A Whisper of Gratitude (JALT 2013)

I. April

Eight months ago I was in a bar, one of those narrow smokey stand-up bars where older men gather to pour each other beers.  I was having a few drinks after work with Scott B and Scotty J.  Scott B was, as usual, talking to anyone and everyone in the place.  And as usual, people were talking back.  Scotty J was waiting for me to finish my offer.  I had just suggested we put together a presentation for JALT 2013.  We had been taking short video clips of our class, writing up transcripts, and using them as material for reflective practices for about a year now.  It seemed like something we might want to share at a conference.  Scotty J thought for a moment and said he was in.  Scott B, who even now I’m not sure had actually been listening or not, said sure.  It was the beginning of April.  Classes starting in a few days.  What does a conference in November really mean when the breath and promise of spring can find its way even into a smoky stand-up bar in Osaka?  That’s how this story starts.  

II. November 1

People who have been through an experience which leaves them feeling changed at the level of their core personality, regardless of the type of experience which resulted in the change, show remarkable similarities in language use.  They often produce “I” statements at a much higher rate than found in the general population.  Their conversations show a markedly consistent level of positive affectivity, most often expressed through adjectives, and perhaps not surprisingly, exclamations.  In addition, when referring to the CLE (critical life event) their language becomes vague and they often struggle to find a way to express what it is that happened to them.  They reach for words the way a child hesitantly stretches out a hand towards a dragonfly, as if in catching it, something else might be lost.

III. October 25, evening

At the welcome party, Scotty J, Scott B and I are talking with Tara.  We all have glasses of wine.  I’m feeling really grown-up as I explain our presentation.  I say something like, “We limit ourselves to analytic observations which allow for the generation of multiple perspective and the…” Tara let’s me talk and when I finish, she says, “It’s like a mirrorball of observation and feedback.”  Scotty J laughs and says, “Yes, that’s exactly what it’s like.”  

IV. October 26, morning

Penny Ur is on stage.  She has simple slides, just black text on a white background.  She isn’t using notes.  She tells us the story of a  former student who came back to visit and said, “I don’t really remember you.  But I remember what you taught.  I remember what we learned in class.”   Penny tells us that she doesn’t mind if her students forget her.  As long as the students hold on to what they learned in class, then she has done her job as a teacher.  In Japanese, the word for plain is, “地味” (jimi).  The Chinese characters literally mean flavour of the earth.  Like English, the word has largely negative connotations.  And yet, there is something inherently beautiful in the combination of those two characters.  Flavour of the earth.  Stability.  Support.  Nurturing.  When my students look back on the time we spent together in class, what do they remember?  How large do I loom?  There are so many ways to get better at this thing we call teaching.  So many ways I want to get better.  And now I have one more, to learn to take up less and less room, until I become the ground upon which my students stand.  

V. October 27, morning/ 
October 28, afternoon

Nina Septina is at the front of the room.  I known her from iTDi and have followed her for a while on Facebook.  She looks so small standing up there.  Tim Murphey, her co-presenter, is standing at the edge of the room.  He is smiling and waiting.  It is  her time.  And then Nina begins to speak.  It is a soft voice that seems to float up high above my head and then miraculously drifts down, as if she is whispering something important right into my ear.  And she is.  She is telling us about how she took video clips of her students using English in her classes.  And then she is showing us the clips.  Boys and girls, seven or eight years old, with the round faces of childhood.  Some are missing a tooth or two.  All of them look at the camera as they speak.  They explain the plight of endangered animals, the story of pandas.  They tell us about dinosaurs, saying names that stretch on and on, and they speak without hesitation.  And then Nina says that the videos are put on a memory stick and sent home so that they can be watched by the students.  Their classroom language becomes the material the students use to hear and watch and improve outside of class.  But it is not just the students.  They are encouraged to watch the videos with their families.  Mothers and grandfathers and fathers and uncles gathered around a computer screen, watching their child speak this language which has become tangled up with the future, with hope.  They watch and maybe they feel as if they are all part of it, this moment as we tip into something new.  

When I get back to school on Monday afternoon, I have a practice session with one of my students for  a national standardised English interview test.  The third time through, he is nearly perfect.  
“Give me your cell phone,” I say.  
He reaches into his pocket.  But he doesn’t hand over his phone.  “Why,” he asks.  
“Because I want to record this moment of excellence.  I want you to use it to study,” I say.
He smile and hands over the phone.  And after I record his answers, I ask him to share it with his mom.  He smiles and says sure.  I don’t know if he will show his mother or not.  But I hope he does.  I know, as a father, what a gift it would be. 

