domingo, 28 de noviembre de 2010

Uses for Crayon Physics Deluxe Demo version.

I have commented on this before, but haven't put much detail on how I used it.

While Graham Stanley did a nice write up on the game here, in digital play, a great blog for those interested in game based learning ( ) , I thought I would add a few thoughts...

This game, with a free demo version here: , is an amazing resource for language learners. It is a low input - high output exercise, true task based learning, highly engaging, and great for collaborative learning.

A pure visual framework, it allows you to SEE how your students think and create real communication situations. It is an open and intuitive game where crayon drawings come to life, and operate with a 2 dimensional physics. The object is to make a ball touch a star... in the coolest way possible.

So, suggestions for usage in class settings:

* * * * *


a. One crayon physics station/ (which can be an IWB, a wiiboard, or even a computer with a decent sized screen) per 10 student group

b. timekeeping device.

* * * * *


Introduction game. (As students familiarize themselves with the game.)

Students get to draw three lines each and pass it on to the next person.
They explain what they are doing, while they do it, to the group.

-while this is not going to elicit a lot of language, and may not appear engaging, it will actually be quite effective, and is great present continuous practice for lower level students.
-variation 1: another student, or the rest of his team of 5 people, explains what the first student is -variation 2: another student, or the rest of his team tell the first student what to do.

Variant game 1 (as students become more familiar.)

Starting team tries to block team 2 from the star. They can draw one line each time.
Team discusses (in English, naturally...) their strategy for blocking, and take turns blocking.
Team two also descuss and alternate every turn... they have two lines every turn, and can use one of those lines to erase the move of the blocking team, while the blocking team can’t erase.
(Just as a note, the game is skewed in favour of the drawing team, who will always win if the game goes long enough.)

-variation: blocking team can’t use the same move twice, which will encourage more conversation as they look for new strategies.

Variant game 3. (as students become adept.)

Teams compete for the most elegant solution to the same puzzle.
They explain what they will do, and then proceed to do it.
Most elegant and original solution wins.
(here is an excellent opportunity to praise ambitious failure...)

Variant 4: Rube Goldberg machine.

A Rube Goldberg machine performs a very simple task in a very complex way. The point of this variation is to make the most complicated chain reaction possible. The best example of one that I can think of is Ok Go’s video here, ok go video, in itself a marvellous visual scaffolding for either conditional or present continuous language.

This is best given with time for the group to plan, with paper, on how to do their variation. They will spend most of their time working out their machine, and then set up the machine backwards... and then watch it (probably fail.)

Insist that it go through at least three “stages”. It is possible to have ropes or rocks that can be erased in real time to make different parts start.

* * * * *


So, in summary, I think this is a great opportunity to apply game-based learning to the classroom with limited resources... there is no need for internet connection in class, and with three laptops it would be possible to serve a 30 student class. Notwithstanding... if there is a possiblity to have 3 projectors and make three wii whiteboards for that class it is well worth the effort to do so.

The teacher can gather interesting emergent language, encourage students, or correct those nasty workbook entries accumulating at their desk...

domingo, 17 de octubre de 2010

English vowels for Spanish Speakers

Sounds are not often taught, and phonetics is a bugbear and source of fear amoung non-NESTS... but it is easy to do, and fun to do so. The vowels can be taught in under 15 minutes using the chart... so I hope this will be as useful for your students as it has been for mine.

Pitter patter, let's get at her.
I love pronunciation and I love hobbits.

Adrian Underhill is not a member of the Underhill family of hobbits, but his Phonemic Chart is a very useful, and enduring tool for learning sounds for anyone who has fossilized the phonemes (meaningful sounds) they hear. It is somewhat intimidating until you become familiar with it. (Macmillan has graciously put a lecture on youtube, which you can see here.)

It is:
-a map for your tongue.
-a means connecting voiced and unvoiced sounds
-a means of “seeing” sound

It is also possible to connect Language 1 sounds with English. As I am in a Castillian Spanish atmosphere, something that the Spanish have difficulty with at a phonetic level is vowels.

As a (mostly) phonetic language, they have 5 vowels that correlate like this:

a → æ ʌ ɑ:
i → i: ɪ
o → ɒ ɔ:
u → ʊ u:
e → e

They don't have weak form (schwa), so ə and ɜ: are totally foreign.
The quality of the vowels are different.

