Teachitworld Newsletter
May 2008

Welcome to Teachitworld and our first newsletter. Having met so many of you out and about at the recent round of conferences, in New York and Exeter, we thought we’d make it a post-conference special edition. So, here you’ll find a digest of what we thought was hot, quirky and interesting at IATEFL 2008. We couldn’t get to everything – a physical impossibility! – so this is a selection, as eclectic and teacher-chosen as the Teachitworld site itself. And if you spotted something hotter, why not join the discussions in the Teachitworld staffroom?

In this edition:

The hottest hotspots?

Our nominations for best of conference

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BEST TALK: Can teaching still be a subversive activity?
Jim Scrivener, IATEFL, Tuesday 8 April 2008

 

Teachitworld is co-created with our contributors, and as such there is no such thing as an official ‘line’ on teaching. But if push came to shove and we had to state a core principle, it would perhaps be that teaching is something we do with students, not to them. So imagine the frisson we felt when we read this bold ‘out there’ talk title. Us, subversive?! Lured into the lecture theatre with flower-power music and images of young people in flares at peace protests and sit-ins, we were invited to time travel back to 1969 and the publication of Postman and Weingartner’s Teaching As A Subversive Activity. Not actually about storming the barricades, this book, Scrivener explained, is about good teaching, and good teaching, according to the authors, cannot help but be subversive because ‘it challenges students to think, to question things as they are, and to envision and consider possibilities’. The pedagogical outcome of this position which the authors were advocating 40 years ago is enquiry based learning. Many teachers share these principles (though the freedom of speech and thought that underpins them cannot be taken for granted anywhere) and enquiry-based learning is on the pedagogical radar, but Scrivener challenged us to question whether, for all the hype and rhetoric, enquiry-based learning was a classroom reality, or whether we just shouted at students a bit less now. Scrivener’s genial presentation belied a much tougher reminder that teaching is always a political act. We have choices to make about what we include and exclude, what roles we allow people to take, what representations of the world we offer. It’s about far more than the past participle on a Friday afternoon.

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BEST FREEBIE: Come and help us write a dictionary!
Cambridge University Press, IATEFL, Tuesday 8 April 2008

 

We didn’t learn anything new in this session about lexicography, but as you can never have enough dictionaries, we went away very happy with our freebie Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and its accompanying CD-ROM.

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MOST INTRIGUING LANGUAGE PUZZLE: Nuts and bolts
Robert Ledbury, IATEFL, Tuesday 8 April 2008

 

In the main body of this enthusiastic talk, Robert Ledbury demonstrated some activities for exploring affixation with learners. In what almost seemed an aside, he listed the 14 words that Thompson claimed, in 1958, could produce a vocabulary of 14,000 words from recombination of all the affixes and word roots. This challenging little puzzle provided more joy than could reasonably have been expected in the late afternoon slot at a conference. 8,487 and still counting...

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MOST IMPORTANT IDEA: The educational possibilities of hip-hop
Alistair Pennycook, IATEFL, Wednesday 9 April 2008

 

Before you go ‘tch’ and flick onto the next page, hear this one out. Alistair Pennycook is a highly regarded academic, and this plenary follow-up session was no cheap populist advocacy of getting down with da yout’. Though the argument was occasionally submerged by the intrinsic interest of the examples of Senegalese, Samoan, Korean, Malaysian, and Maori hip-hop, this talk was about re-visioning what we are doing when we are teaching language. Hip-hop artists and workshop leaders interviewed by Pennycook claimed to be in the business of helping people to find their natural capabilities with language and their right to express themselves, a business most English teachers would claim to share. Pennycook argued, using hip-hop as an important case study, that if we value self-expression as a pedagogical goal, then the material we work with needs to provide valued representations of the complex, transgressive and non-transgressive, relationships between languages, cultures and identities, and our pedagogies need to find ways to engage with different cultural practices. You get the emerging theme here: it’s not just about the past participle on a Friday afternoon...

 

We may be some time…

The website we just can’t help clicking back to

www.nationstates.net

Ever found yourself saying ‘if I ruled the world...’? Well, here’s your chance, and an excellent opportunity for some fine-grained language learning in a playful but challenging context. The scenario is this: you go to the site and create a country. You choose its name, flag, motto and symbolic animal; and its system of government. On the basis of your choices you are then given some background information about its location, economy, people and general vibe. And then the fun starts, as you are given decisions to make in the running of your country. I haven’t looked at mine for a few days, so I’ve got a busy day in my online parliament, deciding, first of all, whether or not to increase military spending. Here is the brief I am given, and I must click on <Accept> if I agree with one of the two debates presented, or <Dismiss this issue> if I agree with neither.

Nationstates game

The other issues on my parliamentary agenda are the limits of free speech, environmental protests, introducing panda-farming to my agricultural industry (a little controversial as the panda is my national animal), and the death penalty. You can play it as a game in different ways, to try and get a high ranking in the site’s League of Nations , or to make the kinds of decisions that will create a perfect state (beauty being very much in the eye of the beholder!). It’s a game for several weeks or months, not a five minute thing, but it could be used for teaching as an extended homework assignment with a written or verbal presentation of what happened to their country, or as a once-a-week class project, where decisions are debated in class until a consensus is reached, and the outcomes tracked collectively. Either way, if you want your students to practise discussion, group decision making, and the language of citizenship, this is an excellent resource.

A few X short of a Y

Graeme Trousdale on a curious idiomatic construction

One of the hardest things for a non-native speaker of any language to do is to get to grips with the idioms of that language. The infuriating thing about idioms is that you can’t work out the meaning of the whole even if you know the meaning of the parts perfectly. Pity the poor learner of English who learns colour words on Monday and words for different kinds of fish on Tuesday, only to be presented with the phrase red herring on Wednesday. And English is full of them (including get to grips with, which I only just noticed I used in the first sentence of this paragraph), so learning idioms is no walk in the park. (There I go again.)

Lots of idioms are completely fixed: English speakers know that a diversion from the main business can be described as a red herring, but we also know that we can’t use the terms blue haddock and mauve trout to convey the same meaning. But some idioms look to be quite productive, and my favourite of these is exemplified by the following:

  • he’s a few cards short of a full deck
  • he’s a few fries short of a Happy Meal
  • he’s a few chickpeas short of a falafel.

Just google 'a few * short of a *' and see what else you get.

The traditional ones like a few sandwiches short of a picnic are now subject to sociolinguistic variation – I read one example which had panini instead of sandwiches.

What we’ve got is a schema which underlies all of these idioms: a few X short of a Y. The actual nouns or noun phrases that fill the slots X and Y are increasingly irrelevant – it’s the abstract, idiomatic construction a few X short of a Y which is increasingly taking on the meaning ‘a bit slow’. At least I think that’s what’s going on. But then I’m a few tacos short of a combo platter.

Graeme Trousdale is Senior Lecturer in English Language at the University of Edinburgh

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