Monday, 28 January 2013

Christmas on Cat Ba Island

Our resort
When we were booking our Christmas and New Year trip around northern Vietnam, we didn't really consider just how much colder it would be compared to our home in the south.  People had told us it would be 'cooler' and that we might need a jacket in the evenings.  They'd also said that if we were to venture as far north as Sapa, we would probably need a coat on all day and might even see snow on the distant mountain tops.  Nothing prepared us for just how cold it turned out to be!!

We had booked to spend Christmas itself in a resort on Cat Ba Island.  We had chosen it because of its private beach, the gorgeous pool and the balcony with the seaview where we could enjoy a drink as we watched the sun go down.  The resort had all of these things and more - it was a fantastic place - but our enjoyment of it was somewhat limited by the chilly temperature!  Don't get me wrong, we had a lovely Christmas, but being in such a beautiful place and not being able to take advantage of the facilities was really disappointing!

The gingerbread church
I've already described our journey to Cat Ba through Halong Bay here.  We arrived later than anticipated on Christmas Eve feeling cold and frustrated at being delayed, but soon felt better as the friendly staff welcomed us and gave us delicious cups of warming ginger tea spiked with fresh lime and sweetened with local honey.  We just had time for a quick change before the 'Gala Dinner' in the hotel restaurant. The whole hotel was looking really festive, particularly the restaurant with a large Christmas tree, candles on every table and a huge, highly detailed model of a church made out of gingerbread biscuits.  The food was amazing and meant that we didn't venture outside of the resort for any meals during our few days on the island!  To round off a lovely evening, I, who never normally wins anything, won first prize in the ticket draw - a smart phone!!  (A particularly pleasant surprise as, making my way to the stage, I was convinced the announcer had said my prize was a 'spa foam'!!)

Cliff walk
We spent our time going for long walks and then returning to the hotel to get warm!  Cat Ba Town is not the most attractive place, but there are loads of reasonably priced bars and restaurants.  There is also plenty to see in the bay, with a colourful fishing fleet and many boats which are used as permanent homes for local residents.

Walking the other way from our resort, we were able to follow a coastal path which afforded spectacular views out to sea. 

Cat Ba's fishing fleet
We didn't venture inland to the national park - one, because of the weather and two, because there were few tourists around and the cost of a trip was unusually high.  Perhaps on our next trip to Cat Ba?

We made the return journey to the mainland by high-speed ferry to Haiphong, a dreary-looking industrial city with few redeeming features (at least, that's how it appeared through the coach windows!).

You can see some more photos of Cat Ba Town here.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Mentor teachers - an #eltchat summary

This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12 noon on 23rd January. The full title of the chat was:

'Mentor teachers' (those responsible for a team of teachers) and their role; best practices, pitfalls, tips.

This was my suggestion and, after a few shenanigans with a tied vote and an eleventh hour decision from our excellent moderators, @Shaunwilden and @Marisa_C, I'm pleased to say that it won and a very lively (over 500 tweets in the hour!) chat ensued.  What follows is my attempt to do justice to all of the valuable contributions from the participants.

Mentor teacher - defining the role

What is involved in being a mentor teacher?  Some suggestions:
  • being a walking advice source
  • inspiring mentees
  • being a professional checklist
  • being 'available'
  • taking a mentee 'under your wing'
  • answering questions or, better still, directing the mentee to find the answers himself
  • showing the way
  • being a quality control officer
  • observing the mentee in the classroom and being observed by him to learn about each other's teaching practices and discuss the reasons behind them
  • discussing problems and making sure teachers don't suffer in silence
  • helping a new teacher get used to the admin systems of their new workplace (and chasing them up when they don't do it!)
  • helping new teachers plan lessons
  • providing a listening ear
  • inducting a new teacher into a new institution
  • encouraging CPD
  • helping a new teacher to grow as a teacher
  • making a mentee independent
What is the difference between a mentor and a coach?

  • @louisealix68 suggested that a coach oversees in-depth reflection sessions on non-subject related things, whereas a mentor answers general questions on practical matters and, on that basis, a coach can look after any teacher in the institution, but a mentor should guide someone in his own department. 
  • @Marisa_C proposed that, unlike a coach, a mentor doesn't train, but rather he supports someone in a new learning venture.
  • @MentorEvo said that mentoring is a more frequent and detailed attention to day-to-day development than coaching is.

Who should be a mentor?

@touqo said that it was important that the mentor and the mentee be 'organisationally independent of each other' in order to ensure an informal atmosphere free of the day-to-day aspects of professional life, but @eltknowledge pointed out that this wasn't practical if part of the mentor's role is to assimilate the mentee into the organisation.  @touqo responded by saying that if the mentor's goal is to boost the mentee's career, then it is best that the mentor comes from elsewhere.

