[Trigger Warning: This post contains a lot of awful, very contrived fish-related puns]
I have just spent the best part of one full week in Belfast. The main reason for going was to attend the 55th IATEFL conference. It was my first in-person event since the Image Conference, Brussels, October 2019 and, like many delegates, the first face-to-face IATEFL gathering since Liverpool, April 2019. On the way to Belfast, before I sailed on an 8-hour ferry via Birkenhead, I spotted the ACC, the venue of the previous conference, across the River Mersey. Manchester 2020 did not happen, although there was a quickly organised online ‘get together’ and Harrogate 2021 was fully online because of that previously mentioned global pandemic.
So, this is my fishy IATEFL tale or, rather, tail! It’s not intended to be a proper or full review of the many sessions I attended. It is intended to be a light-hearted, personal take. It’s deliberately positive, not critical. I’ll leave that for others, if they feel the need. I nearly didn’t go to Belfast. I was struggling with anxiety again recently and felt I was not in the right headspace. But I went and I did not regret my decision. In fact, not only was it the right choice, but I feel that I made good choices throughout the week. I’ve always compared my first IATEFL – in Glasgow 2012 – to my first Glastonbury 2000. I wanted to rush round from ‘stage to stage’ trying to see as many ‘acts’ as possible. Now after 10 years, and a few other conferences where I did similar, I am much more selective and miss whole mornings or afternoons to do other things – by myself!
Ten years ago, in Glasgow, the final plenary was not a panel discussion or a poet, but the musician Fish. I recorded a couple of songs and they are still on YouTube. When I arrived in Belfast, I saw a big fish – also known as the Salmon of Knowledge, close to the conference venue. It was created by John Kindness, and the most interesting thing about this fish are its beautiful blue scales, which are made up of ceramic tiles describing different scenes from the city’s history. I suddenly realised that ‘fish’ would bookend my IATEFL experience, which I feel might be sadly coming to an end. I now confess that my membership expired last year and I did not renew. But my conference fee for this event was paid for two years ago and was still valid. I attended several sessions, including the early morning mindfulness ones. Furthermore, I took myself off for lots of solitude, ‘down’ time and long walks throughout the week. It’s hard to avoid crowds, especially at conferences and in Irish pubs, where people drink like fish. But I tried to avoid, wherever possible, places where people were packed in like sardines!
Belfast 2022 was the first one to take place in, as Hugh Dellar tweeted, a “post-Covid, post-BLM, post-MeToo, post-Trump world with a war in Europe raging, a climate crisis and a democratic crisis conference. Maybe classroom materials have a duty to reflect this”. This paraphrased idea actually came from opening plenary speaker, Dr Nayr Ibrahim, who stated later to both of us, on Twitter, “we can’t remain divorced from the reality of the world, behind a blissful grammar and vocabulary veil, even in young learner classrooms.”
The very first session on my itinerary after Nayr’s excellent plenary was one on ‘effective and affective written feedback’, but the room was completely devoid of people. Something fishy was going on! Then I realised it had been cancelled, along with many sessions this year. So I quickly ‘swam’ over to Richard Chinn and Danny Norrington-Davies’ session on Emergent Language in the Hilton hotel Lagan Room B adjoining the main ICC venue. Aside from the opening plenary, this was a fine start to the main event. Unplanned language that is needed or produced by learners during meaning-focussed interactions. This language is then explored through re formulation, clarification and support from the teacher. This comes from a forthcoming book on the topic by the presenters. Sandy Millin has written a fantastic extensive summary of this session with photos. So I don’t have to. In fact, Sandy, who I first met in Glasgow 10 years ago, wrote live reports of every single session she attended in real-time and they can all be found here. Marvellous work as ever, Sandy!
On the first full day, I also attended NILE’s Maria Heron and Susi Pearson talk about exploring empathy with pre-service and novice teachers. They used a lot of their session to revisit the concept of empathy spoken about in Kieran Donaghy’s online plenary last year. It included some research that they conducted on a CELTA course and shared via an Empathy Padlet, as can be seen in the image below. Watch a clip of Kieran talking about empathy and mental health. Rachel Tsateri, who is coming up shortly on this post, attended this session and wrote about it more fully in her review of day two.
Another session of the conference and the talk that was most relevant to my new role as a study skills tutor at UCLan in Preston was Clare Maas’ one on ‘Increasing (EAP) vocabulary knowledge through targeted materials and engagement’. Originally part of a forum on Academic Vocabulary, Clare was let down by two other speakers and presented alone. However, there was a keen audience who asked lots of questions as there was more time. I am going to follow this up as there were lots of resources shared which I will benefit from as I intend to prepare a new workshop in my role. We used to talk about ‘take aways’ from conference. Well I didn’t have any fish and chips, but I did come away with some ideas.