English goes louder: eeeee
Spanish goes softer: eeeee

Of course, phonetic symbols are frightening and confusing out of context, and our job is not to bring unnecessary complication into the classroom. So... how do we look at this effectively?

In walks Mr. Underhill's chart. Or at least part of it... the vowels.

here I put words, (training wheels, really) to contextualize the sounds. (I also mention that as a Canadian, I don't use a lot of /ɜ:/ )

I then teach the quick hacks, /i/, and /u/ (If I want to feel clever, I can mention that we use the Spanish sound /i/ at the end of words after L sounds, but I don't think it helps anyone. )

The hacks: (and convenient lies) for the Spanish: shorten the sound in /ɪ/ and /ʊ/, lengthen the sounds with colons (/i:/ and /u:/) , gesturing the time with hands. (or cigar boxes like in the video from my show at the end of the post.)

Then show the REAL sound by having them do a tongue slide from front /i:/ to /u:/ .
Tongue starts at front, slides back slowly, while lips go from "smiling" to "kissing". (you can probably ignore the lips, as they will naturally close as the tongue goes back if your students are thinking of their u sound.)

/e/ being the same, go on to /a/, which is a tongue slide from /æ/ → /ʌ/ → /ɑ:/ on the bottom of your mouth.

/o/ is going up and down from /ɒ/ and /ɔ:/

(Weak form is perhaps best seen on the Adrian Underhill video.) I have them make the sound that zombies make, (uhhhhhhh...) and change length. I point out that schwas are 30% of all vowels used, and that they are never stressed. Zombies don't yell.

Underhill points out that while many coursebooks teach one sound today, another tomorrow, it is when they are together that they all sort each other out. Have the class follow your finger around the chart while making the sounds... it is fun, and they can suddenly make precise sounds they may not be even able to hear yet.

If the phonemic chart doesn't interest you there is always phonetics through juggling like in my show, "Perception and Deception".

Un numero completo (teatro en inglés)
Cargado por mattledding. - Mira más vídeos divertidos.

lunes, 11 de octubre de 2010

George Macdonald on imagination in education.

The trend in the United States, which is slowly worming its way into Spain is to demand teacher accountability via standardized tests. Focusing too much on and offering teacher compensation (or "spanking teachers") based on the results of standardized tests means that we will attempt to produce standardized students that can write these tests, not independent thinkers that can solve higher level problems outside of the curriculum.

Students will be written by tests.

To see the focus of today on standardized tests, content based courses, and expensive inventions which supposedly "spark the imagination", but rather facilitate attention to "empty vessel" content-centered teaching makes me feel that imagination needs a defender much more capable than myself.

George Macdonald, (10 Dec, 1824 - 18 Sept, 1905) wrote fairytales and novels for "children and the childlike". He is not a terribly well known writer today, but is the source of many great writers. He inspired writers such as Tolkien, Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, and his contemporary friend, Mark Twain. His "The Light Princess" is an excellent fairytale that can be used as teaching material (I believe Macmillan sells a reader, although the story can be downloaded freely.)

Mr. Macdonald has an excellent defense, in his "A Dish of Orts" available, at no cost, in Project Gutenberg. (Project Gutenberg is in itself an excellent defense for the accusation that internet is killing reading. It is a 24/7 omnipresent library where we can carry extensive libraries of books that have stood the test of time, and bring them with us in laptops, ebooks, and smartphones.) While his Christian viewpoint throughout the book may not be terribly popular with everyone today (nor was it probably in his time, as Macdonald attacked hypocrisy within the church of his day, throughout all his work.) there are messages here that ring true and clear no matter what your spiritual beliefs are.

* * * * *
following excerpts from A DISH OF ORTS  BY GEORGE MACDONALD. EDENBRIDGE, KENT. August 5, 1893. 
* * * * *

Those who would quell the apparently lawless tossing of the spirit, called the youthful imagination, would suppress all that is to grow out of it. They fear the enthusiasm they never felt; and instead of cherishing this divine thing, instead of giving it room and air for healthful growth, they would crush and confine it--with but one result of their victorious endeavours-- imposthume, fever, and corruption. And the disastrous consequences would soon appear in the intellect likewise which they worship. Kill that whence spring the crude fancies and wild day-dreams of the young, and you will never lead them beyond dull facts--dull because their relations to each other, and the one life that works in them all, must remain undiscovered. Whoever would have his children avoid this arid region will do well to allow no teacher to approach them--not even of mathematics--who has no imagination.
(...and a little bit later...)

