Wikis and Instant Noodles: my times at CLESOL

I’m back in Japan.  It took three days of travel, two hotels and eighteen hours of enjoying the pleasures to be found in airport terminals which included a drink with a guy named Sergei, who, not surprisingly, was from Russia.  As fun as my time returning from the CLESOL conference was though, it was not nearly as enjoyable as my time at the conference itself.  Here are a few of my highlights: 
Andreas Lund came from Norway and riffed on what “two heads is better than one,” might mean within a tech oriented language classroom.  He explained a research project in which students built a wiki of a fictional world together, complete with gangs and philosophical underpinnings for the government.  I’ll admit I started to feel a bit envious when Andreas flashed up a slide in which his students were debating the merits of various political philosophies.  But then I reminded myself that my students could take his students down when it came to a close analysis of cuteness levels of Japanese idol pop starts.  I had a bit of time to ask Andreas how he handles the rate at which our students migrate to new technologies.  Two years ago all my students used blogs, last year it was FaceBook, now it’s Line.  He said (and I’m going to put this in quotes, but it’s a little rough), “It isn’t about the technology itself.  It is about the underlying curiosity and questions you have about how students learn.  If there is something within the technology which can help you explore those question, then the technology itself is useful.  So first, you need to understand what technology your students are using well enough to see if it generates some kind of curiosity for you and if it will help you explore the learning process.” 
Paul Nation spent a bit of time musing on age and pretending to forget things in the middle of his speech.  Or maybe he was really forgetting things and being perfectly comfortable with all that forgetting while standing in front of hundreds of people.  Whatever the case might be, I hope I can have that kind of composure when I’m forgetting, or pretending to forget, things in the future. He also said that if he could recommend one change to an ESL/EFL program which wasn’t currently very effective, it would be implementing an extensive reading program.  He had four more other suggestions, but he said that while ‘linked skills activities’ (#4) and a ‘fluency development program’ (#2) were important, the kind of impact an extensive reading program can have is a level of magnitude higher than the other suggestions.  He also, as an aside during his presentation, said, “Krashen really got this right.  It is about loads and loads of input.”
In addition to extensive reading, Paul did spend a good portion of his talk on fluency.  He took a bit of time to lay out just what an activity would need to be fluency focused:
– The content must be meaning based.  Students should be focusing on the message.
– It should be simple.  Learners should know all of the language they are working with.
– There should be pressure to work at a faster rate than usual.
– There should be a chance to work with the same language a great deal (not a one off activity).

And he really drove home the point that all four skills need to have a well thought out fluency component.  If your students don’t have a chance to work towards fluency in writing and reading as well as speaking and listening, they’re really going to be at a disadvantage when they have to use those skills in real world situations.
I don’t want to make it see that everything I got came from the big stage and the keynote addresses.  I filled up a bunch of notebook pages with ideas on realia from Bridget Percy (and here you can find her abstract). Two favorite ideas:
– Use cup noodle as super basic template for discussing recipes and cooking.  The noodle packet provides a structured and limited vocabulary to work with and you can hit ingredients (‘what do you need?’), preparation (‘How do you make it?), and even tips on healthy eating and serving if you want (‘What else can you add?’).
– Use boxes of over the counter medicine to discuss adverbs of frequency or to teach students how to set up information charts.  Something like…

Who takes it

How much do they take
When do they take it
Why do they take it
What side effects to watch out for

2 pills
After breakfast & dinner

Children 7-14 
Sore throat
Children 4-7
½ pill
We went through a package of medicine and it was clear that the way the information was presented would be extremely difficult for even an intermediate level learner.  Helping students convert the info into a chart would not only help make it more manageable, it would provide a concrete tool for mothers or fathers to use when giving their children medicine over the course of day.
Qianqian Zhang presented on how she uses number lines to help her Chinese learners of English deal with tense.  Turns out that tense isn’t directly inflected in the verb form in Chinese, so many of her students get temporally lost when listening to conversations, especially if there isn’t a clear adverbial of time like, “in a few minutes.”  She keeps a tense number line on the board at all times during her classes.  She actually gave me one of her hand-drawn number lines, but I lost it in transit, along with my navy suit jacket.  I’m broken up about that, but trying to manage.  Anyway, here is my take on her time line:

