Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Sound Logic

1:16 PM

What comes to mind when you think about the word "sound"?
Do you think about your favourite singer? Or maybe your favourite song? Maybe a musical genre or an instrument? Do you imagine an orchestra, a music video? Two cowboys facing each other on the main road at sunset with a whistled song floating in the air? Or maybe a moustached phenomenon in sneakers and a white tank top strutting his stuff up and down the stage of a sold out concert? Maybe you think about how the word "sound" sounds like.
Or maybe, like me, you think about your mouth.
Yes, not exactly our favourite bunch of bone and muscles on the planet.
Most people think of their mouths in terms of eating, drinking, breathing, talking, kissing, screaming, etc.

I want you to imagine a concert hall.
Maybe you've never been in one, so I want you to imagine a theatre.
Maybe you don't like theatres, so I want you to imagine a cinema.
And if you still can't see that, try and remember a concert you saw on TV.
That's what I see in our mouths.
The most unbelievable, incredible, magical concert hall in the known universe.

If our brains are the supercomputers that no computers will ever match, then our mouths are the most perfect concert halls that have ever been created. Sorry Carnegie Hall, it's not personal.
When I say mouth, I refer to all the different parts involved in the production of sound: the lips, teeth, the alveolar ridge, our lungs, the velum aka the soft palace, the hard palate, the uvula, the glottis, the tongue. I must have forgotten something, just like you forget to wish a distant aunt Happy Birthday for her birthday, but you love her dearly for existing.
Every single time I hear a sound I've never heard and therefore maybe never created, the thought of sound creation is electrifying (You're the sound that I want, Sound that I want, Uh Uh Uh). The complicity and multiplicity of biological phenomenons that allow sound to be formed is nothing sheer of magical.

"Speech sound production is one of the most complex human activities: it is also one of the least well understood. This is perhaps not altogether surprising as many of the couples neurological and physiological processes involved in the generation and execution of speech utterance remain relatively inaccessible to direct investigation, and must be inferred from careful scrutiny of the output of the system - from details of the movements of the speech organs themselves and the acoustic consequences of such movements."

Speech Production and Speech Modelling
edited by W.J. Hardcastle, Alain Marchal

Just some food for thought.

The Sound Eater

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Family Tree Fun

10:56 PM

I'm a big fan of creating family trees with my students, but I can never find a really good one that I can use with multiple types of students, so I always end up with at least 10 different photocopies of 10 different family trees. So I made my own.
It looks good enough for kids, but I've used it with teens and even adults and the graphic didn't feel cartoonish.
You can find it here - Family Tree

I'll also share with you 5 things you can do with it.

1. With really small kids (pre-starters, starters, movers) you can ask them to start from YOU and then write the name of mom, dad, sisters, brothers, grandparents. I would suggest to have a spare copy you, the teacher, work on. You illustrate and monitor they are writing the right names. Be careful, if they can't remember or they need extra boxes because their parents are divorced and remarried, be super flexible. Remember you're not doing a census for the government.

2. Again with small kids, you can ask them to start from YOU and then draw mom, dad, sisters, brothers, grandparents. If they can't ask them to draw a symbol of the person. I had a really sweet little girl who had never met her grandma who passed away before she was born. She drew a bunch of flowers because her grandma had had a garden full of flowers that her grandpa still kept. Useless to say I almost started crying.
This drawing activity can also be a continuation of the activity above if you make sure they write on the dotted line and still have space for drawing.

3. With older children, teens and such, I've asked them to write the names of close relatives, like above, followed by a short list (4-5) of personality adjectives that characterise those individuals. Then they had to explain in pairs why they had chosen those adjectives by giving examples, explaining and telling anecdotes. Pairs could be changed several times. This works for adults as well.

