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A Shift in Perspective

As my working environment is quite different these days, my blog will be changing to reflect this. All my information and posts regarding English language teaching in Turkey will stay of course. However, the focus of the blog will move from teaching adults in Turkey to that of teaching children in China, primarily young learners as that is my school’s focus.

Hope you still enjoy reading :)

Iranian Students (Or Proof Native Speakers Aren’t Necessary)

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Have you ever met an English speaking Iranian?  The ones I’ve met tend to have fantastic English.  I’ve had a number of Iranian students in my time here in Turkey and have a couple Iranian friends that I’ve met at conferences.  They all have absolutely amazing English.  The kicker is that they all learned English in Iran where there are almost no native speakers.  That’s right, they speak English really well even though none of them may have ever even met a native speaker before leaving Iran.

Some of my students come to study English in Turkey with the express purpose of studying under a native and are often shocked to learn that the upper-int classes they are put into would be considered intermediate at best back in Iran.

I often ask how this is possible. According to the Iranians, the reasons are that they take intensive classes with 4 hours of English with little break and constant speaking opportunities integrated with other skills and knowledge.  However, I would love to go and see for myself how these classes work.  Unfortunately, going to Iran could jeopardize my wife’s chances of moving to the US with me, so, unless I get a Turkish passport, it won’t be happening anytime soon :( .

Has anyone been to Iran or does anyone living there have descriptions of the classes and methods?  Why do you think the English is so good (or am I getting a false impression for some reason)?  Does anyone have other experiences of countries that have superb English educations?  I’ve heard Romania is really good too.  The Scandinavian countries and Denmark have great English but I think that’s mainly due to classes held in English and especially the lack of dubbing on TV.

Most importantly, what does this say about the prominence of the native speaker?

Just as an aside, I would also like to add that Iranian students are wonderful to have in the class.  They often bring really interesting opinions into the class and are very vocal about discussing controversial issues.  They really tend to liven up the classroom.

More Negative Impacts of Course Books

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Having moved from a position a year or so ago where I was more open to course books, I’ve come to be quite strongly opposed to most of them these days.  The reason for this is not that I think they necessarily reflect ineffective teaching, but that overall course books have a very negative impact on the field of ELT itself.

Actually, course books are simply a result of previous ideas and assumptions about learning.  They are no more than a product of what I would consider to be unfavorable beliefs about teaching.  However, they now perpetuate those beliefs and, in my opinion, often represent an obstacle to change.  As many course book advocates point out, they are simply a reality in most classrooms.  Well, therein lies the problem if you ask me.

So, without further ado, here are some more reasons course books have a negative impact on ELT overall:

For Teachers

-  Promote a linear view of language learning

-  Promote an over-reliance on grammar

-  Force teachers to teach material without learner or teacher input

-  Reduces need for critical analysis of material and reflection

-  Restriction on flexibility and creativity as schools often want teachers to stick to the book

-  Books can come to be relied on too much and become a crutch rather than an aid

-  The teacher is forced to artificially manufacture interest rather than have it arise out of the students

For Students

-  Students assume completing pages = learning

-  Creates an obsession with grammar

-  Their needs, desires, and interests fall by the wayside because the book drives the course

-  Over-reliance on bite-sized communication, listening, reading, etc.

-   Besides finishing the last page, there is little sense of accomplishment or anything concrete to take home (as would be the case with project-based learning)

-  Cost

-  Loss of autonomy or having input into their own learning

-  Lack of engagement or interest in the material

-  Course books are for teaching, not learning.  Very little can actually be learned from a course book on its own.

For schools

-  The godawful assumption that the course book teaches the course not a teacher.  So many schools assume they can simply throw a teacher into a class, hand them a book, and say go regardless of the teacher’s ability and experience

-  Far too many schools adopt a course book as a rigid curriculum

-  Local culture is lost in the one-size-fits-all nature of course books

-  Progress becomes about number of pages done, not what was learned

-  Schools don’t offer development as following the book is thought to be enough

Any more you can think of?

Related Posts:

Negative Impact of Course Books Part 1

To Use or Not Use Course Books

Is Using Course Books Really a Bad Thing?

