Mar 17 2011

Welcoming Difference: Being critical about why we blog.

Our reasons for blogging are as diverse as we are

Our reasons for blogging are as diverse as we are

Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs

Hello Again!
It’s been a long time since I visited my blog and wrote anything. I’ve been back several times and extended my own deadlines for return although I doubt anyone but myself would notice such details! It’s interesting that I feel responsible for making sure everyone is informed, sort of like a member of my family who I phone to say I’ll be a bit late home. Since the last post, I’ve had my baby boy Markos (born 3rd January 2011) and submitted the final version of my thesis with the viva scheduled for beginning May 2011. There has been a revolution in Egypt and mass protests in the UK against the imposition of university fees. Protest, it seems, has become the new lethargy in these exciting times we live – all good fodder for this blog and I will be writing on some of these topics in the coming months.  There has also been tragedy, most recently the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the earthquakes recently in New Zealand. The goals that took me away from the blog have been achieved. Thanks to all of you for your best wishes and for keeping up your visits in my absence.

Continuing the Blog?
While I was away I thought about whether to close the blog down a few times. Sometimes it can feel like a responsibility I could do without, but at other times, like now, I realize that it offers me something I can’t get through other types of writing and discussion. That is the essence of this post – what do I/we get out of blogging? I hope you will consider contributing your ideas I as expect that it’s different for all of us. And that is my point – looking at this issue of difference critically. I am sure that all of us who have blogs have at some time felt that we can’t cope with them. What are the reasons you have found to keep yours going? And should there be a standard way of blogging in terms of frequency, length etc or should we embrace the vast variety of styles that we see around us?

Reasons for blogging
While I was on blog sabbatical I visited other people’s blogs all the time and tried to keep up with discussions (though I confess leading up to the end of last year I did in fact switch off from blogging completely as my PhD needed my full attention). On the whole I stopped contributing as all my writing energy was being expended elsewhere. A discussion took place on Alex Case’s blog where he explored the idea that some people blog consistently, and other people are sort of fair weather bloggers – he lamented the arrival and disappearance of quite a few EL blogs. I responded here http://www.tefl.net/alexcase/tefl/bloggers-who-carry-on/.  I know what Alex means and I think the question of what keeps people blogging is really important and interesting (though I would question the category ‘proper writers’ being used solely alongside those published in the real world). Alex is one of the few people who has the right to ask such a question given that he posts almost every day and never seems to take a break even when moving country. What I am pretty sure about is that there is no simple answer to this question as it really depends on who you are and what the rest of your life is like. I’m not sure its necessary to measure commitment to blogging – or at least its not important to me.

Phases of my Blog journey
My own blog journey, like so many things in life, has been a process of reaching a balance and my views have evolved and moved on substantially in the last year or so. There are some distinct phases that I’ve gone through and I find myself wondering if any of them seem familiar to you. I’ve put them in a list although of course they overlap in chronology to an extent. But roughly speaking this is how I have experienced blogging:

  • Observer: hanging around looking at blogs whilst still remaining quite sceptical about blogging as an activity. Getting drawn into discussion and realising that there were exciting things going on that I hadn’t known about. Feeling confused that I was starting to like something I’d been critical about for a long time
  • Contributor: started to post some responses – usually short. Felt completely panicky about possible reactions. Spent too much time worrying about whether I had said anything stupid. At roughly the same time had my first blog “sting” when someone published a private email correspondence with me on their blog. It didn’t implicate me particularly but the organisation I was involved with at the time. Started to comprehend there was some nastiness around in blogging much like real life. Chose to ignore it and look on the bright side of the blog world much like in real life. Had long and really exciting discussions with people on all sorts of fascinating EL related topics – often with people who I probably wouldn’t have ever had the chance to chat with in real life. Other people commented that I was spending too much time blogging.
  • Initiator: took the plunge and started my own blog (during work sabbatical for my PhD write up). Spent hours designing the first post. Expected to receive blog traffic immediately. Realised fast that that’s not how blogs work. Was thrilled when first traffic started coming in and obsessively started checking blog all the time. Daughter said “mum, you’re not going on the computer again are you?”. Spent substantial time thinking about next blog posts. Realized that blogging was providing an antidote to the rigidity of academic writing – I was exploring the same ideas as those researched in my thesis but using different language and dialoguing with others about it.
  • Born again Blogger: told everyone I came into contact with that blogging is great. Felt close to my blogging pals (still do actually!). Contributed daily to other people’s blogs. Overall got less sleep and stopped watching TV. Listened to music all the time (while blogging). Started to wonder how I’d managed to get to the age of 40 without blogging. Saw my blog as a long term project which I would stick with into the forseeable future. Started writing and presenting about blogging in the real world in an attempt to convince others of its wonders.
  • Disillusioned Blogger: had my first bad experience of being bullied online during a discussion thread on a controversial subject. Realised that in cyberspace you can neither control the dialogue nor be certain of people sticking around long enough to notice if things are becoming aggressive. Spent a bit of time licking my wounds and feeling sorry for myself and trying to understand what had happened but was overwhelmed by support from lovely blog colleagues. Decided that it was a one off incident that didn’t represent my overall experience. Adjusted my view on how to handle online dialogue and took some self-protection measures in future postings (perhaps a blog post in its own right). Returned to work full time after sabbatical.
  • Withdrawn Blogger: realised fitting in really active blogging with a full time job, having kids, finishing off a PhD, being active in lots of other things was impossible at the pace I’d set up before unless I ceased to sleep altogether! Slowed the pace down. Got pregnant (I don’t suggest one is connected to the other!). Decided to take a blog break initially for 2 months. Felt withdrawl symptoms. Resisted withdrawl symptoms. Began enjoying break. Started considering whether to return. Extended self-imposed deadline. Waited. Started to miss blogging. Had baby. Finished PhD. Really started to miss blogging. Returned.
  • Returnee Blogger: that brings us up to date. I have returned fully recharged and excited about blogging again but at a pace that fits in with my life and with a view to enjoying intelligent discussions with colleagues and friends online.

Have you been through any of these stages yourself? Please add in your own experiences as I am fascinated by how each of us subjectively interacts with the blog side of our life.

A Final Word

On balance, blogging for me is about sharing ideas with people across time and space and engaging with a variety of thinking on important questions. This is its strength. Its immediate and its free of charge – and its a space where I am able to ask critical questions and hear what people have to say. This feels like a great alternative to publishing research and articles in academic spaces which is what I do with my other hat on. The former is equally important to me but engages a different audience who on the whole have to purchase the publications the articles appear in and this is something I don’t really feel comfortable with. I don’t want my work to be accessible only via a fee so to speak.  I have really missed blog chats and surveying the wealth of information that is available around me. But I embrace different styles and types of writing as they are all important.

I don’t see blogging as a diary – and for this reason I don’t imagine I’ll ever write posts every day. But I admire those who do. The sheer length of my posts normally means this is practically impossible. I also don’t feel inspired to write posts every day, but again admire those who keep coming up with new things to say. I would rather write a post that I really *want* to write than because I feel I should which is what would happen if I posted regularly. The quality would be affected. As achieving widespread appeal has not really ever been a goal, I am happy to attract people who want to move beyond the ‘road more travelled’ in ELT.

So the critical bit of this post is (for me at least) a step away from trying to define what is the ideal post, blog or blogger and the setting up (albeit unwittingly) of ‘norms’ regarding what people should or shouldn’t aspire to. I am going to reject those categories and urge others to do the same.  I very much like the fact that there are so many different voices reverberating around the blog world in so many different ways. Ultimately, I guess I tend to assess blogs on content so one thought-provoking post in a year can keep me going in the same way as two/three posts a week on blogs that I like. For different but equally important reasons. I like them both because what matters to me is the ideas, which exist beyond the concept of time.