Because of the two speakers cancelling their part of the forum, I also got to see a bonus session that I had not planned to – seeing the Creating uses for songs and song lyrics in EFL creator and #Nightshift DJ, Chris Walklett, present his session. Subsequently, Orbital’s Belfast, which he played at the start, became my tune of the conference as I wandered around the city. Mental health came up in his talk, along with the benefits of using music in the class. He explored the potential of the language in the Waterboys’ The Whole of The Moon. He also played this haunting säje version of New World – a Bjork tune. As he states himself, “given that my talk was about music’s power to heal and how we might take that forward. The idea of the activity was to select an image from the video and the student say how that related to their experience from the last two years. A kind of opening up exercise.” I later met up with Chris at the International Quiz, won by the Norfolk / Norwich based team, which I was grateful to be part of. Thanks to Sarah Mount. Heaven 17 does come from A Clockwork Orange, Alan Pulverness, but I give way to your knowledge of The Poseidon Adventure! Haha!
Another great session was Rachel Tsateri’s debut – her first talk at IATEFL. Her session was entitled ‘Planning Collaborative and Reflective Online lessons for adults and teenagers’. I was the first to arrive in her sauna-like room, where she already had three fans – not supporters as such, but actual fans to cool the room down as it had ‘Greece-like’ temperatures. I could paraphrase her nervousness as being like ‘a fish out of water’, but she soon got swimming and had a shoal of appreciative listeners. Many first timers can feel like small fish in a big IATEFL pond, but she remained “as cool in person as online” – a phrase I’ve nicked off the appropriately named Harry Waters. She stated that she felt proud of herself for stepping out of her comfort zone. Sandy’s summary includes Rachel’s reflection on the lexis involved, written text reconstruction, along well as a unique hashtag, #jigsawgloss, that Rachel came up with.
My favourite session of the conference was probably Lottie Galpin‘s MaWSIG (Material Writing Special Interest Group) talk on ‘Breaking Stigma, building skills: Representing Mental Illness in ELT materials’. Sandy has, again, written a comprehensive summary of Lottie’s session. So I have no need to write my own review. However, I will simply state that it was excellent. Having already posted about representing mental health in ELT materials on her blog, all the considerations involved were presented coherently and passionately. I agree that it can be “more dangerous to have a world where everything is happy, happy, shiny, shiny and pretend that it [mental illness] doesn’t exist” to paraphrase Hugh Dellar during the talk. You might think this post is avoiding controversy, but I’ve dealt with the harsh realities of mental illness myself. It is still a taboo topic in many cultures and contexts. Having presented research and delivered workshops on this topic, but from the perspective of teachers, I found this practical talk really interesting and relevant for the language classroom. I like to think I’ve inspired others to talk about mental health in ELT, but, hey, I’m not fishing for any compliments! My own inspiration, Sarah Mercer, came along to this one, too, and I later spoke with her about Lottie’s session, agreeing that it was superb! We also both attended Astrid Mairitsch’s talk on wellbeing, in which extensive research from the University of Graz was presented.
Another interesting and well delivered session was one on ‘Coding tasks and Computational Thinking’ by IATEFL LTSIG coordinator and fellow ‘Game of Thrones’ fan, Vicky Saumell. Not my area of expertise and mostly aimed at young language learners. But it did remind me of my own programming pastime in the 1980s when I had first a ZX81 and then a Commodore 64. Brilliantly done. Vicky knows her topic really well and it came across as she showed lots of examples of computational thinking with her learners. Former coordinator, Sophia Mavridi, also presented on Instructional Design during the LTSIG showcase and it was good to catch up after so long with both Vicky and Sophia, along with a few other peeps I know from elsewhere!
A special mention goes to my hotel buddy, Leo Selivan. His engaging session on ‘Embedding Assessment into Classroom Activities – with a Twist’ involved speaking activities which were adjusted at the last minute to include other talks, such as Rachel’s speaking diagrams and ways of doing activities in the class. This was an interactive workshop which, again, Sandy has done a great job of summarising. A bit of organised chaos, but it was pulled off nicely. There were a few, unplanned jokes, especially during the ‘cats vs dogs’ debate, but few that the audience fell for, hook, line and sinker! The ‘twist’ idea came back to me during Pecha Kucha – the traditional 20 slides, with 20 seconds per slide. It’s fun, but how about if participants had to present other speaker’s slides at short notice – Improv-style? I ran this idea past Sandy and Vicky on my final evening. However, I have a salmon of doubt about whether this would work. They were also the last delegates I saw on my final evening in Belfast. We went to a Chinese restaurant where, naturally, I had a fishy kind of dish – a sizzling seafood meal.
