I have just completed my second 10-week pre-sessional course at the University of Sheffield. This is a summary of my experience, before describing my attempt to land a year-round role in EAP. My first write-up of the pre-sessional programme in Sheffield was a detailed look at the programme. This is a briefer review as many of the teaching elements were similar to 2020. For example – it was all online, the use of Blackboard VLE, with Blackboard Collaborate used for the synchronous lessons, while authoring tools, Rise Articulate and H5P, were deployed for the interactive or ‘asynchronous’ content. TurnItIn was used once more for written submissions. Finally, Kaltura was used again by students for their pre-recorded presentations.
However, there were quite a few changes this year. For a start, the course started three weeks earlier than in 2020, so orientation was the first week in June. The most fundamental change, for me, was the specific encouragement of not sharing breakout slides and getting students to turn their cameras on in breakout rooms. Instead, students were asked to take a photo or screenshot of the instructions before entering the breakout room. This had a noticeable and positive effect, with greater engagement and a better monitoring process. Classes started 15 minutes later this year. There was a lot more presentation practice – with live ones – using new ‘critical friendship’ groups. There was a greater emphasis on peer feedback, even if there is limited evidence that this works effectively. Second and third marking was replaced by greater standardisation and a resubmission processes, although the database had several ‘teething issues’. The materials had been improved from 2020. Finally, there were more ‘blank’ teacher choice sessions in the last few weeks, giving greater autonomy and flexibility to the teachers. My partner throughout the course was Rachel Beresford. I taught and gave individual tutorials with class 39 and Rachel was responsible for class 40, although all the synchronous lessons were conducted together, usually with one or other leading the lesson. We worked very well together and this was commented on in both of our observation lessons. My observation was affected by a power-cut in Endcliffe Village immediately beforehand, so I arrived late. However, I recovered from a talkative start and settled down to deliver one of my better, inclusive and collaborative lessons of the summer. I believe that having created good rapport in the first few weeks helped me through this observation and the support from Rachel also helped a lot.
This time I had prospective engineering and materials science masters students. Potentially these were not as interesting as my music students from last year. But it was an opportunity to work more with academic articles from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) field, even if most of the lessons were generic and applicable to all PS10 students. I had one prospective mathematics and statistics postgraduate, too. My partner teacher had robotics students. Once more, we conducted Academic Reading Circles – one of four ‘strands’. The other strands were Extended Writing (EW), Presentations and Seminars – all of which were assessed at 60%, 20% and 20% of the final grade respectively. Again, there was a grade centre on Blackboard for monitoring progress and the use of TurnItIn for writing tasks – diagnostic, EW plan, bibliography, EW draft, final essay and a new ‘reflective revision report’. Whilst there were several lessons on Academic Reading Circles, these did not form part of the formative nor summative assessments. Because of the four strands, there were up to four different sets of breakout groups – although regular and ‘critical friendship’ groups were exactly the same. This gave students a chance to work with everyone else in their class, although occasionally we deployed ‘random’ groups, just to mix things up.
As before, 1-2-1 tutorials were conducted in weeks 2-8. As well as dealing with the Extended Writing task and other assessments, the tutorials were an opportunity for the students to ask about how the UK was dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic and the wider context of coming to the UK. The students needed some reassurances about how safe the country is, although a lot of these queries came when cases were on the increase in July, despite the massive and successful vaccination programme. However, it was not part of my role to deal with this and I would signpost them to the official information on the university website. At the end of week 9, I spoke to ELTC director, Richard Simpson, about this, as well as his predictions for student numbers and the management of live classes from this September, when I attended a leaving ‘party’ for one of the TEL (Technology-enhanced Learning) employees. I also spoke with TEL director, David Read, face-to-face for the first time since IATEFL, Glasgow, 2017, about the pre-sessional, the difference between ‘hybrid’ and ‘hyflex’ modes of delivery and the developmental training that is provided by the team. Consequently, I am going to enrol on the Training Foundry’s Instructional Design for Language Teachers course in October, thanks to a tax rebate based on 2020’s (lack of) earnings!
In the early parts of the course, I recorded a few, small sections, of the lessons. I would then edit these short clips using Camtasia, removing or blurring student names, for sharing in the discussion forums on Blackboard. Like last year, I recorded the pronunciation parts of the seminar lessons – such as this example. With my partner teacher, Rachel, we also tried Google Jamboard for the first time. The audio in the edited recording comes from the breakout rooms as the students discuss the jigsaw reading on the screen in their respective breakout groups. Later, for the mock seminars, I captured them using the in-built recording option within Collaborate, which again, I edited and shared in seminar group’s respective forums, so they could watch, check mistakes and note ways of improving their performance for the final, assessed seminar in the final week. I also used the voice comment feature (shown above) in TurnItIn in order to give feedback on extended writing plans and annotated bibliographies, but extensive written feedback, again with quick marks, on writing drafts.
