161. Reminder to myself

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As a teacher, the more I speak in the class, the more I rob the opportunities from the students to interact, discuss, and, co-create knowledge. I know this.

But I tend to forget this and often end up talking (lecturing/presenting/instructing) more than I wanted to.

May be this naani dekhi laageko baani (habit formed since the early days of teaching) is the one that keeps me alert and motives me to learn, unlearn, and relearn.

(Pic: I was giving the concluding remarks during the Unlearn Mini Conference II, Nov 4 2017)

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160. Addressing needs and wants of workshop participants

Mega Bank Butwal

Do you know what the participants need and what they want? And do you cater to their needs and wants? Or, do you stick to your workshop beliefs, that you are there for their needs, not for their wants.

On October 14 2017, I had an opportunity to conduct a workshop in Butwal city for the 30 operation heads of Mega Bank branches. They had asked a day-long session on ways to improve their organizational communication so that they can be more productive at workplace.

For the next eight hours, we had discussions, activities, tea-breaks, individual and group works, lectures, videos, lunch break, presentations, and reflections. And, the written feedback.

A few minutes after the session ended, a participant came up to me, shook my hand and said, “I have fallen asleep in every other trainings, but today I could not. Thank you for this amazing session.”

And right after him, another one came up and said, “It was a good session but you should also provide handouts and materials.”

And a little later, as I flipped through the feedback forms, one particular comment made me really confused and amused at the same time. “Worst presentation ever. There was nothing to note down from the slides.”

I have come across all sorts of workshop participants with different needs, wants, and agendas. Some come in with positive mindset, some with negative, and some with personal issues. Some want to participate, some want to be not seen, some want to confront. All these add variation in the workshop. Motivation and challenge as well.

And, they’ve given all sorts of feedback too. Usually, we at the Empowerment Academy end our sessions with a “321 Reflection”. The participants write and share three things they remember from the session, two things they would want to share with their friends, and one thing they would implement right away. Sometimes, we also ask them to fill out a generic feedback form for workshops commissioned by their organization.

[The credit for 321 Reflection goes to the amazing Tracey Tokuhama-Espinosa.]

And in all these years of facilitating workshops, I’ve never seen a comment so intriguing in a WTF way. “Worst presentation ever. There was nothing to note down from the slides.”

Anyways, three general observations that I would like to share:

a. Workshop participants love collecting handouts and lesson materials. I think they would like to have some sort of reference material for the future.

b. They would love to get the presentation files too. In reality, our slides rarely have any bullets points because we use them not as the main content but simply as aid. We still share/email them the pdf version of the slides.

c. A few participants love writing down notes and reflections on their own. But they would want to copy from the slides. Most of them like taking pictures of the slides with their cell phones.

And here I am in a perfect dilemma: should I cater to the needs and wants of the participants, or should I stick to my workshop beliefs. One of such beliefs is participants need to write to remember, and remember to write (Hello, John Medina.) I believe when you give photocopies of the slides and worksheets, participants tend to get rather lazy.

If you are a workshop facilitator or a teacher-trainer, please share your observations about the participants. And, what you generally do about their needs and wants.

 

155. Unlearning to be a better learner

unlearn-butwal

So this participant, who has been teaching for over 25 years, walked out of the workshop when we were talking about assumptions, beliefs, and practices of teachers which they might need to unlearn.

A few weeks ago, we were in the beautiful city of Butwal to conduct a workshop titled “Unlearning Teaching”. Forty teachers from various colleges had showed up and they were sitting in several small groups of four or five.

After the opening session, we were discussing on the challenges of the 21st century teacher, especially because of large classroom sizes and students with different learning preferences, mindsets, backgrounds, motivations, etc.

“Is there any difference between teaching and facilitation?” I posed this open-ended question to the participants and asked them to come up with their analysis. Each group of teachers dove into discussion and wrote down their opinions. I then asked a participant from each table to share their beliefs to everyone.