VI. November, 2

JALT 2013: Learning is a lifelong voyage.  I love this word, voyage.  A slow moving from place to place.  Stories are how we turn our voyage from a collection of moments into a detailed map of experience that can be brought out and shared with others.  

VII. October 26, evening

I am running down the hall to see Barb and Marco and Malu present on how to teach children.  I don’t teach children anymore.  But over the past two days of the conference I have come to realise something.  It isn’t the topic that matters.  It’s the presenter, and the type of teachers who will find their way into the room.  And so I am running because I want to be the type of teacher who will be in just that room, at the exact moment it all starts.  Barb, as she has done all conference long, as so many of the teachers I admire the most have done, keeps her introduction short, becomes the earth we stand on while Marco almost leaps to the front of the room.  He has a handful of shoelaces gripped in the middle.  They dangle down from each side of his fist.  He asks for volunteers and six teachers jog up to the front of the room.  “Now each of you grab one side of the string.”  And the teachers reach out, grab an end of a shoelace.  Marco counts down, “3, 2, 1,” and let’s go.  The shoelaces tumble down.  The volunteers look across at the teacher who they are now connected to.  “Now,” Marco says, “you have a partner.”  And the room bursts into applause.  As if Marco has just pulled off a nearly impossible magic trick.  Which he has.  He has made pairing up students fun.  When it is Malu’s time to present, she asks a bunch of volunteers to walk around and try to find the language she uses.  She speaks slowly, clearly, using full sentences.  She says, “I brush my teeth every night.”  A teacher finds a large card leaning against the wall, picks it up and shows it to the rest of us.  It is a boy and girl riding a bicycle.  Malu says the sentence again.  And again.  And again until the right card is found.  The audience claps, I clap.  And I wonder why I haven’t done something like this before in my classroom, turning full sentences into listening activities connected up to images and movement.  And the richness of the language Malu is using, what she asks of her students, there is nothing childish about it.  Learning is born out of a teacher’s respect for the learner.  

VII. October 26, late

It’s late and we are waiting on the train platform to head back into downtown Kobe.  A bunch of us are trying to close an umbrella which is stuck open.  Suddenly Tim Murphey is urging us to raise our arms up.  And most of us do.  Although at half-mast, as if we are afraid of unexpected winds.  But Tim just says, “Higher, higher, higher.”  And so we raise our hands higher, as high as we can.  And then Tim smiles as if he has tricked the world into doing just what it needs to do.  “OK, now say, ‘I’m in love!’”  And we do, we shout it out.  We shout it out, and in the shouting the truth of it becomes clear.  I am in love.  With teaching.  With these friends.  With this moment. Indeed.  I am in love with so, so many things.  How is it that I sometimes forget such a simple truth?  I’m in love.

VIII. October 26, late afternoon

Our presentation is almost over.  I have already said my part and sat down.  But Scotty J and Scott B and I haven’t ever really talked about how to wrap things up.  We have said everything we had to say, but the silence in the room is tinged with a hint of expectation.  People are still leaning forward as if there is more to hear.  Scotty J steps back to the front of the room and says, “The other night we were talking to a teacher about how we use videos and transcripts in our program.  She said it was like a mirrorball.”  And here Scotty J stops.  It is just the way we would end things in our classroom.  Let the students fill in the blank.  A few seconds pass and the audience starts to laugh.  We start to laugh.   We are not in class.  We don’t have to keep words to ourselves to make space.  We can share our ideas in full and watch as those ideas are picked up, turned this way and that and reflected by the brilliance of teachers who know how to make things their own.  And so Scotty J clears his throat and starts, “when we look at one moment of a classroom from multiple points of view…” 

 IX. October 27, very early

In four hours Mike and Anna and I will be presenting on student feedback.  But now Anna is at the front of the room, alone.  She is here to tell us about Students Connected, a FaceBook group for 17-23 year olds.  Without any fuss, she describes a safe space where students can use English to become a member of, and help build, a community of language learners.  And the whole time she is speaking, Anna manages to take herself out of it all, as if the way the members share their photos of their towns, the way they experiment with verbal play,  they way they open themselves up to each other, has nothing to do with her.  But it does.  It has everything to do with her and the other teachers watching over the space.  Without the right spaces, there can be no words, there can be no lingering echo of a conversation, there can be no shared experience.  In four hours, Anna and Mike and I will be presenting on student feedback.  But now it is Anna at the front of the room, alone.  Mike leans over to me and whispers, “I have an idea. Tonight’s presentation, less me and you,” and then he looks at the front of the room, “more Anna.”  And I couldn’t agree more.  

