Saturday’s Book: The Coincidence Makers by Yoav Blum

Peeking at the sunset over the entrance to Kiryat Ono
Peeking at the sunset over the entrance to Kiryat Ono

What a fun book!

My apologies to those of you who don’t read Hebrew, I sincerely hope this book will be translated soon!

This book takes a novel and humorous approach to the romantic tale. The main characters are “Coincidence Makers” – beings who look like people but are in fact in charge of creating the situations we call coincidences. It takes meticulous research and careful planning to create a perfect “coincidence”. Coincidences that cause two people to cross paths, some that lead to major discoveries in medicine or even getting someone fired so as to get him/her to move on to do what he/she always wanted but was too afraid to try.

But the best part of it all, for me, was how Blum treats it like a serious profession and gives excerpts from the Coincidence Makers’ textbooks and exams (you have to study to be certified) which clearly poke fun at familiar things from college entrance exams and course material.

There are also official Imaginary Friends…

I also enjoyed the way he described situations, supposedly seriously but then with a twist of phrase that made me chuckle.

As I said – a fun read!

P.S. It turns out the author lives in Kiryat Ono, just like I do! If you’ve forgotten the wonders that can be found in our little corner of the world, see here.

 

 

It’s Saturday: So the Brain is like an Attic, Sherlock?

Not sure they have attics... (Naomi's Photos)
Not sure they have attics… (Naomi’s Photos)

The past year has been an extremely hectic one for me (good things, no worries!). Large quantities of new information of different types landed on my brain’s “doorstep” and moved in.

Their arrival seems to have displaced information I used to have at my disposal and I seem to have less room for taking in new information (I forget things I was recently told!).

One memory has surfaced quite clearly though. In fact, it is demanding my attention quite frequently. There is a question to be answered:

Was Sherlock Holmes (or rather Conan Doyle) right about the brain being like an attic after all? 

The claim was made, in “A Study in Scarlet” which I believe was the very first story about Holmes, published in 1887. Dr. Watson had just expressed shock that Holmes didn’t know something about the solar system, possibly that the earth rotates around the sun. I read the story years ago yet Holmes’ reaction stuck in my mind more than the actual plot of the story.

Here’s the quote. What do you think?

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skillful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

 

 

Saturday’s Triple Book Post

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Once again, I have been reading, but haven’t kept up with the posting.

In the Kingdom of Ice by Sides – part two

In my first post about this book I promised I would update when I finished it.

UN-BE-LIEVABLE!

I had thought I might quit when the going gets rough (as indicated by the subtitle, it’s not a spoiler), but who could quit? Especially as I was dying to know how the author had such detailed information about the different stages of their polar journey. Also, the crew seemed to have a knack for overcoming impossible odds until…

Now THAT would be a spoiler.  Read the book!

My Grandmother Sends Her Regards and Apologizes, by Backman

The beginning of the book requires patience, but afterwards I found the book to be very engaging and enjoyed it. The book begins with rather too many details from the stories Elsa (almost 8 and gifted) is told by her “crazy” grandmother. While it is obvious that the stories are important to the plot, at that stage I found it hard to be interested in all their details.

However, once the plot really got going, I was really drawn in. Elsa’s family and neighbors, her feminist-trail blazing-unorthodox grandmother and Elsa herself are all rich and interesting characters.

Good!

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Not for me at all.

After enjoying the lovely concept in the first chapter of assigning books to cure people like a prescription for medicine, I lost patience with the book fairly quickly and abandoned ship.

I truly dislike platitudes about “what women want” or “what men are like”. And that’s just for starters…

 

The CHIPS are for the Teacher Too!

 

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

One of the people who have had a huge impact on my teaching (though I’ve never met him) is Richard Lavoie. When watching his videos I have always felt that he has the gift of phrasing things in a manner which is both very simple to grasp and very powerful.

In one memorable segment (Lavoie compares self-esteem to poker chips. He talks about how the special needs child “loses” poker chips all day long through negative encounters. He emphasizes how everyone who cares about the child should invest in keeping the number of chips the child has high, so that the everyday losses will not have the power to crush the child. That has been a strong influence in my developing and searching for Eureka Moment strategies, which allow  struggling learners to experience success.