Look forward to hearing from you!

Continue Reading »

48 responses so far

Jun 09 2010

Taking a (Critical) Break: The Power of E-Relationships

social-networks

I am going to be taking a bit of a break from my blog until some time in 2011 (I can’t say for sure when but hopefully before Easter). The main reason being that I am pregnant and need to cut down a bit on workload to get a bit more rest, and the workload in other areas of my job has increased so something has gotta give. Plus I have got to finish my PhD before this baby is born otherwise it will never happen! The PhD is kind of like my third child (one born (Maia), two in gestation!). Imagine that – like carrying twins.

I want to thank all those who visit my blog and especially those who have commented for your continued support and encouragement. Oddly I am addressing this message to many people who I have never met in person, but who have become friends through twitter, facebook and blogging. Now I know there are many sceptics out there who talk about whether e-relationships are “real”, and indeed there are strong arguments for the fact that online relationships work precisely because they are free of the baggage of real world relationships (i.e. you see each other’s best sides only). But to be honest, I have come to re-evaluate this assumption based on the amazing support I have actually received from my online friends recently. From the beautiful gesture of kindness in raising some money for me after we were burgled recently, to the intense and rewarding discussions about all sorts of topics, to the important links to information that I get from those people I follow on twitter and through blogging. This community of people is very very real to me and I am glad to be part of it.

I guess that is why I feel the need to tell you that I won’t be blogging for a while. Yes I had some blog guilt about this. As I feel a sense of responsibility to this community like any other that I am part of. Very interesting further blog posts in there. But later!

I will be back some time soon and will still be around on twitter and contributing to other people’s blogs of course. And you are always welcome to contribute to the archive discussions whenever you want.

With love, solidarity, strength and hope.

Thank you

xx

ps – you can contribute to this thread by the way. I will be moderating it!

24 responses so far

May 03 2010

It’s all in the accent: Being critical about how you teach pronunciation

voice

Whatever other speech you grow into….your dialect stays alive in a sort of inner freedom, a separate little self

Ted Hughes, Poet, cited in Corcoran 1993:114

*this blog post is based on an article submitted to TESOL Spain Newsletter in 2006.

Introduction
My interest in the topic of Accent Prejudice, or the idea that some accents are perceived to be better (or more appropriate) than others, was first inspired in my childhood when observing my parents, both from working class London backgrounds (my mother of Irish-Italian origin), in their endeavor to ‘cultivate’ their accents depending on whose company they were in. My father, for example, had a decidedly different voice when attending formal functions, to the one he seemed to have around the house. I never thought to question it at this stage, other than through the humour of referring to this as his ‘posh’ voice (which he also recognized had a slightly performative quality to it). That was, until I moved to Liverpool for four years, and realized how many negative stereotypes I had grown up with of the Liverpool (or Scouse as it is often referred to) accent, coming from the South-East of England, the region that gave birth to Standard English (both in terms of accent, mirrored through Received Pronunciation (RP), and what is considered ‘correct’ written English). When I moved to Greece, I saw the same set of characteristics being reproduced in ELT through the pursuit of the highly sought-after native-like pronunciation and, in terms of teaching, widespread incidents of uncomprimising attitudes towards students who could not produce this variety.

The Question
Why are some people (and some EL teachers) negatively disposed towards certain accents and voices? I ask this question primarily in the spirit of trying to understand how this might change, both at the level of individual views and in relation to the role the EL teacher plays in the classroom. I hope to explore how a more open-minded idea of practice can be encouraged that propels teachers towards using variety in the classroom, whilst questioning some of the unconscious prejudices they may be carrying around that make them fearful (or dismissive) of different accents. This discussion might prove helpful both to teacher educators who are responsible for providing training to EL teachers, and to teachers themselves, who are searching for ways of ensuring more ethical and socially-informed practice. Although this article focuses specifically on a Greek setting, the same discussion is relevant in other teaching/learning environments and I would be really happy to hear about your experiences of your own setting.

Is Native Speaker Best?
A good starting point when considering this issue might be the common assumption that Native Speakers of English provide the best model for pronunciation and accent, and are by default better teachers. To date, Greek ELT has primarily been controlled by external agencies deriving from the UK and USA and such agencies have had the majority market share in terms of publishing, language testing and, through teacher training certification, defining the parameters of what is considered right or wrong in terms of teaching methodology and classroom practice. This is demonstrated by the (sometimes unquestioning) view that external products are better quality and, I would argue, through the lingering attitude that they (the British or American agencies) know best, as it is their language. This includes the widespread belief that the model the students should be striving for is the norm-bound speaker of Standard English with an RP accent, also reflected in many published listening materials which, for the most part, contain a limited range of authentic accents. Both regional British and American accents (for example, Newcastle (UK) or Texas (US) respectively), as well as different varieties of international English (such as Greek, Spanish or Chinese English) are therefore in a marginalized position.

The Greek ELT Landscape
The ascribing of a different status is also evidenced by research carried out in Greece. Sifakis and Sougari (2003) found that 54% of Greek English teachers questioned felt their students should acquire a Standard British accent and 7% a Standard American accent, whilst only 6% felt that a Non-native Greek accent was appropriate. Carter’s research revealed that the students questioned felt pronunciation and speaking skills “are better taught by people speaking English as their mother tongue” (2004: 10). This is also reflected in the choice, particularly in the past, made by some Greek language schools/departments to put NEST teachers in charge of the oral component, sometimes at the expense of appropriate qualifications or experience. This has changed in more recent times due to the imposition of more eligibility criteria in terms of employment for NEST teachers, the rise in the cost of living coupled by falling wages which makes Greece a less attractive destination, and the opening up of more opportunities for non-NEST teachers which I fully support and hope to see continue into the future. For example Greek educators are now welcomed by most high profile international language testing bodies as oral examiners, demonstrating more openess to the non-NEST model. This was not the case even a decade ago. However, it is my supposition that the ideological strong hold of the ‘native speaker is best’ still exists, and is often reflected in pedagogical decision making.

Little research has been carried out into the reasons why these might be the prevailing attitudes in Greece. I would like to suggest that the native speaker of English is not automatically better equipped to teach or act as a model for pronunciation. I would also like to posit that this taken for granted view cannot be fully explained without questioning the ‘status’ still automatically ascribed to the NEST teacher of English which is part and parcel of the socio-historical relationship between Greece and the UK/US in relation to the teaching of the language. This has been described by some commentators as a form of intellectual colonialism (see Leontis 1995), and within this dynamic, it could be argued, no space has been allotted to allow for variety or difference. As we have now entered into what has become termed a ‘post-colonial’ phase of history, this relationship is clearly outdated and in need of urgent modification.

International Intelligibility: A More Realistic Goal?
Reflecting this shift, the field of ELT has started to take on board the fact that it is an unrealistic goal for an Non-native speaker to attain the pronunciation patterns of an Native speaker. It is neither necessary nor achievable and it is therefore time to reevaluate what we expect of our students in terms of their pronunciation output, which should be moving towards a model of international intelligibility. This is largely in recognition of the fact that most users of English do not speak the language as a mother tongue, but are speaking English as a Lingua Franca (ELF). In her work on ELF, Jennifer Jenkins suggests that pronunciation teaching should concentrate only on essential components that genuinely affect comprehension in ELF situations. Jenkins carried out extensive research with speakers of many different languages to assess what elements were essential for phonological intelligibility and developed the Lingua Franca Core (LFC) which signficantly cuts down the amount of areas that need addressing by the pronunciation teacher (see Jenkins 2000). For an excellent insight into how this research can be applied to Spanish learners of English, see Robin Walker’s 2001 article online.