On a lighter note, @pjgallantry told us, 'As a mentor, my own role model is Obi-Wan Kenobi, though obviously without the being killed by a light sabre bit by a guy with asthma!'  This comment led to some of our participants ('geeks', perhaps - @Shaunwilden's term, not mine!) going off on a Star Wars tangent which kept them amused for the rest of the #eltchat!  Our aim is always to entertain as well as to inform!! :-)

The mentor/mentee relationship

It was generally agreed that the relationship has a natural life cycle and that, once a mentee has no further questions to ask, the partnership simply fades away.  After this, particularly if the arrangement has worked well, the mentee may become mentor to another new teacher.

Many #eltchat contributors felt that the relationship could only work if it was bi-directional, that is to say that both parties benefit from it.  It was also largely agreed that senior staff should swap mentee relationships each year in order to provide different perspectives.

@touqo suggested that the mentee should choose his mentor himself.  @yya2 went on to say the more a mentoring relationship is established by an institution, the less effective it is and that informal relationships seem to work better.

@Shaunwilden felt that both parties had to be working from the mentee's agenda for it to be a successful venture.

@yearinthelifeof commented that mentoring has to remain a symbiotic relationship built on mutual respect, trust and recognition that both sides can learn from.

Dos and don'ts of being a mentor

  • DO ask questions which encourage reflection - e.g. 'Have you thought about....?', 'What might happen if you......?', etc.
  • DO NOT make it a power relationship.
  • DO ask difficult questions of your mentee before the 'real world' does!
  • DO talk about expectations at the beginning of the relationship.
  • DO listen.
  • DO ask more questions than you answer.
  • DO NOT shout or curse at the mentee! (Not outwardly, anyway!)
  • DO make time to have a quiet cuppa with your mentee every week, even if he has no questions to ask.
  • DO be patient.
  • DO NOT impose your ideas on a mentee.
  • DO know when to keep quiet and fade into the background.
  • DO NOT have a 'know-it-all' attitude or act in a superior manner.
  • DO find out about the background of your mentee.
  • DO have a clear focus.
  • DO be sympathetic and empathetic - these qualities are more important than the mentor's knowledge.
  • DO ask the mentee what they would like you to help them with and any specific things to look out for.
  • DO use 'human video' type field notes which are non-judgemental and where the mentee can decide what to accept and what to reject.
  • DO NOT criticise, even if your mentee's lesson hurt your eyes!
  • DO remember that you are learning as well.
  • DO read this excellent book.
  • DO continue to educate and develop yourself, both as a teacher and as a mentor.
  • DO have a checklist, but DO NOT mentor according to it!!

Potential problems
  • The mentor role and responsibilites are often not clearly defined.
  • The mentor is often not trained in the role, prompting the question, 'How do you teach teachers to become mentors?'
  • Mentors are often appointed simply because they are the people who have the time, not necessarily because they are the best people for the job.
  • As soon as 'judgement' (e.g. critique of a lesson) of any kind gets in the way, the mentoring relationship will probably break down.
  • People assuming that more experienced/older teachers automatically make better mentors.  As many contributors pointed out, 'newbies' often have a lot to teach 'oldies'!
Are mentors necessary?

This question was raised, particularly in places where there is a fantastic staffroom where experienced teachers all chip in to help with the CPD of new teachers.  It was also suggested that for those of us with an amazing PLN, mentors probably weren't needed.  In fact, some contributors consider #eltchat itself to be their mentor!  In most cases, however, it was agreed that there was a need for some kind of formal mentoring system as, nice as it would be, we can't often rely on everyone to care about their colleagues' CPD.

To conclude:

I joined the 2013 Mentoring EVO course a few weeks ago and I suggested this #eltchat topic because I redefined the role of senior teacher in my institution at the start of the 2012/2013 academic year.  The job title changed to 'mentor teacher' and I wanted the focus to shift to CPD.  This is a 'work in progress' and I was still unclear as to exactly how the relationship between mentor and mentee should work.  This chat has given me so much food for thought and I thank all the contributors for that.

@AlexandraKouk summed up the key elements of the mentor role:
  • personal or professional development
  • reflection
  • informal transmission of knowledge
  • relationship based
As @OUPELTGlobal put it, 'having a mentor is like having a good friend at school.'  @Teachersilvert added that 'a mentor is a friend with benefits'!!  However, @chiasuan pointed out that a good friend is socially but not professionally obligated to listen to your problems about work whereas it's vice-versa for a mentor! 

In the end, everyone agreed that, whilst training and qualifications were important, being open, approachable and empathetic were much more crucial qualities in a good mentor.


The aplanet project on mentoring and 'Mentor' is a Greek word via @Marisa_C
Mario Rinvoluci's review of Fanselow's book via @KerrCarolyn
'Demystifying Mentoring' an article from the Harvard Business Review via @KerrCarolyn
Heron's Six Categories of Invention via @AlexandraKouk


Wordle: Mentor Teachers - an eltchat

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Cruise through Halong Bay

Think of Halong Bay and you problem conjure up the iconic image of numerous limestone rocks emerging from a clear, vivid blue sea in the Bond movie, 'Tomorrow Never Dies'.  That was certainly my image and I was incredibly disappointed to discover that, because permission to film in Vietnam was denied, those scenes were actually filmed in Phuket Bay, Thailand!  Further reading disabused me of any other poetic or romantic associations with the place - 'it's overrun with tourists', 'it's a dumping ground for rubbish', 'on a dull day, it's no more spectacular than Cornwall' (which, by the way, I think is pretty spectacular!) - and, by the time we set off for our full-day cruise, I was fully prepared to be completely underwhelmed!