We teachers need to work on keeping those chips high too.

I can’t wait for the administrators to realize that If You Don’t Feed the Teachers They Eat the Students! and start being more supportive of the teachers. I can’t expect the students to stop venting their frustration at me regarding  what they can’t achieve (the fact that they now know more than they did when they begun is scant comfort to the high-school students who can’t take the final national exams with their peers). And I certainly can’t seem to learn to hang clothes on the clothesline any faster than my turtle’s pace…

I lose chips all day too. But, unlike the children, I take responsibility for replenishing my own chips. So when I decide to attend the International ETAI Conference during my own summer vacation, or even simply decide to ignore the laundry  to write on my blog (like I am doing now!),  I’m doing something good for me.

I’m simply replenishing my chips.

 

Blogging for ETAI International Conference – An Interview with Hugh Dellar

Hugh Dellar
Hugh Dellar

 

Grammar.

That word alone is enough to spark heated debates in any gathering of EFL teachers. The issue of how much grammar to teach, what is the best way to teach it, what will happen if lexis is emphasized over grammar –  are all “hot” topics indeed.

Hugh Dellar, the experienced teacher, teacher-trainer and author will take up such  “burning” issues in his plenary talk at the upcoming ETAI International Conference (July 4-6) .  In this interview he shares some of his insights and his own personal journey. 

Q: The title for your plenary talk is “Making the LEAP from Grammar to Lexis”. Based on your extensive experience, what constraints do teachers have to overcome? 

A: Well, obviously, to a large degree, the constraints depend on the context teachers find themselves working in. There may well be external exams that teachers need to prepare students for, and these exams may be very grammar-heavy; there may also be internal school or larger national curriculum pressures that lead teachers to believe a certain way of approaching grammar in class is required; this may also be exacerbated by perceptions teachers have about what students, parents, colleagues, etc. want from them. Ultimately, though, the biggest constraints are internal, and these are often the result of our training. So much of the way we are trained to see language and thus to think about what’s important when trying to teach grammar, vocabulary, etc. stems from our training, and it’s there that the biggest breakthroughs can be made in terms of helping teachers overcome or at least tackle outdated ways of thinking about language. 

In my plenary, I’ll be acknowledging some of the reasons why PPP (Present-Practise-Produce) has become so entrenched as the dominant way of tackling grammar, before going into more detail about why it really is time for it to be at least partially replaced with an approach that addresses some of the many limitations inherent in PPP.
Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos
Q: How did you become a teacher and what attracted you about the field of lexis?
A: That’s a tricky question. I guess the short answer would be that I did English Literature at university and was always interested in literature, words, and language. I was also in a semi-professional band that split up soon after I graduated, leaving me at a bit of a loose end, and initially at least just drifted into ELT – as so many native speakers do – as a way of getting out and seeing a bit of the world. In terms of what drew me to a more lexical view of language, it was partly my own experience of learning Indonesian when I was living in Jakarta in the 90s, as I very quickly realised that the memorization of countless single words from bilingual word lists coupled with the study of grammar forms and meanings wasn’t helping me produce anything particularly resembling Indonesian as it was really spoken; there was also a growing frustration with the language coursebooks they were giving me to teach, little of which bore much resemblance to English as I spoke it. What then helped crystallise these vague feelings of dissatisfaction into something more focused and coherent was reading The Lexical Approach by Michael Lewis in 1995, when I did my DELTA. It provided me with a way of looking at language that very much tallied with my own experiences thus far and which then forced me to reassess my own classroom practices and – ultimately – to get into writing materials too. 
Hugh Dellar 1
Q : You are a teacher,  a teacher-trainer, and an author of ELT books – do you enjoy doing any of them more than the other?
A: This is the easiest question I’ve been asked for a long time! If I had to give up everything else and only keep one of the areas I’m involved in, it would without a doubt me classroom teaching. This was my first love, and the thing that’s made everything else I’ve done possible, and I still love the immediacy and excitement and satisfaction of teaching. 
Q: You work with teachers all over the world. Do you find any differences between their approaches to the issue of lexis?
A: Yes, there are quite noticeable differences. One hates to generalise, but in certain countries such as Russia, Poland and Ukraine, for instance, teachers generally speak remarkably good English and are very receptive to the kind of ideas I’ve been banging on about for years. They don’t seem afraid of the hard graft aspect of language learning, and generally have high expectations of their learners and how much language they can shoulder. Other markets – Italy and Japan spring to mind – are still very very rooted in what’s essentially little more than Grammar Translation, and the teaching reflects this. 
Q: What do enjoy doing when you aren’t working?
A: Recently I’ve been so busy working – writing, setting up our new school (www.londonlanguagelab.com), teaching, training, travelling, etc. – that I honestly haven’t had much free time, but as and when I do get some I still play in a rock’n’roll band; I collect old 60s vinyl 45s; I watch Arsenal Football Club; I read; I cook; I have been known to frequent a pub on occasion; I go to the cinema . . . all the usual stuff, to be honest.

