You have worked on documentary film producing – what aspects were you responsible for, and have you brought anything from this field into your English teaching?
I mainly worked as a producer/director on non-fiction TV series, which meant producing an episode from start to finish: researching stories and characters, going on the road with a small team to shoot, then back to the office to work with an editor to put it all together. There was a surprising amount of writing involved and also traveling – I spent years going all around the US meeting people I never would have otherwise. These were incredible experiences that I will never forget, but also often grueling. Everything else in your life goes on hold during production, so by the time I arrived in Berlin in 2012 I was ready to change gears.
I think I developed a lot of important soft skills in my documentary work, but it’s harder to draw a direct connection to my teaching today. I do often think of the editing process when I think about writing. Sometimes it almost seemed magical how certain combinations of images and the right interview-bite could create an impact, or how a tweak in the delivery of information could dramatically alter the story. You make similar decisions in writing, choosing the order of information or creating cohesion to produce impactful moments with words and structure. Academic writing probably seems very formulaic compared to the multi-layered experience of documentary, but I think there is a lot of room for freedom and individual choice within it. All of the papers that I get from my students are very unique and personal.
You taught for a while before getting your CELTA. What made you want to have a CELTA qualification when you returned to teaching? Was it for pedagogical or practical reasons (such as looking good on your CV)?
The first teaching I did was “backpacker English” – I was hired because I was a native English speaker living in Buenos Aires and later Berlin, with little teaching experience. When I decided to return to teaching years later, I wanted to become a real teacher who knew what she was doing and would be taken seriously, so getting my CELTA seemed like the logical first step to do this.
How has joining ELTABB helped you see teaching English as “a career change rather than just a job”?
At the first language school I worked at in Berlin, most of the other teachers had other professional goals and were teaching English just to get by until they figured out their next step. Joining ELTABB exposed me to people who wanted to be English teachers and were approaching this goal from many different angles. It made me see the wide range of possibilities within ELT as well as all the different paths to develop professionally. A big turning point for me was being part of the FTBE class led by Mandy Welfare and Evan Frendo. I enjoyed learning with the group so much that I decided to return to university to get an MA in ELT. I’m now in my second year of a master’s program in academic writing at Coventry University.
Regarding the Master’s degree [in teaching academic writing] you are currently working towards, what has been interesting and enjoyable for you? Do you know what you’ll be focusing on in your dissertation?
Firstly, learning how to be a student again has been interesting, as it’s been awhile since my undergrad days. I’m doing a blended-learning MA, so I attend one face-to-face input week at the start of each semester, then the rest of the modules are delivered asynchronously online. Time-management and integrating the coursework into my daily life is quite challenging. However, I have found that my new “student-eyes” greatly benefit my own teaching, particularly in how I think about writing tasks and their intended outcomes.
In terms of content, I think I’ve most enjoyed a unit on identity and writing, especially as it relates to the hegemony of English in academia and what that means for scholars outside English-speaking countries who are producing knowledge in a language other than their own. This is a vast topic with obvious political implications, but also social ones because writing is such a personal expression linked to who we are and how we think. I don’t know yet what I’ll do my dissertation on, but I think it will be related to this as it pertains to my own teaching context in Berlin.
The writing skill is probably the least focused on skill. How come you developed a keen interest for it? How do you motivate your students to get into it as much as you?
At my first EAP job at the Viadrina University, I helped prepare students for a UNIcert II-equivalent exam and quickly discovered that the essay was the most challenging part for them, as well as the toughest to teach. So I started reading up on teaching academic writing, and learned how connected it is to core academic skills such as developing an argument, organization and flow of ideas, critical thinking, etc. This made me see writing more holistically than just one of the “skills” that language learners have to master, and also reflect upon the importance of writing in my own life – writing was a huge part of my job in documentary television production.
Today I teach mostly first year students at the Freie Universität who are usually quite motivated to study writing because they recognize the role it will play in their academic careers. However, I do still encounter those who say they can’t write or that they hate writing. I think the best approach there is to start with genres that they are already familiar with and discuss who the writing is for and what its communicative purpose is. I try to show that academic writing is just another kind of writing for a different audience and different goals. I also sometimes mention all the writing I used to do in my former TV work to demonstrate its importance even outside of academia. I tell them if you can write well, you can do anything.
