ceri, Anna and Judy for the comments. I'm glad you enjoyed my recollections and I look forward to reading yours (no pressure :-) )!

  5. Great summary, James - I am enjoying catching up on the sessions I missed by reading what others are saying on their blogs - it's also great to read what people say about sessions you've attended too as you get a different take on them. This is certainly true of Sue Palmer's plenary - I'm definitely working up to blogging about that, so reading what other people have said about it is very useful

  6. Thanks Graham. You're right, it's another thing that adds to the whole conference going experience. I've enjoyed other people's summaries, and I look forward to your post about Sue Palmer's very thought provoking plenary!



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