Saturday’s Book: In the Kingdom of Ice by Sides – Part One

Large antenna. Tiny bird. Naomi's Photos
Large antenna. Tiny bird.
Naomi’s Photos

I don’t usually write about books that I haven’t completed, or haven’t even reached the middle of. But I had to share the sense of discovery.

Here’s the thing. I hadn’t wanted to read the book.

The subtitle of this hardcover, 415 page book is “The grand and TERRIBLE polar voyage of the USS Jeannette” and I really didn’t think I wanted to sink into the despair of being stuck in ice. Especially four hundred pages worth.

However, my son said “Try it. Read the first chapter. If you don’t like it,  don’t read it. Just try it”.

How many times have we said sentences like that to our kids?!!!

So I did!

It’s awesome! Everything I have read so far is a fascinating portrayal of the period and events that explain the interest in polar expeditions, engrossing portrayals of the colorful characters that were involved and more. I was hooked after two pages. What skillful writing!

I don’t know what I’ll think when the expedition meets trouble but for now the cliché “brings history to life” is really what Hampton Sides manages to do.

How do YOU Choose a Conference Session?

So many numbers... Naomi's Photos
So many numbers…
Naomi’s Photos

Consider the following situation before answering the questions below.

You are faced with the following data about the upcoming ETAI International conference:

50 workshops and talks
13 research papers
12 keynote speakers of international renown
11 members of the ETAI board and volunteers who are working hard to make it happen
9 sessions aimed specifically at teacher educators including a SIG Day, organised by our TT&D SIG: http://www.etai.org.il/ttd
6 Short N’Sweet presentations
5 symposia – organised by Macmillan Education, the British Council,
Google Teachers Academy (GTA) graduates as well as two research
symposia
4 international plenary speakers
4 UNworkshops
3 Forums on various topics
3 Special / evening activities: Quiz night, Pecha Kucha, Energizing Debate
2 presidents in attendance – presidents of both TESOL and IATEFL –
international associations (ETAI is an affiliate/associate of both)
1 organization that makes it all possible: ETAI

You can’t possibly attend all sessions, workshops and events. So how do YOU choose which ones to go to?

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Do you choose to attend sessions according to the identity of the speaker (someone you know of, someone you have heard before)?

Or…

Are you “topic oriented”, basing your decisions on the topic, regardless of whether you’ve heard of the speaker before?

Or…

Do you employ a “potluck approach”?  Do you randomly attend sessions according to where you happen to be instead of traipsing around the venue?

Or…

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Do you do what I personally do, which is employ “the eclectic approach”?

I make it a point at every conference to…

*try and attend sessions given by speakers I know from previous experience and speakers abroad (seize the opportunity!),

*attend some sessions chosen according to topics that are directly relevant to my life as a classroom teacher,  such as vocabulary acquisition, reading comprehension strategies and more.

