Sunday, 26 February 2012

Carnevale di Venezia - See and Be Seen!

It's that time of the year again.  I'm reminded of it by friends who still live in Veneto and are updating their Facebook pages to include references to it.  Carnevale.  Seventeen days of festivities beginning on February 4th this year and ending with the grand finale on February 21st (Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras).

In 2010 and 2011, we were living in Treviso at this time of year, just a twenty minute train ride from Venice, so, naturally, we visited the carnival several times.  Before going there for the first time, I didn't really know what to expect.  The word 'carnival' conjured up images of English summer days, of sideshows, parades and, perhaps, the crowning of a 'carnival queen'.  Well, some of these aspects do exist in Venice's carnival season.  There are parades and there are balls for the glitterati, but for most of the time nothing really happens except that people get dressed up in exquisite costumes and masks and promenade through the city all day long posing for photos at every opportunity. 

It's quite disconcerting the first time you go to Venice during Carnevale.  You are likely to encounter people in costume around every corner - standing on bridges, chatting with friends, staring wistfully into canals, sitting at tables in pavement cafés.  You will probably feel decidedly underdressed and will contemplate buying, at the very least, a mask from one of the thousands on display everywhere, in the vain hope that it will help you to fit in a little, to become a part of this great celebration.  Better, though, to grab your camera, wander through the vicolos and piazzas, marvel at the spectacle and simply soak up the atmosphere of what truly is one of the greatest shows on earth!!!

See more of my photos of Carnevale, the opening day parade, and my best in show.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, Phnom Pehn

I was ten when the Khmer Rouge took power in Cambodia in 1975 and I have to say that the ensuing years of the persecution, slaughter, starvation and misery of the Cambodian people didn't really feature on my radar at home in Yorkshire, England.  I do remember hearing the name Pol Pot and, after the fall of the regime in 1979, I remember we had some fundraising events at school for the children of Cambodia, but that was the extent to which this horrific period in the history of south-east Asia impacted on my life.  So, before our recent trip to Cambodia, I read a lot about these years and was moved to tears by some of the stories.  I was keen to see for myself the remnants of the regime and to give some context to the personal accounts I'd read.

So it was that our first port of call on our only full day in Phnom Pehn was to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum.  Prior to 1975, this building was a secondary school which would have echoed to the sounds of children playing, but there is no sense of this now.  The regime transformed the school into the biggest prison in Cambodia and called it S-21 (security office 21).  The original school was surrounded by a ten-foot high double wall surmounted by dense barbed wire.  The classrooms on the ground and first floors were divided into single cells barely big enough for a person to lie down in.  Those on the second floor were used for mass detention - scores of people being shackled together at the ankles and wrists and forced to lie side-by-side, top-to-toe like sardines in a tin.  Over the next few years, more than eighteen thousand victims (peasants, doctors, students, monks, ministers, foreigners, anyone.....) were imprisoned here along with their wives and children and most, if they didn't die here, were subsequently exterminated in the 'killing fields'.

A visit to the museum now is a chilling reminder of man's inhumanity to man.  Petter, our tuk-tuk driver, delivered us to the gates at 10.15am, just in time to make our way to the far end of the complex to watch one of the two daily screenings (10.30am and 3.0pm) of a very moving documentary.  The film tells the personal stories of inmates and their families as well as those of some of the guards who worked at S-21.  It is harrowing to watch, but gives real meaning to your tour of the buildings.

Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum today is not a glossy western-style museum with carefully labelled exhibits displayed behind polished glass.  No, it is a gritty, no-holds-barred testament to what went on here.  The rusting bars have been left on the windows.  The barbed wire mesh to prevent inmates jumping from the open landings is still there, with no thought being given to the unsuspecting tourists who catch their clothing or scratch their arms!  The cells contain instruments of torture placed simply on the cast-iron bed frames.  There are rooms full of row upon row of head and shoulder photos of inmates.  Other rooms contain random heaps of prisoners' clothes and shoes.  Bloodstains can still be clearly seen on floors and walls.  Some rooms are empty and it is in these spaces that you can hear the tortured voices calling to you from the past.  One of the most disturbing rooms contains a number of skulls and other bones belonging to victims of the regime.  A couple of former classrooms now house a collection of paintings by Heng Nath, a survivor of S-21.  These graphically depict the horror of the place.  In the rooms where the authorities have displayed images of Pol Pot and his cohorts to illustrate the written history, these pictures have been defaced by ordinary Cambodian people visiting the museum.  Who knows what personal tragedy lies behind the action of scratching out the eyes and mouths of these feared and loathed people?

In the former school grounds, amongst other relics, are the gallows used to torture victims.  There are also the graves of the last fourteen victims of S-21, discovered after the Khmer Rouge had fled the place.