However, Jenkins cautions that the only way the LFC will be of use is if the NEST teacher is prepared to fully take on board an ELF perspective by putting themselves in the position of their non-native students. In other words, unless teaching is readjusted to take into account ELF goals, teachers will continue to “base pronunciation decisions on intelligibility and appropriacy for themselves and their peers” (Jenkins 2000: 225). Paradoxically, some non-NEST teachers also lose sight of what they once felt like as learners and internalize and reproduce the dominant methodology in the belief that they must teach their students to ‘overcome’ their accent. Herein lies the contradiction. The theory outlined above which rightly directs us to embrace different pronunciation patterns among our learners positively has yet, in many cases, to meet the practice in the classroom which often dictates that we should be measuring our learners against the RP speaker of Native Standard English.

My Research

In an attempt to tease out some more precise data on the contradictory parameters highlighted above, I carried out a qualitative research project for my Master’s dissertation in 2004. Two groups of ELT practitioners were involved: one group lived and worked in the UK and other group lived and worked in Greece – each group was interviewed separately in the local environment. The research took part in two phases; firstly, the teacher participants were played the same samples of various Regional/Standard British English accents, as well as a Greek English accent (all collected by me for the project) and asked to comment on whether they would use them in the language classroom (or not) with a simple yes/no answer. The results were analyzed using a quantitative framework by counting the frequency of positive/negative responses to certain accents.

In the second phase of the research, which aimed more squarely to analyze the teacher participants’ perceptions, the same two groups were asked to discuss a range of issues pertaining to accent prejudice, the teaching of pronunciation and the pedagogical significance of ELF. The accent samples previously heard acted as a springboard for this dicussion which was organized in a semi-directed manner. I acted as a facilitator by providing a series of prompts to encourage the consideration of certain points, but I did not actively take part in the discussion to avoid distorting its development. I chose this method as it has been identified as suitable for the exploration of “different perspectives (that) operate in a social network” (Kitzinger and Barbour 1995:5) and is therefore likely to be successful when considering issues that might invite several different perspectives. The data were examined using a qualitative paradigm, the transcribed focus group interview scripts being subject to analysis using a series of thematic codes, enabling views to be grouped together in a meaningful way.

What did I find?

Bearing in mind that the same accent samples were played to both groups, the results of particular interest are as follows. In terms of the statistical findings, the majority of British teachers were very critical of stigmatized British accents such as Liverpool and Belfast. 85% of participants said they would not use either of these particular accents in the language classroom. However, almost all Greek teachers were positive about Regional British accents, with 100% saying they would use the Liverpool accent in the classroom and 75% the Belfast accent. Greek participants were much more critical of the Greek English accent, with only 50% saying they would be happy using this accent as a model. British participants were, however, 100% positive about using the Greek English accent as a model in the language classroom (it should be noted that all were resident in the UK and none had previous experience of teaching in Greece).

The focus group discussion brought up some interesting reasons reasons why the participants made the choices they did. For example, British participants expressed reluctance towards using the Liverpool or Belfast accent as many felt both would be unintelligible (and therefore unsuitable) for the non-native learner. The Greek participants, on the other hand, felt the Liverpool and Belfast accent would be good samples to use – reasons given included attractiveness, warmth and ease of understanding for the non-native learner. Conversely, some Greek participants felt that the recorded sample of their own accent was “too Greek” and that it required moderation and would not provide a suitable model. British participants were more positively disposed, including among the reasons for using this accent sample student need to understand a range of international accents. All participants in both groups agreed that RP is suitable and easier to use in the language classroom, partly due to the availability of pre-produced samples.

How did I analyse what I found?

What seemed to emerge was that some individuals in the focus group felt more confident criticizing pronunciation models that derived from their own immediate setting and culture. The RP model still appeared as dominant in both settings. The contradiction in NEST and non-NEST speakers’ perceptions about the intelligibility of the Liverpool and Belfast accents needs close attention – the Greek participants apparently found both accents clearer than NEST teachers from the UK! This suggests that the UK responses were about more than just intelligibility or clarity and that there was a direct engagement with social perception. This may have led to a negative appraisal of the Liverpool and Belfast accent by the NEST participants due to their knowledge of the status of those particular speech communities. Even in modern Britain, both carry the historical burden of being easily identified as the antithesis of RP in terms of the cultural value ascribed to them. Although many linguists would argue it is possible to measure intelligibility accurately, the point at which one begins measuring is inherently subjective. Individual reactions to pronunciation vary dramatically, and intelligibility is, at least to an extent, a relative concept.

The Social Content of Pronunciation

We need to be aware of the series of social messages contained in the way people speak which can give rise to what Lippi-Green terms “listening with an accent” (1994: 188). In other words, the will of the listener to understand plays a very important role in whether they can comprehend the speaker or not. It could be argued that the desire to try and understand has been partly shaped by continual over-exposure to a specific model, which in turn leads to unconscious intolerance of other varieties. Perhaps this explains why there is still a need to cultivate positive acceptance of the Greek English accent as equal to any other accent in the spectrum. The Greek participants who felt negative about this variety have grown up in the shadow of a profession that undervalues and penalizes them them for having features such as the post-vocalic /r/. This is despite the Greek accent sharing a number of features also found in different varieties of British English. The /r/ is present in the Dublin, Bristol and Liverpool accent. (Hughes and Trudgill 1996). These are features that some of their EL teacher, both NEST and non-NEST, have told them to eliminate, even though they rarely cause comprehension problems.

Accepting or Resisting Change?
Although the results of my research in the UK showed that the particular group of NEST teachers interviewed responded positively to Greek English pronunciation, there are obviously NEST practitioners working in Greece who do not share that view and see it as less ‘correct’ than RP or General American (GA). There are some, who might be in the role of test designer, teacher or oral examiner, who perceive themselves, as “custodians of the English language…(and) endeavour…to protect the English language from non-native infiltration by the regular undermining and denigrating of NNS Englishes” (Jenkins 2004: 37-8). Whether unconsciously or consciously, individuals who respond negatively to EL2 voices (characterized by EL2 pronunciation), are in part expressing anxiety towards a changing global landscape. The movement of native speakers of English into the minority (of those actually using the language) is a position some people involved in ELT, and in society as a whole, feel threatened by.

What do you think about this? Do you agree/disagree that pronunciation teaching should be socially informed? Of course I don’t argue that we should abandon teaching pronunciation as sometimes it is very much needed, but shouldn’t the target be more realistic?

References

Carter, J. 2004. Native or non-native speaker teacher: does it make a difference? TESOL Macedonia Thrace Bulletin, Dec, 10-11.

Cocoran, N. 1993. English Poetry Since 1940. London: Longman.

Hannam, S. 2004a. Models of correct pronunciation and the ELT classroom. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.). IATEFL 2004 Liverpool Conference Selections. IATEFL: UK, 56-57.

Hannam, S. 2004b. An investigation into ELT practitioners’ views regarding the use of regional British accents in the language classroom. M(Ed) dissertation. University of Sheffield, UK.

Hughes, A. and Trudgill, P. 1996. 3rd Edition. English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles. New York: Arnold.

Jenkins, J. 2004. ELF at the gate: the position of English as a lingua franca. In Pulverness, A. (Ed.). IATEFL 2004 Liverpool Conference Selections. IATEFL: UK, 33-42.

