A Space for Stories: Stories in Space

Hevea brasiliensis: Seringueira tree seed / Rubber tree seed

Hevea brasiliensis: Seringueira tree seed /                 Rubber tree seed

If there’s one thing that’ll make me stop what I’m doing and just listen, it’s when someone starts telling a story. The act of listening to a story is possibly something that takes me back to my childhood and that may explain my fascination for stories. Storytelling has always played a key role in my own language classroom practice, yet I’d never addressed this explicitly in presentations in seminars or congresses. It’s something which I certainly brought into the classroom based on my own first teaching experience in Primary school in the UK, when stories and storytelling played such a significant role in the work I did and it’s something I’ve kept up, being able to explore ideas a bit better with the different levels and age ranges of EFL learners.

Apart from the stories we hear as children from storybooks and those we read ourselves, I’ve always enjoyed listening to the stories people tell us based on the objects, people and places which mean something to them. This has always seemed far more organic and visceral and as such, makes a story more memorable and meaningful, for example:

- the story of a rubber tree seed and how this evokes fond childhood memories as well as a longing for times past, and you see this in the narrator’s face as the story is told;

- the story about my mum and her pet crocodile and how for a whole week, when she was seventeen, she looked after it and took it for walks on Icaraí beach. I picture her walking, feeling so sure of herself with that crocodile tagging along.

- my own story of  the Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens and how I loved to visit it as a young child and count the rabbits, mice and squirrels on it. Just like a familiar story which a child enjoys listening to over and over again, this little routine of finding and counting the animals on the statue was done on an almost a weekly basis and being able to look forward to this meant the world to me. (I visited this statue again two years ago, during a beautiful Sunday morning walk with friends along the park. How wonderful it was to see a little girl skip around the statue, then stop to find and touch the animals and count them.)

The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens

The Peter Pan Statue in Kensington Gardens

Once stories become more memorable and meaningful, then what also emerges is emotion and involvement, both for the storyteller and the listener. We have the chance to (re)live specific moments and experiences and make sense of ourselves and of the world around us. Stories give us the chance to savour the intensity of life itself, without making any sort of excuse for experiencing this intensity. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer puts this quite bluntly to us:

“We live on the surface of our planet. Human life happens on a shell as thin, relative to the size of the earth, as an egg’s, or as thin as the paint on a wall. We have lifestyles on the surfaces of our lives: habits and cultures, clothes, modes of transit, calendars, papers in wallets, ways of killing time, answers to the question “What do you do?” We come home from long days of doing what we do and tuck ourselves under the thin sheets. We read stories printed on even thinner paper. Why, at the end of the day, do we read stories?[...] Stories rub at the facts of our lives. They give us access – if only for a few hours, if only in bed at the end of the day – to what’s beneath.” (pp. viii-ix)

It was with all these thoughts in mind that created a session on the possibility of using different storytelling techniques in class in order to foster language exploration through this medium. Any medium which grabs our attention, which invites us to become part of a greater picture, is a wonderful resource for us teachers and one we can tap into on a far more regular basis.

The first version I gave of this session was at a BRAZ-TESOL Brasília Chapter event in May 2013 and the final version took place at this year’s IATEFL in Harrogate. It’s a session which has undergone changes, largely due to the changes we need to make in order to adapt to a plenary, talk or workshop format. But like any narrative which gradually unweaves itself, it’s a session which finds its own pace and direction. A great deal depends on the participation of those present in the room. The session requires that all of those present weave their own stories/narratives. They may feel free to share ideas, they may feel threated by sharing ideas, they may decide not to share ideas because the intensity of the emotions and which can’t be voiced at that given time. Any option is fine. Yet, the session is one which makes participants see storytelling from a new organic perspective. It’s as much their own journey into what lies beneath as a session which shows different techniques to get learners/people to tell stories.

So, because of the different nature of this session, I decided not to share the PowerPoint presentation through Slideshare etc., but rather describe some of these activities. A word of warning, however: in every group I’ve done one of these activities, the outcomes have been completely different. It all depends how a given group of learners react to the activities; it depends on their own life stories; it depends on how they are feeling that day; it depends on how you, the teacher, are feeling that day…and I think that this is what is so exciting about this…what emerges from the learner is what we are going to work with as teachers. My main intention here is just to share ideas of how to spark off stories, how to build up narratives through different activities. How teachers use these ideas to develop language work in class is up to them, though sometimes the options are quite obvious. (Please note: the activities on the whole are things we do in class, some with a slight twist. If any of these ideas are part of a resource book or written about by someone else, please let me know so that I can give them credit.)

Making stories memorable through objects

ballet shoes

Objects carry specific significances for different people. Why we keep an object is generally linked to the emotional value it may have for us. When we bring an object into class and tell a story about it the tactile element of the object itself will make the story quite different. It’s not the same as just showing a photo of the object. The story becomes immediately tangible to others. So our attention is immediately engaged, our desire to listen to the story and to find out more about the object and the person.


1) Ask learners to bring an object into class and tell a story about the object. They need only speak for a minute or two, working in small groups of three. (Depending on their level, learners may wish to prepare something at home, which may involve rehearsing their narrative. But there is no need to encourage them to write down the story. Part of the success of this activity depends on the spontaneity of the language used and the ability to focus on narrative flow as they tell the story. )’ The teacher may wish to model the activity by telling his/her own object story.

2) As learners tell their stories, you may find they automatically react to the stories. The teacher can monitor the groups and provide help when needed. The idea at this stage is to ask for one of the learners in the group of three to re-tell their story to the others. The groups may choose the story they feel needs to be told and encourage them to work collaboratively on enhancing the narration of the object story before the performance.

3) A good follow-up, not only for learners to share their stories, but also to provide the teacher with an extra resource for language work, is to record learners’  contributions via Voxopop, for example. (http://www.voxopop.com/)

Making stories memorable through people


The idea for this activity came from the writer Mark Haddon and a task he carries out with his students in the writing workshops he runs at the Arvon Foundation. We’re all used to thinking up characters in a story by traditionally going through their physical description and then saying something about them. But what if we changed this and created characters which emerge through significant life events and interact with other characters? What if the narratives emerge from the meeting of these characters?