I also want to mention the final talk that I went to, on the penultimate night. Harry Waters is known for his Renewable English Facebook group, environmental stance, his badgering of Greta Thunberg on Twitter and being a host on Teachers Talk Radio. But that’s an entirely different kettle of fish. I only met Harry for the first time on the day of his talk, ‘How to Develop a Respect for Sustainability that Sticks’. Another passionate speaker who cares deeply about global, environmental issues, explains how lessons should be relevant to learners. His session was recorded but I don’t know where it is being made available. There is an interview with Harry, conducted by IATEFL Talks’ Georgia ‘Zwrzi’ Papamichaelidou.
Away from the conference, I spent time alone. On the second day, for example, I took a ‘sightseeing’ open bus tour of the city, covering not only the Titanic Quarter, but the ‘troubled’ area of the Falls and Shankhill Road areas, including going down the ‘Murder Mile’, which was famously referenced in Liverpudlian Elvis Costello’s Oliver’s Army. Costello wrote the song as a commentary on the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland during the 1970s. He was inspired to write the song after seeing British soldiers patrolling the streets of Belfast. Costello’s family had roots in the Northern Ireland conflict, too. Here the linguistic landscape tells the story of the long, bloody history of this.
Talking about ‘bloody’, I also did the ‘Glass of Thrones’ walk, a series of 6 stained-glass windows representing various aspects of the Game of Thrones TV show. I’ve shared my photos of these in other places already. On the final day of the conference, which I did not attend, I went on a pre-booked tour of the Game of Thrones Studio in Banbridge. Absolutely bloody fin-tastic! Highly recommended for any fan. No spoilers here, but the tour was arranged logically and chronologically. The tour guides were all locals and huge fins, sorry, fans too. In fact, I found the hospitality all week to be fantastic and it’s generally a really nice plaice. Anyway, I have veered off stream.
So, as I stated earlier, this might well be my final IATEFL conference. I’m not explicitly an English language teacher anymore, but I keep my hand in with private 1-2-1 tuition. To be honest, I went more for the social and the ‘craic’ than the CPD opportunities this time. I know I should never say never again. It was such a positive experience for me this year, but I might actually have a proper holiday next year, rather than a ‘Busman’s’ one. As the return ferry pulled into Birkenhead and there was that similar but sunnier view of the Liverpool waterfront, I bumped into recent IATEFL president, Harry Kuchah. We spoke briefly about his time at the top table, how glad he was not to be as stressed at conference. I know he has brought in some significant changes during his tenure. However, looking at Harry’s post in the current edition of Voices, and trying to reconcile this with organisational changes this week didn’t seem right, going forward. For example, not allowing local associations to use the name IATEFL! Definitely ‘fishy’. I’m not sure IATEFL is the right association for me any more, either. Anyway, I’ll let others get into murky waters and carp on about that if they want to. Also, maybe you can comment below. Maybe I’ll see you in Harrogate next year, but not at the actual conference venue.
Finally, apologies if I reeled you in with the title of the post. Maybe you were expecting a critical review. No, not from me. A few gripes aside, I did not flounder and benefitted hugely from this trip. Anyway [adopts Northern Irish accent], eel be going now. I’ve got bigger fish to fry. Don’t be koi. Let minnow what you think of this post! So long, IATEFL, and thanks for (all) the Fish!
Millin, S. (2021) IATEFL Belfast 2022. https://sandymillin.wordpress.com/2022/05/
Oliver’s Army (last edited on last edited May 2022). Retrieved 22 May 2022 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oliver%27s_Army
Purland, M. (2018) 15-fantastically-fishy-english-idioms https://purlandtraining.com/2018/11/28/15-fantastically-fishy-english-idioms/
Visit Belfast (a) https://visitbelfast.com/partners/big-fish/
Visit Belfast (b) https://visitbelfast.com/article/glass-of-thrones-trail-map/
Thanks to Matt Purland (@purlandtraining), Emily Bryson (@EmilyBrysonELT), Martin Sketchley (@ELTExperiences), Julie Moore (@lexicojules), Christopher Graham (@chrisgrahamelt), Peter Pun (@eltplanning), Suzanne (@EnglishSmarts), @leoselivan and @TeflUnion for the fish puns and idioms.