Bare Feet = No Course Book

Some Course Books Removing Negotiation & Choice

Scheduling in Course Book Abuse

Visas, They Are A-changin (in Turkey)

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An FYI to all foreign teachers in Turkey, there have(ot?)  been some changes to the tourist visa situation and a whole lot of confusion to go along with it.

In July the Turkish government decided to change their tourist visa policy without warning.  This, of course, angered a lot of governments and Turkey repealed the changes quickly thereafter.

The visas originally issued in July stated that an individual could only enter turkey for 3 months out of every 6.  Notice, even then, this policy was ONLY going into effect for individuals with this visa.  If your visa didn’t have this writing on it, it wasn’t an issue.  Even if you recently received this visa, it is most likely due to the fact that they are using up old stickers or that no one bothered to tell the border guards what’s going on.

While the government has repealed the changes for now, they’ll most likely be implemented at some point in the non-too far future.  If you have received one of these visas, you CAN leave and come back on it just like in the past.

However, I have heard several accounts of foreigners being hassled at the border now about their reasons for popping out and coming back in right away or for having several consecutive tourist visas.

It is strongly recommended that you work only for schools that offer to get you your residency permit (ikamet tezkeresi)  This needs to be done at the foreigner eminyet in your city of residence.  In Istanbul, you must get a number online, which can be gotten here (click on E-Randevu in the upper left corner).  Rules and conditions for acquiring this permit change from city to city, so have someone find out what you need before you go in. Generally, you will need a good excuse written in Turkish (like you are interested in archaeology and help out on excavations), a couple thousand US in a Turkish bank account, and about 1000 lira to pay for the visa.  And just remember, this is Turkey so they will change the rules on you, spring new requirements on you at the moment of arrival, and just generally make it as difficult as possible for no foreseeable reason.

Also, be forewarned that residency visas are not a guarantee that you won’t have problems.  You are still working illegally unless you have a work visa, which takes so ridiculously long to get and costs so much money, few schools are willing to get them for you.  And you cannot get them without official employer sponsorship.

While Istanbul is still pretty free regarding renewing these visas, when I worked in the izbe that is Izmit, I was grilled for over an hour by the emniyet commandant on, of all things, being a Christian (notice I’m not Christian and all my documentation in Turkey makes that fact clear).  Actual questions I was asked were “Are you secretly trying to convert Muslims to Christianity?” “Are you trying to create divisions in Turkey to weaken it so America can take it over?” “Are you a member of the CIA sent to subvert Turkey and help overthrow the government?”  Other foreigners were having similar problems when trying to renew.  Ahh, the perks of living in a place where conspiracy theories are considered every day reality.

In addition to these fun problems, the current situation has created a panic and, as of October 13th, 2010, everyone is now trying to get a residency visa.  This means that the emniyet in Istanbul is booked solid for the next 3 months and there aren’t even any numbers left to take.  If you were lucky enough to get a number, you must carry the printed piece of paper around with you at all times and that WILL act as your legal permit to stay in the country until you can actually get in.  If you are one of the unfortunate souls who was not able to get a number, you’ll simply have to leave and come back on a tourist visa.  That or you better know someone in politics.  Torpil goes a long way here.

All in all, I think the visa changes are a good idea as it’s rather silly to have a policy where you can basically live here as a permanent tourist.  It’s going to hurt a lot of shady schools as well, which can only be a good thing.  On the other hand, getting residency and work visas are by far some of the hardest things to do in Turkey and the entire process is an absolute mess.  Streamlining will take a miracle.  Inshallah, it’ll happen.  Good luck out there.

If anyone has additional, reliable information out there, it would be much appreciated.

Turkish Students Learning Not to Trust

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One of my biggest grievances living in Turkey is the observation that nobody seems to trust anybody else.  For this reason it’s very hard to meet people outside of established social networks and friendships tend to be very shallow unless huge amounts of time and effort are put into breaking down barriers.  One of the biggest reliefs of traveling outside of Turkey is often the renewed ability to simply walk up to people and be open (here it’s important to note there is a chasm of difference between attitudes towards strangers who are visiting Turkey and those actually living here).  Sadly, living here often develops high levels of distrust.