“We covered the table in a huge sheet of paper and I put a constellation of big dots all over it, labeling each one as potential turning points in the lives of the characters we were trying to write about, birth, death, divorce, leg amputation, discovering you’re adopted, coming out…take these dots, I said, and connect them with a line, and you’ve got a life, take these other dots and connect them and you’ve got another life, we’re looking at an almost infinite number of novels sitting in front of us.”                (Mark Haddon speaking at 5X15)


1) Hand out an A3 sized sheet of paper to students seated in groups (about 4 people per group). Ask them to draw a few stars on the sheet of paper. Ask each of them to select three stars and for each star think of and write down:

(a) a life event (a marriage, a birth, first day at school, etc.)

(b) each student selects three stars and links these up (a good idea is to link the stars with a specific colour): this is now the life story of a character. Name your character.

(c) each student now has a character, with a name, and a life story which contains three significant events. These characters are now ready to meet each other in a narrative which is going to emerge as the characters’ lives intertwine.

The possibilities are endless now and how the teacher decides to progress with this, or better still, how the students decide to progress with this may give rise to quite an exciting new narrative building format.

Making stories memorable through places

We often bring to class photos of places to act as a stimulus to set a context and location for a story. However, an alternative is to bring a sound into class, or ask the students to do this themselves, and then beginning creating a story around this sound bite. Today with smartphones we can all quite easily record sounds and play this back in class.


1) Close your eyes. Listen to the sound below and imagine the scene. Be ready to describe the story of your scene to another student.

2) Tell the story of the scene you imagined. Decide between the two of you which of the two stories will be told to the other groups. Work in pairs on improving the narrative so that whoever is listening to the story really gets a feel of the atmosphere and the feeling of the scene. (This can be done either in writing or students can actually find a quiet spot and record themselves telling the story. The idea is for the teacher to monitor and provide support at all times. Enough time needs to be given to this activity to allow for work on language to be done and a fair amount of rehearsing as well. Again, the type of narrative which emerges will be quite different from pair to pair, as will the language chosen. But there is an underlying thread which is atmosphere and feeling.)

3) One of the things we can encourage is the idea of re-working a story and this means it’s useful to encourage learners to keep their work saved somewhere. An idea might be to encourage them to use Google Keep as a means of saving text, images, audio etc. It can’t be shared between  people, yet it’s a nice way of saving your own work.

google keep

I also think that by working with stories through a variety of media, we move closer and closer to the art of creating multi-modal digital fiction. By bringing together a combination of text, sound and images to tell a story we allow learners to experience new literacies and we take a step towards Transmedia storytelling, which already permeates our lives (through advertising and the branding of films) and is a well-known “genre” for many of our learners, especially teenagers.

If you would like to find out more about multi-modal digital fiction, I strongly recommend you access the Inanimate Alice homepage to find out more about this.

inanimate alice

Making stories meaningful through emotions

Being able to latch on to an emotion and use this as a springboard for the start of a story is quite an amazing way to start things off. It can produce story beginnings such as this one mentioned by Mark Haddon (see the video link above) when he went into a school to work with 8 and 9 year-olds. The children shared their story beginnings and a girl read this out:

“They were sitting on the edge of the world. The baby was dead…”

Something that we often do to get stories emerging in class is to take in photos/images to act as a stimulus for the creation of a narrative. The problem with this is that the way I read a specific image may not be the manner in which you read and interpret the same image. In fact, the image may also conjor up no feeling or emotion whatsoever.

So, just so that we understand this, one of the final activities we did in the session was to look at the four images below and decide what emotions they evoked in us.

Have a look now and think: what emotions do each of the images evoke in you?

four options 2

All four images create a strong emotion in me and would be perfect to help me start off a story. Let’s remember, however, that all of these pictures mean something to me because three of them were taken by me and I’m in the pic-nic photo.  As we did this activity in the different sessions I ran, the reactions I obtained were always completely different. Many teachers mentioned how very difficult it was to make an emotional bond with an image in which there were people they did not know. Others said it was easier to use the black and white photo and the flower photo to help unleash an idea or emotion. Some said that the images featuring people imposed specific relations which impinged emotions on them and so this blunted their creative possibilities.

Once we discussed this and saw how a task we often do in class with a specific purpose can backfire, we then worked on thinking of alternatives which could help us access our emotions as a starting point for a story. What became clear was that this is something that we can actually discuss with learners themselves and they can then bring in their own images, or alternatively, an artefact, a sound bite which they feel would work for them.

A final point about working with emotions to add meaning to stories and to actually help us start a story is that the way we collaboratively build up these stories and share them is a key issue. The seating arrangement in class has to be such that it allows for this moment of profound sharing. Being able to sit in small groups and also sit in a large circle with everyone is very important.

Being able to work effectively with stories is not only about finding the space in the classroom for us to build these stories, but it’s also about seeing the potential for story-building moments with the resources we have around us: the linguistic, physical, intellectual, emotional, historical and social resources we have in all our learners. And then, it’s about weaving a little bit of magic with the stories they craft.



Safran Foer, J. (2008) Foreword to Bruno Schulz’s “The Street of Crocodiles & Other Stories”, Penguin.


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Deconstructing the learning/teaching space

This text was initially written for the Editorial page in the Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal-August 2013. Since posting it, I felt the need to add a few elements to the text itself and so I’ve posted it on my blog in an extended format.

We as teachers have become so used to the four walls of the classroom environment that it is as if it has become an extension of our teaching persona. This recently led me to reflect on a few questions which I think we can ask ourselves and I’ve also had the chance to ask a few teachers following the opportunity to observe their lessons.

– How many of you would ever dream of teaching with the door open?
– How many of you would give up your chair at the front of the class and feel happy sitting in a circle amongst your learners?
– How many of you are ready to allow learners to group themselves as they will and move tables and chairs around the classroom?
– How many of you would feel happy swapping the IWB for a simple display board or, for that matter, tablets scattered across learners’ desks?
– How happy are you about sitting on the floor with learners?
– Are classroom walls part of our learning/teaching space? How do we use them?
– How many of you see the school environment itself as an extension of the learning/teaching space?
– How many of you see spaces outside the classroom environment, such as parks, squares, playgrounds as a learning/teaching space?

