Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Why I want to be best friends with the TESOL presenters

Last week I attended my very first convention, which just happened to be the TESOL International Convention & English Language Exp. Not too shabby for my first convention experience! To be honest, it kind of felt like being thrown in the deep end of the pool not knowing how to swim. But hey, it could be argued that that is the best (and fastest!) way to learn. I wish I had been more informed and prepared going into this experience, but after going through it I feel inspired, motivated, and generally fired up about continuing to live, learn, and grow as a language teacher and as a human being. I will definitely be posting at a later time about some of my favorite sessions, but for now I just wanted to check in and try to put my finger on why the conference experience was so incredible. For me, the best part was being in the company of so many like-minded and incredibly inspiring people. So for those who have not yet had the convention experience (probably quite few in the twitter/blogosphere, but oh well), I present to you the top three reasons why I want to be best friends with the TESOL presenters.

1. These people are at the forefront of the field
All too often I come into contact with language teachers who do what they do simply because that is how it has always been done. Forever and ever. Sure, it is easy taking the path most-traveled. But what about everything that is happening in the field right now? As I write this, there is a teacher out there trying something new and awesome that they have never done before. And in all likelihood, they will blog, tweet, and share about it later. And then they will present about it at a conference! Or someone else will! This is why I tweet, blog, and will continue to go to conferences, because I want to be right there with the people who are pushing the frontier of language teaching forward. It is an awesome and incredible place to be, and anyone who is in that boat is someone I want to listen to.

2. These are people who collaborate
The presenters who I saw at TESOL not only had great ideas themselves, but they were willing to share. I did not sit in one presentation in which someone presented a patented, copyrighted method that they made sure to name after themselves. Instead, I saw presenters who urged us to try their methods in our classrooms, who freely emailed powerpoints and handouts, who encouraged me to email them to let them know my feedback and experience trying out their approach. The people who go to conferences are open to and encourage sharing; the cultivation and exchange of ideas creates this beautiful atmosphere of collaboration which is sadly missing in many education settings. I found the same type of collaborative community at TESOL 2013 as I found when I first joined Twitter, and I think the free sharing of ideas that takes place in these environments is an experience that is not to be missed.

3. These are people who are not content with being just “good enough,” but strive to develop and improve themselves and the world around them
‘Nuff said.

I am still sorting through my notes, my handouts, the convention program, the powerpoints, the business cards, and my on-going emotional reaction to taking part in such an incredible experience! I am working on a presentation to bring some ideas from the conference to a Professional Development Day at my school, and in the process plan to share as much as I can here, with the readers and supporters who have always shared so freely with me. Thanks to everyone who presented and attended TESOL 2013, and many more thanks to those who were not there in person but never cease to cultivate the same inspiring, daring, creative, and collaborative learning environment in our world every day. I think you're all great, be my best friend?

Friday, March 15, 2013

One Really Cool Thing That Happened Today

         In my Level 8 Listening/Speaking class, we have been working out of a unit in the text called "Voluntary Simplicity." We started with pre-made listening activities about urban homesteading and vocabulary activities with words like secondhand and self-sufficient. Around that time I felt the need to depart from the book, thinking about so many other resources and ideas and topics and outlets we could explore within this theme. So I brought in an article from Zenhabits, we watched a documentary from PBS, students wrote their own "Simple Living Manifesto," and discussed their personal goals for simplifying their lives. And that's when things really started to take off. Students talked about feeling burdened by clutter, by commitments, by television and internet and all of the things that can feel so comfortable and are so easy to slip into yet do not fulfill us the way we expect them to. Students talked about always feeling like they had to buy new clothes and gadgets but never feeling satisfied or like it was enough. And, most importantly, students talked about reminding themselves what is really important in life, and how we can cut away all of the excess to make more time and space for those things that really matter. Today, a student came in and talked about how she wanted to simplify by focusing on her goals, and delivered some concrete ideas on how to create routines in her life to cultivate language, creativity, skills and awareness. It was wonderful to see someone go through the process, from identifying a feeling to idendifying a problem to coming up with creative and innovative ideas for the solution. By some stroke of serendipity, the rest of the class was absent today, so I got to speak with this one student one-on-one about how two integrate these goals in her life and make them a reality. What an incredible opportunity. This is the reason I fell in love with teaching in the first place; I cannot imagine anything better than being able to connect with another human being by helping them to discover what is truly important to them and build confidence as they take steps toward achieving these things in their life. Thats what I got to do today. How cool is that?