Jenkins, J. 2000. The Phonology of English as an International Language Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kitzinger, J. & Barbour, R. S. 1999. ‘The challenge and promise of focus groups’ in Barbour, R. S. & Kitzinger, J. (Eds) Developing Focus Group Research: Politics, Theory and Practice London: Sage.

Leontis, A. 1995. Topographies of Hellenism: Mapping the Homeland. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Lippi-Green, R. 1997. English with an Accent: Language, Ideology and Discrimination in the United States. New York: Routledge.

Lippi-Green, R. 1994. Accent, standard language ideology and discriminatory pretext in the courts’, Language and Society, 23, 163-198.

Sifakis, N. C. & Sougari, A. M. 2003. Pronunciation issues in EFL teaching: the Greek teachers’ perspective. Paper presented at the 13th International Conference of the Greek Applied Linguistics Association, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece.

Walker, R. 2001. Pronunciation for international intelligibility, English Teaching Professional 21, available online from: http://www3.telus.net/linguisticsissues/internationalintelligibility.html [downloaded February 2004]

14 responses so far

Mar 15 2010

My Guest Post on “Though Cowards Flinch”

I did a guest post last week, in honour of International Women’s Day, on a UK socialist blog called “Though Cowards Flinch”. You can find it here

I would like to thank @DaveSemple, the coordinator of the blog, for inviting me to contribute.

It’s about the commercialisation of Greek birth services. It has a lot of parallels with the dangers of the commercialisation of education quite frankly, and for this reason, I hope you will forgive me for digressing away from ELT for a while, and talking about another topic that is very important to me.

Thanks!

3 responses so far

Mar 08 2010

Critical DOGME or DOGME with Sympathy for the Critical?

dogme95

The Background

Back in June 2009, Scott Thornbury wrote a post on the British Council blog called “DOGME: Nothing if not critical”. A long discussion took place between Scott, myself, Diarmuid Fogarty and with some comments from Gavin Dudeney and Nik Peachey. I would like to thank all those who contributed, and not least of all Scott for starting the discussion, for tightening up my thinking on this issue. I also want to include Luke Meddings here as Scott’s co-author, as I know that he (and many others) have contributed just as much to the development of the theory behind DOGME. The full text of the discussion can be found here. As is the policy of Critical Mass ELT, I have messaged Scott and invited him to respond (the right to reply) on all aspect of this post, but totally respect his decision not to if he wishes.

For quite some time now I’ve been meaning to write a blog post on this issue, with the aim of summarising why I think Critical DOGME has more to offer the teacher and student as a pedagogical approach, and what I think might be the limitations of the absence of a truly critical underpinning. Assuming that some of you may not wish to read the longer post, I am going to summarise the key points here, and invite you to join in. I am very interested to hear more views on this issue so please feel free to express your thoughts/feelings. Now it seems more relevant than ever as Scott has sent out a message to the DOGME discussion list announcing his wish to withdraw and opening a poll for members to vote on whether it should close down or pass into new hands. Results just through indicate that 51 people voted to hand the list to the existing members which is the highest number voting for any one of the statements Scott offered as choices. Perhaps we will argue retrospectively that this is a key DOGME moment, so I thought I would add in my voice to those already discussing debating.

A Quick Summary of Scott’s Thoughts Regarding DOGME and Criticality

Summarising is always a risk, so please Scott do feel free to interject here if you feel I have butchered your viewpoint. I write this summary tentatively and in the hope that it is not too reductive.

*DOGME (as Scott sees it, and drawing on the work of Pennycook and Norton/Toohey) does adhere to the principles of a critical pedagogy, which he sees as based in the educational ideas of Paulo Friere. Scott later outlined that Friere is used by him in a “decaffinated” sense. Scott flagged up the the noticeable absence of a clear position on the question of transformation and social change at a deeper structural level as an area of ambiguity within DOGME, and within his own application of DOGME. He continued that whilst DOGME can be used to engage students and act as a “pedagogy of possibility” there is a need for maintaining a clear vision of the practicalities of the classroom. More on that below.

Scott also quoted some ideas he gathered together from fellow DOGMEists on the DOGME discussion list who pointed out that:

*Advocating the non-use of commercially produced material is in itself a call for social change as it asks for a change of classroom culture and challenges a production chain taken for granted

*DOGME can be used for bringing about radical changes in attitude to learning amongst groups (the poster cited teenagers) who may be traditionally overlooked

*DOGME has the potential to challenge the educational agenda of new capitalism and may be on of the only educational approaches doing so right now in ELT

*DOGME encourages critical thinking which may have an impact on students’ life path once having left the walls of the classroom

Critical DOGME or DOGME with ‘critical’ sympathies?

I admire Scott and his work which is something I wish to state at the outset. He has had the courage of his convictions to stand by the idea of DOGME (along with many others), and continues to argue its strengths, despite a lot of criticism from the ELT establishment. This is not an easy position to have (that of maverick) and it should always be borne in mind the personal risks that people take by trying to do things differently.

My disagreements with Scott lie in the notion of a “decaffinated” Friere, which as I argued in our discussion, perhaps loses sight of a key component of Friere’s theories. Additionally, the aspect of critical pedagogy that Scott feels DOGME is lacking in (i.e. transformative potential) is precisely that which is prioritised by those writers he draws on to formulate the list about critical pedagogy – it is not an afterthought or, as I argued in our original discussion “something which can be returned to at a later date”.

So for me, here is a summary of the points that I think separate my view from Scott’s and outline a critical DOGME rather than DOGME with ‘critical’ sympathies.

*By ignoring Friere’s revolutionary roots, the Critical becomes diluted and potentially marginalised

*Friere was very clear that student and teacher agency should exist beyond the walls of the classroom and was as much about their non-educational/social lives than it was about their learning – it was also about transforming and changing inequality in wider society

*There is a suggestion that the rejection of these aspects of Friere’s theory are to do with the need to be practical in Scott’s posts. This in turn seems to suggests that revolutionary thinking and action are a thing of the past or have no place in the classroom. By default this changes how the present is viewed (the “this is the way things are so get used to it” approach). I would argue this brings DOGME back to the status quo and makes it, in the words of Friere himself, merely “rebellious” rather than radically transformative. Its power to change things is limited as rebelliousness is tolerated, and often encouraged, by the establishment to allow a sense of diversity of ideas

*Anyone can use DOGME (this is one of its widest appeals), but if it is used by someone who does not have any other adherence to a set of equalising principles, will it not encourage the same degree of covert discrimination? I gave the example of a teacher who firmly believes that native speaker models of English are superior. They may have a lesson based on the simplicity and emergent language approach of DOGME, but may spend the whole time criticising and ‘othering’ the varieties being spoken by their students as inferior. There are no mechanisms within DOGME as Scott presents it to interrogate this. I asked Scott for a clarification on this point, and am still hoping he will expand on this!

*Has DOGME ELT suffered the same fate at the DOGME film movement in the sense that its more radical elements began to disappear as the movement matured? Were there more radical voices at the start of the movement? This is an open question to all!

For me critical DOGME is the obvious choice made by anyone wishing to encourage an open and equal relationship with their students and tread carefully and consciously in their own role as an EL teacher in a post-colonial and neo-liberal world. It also provides a way to make sure language learning is meaningful and useful within terms of reference created by all involved. But I think it has a lot more to offer when it is thoroughly embedded in a critical pedagogy which not only takes on board, but celebrates the revolutionary tradition of Paulo Friere and his contemporaries, as well as those continuing this important work in ELT today.

Over to you?

