Teaching Unplugged Course Natal: A teacher’s reflections

Dear ELT professional,

On a cool Spring evening in 2011 I made my way to the British Council in Spring Gardens, London, to attend a talk by ELT writer, teacher and trainer, Luke Meddings. As we talked after his brilliant session, I asked Luke if he might be interested in coming to Brazil for a Teaching Unplugged course. His reaction was so positive and enthusiastic that I thought to myself: this IS going to happen! (although I had only a vague idea of how such an ambitious project could possibly come true). And it did come true!

For three days in last July, twenty teachers gathered at the Cultura Inglesa Natal for the first Teaching Unplugged course in Brazil. One of such teachers was Alan Seabra who flew from distant Rio de Janeiro just to participate in the course. Two months on, Alan shares his reflections on the course and gives us an overview of what the experience was like.  Please scroll down to read Alan’s account

Fernando Guarany Jr
“The more we are, the stronger we become”

Teaching Unplugged Natal: Alan Seabra’s Reflections

To close the 1st semester of work in 2012, I got myself in 3 events which promised to be landmarks in my career in ELT. The first was the Teaching Unplugged Course with Luke Meddings, in Natal, Rio Grande do Norte. The second was the 10th ABCI Conference, held in São Paulo, and to close the sequence with a flourish, the 13th Braz-TESOL National Convention, in Rio. They promised to be landmarks, and landmarks they were.

I must stay though that despite the impact and power you get from over a thousand teachers getting together, the 20 or so of us together with Luke Meddings in Natal gave me lots to think about. And the amount (and quality!) of this thinking, associated with the atmosphere of sharing with colleagues in Natal was staggering. To start with, because of the energetic and enthusiastic teachers from varied institutions that I met at Cultura Inglesa Natal (the sort of professionals by whom Dogme does not go unnoticed), and secondly, because Luke proved to be a very bright, accessible person and professional.

Teaching Unplugged Natal

If I had to describe what the whole experience was about in just a few words, I would start by saying that it was not some kind of secret movement, plotting against materials writers and publishing houses. Whatever the whole idea now described as Dogme, or Teaching Unplugged, may have been in its beginning, the way I saw it was just not like that. It was more along the lines of a mind-set for teachers who look for constant personal/professional development. It was not about “discovering the powder” and revolutionizing the world with the miracle method that will save our teaching lives, it was all about getting back to basics, putting first things first. It was about realizing how the simplest things can be the most wonderful ones.

As mentioned by a number of ELT experts recently, the idea is that teaching should go primarily by the speed of learning, not the speed of materials; that work should be done on emergent language. If you take that onto a step further, you get an idea of what the Dogme we had the chance to see demonstrated by one of its proponents was like. I would see the idea of “emergent language” within the Dogme scope (one of the movement premises) as teaching/learning being dealt with in a mostly serious fashion. Forget about getting rid of coursebooks, Dogme is much more than that.

The course

So it is day one. Academic protocol. Introductions. Fiona Porpino, academic coordinator with Cultura Inglesa Natal and secretary for the Braz-TESOL Natal Chapter, welcomed everyone. First Vice-President Ana Beatriz Guilherme (Pro-English) delivered her welcome speech. We then had Cecília Lemos (Associação Brasil-América) introducing Luke Meddings on behalf of Fernando Guarany Jr (President of the BRAZ-TESOL RN and coordinator of the Teaching Unplugged Course in Natal) . And right from the beginning, just as Luke said his thank-yous, talked about himself and got us going around the room making introductions, we could picture where the course was going.

It was all full of reflection. Following Donald Schön’s ideas, it was full of reflection in action and on action – idea kept alive throughout the course and, I can say, that is with us to stay. On the first day, we get a blank sheet of paper. We hear instructions, a few folds here, a few words scribbled down there, numbers… and we had our timetable. A timetable to be filled out on the go. And this was one perfect metaphor of the principles of our course: see the whole thing being built in front of you, with and by you, not just be given to you. I wonder if that metaphor for the course was clear to many of my colleagues at that moment (to me it was not!) but it perfectly describes it.

After lunch, we are introduced with a practice somewhat unusual: open-space sessions. As Luke regularly did, kneeling down on the floor he explained how we would have the chance to discuss input from the morning sessions as well as think of ways to apply that to our practice (Reflection-on-action). We had a couple of topics up on the board (an IWB, I should add!) which we would subscribe to and then get together to talk. No information being injected in us. It was all our very own reflection building the structure of what we would take from the course.

On the second day, that was even more powerful. If the metaphor of building the timetable as the course happened was good enough, having an open-space session on the roof of the building was powerful. We had started the day with being presented with the idea of stimulus to generate discussion and authentic conversation. It turns out that this lesson in particular became stimulus for us to have our own reflections and insights. Reflections kept catching, ideas evolving, and we were feeling even more home with each other.

On the third day, that feeling of “can I have seconds?” from the second day was still there. But people started leaving, as they had planes to catch and places to go, which made the end become clearer. The fact that we spent three days thinking, rethinking and reformatting our strategies and attitudes was great – there is no denying it. But just as it was great, it was also cruel. Those three days together were enough to take us beyond being just teachers who had met up for the course. We became more than that. The course made us more than that.  It was hard to say goodbye.

One aspect that soothes this feeling, however, is that all that thinking and reflecting actually gets translated into practice, easily. Luke started the whole course quoting Heraclitus’s “You could not step twice into the same river” and a response to that, saying that when you think of stepping into that river, you are not the same person. More than just information passed on to us to be written down, the whole course (which I refuse to call “training”) was such that you could not possibly leave it being the same teacher. I am glad to say that I am not speaking only for myself here – these are actually words I am stealing from Jonathan Alderman, a friend based in Salvador, but that so perfectly describe the feeling of many of us who attended the course. And the feeling to top it up can only be of gratitude.

So my special thanks go to Fernando Guarany, who very kindly assisted me from the moment I heard about the course to the end of it; to the Cultura Inglesa Natal staff, who were very kind and welcoming, and to Eduardo Santos, Cecília Lemos and Jonathan Alderman, with whom I had the most inspiring moments talking about our passion for teaching (even in the wee small hours!). I must also thank Stephen Barlow, who so very kindly offered his house for me, travelling all the way from Rio to Natal. And the final thank you has to be to Luke, who helped me get inspired, once again, and feel the passion for teaching grow even stronger.

Thank you all!

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6 Responses to Teaching Unplugged Course Natal: A teacher’s reflections

  1. Hey Alan, congrats on your post. You were able to express the real beauty of those 3 special days in Natal. I was lucky to have taken part in that training… or as you put it, course! I must thank you for great talks and discussions on issues related to ELT (and life). Your words helped me remember how unique the whole experience was and how we ‘felt more home as days went by’. A big thank you for everyone who attended the course, a special thank you to Luke who, I believe wasn’t the tutor – he was more like a participant inspiring and being inspired by others. =]


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