As this has always been an observation I’ve found to be quite accurate, I was very interested to come across an actual study that said the same thing, specifically in the context of Turkish education.  The post and link to the study by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) can be found here at Istanbul Notes.

The study sites that the degree of interpersonal trust ranges from 16-12% in upper levels of education and that distrust actually increases as education increases.  Living here, it’s something I do not find surprising at all, but it is an incredibly worrying statistic.

It’s clear from this cultural context that building trust in your classroom is probably one of the single most important things you can do.  Ideas to accomplish this can be found linked at the bottom of this page.

I could go into multiple essays on the reasons behind this, but I’d be more interested in hearing from the Turkish readers of this blog or from foreign teachers teaching here.  Why do you believe this is the case and what can be done to change the trend (at least in our classrooms)?

Related Posts:

Istanbul Notes:  Learning Not to Trust

Circle of Trust

Trust Falls

Human Knot

Tank Game

Christianity in the Classroom?

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Alex-sensei recently posted about the value of teaching culture to advanced students (or any students really) and it got me thinking about the issue of culture in our classrooms again.

Teaching culture in our classrooms is inevitable.  We embody the cultures we came from in our thoughts and actions, so this is unavoidable.  In my last post I asked if religion in the classroom was appropriate and what form it should/could take.  Here’s another point to ponder.

Let’s take a look at some English phrases.

You wouldn’t know him from Adam. (Title from Guardian article)

And you know that peace can only be won
when we’ve blow ‘em all to kingdom come. (Country Joe – I’m Fixin to Die Rag)

It’s Not My Cross to Bear. – (Allman Brother’s song title)

The meek shall inherit the Earth. (Title of article on politics from The American Prospect)

Jesus Christ! (typical expletive)

David vs. Goliath to die with expansion (Title of article on basketball for Rivals.com)

God (refers to the name of the Christian god) vs. god (used when referring to a god other than Christianities)

Have you been saved? (typical question asked by missionaries near public transport or at your door :) )

The placement of California’s Good Samaritan statute has all but rendered it useless for the very population it should protect… (From an article at About.com)

He without sin shall cast the first stone so y’all look in the mirror, double check your appearance. (Jay-Z lyrics)

According to Mark 14:12, Jesus ate his last supper with all 12 disciples.

There are of course thousands of more examples.

If you aren’t familiar with Christian stories and beliefs, this type of language is very hard to understand.  Who is Adam? Where is kingdom come and why would you blow something to it?  What does bearing a cross have to do with guilt or sin?  Saved from what, scary people handing out pamphlets?

Regardless of the fact that English has become a global language spoken by individuals coming from both Christian and non-Christian cultures, the English language carries with it a lot of cultural baggage.  Without some basic cultural understanding – in this case about the religion and its accordant beliefs and attitudes – English becomes much harder to understand.

What about more complex issues like trying to understand why abortion is such a big deal in the US or what the big hullabaloo is all about over teaching evolution in schools?  Or how about our literature, TV, and films, many of which are riddled with Biblical themes and references.

There are also a lot of cultural attitudes wrapped up in the phrases we use.  It’s the same in Turkish.  How could I interpret Insallah without understanding the Islamic attitude to leaving things up to God?

Maybe our classrooms need some religion after all :)   What do you think?

Preachin’ & Teachin’

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Raise your hand if you preach the word of the Lord in the classroom.  It’s ok, nobody can see you :) .

I am not an advocate of preaching in the classroom although it certainly does happen as this particular school’s website reminded me the other day.  I’ve also met a few teachers from church groups here in Turkey who come over and use English teaching more as a cover for proselytizing the Gospel than anything else (This issue was raised once before over at Six Things).

As for my take on this issue, I prefer the Gulen Movement‘s philosophy originating in Turkey.  Religion is not something that should be taught by the teacher but – if this is your thing – the teacher should behave in such a way that they model the beliefs of the religion and act as a role model for others to emulate.  According to the man himself, “For real believers, their conduct must suffice for telling about their faith to other people and convincing them..”