Walking around Tuol Sleng, I experienced a physical reaction to what I was seeing.  It was like nothing I had ever felt before.  Pol Pot was in charge in Cambodia for 3 years, 8 months and 20 days and was responsible for the deaths of over 3,000,000 people.  Every visitor to Cambodia should visit this place and take the message away with them that what happened here should never be allowed to happen again.

You can see more of my photos here.

Saturday, 25 February 2012

Two Nights in Phnom Pehn

We arrived in Phnom Pehn at around 6.30pm after a long but enjoyable boat journey from Saigon.  We knew that the hotel we'd booked wasn't too far from the jetty, but it was getting dark and we didn't know exactly where it was, so we chose a tuk-tuk and driver, Petter, to take us there.  He only charged us $1!  He spoke good English and was very friendly, so we hired him for the following day to show us the sights.  His fee was a mere $18 for the whole day, including a visit to the killing fields some 10km outside the city.

We only had two nights and one full day in Phnom Pehn on this occasion, but I'm sure we'll be back!!  We had had varying accounts before we went, including one from a colleague who visited a couple of weeks before we did and gleefully told us that the city was a hell hole and that the Riverside district (where we were staying) made Pham Ngu Lau (the somewhat seedy backpacker district of Saigon) look like Knightsbridge!  All I can say is that that wasn't our experience!  We really enjoyed our time in the city.

The Riverside area is full of bars and restaurants.  We chose one at random on our first night and had no complaints about our meal.  On the second night, we ate at the Foreign Correspondent's Club, the famous watering hole of journalists in the post Pol Pot era.  It's mentioned in every guide book for Cambodia and could be a bit of a cliché, but, actually, we had a fantastic evening there.  We sat upstairs on the terrace overlooking the Mekong River.  The atmosphere was great and the food was delicious.  I began the evening with a cocktail - not my usual beverage of choice, but I was tempted by the 'Ginger Roger', a combination of gin, ginger beer, lime juice and mint.  It was divine!!  We ordered a starter combo, a selection of three dishes served on a three-tier cakestand-like dish.  These were all beautifully presented and very tasty.  Our main courses were good, too.  The meal was the most expensive we had in Cambodia at just under $50, but worth every penny!

As for sightseeing, Petter took us to the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the killing fields at Choeung Ek, as well as to the Royal Palace, all of which I'll write about in separate posts.  We also had time to have a couple of walks around the city, taking in the market and the river front promenade.

We'd been told before our trip that the beggars in Phnom Pehn were particularly aggressive and persistent and would ruin our visit to the city.  Again, I have to report that we didn't find it so.  Of course there were beggars, as there are in every major city in the world, but they didn't bother us too much.  A smile and a polite 'no' sent them on their way.  The street sellers (books, DVDs, maps, postcards, etc., etc.) were nowhere near as persistent as those in Saigon and we actually managed to look around shops without someone trying to make us buy - this would never happen in Vietnam!!

All in all, we thoroughly enjoyed our two days in Phnom Pehn and will definitely visit again! 

You can see some more photos of our visit here.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

From Saigon to Phnom Pehn

When planning our two-week holiday to Cambodia, we naturally wanted to include Phnom Pehn and it seemed like a good idea to do it at the beginning of the trip, but how to get there?  We could have flown or taken the bus, but we've always been fans of boat trips and Delta Adventure Tours, who organised our Mekong tour in December, were offering a bus/boat journey over two days with an overnight stay in a floating hotel. We decided to do that.

The first part of the journey was a three hour bus ride to Cai Be where we transferred to a boat and visited a floating market which was similar to the one we visited on our Mekong Cruise, but much smaller.  Following this, we were taken to a rice paper and coconut candy making factory and then we went for lunch.  Lunch over, we continued by boat to Vinh Long where we switched to a bus for the journey to Chau Doc.

Our overnight accommodation in Chau Doc was a floating hotel moored on the banks of the Mekong River.  It's true to say that it had seen better days, but, nevertheless, it was a novel experience.  We slept under bright blue mosquito nets with holes in it (fortunately, we weren't bothered by any biting bugs!) and had dinner in the restaurant with a life jacket on the back of each chair!

The next morning, the best part of the journey began.  We boarded our boat directly from the breakfast room of the floating hotel.  A money changer with the largest wad of notes I've ever seen had come round the tables whilst we were eating, so we were armed with a supply of Cambodian riel and enough dollars to buy our visa on entry.

Our first stop of the day was at a fish farm in a floating village.  It was interesting to see how the process works and to meet some of the people who make their living this way.

From there, we were taken to An Giang, a Cham village close to the border with Cambodia.  We got off the boat and went for a 40-minute walk around the village.  The people are Muslim, so we saw the mosque and the madrasah.  Traditional dress is worn by most and we were able to take some good photos.