The participants then took a small quiz on the differences between traditional teaching (lecture) and facilitation. After another round of healthy discussion, the participants eventually came to a consensus that for our teaching to be effective and meaningful, we need to grow our traditional role of a teacher into a more challenging role of a facilitator. A teacher teaches content, while a facilitator lets students co-create knowledge through interaction. Similarly, teaching means having a teacher-centric approach, while facilitation means having students-focused approach. Understanding these, the participants expressed, also helps teachers better manage the classroom dynamics.

“I want to share my experience on this one,” so this participant stood up. Excited to hear his perspective, I gave him the mic. “For these 25 years, I have used one technique to control the classroom. I use my eye-contact. It doesn’t matter if there are 40 students or 100 students, when I look into their eyes, they keep quiet and never dare to make noise.”

As a workshop facilitator, I usually expect different perspectives, sometimes dissenting ones too. People have strongly held beliefs and our job as facilitators is to simply stir their assumptions. So, while he stated his assertion, I kept actively listening to him.

“If a teacher cannot establish his authority, the students will dance on his head,” he added. “Even my colleagues invite me into their class if they can’t handle the students. When I take their classes, no one dares to give me any trouble.”

The room got silent and I could feel dozens of awkward eyes staring at me. I was caught in a dilemma: should I let the discussion get more intense or, should I acknowledge his views and move on to another agenda? My mind was scrambling for a way out.

“Thank you, sir for being honest and sharing your approach and…” I couldn’t even complete what I was going to say when another participant stood up. “I also want to add something.”

After conducting more than fifty workshop sessions in 2016 alone, I have come to realize that resistance in the participants is normal. And they display their resistance in different forms. Some don’t participate at all. Some look angry. Some get busy with their cell phones. Some seem to be asking question every 60 seconds. Some keep visiting the restroom every 10 minutes. All of these look normal when compared to an aggressive participant who likes to hijack the session. Even worse, when that participant influences others.

So when the other participant asked me for the mic, I could hear my heart screaming in panic. I thought the session was going to derail, and I was going to get grilled real bad. I straddled towards his table and handed over the mic to him.

“I completely disagree with your sir,” directing his gaze towards the previous participant. He spoke with defiance, “You are not controlling the students with your eye-contact, you are terrorizing them.”

I breathed a sigh of relief as I realized I had assumed wrong. “Fear might be a good solution, but it is a temporary one,” he added. “Your students remained silent not because they were learning, but because they were afraid.”

A gentle round of applause followed. Then another participant rose up and said, “What if we start blending the two approaches? From the way I see, sometimes we need to control the class, and sometimes simply facilitate it.” A couple more shared their views along the similar line.

“Great,” I thought. “Now the participants are ready to open up and discuss, debate, share their views.” But before I knew it, the experienced teacher got up from his chair and quietly walked out of the hall.

I had never felt thrilled and dreadful at the same. Thrilled because the participants were willing to reflect and analyze their teaching assumptions. Dreadful because that the one who walked out must have felt challenged, or even embarrassed – and worse, I couldn’t even have a word with him.

Hours after the workshop, the incident kept piercing my mind. It made me question my own beliefs about adult learners. Once my mentor had told me that adults are like babies, only in bigger bodies and bigger egos. Ideally, once we gain their trust, they open up and actively participate. Then they drive the sessions with their enthusiasm and cooperation. But the reality is usually complex and challenging. And that means, we – both facilitators and participants – must keep unlearning our assumptions, and keep relearning how we can learn effectively from each other.

 

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)

131. Three Lessons Learnt Outside the Classroom

Originally published in NELTA ELT Forum September 2015 Issue

Hello. This is a short reflection about learning. In it, you’ll find me sharing with you three minor incidents that have significantly shaped my perception about English language and how it should be spoken. These incidents have helped me become more open minded about English language not as the end itself but as a means towards meaning making and understanding. I hope you will feel the same too when you finish reading this.

How to sound American?

Use a lot of “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. Deliberately. Well, this is just a theory that I came up with after watching all sorts of English movies and serials during my teenage days. And, a lot of WWF (wrestling) too.