I don’t think there should be preaching about religion or any overt teaching of it.  Like the cultures we embody, it should be something that simply can be seen about us and for others to make their own judgments and opinions about.

Of course, there are numerous conspiracy theories related to the Gulen movement as well, so who knows :)   Check this article from Campus Watch in the US and some fun conspiracy theories from Gercekler Vadisi (in Turkish).

Haha, this post started off as something completely different, but I decided the topic was interesting enough to post on.  Being the  non-believer that  I am, it’s not much of an issue for me, but it’s something I’m really interested in.

What do you think about religion in the classroom?  Should it be taught at all or simply avoided?  How far is too far?  Is there much of a difference between teaching morals and values and teaching religious beliefs?

All Good Things Must Come to an End

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First off, I’ve updated a lot of my lessons and added quite a few new ones.  I’ve forgotten to mention that for the last umpteen blogposts.  Check ‘em out and feel free to give me feedback on them if you use them :) .

This is a bittersweet post.  I got some bad news a couple weeks ago – the owner of my school is going through some major financial difficulties and can’t afford to keep my branch open through the summer.  For this reason, my students, my teachers, and myself have been transferred over to the main branch.  At best, it’ll be a year before the branch is able to reopen.

My responsibilities have been much reduced and my travel time to work has doubled, leaving me with a lot of time to reflect.  Lots of successes and of course a few failures, with many lessons learned along the way.

I really miss my school already.  I was DoS of it for under a year, but we sure accomplished a lot in that time.  My team and I were able to take it from less than 40 students with a 10% renewal rate to almost 90 students and an over 90% renewal rate.  No small feat in such a short time, especially with practically no support from the main branch.

I can quite honestly say that our little branch was fantastic.  It was far and away the best private language school on the Asian side of Istanbul.  Students learned English, they learned it well, and they learned it surprisingly quickly.  A majority of students went from Beginner to Intermediate in an average of between 180-240 hours.

Lessons learned along the way:

-         Teachers get really nervous about observations regardless of how they are done.  While I think they are still useful, I’m still searching for some better ways to accomplish the same goals.

-         Never fire a teacher over Christmas break when half your staff is away on holiday and you are running two schools with over 500 students and 30 staff :P .

-         Unfortunately, students are still not convinced of the value of non-native teachers.  For the most part, our students came around on this eventually, but there was many a struggle with it.

-         As a DoS, keep a set schedule and try not to deviate from it too much regardless of what the owner wants.  A constantly changing schedule makes it almost impossible to organize things or set up a routine for any number of programs.

-         Always have a few teachers on the backbench as possible hires in case something comes up.

-         If one of your teachers literally goes crazy, it’s best to get them outside help as soon as possible.

-         Create more long-term projects where something concrete and meaningful is produced in classes, especially for upper levels.

-         Always talk about any issues with staff or students in private.

+  Exams do more harm than good.  Formative assessment is the way to go.

+  If you trust your teachers, they can do some amazing things.

+  Intrinsic motivation is much more powerful than extrinsic.

+  Students respond very well to being challenged.

+  So does your staff.

Emergent curriculums and a dogme approach definitely can work for an entire school and get incredible results.

Get students and teachers outside the classroom.

+  Hold workshops and share sessions.

+  Don’t hold a meeting if the same information can be relayed by email.

+  A school is a community and should always be treated as such.

I really got a lot out of working at my branch and have a lot of good memories:

Students coming up to me or other teachers and personally thanking me/them for helping them to learn English (and actually seeing that that was, in fact, the case)

Having a teacher get hired by another good school precisely because of the methodology at ours and the things they’d learned.

My first process drama retelling “Little Red Riding Hood” with students coming up with the most hilarious stories.

Getting pumped up before lessons even though some of my teachers thought I was more than a little strange :P

Students transferring to the other branch and raising hell when other teachers used the book.  The main complaint was that “we can do it at home!” :) (I’m quite proud of that one although I can’t say the teachers in question were very happy about it).

