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For the last twelve years, I have been pondering on whether to keep going to national and international conferences or simply stop doing it. Reasons for stopping have been piling up, yet I can’t seem to find them convincing enough and probably, deep down, I still hope things may change for the better.

Although I surely don’t know much about the amount of work and nerve-racking implied by organising an international conference, I can’t pretend not to have noticed some aspects which, unfortunately, have prevented this conference from being a complete success. Among the several reasons behind this post, two stand out: a. to point out some mistakes, which might help others when organising a similar event and b. to unveil some reasons why a conference might be less successful.

Much as I might feel tempted to do it, I’ll refrain from giving specific names. Here’s the short list:

1. The venue – “Petre Andrei” University is a new building, with only two elevators on the ground floor (one of which did not work) and two more on the first floor, to be used by 250 participants at the conference if they wanted to get to the sixth floor, where the auditorium was, or to the different floors where the workshops were located.

2. The plenaries – Thirteen plenaries in two days, some of them running one immediately after the other, with no break whatsoever… and probably three hours of sitting down on a chair wouldn’t be that bad if who you’re listening to really has something interesting to communicate and gives you the feeling you’ve learnt something new and you’re taking home some food for thought. Well, the reality is saddening… A NEST beginning his talk with a reminder to the audience of who he is, how great he is, what coursebooks he’s written and how good friends he is with … [dropping names] and when he finally gets to the topic of his talk, it turns out to be more than 50% a commercial presentation… Another NEST presenting new activities to be done in the classroom, completely random and disorganised, culminating with an adaptation of “This little piggy went to market“, only his little piggy went to… eBay!? Another NEST, who has become a regular in the conferences in Romania although he has long stopped saying anything new, is just adapting the same old – same old he too got so fed up with that he has even changed his initially enthusiastic attitude towards the audience and nowadays his performance is more and more cynical and sarcastic… Luckily, there were several NESTs whose plenaries never fail to be both interesting and challenging and who keep attracting large audiences and make it worth attending the conference.

3. The workshops – What initially was announced as four concurrent sessions of 10 workshops each, ended up in the same number of sessions, but with 12 workshops each. Audiences to the workshops varied from 0 [zero] participants in several rooms – including that of a NEST presenter!!! – to a maximum of 45 in the international speakers’ rooms. Surprised?

4. How the numbering of the workshop rooms was done beats me – imagine Room No. 4 next to Room No.10, on the landing between the second and the third floors, Room No. 6 on the eighth floor, etc. That wouldn’t have been such a big problem, hadn’t the organisers changed some workshop rooms with just 15 minutes before a workshop session was due to start… Imagine, again, the embarrassing situation when, after changing rooms, a workshop presenter standing in front of the classroom sees two people coming in, says “Hello! Come in, please! Thanks for being here!” and the two people look at each other wondering what the hell is going on and then say “We’re sorry, what workshop is this? We were looking for Mr. X’s room, isn’t he going to have his presentation in this room? Oh, they’ve changed the rooms? Do you happen to know where we can find him? You don’t? OK, no problem, sorry, we’ll try and find him…” Now multiply this situation by five presenters who were forced to change rooms and around twenty people looking for each of the workshops they wanted to attend. I’ll let you do the math…

5. The workshop rooms – With large windows and no shutters or blinds or shades of some kind, comfortable as the rooms may have been, the bright light made it very difficult to see the PowerPoint or MovieMaker or Internet-using presentation projected on the shiny whiteboards… So much work and time invested in making a good presentation, wasted in an hour of bright afternoon sunlight. Oh, but the view of the sunset was amazing!

6. The publishers – The publishers’ book stands were spread over two floors, most of them aligned along the walls and/or the stair rails, leaving a narrow path for the participants to pass by. I said ‘most of them’ because there were two exceptions: one publisher who got the largest space and could display everything they wanted and another publisher who, being told that there was no need for them to be at the conference venue earlier than 10 a.m., got placed right next to the elevators, in sort of an end-of-hallway, facing the entrance to… the toilets. Was this publisher being punished in some obscure way? I wonder… If that was the case, well… they deserved it: they sponsored only two authors to come to this conference!

Do I sound unfair? I am being unfair, of course! The organisers have put many a sleepless night into the RATE conference, the circumstances were not favourable at all, the initial venue for the event had to be changed due to financial issues, they wanted to please all the publishers who sponsored authors to participate in the conference and all the teachers who took the time to fill in a speaker’s proposal, thus making it all a very busy event, and pretty crowded, too.