*randomly pick talks given by teachers whom I never heard of (especially first time presenters), partly based on their proximity to the location I happen to be in when my tired feet start protesting. When I was a young teacher I never would have entered a session on listening comprehension activities or integrating songs in the classroom – I teach Deaf and hard of hearing students! Yet I’m so glad I began including “potluck” choices. Such sessions have sparked many an unexpected idea for things I could do in my own class!

So how do YOU choose which session to attend?

Oh! Don’t forget to leave time to chat with other teachers – that’s an important part of the awesome conference experience!

Blogging for ETAI International Conference – An Interview with Professor Penny Ur

 

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Engage

Enhance

Energize

These are the words that make up the logo for the upcoming ETAI International Conference (July 4-6) These are also the words best used when introducing  our next plenary speaker,  Professor Penny Ur. Over the years she has been engaging with teachers in various capacities: teaching courses, writing books, giving talks at conferences, both at ETAI and abroad. We all know that teachers leave such encounters with enhanced professional skills and the energy to get up and go back into the classroom, motivated to reach new heights.

In this interview, Professor Ur shares what keeps her motivated to tirelessly promote teacher development, what manages to annoy her, and what engages her in her free time.

Q: You have been committed to promoting the skills of EFL teachers for years – what keeps you going?

A: What I enjoy most is the awareness that I am actually succeeding in teaching something: that the teachers are getting some value out of my sessions or books that they can take into the classroom.  When I get responses like: ‘Ah yes, of course, why didn’t I think of that’, or ‘I tried what you said in the classroom and it worked’, or ‘Thanks for reassuring me about something I’ve been doing but wasn’t sure it was a good idea’, or ‘Your book really helped me when I was starting out’ – it makes my day!  Sometimes the response is only in body language or facial expression – the responses from an audience as I speak or as a discussion develops.  A message is coming across: we are hearing you and understanding and learning….It’s still great: gives me a ‘buzz’! Makes it all worthwhile.

Naomi's photos
Naomi’s photos

Q: You always seem so patient when you meet with teachers. Is there anything that annoys you?

A: What annoys me most I suppose is the unexamined assumptions that are at the basis of a lot of things teachers are told ‘never’ to do or ‘always’ to do, but there is no evidence whatsoever that they are in fact good practice, and may be actually counter-productive. For example: teachers bend over backwards to explain a new word in English, when it could be clarified in less than a second by using L1… because they’ve been told not to use L1 in the classroom. Or they insist on learners trying to guess the word’s meaning from context, when there is actually solid empirical evidence that most words are in fact unguessable from natural contexts, and therefore the learners usually get the answer wrong … because they’ve been told to get students to infer meanings rather than be told. It’s very difficult to uproot such assumptions, however silly they are, and however much empirical research contradicts them, and teachers often find it very difficult to abandon them,  because they are so deeply entrenched in conventional thinking.  I could bore you with this one for hours with lots more examples, but let’s move on…

Active Grammar Introduction, Cambridge University Press
Active Grammar Introduction, Cambridge University Press

 

Q: You could never bore me! What is your latest book about?

A: It’s a very lightweight (both literally and metaphorically!) book called Penny Ur’s 100 teaching tips.  It grew out of something I heard David Berliner say years ago: that doctors pass on their experience-based wisdom to younger doctors through ward rounds in hospitals: but teachers’ secrets go with them to the grave!  So I swore that my secrets would not go with me to the grave.  I’d write a book with all sorts of tips I’d learnt through my own teaching experience, and thus share them with the next generation of practitioners. Not that all of them are necessarily relevant or ‘right’ for all other teachers: but at least they’re available!

Q: Of all the books you’ve written, which is your favorite?

A: I suppose Grammar Practice Activities. All my books grew out of a sort of excitement: ‘wow, I’ve found out something important about teaching, and it really works, I need to tell people about this’… but this one filled a particularly urgent need. Most textbooks to this day provide mainly accuracy-focused grammar exercises like gap-fills or matching exercises, and rarely give students opportunities to practice the grammar to ‘say their own thing’ in meaningful, fun activities. Such practice is really needed to help students integrate their knowledge of the grammar into their own production (as well as, not instead of, the conventional exercises).   So it’s the book that I perhaps found most useful for my own teaching. 