For, if the whole power of pedantry should rise against her, the imagination will yet work; and if not for good, then for evil; if not for truth, then for falsehood; if not for life, then for death; the evil alternative becoming the more likely from the unnatural treatment she has experienced from those who ought to have fostered her.

The power that might have gone forth in conceiving the noblest forms of action, in realizing the lives of the true-hearted, the self-forgetting, will go forth in building airy castles of vain ambition, of boundless riches, of unearned admiration. The imagination that might be devising how to make home blessed or to help the poor neighbour, will be absorbed in the invention of the new dress, or worse, in devising the means of procuring it. For, if she be not occupied with the beautiful, she will be occupied by the pleasant; that which goes not out to worship, will remain at home to be sensual. Cultivate the mere intellect as you may, it will never reduce the passions: the imagination, seeking the ideal in everything, will elevate them to their true and noble service. Seek not that your sons and your daughters should not see visions, should not dream dreams; seek that they should see true visions, that they should dream noble dreams.
* * * * *
The Victorian novelist is not outdated today: we are in a new Victorian age, where information and access to it is plentiful. Anyone with an ability to read and imagine today can eventually make or push advances in uncountable areas, the same way that a high school graduate could make scientific advances then. With so many new intellectual and creative frontiers opening up, there is room for all to make their mark, if they so choose.

We have to allow children not only to solve problems, but to find the problems themselves.

We have to allow children to be productive individuals, not mere bubble test consumers.
We have to allow children to see true visions, and dream noble dreams.

miércoles, 28 de abril de 2010

Delsarte's approval... in defense of (some) 19th century teaching.

In the StacksImage by Crossett Library via Flickr

While Sir Ken Robertson claims in his excellent video that we have spent the 20th century perfecting 19th century teaching, and it is time for 21st century teaching... many ideas, and the line rings true, but my "I dunno..." instinct alarm also starts ringing. Maybe teaching is evolving through several entities, and that we need to reclaim some good lost ideas that got ignored.

An educational model with which I find few people to chat about is by Francois Delsarte (November 11, 1811 – July 20, 1871), a French theatre/music teacher/theoretician who was largely discredited because of how people used his theories without understanding them, and as he only left fragments of his own work, which one has to mine through to get the gems.

A product of his time and background, he was profoundly influenced by his Catholic background... the charts he penned classifying types of angels are less useful than his other theoretical work.

He is directly responsible for what is called modern dance in America, modern mime, and much understanding of the meaning of human gesture. He was given the highest honour in France for his discovery that our thumb curls in when we die, allowing soldiers to separate their dead and wounded at a glance, saving lives. (as many lives as medicine at that time could save... Stephen Leacock suggested that medical training used to consist of one semester of school and a summer at the sawmill.)

In creating artists, he suggested that there are three stages:

1. imitation of existing art (learn technique)
2. improvement on existing art (use technique creatively)
3. creating new art (make technique, which others can now imitate...)

(Notice how this correlates with Steven Covey's "Dependant, Independant, Interdependant" progression, but over 125 years ago?)

I think that today's focus on standard based (which is nonetheless an improvement from norm-referencing bell curves) could be a way of remaining eternally in the dry first step, and not becoming autonomous (step 2) or innovators (step 3).

My experience at l'école nationale de cirque de Montréal helped me understand this process better, which I think is applicable to any educational system. It focused on enabling me to learn, adapt and create, and I am a better learner (and, hopefully, teacher) for it.

Bloom's taxonomy is useful as a roadmap, and I think it combines with Delsarte's principle beautifully to focus on creating autonomy and empowering students.