I know it’s a lot easier to criticise than to get your hands dirty in the doing of it all and I’ll apologise if I sounded critical, it was not entirely my intention… If it had been, I would have given names. Although I am sure I actually don’t need to, because those who were there know exactly what I am talking about here and those who chose not to be there will understand they have no reason to regret it too much.

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If I were to organise an ELT conference, I would feel tempted to change the rules and make it a totally different event than those we’re so used to attending and which, why not tell the truth, have become so predictable.

National and regional ELT conferences nowadays bring together a number of distinguished authors of coursebooks and materials, several publishers’ reps and between one and two hundred participants, generally local teachers who have managed to keep themselves enthusiastic enough to wish to update their methods and professionally better themselves.

The authors usually give a plenary talk and a workshop, and so do the publishers’ reps. Local teachers, most of the times the same names, would give workshops. Discussions about why local teachers don’t get invited to give plenary talks have not come to any conclusion. NESTs and non-NESTs, have only agreed that there will always be a preference for listening to NESTs at a conference, irrespective of how relevant their presentations might or might not be for the participants.

To cut a long story short, if I were to organise a conference, I would invite all the authors and publishers’ representatives to participate as audience and several local teachers to give plenary talks and workshops. The theme of my conference would be “Teaching English – ideal vs. reality”. The presenters would have to refrain from showing the results they obtained with their best and most talented students and, instead, present the struggle they have to go through when teaching with no resources (unbelievable as it may sound, there are still so many schools, in so many countries, where the resources are scarce), when dealing with undisciplined classes, illiterate children or uninterested individuals, when nothing they might attempt to do would motivate the students, when teaching in some remote corner of the county or in some technical high school in a village makes them commute for hours, when the monthly pay they get does not stimulate them to go to work but manages to kill all enthusiasm…

A totally different angle to look at conferencing, right? I’m almost sure that such an event has never taken place, although I may not be the first one to think of it from this perspective. I am aware of the disadvantages of such a conference, but I imagine there are also several advantages to it, one of which is the opportunity given to authors to gather fresh ideas about the reality of teaching English as a foreign language to thousands of less than average pupils and students in different countries, which would result in new coursebooks and materials.

Interested in participating in such a conference? Anyone?

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The 11th RATE (1) Conference (October 22 – 24) will be hosted by one of the most beautiful cities in Romania, Iaşi, the social, economic, cultural and academic capital of the Romanian region of Moldavia (2).

Iaşi - The Palace of Culture

Known in Romania as “The city on seven hills” or “The city of great loves”, Iaşi is a symbol of Romanian history. The Romanian historian Nicolae Iorga said “There should be no Romanian who does not know of it”. It is the second most populous city and second largest university centre in Romania with 5 public and 7 private universities.

Iaşi - "Petre Andrei" University

The conference venue is “Petre Andrei” University. The speakers are well-known coursebook and materials writers. Michael Vince, Vaughan Jones, Steven Fawkes, Philip Kerr, Sarah Philpot, David Hill, Bob Obee, Ben Goldstein, David Baker, Nicola Crowley will, once again, share their knowledge with the Romanian teachers of English participating in the plenaries and workshops. One more notable presence at the conference: Anna Parisi, project leader of the SEETA community forum, in fact its heart and soul. The Publishing Houses – Macmillan, Fischer, Educational Centre, Uniscan, Niculescu/Oxford, Pilgrims, Longman – will have the opportunity to display their latest realeses in two presentation sessions, joined as well by Studentlines and SOL.

The conference program is really tight and the amount of information will be huge. The organisers are proposing 13 plenaries and 4 sessions of 10 concurrent workshops each, adding up to an amazing total of 40 workshops in 2 days. Judging by the number of concurrent workshops, a minimum of 150 participants is to be expected.

All participants are likely to feel challenged when it comes to choosing the workshop to attend. The variety of titles matches the difference in the participants’ interests and tends to cover all levels and areas of English teaching in Romania. Yet, a workshop programmed at the same time with other nine presentations, five or six of which will be hosted by the coursebook and materials authors we all admire so much, is likely to end up with few to no participants, and thus be cancelled. Experience demonstrates that a local presenter stands little chance of having a full room when their session is simultaneous with that of a renowned author, and for good reason too.

Iaşi - Metropolitan Cathedral

Nevertheless, exchanging ideas and opinions with the other participants, discovering new approaches to old activities and, last but not least, meeting dear friends, making new acquaintances and establishing new contacts, projects or partnerships make it worth participating in the 11th RATE Conference in Iaşi.