We then proceeded by boat to the Vietnam/Cambodia border.  First, we had to disembark at the Vietnamese border control post to exit the country.  Then it was back on the boat for a couple of hundred metres to the Cambodian customs office where we disembarked again by climbing up a very rickety series of wooden planks.  It took about an hour to process the visas of everyone on our boat and get our passports stamped and returned to us.  Then it was full steam ahead to Phnom Pehn.

This part of our journey was due to take four hours and we should have arrived in Cambodia's capital at about 3pm.  As it was, it took over seven hours and we got there at just after 6.30pm.  This really wasn't a problem, though!  We were sitting in the open at the back of the boat and there was always something interesting to see.  Even though we were on the same stretch of river, when we crossed the border from Vietnam to Cambodia things seemed to change.  The scenery was largely the same - the people and their houses were similar - and yet everything looked different.  The only concrete thing I could identify was that there was a lot more colour.  Suddenly, we were seeing washing lines full of vibrant pinks and purples contrasting sharply with the browns and greens of the natural surroundings.

The journey passed quickly with so much to see and soon we were in Phnom Pehn, happy that we had made the right decision to travel by boat.

You can see all of the photos taken along the journey here.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Why and How to Encourage Students' Critical Thinking Skills - an #Eltchat Summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12noon GMT on Wednesday 15th February, 2012.  The discussion was moderated superbly by @ShellTerrell and @Shaunwilden and was, as usual, informative and thought-provoking.....

What is critical thinking?

Some definitions:
  • 'It's applying reasoned and disciplined thinking to a subject.'  (@worldteacher)
  • 'It includes thinking about thinking.'  (@rapple18)
  • 'It is going beyond just remembering and understanding information.  The top part of Bloom's taxonomy.'  'It's not accepting information we receive as fact, but question what we hear, evaluate it against what we know and then use it to draw a conclusion.'  (@reasons4)
  • 'It's a higher order thinking skill.'  (@Marisa_C)
  • 'Awareness of what's behind the language and between the lines.  What motivates choice of words.'  (@GrammyLatino)
  • 'Don't take anything for granted.'  (@europeaantje)
  • 'Asking 'why?' and 'how do you know?' for everything  (@TailormadeEng)
  • 'Analysing and judging information based on previous concepts.'  (@josepopoff)
  • 'Thinking about things which may often be accepted as accepted truths.'  (@irishmikeh)
  • 'Being able to form arguments, resolve conflict, solve problems ...... new forms of communication.'  (@bnleez)
  • 'Being able to analyse a belief or argument and recognise any fallacies.  Being able to recognise your own preconceptions.'  (@annehodg)
At this point @Shaunwilden commented that, 'Given all the definitions people are giving, it's no wonder CT is so difficult for students to do!'

So why do we need to teach critical thinking?

Some #eltchatters questioned whether it was our place as EFL/ESL teachers to teach critical thinking, but I think the consensus was that it is an essential part of our role as we try to prepare our students for the English-speaking world.  They will have to process so much information and as educators we have a responsibilty to equip them for that.  The classroom is the place for people to challenge the status quo, ask difficult questions and value diverse opinions, so is, therefore, the perfect place for CT. 

As @rliberni pointed out, 'What we cannot deny is that in pure language terms, critical thinking activities stretch skills especially in speaking and that should be reason enough to do them.'

Problems when introducing CT to our classrooms

Most participants agreed with @GrammyLatino that introducing CT to our classrooms is an uphill struggle when the school system and/or parents don't stimulate it, but rather preach blind obedience and memorising.  This is a particular problem for me teaching at a university in Vietnam where my students have, up to this point, been spoon-fed information and taught to accept it without question.  Several other #eltchatters acknowledged that CT is an alien concept for many of their students and that motivating them can be a real challenge.  Students are often scared to leave their comfort zone and start thinking! 

Lack of expertise on the part of the teacher is also a problem.  As was pointed out, if you have never been expected to think critically or experienced good lessons modelling such, then it might be tough to help students to do so.  It might also be uncomfortable for the teacher to give negative feedback for 'not showing critical thinking' in an EFL class.  Teachers need training in CT.

Students' desire for there to be 'one right answer' is also a challenge to CT, but, on the other hand, sometimes learners are pleased to realise that there are multiple possible interpretations.

It was also noted that the majority of tests don't necessarily support critical thinking (IELTS and TOEFL were named and shamed at this point), so the emphasis becomes to teach memorisation and drill.  Perhaps it isn't included in such tests because it's difficult to assess.

Another challenge to CT could be the teacher's reluctance to relinquish control and have their own views challenged.  Personally, I love being challenged in the classroom and miss that aspect of the teaching experience now that I'm teaching in SE Asia rather than in Europe.