When teaching specialist English, such as academic or business English, how much of the techniques, terminology and approach did you learn on the job, and how much did you know going in?
All the teaching work I’ve done has been a huge learning experience, and I find it’s hard to prepare for any particular job ahead of time. Of course, I talk to the other teachers and look at the materials that have been used, and make up lesson plans drawing from my past teaching experience. But most of the planning goes out the window once the lessons start and I get more of a feel for my learners. Sometimes it feels like I am getting paid to be trained, because I learn so much with each new job. But the learner is always at the center of this process, so I know that they are benefiting from the lessons too, even as I learn how to meet their needs as I go. I hope I always have this feeling to some degree, no matter how long I teach, because it’s what makes the work so engaging.
What languages does your son speak? What’s it been like teaching a developing child to speak, as opposed to your normal teaching experiences? Has having a child changed your perspective on teaching at all?
My son is seven and he speaks English and German, though raising him bilingually has been harder than I imagined. I thought he would just naturally develop both languages speaking to me in English and his dad in German, but he of course receives way more German input just by being here. As a teacher, I am quite conscious of how he uses English, but know that he’s learning it very differently than the learners I work with. With him, I do things like recasting his mistakes that I would never do with an adult. However, I try not to be a teacher around him, and just maintain an immersive English environment as much as I can. This sometimes leads to a really strange unevenness in his language, like after we finished reading Wind in the Willows, he went through a phase of saying “indeed.” There’s a lack of context to the registers he’s learning, but I think he’ll straighten it out eventually.
It would also be interesting to hear about a moment/activity/lesson in the classroom that really stands out for you. What happened? What made it amazing?
At our last ELTABB workshop with Sherri Williams, I was reminded of how much I love to use drawing in the classroom. I use mainly Powerpoint these days, but as Sherri pointed out, doing a live illustration is so much more authentic. I remember working with a group of Business English learners who were unfamiliar with the word “vulnerable,” so I sketched a picture of Siegfried and pointed to the part of his back that hadn’t been bathed in dragon’s blood because a leaf from a Linden tree had landed there. This would make no sense to someone unfamiliar with the Nibelungenlied, but these Germans were and we had such a laugh about it. I love unplanned moments like that where you pull together disparate resources to make sense of the world together with your learners.
Do you have any interesting stories from the ‘front line’ of ELTABB events management? Of those you helped to organise, have any events in particular stood out?
Well, everything has been eclipsed by the coronavirus, but it is funny to think back to March when our AGM speaker, Antonia Clare, wrote to me a week before the event that she had been in northern Italy and wasn’t sure if she should travel to Berlin. It was the first AGM that I had organized, and I felt like the world was falling on my head. Of course in retrospect, that was just the first ripple of effects that the virus would bring, including some that haven’t been so terrible. The events team has since become pro at organizing online events, and we are now connected with the other German ELTAs like never before. Today, I think about the AGM with great fondness – Antonia gracefully pioneered our first Zoom workshop, and it was the last time we sat together as Eltabbers. I just hope this can happen once more before I pass the baton!
Yours Truly was the intrepid reporter covering Antonia Clare’s workshop that day. You can read the full account here.
- What would your dream ELTABB event be, however impossible? (eg guest speakers – alive or dead – very exclusive venues, ridiculously expensive setups, opportunities you’ve missed or may never have, etc etc etc)
This is a great question, but my current dream ELTABB event is simply to be able to meet face-to-face again. To be more imaginative, I see a warm room with closed windows that dozens of members are jammed into. We’re all packed together, giving handshakes and hugs, and laughing big, guffawing laughs with our mouths wide open. We welcome a speaker from a former high-risk country who’s just gotten off a full flight with 500 other passengers. After the workshop, we build a pyre of face-masks that we ceremoniously ignite while munching on Galina’s homemade cookies.
- And finally… Who would you like to nominate for the next ELTABBer of the month?
I would like to nominate Louise McCloy as the next Eltabber of the Month. She’s a colleague of mine at the Freie Universität and I’d like to know how she goes about planning her lessons which always seem to draw from diverse sources and be very relevant to current events. My questions are –
Editor’s note :
You’ll just have to read next month’s blog to find out!]
Edited by Kit Flemons