151. When the student is ready…

When the student

“When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

Took me some years to realize the meaning of this zen wisdom.

All learning has to have some purpose and until the student figures out (or attempts to figure out), the realization (teacher) does not appear.

We’ve been trying to force learning. We’ve been trying to tell learning. We’ve been trying to provide learning. And kept wondering. What went wrong!

Well, trying to teach before the learner is open to learning – that’s what went wrong.

I am not trying to shy away from my responsibility as a teacher but when students (adults) don’t come prepared, and worse, come just for the sake of coming into the class, I hit the motivation wall.

John Hattie says, “The number one factor that influences a student’s learning is the student himself/herself.” I also believe that to be true. The teacher comes second. The student comes first. But it’s been the other way around for so long in our education system.

Is there any way we can open up learners to be open for learning?

Or, am I asking the wrong question?

150. Hiding the Gold Coins

Hiding the Gold Coins: A Reflection on Writing Workshop by Hem Raj Kafle
(The workshop happened on Aug, 2014 at King’s College, Kathmandu)

Hem Raj Kafle

He is tall. Very tall compared to my height. He looks into the world through a pair of slightly shaded glasses. Those glasses probably let him filter all the negativity around him and help him see a vision – a vision of a teacher, a writer, and a mentor. He speaks gently and seldom smiles. He stands in the middle of the class, and with his words paints an exciting picture of characters, themes and conflicts; and walks us through the colorful fields full of metaphors, similes and hyperboles.

He is one of those rare teachers who writes a lot. His blog is a testimony of his prolific writing habit. Even his facebook statuses, usually very short poems, reflect his creativity. And I wonder. May be creativity is a verb, not a noun. One has to constantly work at it. It’s just my perception. His creativity could be as natural as breathing.

I had met him back in 2012. He taught me Fiction in my M.Ed. ELT first semester and since then I have had a renewed interest in reading, interpreting, and analyzing literature. I started becoming passionate but critical of the texts I came across. In addition to that, he inspired me to write down my own fiction works.

Naturally, I was pretty excited about the workshop. I had always wanted to be in his classes one more time and the workshop was it. Even though the focus of the workshop was “Academic Writing”, I knew he would have his own twist on it, with a few pinch of strange concepts sprinkled around here and there.

So he started the workshop by asserting that writing is not an isolated activity, but it is an activity integrated with reading, listening and speaking. “The key word is perform. Writing is a performance, it is an action of hands as well as an action of minds,” he added. And most importantly, he continued, “Performance doesn’t mean a writer’s activity alone… it is about a reader’s action also”. This made so much sense that it immediately struck a chord with me. A writer has to let readers perform too. Otherwise, what’s the point in writing at the first place? An effective writer thus leaves enough clues here and there in the text for the readers to come up with their own knowledge.

Writing is a performance because the writer has to make sure that his/her ‘authorial presence’ and credibility are visible in every word and every sentence of the text. Moreover, a writer has to make sure there are both implicit and explicit moments of communication with the reader. He/she has to constantly facilitate the reader towards understanding and creating new perceptions. Similarly, a writer has to represent his/her community and contribute towards adding new knowledge and scholarship. Therefore, writing is not merely scribbling texts on a sheet of paper, it is a performance that involves both the writer and the reader.

Next, he talked about some of the common attributes every writer exhibit in some ways. For instance, the ‘writer’s block’ which he also labeled as the ‘blinking cursor syndrome’ for those who keep staring at the computer screen searching for words to start with. Similarly, every writer has the irresistible urge to tell the background or the whole story. Next, most of the writers can’t decide on the choice of diction – whether to use big or small stock of words, or on the choice of sentence – short sentences or longer sentences.

Coming to the main focus of the workshop, he talked about the process of creating an argument in academic writing and substantiating one’s stance. He gave an instance of Stephen Toulmin’s elements of a proper argument: claim, ground, warrant, backing, rebuttal, qualifier and final claim. A good paragraph is a combination of all or some of the above elements. The concept of ‘rebuttal’ was quite interesting. Apparently, acknowledging opposing views and giving them a small space in one’s argument adds more strength to one’s argument.

At the end, he gave us eleven tips on how to improve one’s writing. I am reflecting on these points from my perspective.