There was a lot more that happened at the school, but these are the things that came to mind while writing this post.

What does the future hold now?  I’m not quite sure.  Almost at the same time that my branch closed, I’ve had a number of rather interesting new opportunities fall into my lap. I was first thinking about moving on early and going somewhere else, but at least two of the opportunities would keep me in Turkey and seem too good to pass up.  The wife and I will definitely have to make some big decisions.

To all my staff and students, a big thank you for the wonderful experiences. :)

Pay It Forward – 10 Blogs I Love Right Now

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This is a new blog trend going around.  I first became aware of it when Arjana Blazic mentioned me on her blog and am honored to have been mentioned by a number of other bloggers since then including Mike Harrison, Anita Kwiatkowska, Marta Mrozik, Diarmuid Fogarty, Willy Cardoso, and Henrick Oprea.  I really think it’s a nice idea.  The only downfall is that you can only mention 10 blogs.  I decided that instead of mentioning my 10 favorite, I would just mention the 10 I’ve enjoyed most recently.

1)  Doing Some Thinking by Henrick Oprea – Henrick is the first educator from Brazil whose blog I started following.  His blog ranges from classroom suggestions, to a bit of dogme, to worthwhile books.  I always enjoy stopping over there for a visit.  I recommend Why Bother? about things teachers should know/learn.

2)  Jeremy Harmer’s Blog – Jeremy needs no introduction.  His blog is special to me though because he is probably the best blog host around.  For such a big name in ELT, he is extremely humble and shares his experience, concerns, and knowledge in a very unassuming way.  He also has a way of involving everyone and always comes in with some sound advice.  I recommend 10 Things I Hate About PowerPoint as I also am not a big fan.

3)  An A-Z of ELT by Scott Thornbury – I read Scott’s blog for two reasons.  1)  I can’t access a lot of methodology and theory books here in Turkey as they are hard to come by and very expensive to order on your own.  I’ve learned a lot of condensed wisdom from Scott’s wealth of knowledge on ELT.  He does a great job of quoting sources.  2)  Far more important than number one is the wonderful amount of ideas that occur in the comments section of his blog.  Being such a big name, Scott draws a lot of educators and just reading through the comments you can learn so much about teaching.  Recently I liked N is for Native-speakerism.

4)  The Tao Te(a)ching by Diarmuid Fogarty – This is a blog full of ancient crack-pot wisdom for the ELT teacher.  Its passages are convoluted, its messages surrounded by a thick, dense fog.  This Taoist takes us on a journey of self-discovery where the only thing we discover at the end is what we already knew.  If you aren’t confused yet, please click on the link above :)  Basically, this blog makes me reflect in a philosophically absurd sort of way.  I really liked The Ideal Number of Participants in an Orgy of which I guess the number is 27.

5)  Digital Play by Graham Stanley & Kyle Mawer –  This blog is one of a kind.  It provides really useful lesson ideas based on free Internet games.  I recently used War & Conflict with great success last week with an adult class.  I also really have to recommend Machinarium – a Phrasal Verb Activity even though it’s quite an old post.

6)  Six Things by Lindsay Clandfield – I like Linsday’s blog a lot.  It’s a hodge podge of ELT.  Sometimes it’s musings, sometimes lesson ideas, sometimes controversial statements, and sometimes even cocktail drinks :) .  I liked a guest post by Andy Hockley on Six Ways to Survive Crisis in Professional Development.

7)  Hugh Dellar – I feel like I have too many big names on this list, but I just discovered this blog thanks to Marta of netend.  Hugh doesn’t write blogs – he writes treatises that I think are meant to hammer away at your resolve until you agree with him by the end of it.  Regardless, I like his posts when I have the time to actually get through them.  I really enjoyed his latest, Lexis, Speaking, and the Non-native Speaking Teacher.

8)  Teacher Training Unplugged – Of course I had to include this.  As a big fan of dogme myself, how could I not approve of a training course founded on those principles?  I’m really interested to see where this project goes.  Check out their very long video from IATEFL – Harrogate.