A further problem might be a pressure to 'cover the book', so perhaps 'Teaching Unplugged' might provide a better opportunity for CT?

How do we teach critical thinking?
We agreed that we, as teachers, need to choose materials and topics that foster critical thinking - syllabus permitting, of course!  But what methods and/or activities can we use in the classroom?  Some ideas:
  • We need to build a good rapport with our classes so that students feel safe and confident enough to ask questions and express their opinions.
  • Play devil's advocate through roleplays - students plan their 'opinions' first.
  • Use biased newspapers with opinions different to your own and ask students to recognise the bias.
  • CT can be developed in every class, even if incidentally, by asking students how they know their stuff, who the author is, what the message is, etc.
  • Give two accounts of the same story and ask what is the difference and why.
  • Set up a class discussion where students first plan the arguments for and against.  Getting students speaking for the side they don't agree with can be fun, challenging and useful.  Making logical arguments based on false premises is fun, too!
  • Use adverts - discuss hidden agendas, aims, target audience, etc. - students will never look at ads in the same way again!
  • Analyse current affairs and ask 'why?
  • Present students with a mix of viewpoints (polarised and moderate) and ask them to discuss.
  • Challenge plagiarism, challenge the validity of resources - get students to ask questions.
  • Pick topics that students are likely to have a personal interest in and/or strong views about or, better still, get them to choose the subjects.
  • Do activities that have no right answer.
  • Because students can't think and talk in L2 simultaneously, perhaps we should encourage L1 discussions first?
  • Do activities that ask students to think 'outside the box' to solve real life problems in their community or personal lives.
  • Use roleplay so that students don't 'lose face' by expressing their own ideas.  For example, 'in the hot seat in the role of ..... a celebrity, a politician, etc.'
  • Video or image analysis is good for CT - ask students, 'who?', 'what?', 'where?', 'why?', etc. and encourage different viewpoints.
  • Sometimes students are afraid of saying what they think, so perhaps we should encourage them to express their opinions in writing.
  • Use lateral thinking stories.
  • Have students choose 'love it' or 'hate it' before writing something on the board.  They then have to explain why they love or hate the thing that the teacher wrote.
  • Put a line of tape on the floor.  Give the students a topic and two viewpoints.  They jump on the side they're for.  For one minute, one side of the line says why and then the other side of the line offers rebuttals.
  • Discuss multiple choice reading questions and why answers fit or don't fit.  Students' mistakes can also be fed into multiple choice quizzes so that they can be discussed.
  • Get students to write argument ideas twice with two contradictory conclusions.
  • Do 'odd one out' activities - these can work at all levels.
  • Telling students what to think is often a good way to encourage CT!!


We can't enforce critical thinking, but we can and should give students the opportunity and the tools if they wish to use them.

Useful links

Eulogy for my Dad

John Haley (27th February, 1940 - 12th October, 2011)

Me and my Dad!
I wrote about my Dad in my last post.  I told of his total support for our move to Vietnam.  He was very excited for us and read a lot on the internet about where we were going and what we would face.  Without his blessing, we woudn't be in Vietnam at all.

I mentioned in my last post, too, that he had suffered with ill-health for a number of years.  His problems began when a routine annual medical for work revealed a problem with his heart, resulting in a quadruple heart bypass operation being performed on him.  A few months later, when he was back at work and apparently making a good recovery, he was diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a debilitating disease for which there is no cure and the treatment for which is high doses of steroids.  This was 15 years ago.  In the following years, my Dad's health deteriorated, mainly due to the drugs he had to take.  He was diagnosed with diabetes, neurothapy, renal failure and a number of other ailments, but he still managed to keep going.  He rarely complained.  I knew he was having a particularly bad day if when I phoned to ask how he was, his answer came back, "Oh, fair to crap!".

So, my Dad wasn't in the best shape or the first flush of youth, but neither was he particularly old nor were any of his illnesses, taken on their own, life-threatening.  So, it came as a huge shock when, less than 4 weeks in to my new life in Vietnam, I got a call from my Mum to tell me that Dad had suffered an abdominal aneurism and wasn't expected to survive.  In fact, he died three hours after that initial call. 

I didn't know how to react.  My new employers were very supportive.   I went into auto-pilot - booking a flight, packing a case and getting to the airport.  Once on the long flight home, though, I went to pieces.  I don't know what my fellow passengers thought of me sobbing quietly for the entire journey!

The next few days passed in a blur of activity.  There was so much to organise, I barely had time to think.  There was one thing I was determined to do, however, and that was to write and deliver the eulogy for my Dad.  One night, a few days after his death, I couldn't sleep, so I got up, went and sat quietly in the lounge and wrote the words I wanted to say.  I'm proud to relate that, after several read-throughs, I managed to get up in front of a packed church and give my tribute for my Dad.  I reproduce it here as a permanent reminder of the day and of my Dad.