57 responses so far

Feb 15 2010

League Tables, Greece and the EU: an insider/outsider perspective

"The PIGS fight back!" banner - general strike Greece 10/02/10

Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs

Explaining the Photo
This is not a post about ELT, but well sometimes there are other things that need discussing. Let me start by explaining the image I have used (and apologies for its grainy appearance but I had to scan it from a newspaper). It is a group of demonstrators in Athens who, wearing pig masks, are carrying a banner with the slogan “the PIGS strike back!”. On Wednesday 10th February 2010, there was a general strike in Greece. Large demonstrations took place, sparked by a sit down protest on the runway of Athens airport by control tower staff, against the sudden and non-negotiated austerity measures of the new government. These measures include cuts in bonuses for public sector workers (which in fact are integral parts of salaries in Greece in place to avoid tax and inclusion in pension calculations), another increase in the eligibility age for pension so more years of work ahead of us, and the further taxing of various commodities such as petrol which as we all know means that everything goes up due to transportation costs etc. The message coming down from government is that workers are going to have to pay more to get Greece out of debt, even though the salaries are comparatively low and the cost of living has sky rocketed since the Euro. They have no choice, argue the ruling party, as the EU expects it and therefore it must be done and they want to break with the modus operanti of the past which was to say yes to the EU and then just do whatever they wanted despite the threat of legal action or fines. Sound familiar? Well yes it’s happening everywhere in these troubled times of the credit crunch, but I would like to focus on Greece as my adopted second home, as a place I have lived for more than a decade, as somewhere I deeply care about and worry about in terms of what the future holds, a future which I am bound up in.

The Insider/Outsider
I am not coming from the “everything about Greece is great” position of some who move here and lose the ability to analyse things free of intense emotional baggage and relief at having left their own country of origin (a sort of holiday away from home analysis), or the “I hate Greece and everything back ‘home’ is better” (equally loaded and biased) as for me, neither is likely to encourage a balanced view. I am glad to be living here and this is where my family and new circle of loved ones is and its where I work and teach and contribute, and equally I miss those in the UK for the same reason. I have built a life for myself here which includes participating at all levels of civil and political society and which is one to be proud of I think, but I see very clearly the problems that exist, just as I see many problems with the UK from where I come. They are basically sprung from the same source – namely free market capitalism and its effects. I don’t see these problems as part of the national identity and I look beyond that empty dialogue for reasons and explanations. The point of this post is to offer an outsider’s/insider’s perspective on things the way I see them – to work through the issues and see what is really happening as sometimes the way things are reporting means it is impossible to see the wood for the trees. I am tired of reading headlines in newspapers from European countries that say something like “Spain is not as bad as Greece in the EU rankings” as if that is something to be relieved about without asking who is judging, on what criteria and for what purpose?

Who are the PIGS?
In the image you can see a group of public sector workers who are wearing pig masks with a banner (in English) that says ‘the PIGS strike back’ – the PIGS in this case being Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain who have all been criticized in the media internationally of late for their status within the EU. As I was in Berlin at the time of the strikes, I got to see how the international press were reporting on this and had to blog as there are so many points of importance in recent events and to be honest I am sick and tired of imagery in the reporting that characterizes Greece as a problem child that cannot be brought into line, a naughty toddler running at the heels of the wise elders. Readers of this blog will know about my feelings regarding league tables and those criticisms extend way beyond the classroom into the equally vague and power ridden area of EU rankings. I find the image of the demonstrators empowering and positive, as it shows that some Greeks are not going to take the categorizations lying down, and for this I applaud them and am with them 100% – they refuse to accept name tags and realize the problem and solution are more complex and that if they don’t fight to defend what’s left, they’ll soon be nothing left to fight for – and I am proud to be living in a place where the labour movement is still strong enough to muster itself into having a general strike. Go Greece in that respect!

EU Rankings: The Height of Hypocrisy
It can hardly be argued that the EU process is a simple one, and excuse me a minute, but those ‘stronger’ countries whose governments are criticizing Greece are hardly in a position to sit in judgment when we consider how much of a mess they are in. Yes this is a global economic crisis, and finger pointing is the name of the game it seems, with a temporary suspension of memory regarding the state of the economies of those more powerful EU members within their own countries. Apart from when such individuals who cast their criticism want to buy a house in one of the PIGS countries to enhance their lifestyle – oh well then its all a bit of a different story – then Greece is a lovely destination full of sun, sea and cheap taverna meals.

The PIGS share some common characteristics – they are all in the Mediterranean region as it is termed (well there are quite a few other seas and oceans too but that is how the EU sees them), they have all been suffering high levels of unemployment for a long time, they are all economically challenged in the sense they don’t have exportables or very developed industry, they are all tourist destinations and very dependent on the service industry, they are expected to speak English to communicate with the outside world and invest a lot in language learning with varying outcomes (well this is an ELT blog after all and I will certainly explore in another posting how the EU impacts on the learning of languages other than English as it’s a really important point as there are many differences between them too which is my point).

They are all in the EU and this fact seems to have slowly eroded the power that their own populaces have to make decisions about what’s right for their country and devolved it into the EU super power which does not seems to notice that all these countries vary hugely in their local circumstances. And the EU is answerable to an even greater power, that of international capitalism, a shrinking pool of evergrowing privilege. Europeanization doesn’t recognise difference in its “let’s all have the same economic system” rationale. And there is more to this than meets the eye when we find out that the German and French package suggested to bail out Greece doesn’t come with no strings – it comes with an expectation that Greece will purchase its weaponry from both France and Germany in return. And being a country that spends a huge amount of money on defense – well Greece is a good target for these promises……So far no deals have been struck and the Greek government remains quiet regarding the offers but the quality and critical Greek media has been quick to note the contradiction that nothing is given for nothing.

Corruption as a Greek Problem?
Corruption has been an endemic part of Greek society for years – but what about asking some important questions here. Who is being corrupt, indeed who even has the means to be corrupt and will any of those people be affected by these cuts? This fact is as painful for Greeks as it is for those looking in and I find it offensive and lazy to suggest this is a national characteristic as some of the media have been doing. Corruption is part of all capitalist societies first of all – they couldn’t function otherwise and they require the undeclared labour market to keep going. And furthermore, if anyone can show me the evidence that the EU is corruption free as an institution, well I will do a lot more than eat my hat.

The new Greek government is committed, so it says, to weeding out the corrupt and making it impossible for them to continue their practices. But with whom are they going to begin this noble process? With the hugely wealthy and anachronistic Greek church, the largest land owner in the country and the force that maintains the only boundaried land space in Europe that prohibits women to travel there (Mount Athos, the 3rd leg of the Halkidiki peninsular) – are the church being investigated rigorously or told that its already widely publicized corrupt practices have to stop? No. Such power does the church have they are able to escape the gaze of the new government who are fearful of what people might say. Are they starting with the higher earning professions in the private sector who systematically do business without receipts and some of whom earn comparatively huge and partly undeclared salaries? No, they are starting with the public sector, including teachers, and taking away their bonuses. Smart move. These people didn’t have the means to be corrupt on the scale mentioned above anyway and are small fry when the larger picture is taken into consideration. But they promise to move onto the others at some point in the undeclared future. Hmmm…..