X. Now

When I was growing up, my parents used the phrase, “get religion” pretty often.  They used it in the general sense of someone who has become slightly obsessed about something after a profound or moving experience.  And when my parents talked about someone who had “got religion,” it was rarely, if ever, a compliment.  As I got older,  I met people who I thought had “got religion.”  The friend who suddenly started jogging, quit smoking and drinking, and only talked about what it meant to be healthy.  The neighbour who decided America needed saving, and spent all of his free time in the Ross Perot for president offices or telling us why we needed to spend our free time in the Ross Perot for president offices.  The way these people talked with such passion about this one small thing eventually left me feeling lost.  It was as if in the middle of the conversation, they began to speak a different language.  All of the words made sense, but I could no longer understand what they were really saying.  And now I wonder if I have “got religion.”  As I write about JALT 2013, am I merely stringing together a collection of moments, making a necklace of private artefacts that has value for me and me alone?  Does it matter?  

During a presentation on how iTDi is trying to bring opportunities for professional development to all teachers, Scott Thornbury said, “We learn to learn by telling stories about learning.  We learn to teach by telling stories about teaching.”  If this is true, I think it is equally true that we learn who we are by telling the stories of ourselves.  Last weekend, I was lucky enough to spend time with a group of people who made me feel as if sharing those stories was the most important thing I could possibly do.   And as we told our stories, we created new ones.  Stories that have left me changed, as a teacher and a person.  And I need to share these new stories.  They are the light that let’s me see where I came from. They are my whisper of gratitude.  They are the points on a compass which I can only hope will eventually lead me back to the place where we will all gather together again. 

(this post is dedicated to John Fanselow, for the many many hours of support and guidance he provided as we prepared for our first JALT presentation as a program)

23 thoughts on “A Whisper of Gratitude (JALT 2013)

  1. I can say this over and over again. It's actually becoming cliché to say that about your posts. lol But here it goes:"A #mustread piece of writing that isn't only pleasant but filled with stories that will warm your heart for winters to come."I'm so happy for you and for all you had experienced at JALT. The pictures spoke loads about it. The bits you shared from the inside was amazing. It is like we were actually there and could experience it too. Have you ever thought of becoming a writer? You should consider it. I love the way you write.


  2. Having read much of the tweets, Facebook posts and blog posts among the main characters of this past weekend, it seems you're all in pretty tight agreement about the experience at JALT. I'm really happy for you guys.


  3. I. How do you find yourself in bars for older men? No, don't tell me.II. I even wrote a post to serve proof for the abuse of I-statements. It's also inexplicable for me how all pieces could fall together in such a way that the event became the CLE for several individuals at the same time. III. I looked through some of your more formal writing that you kindly offer to check here, you can sound alarmingly grown-up.IV. There comes the point of a big dilemma for me. I hope to write more about that some place some time soonish, but in a nutshell: (a) I am worried about the same problem of how large I loom in the room for my students and what's the impact; (b) I can't force myself to separate a teacher and knowledge he/she gives. As much as I would love to say I understand Penny's satisfaction with the students's remark…I am probably a self-obsessed teacher. As you're saying, there are ways to get better.V. Brilliant. Seize the moment and make a decision. I will be waiting for my moment to come or creating it.VII. "The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil." Ralph Waldo Emerson.Couldn't help being nerdy, sorry, just my way to say I totally agree, and so does Mr Emerson.VII. Now I'm starting to get teary-eyed. I remember that, and how that evening we somehow parted on our ways because of that very umbrella. That means now less time spent together. Moving on to 8.VIII. Why do you have to write so beautifully? I remember the moment, but you are filling it with more value.IX. Thank you for making it to my presentation very early and giving me that space for words. You could've quoted Mike correctly though. X. There's no amazing feat in me writing my post short. Your use of 99% more words means you have the words and more, you're a writer, Kevin. Not that you needed this piece of information from me :)Thank you for your story. Sorry for a lengthy comment. I hope we talk about writing some day and then you teach me.


  4. Hi Rose,Please, feel free to say it a few more times. I will never grow tired of being encouraged to write and write some more. I'm pretty sure something special happened this year at JALT, but it felt like the start of something, not a one time thing. I know that no matter where it is our PLAN ends up gathering together again, we will make the same kind of magic happen there, too.Kevinp.s. I will definitely consider becoming a writer. Hopefully if I keep writing it will happen naturally. Or maybe I'm being a little too positive.