LIVING IN HALLS
The biggest challenge of the summer had nothing to do with the teaching. The problem of constant noise, during the day or, especially, late at night in our halls of residence in Endcliffe Village caused many sleepless nights. As this year’s course started three weeks earlier than in 2020, for the first few weeks, the teachers living in the Rivelin accommodation block were subject to end-of-year student parties, including on one occasion the fire alarm going off at 3am. We had students above, below and outside keeping us all up at night. For the next few weeks, students were still around so there was some noise. I had sympathy with them as they have had a very difficult year and needed to ‘let their hair down.’ Once they had gone, however, engineers would unintentionally wake us up with early morning chat outside Rivelin, banging and carrying out maintenance works, or coming into our flat without any warning. If I did this again, I would not come to Sheffield so early. Anything from late June works well, but not early June.
A NOTE ABOUT MINIONS – an explanation. You may have noticed that I occasionally use minions in my work – more specifically on the two EAP courses I have taught on at Sheffield. Is this just for fun or is there a pedagogical reason for this, I hear you ask?
Well, primarily it is fun, can be engaging and creates rapport. I have an actual minion called ‘Phil’ and I have used him in my online teaching, but he is mostly window dressing, sat behind me when I teach. I place images of minions on presentations slides, such as breakout groups. There is a minion activity for every occasion. They also have a knack of being fortunate – like when they accidentally discovered ‘flipped learning’, by turning ‘Bloom’s taxonomy’ upside down – as can be seen in the picture above. 😉 However, minions also resemble students, too. Gasp! Well there are a lot of them, they have different appearances and have different characters. Not unlike pre-sessional students. So it’s a tongue-in-cheek reference, really. Not meant to be harmful or derogatory. Playful.
As part of my growing interest in all things EAP, I made enquiries into joining BALEAP. I was able to access their invaluable mailing list, with an institutional account held by the ELTC. Once I had this access, I suddenly found all the jobs and articles of interest that I had missing from my ELT life. Now I get to hear about jobs on the day they are advertised and get an inside track on special interest groups, webinars and other events. Obviously when my time with Sheffield ran out again on 13 August, I lost the institutional access, as well as access to my Sheffield email account. So, I took out individual membership from the beginning of the month, which runs for a year.
JOB SECURITY AND MY EAP FUTURE
I have not been in full-time ELT employment all year-round since 2008. The longest stints I have had were ten months in Beijing, 2009-10 and six months in Riyadh. My role with Adult Learning, which began in December 2017, has only ever been casual hours. I was determined to change this. Last year, I was not proactive enough in looking for full-time work from September 2020 onwards, so drifted back to Norfolk County Council on a new permanent, but casual hours contract. This time, once the classes had started and I felt on top of things, I was much more proactive in looking for work. You have got to make something happen. I signed up to or reignited email notifications to several sites.
On 14 July, I was interviewed by a panel at a university based in Suzhou, China. I took a real gamble with the interview, designing a reading lesson plan on sexuality and gender identity. I based my slides on the Google Academic Reading Circles slides used in Sheffield. The remit was to design some materials on the topic of ‘tolerance, diversity and acceptance’. I did not hear back. Five days after that interview, on 19 July, I was interviewed by the Centre for Collaborative Learning team at the University of Central Lancashire, Preston. I visited the campus exactly 20 years ago when I was an Education and Welfare Sabbatical Officer with Anglia Students’ Union. UCLan have a brand new WISER team being set up and they need four study skills tutors. I was successful and offered one of these roles a couple of days later, but was given until 6 August to accept, while the centre closed for a 2 week break and its staff took annual leave. Furthermore, on 6 August, I was also interviewed at Bridgewater House, in Manchester, with three floors rented by INTO Manchester. I wanted to give myself a choice of full-time roles from September. As part of the process, I recorded this Presentation Task. I already knew it was going to be teaching on their International Foundation Year (IFY) programme to mostly 17-18 year olds. The interviewed confirmed my concern. INTO Manchester is not a university, but is an independent feeder to several institutions in the area. It felt and even smelt more like a language school. I left knowing it was not the best option going forward, even if I could have done it for 9 months. At first, I was not offered this role due to to them not having enough students, but I was later called (18 August) with an offer, which I declined. Furthermore, I also applied for an academic skills tutor role at Leeds Beckett University this summer, but did not get shortlisted. Initially, I preferred Leeds, over Preston, as it was Yorkshire, and slightly closer to my Norfolk home. However, I eventually I decided on Lancashire! A complete change of county – white rose to red. At least it is close to the Lake District, and I do like climbing a hill or two! On Monday 9 August, my role with UCLan was confirmed. My starting date is 13 September and I will probably move to the city just before that. I’m very excited about this. So, I am now in the process of finding somewhere to live in Preston. On 12 August, I spontaneously took a train up to the city, took a few photos and enquired about renting a flat near the city centre. Whatever happens next, I will try to keep my feet firming on the ground and not get ahead of myself. I’ve made that mistake before. All being well, I will manage.