Sunday, 21 October 2012

Guest Post: Being Yourself

I'm delighted to welcome back Ania Musielak to the blog. Ania is a passionate teacher and teacher trainer from Poland who I have been lucky to see speak at international conferences. She is well known for her energetic and dynamic presentations, often speaking about her passions of drama and literature. Here she argues that in our teaching we shouldn't chase the latest trends and that our lessons must reflect our personalities and strengths.

When I was 19 I started my driving course. All my friends already had driving licenses, some even had their own cars and they said that it’s impossible to function without that little piece of paper. So I did my best at the course, and whilst doing it had two minor accidents, broke my leg and went through a mild break down as I really didn’t like driving. It felt unnatural and forced and I really sucked at it! 

But finally I finished the course, passed the theoretical part and… failed the practical exam. And I was relieved as I realized that it is something I disliked very much so I decided to “give up”. My friends and family members were surprised, they tried to persuade me to give it another go and told me that “I ain’t a quitter” and I won’t survive without a driving license!

Well, I proved them wrong – I am 34, without a driving permit and functioning pretty well ☺ I turned my weakness into my advantage – I walk a lot so I do get plenty of exercise, I plan my day well as I know that I have to get everywhere on foot, I learned who my true supporters are whenever I really need a ride and, what is more, I am no threat to the other drivers!

What’s the point of that story? Well I decided that I want to do the things I am actually good at and that I enjoy. That is why some time ago I forgot about the pretty image I had in my head about me driving, wind in my hair, looking calm and classy ;-) And the thing is – I’m not saying to give up and not try to learn something new or push yourself – just don’t do something you are uncomfortable with.  It doesn’t mean you should never “leave” your comfort zone – it just means BE YOURSELF at what you do, and do it your own unique way.
Ania, as she used to see herself, behing the wheel.
There are lots of inspirational quotes and slogans out there like “Do what you love, love what you do” or “Do more of what makes you happy”. We read them and promise ourselves that we will take them seriously, but the sad truth is – we quickly fail to recall them. 

I think that if you do something you love you cannot fail. Do not force yourself to do the things that others like or things that are popular and trendy, just do what you are passionate about. The same is true about teaching. Passion is contagious. A lesson conducted with dedication and enthusiasm will be unforgettable but if you force yourself to do something you are not at ease with – students will feel that.

For example if you feel uncomfortable with drama – don’t use drama techniques in your lesson or pick the ones you feel will work for you. If you are not a fan of drilling – stick to those forms of revision you are familiar with. All your friends teach using iPads but you cannot bring yourself to do so? Use other forms of technology that you feel contented with. 

I have a lot of passions in my life but three stand out –literature, drama and music. And I use those interest and strengths of mine in teaching.

Passion 1 - Literature

I do my best to show my students that reading does not need to be dull and tedious. I use every piece of authentic texts I can – from nursery rhymes and fairy tales to novels and plays. I pick texts that I know well and try to animate the lessons by introducing fun and up-to-date activities.

Do your students like Twilight Saga or Harry Potter? Well, why not introduce the classic Romeo and Juliet and find differences and similarities between those stories?
Do your young pupils learn poems easily? Create your own version of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star or use poems as a springboard to create a collaborative class book.
Are you preparing your FCE students for the exam? Well, there are plenty of literary texts that are copious in idioms.
My theory is that if you show them that you love reading and that it can be challenging and rewarding, your students will follow suit and start reading on their own.

Passion 2 – Music

I listen to music almost all the time. And so do my students, especially the teenage ones. On English lessons we talk about our favourite bands, the bands we hate, types of music, we compare our playlists and study song lyrics. Sometimes my students “laugh” at my musical choices but they are tolerant and open minded because I do the same with the songs they pick.

Some time ago they were even willing to have a lesson on country music (one of my guilty pleasures, and I don’t mean Taylor Swift country, more like Johnny Cash) and we talked about its history, themes and artists. We looked at songs and tried to find different styles of music that deal with similar or totally different topics.

It was great as from country we moved on to blues, hip-hop and rock. Why? Because my students saw how passionate I was about the topic and how comfortable I felt having a lesson like that. If I had to talk about playing instruments or show them how it’s done - that would be a different story so I would leave it to the experts.

Passion 3 - Drama


I think that drama techniques and games are excellent for every type of lesson. They can be used for enhancing overall fluency, for practising writing, reading and listening. Lately, I have incorporated some of drama games to teach grammar as teaching sentence structure and language rules is one of my weaknesses. When I have to conduct a traditional grammar lesson I am stressed out and it always goes wrong. That is why I use drama games and my students engage in role plays that focus on specific grammatical aspects we are discussing. 

Sometimes we use miming activities to talk about various tenses. I feel comfortable teaching like that and my students learn much faster than by listening to my theoretical babble! Another thing that made me fall in love with drama is the fact that with drama you move a lot – and I am a very active person who cannot keep still. Drama is the perfect outlet for my bottled up energy and it helps with motivating my students. 

