We're almost there

For various reasons (including one of those landmark birthdays that come round from time to time), this summer I ended up with a brand new 12-string Ovation guitar, a new microphone, two rather nice monitor speakers and a couple of audio interfaces to be able to connect everything to my computer and iPad to record some new music. It's a long way from the two-track reel-to-reel tape recorders I used when I first started writing songs, adding harmonies by bouncing from track to track.

The array of sounds and effects on GarageBand and Cubase helped to make my first musical attempts both exciting and overwhelming at the same time. The first two pieces of music I came up with were a song that I'mstill writing lyrics for and 'We're Almost There' which isn't really a song at all. After I added the line 'Wake up. We're almost there' and the sound effects of the cars passing on the motorway, I remembered a video I made in Mexico City.

The trip to Mexico was part of the research we did for Beyond. We visited a lot of schools there and met some amazing teachers. Most of the schools were out of the city and we spent hours driving from place to place. I thought the network of roads in and out of Mexico City werespectacular with its two levels. It reminded me of an old Tractorial Base song called 'Underneath the Overpass'. Anyway, I made a couple of quick videos in order to keep a record of it. I tried setting 'We're Almost There' to the video and it fitted almost perfectly.

Anyway, I'm hoping to be able to spend more time making music, writing some new songs and recording some old ones. I'll keep you posted...

I'd never been to Athens

When I first moved to Spain a long time ago, people would sometimes ask me what I missed most about life in the UK. I would usually say 'the radio'. Back in the mid-80s, the only UK-based station I could listen to in Spain was the BBC World Service which I never really liked much. I wanted the dramas, news programmes, documentaries and quiz shows from Radio 4 and the music from Radio 3. Of course things have changed since then. First came satellite TV which included UK radio stations and then came the Internet.

Today, apart from being able to listen live to radio stations from around the world or use various catch-up services, I can subscribe to podcasts and have programmes automatically downloaded to my audio player to listen to whenever I want. Now, when people ask me what I miss most about life in the UK, I usually don't know what to say.

All of which brings me (in a roundabout way) to Pop Culture Happy Hour, a podcast I regularly listen to. It doesn't come from the UK but from NPR (National Public Radio) in the US. According to its blog, NPR's entertainment and pop culture round-table podcast 'features spirited discussions of movies, books, television, and nostalgia.' The show is basically a group of people talking about fun things that I'm interested in. And each podcast ends with a segment called 'What's making us happy this week' in which the presenters talk about something that's making them happy that week - it could be a new album, a project they're working on or a sports event ... anything.

I borrowed the question to ask the teachers at the IP Conference in Athens last weekend as part of a talk I gave on life skills: 'What's making you happy this week?' It's an example of the kind of question you could ask students when they come to class. You know how students often arrive to class in a bad mood because they've had a bad day or have a problem at home or have just argued with their best friend? Asking a question like this can help to make students aware that there are always reasons to feel good, even if they’re just small things. If you do something like this regularly, it not only makes your students feel better, they'll be more receptive in class. Positive thinking.

At the talk, I let the teachers know what was making me happy this week... Many years ago I co-wrote a series of ELT songs for the Cambridge English Course with Jonathan Dykes. One of the songs was called Brighton in the Rain. The song practised the present perfect and there were two versions - one with all the lyrics and one with all the past participles removed. The students had to provide those past participles. The first line of the song was 'I've never been to Athens' and the music was a pastiche of a Greek folk song. Anyway, I've been singing that song for years and the first line had always been true for me. I'd never been to Athens - until going to the IP conference. So being in Athens was what was making me happy this week.

Thanks to everyone who came to the talks. If you're interested in hearing the song then follow the link below. I apologise for the music but would like to point out that that I love Greek music - thanks largely to my brother-in-law who lived in Athens and has a large collection of Greek music. He also suggested I visit the Acropolis Museum. I'm glad I followed his advice. I can't wait to go back again ...

Listen to Brighton in the Rain

Using multimedia in the classroom

multimedia.jpg

On Wednesday this week I gave a webinar as part of the 2014 Macmillan Online Conference. The topic was ‘using multimedia in the classroom’ which is one of those themes that could easily fill a whole week of webinars. While I was doing some research, I came across two surveys that served as an introduction to the theme.