         But it didnt stop there. One of the goals my student shared with my was the cultivation of a daily writing practice. She wants to write a book someday, and realizes that if she is going to make this happen, she needs to make writing a daily pracice. I immediately brought up my own recent experience with attempting a daily writing routine (seen here and here); I love being able to teach a student not by telling them what I think or what I know, but of what my experience was. She really appreciated this, and since we had a little extra class time, we took a spontaneous trip to the computer lab, where I helped her log in and create an account with 750 words. And so here we are, sitting side by side, writing away. I cannot imagine a more peaceful or more purposeful classroom experience. Today could have gone wrong in so many ways: students didn't show up, I didn't have enough activities planned for such a small class, this student might not have been so open or willing to explore her own personal experience and goals in the classroom. But as it turns out, everything worked out just the way it was supposed to. I was given this wonderful gift of being able to connect with my student and share my experience around something that she was truly interested in. I cannot imagine a better way to be of service to my students. And, I hope, she was able to use this class as an outlet to explore what she wants out of life, out of this experience, and out of this language, and then take steps toward making those things a reality. I wish every class could be like this, and now that I think about it, why shouldn't every class be like this? Our goal is to be helpful, to inspire and encourage and engage students, and yet so often we approach this purpose in a totally backwards way, with texts and exercises that are anything but helpful, inspiring, and encouraging. Why don't we take a step back from those tired old approaches, and try something new, something a little more personal? After my experience with this class, adn this student, I am certainly inspired and emboldened to believe that this kind of connection and engagement is possible with any student, as long as we are willing to dig a little deeper, lose sight of the shore, and try something new. We never know what we might find, all I know is that what I found today was just beautiful.

PS. Thanks to Mike Griffin for the "Cool Things that Happened..." inspiration. To be honest, I liked the idea but didn't think that I had enough cool things going on to merit a post. Turns out, it doesn't really matter how many cool things  happened today, as long as we can find inspiration in at least one.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Teacher Takes a Field Trip

Lately, I have been busy. Curriculum development and implementation, travel plans, TESOL 2013 looming, and even working on having a life every once in a while: all of these things have me feeling a little disconnected and out-of-sorts in the classroom. I still plan my lessons, show up to teach, enjoy the company of my students and love seeing the progress that they make, however I have been feeling disconnected and disengaged from the process itself. I feel like I am just going through the motions or driving on autopilot, and to be honest that is a feeling that scares me. I have heard too many stories of teachers getting caught in a rut and slowly falling out of love with what they do, and I do not want that to happen to me. So lately I have been faced with a unique challenge: how to engage myself in the classroom? Funny, since I spend so much time pondering this question and coming up with answers when it comes to my students, and yet when the time arrives to consider ways of keeping a teacher active and engaged, I am at a loss.
Last week, however, I experienced a glimmer of hope, of inspiration, the kind of moment which made me fall in love with teaching as a compassionate way of connecting and communicating with others. I signed up to take students on a field trip to Muir Woods. Our school is located in urban area, and most students stay with homestays and rarely venture far beyond their homes, school, and the shops and restaurants in between. They seemed anxious and excited to get outside and go someplace, and in theory, so was I. To be brutally honest, however, the day of the trip I woke up kicking myself, wondering why on earth I had signed up to spend my day off with my students. This was pre-coffee, but nevertheless indicative of my general mood and attitude. By the time I picked up a car-full of students and set off, I had mellowed slightly. By the time we parked and stepped outside and I took a deep breath of the most incredibly fresh air, I was back.
We spent the day walking among the giant redwood trees, marveling at their size. We hiked to the top of the ridge and took pictures with an ocean view and acres of forest stretching out below us. We spent the day together not as teacher and students, but just as people; and we were no longer native and nonnative speakers when standing in the face of such immense natural beauty when words failed us all. It was a wonderfully moving and heart-opening experience which could not have come at a better time. Students thanked me profusely as I dropped them off, and I wish I could have explained my gratitude to them. The trip got me out of myself and plugged me in with my students and the world around me. I was active and engaged, literally, in a way I haven’t felt in the classroom for a long time. I guess we all need a field trip every once in a while...