In the event, however, I was pleasantly surprised.  Halong Bay, in my opinion, fully deserves its status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It is indeed spectacular, even on a dull day!!  The sheer scale of it is awesome - about 2000 limestone islets (I believe the correct geological name is karsts) in an area of approximately 1500 square kilometres.  Obviously, we saw only a fraction of this in the few hours when we cruised from Halong City to Cat Ba Island, but we were mesmerised by the beauty of the place.  Yes, there were plenty of tourists and fleets of boats similar to ours.  We met up with them at intervals throughout the day - the obligatory kayaking stop, the grotto visit, the floating village, etc., but, in between, we motored gently between these magnificent rocks and felt an incredible sense of wonder and of our insignificance in the great scheme of things.  Never was this sense more heightened than at dusk when, with the sun disappearing behind the rocks and the temperature falling, the feeling was almost eerie.

Throughout the day, we were also struck by the simplicity of the lives of the people who are born, are educated, work and die on the floating villages in Halong Bay.  Traditionally making their living from fishing, increasingly they rely on income from tourists.  Inevitably, their way of life is changing - children are going to schools on the mainland, some young adults choose to leave and re-locate to cities, but our guide assured us that there are enough youngsters who want to maintain and build on the traditions handed down to them to ensure the survival of these communitiies.

Travel Tip

Halong Bay can be an expensive place to visit, so we felt fortunate to stumble on a really cheap way to do it!  We needed to get from Hanoi to Cat Ba Island and went to a travel agent near our hotel in Hanoi to explore the options.  There are various bus/boat/bus or train/boat/bus combinations available, but one of them meant that we would get a cruise around Halong Bay en route.  We were taken by bus to Halong City and then, in effect, we joined one of the two-day cruises (the ones where guests pay an arm and a leg to spend a night on board) for the whole day and were dropped off on Cat Ba Island in the evening to be bussed the short distance into town.  This trip cost us $18 each which we thought was a bit of a bargain when you see how much they charge for a two-day (or even a one-day) cruise!!

You can see some photos of Halong Bay here.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Hanoi - our first visit to Vietnam's capital

Mobile greengrocer - Hanoi style
When we told friends we were going to Hanoi during the Christmas break they all commented on how different it was to Saigon and how much they knew we would enjoy it.  How right they were!  After a flight north lasting an hour and forty minutes, it really does feel like you've landed in a different country, not least because it's so much colder!!!  The temperature is not the only difference, though.  During the several days we spent there, we were struck by other noticeable differences between Hanoi and Saigon:
  • There are fewer motorbikes and more cars on the streets of Hanoi than Saigon.
  • Generally, the people in Hanoi have a much better grasp of English than those in the south.
  • There are far more trees in Hanoi than in Saigon.
  • There is a much wider range of bars and restaurants in Hanoi, especially in the Old Quarter, but they appear to close earlier than those in Saigon.
  • Talking of the Old Quarter, Hanoi feels like a much more characterful city than Saigon - there's a much greater sense of history.
  • Hanoi has lakes and parks; Saigon only has parks.
Am I giving the impression that we liked Hanoi more than Saigon?  Well, I know we were only there for a few days, but I suppose we did!  It had a much nicer 'feel' to it - that indescribable something that determines whether you like a place or not.

Some highlights of our time in Hanoi:
    Typical street scene in the Old Quarter
  1. The Old Quarter - we enjoyed spending time wandering the streets of the Old Quarter, photographing the architecture and sitting in cafes watching the world go by.  The night market in that district was a riot of colour and character, too.  (See more photos of the streets of Hanoi here.)

Red Bridge at night
Hoan Kiem Lake - provides a pleasant walk in the centre of the city (here are some photos of it).  Locals call it 'the lungs of Hanoi' and we certainly saw plenty of people exercising theirs around its shores - joggers, weightlifters, power walkers, dancers, tai chi devotees, to name but a few!  The Jade Pagoda, situated on a small island in the lake, accessed by crossing the 'Red Bridge', is worth a few minutes out of your day, as is a visit to the 'City View Cafe'.  The drinks here are quite expensive and the food isn't great, but the view of the lake and surrounding streets makes up for it!

Water puppet show
The Museum of Ethnology - this museum is a little out of the way, but well worth the cost of a taxi to get there, especially if you are planning to visit the minority people around Sapa.  The museum gives you a real insight into their history and culture and educates you as to how they live now.  The indoor exhibits focus on the costumes and crafts of the different minorities, whilst outside, in the extensive grounds, there are several reconstructions of typical village houses as well as examples of longboats and other forms of transport.  Included in the very reasonable entrance fee is the chance to watch a traditional water puppet show.  (There are photos of the museum here.)