It’s not easy to ask ourselves these questions.
It’s not easy to justify our answers to these questions either, however we may answer them.
Sometimes we as teachers have specific beliefs about our “place” in the classroom. Sometimes our beliefs are at peace with the teaching environment in which we work. However, sometimes these beliefs are not matched by what is required of us in the educational institutions where we work at.

Changing or relinquishing a traditional “teaching position” has immense pedagogical, physical, metaphorical and psychological implications both for us as teachers and for the learners themselves. This is what makes it all such a fascinating and challenging experience.

In July this year I was lucky enough to take part in a course run by Luke Meddings on Teaching Unplugged. It was a three-day course which sought to challenge participants to re-think the learning/teaching paradigm and all its possibilities. One of the things we did on the second day of the course was to experience a change in the learning/teaching scenario. We left the “classroom” and went to Parque Lage, in Rio de Janeiro, for a “plein air” afternoon. This was our new learning space.

Parque Lage - Rio de Janeiro

Parque Lage – Rio de Janeiro

The moment our physical space changed, so did the way we reacted. The first thing we all did was to find a space to huddle as a group. But a park is a park, full of natural interferences: children, parents, flowers, trees, birds, animals, smells…
So how do you concentrate on what you are doing and not on the other distractors?

Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno's distraction.

Course participant and friend Bruno Lages distracted and yours truly equally distracted by Bruno’s distraction.

Or is it okay to be allowed to be ambushed by distractors?
Can’t distractors also add to the collaborative and creative learning process? (As a learner who was always ticked off for “daydreaming” during lessons, I still defend the right of any learner to be distracted during a lesson. Maybe as a learner I just needed that breathing space between one algrebraic equation and the next to be able to cope with it? Maybe it was the daydreaming which actually kept me going with something which was so immensely difficult for me. But maybe I’m just finding an excuse for being bad at maths!)

The real and visible “threat” of the distractors meant we all had to listen to each other far more attentively. We really had to look at each other as we worked to keep our focus and keep on task. We negotiated meaning and content far more intensely during our discussions. Time was under our management and we all had a task to complete before the whole group gathered together again for debriefing and sharing. But we were free to organize our presentations using the resources and note-taking devices we wanted.

The debate and exchange which ensued, as the sun gradually set in this lush landscape, was one of the most pedagogically rewarding experiences I have ever had in my 23 years of teaching. We gathered round a fallen tree trunk.

photo (6)

We were happy to sit, stand or lean on the tree trunk. When someone looked tired, we just swapped – there was giving and taking – we suddenly became more sensitive to each other’s needs. We wrote on paper, on mobile phones, on tablets, some drew diagrams. We passed the paper around or our devices so all could see what we had written. We had no physical walls to surround us, but there was unity and a feeling of belonging…that space we had collectively created was ours, and ours only.

So, how much of the teaching/learning space we work in is limited or contained by our physical reality and our preconceived ideas about what a learning/teaching space should be like? Doesn’t it have a great deal to do with the affective dimension and how we as teachers and learners collaboratively construct our teaching/learning spaces?

Addendum: My personal element of distraction when I was at Parque Lage

One of the things which distracted me when I was working with my group happened when I was looking at the children playing on swings and the seesaw. And I just thought: what completely different perspectives we get when we swing on a swing or go up and down on a seesaw. The swing is completely hedonistic and individual, unless of course someone pushes you, but still, you have your back to them. The seesaw is all about looking at each other in the eye, understanding each other and working collaboratively. Hmm, I thought all these things in the blink of an eye and then I was looking at my group again.

photo (8)

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Framing the world of words: what do YOU see?

Foto taken by Alan Seabra His view of me looking at my view.

Foto taken by Alan Seabra
His view of me looking at my view.

(This is another of my immensely reflective posts based on loads of things which run on the tangent with the world of ELT, but which currently serves as a great source of inspiration for what I like doing in the classroom with learners and in my work with teachers.)

I arrived in Liverpool for the IATEFL 2013 conference on a Sunday so that I could have a day to do a spot of sightseeing. It would also give me the chance to go to the TATE Liverpool. Visiting the TATE Liverpool was something I’d set as a personal goal. In 2004, when the IATEFL conference was also held in Liverpool, I found myself without enough time to visit the TATE, much to my frustration (I think the friends I was with then may actually remember this…I wonder if they do, Patricia Blower, Virginia Garcia and Janine Barbosa?).

This time I managed to make it. And we had just about enough time to go upstairs and visit the DLA Piper Series: “This is sculpture” – a retrospective look at the history of modern and contemporary sculpture, sculpture seen from a wider perspective including objects, installations, pictures, video etc. The curation of this display was very innovative. The context in which the sculpture was set out meant there was an intervention in the manner in which we were made to look at the selected pieces. Walls were awash with bright colours, not a simple white wall. This was a 21st century statement surrounding the pieces themselves…the manner in which today we feel this tremendous need to “interact” with everything we see. This also helped us re-frame the pieces of art we were looking at, bringing differing views, differing interpretations and clearly stimulating different emotional reactions.

Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank"

Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank”

This feature is in fact highlighted in some of the rooms where there is a screen showing excerpts of the film directed by Mike Figgis which shows people reacting to the sculptures. They filmed the general public, art students, school goers expressing their reactions to the sculptures, some exhibited within the gallery itself, but others set up in challenging and unexpected contexts. Watching these videos is an experience in itself. Wonderful to see how the language we use to express our thoughts regarding any piece of art will also be wildly varied, amazingly rich with a myriad of possibilities of sharing your exact thoughts.

You can see this in probably what is my favourite film out of all the ones shared on the TATE site, based on the Jeff Koons “Three Ball Equilibrium Tank” installation. Some of the things the young people said were:

“No talent went into creating that and the only thing that is imaginative is the idea of putting basketballs into a fish bowl”

“I disagree because I think you need to look at the process, it’s not always necessarily the end product that’s come about it’s like what’s gone into it….”

“A basketball will always be a basketball no matter what you do with it coz I don’t think there’s any other way to look at a basketball.”