What more can I say – I really believe that by sticking to what feels right and natural to us our teaching will be memorable and what is more, effective. Just as the lyrics of the song say:

Being myself is something I do well.  Whatever you do, do it good.
Express Yourself by Labrinth

Ania Musielak lives and works in her hometown of Tarnowskie Góry, Poland after graduating from Silesian University as a Philosophy Doctor. She has worked as an English teacher, trainer and writer for 12 years, specialising in using drama and literature in teaching English.

Photo attribution:
Photo 2, Photo 3 and Photo 4 supplied by the author.

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Saturday, 1 October 2011

A Weekend in Zug


Beautiful Zug

On September 17th I was fortunate enough to attend the English Teachers Association of Switzerland Special Interest Groups Day in gorgeous Zug, just a short train journey from Zurich. Among the many fascinating attendees were Mike Harrison, Ania Musielak and local resident Vicky Loras. As a way of reflecting on our weekend at the conference, we asked each other two questions to answer on our blogs. You can read Mike's answers here, Vicky's here, and my and Ania’s below.

First up, my answers...

Mike’s questions

Did anything surprise you about the conference? What and why/why not?

There were no surprises for me, but since they are not always a good thing, I was pleased about that. I expected a well run, enjoyable conference with great presenters and that’s what I got. The venue was perfect (apart from the lack of wifi!) and the whole event was very well put together.

Tell us one interesting thing you learnt about teaching.

Only one? I really enjoyed Anthony Gaughan’s demonstration of a simple and effective dogme class. There are a lot of misunderstandings and misrepresentations of what dogme is and how it works, so it was great to see such an excellent example in action. Anthony is an excellent presenter and I would encourage anyone who gets the chance to go and see him.

Despite appearances, Anthony's talk was well attended!
Vicky’s questions

Who did you meet for the first time there?

This was only my third ELT conference, and my second with a PLN, so it was a chance to catch up with some friends I’d met at IATEFL (Ania, Vladka Michalkova) and spend time with people I’d only met briefly (Mike, Ken Wilson, Mike Hogan). It was also great to meet some people for the first time. Vicky is well known to everyone on Twitter and the PLN for her energy and enthusiasm, so it was fantastic to find out she’s just like that in real life! Chuck Sandy’s appearance was also a pleasant surprise as I didn’t know he was going to be there until I saw his Facebook status update that morning. I look forward to seeing him in Paris in November.

What did you like the most about Zug?

It wasn’t the weather! From what I saw of it, Zug is a lovely small town. I just wished I could have stayed there longer, and that the weather had been kinder on the Sunday morning when I had some free time. I’ll have to make up for it next year.

Ania and Vicky enjoying Zug's nightlife

Ania’s questions

Which idea taken from the conference have you already used with your students (or are planning to use)?

It’s tough to choose just one. I’ve been very influenced by Ken’s suggestion that we need to choose more thought provoking and engaging materials for our students to read (see this blog post to learn more). I also really liked some of your (Ania’s) practical suggestions for positive feedback and reinforcement. Using the coloured blocks as a way for the students to subtly express how they’re feeling about the activity is a great idea, and the demonstration of sandwich feedback was very effective. And Mike Hogan showed us that we can use business with beginners, which is something I'll be looking at more closely.

Did you have enough time for networking and meeting friends?

There’s never enough time, is there? But since we got to meet up from Friday night to Sunday morning, I can’t complain! I find that the opportunities to meet up with everyone, which have been facilitated first by Twitter, then by blogs and Facebook, mean that the social aspect of a conference is just as important as the presentations. It all adds to a really rewarding weekend. 

Now it’s Ania’s turn...

Mike’s questions
Did anything surprise you about the conference? What and why/why not?
I was surprised by how friendly and open everybody was. And not at all afraid or shy to participate in the workshops (well, some needed a push, like a bag of candy as a reward, yes James, I’m talking about you ;) ). I also felt very comfortable when it comes to finding my way around the venue – IATEFL Brighton was a huge event and I often got lost!
Tell us one interesting thing you learnt about teaching.
I would have to say that Ken Wilson’s workshop on drama gave me a lot of new ideas.  As I use drama in my classes, I always look for some activities, especially for elementary students, that can help them open up. And Ken proved again that even the most basic conversations (like “What time is it?”) can be delivered with flare and passion. He made us use two (very old) mobile phones and have this exchange in an angry mood, which we later switched to a calm one.

Ania in action.
James’ questions
Apart from giving your own presentations, why did you want to go to the conference?
I love attending conferences as they provide me with so many ideas that I can use in my classes. Observing other teachers motivates me to be a better educator. Conferences are also a wonderful opportunity to talk to friends and share our thoughts about teaching (well, not only teaching ;) ). But I guess I would have never come if it hadn’t been for Vicky and her encouragement and huge help.
Apart from your own presentations , who were you most looking forward to seeing present?
As Vicky Loras, Mike Harrison and Vladka Michalkova were presenting at the same time as me, I couldn’t attend their sessions. But I was really looking forward to seeing Ken’s plenary and his drama workshop (which was amazing, but that is not surprising as he’s the Drama King ;) ). I was also very happy that I managed to attend Anthony Gaughan’s session on recycling vocabulary which showed how to use the language that occurs on the lessons.
Vicky’s questions
Who did you meet for the first time there?
Oh, so many people…But I loved meeting Chuck Sandy and Andreas Grundtvig face to face.
What did you like the most about Zug?
It’s such a wonderful city, I love the lake, the open-air restaurants and the castle in the Old Town. I also liked the chocolate and delicious cakes served in cafes – the apfelstrudel was yummy. Next time I’m going to try the Kirschntorte which is strongly spiked.