Uncle Ho's Mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh's Mausoleum - whilst not really a 'highlight', no visit to Hanoi would be complete without seeing the man whose presence still dominates modern Vietnam.  It has to be said that the experience of visiting the mausoleum is not exactly a pleasant one!  On the day we visited, it was raining, so most of the potential visitors had been deterred and we only had to queue for an hour!!  The security checks are rigorous, quite rightly, and you have to leave all bags, cameras, etc. at a booth a long way from the entrance, but once you are through this procedure, the soldiers patrolling the queue were over-zealous, to say the least!  We thought we knew what to expect because our friends, Russ and Trish, had been a few months previously and reported back that Trish was told to remove her sunglasses whilst queuing as it was 'disrespectful'.  We were on our best behaviour and exchanged knowing looks as people around us were reprimanded for laughing, having an umbrella up, wearing a hat, and reading a guidebook.  We were sure we were in the clear - after all, we weren't carrying anything, we weren't wearing anything on our heads, we weren't even talking to each other, never mind laughing, but we still managed to transgress - well, Mark did!  He was told to take his hands from behind his back (he was walking a la mode de Prince Philip) and walk with them by his sides!  Having gone through all of that, the 'once around' Uncle Ho was rather surreal - just like viewing a waxwork.  I was struck by the irony of it all when, as has been widely reported, his last wish was to be cremated and have his ashes scattered - a third in the north of Vietnam, a third in the central region and a third in the south.

Uncle Ho's stilt house
Presidential Palace - the palace itself is not open to the public, but the grounds around it are.  In fact, the palace is only used today to entertain visiting dignitries.  It wasn't used in Ho Chi Minh's day, either.  In true communist style, he eschewed its luxury and built himself a more modest dwelling at the side of the lake behind it.  This stilt house, built to a traditional design, can be viewed.  It is said that the simple furniture and furnishings are exactly as they were when Uncle Ho lived there.  You can look at some more photos of the place here.

Inside St. Joseph's Cathedral
St. Joseph's Cathedral - perhaps it was because it was Christmas, but I was really moved by this magnificent church!  The outside was adorned by two massive nativity scenes and several Christmas trees which looked really festive when they were illuminated at night.  The interior was glorious and made even more so by the presence of a wedding party on the day I ventured inside.  Yet again, there are photos here.

87, Ma May - you could easily miss this restored tube-house in the heart of the Old Quarter, but I recommend you seek it out.  You will get a real insight into how and why houses were traditionally built and how people lived in them.

Hanoi has many more places to visit, including a plethora of museums, but we decided not to see them this time - it gives us a reason to come back to this lovely city!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Glogster - terrific tool or terrible torment?

I recently signed up for a couple 2013 evo (Electronic Village Online) sessions.  I signed up for two at this time last year and, I have to admit, that I didn't see either of them through to the end!  My interest waned, work got in the way, etc., etc..  This year, however, I've chosen subjects (mentoring and podcasting) which I'm really keen to learn about and I'm determined to make the time to complete the courses, despite the fact that my Mum will be arriving from the UK any day now and will be with me for a month!!

So, the sessions started on Monday 14th and I decided to get ahead with the podcasting activities first.  Most of these were quite straightforward as I was already familiar with the platforms and tools being used - Yahoo Groups, Google Maps, Voxopop, etc.  Activity number two, however, required me to use a 2.0 web tool which was new to me - Glogster.  I had heard about it before and considered using it with my classes, but had never quite got around to it.  This, then, was my opportunity and I was excited by it!

The first thing I did was go to from the wonderful Russell Stannard and watch his series of videos on Glogster.  He extolled the virtues of this amazing 2.0 web tool and confirmed my idea that it would make a great addition to my bank of teaching tools.  Armed with this information and with Russell's clear instructions ringing in my ears, I felt confident that I could complete the task in hand.

A few days on, I can report that I have (reasonably) successfully completed the activity I had to do - to produce a Glog introducing myself as a person and as a teacher.  I was to include images, text, video, graphics and links, but no audio at this stage as we are to go back and add it later in the course.  This is what I produced:

Not a bad first effort, but am I happy with it?  No, I'm not!!  I found the creation of my Glog to be a laborious and frustrating process.  It took me far more hours than I could justify spending on it.  I found the toolbar incredibly difficult to use.  Uploading images and videos wasn't easy.  I took advice from fellow participants on my EVO course and changed my browser, but I still had problems.  It was very difficult to edit items within the Glog and I never did manage to put in links to external websites.  In the end, I gave up and published what you see just to get the assignment finished.

So, my questions.  Is it just me?  What am I doing wrong?  How do you insert links into a Glog???  I still see the potential of the tool and know that my students would love it........ if it was easy to use.  And that's the problem!  If my students had half the problems I did, it would be frustrating for them and the whole exercise would lose its effectiveness as a language learning tool.  So, I'm asking for advice.  Has anyone used Glogster in their classes?  What has worked/not worked?  Any comments would be gratefully received!!

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

Rekindling my love of cinema-going!