4. A variation of the exercise above is to ask them to write the opposite of the adjectives (written in red) they want to use and then have them in pairs work to figure out the correct adjectives. Then they would proceed to have the discussion described above. I usually use this variation after I have done the activity from point 3 a couple of times and I want to recycle and make the activity a little bit more challenging. This works for adults as well.

5. Older teens (like legal age teens) and adults. Set it as homework. They must fill in the family tree with names and adjectives. They must also find a photo or some photos that show all the people in the family tree. In pairs, they exchange photos, describe each individual using both physical description and the personality adjectives they have already written. The partner has to guess who is who.
This can be modified by giving each student a list of 3 or 6 names/personality adjectives/physical description adjectives they need to tick off of a list. That way, they will have a added purpose for listening.

Hope you have fun with it.

The Sound Eater

A Martin Luther King Jr. Day lesson plan (materials included)

12:13 AM

So today will be a double post day, but I'll start with this.
I recently taught a lesson centred on the theme of heroes so I went with one of my personal heroes, the great orator Martin Luther King Jr.

I've got a KEY/PPT slide for you to guide you through the lesson and some extra materials you will need.
Heroes - MLK

During the GROUP READING you should have already set up three separate reading areas with a blown up version of the following text cut up in three piece (Group 1, 2 and 3). This is a very basic jigsaw reading activity.
Group Reading Text
Each student (1, 2 or 3) receives a set of questions to which he doesn't have the answers. Eg: a student 2 will have questions pertaining to students 3 text and thus they will need to share to be able to complete them.
The students are then rearranged and groups of 1-2-3 students are created to share their own info and complete the questions.

I found a really nice True/False activity on pbs.org as part of a lesson plan and did that as my second activity. It is connected to this Vimeo video. You can do quite a lot with the video.

History: Bet You Didn't Know - March on Washington from hsc.tv on Vimeo.

During the lesson, vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation was worked on, recorded and recycled.

I then finished the lesson by asking students to produce a paragraph-speech starting with "I have a dream..." for their next lesson.

I had a lot of fun with this lesson since all the students were genuinely interested and participated a lot in all the different stages.

The Sound Eater

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Why I'm not afraid of Babbel

6:32 AM
I'll start my post by asking three simple questions.
1. Do you practice sport?
2. Do you do it alone, at home, or in a gym/sports centre?
3. How do you feel when you do it?

You're probably asking yourselves what does practicing a sport have to do with teaching English or, better yet, with the intelligently well-marketed Babble app.
Well...I've done and am still doing a great variety of sports. Team sports like basketball or handball, Pilates, yoga, running, trekking, walking, tae-kwon-do, gymnastics. You name it, I've tried it.
In the last few years a great number of apps, all specially designed to facilitate my practicing of said sports in the comfiness of my own house, have invaded my iPhone and depleted my App Store credit. I've spent more money on those apps than I am comfortable or even willing to admit.
The latest Instagram fitness guru launches a FREE app with a 19€/month "supercalifragilisticly exclusive" subscription package? I'll try it, thank you very much.
There's a new app that promotes flexibility AND mindfulness? In the same app? At less than a 5€ per month? Yes, please!

I think you get the point. Now, with my new found obsession with fitness apps, I discovered I secretly enjoyed instructing my unexperienced, sport-wise neophyte friends on how they had their lives all wrong. They were oblivious to the "life-changing power of <insert current app obsession>". And yes, I've actually said that to people.
What happened was that some took me up on my pseudo-creepy invitations to be app buddies and see who could do better. Ah, the competition factor. I'll get back to that one. So some of my friends went ahead and downloaded/bought some of the apps I'd tried myself. Some never gave in. Some stuck to the program for a couple of weeks, some for a couple of months, some still use it. I've started using and abandoned more than half a dozen apps. The novelty factor is like getting high for the first time. (Not that I've ever gotten high mom, if you're reading this. It was just for emphasis.) I love the app for two weeks or even six months, it's on my phone, I can do it more or less anywhere (except for burpees and such) and at any hour (ahem, yes 11 pm is an acceptable practice time if you're an English teacher - shoutout to all late-night working teachers).