What I enjoyed so much about this was their reactions, their ability to listen to each other, to exchange ideas. And if you listen closely, it’s amazing to see how the ideas they come up with feed off each other, they incorporate ideas mentioned by each other in order to argue against them. We have a true dialogue of ideas: of young people looking carefully at something, listening to each other, reacting and interacting. Young people interested in what they were looking at, talking about and listening to. It reminded me of something I’d read:

“Looking is a very positive act. You have to do it deliberately. Hearing is the same. If you concentrate on music, you’re going to hear more.” (Said by David Hockney in: A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney, by Martin Gayford, p.86)

As I watched the videos I immediately thought, isn’t this the sort of thing we can do in our ELT classrooms or learning environments? We so often say that our teenage students react with a degree of boredom to the input we provide them with. A series of questions arose in my mind, all without answers…just mulling over them:
Is the input we provide to get them talking and exchanging ideas sufficiently stimulating?
Are we creating the right conditions to really foster interaction and dialogue?
Are we really able to “grab” their attention? How can we do this?
What in fact does interest our learners?
What exactly drives them to participate actively in our classes?
How far can a teacher promote interaction based in his/her own interests and hope that the passion manifest in this actually become contagious and stimulates the learners themselves?

It is exactly because we can almost guarantee that each of us will see the world differently that when we look and hear something we know we are going to conjure up different stories and views. And it’s when we confront these differing views that gaps emerge to be bridged, and it makes the prospect of interactional exchange all the more exciting, real and meaningful. It creates the need to talk, to exchange ideas, to communicate. This is, at the end of the day, what we always aim to foster in our classrooms as we need to use language to learn the language.

(A huge thanks to Alan Seabra for the photo, who in a serendipitous moment decided to take it and then to show it to me. Thanks for a memorable afternoon together just looking at and talking about art.)

My view: framing the Mersey from the TATE Liverpool.

My view: framing the Mersey from the TATE Liverpool.


Stargazing: creating new stories collectively


This post may seem like a wild, rambling piece of text.
It’s about stars, hyperlinking thoughts, working in a space, using new frames and creating new stories.
It’s about working as a teacher trainer (does this actually exist?) or, as I prefer to refer to it, as someone who guides teacher development, who runs workshops and sessions in which the main idea is to stimulate critical reflection.
This may be sort of a “work in progress” blog post: the work in question being my own attempt to bring together several ideas into a semi-coherent flow of thought. But I promise, I’ll try and make a point at the end of this all (that is if you bear with me until the end).

Last year, in November, I wrote the following in my Facebook page:

When we lie down to look up at the stars in the sky it takes some time for our eyes to adjust to the darkness.
But then the intensity of some stars draws our attention.
Our eyes flit from one bright star to the next and so we capture the scene in its entirety.
Part of the comfort in the unexpectedness of all this stargazing is the knowledge that we know a star will shine bright, we just don’t know which one, where and when.
Fernando Guarany and I’ve been working together over the last few weeks on a workshop session.
A couple of hours of chatting,
listening to each other,
exchanging opinions, expressing pet hates,
listening to others,
creating frameworks, and then re-creating them,
word-driven ideas,
ideas which hyperlink organically,
ideas that shine in their own space.

This text emerged as a reflection on the opportunity I had of working alongside a colleague and friend, Fernando Guarany, on a joint presentation about “Teaching Unplugged”. The text was written and posted before we actually presented. It was a reflection on the process of how we built up our session. One of the things we both had been thinking about was how to avoid being overly linear in the presentation. Would there be a power point presentation or not? How would we move from one point to the next? How could we be didactic whilst at the same time not stuck to a rigid format? So, my association of our work process with stargazing was exactly that…we knew something would shine and we would be able to hold on to it.

What we weren’t aware of before we presented was how true this would all be. How far having a rough structure (a framework if you will), a great deal of discussion and a shared understanding of things would really allow us to deal with the emergent needs of the group? We ran most of the session on a mutual understanding that one of us would say something when it felt right to say something, when we just looked at one another and knew it was time to give up the space we had momentarily taken and pass it on to the other. And it worked. Yes, we did have a power point presentation in the end, with a few slides designed to be shown as a starting point, but most of them were there to scaffold key concepts after they arose as a result of participants’ questions.

What this brought home to me was how immensely enriching a truly collaborative, interactionist, dialogic, non-scripted, on-the-spot learning/teaching experience can be for all who are there – presenters and participants.

Yet what it also taught me was that, for each person in the room that day, the experience was a different one. (I also suspect that Fernando and I may have interpreted reactions differently as well.) What each person gleaned from the session was different. Reactions and levels of acceptance were quite varied. There wasn’t a homogeneous linearity as to how the session was understood. Yet I don’t think that really worried us: we wanted to raise issues, provoke questions, draw out reactions and we would deal with whatever emerged from participants. That was how we attempted to piece the ideas together.

Page from Mark Z. Danielewski's "House of Leaves"

Page from Mark Z. Danielewski’s “House of Leaves”

The degree of non-linearity in the session may have confused some people, who expected a more contained and organised event, with a neat beginning, middle and end, just like a fairy story, which begins with “Once upon a time…”, prepares us for a “Then…” part in the middle and ends with “…and they lived happily ever after”. The “organic hyperlinking” which took place may have been off-putting for some. It’s a bit like reading a book which has footnotes and footnotes on the footnotes. Then all of a sudden, the footnote becomes the driving force of the narrative and takes over (read Danielewski’s book and you’ll understand what it means to have the narrative ambushed by the footnote).

Yet, if we think of it, isn’t this the most natural of processes? Isn’t this what happens when we chat with friends? The conversation flows and merges, from one topic to the next, and then we go, “Oh, by the way, have you heard…” and we don’t hear the end of what was being said and are all ears to what is now going to be said. The focus has shifted, a new star has shone brighter and we choose to gaze onto something else, which promises to be brighter.

Another thing which struck me about the session was the question of space. Space and time. Yes, we had a time limit and that limited the space we had. But isn’t space a question of what you want to fill it with? What if we leave a bit of space to see what emerges?

Page from Jonathan Safran Foer's "Tree of Codes"

Page from Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Tree of Codes”

The format and the pace of the session allowed for the creation of spaces for interaction. Dialogue and the building of understanding can only happen when there is space for that to happen. The thing about space though, a bit like silence, is that it can be worrying and scary. We sort of ask ourselves, “What if the space isn’t filled?”, “What if it just remains there, empty?” or “What if there is a a rush to fill the space up?”