From an early age, I was taken to the cinema.  We had two in my home town - the Gaumont and the ABC. 

The first film I remember vivdly is 'Bedknobs and Broomsticks' which my Grandma took me to see at the Gaumont when I was six.  I still recall the feeling of wonder I felt sitting in the darkened theatre and watching the magic unfold on the big screen.

Within a couple of years, I was attending the 'Saturday Morning Pictures' at the ABC with an older boy from our street and my younger brother.  Geoffrey, the older boy, was supposed to look after us on the bus journey into town and make sure we got home again safely, but, in reality, I always felt like I was the responsible one - after all, I was a girl!!  I loved my Saturday mornings!!  It was the highlight of my week.  We were ABC Minors (we had badges that said so!) and we even had our own song!  I came across this video on You Tube and, as soon as I heard the opening bars, I was transported back to those magical mornings!

We would sing it at the beginning and again in the interval when the compere would announce all the birthday boys and girls and throw sweets into the auditorium!  It was all very exciting!  Then there were the movies.  The morning's programme would be made up of cartoons, ongoing serials such as 'The Lone Ranger', 'Zorro' and 'Flash Gordon', an old comedy such as 'The Three Stooges' or 'Laurel and Hardy', and a Norman Wisdom or a Children's Foundation film.  One of these films that I particularly remember is 'The Boy Who Turned Yellow'!

I can't remember now whether the Saturday morning matinees stopped before we moved out of town, or whether I couldn't continue going because we moved out of town, but, either way, I was devastated!  Filling my Saturday mornings with 'Multi-Coloured Swap Shop' just wasn't the same!

Throughout my teens, there were several iconic films that stick in my mind - 'Jaws', 'Moonraker' (which I saw with my Dad, the biggest James Bond fan ever!), 'The Blue Lagoon', 'Breaking Glass' (the soundtrack from which I still play today) and the greatest of them all (to my teenage mind!), 'Grease'!! 

I saw all of these films at one or other of the aforementioned cinemas in town, but we also had a local 'flicks' in the small town where I went to school.  The Rio Cinema in Epworth was a place to meet friends and gossip about who was cosying up to who on the back row!  We were disciplined by a 'jobsworth' in a peaked hat who shone his torch along the rows constantly to catch underage smokers!  I have no recollection of any films I saw there - in fact, the only memory I have of the screen was watching the film melting when the equipment overheated, as it did on a regular basis!!

When I was sixteen, my Dad accepted a job in Paris and we moved there!  Oh, the glamour!  For the next two years, all the films I saw were in one of the many cinemas along the Champs Elysees.  I loved walking the length of the avenue looking at all of the film advertising hoardings and learning the names of French movie stars - Gerard Depardieu, Alain Delon, Yves Montand, Jean-Paul Belmondo...  The most famous poster was for 'Emanuelle' starring Sylvia Kristel.  This film had been made in 1974, but was still being shown in a Champs Elysees cinema in the early 80s.  I didn't see it then and haven't seen it now, but the advertising image is burned into my brain!

My friends and I would scour the listings in 'Time Out', looking for the magic letters - v.o. - version originale.  Films I particularly remember from this time are 'Arthur', 'Chariots of Fire''Gandhi'  'Raiders of the Lost Ark''For Your Eyes Only' (another one for Dad & I!), 'E.T.', and the classic 'An Officer and a Gentleman'!

After doing my A-levels in Paris, I took a gap year, during which I don't think cinema featured that much, but when I went to university in Manchester in 1984, one of the first clubs I joined in 'Freshers' Week' was 'The Film Society'.  We would watch mostly foreign language films in a small room in the Students' Union building and then discuss them.  It was all very pretentious and I can't say I enjoyed it that much!  My membership ended the following year when a new arts venue opened in Manchester and I got a part-time job there working behind the bar in the evenings.  It was 1985 and it was The Cornerhouse.  It opened to a big fanfare and critical acclaim.  Channel 4 was one of the backers and it felt really exciting to be a part of it all.  In the days before the explosion in the popularity of wine bars, our bar was new and fresh and attracted the great and the good of Manchester's thriving arts scene.  The Cornerhouse was a centre for contemporary arts and independant cinema.  The three screening rooms were all quite small and had an intimate feel.  I loved watching films there, especially as I got discount or even free access if there were available seats!  A couple of memorable movies I saw there are 'My Beautiful Laundrette' and 'A Room with a View'.

In the years after graduation, I gradually got out of the habit of going to the cinema.  I don't really know why - too busy, my husband at the time didn't like going, too far to the nearest cinema, etc., etc..  Then, in 1996, I met my now husband, Mark, and for one of our first 'dates' he suggested we went to the cinema to see the new blockbuster that everyone was raving about, 'Evita'.  We went to a new multiplex, the first time I'd been to such an establishment.  It was all very glossy and exciting and the seats in the auditorium were so comfortable.  There was even a special place in the arm to put your drink!!  When the film started, however, it was terrible!!  It was soooooooooooo loud!!  I could feel the sound through every part of me - it still makes me shudder when I think about it now, all these years later!  We stayed for the whole film (don't ask me why!) and by the time we came out, I was completely deaf!  I had such pain in my ears and my head.  I didn't recover my hearing properly for almost a month.  It was an evening that was to put me off cinema-going for a very long time - until a few weeks ago, in fact!!