The time line isn’t labeled and it probably shouldn’t be, as tense and time can sometimes have a slippery relationship.  Instead, during a listening or reading exercise you can grab a sentence which is giving students difficulty and just link it to a point on the line.  The black triangles connect up with progressive tenses.  The white triangles with general periods of time.  Lines represent a specific point in time.  And the arrows are acts which span longer periods of time.  Anyway, I’ve used time lines to help tech specific aspects of tense, but I’m happy to have this more general, non-prescriptive and visual way to help students find their temporal-feet when they’re feeling lost in time.
I’ve got pages and pages of ideas I could keep sharing, but as I was going over my notes in the airport yesterday, I realized that the most pleasant thing about the conference was how rarely I found myself wondering just what the speakers were talking about.  This is usually what happens to me when things get a little too theoretical.  But Andreas didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the wonders of task based learning. He just described a wiki project and the idiosyncrasies of the learners who built that wiki.  Bridget didn’t get all fixated on discussing CLT.  She just concentrated on concrete ways realia can help students use the language needed to talk about and understand food and medicine.  Qianqian wasn’t debating the usefulness of a form based class component, she just had a cool tense table to show off and a basic explanation of how she used it in her classes.   All of these ideas were grounded in theory, but the theory didn’t cloud what was being talked about.  It was used sparingly and assisted as opposed to hindered my understanding.
Not all of the talks were like this.  There were some that ran into a theory iceberg of acronyms and abbreviations and sank quickly out of memory. But for the most part there we just a lot of good ideas, clearly presented, carrying the hum and buzz of real classrooms.  Something I could hold and think about at I wound my way slowly back to Japan.
p.s. These scattered thoughts about the conference are entirely my own.  Any misrepresentation of the speakers’ main points or muddled sentences and hazy ideas are entirely my fault and should not reflect in any way on the clarity and intelligence of the presenters mentioned.
p.p.s. I will be preparing a web version of the presentation I gave, hopefully sometime this weekend.  If you have any tips for software that would let me get my voice, the PowerPoint slides, and the videos and mp3 info imbedded in the PowerPoint slides all playing nice together so I can record it with my internal camera and just post it up or link to it from the blog, I will be very very grateful.


5 thoughts on “Wikis and Instant Noodles: my times at CLESOL

  1. Hi Kevin, if you've got an iPad, try iFlip Tips for your all-in-one presentation.Otherwise, Jing (from Tech Smith) may be useful – but the free version only allows for a 5 min recording)Have a safe trip back!KiwiBelma


  2. Brilliant Kevin, Thanks so much for sharing all this. Sounds like you had one hell of a time! I am super grateful that you have taken some time to share what you saw. Packed full of great ideas!I particularly love the over the counter medicine idea! FANTASTIC!The time line idea is definitely something to try out, although it will take me some practice I'm sure, it looks immensely useful.Would love to hear more in the future. Definitely gets me amped for the coming KOTESOL international conference!PS, also super amped to see video of your presentation too 😉


  3. Hello KiwiBelma,Thanks for the suggestions. I jumped on-line and checked them out. They look good, unfortunately I need to do about a 20 minute presentation. Turns out I can use quicktime to do a screencast while recording my voice with a mac, so I'm going to give that a go. Still, I wish there was a way to screencast the screen and also video myself at the same time. Probably asking a little too much, I guess.Thanks again for the tips and I hope you drop in again.Kevin


  4. Hello The Other Side,Thanks for the feedback and glad there was something here worth picking up. I ws pretty grooving on the whole medicine idea as well. It's a great alternative to hobbies and weekly schedules when it comes to teaching frequency. Looking forward to a similar run down of the KOTESOL conference. Kevin


  5. Great to hear you had a good time and the presentation went well. Thinking about what you said above, the other day, and from some of the readings that taking Krashen's ideas of loads of input, is there a good way to have the kids listen to the other kids reading and transcribe it as a homework? Well, sorry 3am and trying to catch up just wanted to note it down before I forget. Have a good one, Kevin.SG


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