EFL Teacher Journeys Conference: Reflection

I sit here on the Shinkansen home to Tokyo, the obligatory post-conference beer and bento box at hand. I have just attended the EFL Teacher Journeys conference in Kyoto, part of the Teacher Development SIG at JALT, and it was easily one of the best conferences I’ve been to in a long while. I think it is a sort of hidden gem among language teaching conferences in Japan. I’m very glad I discovered it. I didn’t know anyone there, but I met so many people who I feel will likely become firm friends. Thanks to the community spirit of  like-minded individuals, of people telling their stories and listening to the stories of others, this was a fascinating and engaging conference. I was excited about the EFL Teacher Journeys conference, it seemed to be a perfect fit for me because it prioritizes narratives, qualitative inquiry and the issues of identity and development that regularly preoccupy us as teachers. I was delighted when my proposal was accepted. It makes me very happy to report that this conference was fantastic and truly delivered even more than I had hoped for. Although I didn’t know anybody, I was instantly made to feel welcome and introduced around. I even met people who were familiar names that I was citing in my PhD thesis, or people whose work I had read in journals and book chapters. The first talk started at 9:30, I found it hard to choose each of the individual presentations because they all sounded interesting, but I opted first to watch a talk by Sachie Banks. Her talk had a similar theme to mine I thought, being a professional narrative of her development as a teacher, so I wanted to see her talk in order to gauge just how much of a “story” I could put into my “story” presentation. Her talk was exactly as I had hoped, a very personal and contextualized journey from her life as a teacher of Japanese and English, her educational and teaching background detailing her personal and professional growth. It was interesting and although deeply personal and centered around her individual journey, it struck a lot of chords with me and other members of the audience, as evidenced by the lively and interesting discussion that took place after her story was over. People asked other questions or shared their own experiences, which chimed with or added support to hers. Next it was my presentation. I was quite amazed with the large turnout, I had an almost full house with maybe 20 or 25 participants (the conference is nice and small with maybe 70 or 80 people in all). I hadn’t really scripted or prepared what I would say beyond my very visual slides (inspired by the Beyond Bullet Points Approach), and I found myself talking about things which I hadn’t expected I would talk about, being very open because of the receptive audience. And in telling my story, I learned things about myself. I am new to narrative inquiry so this is still a very refreshing experience for me. I especially enjoyed talking about my time at Nova and how I managed to get through all that and come to see language teaching as a life-long career. Many friendly and supportive people congratulated me on my talk afterwards. Slide show here

 

 

Audio here

 

 

Next was the first featured speaker or plenary talk by Keiko Sakui. Her talk was amazing, I would even say brilliant. She had it all, in perfect balance. She had up to date citations but she also knew her history, she had personal details and a story which connected with others in the audience. Another big theme of hers was Social Capital.  The main thing was lots and lots of time for discussion with fellow participants. This was very much a theme which characterized the whole conference. She also showed some great videos, which I will be using in my own classes next week. One of these which particularly stuck in my head was the way people had been encouraged to take the stairs rather than the escalator using gamification:

 

 

This is really relevant to me as it combines education with social issues. I told Keiko later on that her presentation had been very influential in making me more optimistic about the future, since generally I find myself quite pessimistic about people’s ability to adapt to the inevitable power-down we will be faced with in a post-carbon society (don’t get me started! I write about this under a nom-de-plume because it is rather emotive for me, but see here for information* BTW, Heinberg is not my nom-de-plume). As you can see, some of the most eye opening or enlightening topics Keiko Sakui picked up on were Fun in Learning and Gamification. I had, in truth, not thought gamification was something I would be interested in, seeing it as a fad, but what Keiko Sakui did was to put it in context for me and make it seem like something I could genuinely benefit from both as a teacher and as a learner. In her talk she also cited Nicole Lazzaro’s classification of 4 types of fun – Easy Fun, Hard Fun, People Fun and Serious Fun. She also talked about motivational inertia; doing things enough that they become habit and rewarding in themselves, which Bill Sykes who was sitting close to me pointed out was connected to Flow Theory. Bill wrote about Flow in the ELTJ and I also mentioned it in my talk.