In a fascinating talk in a 5×15 event in London in 2011, writer Mark Haddon said,

“And I sometimes think that the writer’s job is just to create the gaps that the reader can then fill.”

Yes, I think Haddon is right. Writer Safran Foer took this to an easthetic and literary extreme in his remix novel “Tree of Codes” in which empty spaces speak loud and clear. The reader is forced to read between the lines, literally.

Yes, by leaving spaces, creating gaps, something is bound to arise. We jump to fill spaces up, especially in today’s world in which we fear the lack of communication, the lack of contact, the emptiness of silence and space. The space I don’t grab is the space someone else will claim, sooner or later. Yet, how truly comfortable are we with empty spaces? Do we really need to plan out all the moves? Surely teaching is about the process? Surely working in the more specific area of teacher development: now that really is about space and time. And if we agree that our focus is on the process, well then I need space to allow for interaction, exchange and collaboration.

Space is a very useful learning resource. All of us working in the field of ELT are actually quite familar with this. After all, what is an information-gap activity but the creation of a false gap which needs to be filled? These are mini-negotiated interactions in space. Isn’t that where the learning takes place? Isn’t the classroom about creating microcosms of space-driven learning? Don’t we need to try a create the same microcosms when dealing with teacher development?

It is a bit like the way the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer used the buildings to frame the space around them. By framing spaces through architecture a new view could be seen or the same view seen from a different perspective. Just by changing the perspective, I am given the chance to see what I was unable to see before, or what I was trying not to see before. The frames we create alter the dynamics of the (inter)action.

So, I said at the start that this was rambling with a purpose, and so it is. But just before I conclude, you’ll permit me another brief sidestep.

In his autobiographical book “Beside Myself”, actor Antony Sher recounts the episode in which he went for an audition for the Liverpool Everyman company, under the direction of Alan Dossor and this is what happened immediately after the audition. Alan Dossor speaking to Sher:

‘Your watch flew off during the speech.’
‘Yes,’ I mutter.
‘You ignored it.’
‘Yes,’ I say more confidently.
‘You shouldn’t’ve.’
I hesitate now. ‘But I didn’t want it to throw me.’
‘Why not? It happened. It was throwing. It threw me – it should’ve thrown you – you should’ve used it. Things don’t always go according to plan on stage. They shouldn’t. That’s dead theatre, man, that’s fucking dead theatre.’

Sher actually got the job at the Everyman, but his great doubt was whether he would actually fit in. He came from a very structured, carefully rehearsed, non-spontaneous acting school background. Would he be able to grow professionally and develop as an actor in a space in which being thrown by your watch flying off was a rich learning opportunity?

So, now we come to the conclusion, where all the loose ends are tied, or rather, where we can start to connect up the dots, allowing for multiple readings and interpretations. And here’s mine.

Some of us are in the ELT field because an opportunity came up, we liked the idea of teaching and we specialiased in our field. Some of us have always dreamt of being teachers and are seeking to fulfill our dreams. Whatever led us to the ELT scene, the thing is that being in the classroom or running TD sessions day in and day out is a challenging situtation.

Challenging in so many different ways. Challenging because we may be working with a particularly difficult group, or a different age range of learners, a new level of language learners, a new in-service group of teachers or very-experienced peers who need to look at new apporaches to the ELT classroom. And for those of us who have been in the ELT field for years on end, what else is there for us to learn?

Oh, there is so much more to learn. But I would argue that the learning frames change, just as when we look through a window in a Niemeyer building.

MAC by Paula Bauba (http://paulabauab.wordpress.com/2010/01/27/havera-paraiso/)

By holding up a new frame, by selecting an out-of-the-ordinary frame we see things differently. We are thrown. We are looking out into that sky and suddenly a new star shines bright, in a section of the sky we had barely looked at before.
This is supposed to throw us.
This is a “live” teaching situation.
It is raw and vivid.
It stops us in our tracks.
This new perspective puts everything we have done so far into question.
It makes us look at things more reflectively and listen to new voices.
It forces us to use the space around us more creatively or even may help us think: wow, there is a space here I hadn’t noticed before.
It throws down the gauntlet.
It can make us exceedingly frustrated at times as well. After all, things don’t always go as planned.
It makes us try out new ideas, make new hyperlinks, understand how ideas and, most importantly of all, how people fit into spaces.

One of my favourite theatre directors, Phelim McDermott, said the following about the process of staging the new Philip Glass opera alongside choreographer Ben Wright:

“It’s really only when you get to see bodies in the space that you get a connection between these ideas that have been in your imagination and what’s tangible.”

It is through collaboration, interaction and dialogue with “bodies” that inhabit the “spaces” that we drive our own learning forward and that I, working with teacher development, have the chance to foster some kind of reflection.

Yes, I think that out of this verbose rambling, this is what I really believe in.

And then it’s about watching.
Watching ideas and people shine in their own spaces and constellations, as it were.

What could be better than this?


Being ambushed by ideas, thoughts and emotions

I’ve been quite concerned about the fact that I haven’t made enough time to blog. I’ve drafted post after post, but never published them and there is so much I want to write about, that it is difficult to start. So, here is a post, coming from the heart, to get me going again and set the scene for a sequence of posts which will be directly related to the project I am currently developing with a group of teachers who do cascade teacher development alongside me.

I have many passions in my life. Teaching, is without a shadow of doubt, one of them. Yet another thing which does take up a significant space in my life is my passion for classical music. I am sure this happened because I was brought up in a house with a pianist – my mum.

One of the things we were “taught” as kids was to stop, listen and appreciate music: listen to minimal differences and nuances. My mum always said, and still says, that to listen to music we need to stop all else and concentrate on it as this is the only way to capture the beauty of it all. I think she is right. The focused listening experience is completely different to when we listen to music and multi task.

Recently, as I searched for a particular piano piece on You Tube, I was “ambushed” by a video of a very young pianist, Jan Lisiecki, playing Chopin. I was immediately transfixed and transposed to a place of many more possibilities.

But before I go on any further, perhaps you may also want to stop a bit and listen (not watch, just listen) to Jan playing Chopin, Concerto No. 2, Larghetto movement.

Sublime, isn’t it? And the most fascinating thing is that this was recorded when Jan was a mere 15-year-old.