Dismantling the public sector as the answer?
Now it is true that Greece has one of the highest percentages of people working for the public sector in Europe, and these positions are in place partly to ensure political loyalty – jobs have been historically distributed via a system of ‘messon’ (nepotism). But this is something that is as frustrating for Greeks as anyone else. The so-called “700 Euro” generation who are the next up and coming workforce are highly qualified and have gained Master’s and PhD’s and C2 English qualifications – they are more aware than anyone that their chances of getting employment based on their own merits are slim. Those that have connections are forced to use them to secure their future. They are the ones that are destined to suffer the most as they have been educated to compete, but cannot do so in a society where favours are what get people the few jobs that are left. What will likely happen again, and has been repeated feature of Greek history since the beginning of time, is the exodus of young people to other countries, the creation of more Greek diaspora, the brain drain that we hear about in the media. The young people will leave as there is nothing to stay for. And another chapter of Greek history begins – one of loss, and separation….again. There may be many who prefer to go and it is their choice, but it’s a thin dividing line as I also know many who wish they didn’t have to and want to stay. And as I noted before, to suggest that the cause-effect relationship between corruption and fairness lies in making sweeping cuts is just a faulted analysis. What lies behind the cuts in Greece or anywhere else – now that is the question we should be asking. And what can be done to prevent it?

What do I think should be happening?
The Greek demonstrators have my support as what they are fighting for goes way beyond saving their bonuses. Greece has proved a difficult nut to crack in the privatisation agenda of the EU and neo-liberal economics, partly because it does still have a strong(ish) labour movement. The new PM, just as his predecessor, has perhaps underestimated the reaction of the people. I wish the Greek labour movement would be more united and stop all their sectarian in-fighting, but to the outside eye things seem a lot more lively and united than many countries of the EU these days in terms of the reaction to austerity measures. What is being resisted here is a whole series of economic measures which will ultimately mean working harder for less money for longer with less stability and short-term contracts galore. For young people they can look forward to a life spent constantly reskilling to fit the needs of the market driven economy.

The reason I support the demonstrators is because they are resisting this kind of world and its effect on public services. That doesn’t mean paradoxically that there isn’t much to be done to improve those very public services or that they are not without the need of desparate change – they are. But I do not support a political agenda that is going to cut back the welfare state so much that it can never be reversed. Quite simply, the current government is trying to achieve that which cannot be done and is full of contradictions in its own rhetoric. The EU will never be satisfied and no matter how much Greece tries to come into line, there will always be more demands. Along with the public sector, workers’ rights are being eroded, and all of us stands to lose out if this agenda is carried through to its ultimate conclusion. The answer lies elsewhere my friends, and it is not in any of the existing political parties all of whom are responsible for the decimation of the Greek economy. What is being defended here, to my mind, is another type of society where the corruption we expose is the corruption at the top. And I am very sorry, but I just don’t think the people who are creaming off the most profit are even going to be touched in this theatrical targetting of corruption by the government. They are hiding, as always, behind the coat tails of a weak and ineffective government whose hands are once again tied from making any difference at all.

Food for thought indeed.

23 responses so far

Jan 14 2010

Is grading ever fair? Being critical about marking student work

Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs

grading-rubric

“This morning I took out a comma, and this afternoon I put it back again.” Oscar Wilde, Irish Poet and author of the novel ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray’

Inspiration for this post
Happy New Year to everyone. May 2010 bring health and happiness to you and yours. Here at Critical Mass ELT I’ve been busy over the last few weeks marking student writing. It never ceases to amaze me how much effort and innovation I encounter in student essays – writing in a foreign language is really difficult after all, something that perhaps EL teachers forget when judging the language produced by their students, especially if they themselves don’t often write in languages other than their mother tongue. It can take a matter of minutes to judge a piece of work that may have taken hours to prepare (esp. when teachers routinely have so much marking these days). It’s a bit like a home cooked meal which, once eaten by the hungry diners, can leave the chef feeling exhausted and disappointed as it took so long to ‘create’. As Oscar Wilde’s words demonstrate, writing is a painstaking process for some people.

My Personal Experience
Writing has always been easy for me in the sense that it doesn’t take long and seems to flow fairly easily from my fingers and keyboard – both in English and Greek. But it wasn’t like that for me with drawing. I recall being asked to do a still life when we were about 13 in the art class at school. The teacher had set up a kind of autumn scene with leaves and lots of lovely red/brown colours. The activity lasted over a number of weeks and for whatever reason I was suitably inspired to put my heart and soul into producing something really memorable (!)…..or so I thought.

At the end of the process, we were all lined up to show our work to said teacher and when it was my turn she said “well Sara, there won’t be any art O level for you then” and I was sent on my way. At the time I bounced back as you do at that age, but it really hurt me that she had not even ‘looked’ at my work, as much as given it a cursory glance before passing judgment. Now she was right, I didn’t do art O level, and it wasn’t a strength of mine. But then again, couldn’t she have found anything positive to say before delivering the prognosis of my terminal detachment from drawing?! I have only just got back into it with my daughter who aged three doesn’t have any expectations beyond the fun we have together when doing arty things.

The Teacher’s Perspective
Of course now I can see things that then eluded me – perhaps that teacher was a frustrated artist who was tired of teaching teenagers how to draw circles on coloured paper, perhaps she hadn’t really been trained properly, perhaps she’d never been confronted by a complaining student who just told her to “**** off”! Perhaps she was overworked, underpaid and fed up with the lack of support from the school, perhaps she was sick of art being sidelined as a namby pamby option on the curriculum. Perhaps she had personal problems beyond the classroom. But as a teenager I didn’t really care about that and she was the adult after all. And there was something in the way she said those words that was meant, perhaps unintentionally, to undermine my confidence.

It reminds me of the number of times I have heard teachers say (proudly) “I always tell my students when they won’t have any chance of passing the EL exam as I feel its my responsibility to be honest with them”. Now I support that sentiment, as long as teachers are clear about why they are doing it and that it is genuinely done in a way that supports the student and isn’t just about providing an opportunity for the teacher to vent frustration – this second type of ‘honesty’ has become legitimate in our profession in the name of pedagogical ‘standards’. Students need to be seen in their own social context after all as much of the time they are not really *choosing* to study the language in the true sense of the word, but are doing it for a variety of reasons that are governed by internal/external restraints of one kind of another. The judgment passed by teachers can have long term consquences for a person’s future and there is a thin dividing line between honesty and abuse of power after all. I would be interested in your thoughts and experiences on this and how you deal with this sensitive role in your own practice.

Marking as a form of power
So thinking about the idea of power as I often do at Critical Mass ELT, all marking is, to a degree, the exercising of power over another person i.e. the student. It is the physical manifestation of the hierarcy of knowledge. The teacher (as knowledgeable) decides whether the work produced by the student is worthy of receiving a high or low mark on a scale decided either by them or by the institution – this evaluation then often moves beyond the control of either the teacher or student into building a more general picture of a person’s ‘ability’. There is so much effort invested these days in proving the fairness of these marking scales, but it still remains the case that it is very difficult to conclusively prove that any of them are watertight in the way student output is assessed. If they are interpreted by individuals, doesn’t subjectivity play a role? Inevitably.

I have witnessed teachers and examiners using their power irresponsibly to punish students for the frustration they have with their own job, or because they feel upset by why it is students don’t learn or produce language in the way they want. The process is one-sided and teachers struggle when students demonstrate their own ideas, thoughts and beliefs about how their language should be assessed. I understand why this happens – well micro-power and language ideology circulate in precisely this way. But it still strikes me as odd that it is so widely sanctioned via an “us” and “them” attitude, endemic in the overly-evaluative approach to language teaching in so many educational settings.

Some Questions to end with
No easy answers to the questions that this all raises, but that is the strength of a good discussion so please join in with your thoughts. I can imagine a different sort of classroom where student output is not graded at all in the way we understand it now, where language is assessed for the ability it has to communicate and build human networks, rather than for jumping through hoops of accuracy and red pen. Because marking is so often about these things, I really struggle with getting the balance between true recognition of effort, ability and the reality for my students, and the fact that education inevitably includes assessment in its current form. But at the same time I take it extremely seriously and spend a lot of time thinking about the importance of being as fair as possible in all marking activity.