EFL Teacher Journeys Kyoto
EFL Teacher Journeys Kyoto

After the first plenary, a big group of us went to find lunch, but we all split up when it came time to buy food and not all of us were able to regroup in the labyrinthine underground networks of shops near Kyoto station. I thought it was interesting how we were all very aware of each other’s individual preferences and yet there was very much a desire to stay together as a group as well. Lunch was also a great learning experience for me, and I met interesting people and talked with them, doing some networking which in itself was also a big feature of this (and all) conferences. After lunch I went to see Ethan Taomae who gave a great speech about a piece of research he had done by collecting reflective papers from colleagues who were all teaching a new discussion course. He found that teacher’s beliefs were influenced greatly by contextual factors, and his presentation gave further weight to reflexive practice in general and was eagerly discussed by all the participants, although I think Ethan got kind of bombarded at the end of his talk with questions! I should also mention Michael Hollenback, whose talk was about embracing English as a Lingua Franca. I really wanted to see that, but I did at least get the chance to chat with Michael later. Afterwards I watched Tanja McCandie who talked about how teachers are influenced by those who taught them, and how teachers’ experience as students shapes how they form their identity as teachers. The second featured speaker was by Bill Snyder, whose article all about Flow I found very interesting and am citing in my PhD. His talk was about the importance of informal learning, and he cited the work of Jimmy Cross who says that 80% of learning at work takes place in informal contexts.  He stressed the importance of communities of practice and explained that learning is not about a producer and consumer model, but about interactions between practitioners. He also talked of Social Capital and encouraged us to reflect on our own experience at the conference. I remember that at one point he said that “we actually don’t remember that much” which made us engage with what we might remember from the conference in a week, a year or even ten years. For me, the thing that I would remember was the people and the informal community building which is so essential to any profession, but perhaps especially teaching and certainly language teaching which is all about that rare and essential type of communication that takes place between people with different cultural backgrounds. He said “teaching is grounded in uncertainty” which is something I felt I could relate to, especially since I also mentioned Chaos/Complexity Theory in my talk even though I was still getting to grips with it on the train down to Kyoto. Tired and keen to return home, I almost didn’t stay for the last session, but the topic of Cameron Romney’s talk was irresistible, and I was not disappointed with his very quirky and perfect-as-the-last-of-the-day style talk about using Japanese ( the student’s L1, his L2) in his class. Like all the talks, he framed this as a narrative into his own teacher development, but he made each of his slides in the theme of an internet meme, a format that was both funny and strangely effective in making mini-summaries of the most salient Meta observations from his story. I felt bad that I didn’t have an internet connection since he was quite a high-tech person. Cameron had been live-tweeting my talk and I wanted to return the favour. Sadly, he was a bit ahead of us all there, but we all sat and listening attentively, laughing regularly as he told about how he had always been told not to use Japanese in his class, but  as his Japanese improved he found it essential. He had conducted some action research and found that his use of Japanese in the class was vital in forming connections with the students and that they used English with him more when they knew he spoke Japanese, whereas they used English less even when he had enforced an English only policy. For me this rang a lot of bells with my own experience, which I had written about in one of my first articles. By acknowledging students as Bilinguals rather than people who should leave behind their L1 (and with it their cultural identity) when they attempt to learn an L2, I was able to value the students more and see them as people with their own Cultural Capital. I also like to find common ground with my students, and when they know I too am  a language learner, this is a vital part of the rapport I try to build with my students. Since language is central to what we teach, it seems absurd to leave L1 out of the class. Overall the conference was unforgettably enlightening, and made me really respect the context in which I teach. As an EFL teacher in Japan I am extremely lucky that there is such a thriving community of practice here, and I think I have finally found my people at the EFL Teacher Journey conference. I would like to thank Mike Ellis, Thomas Amundrud, Catherine Kinoshita and Mizuka Tsukamoto as well as Dominic Edsall and Martin Hawkes who made up the conference team. Particularly Mike for his kind and encouraging words  to me at the start of the day. I’d also like to thank those people who came to my talk, and those whose talks I watched. Sharing my story was almost as much fun as listening to other people’s, but the whole experience of sharing and reflecting on our teaching journeys and feeling that I could join a thriving and vibrant community of practice in Japan made me very happy and I will certainly be going again next year and joining the TD SIG as well. A journey of 1,000 miles starts with a single step, as Lau Tzu (Laozi) says, but I would be happy to hear each step described in detail by colleagues as long as they were able to contextualize and personalize them as well as we did at the EFL Teacher Journeys conference.