During the intervening 16 years between cinema visits, we kept up with what was going on in the world of movies.  For the first few years, we were always way behind the times as we waited for films to be released on DVD or shown on TV.  We saw many of the most famous movies of the era on a tiny screen on an aircraft!  Later, as lead times between cinema and DVD releases became shorter, we felt more up-to-date and, later still, sometimes dodgy downloads satisfied our desire to see certain films almost as soon as they were shown in the cinema.  I was never tempted back into a movie theatre, though!  The horror of that night back in 1996 was too much!

So, which film enticed us back into the cinema?  Well, it was 'Skyfall', the first Bond movie released since my Dad's death.  We were sitting having breakfast in a restaurant in Saigon during one of our regular weekends in the city & I was flicking through the day's copy of Vietnam News.  I saw the cinema listings and, having no other plans for the morning, we decided to go!  Finding out where the nearest cinema was and what time the showings were was straightforward in an age of mobile internet connection.  It was with some trepidation that I entered the cinema, though, especially knowing how keen the Vietnamese are on anything loud and noisy!  I needn't have worried, however.  We spent a very pleasant morning in a comfortable cinema watching an enjoyable movie.  I was blown away by the impact of seeing the film on the big screen.  I had forgotten how good it could be and realised what I'd been missing all these years!!

Since then, we have seen several films, both in Saigon and Hanoi, including 'Life of Pi' and 'Jack Reacher'.  Then, this last weekend, with Mark away in England, I spent both Saturday and Sunday mornings alone in the cinema watching 'Les Miserables' and 'The Impossible'.  I was struck again by the range of emotions which can be evoked by watching moving images in a darkened room and vowed that such experiences will feature as an important part of my leisure time in future.

Monday, 14 January 2013

Day trip to Can Gio (Monkey Island)

Ferry across the Mekong
There are only so many day trips which are doable from Saigon and, having lived in the area for 18 months now, we have done most of them.  There was one, however, which had eluded us - Can Gio.  In fact, we had booked it on two previous occasions, but circumstances (overbooking and then underbooking!) conspired against us and we were unable to go.  So, a couple of weeks before Christmas, we decided to try again and this time we were successful!!

We left the city in an old four-wheel drive - six paying guests squeezed into the back and the driver and our English-speaking guide up front.  Our fellow passengers were three Taiwanese people, two Saigon residents and their guest, and a very chatty single Australian lady who had told us her entire life story before we had gone very far!

We drove south out of the city for about two hours.  It's only 50 kilometres or so, but the roads are not the best and the traffic slowed us down.  Then it was a short ferry crossing of the Mekong Delta and we were on Can Gio Island.  Here, the roads were wide, well-maintained and free of traffic.  Our guide told us that it is the location of choice for wealthy Vietnamese to retire to and we certainly saw some very nice-looking villas.

Don't know why they were wearing helmets!
Our first stop was on the coast where we watched some local fishermen dredging the sand after the tide had gone out.  They were after scallops and other crustaceans.  Only a short walk from the beach, we visited a fish market where we saw a huge variety of these creatures.  We were shocked to learn that the enormous oysters on display were going for the princely sum of 15,000 VND (about 50 pence) a kilo!  Our guide explained that they are not popular so do not attract a very high price.  We suggested a business opportunity for him, but I don't think he believed us when we told him what prices they might fetch in Europe!

From there, we went to a beach resort for lunch, after which we had time for a swim and a bit of sunbathing.  It was so good to cool off after the heat of the market and we vowed to check out transport possibilities that would enable us to spend weekends there.

Our final stop of the day was 'Monkey Island' itself, the nature reserve which gives Can Gio its name.  The reserve consists of 80,000 hectares of mangroves and water coconut trees.  Formerly, the area was home to a wide range of wildlife, but most of it was eaten during the American War (according to our guide) resulting today in a dearth of native fauna.  There are now only a few saltwater crocodiles being kept in capitvity whereas a few years ago there were thousands.  The only creature which hasn't disappeared is the monkey.  There are a couple of thousand residing in a small area and it was a little disconcerting stepping between groups of them as we walked through the reserve!

After our walk, we had a ride in a motor boat through the mangroves to see a base used by Viet Cong fighters during the war.  The various sleeping, eating, and meeting huts are linked by very dodgy bamboo walkways and, to be honest, I was more concerned about falling through one of these than in what I was seeing around me!