NOTES:
(1) For those who don’t know, RATE stands for the Romanian Associations of Teachers of English and it includes four long-established regional associations (BETA – Bucharest ETA, TETA – Timişoara ETA, CETA – Cluj ETA and MATE – Moldavian ETA) and the much younger DELTA (Dobrudja English Language Teachers’ Association) which was born in May 2009.
(2) Moldavia is a province of Romania, make sure you don’t mistake it for Moldova, which is a republic and a neighbouring country in the East of Romania.

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How frustrating can it be to realise that people whom you have never met, liked or appreciated manage to affect your life to such extent that you can feel humiliated, miserable and worthless?

I am talking about politicians, of course, and about politics in Romania, and about the economic recess which affects the whole world, so why would I be spared the experience? The truth is that, knowing that other people are in the same situation and go through the same hardships has never made anyone feel better or be satisfied with those “I’m-not-the-only-one” or “my-neighbour’s-goat-died-too” feelings.

The Romanian government have cut salaries of the budgetary sector by 25%, on paper, because in reality people’s income lowered by 40%… This is how teachers like me, after 25 years in the profession and the highest degree they could get in this country, have come to earn the equivalent of 300 Euros a month… Pathetic! Humiliating! Mean!

But they say we have the politicians we deserve and have voted for.  They have decided to give up building statues to dedicated teachers who have worked their entire lives to educate one generation after another. If we want to be remembered, they’ll stuff us! And who could blame them? I can only think that their reaction against teachers is the result of the education they got, or better yet, the lack of it. How did they get here? There are only two alternatives: either their teachers were highly unprofessional and uninterested in the product of their work or the “raw material” was of the lowest quality possible, but endowed with the highest “nerve” imaginable…

Two years ago, Philip Kerr ran a forum discussion on the SEETA platform, entitled “Who or what keeps you going?”. These days, what’s left to keep me going is my love for English and for my students! But, just to put things straight and give credit to those who really deserve it, I should remind you that I am among those very few English teachers in this country who can consider themselves blessed to be able to speak only English in their class and… teach Shakespeare to 16 year-old non-native English speaking students.

Much as I might feel disappointed by the politicians and their financial and anti-social measures, simply entering my classroom and seeing my students can boost my enthusiasm… and they keep me going!

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– a classroom and online activity guided and assessed by Philip Kerr, course book author and materials writer who kindly accepted the invitation of being an administrator of the CALLATIS 9 A Google Group and a permanent collaborator.

Classroom activity – Philip sent a list of words in an e-mail. I prepared handouts, instructed the students on what they were expected to do and gave them the papers containing the list. The students wrote down the first two words crossing their minds when they read each word. I gathered the handouts, crossed the empty spaces and gave them back to the students, announcing them that they would have to post these answers on a specific discussion thread on our Google group.

Here is the list of words Philip wanted the students to work on and the responses of three of them:

  1. DEEPdarkness, falling, unknown, ocean, gap
  2. MOUNTAINsnow, trip, adventure, holiday, skiing, holiday
  3. HOUSEfamily, window, family, cozy, farm, family
  4. BUTTERFLYto fly, wings, flight, freedom, colours, small
  5. SWEETsugar, cake, lovely, happy, candy, shiny
  6. EARTHplants, tree, world, life, volcano, earthquake
  7. SOLDIERarmy, gun, fight, brave, army, gun
  8. STOMACHfood, digestion, hungry, belly-button, food, biology
  9. YELLOWsun, flower, bright, colour, taxi, T-shirt
  10. BREADfood, dinner, eating, food, sandwiches, knife
  11. HEALTHhospital, injection, heart, life, hospital, gym
  12. MEMORYhomework, brain, brains, thoughts, computer, to remember

Online activity – My students posted their answers on the group. A few days later, Philip Kerr explained the objective of the activity, posted the interpretation of the students’ answers, compared them to those of two other groups – one of French students and one of native speakers, and opened two more discussion threads, challenging my students to see some videos on Word Association and Tricks of the Mind by Derren Brown and discuss about them.

Here are some examples of Philip’s interpretations of our students’ responses:

deep

There were more than 40 different words in your responses, but the most frequent word was ocean (9 people), followed by sea (5 people) and darkness (5 people). Why did so many of you put ocean, which is not a word that the native speakers used very often? They preferred sea. Interestingly, the native speakers also used shallow and water very often – these are words that almost none of you used. Is it perhaps because shallow is a word that you find hard to remember for some reason?

mountain

Both you and the native speakers used the word snow very often, and this is not surprising. But the next most common words for you were holiday and trip, and these are not words that the native speakers came up with. How far are the nearest mountains to Mangalia? Do you often go to the mountains for short breaks? Some of you used words like river, forest, trees and lake – i.e. things that you can see in the mountains. The native speakers used valley and hill – words that none of you came up with. My favourite response for this word was penguin! Next time I’m in Romania, I’ll be looking out for the rare Transylvanian Penguin.