9)  Netend by Marta Mrozik – I started following this blog fairly recently.  It’s a mix of personal experiences and YL lesson plan ideas much like the wonderful L_Miss Bossy’s ELT Playground.  My children’s class teachers enjoyed her Easter Egg Hunt Lesson.

10)  For the Love of Learning by Joe Bower – Although not an ELT blog per se, Joe’s blog is a fantastic read.  He is out to question the way we think about teaching and advocates eliminating grades, exams, homework, merit pay, etc.  - basically everything I stand for.  He’s a great example to all teachers out there that these things can be done and he shows ways of doing it as well as giving the philosophy behind his choices.  I like all of Joe’s stuff, but his latest great post was The North American House Hippo.

This list is of course not exhaustive and there are tons of other blogs out there that I love reading.  Thanks to all you bloggers out there who have helped me grow so much as a teacher :) :) :) .

Teaching English in Turkey – An Idiot’s Guide by Alex Case

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It is with great pleasure that I’m hosting Alex “TEFLTastic” Case on my blog today.  Alex was the first person to recommend my blog as well as one of the first (or the first?) ELT blogger out there.  Like me, Alex’s first real teaching gig was here in Turkey.  Today he shares with us some wisdom about being a new teacher, the quirks that come with living in a foreign culture, and how our perceptions of that culture may change with time.  He also raises the interesting question of whether or not one should generalize about the culture one is living in.

“I’d recommend teaching in Turkey to anyone, because I still have such happy memories of being in love, eating a kebab that has the Turkish version of my name, drinking Efes beer, and waking up to the call of the mosques or street sellers. There are, however, many problems with the country. For one thing, with inflation at 85% and wildly fluctuating currency prices, you can expect to be shopping at street markets even when doing so is no longer exotic. Also, you may be forced to live with your girlfriend of just three weeks so that the school owner can tell the neighbours that you are married. The most difficult thing, though, is teaching 50 year old civil servants who have been forced to take English language exams to get a pay rise and think they can do so by copying their homework off each other.”

Although I am the idiot of this blog post’s title, I must admit that even my naïve and newly qualified 24 year old self never quite confused his own wide-eyed sense of the alien, random place and people that he experienced, individual circumstances or effects of his love life with the average experience of a foreign teacher in Turkey- let alone with the reality of the people who were born there. However, when reading other people’s efforts to give general advice based on their own experience or doing the same (nowadays only usually when asked, but also after a couple of beers), I can’t help but feel that a more well-hidden version of the above is coming out. For example, I did the same summer camp in Turkey three years after leaving the country, and came home with the distinct impression that the kids were much more nationalistic than they had been. Hopefully I didn’t actually tell anyone that, because looking back I think that impression could just as easily be because of what I had read in the intervening years, a reflection of the three years older person teaching them, the demographic of the students we taught having changed, or one of a stack of other things. Alternatively, maybe they really had just become more nationalistic. Not having the time or money to do the sociological research that I would love to in order to settle this once and for all (and having several hundred similar questions after five years in Japan- see http://japanexplained.wordpress.com), I guess I will never know.

So, the obvious answer seems to be to leave all generalisations out. Unfortunately not. As in politics, if we let our own doubts paralyse us from making judgements, there are plenty of people who are happy to make the generalisations and decisions for us based on their prejudices or the one book or article that they’ve read on the subject. In the marketplace of ideas, there is no point shouting “Roll up, roll up. Unless you don’t fancy rolling up, as it could well be that the generalisations I am about to make about the product I have here to show you will not exactly match your reality. I’ll let you ponder on that for a few moments, and then give you the sales pitch”. Instead, as with teaching, the best we can manage is to remain aware of and questioning of all our individual judgements and generalisations, always looking for better ones but trying not to let angst paralyse us until a better theory does indeed come along.

Well dear readers, what do you think?  How far can generalizations be trusted?  If we don’t voice our opinions, then who will and to what purpose?  What’s the difference between a generalization and the apparently more valid trend or observation?  Is it simply a matter of whether we agree with it or not that is is given the negative connotation of a generalization?    Please state your opinions below :)

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