But, ultimately I gave up. I found something new. I stopped caring that the app stared back at me from my phone. I still have a daily reminder on my iWatch from one of these apps that I use as a sort of time compass. If the reminder rings, I know I still have about 30 minutes before having to leave my house for a set of classes I teach at lunch. The competition factor that led me to become a harassing fit-crazed friend wore off each and ever time like a high (again, mom, it's just for emphasis).

Babbel is an awesome little app. It's well built and very intelligent. It's useful. It's definitely inexpensive.
But, if you're human, it won't last. You'll start to dread it. Or you'll start to get bored. Or you'll find a new Babbel. Or you'll meet someone and be busy. Or <insert here 1,2 million human excuses for quitting stuff>.

Because coming to an English class with an actual teacher and actual classmates and actual human contact is much more rewarding. It's much more complex, unpredictable, educational, memorable, interesting, emotional...human.
You don't just get an educational experience, you're not just learning a language, you're meeting new people, a new culture (sometimes more than one), you're stepping out of your comfort zone (aka your living room), you're going the extra mile. You can smile and frown and cross your arms and slump. And your teacher will see all of these things and react accordingly.

When I last yelled at my least favourite app, calling it an instrument of torture, it calmly said back: "Well done, Oana, 5 to go!"

I deleted it immediately. So I'm good with Babbel. I'll just wait it out.

The Sound Eater

Sunday, January 8, 2017

I had a moment with Siri

1:25 PM

Imagine this.
I'm in my car with my boyfriend driving. We're running late for dinner at my friend Maria Teresa's house. I frantically look through my contacts for her name to warn her of our delay. My boyfriend suggests I ask Siri to call her. I say: "I would, but you know my phone is in English. It won't recognise the name." He looks over dumfounded and says: "What do you mean? I use it all the time."
I proceed to explain in length how I have to pronounce the name with an English, no, better yet, American accent so that my American sounding Siri counterpart to have the slightest of ideas of who Maria Teresa is.

And then, just then, an idea hits me like a moving train. Here, before us, or better yet, in our pockets and bags, we have technology that seemed impossible, downright scientifically fantastic just a few decades ago. We have a technologically advanced programmed entity to help us with little task like looking through our contacts list and dealing a number. Yet somehow, our phonetically predisposed brains managed to narrow the scope of such an ingenious knack by applying the same phonological algorithms that have always represented the hurdles we must jump in order to master a new language.

Now think about that marvellous theory according to which we don't actually read words, but rather beginnings and ends and we fill the middle with what we think should be there. We work on hunches and the marvellous machinations of our brain.
In the same way, I believe, albeit having no proof (or maybe I read it somewhere and it got stuck in my mind), that our brains get wired up to expects and produce certain sounds, our sounds, the sounds we start hearing in-utero and continue to hear during infancy. We are literally phonologically impaired since birth. Couldn't this possible, programmed predisposition then manifests itself in our capacity or incapacity to perceive sounds differently from what our expectations and prior knowledge are? As a teacher I realise I've fine-tuned my capacity to understand even the most phonetically butchered of words, and yet sometimes I still get blindsided with a word I struggle to understand, only to be illuminated when the student spells or writes it.

So Siri, a piece of computational intelligence infinitely more capable than us to store, select and use phonetics, needs to hear the right sounds according to her assigned accent. Just like I would, or you would. Siri needs to hear you say your words, the right way.
And so I wonder, was it technological pain that didn't allow the wonderful men and women at Apple Inc to equip Siri with a universal capacity to distinguish sounds or was it something they didn't even think about? Because despite the eeriest of memes and gifs with Siri conversations on the web, the fact that Siri can be puzzled by mispronunciation is by far the most bewildering of attributes to give our friendly pocket helper.

The Sound Eater