I started using those expressions a lot while talking with friends. Of course, a lot of talking would be in Nepali but the conversations would be peppered with a range of English words along with “umm…”, “you know”, “kinda”, “sorta” and “right”. I had thought, using these American expressions would make me sound cool and look cool.

Years later, when I started getting interested in public speaking and presentations, only then did I realize that using umm.. after every five words or so kinda disrupts you know the flow of communication. It dawned on me that using these ‘filler words’, only made me look ridiculously arrogant and literally ‘full of air’. If you were my friend back then, you’d probably mumble: what a poser!

It took me some time to stop using those filler words deliberately. Now, when they force themselves out of my mouth – which happens rarely these days – I am not trying to sound American anymore. It’s a cold realization for me but I imagine, what if filler words did make me sound American. Nope. That would be too convenient.

Funny ENGLISH accent! (Nepali movie)

Those of us – so called urbanites who studied in private boarding schools in Kathmandu – we have a general perception of what is good English and what is poor or ‘funny’ English. This attitude is pervasive, especially among the youth who are exposed to American or British form of English through movies and now through the internet.

Here’s one instance. This is a short clip of a Nepali movie uploaded on youtube.com. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=axGCz_7abcA

01

It’s a scene from the movie where the two characters are having a very heated dispute during which they are switching from Nepali to English frequently.

Girl: Now you shut up.
Boy: You shut up. Your daddy is not human. He is bloody bastard and gangster. He wants me to kill you.
Girl: It is impossible.
Boy: It is possible.
Girl: Relax, relax, relax.

I want to be honest with you. I almost laughed myself to semi-death when I watched this clip for the first time. Even a bum in the street can speak better English than that – I had yelled. And I was not alone. Just go ahead and read the comments posted below the video, you will find examples of people making fun of these two actors’ English. The comments show how people in general assume that an English graduate should have ‘proper’ English pronunciation and accent. If you don’t have that, you’d better prepare your soul for heavy criticism and mockery.

02

Yes. I laughed at them and made a joke about them. I even posted the video link on my facebook wall trying to collect more derision and gloat over the comments.

Thinking about it, I’m a little embarrassed that I acted such a snob.

Adrian Underhill’s Pronunciation Masterclass

Adrian Underhill is an icon in the ELT communities all over the world. Since I joined, M.Ed. ELT, I’ve been religiously following his blog and youtube videos. And naturally, meeting him in person was a big thrill for me. I felt really lucky to have attended his workshop during my recent participation of IATEFL Conference 2015. The workshop was on pronunciation and how to use his Interactive Phonemic Chart. After explaining to the attendees how to trace vowels, diphthong, consonants and other sounds through his chart, the lanky ELT legend asked us for a demonstration.

03

There was my turn and he asked me to tap with a stick through the phonetic symbols for the word “morning”. I was supposed to tap through m – ɔː – n – ɪ – ŋ but I tapped m – ɔ – r – n – ɪ – ŋ.

One of the attendees was quick to correct me, telling me that there’s no r sound in the word “morning”. Then came the divine intervention. With a broad smile in his unshaven face, he said, “If he hears the r sound in his head, then of course the sound is in the word”. I smiled back to him and everyone must have seen how victorious I had felt at that moment.

That statement alone was enough to destroy so many prevailing myths about proper pronunciation and how English should sound like.

Connecting the dots

There’s a proverb in Nepali, which goes like this: naya jogi le dherai kharani dhascha. A new beggar scrubs more ash on his face. Everyone has to go through the ‘new beggar’ phase but mine was filled with an embarrassing yet a very humbling one. From trying to imitate Americans, to mocking Nepali English accent and to learning from one of the best – I believe I have started to understand subtle nuances of English language and English language teaching. The ELT program of M.Ed was definitely the key turning point in my phase. The program helped me develop myself professionally, socially and more so, personally.

I believe that I don’t need ash on my face anymore.