'I am a teacher.  I’m used to speaking in front of groups of people.  It’s my job.  I do it every day.  But this is different – very different!!

The last time I was in this church for a service, just a few short weeks ago, my Dad was standing where I am now, reading the lesson in his own inimitable style – clearly, with sufficient volume for those at the back to hear, and in his ‘special voice’ – the one where his usual ‘pass’ became ‘parse’ – the one reserved for the phone and for church!  Today, I’m faced with a much larger crowd than Dad was, but I’m aiming to match his clarity and volume, if not the accent – my vowels will remain flat like the ‘real Yorkshire lass’ Dad often reminded me I was!  If I fail, if it all gets too much for me, please forgive me and don’t worry – Peter has promised to step in and finish reading for me.

We are all here today to celebrate the life of John Haley.  Every time I say his full name, in my head, I hear Susan’s voice, saying, “My brother, John Haley, he’s my brother.”  Susan is Dad’s youngest sister and, as many of you know, she has Down’s Syndrome.  She has always had so much love for everyone, but especially her brother and sister and, whenever we went anywhere, she would tell anyone who would listen about ‘her brother, John’ and she would put her arms round him, kiss his cheek over and over again and then smile at everyone in the room.  Sometimes, she would tell Dad directly, “You’re my brother, John Haley.  You’re my brother, you are.”  Not that Dad ever needed reminding of any of his roles and responsibilities.  As a husband, Dad, Granddad, father-in-law, brother, brother-in-law, cousin, group member, or friend, Dad always shouldered his responsibilities without question and with enthusiasm and I am very proud of him for that.

Dad’s greatest role in life was always as a husband to my Mum.  In many ways, they were like chalk and cheese, but, as in all the best partnerships, they both strove very hard to make it work.  And it did work – for over 50 years.  They met as children, brought together because each had a sister who had contracted Polio and was left severely disabled.  But from such tragedy came such happiness.  They started ‘courting’, as I believe it was called in those days, when Mum was 16 and Dad 19 and married 5 years later.  Mum and Dad always celebrated milestones in their lives together – important birthdays and anniversaries.  Many of you here today were with us when we celebrated their silver and their ruby weddings.  2014 would have brought us all together again for their golden wedding and they were already planning the party and looking forward to it.  Unfortunately, it was not to be, but I’m sure many of you will have great memories of past celebrations and will be raising a glass or two to them on May 23rd a couple of years from now.

As a Dad, I can’t begin to tell you what he meant to us.  Early morning walks along the prom at Mablethorpe holding his hand; his silly sense of humour which never quite left him, even in the darkest days of his later illnesses; tucking us into bed at night; taking us in a dinghy in the sea despite not being able to swim and always telling us about how he almost drowned when he was seven; the stories of childhood antics which included (Sorry, Mum – this was the only part of this eulogy she didn’t approve of!) blowing up frogs with a bicycle pump, putting them on a wall and then shooting at them with a catapult so that they exploded; his hurt when we let him down; his pride when we did well.

One of the greatest gifts Dad gave us, though, was a love of learning – a desire to discover answers for ourselves.  He had left school at 15 and gone to work in a gents’ outfitters in Doncaster, where he learned how to dress smartly and present himself well.  As the eldest of 4 siblings, he felt it was his responsibility to help to provide for the family, but no-one expected him to remain a shop assistant for long, and he didn’t!  He worked very hard to improve himself and succeeded beyond expectations.  Throughout his life, he was an avid reader and we always had lots of books in the house.  When we were children, he was often taking night school classes, both to further his career and also, simply, to expand his knowledge – just for the fun of it.  He took courses in subjects as diverse as bookkeeping, German, French, accountancy, calligraphy and wine-making.  (The language classes were probably the least successful of his endeavours, as anyone who was with us during our time in Paris would testify!  ‘Une grand noir, anyone? Mercy boo-kop!’).

Dad’s thirst for knowledge continued to the end of his life when he was an active member of the University of the Third Age (I know we have many U3A members with us today), but it was during his working life when it led to some of his greatest adventures.  He readily accepted when his company began offering him overseas trips in the 1970s.  One of his earliest excursions led to him being kept under house arrest by Colonel Gaddafi in Libya for three weeks.  In the days before mobile phones or the internet, neither we nor his company had any idea where he was.  It was a very worrying time for Mum, worry she largely kept from us, so that when Dad did come home safely, I was just delighted to be able to take his souvenirs into school – including a tin of Heinz baked beans with the label printed in Arabic and a packet of the most disgusting boiled sweets I’d ever tasted!!