There are so many related points, so just one last one to throw into the mix. I am anticipating there will be those who will say “but to help our students, we must insist on accuracy” and “how can we possibly teach without assessing?” but that raises further questions regarding whose model of ‘accuracy’ we should insist on – is the ‘standard English’ native speaker model still valid? And indeed is accuracy valid at all as a transparent concept? The classroom I described above exists in a space way beyond the ELT world we all inhabit now, but it is a classroom that it is important to keep alive, albeit through some of what we do in the present. So I will end by asking you a few questions:

* Do you ask your students to write in English and then offer feedback without grading?
*How do you ensure each piece of work is seen in its own right and not compared to other ‘better’ or ‘worse’ pieces of work?
* How to you try to make your students feel positive about their ability whilst helping them to improve?
* Have you ever written off a student as a hopeless case – if so why?
* What strategies do you use to ensure you’re being critical with yourself when marking and what ethical practices do you have in place when marking student work?

I am very much looking forward to hearing your thoughts on this topic!

I won’t be grading your responses :)

33 responses so far

Dec 14 2009

Being Critical about the Role of the Teacher: Allowing Students to Disagree

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Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs

“You can’t just lump things into two categories, life’s not that simple” (Donnie Darko)

New week – new post! And a subject close to my heart – that of the teacher’s role in the classroom and teacher-centredness. I am going to sidestep the fact its Christmas soon, as I know not everyone will be celebrating and for some it’s just like any other week rather than the pre-Christmas ‘let’s go crazy in the shopping centre’ week, so I am going to focus on the topic of education :)

I remember when I was doing my certificate and diploma level training (perhaps more the former) there was a lot of emphasis placed on Teacher Taking Time (TTT) as a bad thing, almost to the point where I felt that my best bet for successfully passing the course would have been to gag myself before entering the classroom and say nothing! I remember a fellow trainee dong a lesson completely in mime, and despite the bewilderment of the students, the course trainer could barely contain his excitement at the cutting edgeness of it all! I honestly thought he would combust with pride. The rest of us spent a few days feeling we would never measure up, and then I thought….there must be more to this than meets the eye. I mean miming might work once or twice, but all year, every lesson. Hmmm.

I jest of course (though that story is true), but it always felt to me like there was a fundamental flaw in the concept as the ‘problem’ was being dealt with in the wrong way. Of course it is a reaction to the classroom that resembles that in the opening picture, which none of us would condone, where the teacher is dominating at the front and students are gently snoozing or disengaged in the audience – but is silencing the teacher really the answer? Isn’t there somewhere else on the continuum where both teachers and students can have a voice in a bit more of a dialogic process and share the ‘right’ to speak? We want to provide opportunities for students to practice their speaking skills, but is the most effective way of doing this to make poor trainee teachers try and work out how they can do what they had planned through any means other than the very language they are there to teach? A paradox if ever I’ve seen one! Luckily things have moved on a bit since then.

Audio-Visual Interlude

Well I thought I’d begin by embedding a scene from one of my favourite ever movies “Donnie Darko”. It is a mastery of sheer weirdness and a classic example of deconstructive cinema – but at the same time deeply (but quietly) questioning of the way our society operates. As the main character Donnie is a school student, quite a lot of the film’s action takes place at school. Here is one of my favourite scenes which I will comment on below. Donnie and his classmates are in a class being run in what *could* have been a dynamic way – the teacher is using an audio-visual clip and encouraging participation. But it still remains teacher-centred and the teacher is abusing her power. Please watch now!

Being Critical About Classroom Power

There is so much to say on this clip, I could write a book on it (but I won’t as I know most people’s blogging patience doesn’t stretch that far!). The abuses of power by the teacher are too numerous to mention but perhaps the highlights are:

a) assumption of content – the video has a strong religious overtone that is being imposed on the class to satiate a need primarily in the teacher – this is done through a guru type ‘leader’ named Jim Cunningham (who later turns out to be something of a fraud)

b) the ‘theatrics’ of participation – all the students are forced to comply, and when Donnie questions, he is threatened with a lower mark, the ultimate abuse of teacher power. Participation is therefore not equal or a choice

c) the task itself – the lifeline forces students to ‘choose’ to go along with the teacher’s world view or risk punishment. The lifeline represents a biased view and for anyone with a questioning mind, it is impossible to squeeze their answer into the choices given

d) the lack of space for difference – for me having a student like Donnie in the classroom would be a joy as he demonstrates intelligence and insight, as well as a real wish to engage. But the teacher will not allow him to ‘play’ this role and tries to silence him – resorting to the exasperated head master and his parents when her own authority isn’t enough. She contributes to Donnie’s outburst through the way her lesson is organised, but this remains unrecognised.

*(also spot the subliminal fact that the names on the negative situation cards used in the life-line game are both non-American: another level of questioning in the script which questions negative racial stereotypes).

Implications for ELT (and education in general)

As teachers, we are faced with these sorts of situations every day. Imagine if the teacher had allowed the discussion and dissent to flow, had encouraged her students to express opinions and doubts about the certainty of life. If her own intellect and imagination had been been able to stretch beyond the binary opposites of ‘love’ and ‘fear’ – what a different lesson it might have been. She would have grown closer to the students and in the process, the learning experience may have become shared.

So I guess for me what is important about all of this is that the amount a teacher talks or doesn’t talk does not automatically lead to an open and equal classroom. *That* was always the mistake of the TTT concept for me. The open (and critical) classroom is more a state of mind that will be reflected at all levels of classroom planning. There may be days when it is appropriate for a teacher to talk more, and others less, but the important thing for me is how the classroom is set up to allow participation….of everyone. Not just as a good language model and live listening, but as a human being. The teacher in Donnie Darko may be a deliberate stereotype, but there is something recognisable in her for all of us.

I prefer to try to emulate the words of Paulo Friere when he said:

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”

This blog post is dedicated to the Donnie Darko’s of the classroom – both teachers and students!

Over to you…….

41 responses so far

Dec 05 2009

Thinking critically about which English you teach

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Critical mass (noun)
Definition 1. point of change: a point or situation at which change occurs

It’s time to move on from the theft experience last week. I thank everyone for their support and am now back to blogging about good old ELT. I am a bit apprehensive as I am competing with some very interesting, thought provoking and well-attended discussions like Gavin Dudeney’s on self-promotion in ELT. I am not sure if I imagined it but I think I just read that there is a poll on the sexiest man in ELT being run by Karenne Sylvester…..perhaps its pre-Christmas exhaustion that is fuelling it and it has certainly caused a buzz in the blogosphere. So this little posting may seem dull and lifeless by comparison, but there you go – I am working to my strengths :) and sidestepping my uncomfortableness with assessing my male colleagues’ “crudentials” on a blog or twitter (or anywhere else for that matter). Take a seat with me if you want, but know that I am possibly the biggest party pooper in ELT (can’t help wondering though what it would mean if the tables were turned and someone ran a poll on the women in their PLN?). But moving on….

The Question of the Standard

I decided to write a short blog post (well you know me, I have trouble keeping it under 2,000 words) on this topic as it is one that has been talked about quite a bit around and about me of late. How many times in a throw away comment in the staff room or classroom do English teachers and learners of the language refer to “Standard English”? Before you start to read it might be worth pondering how you yourself use the term, and what function it serves in your description of language. Share if you want as I find it fascinating that it usually brings up such diverse range of descriptions, beliefs and attitudes.