butterfly

For native speakers, the most commonly associated words were moth, wing and net. Only 3 of you suggested wing(s), and none of you the other two words. Your most common words were colour(s) and flower(s), and these words were also chosen by the French group. Perhaps you don’t know the word moth? Or, perhaps, Romanian is like French where there is no word for moth: they say ‘night butterfly’. Catching butterflies in a net is not a common hobby in England (!), but it is a powerful image of childhood.

sweet

Many of you (10 people) were similar to the group of native speakers by choosing the word sugar. But the English speakers also chose bitter and sour, words which none of you wrote. In contrast, the English speakers did not (with the exception of sugar) choose examples of sweet things, whereas you chose candy or candies (13 people), ice cream (2 people), chocolate (5 people), juice, honey, etc.

This activity initially involved very little effort from the part of the students – they only wrote twenty-four words! To make it more interesting, Philip Kerr did not disclose the aim of this activity until a few days later, thus stirring the students’ curiosity. Once he posted the interpretation and comments, my students read everything, so the follow-up activity turned into an extensive reading one: Philip’s interpretations and comments cover 4 (four) A4 pages, but since the post on the group does not break into pages, my students didn’t know that they actually read so much! (Imagine their protests, had we given them four whole pages to read…) Eventually, Philip admitted to tricking our students into doing some extensive reading:

An English teacher’s job is (in part) to encourage (or force!) the students to read and listen to as much English as possible. Getting students to read information on the web, to listen to YouTube clips, to look at blogs and other sites …. this seems to work better with many students than asking them to read a book. It seems less like ‘work’! So, I apologise: in some ways, this exercise was intended simply to get you to do some reading and listening in English. But I hope you found it interesting.

And they did, I know they did! Moreover, the follow-up activity did not end with the reading as my students were challenged to explain their choices, comment on the interpretations and express their opinions on the activity, so it all turned into some more writing for them – which, again, was less perceived like ‘doing homework’ and more like ‘communicating ideas and sharing opinions’.

One more thing I need to mention: I need to thank Philip for his collaboration with this class because he encouraged my students to express themselves in English more freely and a lot more confidently. I have opened a blog for them, ENGLISH @ CALLATIS HIGH and have appointed eight of these 15 year-old students as administrators who are in charge with all the materials to be posted there. While some of them check their writing with me before posting anything, others have become so confident that they publish their articles and just send me the link! Now isn’t that what every teacher hopes for, students’ independence and self-confidence in using English?

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A promise is a promise: I have to keep my word and write about how I met the five distinguished authors who have been my guests last month. Sorry for the delay!

KEN WILSON

The first author I met was Ken Wilson! (Yet, the first Wilson I met was Dede, in 1991, at that teacher training which took place in Iasi – I wrote more about it in another post.)

I first saw Ken in Constanta in May 2000, at the AGM (Annual General Meeting of all English inspectors) which took place in Vega Hotel in Mamaia – the AGM that Ken wrote about in his guest post.  I was an intruder there, visiting my best friend who was an inspector for Ilfov county. While I can testify to Ken’s description of Anda Maxim, I must add that there was one more male inspector there, besides the one he mentions: it was Vasile Brusalis, Constanta county school inspector for English, the local organiser of all the AGMs which took place in Mamaia for several years.

SALA PALATULUI - The venue of MACROM 2002 & 2003

And then there were the Macmillan Romania Conferences in 2002 and 2003, in Bucharest!  Both MacRom conferences were huge, with around 600 participants (most of them women) from all over the country. Plenaries, semi-plenaries and workshops, Ken Wilson presenting “What kind of learner are you?” (2002) – the title of the first lesson in Prospects Intermediate, the coursebook series he was promoting – and “Are you curious? Then I’ll continue” and “PEP talk” (2003). I still have the handouts Ken gave to the audience… the “Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences” in 2002 and… remember this, Ken?

English is tough stuff

Compare heart, beard, and heard,
Dies and diet, lord and word,
Sword and sward, retain and Britain.
But which of them rhymes with written?

Be careful how you speak:
Say break and steak, but bleak and streak;
Blood and flood are not like food,
Nor is mould like should and would.

River, rival, tomb, bomb, comb,
Doll and roll and some and home.
Shoes, goes, does. Now say finger,
And then singer, ginger, linger.

Query does not rhyme with very,
Nor does fury sound like bury.
Ear, but earn and wear and tear
Do not rhyme with here but there.