The first was a survey carried out by Ofcom, the independent communications regulator in the UK. Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. In August this year it published the results of a survey to find out how tech-savvy people are in the UK. It discovered that we’re at our most tech savvy between the ages of 14 – 15 years old. This seems to reinforce the belief that students know more about technology than their teachers. But do they really know how technology works or is their knowledge limited to carrying out the tasks they’re mainly interested in?

For 12–15 year olds, more than 90% of their device time is message based (‘chatting’ on social networks or sending instant messages) while 10% of device time is spent sending video and photo messages, sharing or commenting on photos. That doesn’t leave much time for using their devices for other things.

The results of the second survey were published in the journal Educational Technology Research and Development and reported on in Science Daily. The survey revealed that teachers still know better when it comes to using technology. The researchers looked at the technology skills of 24 science teachers and 1,078 middle school students from 18 different schools in two US states (middle school students are typically between the ages of 10–14).

According to the survey, most students were not very familiar with information and communication technology or even Web 2.0 tools designed to make information production and sharing easier. They have little opportunity to practise technology beyond pursuing personal interests, such as entertainment. Their teachers, on the other hand, depended much more on using technology to solve daily problems, to improve productivity, and as learning aids.

So it seems that teachers have a lot to teach their students about using technology to solve problems, enhance productivity, and develop creativity. This gives force to the case for using mobile phones and tablets in the classroom rather than banning them.

If you were one of the 500+ teachers at the webinar, thanks for coming. It was good to see so many teachers with a positive attitude to using technology and multimedia in the classroom. And if you want to try a simplified version of the Ofcom survey to find out how tech-savvy you (or your students) are then follow this link.

First night reviews

Each morning, after a first look at the Spanish newspaper, I download my daily UK newspaper and look at the First Night Reviews section. I think I do it partly to keep in touch with what's going on in the theatre in the UK and also out of habit.

Back when I was trying to make a living writing music for plays in London, opening nights were special. They always started earlier than other performances so that the critics could get their reviews written before the next day's edition closed. This was in pre-internet, pre-computer days so we're talking typewriters and telephones.

Then there'd be the long wait for the papers to appear on the newsstands. I'd buy all the papers and go through them, checking to see if there was a review and then checking to see if there was any mention of the music. I think the best review I ever got was from Jim Hiley writing about The Children´s Crusade in Time Out who wrote: 'And the music by singer/songwriter-to-watch Robert Campbell, is bloody marvellous'. And the worst review? Maybe Frank Marcus writing about Dean in The Sunday Telegraph: 'Robert Campbell will not cause sleepless nights to Stephen Sondheim'. Actually, there are other review for that show that hurt even more!

The thing is, when you read theatre, film and TV reviews in newspapers, there are always positive and negative reviews. You expect it. You can agree or disagree with reviews but you know that the reviewer is giving their opinion.

As an aside, you never know when theatre reviews are going to appear in Spanish newspapers. There doesn't seem to be a tradition of first night reviews and when reviews do finally appear, it's usually after the show's closed. Could there be a connection?

Anyway, when I edited and published iT's for Teachers magazine, we had a regular book review section called First Impressions. The idea of the section was for a team of magazine contributors to give their first impressions of new ELT titles. I naively thought that this meant we could give positive and negative opinions, always stressing that they were first impressions and not in-depth critical reviews. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After we printed one particular negative review, it was implied that we were going to lose an important advertiser. For a small independent magazine, losing a major advertiser can be a major blow. So from then on, we decided that we'd only review titles we felt positive about. If we didn't like a book, we'd simply ignore it. 

I got to thinking about reviews this week because the first two reviews of Beyond have just appeared in the EL Gazette and Business Spotlight. It would be good to read some more in-depth reviews that aren't afraid of being critical (or saying how amazing the course is!). But for the moment, these are welcome...

EL Gazette review of Beyond

EL Gazette review of Beyond

Business Spotlight review

Business Spotlight review


There's no word for 'thank you' in Dothraki

So that's it. I've reached the end of season 4 of Game of Thrones. I came late to the series. I'd been writing about conlangers for Beyond and I didn't think I could write about the Dothraki language without watching some of Game of Thrones.