Just last week I heard it mentioned several times, in each case to denote something different. Firstly to talk about the kind of language used in course books and exams (and by default the kind that students should be using), secondly to refer to written English with the belief that the ‘variety’ being used by the students is too informal, and finally to talk about the differences between Standard Greek and other varieties (evidence that this debate cuts across languages and is about more than linguistic concerns). Defining standard language is a difficult business, particularly when its opposite, the oft quoted dustbin category of “non-standard English” is frequently positioned as a sorry and less successful cousin. They exist in reference to one another, the second being the “lack” of the first. This has always been something that I feel is elitist and excluding.

From the Mouths of Students

In a class wiki last week which was on the topic of varieties of English one of the (non-NEST) students at the college where I work (1st year undergraduate student) said on this subject (verbatim quote):

Languages all over the world are changing at an insane pace to match our increasing demand for brevity, yet they often sacrifice logic in their formulation of abbreviations and ignorance of syntax structures. This is not an evolution towards a more spartan and elegant speech but rather a devolution that I personally find less than aesthetically pleasing

This comment was in response to another (non-NEST) student who had said (again unedited):

Should it be therefore desirable, the incorporation of a more non- formal language ? Would the use of other than standard English compromise the reliability and the validity of scientific scripts that are written distinctively? After all, language is just a code which provide the means for a successful communication

I feel delighted and privileged that students are debating these issues on a wiki. They are, in essence, expressing two competing positions (there are of course a spectrum of positions in between) on this issue which mirror debates in ELT and have been going on for centuries.

Some Critical Questions

I thought I’d throw this one open and see what you think. How do you respond to what the students said as EL teachers? Do you agree with Student A who believes that the evolution of English, and the varieties contained within that process, is a move towards deficit and ‘illogical’ versions of the language? Or do you feel closer to Student B who sees language in terms of communication and wonders if non-academic English could cause a rupture in the believability of research (which suggests links with power and authority)? Why such strong opinions on the topic – where does that come from? And most importantly, what implications does that have for our teaching of the language?

Over in Alex Case’s blog today, a contributor was talking about non-NEST teachers and said that one of the best teachers he had known was a “Korean non-NEST who had near perfect British English and did a Trinity TESOL cert in London. He was excellent. So it can be done“. I found myself wondering what “near perfect British English” is and why that is considered a model worth aspiring to? I assume that he was talking about Standard British Southern as it is euphamistically termed, and not Liverpool or Glaswegian English (which are easier to understand for some EL learners)? And indeed none of these varieties are homogenous anyway, as there are varieties within varieties. BTW apologies to the contributor for mentioning that posting – we discussed it in Alex’s blog and I thought it was worth mentioning again as it is relevant – hope I am not breaking any blogiquette rules there and if I am please tell me (Alex’ll tell me if I have tripped up there I hope).

I am going to resist the temptation to write more on this before hearing what you have to say! Woop woop only 999 words which is a record for me!

36 responses so far

Nov 26 2009

Being Critical About Crime: My Personal Experience

This little blog post is less about the English language and more about something that happened to me yesterday which I need to write about and get off my chest. I became a victim of ‘crime’ yesterday and am feeling pretty sore about it all, whilst still trying to keep an eye on ‘the big picture’ (always hard when you’re on the receiving end). I put the word ‘crime’ in inverted commas only because it is such a loaded word and it is hard to use it factually or impartially (not to mention finding an image that can convey my own confusion about it all so this is an image free post), but I can’t think what else to call it except unfair human behaviour with little thought for the consequences on the individual and their cirumstances.

I withdrew a large sum of money in cash yesterday to pay a particular bill that could only be paid in cash – well Greece is still mostly a cash economy really and most people work with cash rather than cards. So this is nothing unusual and it is also unavoidable – I can’t hire a body guard every time I need to get some money out! I went to pick up my daughter from nursery school, walked to the bus stop and got on the bus. Somewhere between the struggle to get the push stair up those steep steep bus stairs and the next stop, someone took my purse right out of my zipped up bag. I don’t know how it was I didn’t notice other than the fact that I was focussed on getting Maia settled in the bus and she was a bit tired and therefore a bit wriggly. Oliver Twist doesn’t begin to describe the stealth of this person. But the purse was taken. When I got off the bus and went on my merry way, sorting things out at home took precedent and it wasn’t till a few hours later that I noticed that the purse was gone.

The rest is all too familiar – phone calls to the bank to cancel cards, the realisation that the large amount of cash that I had worked so hard for was gone never to be seen again, worrying about what else might have been in the purse (luckily not my passport or ID docs). The bank were, as always, quick to try and suggest the responsibility was mine rather than theirs. By the time I phoned them, the person or persons unknown had been partying up on my credit card around the cashpoints of Thessaloniki and had managed to withdraw other large sums of money. The bank claimed they could not have done this without a pin number and that I must have had it written down somewhere in the purse. But I never use my credit card pin – I only really have it for buying stuff that can only be bought online and that doesn’t require a pin. But they are standing their ground so I now have to go to see a lawyer to find out how I can try to fight this and win the right not to pay back money that was stolen. I am guessing some sort of technology was involved that enabled person/persons unknown to access this data about my card. I have no other explanation really as the said pin is at home in my drawer still sealed and has never been opened so not even I know it. But how will I prove this if the bank says “it is so”?

And I am now left wondering really…..how do we process these experiences in life? How do we comprehend someone could wait around at a bus stop scoping an easy victim to target, and that this victim might be a bedraggled and tired mother on her way back home with her child in a pushchair? And we are lucky that neither one of us was hurt or injured, that the damage was “only money” (I am trying to think of it this way as it is important in moments like this), but another part of me is raging inside at the injustice of it. And there are much more serious and violent crimes between individuals that are more deserving of outrage and sympathy, and I include in this crimes committed by the state that are not even called crimes like weapons of mass destruction and their use or wars against populations of people round the globe. It is all so much bigger than me on the bus.

I don’t feel angry with the individuals – until now I have encountered the usual explanations from others about how it is the “foreigners” to blame (the police were quick to point that out) – somehow overlooking the fact that I am a foreigner myself and that the person who brushed up a little too close to me expensively dressed and inconspicuous as is often the case and may well have been a local. It irritates me how quickly people are to draw the stereotype ‘race’ card when convenient. I feel angry with the world and with the credit crunch and with the pressure people must feel in the lead up to Christmas to make ends meet that are miles and miles away from where they need to be. At what point does someone decide that a life like that beats working for a 600 Euro average salary in a supermarket for instance? Or that they can be a ‘leader’ in that field in a way they cannot in a dead end job? And how do they square it with themselves. I am eternally grateful for the fact that I have been watching “the Wire” lately as this series really helps to explain that people are complex and that ‘criminals’ are not one dimensional stereotypes devoid of their humanity (well some might be, but most are not and are trying to survive in ‘the game’ as it is called in that brilliant piece of drama). Its not about me as an individual or them for that matter. Its about why why why? Any thoughts?

So here I am blogging and thinking about it all and facing the disappointment that I might have to cancel our long awaited trip to the UK for new year so as not to increase what is looking to be a large unexpected debt – and feeling sad because I need to go ‘home’ for a while and touch base. But also trying to understand things and the reason why they happen so as to stay focused. And so I thought it would be good to start a discussion. There is no particular direction to it and it has nothing to do with ELT (other than being a popular topic in course books and exams). But it is a critical look at crime – not just the consequences, but the causes.

Look forward to hearing from you!

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