Seven is right, but so is even,
Hyphen, roughen, nephew Stephen,
Monkey, donkey, Turk and jerk,
Grasp and wasp, cork and work.

Finally, which rhymes with cough –
Though or through, plough or enough?
Hiccough has the sound of cup.
My advice is – give it up!!!

Written by Doctor Gerald Nolst Trenite (1870-1946), a Dutch observer of English. Note – this is a shortened and simplified version of the original. You can find the full version by searching English Tough Stuff on Google. (All in italics above is meant as a quote of the material on the handout.)

In September 2003, Ken toured several counties, participating in the ELTeachers general meetings with a talk and promoting the Prospects series. He also visited Constanta and participated in the General Meeting of Constanta County English Teachers, organised by the County School Inspector, Vasile Brusalis, at the Children’s Palace. It was one of the many successful meetings Ken had with English teachers all over the country and one of those meetings which boosted the sales of Prospects.

While I only mentioned the occasions when I saw or met Ken, I deliberately postponed the description of this energetic gray-haired good-looking gentleman, almost always carrying a black travel bag with a shoulder strap and always smiling. I don’t remember ever seeing Ken other than smiling, even when the corners of his mouth were not raised, there was this warmth in his eyes and this aura around him that made a strong impression on the audience. One thing that, in my opinion, makes Ken stand out from among other trainers or authors is his undeniable charisma which, combined with the quality of his talks and the mastering of the presentation skills, create this amazing bond between the speaker and his audience. Ken’s personality, ideas and methods have impressed and influenced hundreds of Romanian teachers. His textbooks have enriched Romanian students’ English and have made teaching a lot more effective, affective and enjoyable.

THANK YOU, KEN!

NOTEAmazing as it may seem, of the hundreds of pictures teachers took of/with Ken on all these occasions, no one could help me with at least one such pic…

Update: Thank you for the photo, Ken!

Ken Wilson - conferencing in Romania

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Any other Romanian teacher of English willing to share his/her impressions on meeting Ken Wilson, please feel free to post a comment!

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My fifth Guest is also a teacher, teacher trainer, coursebook and materials writer. He is the author of the award-winning Straightforward series.

My fifth Guest prefers to keep a low profile on the internet. He doesn’t blog, but occasionally posts comments or accepts invitations to post as a guest, he has a Facebook profile which he seldom uses, he doesn’t tweet! He adores history and old maps, he likes travelling and conferencing, he loves a stroll in any weather and a chat and a good laugh over a beer …

My fifth Guest talked me into writing about my experiences, encouraged me to start writing ELT articles and boosted my self-confidence as a workshop presenter in international conferences…

My fifth Guest is my dear friend

PHILIP KERR

I’d heard of Kronstadt, but until I went there I didn’t know it was now called Braşov. My knowledge of history stops in the early nineteenth century.

Brasov - Main Square - by Philip Kerr

Ken, with whom I was travelling, did not think we would ever arrive. Our driver had been instructed to drive us from Bucharest, fast, and make sure we arrived in time for dinner with a group of school inspectors. He took his task seriously and Ken spent most of the journey with an open palm in front of his eyes. Arriving at the Hotel Aro, where we were staying and where the conference was to take place, we reported for duty and canapés and wine with Mrs Pegulescu, Queen of the Inspectors, and various inspectors from around the country.

Brasov - Aro Palace Hotel

After a long (and, for Ken, terrifying) journey, it wasn’t really how we would have chosen to spend our first evening. It was a bit stiff and formal at first, but we soon relaxed, and Oana, who was organising the event, made us all feel at home with her humour, her energy, her fizz.

It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable conference experiences I’ve ever had. I was lucky to know the other speakers, Ken, Scott and Luke, but it was more memorable for making new friendships: with Oana and Cristiana, among others.

Authors @MACMILLAN ROMANIA - Brasov 2007

It was a fairly boozy conference, it must be said. There was a superb meal in a restaurant in the town: one of the best steak-and-red-wine meals of my life. There was a trip to Bran which ended in extended sampling of local drinks. At the conference dinner, Ken took the microphone and sang some rock ‘n’ roll, and Luke led everyone in dancing to Zorba the Greek. At the end, we, the four plenary speakers, read out loud love letters written to us (the majority were for Ken, of course) by conference participants. I forget what the talks were about.

Having fun @MACMILLAN ROMANIA - BRASOV, 2007

Yup, those were my first impressions of Romania. I returned a few months later and got to know a woman called Melania.

*********************

THANK YOU, PHILIP!

Thank you for every minute of our long talks, thank you for all your e-mails and all your support, thank you for bearing with me! Last but not least, THANK YOU FOR YOUR FRIENDSHIP!

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