Ania, James, Mike and some swans. 

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Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Guest post: Not a Drama Queen but a Drama Teacher

Here is part two of Ania Musielak's takeover of my blog. After last weeks interview, she has now written a post for us all about her great passion in teaching, using drama in the classroom. I have asked her to write here because this is an aspect of teaching that doesn't come naturally to me at all. It seems to me that the majority of teachers I've worked with have an exhibitionist streak within them, and teaching gives them a great chance to be the centre of attention. The good teachers, of course, can control this feeling and harness it to their advantage. The bad ones allow their ego to take precedence over the needs of the students.

But what about the other teachers, like myself, who are more introspective and could subsequently be missing out on some useful classroom techniques? I asked Ania to give us some advice, and she's done a great job in helping us to understand how we can harness the acting skills she believes we all have within us.

Smile & Frown

--> -->
I love drama – there's no doubt about that, and some even say I'm all about it! Not in real life though – in teaching of course :) I think that drama helps both students and teachers, it allows us to open up, forget about language barriers and inhibitions and, by involving the whole body, treats people as entities.

Of course, many might disagree with me, saying that you need to have some acting or theatre training to teach drama. But aren't we all actors? We have to act every day – when our beloved mother-in-law cooks a, well, less than delicious dinner and we have to put on a brave face, eat it and, what's more, give a sincere sounding compliment... Or when we feel blue but have a classroom filled with lively and talkative teenagers... Or even when we want to persuade our boss that we really deserve that pay rise, isn't that acting? Of course it is, and by being emotionally engaged we are able to communicate our needs and desires.

That is the essence of drama – it engages the learner by creating situations mirroring our every day life. It uses our emotions, which means that we forget about stress and barriers and just perform! Of course, some students and teachers might be shyer at first, but once they see that drama is all about the process not the product, they will give in to its power.

By putting on a mask of someone else students not only get an insight into another person's behaviour, but they also become less intimidated to act and speak, as for that brief moment they are someone else. A hard-working Kate become Charming Alexis and Jack the stockbroker can become Archie The Greatest Footballer of All Time!


Once you put on a mask like that there's no coming back - you just have to make a fool of yourself – here it's my husband's turn!

That is why when I teach adults I ask them to come up with names or nicknames that they want to use only on English lessons. And I don't just mean an English equivalent of their real name – but a whole new identity. Even today some of my students greet me by my nickname and talk about our groups using English nicks. That is a very simple idea which can help loosen students up and prepare them for the activities to come.

Another technique for those who are rather reluctant when it comes to using drama might be the introduction of non verbal drama games (they are a wonderful way to put students at ease because with those games the immediate pressure to speak is lifted). There is a popular game that I use quite frequently, it's called Would You Prefer? It basically means giving students two options to choose from e.g.

Would you prefer…

a) to go on a date with the man/woman of your dreams or b) win £5000?

a) eat a big bowl of toothpaste or b) eat a bar of soap

Depending on the choice made, the learners have to run to two opposite sides of the classroom. So let's say you choose money – you run to the left corner, and if you choose a date, you run to the right. If your classroom is too small or there are too many students, you can modify this activity by adding movements students have to make with each choice – e.g. pat their bellies, scratch their heads, jump, duck or even produce sounds. It's a lot of fun and what's best is that the game relaxes students and lowers the level of stress.

There is another drama idea that is easy to adopt – a technique called freeze frame (or still image). A freeze frame is used to show a specific event, reaction or action of the story. Students who are reluctant to improvise a talking scene can show a story by a series of still images. The images can be made alive – the audience (students who are not involved in the freeze frame) can choose a person from the still image and ask him or her some question to establish what the story is about. It is a good idea to provide the group presenting the freeze frame with a photo and give them time to brainstorm some ideas and decide on their roles before presenting it. In the past, I had students so engaged that they were willing to perform stunts (they really got into the roles of cancan girls, and those were guys, mind you!).

--> My students might have not been THAT flexible and fit, but they sure tried hard! 

This activity provides a lot of fun and students can take turns  - first they show a scene to the audience, then they become spectators who have to guess the story.  The ideas for a freeze frame lessons can be taken from famous movies or even fairy tales. If I don't have my own photos I use Google of course.

Funny Group Photo
More Funny | Forward this Graphic

Historical Photo

The beauty of drama is that every teacher can have her or his individual twist on the activities. And drama never ends, every day can bring a new idea, so be aware, be prepared  and be amazed by drama. As my favourite Chinese proverb says: “Tell me and I will forget, show me and I will remember, involve me and I will understand.”

A big thank you to Ania for her blog takeover. You can read my interview with her here, and you can find her on Twitter at @Aniamusielak.

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