A few years later, Dad was promoted.  His new role meant that he had to travel all over Africa and would be based in the company’s Paris office.  So, Mum & Dad gave us the greatest opportunity of our lives and moved us to Paris.  You have to understand how big a deal this was in 1981.  We were living in a village outside Doncaster.  We hadn’t even been abroad until the year before and now, here we were, living in one of the most beautiful cities on earth.  Dad didn’t always enjoy his job – especially the travel & the food (he would go off on his trips with half a suitcase full of Bird’s Apeel Powdered Orange Juice and Jacob’s Fig Rolls!), but in terms of broadening our horizons, forging friendships that last until today and educating us about the wider world, there followed the two most exciting and enjoyable years!  Thanks, Dad!!

So, I’ve talked about Dad’s role as a husband and a father, but, a few years ago, he took on his most treasured role – as a Granddad.  He and Mum have 3 beautiful granddaughters whom Dad described in a recent letter to Ian as ‘the sun & the stars’ to them.  He loved them completely and that feeling was reciprocated. 

Yesterday, I received an e-mail from Grace.  She’s 9.  She wanted me to say something on her behalf.  This is what she wrote:


The smiles you gave were the best, the hugs and cuddles and kisses will beat the rest.

The memories of you Granddad will be the days out, and the rides you let me have on your scooter.

I will remember you for ever and Grandma and Aunty Andrea and Uncle Mark will miss you as much as me.

I am so lucky that I got to have some time with you this year. While I am at school today, I will remember your smile as we say goodbye.

With all my heart, Granddad, I am proud to say you were my Granddad.

It is a tragedy that Grace, Tiegan and Isabel will now have to grow up without their beloved Granddad, but those of us who are left, will make sure that they never forget how much they were loved by him.

I’ve already told you about Susan and her relationship with her brother.  Dad’s other sister, my Auntie Janet, wanted me to say at this point, that she will always be grateful for having had the most supportive and kind brother for herself and for Susan.

As a brother-in-law, too, Dad was totally supportive and caring as, indeed, he was as a father-in-law.  He and Mark shared an interest in aviation, and in the year when Dad turned 60 and Mark turned 40, they shared a flight over London in a frighteningly ancient plane, an experience they both talked about with pleasure in the years that followed.

Many of you here today know my Dad as a friend.  Some of you have known him for many years and, for some of you, he came into your lives more recently.  I know what a loyal, generous and gregarious friend he was and you will all have your own memories of him.  I would love to hear about some of them at some point!

We, as a family, have been overwhelmed by the messages of support we’ve received since Dad’s death.  The many kind words have comforted and moved us.  A recurring theme in the cards and letters has been, ‘what a gentleman he was’.  We are so proud to know how loved and respected he was by so many people – how many lives he touched.  I don’t want any of you to think he was a saint (most of you know that he wasn’t!), but he was an honest, decent man with a curious sense of humour who led a good life and who has left a lasting legacy in his family and in his community.

On the day Dad died, a colleague of mine in Vietnam asked me if I had religious faith.  I had to say that it was something I had struggled with for many years and, even now, I was unable to give him a definitive answer.  But I told him that Dad had and so had Mum.  Malcolm then said, “My faith is unshakeable and I know that your Dad is up there now waiting for your Mum, so that they can dance together again.”  Now, Malcolm had never met either of them and didn’t know if they used to dance together or not.  In truth, they didn’t very often and, when they did, Mum often complained that Dad had two left feet, but his comments brought to my mind images of Mum & Dad dancing together when Ian & I were children and Mum laughing like she hasn’t very much in recent years.  So, I hope Malcolm’s right and that, when Dad’s finished dancing with Mum or wants to give her toes a rest, he’ll save a dance for me and one each for his beautiful granddaughters.

Goodnight, God Bless, Dad!'

Binh Duong New City, Vietnam

It is very bizarre to be living in a city under construction, a city which will ultimately be home to some one million people, but where, currently, you are one of only about 40 permanent residents!  That's the situation I find myself in having accepted a teaching position at Eastern International University in Binh Duong province, Vietnam. 

As I wrote about in my earlier post, I had researched my new employer online before coming to Vietnam and had found a promotional YouTube video about the university.  At the same time, I found a similar one about the new city:

It looked good and we were excited about the prospect of living in a brand-new city.

Dragon Dancers at the Opening
When we first arrived, back in September, we were accommodated in hotels in Thu Dau Mot, a provincial town about a 20 minute drive away from the university.  After about three weeks, though, the first of four blocks of apartments in the Aroma complex in the new city was completed and the majority of the foreign teachers were moved in.  Some of us were invited to attend the grand opening where we were given symbolic 'keys' and envelopes of lucky money.  The event was covered on national TV and one of our number was interviewed about the apartments and how she felt about the prospect of living in a sparkling new city.  Obviously, the purpose of the event was to sell some units and to attract investment for further development, but it was all very exciting!  You can see more photos of the event here.
Wide, empty roads!