Don't be taken in by those eyes!
On returning to the entrance to the reserve, we were told that we would be heading straight back to Saigon, so we all took the opportunity to use the facilities and buy a drink and a snack for the journey.  I went to the shop to buy a beer for Mark and an ice-cream for me and was heading back to our vehicle when it happened.... I was viciously attacked by a rather large male monkey!!  He was single-minded in his intention to have my ice-cream and came running at full pelt from out of the trees!!  He came from behind me and I had no inkling until he had jumped on my back and grabbed on to my arm.  Instinct kicked in and I threw him off me.  He landed on his back and appeared to be winded, but recovered quickly and ran off with my ice-cream!  I was left with a very muddy shirt, scratches up my arm and a bleeding finger where he had sunk his teeth into me!  I still bear the scars - a lasting reminder of my day trip to Can Gio!

You can see more of my photos of Can Gio here.

Friday, 11 January 2013

What makes a lesson great? - an #eltchat summary

This is a summary of the first #eltchat of 2013 which took place at 12 noon on 9th January.  It felt good to be back after the Christmas break and exchanging ideas again with colleagues old and new from around the world.  The full title of the chat was:

What makes a lesson great?  Favourite lessons - the ones we do over and over again that always work.

This was my favourite kind of chat - a lively and informative conversation between enthusiastic teachers with few links to external sources.  It was expertly moderated by @Shaunwilden and we were pleased to be joined in the closing stages by @Marisa_C.

The hour kicked off with a tweet from @teflrinha which resonated with many of us - 'I find favourite lessons like jokes ... I can never remember more than a vague impression and have to reinvent the wheel ... should keep a note.'

So what does make a lesson great?

Some ideas:
  • When I think of the lessons I like to run year after year, they are the ones that allow the students to surprise me - @kevchanwow
  • Any lesson when students have that look that says 'I got it and can use it!' - @PaulIhcordoba
  • Lessons that are engaging and involve all four skills - @worldteacher
  • It flows effortlessly, completely engaging the students and leading to a satisfying outcome. - @teflrinha
  • Lessons which are well-planned, engaging, energetic and fun - @TPMcDonald85
  • Interesting tasks that bring out lots of language from the students - @eltknowledge
  • Lessons in which students collaborate and learn from each other with some help from me - @BrunoELT
  • A great lesson has room for us as teachers to really learn and stretch as well - @kevchanwow
  • Lessons with games or any kind of competitive element
  • Adaptability is a key issue for a successful lesson, both in terms of the lesson being adaptable for different groups and also being able to adapt a lesson as you go along according to circumstances on the day
  • Lessons that take advantage of sudents' dynamics - @kevchanwow
  • Lessons which are coherent, stand alone, and where the students come out feeling they have learnt something concrete - @jo_cummins
  • Tasks pitched at the right level, just by the sense of challenge and chance of success, generate interest - @kevchanwow
  • Lessons which include student-generated materials - @teflrinha
  • Any lesson involving drama or role-play
  • Being creative and having fun while problem solving sounds like a good combination - @AlexandraKouk
  • Lessons where students are doing most of the work - @SueAnnan
  • A great lesson is a combination of material/students/teacher/planets aligning... - @jo_cummins
  • Lessons which give the students something to chew on, which have the shock factor, even - @ColeenMonroe
  • The most successful lessons I have seen or designed always had a powerful context/story and great memorability - @Marisa_C
  • I know it's a good lesson when students forget to remind me that it's break time! - @worldteacher
  • .....or don't notice the bell! - @GemL1
  • .....or ask, 'Has the lesson ended?' - @prese1
  • .....or if I myself say, 'Is it over already?' and don't notice the time passing! - @eltknowledge
Do teachers and students agree on what makes a great lesson?

@yitzha_sarwono began this thread of the chat by making the comment that her favourite lessons to teach are sometimes very different to her students' favourite lessons, adding that, whilst she favours pronunciation classes, her young students prefer learning grammar!  There is clearly a danger of teachers teaching lessons they love, but which don't teach much of use, as talked about in this article by @hughdellar.  However, most participants agreed that if students enjoy a lesson, the teacher does, too and vice-versa.

Examples of favourite lessons

Most of the contributors' favourite lessons seemed to involve an element of collaboration and teamwork and many were project or task based.
  1. 'How to murder your teacher' - students hotseat the teacher, then plan the perfect murder (via @eltknowledge).
  2. 'Teacher Disappears, Students Suspected' - a news story based lesson which uses all four skills (via @worldteacher).  (I'll write this activity up as a separate blogpost now that I've been reminded of it!)
  3. 'Create an alien' - great for reviewing/expanding parts of the body vocabulary (I can write this one up, too, if there's sufficient demand!).
  4. 'Describe your house' - pairwork activity where student 1 describes where he lives and his partner has to draw it (via @chiasuan).
  5. 'Show and tell' (via @yitzha_sarwono).
  6. 'Redesign a house' - a group task which can be simplified by providing lexis or shifted to different conversation topics (via @kevchanwow).
  7. Student presentations - allow students to present on topics they've chosen - a totally student-centred activity (via @eltknowledge).

Great lessons are not necessarily the ones which have been meticulously planned - sometimes they just happen, but they are the ones which are relevant, engaging and varied with a clear learning outcome.  We also acknowledge that a lesson that works incredibly well with one group could just as easily fall flat on its face with another!  The most important thing, therefore, is to know our students and tailor our lessons for them.  We cannot control what our students learn, but, by keeping them engaged, we can provide the potential for learning.