  1. Write aloud.
    It helps shape the quality of writing.
  2. Speak – record – transcribe – Edit
    This is very useful when one is facing the imminent ‘writer’s block’.
  3. Toulmin uncle really works!
  4. Three is enough.
    Three examples, three explanations, three stories.
  5. Keep the big below you.
    This is quite interesting. Start a paragraph with your own sentence and end it with your own. Keep the citations and ‘big’ personalities underneath your first statement. Don’t ever start your paragraph with a citation because this just weakens your stance.
  6. Kill the subordinates.
    If your main info goes to the subordinate clause, rewrite the sentence. Bring your info to the front.
  7. Passive is lousy.
    I also hate sentences in passive voice. I always try to write everything in active voice.
  8. Let the verb stand high.
    Let the verb ‘speak’, rather than ‘be’.
  9. Do not repeat a word if there’s a replacement.
  10. Hear me between the lines
    Make your presence felt. Don’t let the reader forget about the writer.
  11. Dump me if I let you go!
    Challenge: I will not bore my reader. I will not break my reader’s heart, effort, money, etc.

After attending this workshop, I now feel the urge to go back to all my writings and scrutinize them strand by strand – to find my ‘authorial presence’ in them. I had never thought about this aspect of writing – that the author has to be present in the text. Similarly, I am going to try speak-record-transcribe method whenever I feel stuck in the rot. I will also make sure none of my paragraphs start with a citation but with my own sentence. In addition, I will use these techniques in presentations and in writing scripts for speaking as well.

Writing has always been an elusive grape for me. I feel like I am always getting ‘there’ but never near enough. I always go back to my texts, interact with them and revise them. That singer from Rolling Stones is probably right. I can’t get no satisfaction out of my writing. But just like Hem sir once said during his class, “A text is always in the making”. May be it’s not about getting ‘there’ and being satisfied after all. Writing is a process… a continuum… a journey. And our job as a writer is just to enjoy the ride.

(Written on November, 2014)

146. Why we don’t change

change-resist

When people resist change, it is usually not because that they don’t know about the problem. I know that eating momos is not going to help me lose weight, but still I’m eating them. My mom knows that oily vegetable dishes are not healthy, but still she likes drowning potatoes in oil. Same with the smokers. They know cigarettes are unhealthy and can cause cancer. But still, many keep smoking.

Same goes for some teachers who resist change. They understand that they need to change. Teaching is not what is used to be 20 years ago. They know that their method is obsolete, their practice is ridiculously traditional and their knowledge is outdated. But still, many embrace the status quo.

Telling people – you need to change – is not going to work.

When educational institutions want their teachers to change, they send the teachers for training and try to give them new knowledge, skill, and attitude. Trainers think that if the teachers just understood about the new techniques, they would implement those techniques in the classroom. Or if the teachers just understood the importance of professional development, they would just start changing.

Still, nothing happens. Teachers fall back to their usual habit even after attending trainings and workshops.

This could be the problem. In their book Switch, Dan and Chip Heath say: knowledge rarely leads to change.

Students make noise in the class. They know that making noise is not right. They are wasting everyone’s time. But they still do it.

Street protesters know that burning rubber tire is harmful to health and detrimental to the environmental. But they still do it.

Employees waste time gossiping and pulling each other’s legs. They know it’s not productive. But they still do it.

The FM radio in our kitchen is always switched on. While listening to the morning news, the Nepal Traffic Police update, almost every day, says that over a hundred people were charged for “maa.paa.say” which means they were driving vehicles while being drunk. The ‘maa.paa.say’ rule has already been imposed for over two years but still people drink and drive (and get arrested and pay heavy fines).

They know the rule but they still make a mockery of it. Because, knowledge rarely leads to change.

Thus the big question: can we change? How? Let me leave these questions for you to figure them out.

(Inspired by Chip and Dan Heath’s Switch: How to change things when change is hard)

139. Being my own critic

workshop

Once I attended a workshop. Just because I didn’t want to get bored staying home. The workshop was horrible. I couldn’t get anything out of it. I should have instead slept in my bed the whole day. But I did learn after all. I learnt how not to conduct a workshop. That was a big lesson. In the hindsight, I could have snored my day away, but I ended up learning even more.

I have attended many teacher-training workshops and terribly wished I had been somewhere else. I have hated the trainers for being cocky, smartass and condescending. But I have also learnt from them on how not to behave with the participants. Every workshop, good or bad, is full of lessons.