Q: What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

A: My main preoccupations outside the profession are family-linked.  We have four children and nine grandchildren, all of whom are (thankfully!) in Israel, and three of the four families within an hour’s drive away … so you can imagine, a lot of time spent babysitting, frequent birthdays and other family gatherings. I quite like cooking and baking, though not brilliant at it, and spend hours, even days, on that when the family is coming for a meal or festival or a weekend. My husband is a botanist, and ex-tour guide, so we take time to go walking when he has rare plants to find in different parts of the country. And occasional trips abroad, to visit family in the UK or US, or just to tour new places.

What else? Occasional movies and theatre, and, of course, reading (addicted to my Kindle!)

 

Saturday’s Book: “The Art of Hearing Heartbeats” by Sendker

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

If you want to call me cold-hearted and nitpicky now is the time to do so.

I was prepared to surrender myself to a legendary love story that breaks the barriers of time and distance. Romance is good.

However, I need consistency within the story. The world created in the story needs to make sense according to the story. Too many details did not adhere to this principle, at least as far as I am concerned.

I am willing to accept that an impoverished, blind, semi-orphan living in a monastery in rural Burma had access to a couple of books in Braille (left behind by a British officer) but asking me to believe he was well versed in all the classics, all of which were read in Braille from his extensive collection is a bit much. And how was the love of his life writing him letters? When exactly did she become literate? Who was educating girls, especially with a handicap? What about the daughter who was abandoned as a child, without any warning, forgives all the moment she hears about how great the love story was? I guess that’s what is called “short-term therapy”.

I think what bothered me most was the underlying assumption that true wisdom can only be found where there is desperate poverty, children die young of diseases that are preventable, a person with a mobility handicap must be carried on other people’s back and more. Don’t get me wrong, I’m perfectly willing to truly believe that there is a great deal of wisdom to be found in such places. It’s the “only” that really gets me.

I do not intend to read the second book.

Having a Staff “Pre-Mortem” Before Major Exams

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

.

No, I didn’t invent the term “pre-mortem” and I don’t associate exams with life and death situations.

But it is a strategy for avoiding mistakes (or minimizing the impact of mistakes ) when one is faced with very stressful situations and national exam days are very stressful days, ripe with opportunities for all sorts of mayhem. I learned about it from Daniel Levitin’s TED TALK, embedded below. As he points out, when you are under stress your thinking gets cloudy without you realizing it is cloudy.

Obviously it is common sense to plan ahead and be prepared for exam days. I’ve had a checklist for years of things I need to do before an exam. Things such as bringing extra pens for those students who arrive at an exam without one, making sure students remember what time their exam begins, bringing food for the incredibly long day we must spend at school…

A checklist turns out not be enough.

A checklist relies on previous experience, picturing situations already encountered. It is limited to the extent of my personal experience (albeit a long one but the limit remains). It also relies on the assumption that there is a limited number of problems that could arise on exam days. I do not find that assumption to be true.

A staff “pre-mortem” to brainstorm all the things that could possibly cause trouble on exam day would tap the imagination and experience of many people. We would have varied input as to what we can do to prepare for some of the issues.

Naomi's Photos
Naomi’s Photos

Some simple examples I’ve come up with when conducting my own “post mortem” of the exam day we just had:

  • In addition to being a teacher I’m a national counselor. I’m on the phone a lot with schools all over the country during exam day. I almost missed the announcement that came in about an hour after the first exam had begun that there was an error in the line numbers on one of the questions. This actually has happened before but it wasn’t on my checklist and it hadn’t occurred to me to set up a “buddy system” to make sure someone checks to see that I’ve heard  the announcement.
  • An administrator came to me after the exam had begun and requested, urgently, that I give her some dictionaries from the English room for students (not mine) that arrived without them. I did. I think, I hope, I had written a long time ago “English Room” inside the front covers. I didn’t check (cloudy thinking!). Will I ever see those dictionaries again?
  • I have no idea what I could have done about the shortage of proctors and the huge delays caused, but perhaps imagining the situation with others beforehand would have brought up some interesting thoughts…

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