Teacher Workshop

II was planning on using today’s blog entry to talk about a teacher workshop that I attended today, but it was such a disappointment that I can’t bear to think about it any more. I tweeted about it in frustration during the event, and I was not kind:

I can’t really go into specific details since not many people attended and I’ll be found out pretty quickly, so I’ll be very general with my criticism:

  • Workshops by and for university English professors tend to be so far removed from reality. They spend hours pontificating on some of the most basic tenets of teaching like it’s some new thing that nobody’s ever heard of, and love the sound of their own voices so much that  they just can’t ever seem to get to the point. One of the presentations was 90 minutes of a breakthrough new way of teaching where you have students work in groups so that they can practice L2 with each other, which… I don’t know of an eloquent way of putting this, but yeah no freakin duh.
  • If under the “Problems” section of your presentation you complain about “lazy” students not participating in your classes and don’t offer any solution for this other than “fail the student,” then you are not someone who should be in a position to teach, let alone lecture other teachers on how to teach.
  • For all their academia and faux-intellectual approach and withering condescension to people who aren’t “real” teachers (ALTs and eikaiwa instructors), lecturers sure don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. One speaker kept confusing phonemes with phonics, and another didn’t know what CLIL stood for even though he devoted an entire section of his presentation to it. Presenters also kept referring to L1 as “Japanese” but the universities they work for don’t cater exclusively to Japanese students.

I’m planning on going to another one of these workshops in a couple of weeks because for all my whining, I do think it’s important to learn what other teachers have to share. It’s also a nice little ego boost knowing that even without a masters degree or university teaching position, I can hold my own. I just hope the next workshop is a little better than this one was, sheesh.

Sick Day Pt. 2

I’ve still got a headache that could split the world in half. Today was my last full day of vacation before I go back to work tomorrow evening, and I suppose my body couldn’t pass up on making me spend my precious free time moaning and curled up in bed.

I did manage to finally get through the most recent issue of The Language Teacher. Within it was this doozy under the heading Young Learners. It starts off with the evergreen discussion of how to keep language-learning materials fresh, engaging, and practical for young learners. There’s the usual perfunctory mentioning of how Japan will be implementing new English-language curriculum for the 2020 Olympics, and how we as educators need to be thinking of ways to make English classes meaningful and engaging.

After laying down that groundwork, the author abruptly tells you the answer is… gems. Like, jewelry.


Gems as the primary focus of a content-task-based EYL textbook may appear to be wildly inappropriate. After all, aren’t gems mainly of interest to adults, as either consumers or producers and retailers? Will children really be interested in learning about emeralds, rubies, sapphires, and so on? Can Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT), as defined by Mike Long (2015), be realized when such delimited content is employed? Will this facilitate the acquisition of 21st-century skills? The answer is yes, for the following reasons:

  • Gems and their respective stories are glittery and should be of interest to most young learners.

Okay, there are more points after that, but none of the rest are any good either. If you’re like me you’re already thinking oh no. There are no other recommendations for topics, it’s just “How can we get parents to buy gems for their kids and think that’ll get them to learn English?” The author says that there are “any number” of potential ESL activities centered around these gems, and outlines on especially weird and frankly boring example:

The teacher employs “elaborated input—plenty of complete and partial repetition, segmentation…and intensive listening practice” (Long, 2015, p. 261) without resorting to explicit teaching of grammatical structures. During the presentation stage of the lesson it is, of course, preferable that the teacher focus on the receptive skills. The information imparted may be conveyed as follows, rendered here in the linguistic equivalent of time-lapse photography: “A ruby…a ruby over a sapphire…there’s a round sapphire…there’s a round sapphire under an oval ruby….” When the students have had sufficient exposure to the input, they are paired and divided by a partition. One student receives a small card that is nearly identical to the chart displayed by the teacher, the only difference being that the arrangement of the gems in strips A and B has been altered. The other student receives a packet of fake gemstones. The student with the “gems” must arrange them according to the input from the student with the card.

Despite this frankly embarrassing contrived reskin of a bog standard activity (wasn’t the point to get away from stagnant and overused ESL materials?), the author salivates over this chance to turn gems into some kind of international megahit, somehow?

Many publishers may be reluctant to invest in a book or series of books with such an unorthodox theme, but the company that decides to seize the day is likely to be greatly rewarded. First, learners and their parents will eventually tire of books that are monothematic, just as Japanese tourists now seek out more exotic destinations than Hawaii and California for their vacations. Second, though the primary market would be elementary, middle, and language schools in Japan, a secondary, and perhaps sizable, market could readily be exploited overseas, if distribution channels can be arranged. The textbook, at least, would contain very little Japanese, which could easily be replaced with, for instance, Chinese, Korean, Thai, French, Spanish, etc. Third, if the initial book proves successful, a series could easily be created, with upper-level books focusing on tasks involving the selling of different gems and their stories.

The article conclusion is just outright fantasizing the marketing of gems to kids (“Yes, you read that correctly, kinetic jewelry!”) in some kind of bizarro, frankly desperate bid of 80s toy manufacturer advertising:

Gems and gemology may become even more attractive to children as the stones, mounted and worn as jewelry, move from the static to the dynamic. Yes, you read that correctly, kinetic jewelry! MIT’s Media Lab’s Project Kino is doing just that. Hsin-Liu Kao et al. (2017) introduce their readers to the aesthetic and practical world of “shape-changing jewelry.” What begins the day as a brooch securing a scarf to a dress might end the day as a necklace!

All that glitters can be told in learner-appropriate language, attractively packaged in a cognitively-appropriate box, and perhaps, someday soon, gift-wrapped with a Project Kino doodad that changes color and position based on the recipient’s emotional state at the time.

I was reading this journal in the bathtub (you know, as you do) but had to hastily towel off and come tweet about this monstrosity straight away. Exploiting kids and parents under the guise of education is nothing new, but man oh man, I haven’t seen a stinker this bad in a while.

I can say with confidence that reading this did not improve my condition very much at all. English teachers are weird, man.


Minimal pairs branching game

These days I don’t make a lot of original material for my classes since I teach almost exclusively through a vendor who publishes their own textbooks, but on occasion I do find myself reaching into my archives and pulling out stuff I made long ago. My favorite activities are minimal pair games which I often use as brief warm-ups or finishers, and the one my students loved and loathed the most was the branching game. (It’s a terrible name, I know, but I’m still thinking of a better name!)

Download links

How to use

Pair off students and give them all sheets to look at. One partner secretly chooses a numbered word from the right side (e.g. 11) and reads off the words from left to right leading up to it (e.g. BAT – BUTTER – CAP – CUT – MATCH). The other partner follows the path on the sheet and guesses the secret word. If they are correct, congratulations! Have them switch parts.

You can also use this template for any two phonemes that give students trouble, and make up some minimal pairs utilizing those phonemes for the tree.