The big question – what about what I do in my own workshops. Hurling nasty comments at others is easy while I pretend to be a Mr-Know-All trainer.

136. Reflection of a Procrastinating Researcher

 

(Originally published in Nelta ELT Forum, December 2015 issue)

just do it tomorrow

I confess: I hate research. Because I am not good at managing time or setting priorities. I feel terrible. But I feel happy knowing that many others too suck at time management and motivation. I am not alone in this world where people wake up screaming in the middle of the night from a recurring nightmare of deadlines, priorities and commitments.

But little did I know that this research – through a painful yet invigorating learning experience – was going to change me into a new me.

Overcoming the inertia

As the final part of my M.Ed ELT program, on October 2014, I kicked off on a research journey with excitement of a teenager in love. However, I landed on the motivational rock bottom so many times that my initial fire cooled off in a few weeks.

To start out, I realized that the concept of language ideologies was very abstract. My topic was: Language ideologies of EFL teachers – beliefs, practices and effects. I felt like I was trying to walk through a vast desert of vagueness. Next, the theme of ideology was something we had not studied during the two-year program. Thus I had to start from the scratch. I started reading articles and books on ideologies, and then, I started losing my mind. To add to my misery, at KU’s library, I did not find any prior research documents related to the theme.

Amid the chaos in my mind, I started swinging from one research topic to another.

May be I should conduct research on pragmatics of English language. Or, may be on student motivation. Or, may be on training of English language teachers. In desperation, I summoned just enough reasons and zeal to crawl out of the confusion and get on with my original proposal. (In an adventure like this, there’s always a yoda, and he kept pushing me until the end.)

Extracting the data

My research participants were seven English language teachers working in private schools of Lalitpur and Bhaktapur. During the interview sessions, I probed into their ideological beliefs about English language teaching. Then, I observed them in their classrooms to explore how their ideologies shape their teaching and interaction with the students. During observation, I also felt their nervousness and awkwardness as a stranger sat in the back of the room taking notes and recording their sessions.

Feedback is essential for personal and professional growth but we hate being judged. Therefore I could relate to what the participants were going through. For most of them, it was the first ever observation of any sort. I knew that they must have felt anxious about me observing them, taking notes about them and judging them. Even though, I was not there to judge them. A participant, after one such session, even told me that she felt like she was taking SLC examination one more time.

Interviewing the teachers and observing their class was a very exciting experience for me, however the fun stopped when I entered the next phase: transcribing, coding and trying to get the meaning from the unorganized mass of information.

Hitting the wall, again

A mountain of tasks stood in front of me and, once again my motivation level plunged to zero. I wished I was a full time student and that I didn’t have to work and take care of my family. And that I had super powers. (Grow up, Umes). And that I had chosen a different research topic. I kept on making excuses. I kept on procrastinating.

Seeing my predicament, one friend even suggested, “hyaa kina dukha gari raa? Shankar Dev agadi ko photocopy pasal ma gayo bhani sabai problem solve huncha”. He meant: go to those photocopy shops near Shankar Dev College in Kathmandu, choose any thesis from a list they provide and pay Rs 3000 to get them customized for you. I was tempted beyond my wits, but I chose the tougher way.

Only after several months did I wake from my self-imposed self-justifying slumber to re-start the dreaded research journey. On a blank sheet of paper, I wrote a proverb and stuck the paper on the wall near my computer. “The best way to eat an elephant standing in your path is to cut him up into little pieces”. This became my mantra. I developed a schedule and promised myself that I would write at least 1000 words every day. It would take me 30 min, sometimes 3 hours but I made sure to reach the word target every single day. And, piece by piece, I gobbled the whole elephant.

Learning the hard way

Besides gaining invaluable insights from the research participants about their ideologies, this research has made me reflect on my own beliefs and practices. It has made me question my decision to be an English language teacher. It has also made me realize why research matters for teachers, especially in language education and in education overall. And, a big lesson on setting priorities.

This research might not create major shockwave in academia. In reality, it’ll get stacked in the lonely KU library and get covered in dust for years to come. But I feel ecstatic knowing that I’ve learnt vital skills on conducting such studies and on writing a research paper. After diving into the chaotic sea of academic research – and almost drowning, I believe I’ve come back to the shore with enough courage to swim across an ocean.

I confess: I still hate research. But now, I know how to eat the elephant.