In case you don't know (I didn't), a conlanger is a person who invents conlangs (constructed languages). David Peterson is the conlanger who created the Dothraki language for Game of Thrones. He came up with more than 3,000 Dothraki words as well as a set of grammar rules. His aim was to make the language sound convincing while at the same time be easy for actors to learn.

If you're interested, here's a behind-the-scenes video which explains the story behind Dothraki.


As for the series, in today's Sunday Times, AA Gill writes: 'The last two episodes were some of the most sophisticated and brilliantly made bits of dramatic television I’ve seen on the small screen.'

This season has definitely been my favourite and marked my transition from old technology (watching seasons 1-3 on DVD) to new technology (watching season 4 on Yomvi, the online service from Canal+).

I've only recently started watching whole seasons of shows in this way and it's addictive. I'm still a novice having just completed season 1 of both Breaking Bad (4 more seasons to go) and The Walking Dead (I'll think about that one). The latter was more research, this time for a zombie-related project. It's amazing where ELT writing can lead you!

The valley and the dales

Vall de Llémena

So what does the Vall de Llémena near Girona (pictured here) have in common with the IATEFL conference in Harrogate (on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales)? Well, let's talk about the conference first. This year's IATEFL was special for different reasons. To start with, it's been four years since the conference was last held in Harrogate and therefore four years since the launch of Lindsay Clandfield's course Global, my first project for Macmillan. It was at the same conference that I'd had lunch with Emily Rosser and Dulcie Fry which marked the beginning of what was then called the NISC (New International Secondary Course). The NISC went on to become Beyond which we launched at this year's conference but more about that soon. 

This year's conference was also special because I received a Language Learner Literature Award for The Green Room which I wrote for Helbling Languages. I hadn't realised beforehand that I was expected to say a few words at the awards ceremony. In hindsight, maybe it was better not to have known. The last time I prepared an acceptance speech for the ELTons, I didn't win the award. There's something magical about being handed a microphone. Being a singer, I love microphones but the truth is I'd much rather sing than speak into one. There was a video interview with Jennifer Basset too. At one point we were asked if we ever wished we could write 'real books' ...

But the best thing about IATEFL is going to talks and workshops and suddenly feeling inspired again. It's so often the speakers you've never heard of who turn out to be the most inspiring. So, even though we only finished the main writing of Beyond the day before we set out to Harrogate, I left the conference with so many ideas and wanting to start writing again. Which brings us to the Llémena valley and a long walk through woods, down mountains, across rivers, and into some of the most beautiful and magical countryside I know. The surroundings were as inspiring as the conference and as soon as I got home, I found myself adding more notes to the notes I'd already made at IATEFL.  Now it's just a question of turning those ideas into words...

The drama group

One of the original features of the Beyond secondary course that I've been working on over the past couple of years can be found on the Speaking pages in each unit. All of the model conversations and situations on these pages are presented by a group of teenage drama students. There's a different group for each of the six levels and each group has 10 members, reflecting the ages of the students using the course. The drama group kids perform the scenes as if they're in a drama workshop with a few basic props. In fact, we've shot the videos at the Pegasus Theatre in Oxford, using the main stage as well as the studios and other parts of the building, giving the videos an authentic drama group feel.

Teachers can use these videos in class or use the audio in class and encourage students to watch the videos at home. One of the main reasons for doing the videos in this way has been to reflect the classroom situation in which we often ask students to role-play scenes or read out conversations. In a way, we're asking our students to bring drama into the classroom as if in a drama workshop. So watching other kids trying to do the same task on video can really boost their confidence.

This past week we filmed the videos for A2 level and the kids were fantastic. It's also been great working with Clark Wiseman and his team at Studio 8. Clark is really good at making the kids feel relaxed. It's not easy acting in front of several cameras with a sound recordist holding a boom microphone over your head, Macmillan editors telling you what to do (not to mention the course authors).

It'll be really interesting to see how teachers and students react to these videos in the real world. Not long to wait!