In an interview with him about his forthcoming album, Jan mentioned a few things which, as I listened to him, drew a direct parallel with the world of ELT, my beliefs as a teacher, as a teacher developer (if such a role actually does exist).

You can watch his interview here, but these are some of the points he made (some I paraphrase, others I quote directly).

1) If you want to involve the audience, it has to speak from the heart (wheather it is a live performance or recorded one).

The other day Guilherme Pacheco and myself were working alongside Paul Seligson, elaborating a development programme for mentors and Paul looked up at one stage and said: “…the great thing about this is that we’re all so passionate about teaching…” And he’s right. The three of us could go on for hours.

I can’t seem to lose the passion I’ve always had for teaching and for the work I try to collaboratively develop with teachers. Yes, like Jan, teaching does have to come from the heart for me. I don’t really know how to address a group of learners without trying to be fully engaged with them – I can’t fake this. And I often wonder if teachers are finding it difficult to remain in the teaching profession exactly because they have lost heart? You see, when we interact with learners, when we really look at them and listen to them, it does become ever so difficult not to become involved with them. The affective dimension has to be there.

2) You can’t just record and play perfect technically and expect that’ll be what the audience loves, “it has to have a communication.”

Well, what is a perfect lesson? Does this exist in any manner? Does following a lesson plan to a T result in a perfect lesson? If we follow all the stages we planned for in a lesson and don’t deviate from the chartered path, does this guarantee a better lesson? If I implement a number of class management techniques does this automatically mean my lesson is a good one?

Well, from my experience and loads of hours observing teachers I would have to answer “No” to all the questions above. You see, what is the point of following something so religiously if we do not include the learner in our lesson? And learners subvert our teaching and our planning process. They ad-lib, they ambush our most carefully laid out plans. And if we’re wise, we listen to them, we go with the flow…their flow…and maybe we add a very valuable element to our lessons…we truly communicate with the learner and at the end of the day, this is what we want in the ELT classroom…communication in the target language. Teaching techniques and expertise are a valuable and important aspect of our professional development, but unless we recognise that the human element in the class is equally important, well then, we might as well be teaching robots (or be slightly robotic ourselves).

3) “In a sense its incomplete [the Mozart piano Concertos in terms of the emotion in the music] and you have a chance to put your own say into it.”

I think I like this because he is talking about what makes an experience complete…he has the piano score, he has his technique and years of practice and experience (well he’s still in his teens, but he’s been playing for years), yet each time he plays a piece he musters up the emotions he needs to complete the music (of course, this is the way he sees Mozart). And I daresay that each time he plays the piece, he will be taken emotions which may by ever so slightly different.

In teaching we always need to add our own twist to things, add our own mark. I think this is what allows for the emergence of those very special teaching moments we have all had the chance either of experiencing ourselves as learners or as teachers. When we are working with a particular group of learners we have the whole picture there in front of us and if we are really paying attention to them and listening, we pick up on the minor nuances of what is taking place.

And if we are wise enough, we allow ourselves to be ambushed by whatever emerges: ideas, thoughts and emotions – ours and theirs.





Posted in ELT Profession | Tagged | 7 Comments

The future of publishing in ELT for teachers and students: a summary of our #ELTchat

Last Wednesday (22/02) during the second #ELTchat of the day, the topic under discussion was: The future of publishing in the ELT industry for teachers and students. The chat was fast-paced and whilst it was ongoing I had the feeling we were tackling loads of issues at the same time. Looking over the tweets it became clear that this was indeed the case, but in general the chat focused on these points:

1)    Where does content come from in publishing? Who creates the demand for this content/material?

2)    How can content/material be created?

3)    Are we talking about coursebooks or resources?

4)    What hardware will be involved? What technology is needed? What technological limits may exist?

5)    What about costs?

6)    What is the teaching, learning and digital book relationship?

7)    What does the future hold?

Item 7 in the list was in fact the question which kicked-off our chat, but for the sake of textual clarity, I will leave it to the end as it sort of helps to round things off.  I will also add some of my own thoughts and comments based on the ideas discussed during the chat. Hope you all don´t mind this, but this seems to be easier to do this in this manner, rather than just add my own thoughts at the very end.

Where does content come from in publishing? Who creates the demand for this content/material? 

One of the very early comments made during the chat was the importance of having included the reference to “students” in our chat statement. The possibility of publishers taking into consideration the needs of learners and teachers was seen as one of the indications of change and perhaps this is a good pointer in terms of the future of publishing in ELT. Some of the points made were:

-       Publishers need to ask the right people the right questions to find out what the demands are for published materials. Do publishers carry out any type of market research?

-       There was some general doubt as to whether ELT books are actually geared towards teachers’ needs;

-       We need to find out from students how they like to access their materials: paper books or ebooks? Are they ready for paperless classrooms, substituted for ebook classrooms?

-       Many expressed the idea that a single book hardly ever fits the bill and satisfies the teachers’ every need. In fact @SueAnnan wrote “There is so much material to choose from that it seems capricious to spend money on one particular coursebook.”

-       The speed at which information changes means that the content presented in published material requires constant updating. Learners enjoy discussing current events topics, but it is very difficult to deal with this via published material. However, digital publishing may allow for greater flexibility and adaptation if materials are teacher-published;

-       Content creation within a digital perspective would allow publishers to hear the needs of Special Educational Needs learners and cater for this niche. Books for SEN learners can´t be too colourful, font size needs to be considered, illustration background, quantity of information on a single page etc.

-       It is difficult to find materials/content in today’s published materials which really do cater for memorable contexts;

-       The possibility of having a collection of authentic recordings (with no frills) which could be selected by the teacher for listening activities would be ideal.


How can content/material be created?

The points raised here seemed to suggest that we identify two possible groups publishing materials: the teachers themselves self-publishing without the back-up of a large publishing house and well-established publishing houses.

Teachers self-publishing

This could allow for:

-       more flexible and cheaper (online) content, which would also allow for greater learner motivation, creativity and challenge;

-       more democratic authoring possibilities;

-       greater possibilities for authors to receive a better financial return based on the work they themselves have developed;

-       less dependence on the big publishing houses;

-       avoiding copyright issues and sourcing your own material;

-       escaping the commercial impositions in the actual content of the materials;

-       a reduction in the quality of the material if it weren´t copyedited or proofread. It is important not to underestimate the role of an editor;

-       a greater need for independent authors to understand more about marketing.