So, now we have been living here for four months, how is the reality of daily life?  Well, pretty good actually!!  Obviously, there are inconveniences.  There is nowhere locally to shop, so a supermarket trip has to be planned in advance and undertaken in a taxi.  There is a mini-mart in the foyer of our block, but with so few potential customers, as you can imagine, the choice is very limited!  Similarly, if you want to eat out, you need to go into town.  Again, there is a cafe in our block, but the quality of the food is rather dubious and the drinks are very expensive by local standards.  Some of my colleagues have now acquired motorbikes so that they are able to escape the peace and quiet to the bright lights and noise of the local town.

Landscaped gardens in front of our apartment block
I said that we are living in a city under construction.  This is true, but it's not as terrible as it sounds.  When laying out the new city, the architects and planners paid particular attention to the open spaces and leisure areas and these parts of the project were completed first.  So, the city is landscaped already.  There is a large park with a lake and lots of beautiful trees and shrubs which are kept immaculately by an army of gardeners.  It's lovely to be able to go for a walk in pleasant surroundings after a day at work.

Water park illuminated at night
Lucky Square convention centre is also complete.  It is already being used as a venue for corporate events and parties.  Behind it is an attractive water park which is lit with different coloured lights at night.  It provides an ideal backdrop for wedding photos!

Also open for business is the sports centre complete with tennis courts and a large outdoor pool.

The roads are all laid out, too, even though there is very little traffic!

In and amongst the finished infrastructure, the building work continues apace.  We already have the shells of numerous individual villas plus a couple more apartment blocks as well as lots of retail units.  The end date, however, is many years hence.  I probably won't be here long enough to see it anywhere near finished, but, for now, I'm enjoying the novelty of being one of the first residents of Binh Duong New City!

If you are interested, you can read more about the project here and see more of my photos here or here.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Remembering and Reusing Functional Language - an #Eltchat Summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12noon GMT on Wednesday 1st February, 2012.  The full title of the chat was:

How to help students remember and reuse functional language

I was joining the chat for the first time since relocating to Vietnam a few months ago, but was immediately made to feel welcome - just like I'd never been away!  The discussion was moderated superbly by @Marisa_C and @Shaunwilden and was, as usual, informative and thought-provoking.....

How do we define 'functional language'?
We started the discussion by defining our terms.  @SimonGreenall's definition - 'Functions and their exponents are the practical realisation in language acts of theoretical structures' - though mightily impressive, needed translating into layman's terms for the mere mortals amongst us!  @TeachEslToday suggested that, 'Functions are the practical realisation of grammar, grammar put into the real world'. There was broad agreement that we were talking about language which fulfills a specific purpose - making requests, offering to help, making suggestions, apologising, interrupting, making a phone call, giving thanks, taking your leave, giving directions, ordering in a restaurant, etc..  We also concurred that functional language begins at starter level with exponents such as classroom language, telling the time and greetings and, because many of them are fixed expressions, they can be learnt relatively easily even if they are structurally complex.  For example, we can teach, 'Would you like to.....?' 'Yes, I would/no, I wouldn't' at beginner level in a functional syllabus, but not until much later in a grammar/structure driven syllabus.

@TeachEslToday made the distinction between 'functions' (what people want to do with the language) and 'notions' (the meanings people want to convey) and suggested that any syllabus must be based on learners' social communicative needs which would involve both.   

@PatrickAndrews posed the question, 'Doesn't all language fulfill a function?'  This was largely agreed with, though it was pointed out that the function which particular language fulfills depends on the context.

@Marisa_C summed up this part of the discussion by asking us - 'So do we all agree that morphology rules (of form) are not enough - meaning/concept/notion are important, but function and intention are crucial?'

So to the focus of the chat:

How do we help students to remember and reuse functional language?

It was widely felt that the best way to help students remember this language was to give them a context, a personal one, if possible.  Merely giving them lists of functions is not enough as it isn't generative and it doesn't help students to sort language.  It was pointed out that functions are most often taught around a context and/or situation anyway and that coursebooks introduce them in this way so that even the most clueless teacher has a chance!  We all seemed to agree that the communicative approach was best and that we needed to make students see the practical use of the language through roleplays, live listenings, dialogues, and getting them to use the functions to speak about themselves, their world and their experiences.  It was pointed out that it is probably easier to contextualise language to adults rather than to children as adults have more experience to refer to.

Before we got carried away with the idea that context is the be all and end all, though, @Marisa_C reminded us that, whilst it is the key for memory, form awareness is more generative. 

