Scholarship Circle: Giving formative feedback on student writing (3.1)

I would say it’s the start of a new term (College term 3) and a new wave of scholarship circle sessions, but, in reality, it’s actually week 5! We had our first session for the term last week and this is me playing catch-up. The beginning of a new term is a notoriously busy time and particularly for the January cohort is a scattergun of coursework draft submission/feedback (+ for me as ADoS, in addition to doing my own feedback, providing support to teachers doing theirs) and speaking exams (+for me as ADoS double marking a portion of those with each of my teachers), so I’m actually pretty glad the scholarship circle didn’t get going ’til last week!

Our agenda was as follows:

  1. Revisit the issue of our research on Quickmarks to see where we are at and figure out our timeline.
  2. Decide on a focus for this term’s scholarship circle sessions
  3. Set ourselves some reading homework

This terms research project update

The consent forms are ready to go and will be sent to:

  • the centre manager
  • the teachers of the students we have identified as the sample who will receive the questionnaire and from which participants for the text analysis will be selected (there are a small number of us and we will only be doing a small number i.e. 1-2 of text analyses each!)
  • the students themselves. (We only need to send a consent form to those selected for text analysis as the consent form for the questionnaire will be built into the questionnaire).

We reconfirmed that we will be focusing on International Foundation Year (IFY) students rather than PMP (Pre-masters students) as PMP students’ course work tends to change dramatically between first draft feedback and final submission due to content tutor feedback, which would affect text analysis possibilities. We are aware that a range of factors influence response to feedback, e.g. age, pathway, language level, past learning experiences, educational culture in country of origin, so have picked IFY students with a particular language level (as defined by IELTS scores) and over the age of 18. This minimises the influence of age and language level factors on response, and avoiding ethical/consent/safeguarding issues that arise when minors are involved.

The text analysis will be done in the early part of next term. There won’t be time this term as once final drafts are submitted, teachers will be busy with coursework marking and then exam marking extraordinaire (biggest cohort of students ever this term). It will have to be the early part i.e. before the end of week 4, as beyond then, teachers will be busy doing first draft feedback for next term’s students. For next term’s students, if we are repeating the research cycle, we can do the analysis in the autumn term.

Focus for this term’s sessions

This term, including the current session, there will be 6 sessions. (Week 10 will be an impossibility due to above-mentioned exam marking extraordinaire!) We have decided to focus on comments, as a logical next step to the focus on Quickmarks that our current research is based on.

At the moment, we do have a generic comments bank which teachers can copy comments from in order to paste them into a student’s assignment. The aim of this is to save time and help teachers by providing them with ideas of what they can put. In practice, fast typists ignore the bank as it is quicker to type what you want to say than it is to read through a bank of comments, decide which one is the best fit and then do the copy-pasting. The comment bank also gets ignored due to it being generic rather than specific to a given student’s piece of work. It was noted that either which way, it is useful for new teachers as an extra point of support.

Going forward, we discussed the possibility of going through the bank of comments as we did with the quickmarks and making them more user-friendly (for students and teachers alike!). One idea was to have a base comment, with space to make it specific by referring to a given student example. Another idea was to refine the categorisation of the comments so that is easier to find the ones you need. We also talked about refining the bank by selecting the best comments with the widest structure and editing or culling any that seemed less useful (much as some of the quickmarks were edited or culled in a similar fashion).

Another issue that came out is the importance of familiarity – be it with the quickmarks or with the comments, the only way for these resources to be used effectively and efficiently is if teachers are familiar with them so that time isn’t wasted through not being sure about which quickmark/comment to use, if there is an appropriate quickmark/comment available etc. Familiarity is also important for students, so that they are better able to recognise what their feedback means and what they need to do. To address this, we had the idea of a “quick mark auction”. This would involve a list of sentences, each with a different mistake underlined, a set of corresponding quickmarks and a set of quickmark meanings. By the end of the activity, students (and new teachers!) would have identified what each quick mark means and which one to use with each error example. We have set up a google doc so that we can create this resource collaboratively:

Obviously no one has added anything to it yet – work in progress! It will happen…

As we did with the Quickmarks, we aim to inform what we do with what we read in relevant literature and discuss in our weekly sessions. Which brings me on to…


Our reading homework for this week (which I haven’t done yet – yikes!) is:

  • Nicol, D.J. and Macfarlane-Dick, D. (2006) Formative assessment and self-regulated learning: a model and seven principles of good feedback practice in Studies in Higher Education 31(2) pp.199-218
  • Burke, D. and Pieterick, J. (2010) Giving students effective written feedback McGraw-Hill Education

I better get to it!



Mindfulness, work and life

On the 4th March this year, I received the following email from our TD team (thanks guys!):

On the same day, I also saw the following post from Rachael Roberts (ELT course book writer, MaW SIG coordinator a while back, Life coach/writer):

Coincidentally enough, on Saturday the2nd March I had picked up a book called Mindfulness for Worriers by Padraig O’Morain from my local library. I have since returned it and bought my own copy to reread:

I am convinced the universe was trying to tell me something!

That something being that Mindfulness was something I needed to bring into my life. So I took the hint and did the course!

It was four weeks long and had 3-4hrs of content per week. For me, it was the final two weeks of term and then my two weeks of Easter holiday. The nice thing was, that meant I could use the guided meditations extensively while I was in Sicily sitting on my hillside. Having that time and space to really get into the formal meditating really helped. It was a brilliant course, and I am so glad I did it.

Anyway, this post is not going to be a summary of the course (you should just do it!), nor a summary of Rachael’s book (you should just read it!) but more just a bit about what has stood out for me since accepting the universe’s little nudge and learning more about Mindfulness.