Well-established publishers publishing

This could mean:

-       having the benefit of an editor guiding material production;

-       ensuring there is some form of marketing of the product.



Are we talking about coursebooks or resources?

This was perhaps the most hotly debated point and one in which the multiplicity of views, opinions and suggestions perhaps goes to show how in our field, exactly because we are critical thinkers and users or materials, we all like to add our own touch in class and this inevitably means we will favour different approaches towards the use of materials in class. Whilst some of us feel comfortable using coursebooks in their linear entirety or selectively (either in the paper or digital format), others may prefer to use a number of resources (paper-based or online) in class. Some of the ideas were the following:

-       If multiple resources were made available online, teachers could select what they would need to use – a sort-of material pick-n-mix;

-       However, if these resource/materials/content bank did exist, then there would need to be some sort of consensus in terms of what materials would be used with which levels and groups, there would need to be some sort of structure, a commonly agreed-upon syllabus;

Digital content was specifically mentioned and opinions differed as to their suitability and way of using the material:

-       Ebooks may be more suitable as a resource book (especially for teachers) rather than a coursebook;

-       As an extension of this point, was that ebooks should not simply be are pdfs of an existing book, but should cater for interactivity;

-       With wi-fi and tablets, coursebooks are no longer a necessary element in class;

-       Digital materials can be accessed quickly – on demand;

-       Material can be accessed and shared via wikis or blogs and this is a way of ensuring material is always up to date;

-       The idea of being able to download digital content for a lesson form a site to be used in your lesson appealed to many – a modular book which could even, perhaps, be printed-on-demand;

-       But we also flirted with the idea of being able to co-create material collaboratively which could be shared (as is the idea @wetheround) or each one of us creating our own digital book, which would be the final result of the work done over a period of time, rather than a “pre-fabricated” book;

-       Yet a potential problem raised with the pick-n-mix idea of content distribution is that less experienced teachers may get lost as to what to select.


What hardware will be involved? What technology is needed? What technological limits may exist?

-       Not everyone has internet access, or electricity.

-       Not all mobile phones are “smart” yet, but once this changes, the possibilities for digital books changes completely.

-       One of the great problems with tablets is the cost. It’s still very expensive for most students and also for a great many teachers. Any shift in ELT publishing towards tablets will inevitably be based on the ease of accessibility to these devices.

-       As a solution to this, it was suggested that there would be class sets of tablets. Yet this would mean institutions paying for the hardware.

-       On the other hand, it was pointed out that funding for technology is becoming increasingly easier to find. (Though I’m not sure to how many countries this does apply to, especially if language schools are within the private sector.)

-       It’s clear that exactly because digital publishing doesn´t have a single platform, the distribution of digital books will vary according to the government policies in different countries as regards downloads and from which distributors (e.g. Amazon Kindle downloads not available in all countries yet).

-       Finally @louisealix68 wrote “digital books need better software for those of us who scribble and highlight.” – thought this shows in a lovely way how we ourselves are still grappling with this move from paper to digital.

I may be wrong, but I think that the substantial differences we find in terms of technological accessibility, device availability, the cost of broadband, the lack of government incentives or funding in some countries, government policies which limit accessibility, amongst some of the points made during the chat perhaps suggests that be may be facing a couple of years in which paper-based materials as well as digital materials would still have to run alongside each other.


What about costs?

A number of points were raised about costs and I think that, probably, this was the topic during the chat that most of us were least aware of.

A general view was that ebooks would necessarily allow for cheaper resources and materials. However, some of the points raised attempted to demonstrate that for publishers this may not necessarily be the case. The points made were:

-       Different digital content leads to different costs and VAT (which is high for digital material).

-       Paper-based material is expensive to produce, but for publishers digital materials actually are equally expensive.

-       The costs in publishing do not lie exclusively with manufacturing and distribution costs, as many of us seem to think. With digital publishing there are new costs involved, such as: hosting, delivery, updates, code rights, content rights, the design of the interactive material.

-       Costs for pdf books is one thing, for enhanced books it´s another and far more expensive to produce.

-       Costs may lower in the near future, but this is not the case at the moment.


What is the teaching, learning and digital book relationship?

As someone who works specifically with teacher development, I have to say that this is one of the key issues for me in this whole debate. Although I do think that in a country like Brazil we don’t really resist technological innovation that much (provided the infrastructure and connectivity is fully operational and people have access to the necessary hardware and software), there can be little doubt that many teachers will not feel entirely comfortable with the advent of ebooks.

We all seemed to agree that learning should be interactive, but what exactly is meant by good interaction and how do we ensure this? Many wrote that the interactivity of ebooks should emerge from the interaction between student and the coursebook, being mediated by the teacher.

We also discussed the potential positive and negative aspects of ebooks being used in classrooms. Considering the motivational factor which ebooks could potentially exercise in class, this was seen as a means of bringing meaningful learning experiences to class, experiences which, as mentioned before, would suit individual needs far better. Yet, the chat made clear that we mustn’t forget the role of the teacher and understanding that the teacher can also promote technological literacy and critical thinking.

If we think that the presentation of content in ebooks can be different from what we have today in paper based material (especially if we are talking about enhanced books), then we also need to imagine that the way we search for new information and content will gradually change. As @jankenb2 wrote “The net is the 1st stop for knowledge and how many go deeper than the 3rd hit on Google.” As I see it, swiping your finger across a touch screen has the amazing benefit of allowing us to access information and text very quickly, but it also fosters the possibility of the superficial decoding of what is in front of us on the screen. We need to build in time and create  tasks which ensure that we do foster critical thinking in class. Yes, there is no doubt that if the future of publishing lies in the advent of ebooks, enhanced or not, in the ELT classroom, it will bring about a change in the way we use materials as teachers.

Chat participants were also clear that need for good teachers still remains paramount.


What does the future of publishing  in ELT hold for teachers and students?

Despite starting with this question, few direct answers were provided initially. Yet throughout the chat we somehow or other veered towards this question, trying to grapple with the complexity of the whole situation. A myriad of views were expressed. We had tweets expressing a more techno-sceptic stance, doubting digital publishing possibilities, seeing the fickle and gimmicky nature of technology, unable to produce empirical research evidence that technology does all it is touted to do in an education scenario.