While technique is important, in times of rapid change, we need to get past the first stage of imitation, parroting, or we will not be able to adapt to changes, or create solutions fast enough. Rote memorization for itself teaches students a useless task... if they can look up an answer on wikipedia, why do they need to memorize it? (To practice memory there are many useful courses that we don't use, which would be more adequate) An excellent blog post on choosing questions is John Sowash's

"Google-Proof Questioning: A New Use for Bloom's Taxonomy". (this is a link. please click it if you haven't read it.)

So today's settings, where we spank or applaud teachers and students for metrics, scare me: metrics are dreadfully easy to abuse or twist, because a description of reality is not reality. Metrics that are accurate and useful descriptions would have to be much more complicated than google's search algorithm, and would also have to have measures to look for cheating attempts and punish them like PageRank... yet it would have to be unintrusive, and not require constant stopping for reporting. It would have to respect privacy while requiring incredible amounts of information.

In short, we don't have a system ready to implement... yet. And such a vast responsibility deserves more than a half-vast attempt.

Metrics are useful in a large scale environment, but teaching happens in a small scale environment. (the smaller the class, the better in my opinion ESPECIALLY for new teachers... wouldn't a 8 child class of difficult children be an excellent first year job/trial by fire that would lighten the load on regular classes? Send flames below...)

If we want to look at expensive metrics, Bill Gates' foundation (the most influential in the US, and as tweeted, have paid Participant Media, $,2,000,000 for 7 months of promoting a funny little film called, "Waiting for Superman"... heard of it?) says the number one factor is the teacher, (see ted video here) that a teacher is born, and more credentials or seniority does not make a better teacher than a less educated one. He talks about KIP (knowledge is power) ed theory, which he claims is creating high quality engaged teachers and students. They suggest rewarding the best teachers (top quartile) with better payment because, as we all know, teachers are clearly in it for the money. (Jokes aside, Daniel Pink's video on ted gives an indirect response on payment as motivation...) Gates also talks about integrating non-teacher trained teachers with "real life experience", an interesting concept, and not giving tenure for the first 2 years.

This seems like, in business, the "up or out" model. It is good for making money. Don't know if it is good for making autonomous and creative students. A hunch says the US is going to let us know in a few years.

Nonetheless, what goes past without my gut feeling getting antsy is what is described in another blog by David Finkle who is an excellent American cartoonist and a teacher who seems greatly enjoyable, compares whole food with whole education. Would he have Delsarte's approval as a level 3 artist?

miércoles, 17 de marzo de 2010


TESOL was brilliant... lots of things that I saw were really practical, things that teachers could bring into class the Monday after the convention. Met Steve Starry of, and a lot of people interested in making cool things happen.

There were some great workshops with speakers: like...

Elaine Gallagher: talked about CLIL, Bloom´s taxonomy, and gave candy for good answers. What energy... exactly the teacher you would want your child to have.

Micheal O'Brian: I thought AR was "augmented reality" not "action research" but despite the fact that my inner geek was whining, the Action Research workshop was interesting and worth staying for.

Elspeth Pollock: Personalizing technology was an interesting workshop on using tech tools to make personalized classes. The neat thing in tech workshops is how people whip off urls for different tools.

Charles Goodger's workshop on action songs got oversold to me by someone, it wasn't that it was bad, just that it wasn't as dead killer as the "ad" I got for it was. (With the help of "Band in a Box", I think I could do similar songs... by next month I hope to convert Swans Practical Grammar into 45 country music albums.)

Graham Stanley (you can read his blog at )My head got stretched a tad entertaining the concept of 2nd life language teaching, aside from the fact that Mr. Stanley is exactly the kind of person I enjoy hanging out with. Graham and I were mutually following each other on Twitter and it was nice to meet each other F2F. (He also re-tweeted the esssentials of my conference talk, and I felt like a celebrity...)

Graham talks briefly of the British Council Island in this video:

Talking with him also brought up a topic that is very web 2.0: what to do when you run into a troll that spams about your hashtag and can put your state funded project in jeopardy? (negativity can threaten grants for renewal, or just "street creds".) While it hasn't happened to me (that I know of) yet... one's competition could easily flame anyone throughout the net, and affect ones credibility. What can you do? (any ideas?)