  5. Hi Tyson,It makes me happy to know you were following along in Canada. For the past two years I've been reading about other people's conference experiences and wondering what all the hubbub was about. I went to conferences, presented, enjoyed presentations. It was a positive experience. But this was the first conference where I think the number of people I knew, respected, and were dedicated to supporting each other reached the critical mass. This was the conference where it was all about the people in attendance and not just what I was there to learn. I hope I can carry some of that generosity I saw in others with me to the next conference. By the way, what large conferences are you planning to attend next year?Kevin


  6. Anna,I can't just leave this amazing comment without a response. I'm heading out for the day (I get to attend an art and recycle bazar at the local community support centre), but before I go:I. The bars aren't actually for only older men. They are these strange stand up places in the back of liquor shops. Anyone can go in, but women usually just avoid them as they are dirty, smokey and slightly seedy. Which also makes them very cheap and that is the main reason my co-workers and I go there for drinks.I will respond the the more important parts of the comment tonight. Hoping you have a wonderful day,Kevin


  7. Hi Barb,Thank you for taking the time to visit the blog. And thank you for your amazing sense of humour, and keeping us all together (emotionally and physically) as we moved from place to place over the course of the weekend. You are amazing. I wish I had something better to say, but that's the best I can do. At least for now.Kevin(and I never thought that anyone would be happy to read my posts as they were imagining hearing my voice. That makes me very happy.)


  8. 🙂 Keep writing and it will surely happen naturally! I believe that too. I was sort of wondering if that was actually a dream (desire of your heart) thing. I'm so glad to hear that it is. JALT was really something! Like Anna said it was all about the people and that is what makes it so special. I hope to meet you all one day! Who wouldn't want to be in the company of such a great bunch of people! 😉


  9. Yes, I understand your feelings about the people, not the conference. I felt that way at TESOL France last year. First time, really.Next year: not sure. I know I'll be going to TESL Canada, but considering where to go abroad. Maybe Braz-TESOL, maybe TESOL Spain, maybe TESOL France, maybe JALT…


  10. That's my plan. Although at the moment, I also need to keep studying. I'm falling a bit behind on my dipTESOL, so the blog might get a littly dusty this week. But it's nice to think you might be beck to read the next post when I find the time. Kevin


  11. OK, now here's the full reply:II. I think this is the question I will keep asking myself for a long time to come. And probably it is also the reason why, as much as technology might change the face of teaching and learning, there will always be a need to get everyone in the same city and talking for at least a little while longer.III. I have been know to write some relatively dry stuff. But I also have a penchant for putting the word “hell” into the titles of my papers and have even, supposedly, said F-ing during a recent conference presentation.IV. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one who is troubling over this bit of Penny-wisdom. Lately I’ve found new ways to kind of reduce my presence in the classroom a bit, but I still very much like to talk and be listened to and think that “I” am vital to learning. Hopefully we can make some small changes, compare notes and see what we think. 

V. Thanks for noting this. It was a great feeling to use something from the conference on the afternoon I got back to school. VII. Oh, nerdy is wonderful. And I am so happy to know that something I said echoes it’s way back to Emerson. And the rest of the quote is also quite nice as well. I seem to recall you mentioning “choice” quite a bit during the conference. And I guess respect always does, out of necessity, lead to choice.VII. (part II, my typo) I think that crazy moment on the train platform was one of the highlights of the conference for me. There was a lot of very good crazy.VIII. Watching Scotty J give the final word was really moving for me. It let me watch all of you, instead of thinking about what I wanted to say. And you and Mike and Nina and Malu and…and everyone. Just everyone. You were the most supportive audience I’ve ever stood in front of, or shared a workshop with. But also, it was Scotty J’s first conference and first presentation, and I knew before it started that he was going to be a superstar. And now, maybe he knows it too.IX. OK, Mike actually said, “Less of the 2 schmucks and more Anna.” And I agreed then, and I agree now as well.X. Thanks for the comment Anna. And thanks for spending time with me and co-presenting/facilitating with me and showing me how to sleep with your eyes open during the conference. I know it’s kind of silly to write a post and hope to get a certain kind of comment. But somewhere, there’s a little piece of me that always wanted a comment just like this one. Thanks for being the person to leave it. Thanks for everything.