We then seemed to drift into a nostalgic frame of mind, sharing “our love for” and “allegiance to” paper books. And following this cathartic expression, we began considering the relevance of paper-based publishing and the emergence of digital publishing, in its many formats. The suggestion emerged that maybe the changes may lie in the way a book is conceptualized, in the possibility of allowing for more personalized and tailor-made content, rather than more generic publications. As @theteacherjames wrote, “Screens might get bigger, books might get smaller, content can change, consumption can change”. However, it is almost an impossible task to anticipate today tomorrow’s technological trend.

The point about change in the format of book consumption also led to a reflection on the ease and speed with which content and materials can be self-published. Yet this also prompted colleagues to highlight that there are differing policies world wide concerning digital publishing and accessibility to digital content.

Some of the ideas and thoughts expressed went like this:

-       Beginning to see the first indications of the changes that might come, but difficult to predict exactly what the future holds.

-       The change to digital books will come in waves.

-       The limitation to adoption rests largely in a limitation in our own profession. Though initiatives like 52 show that maybe teachers are gearing up to this.

-       We begin seeing some teacher-led initiatives for sharing digital resources.

-       Students are still more comfortable with paper books. But maybe a younger generation will bring this change with them.

-       But we ourselves may be more comfortable with paper books.

-       Paper books will always be around, like scrolls & stone tablets. But what of their utility?

-       But maybe it’s a question of personal choice: some prefer paper books, other digital books.

The differing viewpoints possibly shows how many more discussions such as this one we need to engage in. Not that we all need to think in the same manner, but it certainly shows the uncertainties we face as teachers. As @Marisa_C pointed out: “So it looks like most of us are thinking that digital is the future but not everyone getting there at the same time”. That´s right, we need more time to read, think and discuss things again.

Interesting links to follow up:

@Wiktor_K: http://zenhabits.net/seth/

Below are some articles I’ve read recently (some are written by those in the industry itself so might be slightly tendentious, but it does give us an overview of things).

To understand fully what an enhanced book is about, interesting to read & watch this: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204468004577169001135659954.html

But to see the idea of enhanced books through the eyes of a publishing house that aims at a coursebook/textbook market which can be customized by the teacher, take a look at this:


and check their site by the way, I’m not plugging a particular Publisher, so if you know any other examples, please leave a comment and share your link): http://dynamicbooks.com/

On why digital books can cost so much to produce: http://michaelhyatt.com/why-do-ebooks-cost-so-much.html

I always follow latest trends in digital publishing through this site: Digital Book World. This is an interesting interview on the changing nature of publishing and books with the advent of digital book publishing: http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2012/digital-changing-very-nature-of-the-book-itself/

Although this article is from 2010, I think it does explain some of the issues involved in pricing digital materials: http://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2010/07/28/delusions-illusions-and-the-costs-of-digital-publishing/


Going with the ebb and flow of change

I wrote this text for our Cultura Inglesa Teachers’ Portal editorial for the week between 01/11-7/11. However, as our Portal is undergoing some changes and we’re unable to invite comments and so forth, I decided to share the post in my blog as well.

I have to say that, on reading the text a week or so after having written it, I’m struck by how very “political” it is. But that’s how I’ve always seen teaching and I think that’s what’s always appealed to my ever-so-non-conforming nature. 

Photo taken by @ceciliacoelho from #ELTpics

A week or so ago Jeremy Harmer wrote a challenging blog post about change agents and added his own thoughts on the people who exerted a degree of influence in his own professional development. He also invited all of us to reflect and share through comments their own thoughts.

Who would have thought that such a simple question could generate a fascinating thread of comments on the issue. The best thing about all this was that it was clear how people have such differing points of view, yet they all share the following in common: the power to reflect, express opinions, reformulate ideas and ask new questions.

But they share another aspect in common: they’re all teachers.

You see, it’s long been my belief that those of us who chose to become teachers chose this profession because there is, deep down, a feeling that “things cannot continue the way they are.” We chose a profession in which we are at all times playing the role of “agents of change”. Our understanding and view of agents of change may not be the same as Steve Job’s (although I would agree that death and even the prospect of near-death can significantly change our outlook on life), but we certainly have no naïve ideas about how we can stimulate, or for that matter, restrain a learner’s potential.

Yet, for change to minimally have the chance to happen, we need to ensure there is dialogue and interaction. We need to ask difficult questions. We need to be ready to hear challenging answers. We need to be ready for learners to subvert the activities we have set up in class. And this will happen.

For each and every activity we implement in class, learners will bring their own goals and motives in order to carry out the tasks. This is when the intersubjectivity and dialogic interaction established between a specific group of learners will mean that no same activity will ever happen the same way with another group. This is also what allows learners to construct new Zones of Proximal Development and create completely different learning opportunities from the same activity. Learning will happen in different ways with different groups. Change also follows the same “rule”. But at least we know that SOME change will happen.

The bottom line is: education is about change. Change does not maintain the status quo. So, education is highly subversive in nature! So, we’re all rebels at heart!

Or at least we could be.

Last week in a revolutionary and innovative move Luke Meddings and Lindsay Clanfield shared via TheRound a pdf sample of their first publication entitled 52. The idea of this activity book for teachers is to engage teachers and learners in discussion and language work which deal with real-world issues. The activities do not lend themselves to pastel-colour responses. They stir things up a bit. They remind us that education and English language teaching is about CHANGE!

Ultimately, a belief in change and the agents of change is the best option we may have. In one of the most inspiring projects for social change, El Sistema in Venezuela tries to introduce poor children into the world of classical music through the formation of orchestras (watch the 60 Minutes documentary to learn more about El Sistema).  One of the great talents to come out of the project is Gustavo Dudamel, who now is the Music Director of the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and is also the Music Director of the Simón Bolivar Youth Orchestra. When you listen to the Simón Bolivar Orchestra it is clear: the potential for change is within all of us and change can be contagious.

Standing on the cold, wet sand we leave footprints. The flow of the tide covers them. As the tide ebbs we only see faint footprints or perhaps nothing at all. But we know, nothing is ever the same again.

A mark of change has been ingrained somewhere.