Sunday, September 1, 2013

What's my Focus?

When I had the privilege of taking "Breaking Rules" with Dr. John Fanselow at, he repeatedly asked us what we found useful in each activity and also what was NOT useful. As an enthusiastic relatively-new member of this profession, I couldn't find any idea that was NOT useful!  But he kept asking us!! That forced me to think about my situation.  Was I mistaking interesting for useful? What makes something useful?

I like this lichen, but is it useful?
I think of one of the games on the improv TV show "Whose Line is it Anyway" called Props. Partners are given an object and must think of as many creative uses for it as they can within a time limit. An imaginative person with a positive attitude can find a use for anything!  The players are looking for quantity, so they're totally undiscriminating -- they will take whatever object is in front of them and create uses for it without stopping.  This is a good way to open the mind and generate ideas.  Maybe that's what I've been dong for the past four years as I explored different aspects of teaching English to adults in the US?

I realized that it may be time to get a little more focused.  While I was considering my options (and adding them to the draft of this post over recent months!), life offered me an opportunity.  I became involved with several others in a project exploring the teaching of vocabulary to adults.  At the same time, I joined an online reading group as they embarked on Vocabulary Myths by Ken Folse.  And not long afterwards, Scott Thornbury posted about vocabulary teaching on his blog, providing more ideas for exploring the topic further. Together, they have provided an excellent excuse to stick with a single aspect of ELT and examine it more thoroughly (click "vocabulary" in my cloud for related reflection).  Topic creep has arisen, of course, and I've put the following on my queue (oh, how disciplined!): corpora and the lexical approach.  In the meantime, another opportunity has popped up ...

As mentioned in my last couple of posts, I'm currently looking at lesson planning as related to EL-Civics teaching in an online program that continues into October. So, the vocabulary project continues in my higher level class, and I'm trying new ideas related to teaching civics in the lower level class.  This, too, has produced an item for the queue: curriculum development.

The free professional development projects I have access to (including the one mentioned) all favor PPP as a lesson-planning approach. I have some reservations in that regard (see recent post).  A few days ago, I ran into an interesting document called "Curriculum Approaches in Language Teaching: Forward, Central, and Backward Design" by Jack C. Richards (PDF available here on his web site) and it's giving me a framework for thinking about this topic.  I definitely want to delve further into it!

Other areas of continuing interest are

  • unplugged teaching and other humanistic topics (of course!)
  • teaching speaking and listening -- especially as related to variations in register
  • emergence in dynamic systems

With such a (growing) list, you might not think I've narrowed anything down!  But I have ... I'm letting external programs help me to stay focused on one or two areas while I consider what subjects I might like to pursue more systematically in the future.  Does it look to you like I'm considering some more formal form of education?  It does to me too!

PS: Thanks to Sandy Millin for linking to Lizzie Pinard's page mentioning Dr. Richards and curriculum design. Both posts are highly-useful, offering tips for people preparing for the Delta (and others interested in continuing improvement)!

Edited to correct the last paragraph and add missing links.

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