Thursday, 10 January 2013

Goodbye 2012, Hello 2013!

I intended to write this post a week or so ago, but, already, the new year is running away from me!  That was my problem at the back end of 2012 - I just don't know where the time disappeared to!  So, before we get too far in to 2013, I want to take a moment to reflect on what has gone and look forward to what is to come.

Overall 2012 was a good year for Mark and I.


I began the year working as a senior teacher at Eastern International University, responsible for a team of teachers working with pre-intermediate students.  I was enjoying my job, but there were a number of frustrations which had made me decide not to renew my contract when it ended in September.  I vowed, instead, to take some time out to do my DELTA (finally!!).  In the summer, however, things changed.  Our head of department left and I was approached to take over the running of the general English programme with responsibility for five academic levels, over 2000 students and a team of 40 or so teachers.  Lots of soul-searching followed, but I was excited by the challenge and felt that there was enough of an opportuniity being offered for me to make a difference, so I accepted!

So, since August, I have been managing the programme.  Initially, this involved designing a curriculum and writing syllabi and schemes of work - things which we hadn't had in place during my first year with the institution.  There was a lot of work to be done on administrative and procedural issues.  I was also very keen to implement a CPD programme in order to recruit and retain high calibre teachers.  It was hard work, much of which is ongoing, and I had little time left for other pursuits (hence no blogposts in the latter part of 2012!), but, on the whole, I enjoyed it and continue to do so.  We had the first set of student results under the new system just before Christmas and they were better than I could have hoped.  I have a great team of teachers around me and, together, I feel that we are making a small difference in this corner of Vietnam!


Despite working hard, we did take time out to travel in 2012, making the most of our location here in south-east Asia. 

We began the year in the UK, celebrating with family.  Then, at Tet a few weeks later, we travelled around Cambodia for a couple of weeks visiting Angkor Wat, Siem Reap, Battambang, and Phnom Pehn.  We loved the country and hope to spend more time exploring the northern regions at some point.

We had a couple of long weekends in Mui Ne and regularly spent time in Saigon.

In July, we spent a fortnight in Java and made a road trip all around the island.  We marvelled at Borobudur and the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park and enjoyed our time in Yogyakarta and Malang.

Following that, we had three weeks back in the UK, the highlight of which had to be our day at the London 2012 Paralympics!

We ended the year in the north of Vietnam visiting Hanoi, Cat Ba Island and Sapa, all of which I have yet to blog about!

Looking Back

I wrote a blogpost at the beginning of 2012 setting out my (very modest) goals for the year.  These were:

1. Make better use of my time

2. Maintain better contact with friends and family
3. Work on my professional development as a teacher

To do this I intended to:
  • Go swimming at least once a week 
  • Go walking at least twice a week
  • Revive my blog and publish at least one post every week
  • Reply to all those Christmas and New Year messages I received
  • Start studying for my DELTA
  • Take part in some online teacher training sessions
So, did I do these things?  Mainly, yes!   I went swimming a lot, if not every week, then at least every two weeks.  I walked more and I definitely revived my blog with 58 posts during the year.  I think I was more conscious of keeping in touch with friends and family although I guess some of them would beg to differ!  I certainly took part in plenty of online teacher training sessions and published summaries of some of them on here.  So that just leaves the DELTA!  Well, apart from some pre-reading, I have to admit to no progress on this front - I can't see it happening in 2013, either!  2014 maybe?

2013 was the first year without my Dad.  It wasn't easy.  There were moments when I felt the loss of him almost as a physical pain.  These times are becoming less frequent as the months pass, but I'm sure I'll always miss his presence in my life, especially when I so desperately want to share something with him!  The year ended on a very sad note, too - waking up on Christmas morning to the news that my auntie (my Dad's sister) had died a couple of hours earlier.  This was a huge blow - she was my confidante throughout my adult life, the only person, other than Mark, that I could share everything with and the only member of my family who read every blogpost I wrote.  She was also the most remarkable woman I have ever known - I will write about her when the emotions are not so raw!

Looking Forward

Despite the upsetting start to the year, we have a lot to look forward to in 2013. 

We spent the first few days of January exploring Vietnam's capital city.  Now, I'm back to work, but not for too long because we have another two-week break for the Tet holiday starting on February 1st!  My Mum is coming to stay for a month.  It'll be her first overseas trip since my Dad died, so I'm hoping she'll enjoy it.  We're going to be spending some time in Hue, Hoi An and the Mekong Delta. 

After that, I'll be presenting at an international conference for the first time!  It's CamTESOL in Phnom Pehn and I'll be presenting jointly with Lesley Cioccarelli (@cioccas), a fellow teacher who I 'met' through Twitter.

We plan to get a couple of long weekends in to coastal resorts we have yet to visit and, in the summer, we hope to go to Sarawak.  Everything being equal, we will finish the year with Christmas in the UK.

On the whole, life is good!!