So, how do we get students to notice functional language?  @ShaunWilden suggested that a natural step would be to use the transcripts of listening exercises, something which I make a point of doing every time.  @michaelegriffin's advice was to use test-teach-test, where students do a roleplay using the language, then hear it done by others and then do it again.  @Marisa_C agreed, but added that well-taught ppp for lower levels was also effective.

Once students have noticed the language, they have to be taught how to sort it, in terms of formality, for example.  This could be done by giving them a range of roleplays, each showing a different use, from formal to casual.  Students could also do roleplays where they choose their own level of formality and classmates have to guess the identity of and relationship between the participants.  A handy tip for students would be to tell them that the more complicated the exponent, the more formal it is (e.g. 'Would you mind awfully if ....').

We were advised by @OUPELTGlobal not to give too many examples of a particular function when teaching it as that can make remembering it difficult.  Limiting the number of forms to the level is key.

Repetition is also important for remembering functional language.  Constant exposure to the form and repeated use of it are crucial.  Drilling is especially useful as intonation in functional exponents is very important and often neglected.  I agree with this, but voiced my concern that perhaps we should be wary of too much emphasis being placed on intonation.  My students love to ham it up and can end up sounding ridiculous!  However, as Shaun and Marisa pointed out, at least if they are hamming it up deliberately, then they know what the intonation should be and they can always be encouraged to tone it down in a real-life situation.  @TeachEslToday gave us a good tip when teaching intonation - students listen to a short dialogue from a movie they like and then they try to imitate the intonation using the transcript.

When it comes to reusing functional language, @ShaunWilden told us that he likes using video without sound so that students have to guess the exponents from the situation and paralinguistic features.  Comic strips could be used in a similar way.

We were also reminded of the value of live listenings in that they demonstrate real language in use complete with pauses, repetitions, doubts, etc. - something that students have to get used to.

Useful links

Book recommendations

  • 'Function in English' (1982) J. Blundell, J. Higgins & N. Middlemiss - currently out of print, but highly recommended by @Marisa_C.
  • 'Variations on a Theme' - a book giving the same dialogue, but in different contexts - very good for intonation.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Eastern International University (EIU), Binh Duong New City, Vietnam

At the time of applying for my job in Vietnam, I did the usual Google search to find out all I could about my potential new employer.  Being a brand new university which had not yet had its first intake of students, however, meant that the search was not that productive!  I did come across this promotional video on YouTube, though, complete with computed generated images of how the university will/would/could/should(?) look!!

Rightly or wrongly, it was enough for me and I applied for, and was offered, the job.  I was attracted by the prospect of being in at the start of such an exciting project.  So, four months in, how has the reality measured up to the CGI?

Well, as the photos here show (and you can see more here), it isn't finished by any means, but what is complete bears an uncanny resemblance to the graphics and there's no reason to think that the rest of the development will be any different.  We have four classroom blocks completed, though we are only using parts of them at present.  The library and administration offices are finished, as is a large function room and another large room which is currently being used as the canteen.  A computer lab has just opened.  The areas between the buildings are nicely landscaped and the ongoing construction work has little impact on our day-to-day working lives.  It is gratifying to see the pace of change.  A building which was only just out of the ground when I arrived here in September is now almost complete; the scaffolding came down a few days ago and it is about ready to be painted.  When finished, it will be a state-of-the-art lecture theatre.

So much for the buildings, what of the students?  Well, we had our first intake of about 750 students at the beginning of October.  The majority of them will be studying for a degree in Business Administration which will be taught wholly in English and so, in this first academic year, they are having English lessons every day, with the aim of reaching an IELTS score of 5.5 to enable them to begin their course.  It's proving to be a tall order in some cases!

The opening ceremony of EIU, on 3rd October, was a lavish affair, attended by all of the freshers, their families, and the teaching and administrative staff of the university, as well as representatives of our foreign investors, local politicians and business people and even the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam!  We were entertained by the Vietnamese equivalents of Take That, Lady GaGa and Justin Bieber, much to the delight of the students who screamed the place down, even though it was only 10am!  The whole thing was captured on film by every TV station in the country!  The very lengthy ceremony was followed by a lavish lunch at the newly-opened convention centre in the new city and a good time was had by all!  You can see more pictures of the event here.

Since then, it has been a steep learning curve for students and teachers alike as we each adapt to our new environment and try to meet the challenges we've been set.  We've had time for fun as well, though, with our pre-Christmas show, SBA's Got Talent and our Project Presentation Day on 13th January.  For a new university, the atmosphere is very good - it feels like a nice place to work and the students tell me it's a good place to study. 

The authorities here are aiming to make EIU the top university in Vietnam.  Ultimately, they want to attract high calibre students from neighbouring countries.  We will have trials and tribulations along the way, but I, for one, am happy to be along for the ride!