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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…”
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.
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)