  12. Hi Kevin, It's almost as good reading the comments here as reading the blog post. Words cannot describe how happy I am that the glitterball comment was a) remembered b) repeated in your presentation and c) immortalised here. Gratitude upon gratitude in the glitterball style from me here for this reflective reflection. It was really great to share a JALT 2013 experience with you. Come to Chiba next time – it'll be great too!Tara Mc


  13. Hi GB (which is now your official nickname, from me),Your timely glitterball comment, and Scotty J's timely remembering of your comment, made our presentation. So the gratitude is all on my side. And please, save me a seat rigt next to you in Chiba during the welcome party. I'm probably going to need another gliterball comment in order to wrap up my presentation next year as well.Kevin


  14. (we're inevitably going to be losing some of the points and so the conversation will naturally subside, but I'm loving this thread so much=))I. The variety of bars, cafes and other types of entertainment places in Japan is astonishing for me. It is just so imaginative. Your comments educate me on a linguistic level, too – never thought of a bar being seedy, now the image is very clear.III. Haha, you did, I believe. Your laidback manner of using F-ing is charming, in fact. Almost stylish. Could be one of the renowned features of the Idiots preso style.IV. Oh please I'd love to talk about that, among all the other things I want to talk to you about. Like I said in one of my recent blog posts, my problem as I see it (but I might benefit a lot from observation or a simple recording) is not totally TTT, but some very heavy burden of my teaching ways, remarks, management. That concerns me.V. I"m planning to do more or less similar recordings this Thursday. Very thrilled, some of my students also already are (enjoyed recording questions to the Japanese a lot). BUT since there's the choice thing (see VII), I expect several students doubting the whole activity for various personal reasons. I never feel good actually forcing them to experiment with me if they're unwilling which I sense straight away.VIII. Scotty J was really good, I agree. Hope he presents next year again!IX. I shouldn't have asked probably, I didn't mean you to reveal the schmuck comment. I don't agree with it either, fyi.X. I must have been sleeping I guess. But I remember very clearly spending time and co-presenting and laughing and so on. Didn't have enough of any of that, though, so see you soon, I hope =) Thank you!


  15. Yep, I guess those Roman numerals are going to do a slow fade out eventually. But until then:I. I think the variety of places to drink alcahol in Japan is probably unmatched. Remember that strange elevator ride and all those nameless bars in that building? And then there's the cosplay places. And…maybe I should stop.II. OK, I'll make sure to try and throw one in the next preso. But I have to do it really naturally. I'll start practicing now so it seems as natural as possible.IV. I wish Penny would give an entire webinar just on how to be a less memorable teacher. Maybe we can get a few teachers together and discuss it in a Google Hangout. "The Art of Disappearing." V. Whoops. Good point. I kind of just demanded that the student let me video them. But I think I should probably keep the whole choice thing in mind a bit more. Thanks.X. You are such a teacher. You were teaching me how to sleep with your eyes open and you don't even remember it. Amazing. Which also means you were teaching me how to teach while sleeping. Which is also quite amazing.K.


  16. I. Can't forget the weird building, Porsche door, cement walls and your stories. The whole part of the evening trying to buy tickets and wandering in the streets was one of the highlights of the trip for me, I"m really happy it happened that way. I saw places and people, I got confirmed in another reason to be coming back.IV. You might be joking but I actually think I could benefit from such a session. and you already have the catchy title ready!V. You're welcome. My point – maybe it's worthwhile forcing them to do certain things from time to time, too. Otherwise I could make a wrong impression. Balance is forever key =)X. That part of reply is hilarious. It (you) made my day, thanks)))I only vaguely recall something bizarre about elf ears or something, but you might be talking about a different moment.(Good time for wrapping up the thread, now)) A-Chan


  17. Hey Kevin — it's always a pleasure to read your words. Wish I knew what makes someone more of a writer, and someone else less of one. You are certainly in the former category…Just wanted to point out that your friend Marco's magic trick might be credited to whoever Maley & Duff borrowed it from for their absolute gem "Drama Techniques in Language Learning", also mentioned in David Harbinson's recent post on grouping students. It's in the first unit, under 'Grouping Students', and called 'Strings'. Just figured you might not know about this book (now in it's 3rd edition), and I'm guessing a guy like you would love that book… Peace out.


  18. I was struck with Penny Ur's presentation. Sometimes teachers want to be affirmed that students remember them. But then it's an eye opener not to focus on personalities but on the lesson itself. I wonder how would I react if my student also told me the same thing.


  19. Hey Tom, I feel like it's been a long time since we've connected. Thanks for swinging by the blog. I just peaked at "Drama Techniques" and ordered my own copy. It looks fantastic. Thanks for pointing out where that magic string demonstration came from. And looking forward to using a bunch of the other treasures in the book.Kevin


  20. Hi Cynthia,Thanks for the comment and it's nice to get some more feedback that let's me know it wasn't just myself who wouldn't take I-don't-really-remember-you comment quite as well as Penny did. I was joking around with Anna up above, but I actually do think a workshop on how to fade into the back ground as a teacher would be really interesting. And if we were trying to be less memorable, it would make a comment like, "I don't remember you, but I remember your lessons," sound so sweet. Kevin


  21. Pingback: A conversation about conferences | ELT Rants, Reviews, and Reflections

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