Jamie Keddie, of did two workshops that were excellent as usual, and I missed a "Theatre of the oppressed" workshop to see one. Not just those "Robbie Williams" good looks, he always gives practical ideas...

looking for a Jamie Keddie video with him in it, I found him entering my "magic show territory":
(Jamie, if you want me to take this off, I will!)
I thought it was dead cool for teachers to learn.

Russell Stannard did a workshop, and I missed Elena Bañares' moodle workshop to see it. It was good, and many good ideas that are directly usable came out.

Then I did mine on Making your own Interactive whiteboard. I was all over the place, but the audience was there with me, so big fun... we got the basic ideas covered, and I think that there will be some whiteboards made.

Paul Seligson who has another youtube series on classroom management. Paul wrote "English File", and did a great workshop on "the four skills." I found some videos on classroom management, (from a conference in Brazil) so I thought I'd put them up here to give everyone a taste of Paul...

It would be really great to have a TESOL Spain youtube channel. (hint, hint.)

Next year the conference will be in Madrid... English Teachers, come!

miércoles, 10 de marzo de 2010

Five ways to respect your high school audience.

Hieronymus Bosch: The Conjurer, 1475-1480.Image via Wikipedia

I work in the corporate market as well as for schools, but I am focusing most of my energy on the school market.

There are few magicians who will do magic for high schools, let alone magic in English. It is a more difficult and lower paying market than tipsy executives, but it is a brutally honest public that will eat you if you are boring, arrogant, or just plain bad. It is a market that makes you work.

Work at what?
I work hard at treating them with respect, which for me means:

1. Don't insult their intelligence.. or yours.

You can PRETEND (en inglés pretend es "haz como" no "try") to insult your audience. You can PRETEND to insult their intelligence. But if you really do talk down to them, they will destroy you. If you make a show that sets up an ego conflict, or puts you up as a superstar, you should know that they are genetically designed to go for your jugular. I also try to avoid easy humour (sex, ca-ca/pee-pee humour) which allows me to do adult shows for EOI, or native English teachers and above all, be natural and consistant with who I am.

By knowing what kind of laughs I want, I don't get lazy and do a MAQ (minimal acceptable quality) show.

Minimal Acceptable Quality is an actual business strategy that means you do get an "acceptable" product which is easy to reproduce. You can make a new one with minimal effort after customers consume the first product. Hardly a noble undertaking... but apparently it is the most profitable. (¿Big MAQ?)

2. A magician has to surprise.

Nobody knows what will happen next because they haven't seen my tricks before. (I write, rather than buy, my routines, building them around objectives, or using routines that are open to various objectives. (Magicians will hate me for this if they don't see me... it is seen as a type of selling out, but I don't think I do.)

It also means that I can't do obvious things everyone knows will happen even if they haven't seen it before. As they say in commedia del arte, you have to be a little bit "dangerous" in the sense that anything can happen... and then deliver by making crazy things happen.

A surreal situation is a memorable one.

3. No card tricks.

Enough said.

4. I take everything about the performance seriously... except for me.

Stanislavski said "love the art in you, not YOU in the art."

That means removing good ideas that don't fit the show.
That means looking at goals and seeing the audience as being more important than my ego.
That means being able to laugh at myself, and being flexible onstage, to be able to listen to what is happening... and enjoy it.
Know your goals, but recognize new priorities when they suddenly surface in "teachable moments" (Was it Scrivener who said "Plan for the teacher, teach for the students"?)

5. Take risks...

Allow the volunteers to be thenselves and to play. LISTEN TO THEM. Give them space, and focus when you can.

I often take kids that are problem-makers in class, who never speak English ( If I had a dollar for every time I heard "¡Has eligido lo más macarro de todos!").
I don't often have problems. (It´s all about psychology: a mixture of respect and high expectations... although "control" must be mastered,(it is dreadfully easy to get someone to hold a rope if you push them in the water first...) but when they are active participants, very exciting things happen.

Giving away control is a beautiful risk that the audience recognizes and respects. (You can always "throw them in the water" later if you need to get back on track as long as you have built a good structure to go in and out of.)

Catalan clown/super-genius Leandre Ribera said when you take a risk on stage, you never lose... even if it doesn't work out, what you learn from it makes it worth it.
The confidence that this gives YOU allows the volunteers to take risks too... and if you do your job, they never lose either.

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