What do I mean by Mindfulness? Well, according to Padraig O’Morain it’s

“returning your attention, with acceptance, from your thoughts to your experience in the moment.”

This moment. This breath. Now. For an over-thinker like me, this was revolutionary in itself – the fact that I don’t have to be a hostage to what is going on in my head. I can say “yes, thoughts, I know you are there bubbling around but actually at this moment I am more interested in my breathing/how my feet feel/the weight of my hands as they rest on my legs/those daffodils that I am cycling past, those bluebells that I am running past.” I have the choice not to be dragged down endless rabbit holes of rumination (obsessing about things that have already happened) or worrying (about things that may or may not happen in the future). This doesn’t mean repressing thoughts or worries, but rather, while accepting them and acknowledging them, choosing to place the attention on something else, something in the present moment.

However, like they described it in the Futurelearn course, the mind is like a puppy – always wants to run off here, there and everywhere. It’s very easy to get caught up in thoughts. And, like the puppy, it takes gentle training for the sit and stay command to be learnt and heeded. Accepting that thinking (and overthinking!) is what the mind does, and not getting frustrated about it, is key. Instead, it’s a case of gently and repeatedly bringing the mind back to the present moment. And from there, you can identify which of the thoughts, if any, are useful to listen to and pursue, rather than just being stuck amidst a load of endless mind babble.

4th March – 22nd April… less than 2 months! So obviously, as far as I am concerned it is very much still a work in progress (and will be forever I imagine!) and I am very much a beginner, but even so, I am already noticing so many benefits:

  • Instead of waking up in the night and then being unable to get back to sleep because I am thinking too much, if I wake in the night now, I do a body-scan (focus on each part of the body in turn, from the feet upwards) and drop back off much more easily.
  • Similarly, when I go to bed each night, I use the body-scan as a falling asleep technique. I also do a 10-20 minute guided meditation just before ‘lights out’ so my mind is calmer to start with.
  • I am better able to recognise when I am getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts and take a step back.
  • Because of being better able to recognise getting caught up in anxious, unhelpful thoughts, I am less likely to go down the rabbit holes of catastrophising/awfulising (basically blowing things out of proportion and thinking about worst case scenarios for everything), taking that step back instead. Thus, one stressor (whatever triggered the anxious thoughts) doesn’t need to become one thousand stressors (all the dark imaginings that follow it and trigger a stress response in my body).
  • Instead of getting road rage as I cycle to and from work, I am better able to accept that drivers are prone to being inconsiderate, accept that I will take approximately x amount of time to get from a to b and not fret, instead focusing my attention on what’s going on around me (better for my safety) and seeing how much beauty and diversity I can notice in the process. Flowers, trees, front gardens, a smiling baby, a shop front…some of those only while at red lights, obviously! Some, if I am moving, is just a fleeting glimpse but I see them rather than being on autopilot.
  • Mindfulness has also helped me get a handle on some disordered eating/anxiety issues which were triggered by bereavement last autumn. By helping me be more aware of what my stressors are and then through that being able to recognise that they don’t actually need to be stressors and using mindfulness techniques when they arise.

As far as work is concerned, I have got into the routine of starting my classes with a very short meditation (I do the speaking, the students do the meditation). The idea is that when they come into my class, their heads are full of what’s gone before (previous lessons, catching up with friends as they walk between classes, checking their phones etc) and what lies ahead (as in beyond my class – deadlines, homework, social arrangements, what’s for dinner etc), so by doing a one minute meditation, it helps them “arrive” and become ready to concentrate on the lesson at hand. I think it has helped improve their focus, but obviously I have no science of my own to back that up. It certainly makes for a very peaceful and pleasant start to the lesson, without using up much time.

The meditation I do with them is based on one from the Futurelearn course called “The Comma” – so-called because it allows you to introduce a short pause between activities into your day. I adapted it slightly to simplify the language and grammar used, to make it more suitable for my students. I introduced it in the first lesson of this term by handing out a print-out to each student and getting them to discuss a few questions around what it is, how using it could help someone and how using it at the start of a class could be valuable for us. Then we did it (and of course being the first time there was a bit of giggling and looking at each other before they closed their eyes properly! Subsequently that hasn’t been an issue) Finally, I said we’d do it at the start of each future class. They were agreeable to that and we have done so ever since.

I also try and do a “comma” or a “full stop” [5 minute meditation, so a slightly longer pause] or a body scan myself before I’m due to go and teach. It doesn’t always happen but when I do manage it, it is a good head space from which to go and start a lesson. It helps me transition from whatever I have been doing, to focusing more fully on what I am about to do i.e. the present moment and teaching. I have all the meditations from the Futurelearn course downloaded on my laptop and loaded onto my mp3 player (yes I still have an mp3 player, isn’t that quaint :-p ) so that I can use them “on the go”.

Outside of work, I always do a guided meditation at bed time – 5-10 mins at the start of my unwinding and then 5-10 mins just before I am about to try and go to sleep. Midweek, that is all I manage as far formal mindfulness is concerned. However, in terms of “informal” practice, I am constantly trying to do all the little day-to-day life things more mindfully, bringing my awareness into the present moment rather than operating in default mode while my mind is off diving down rabbit holes. At the weekends, though, I try and do more and longer (10-20 minute) guided meditations. As that is when I have more of a chance to. Currently, my bedtime reading is the Padraig O’Morain book pictured above. I have also (re)read his book called “Kindfulness” which combines Mindfulness and self-compassion, and have got his “Mindfulness on the go” book lined up. So it’s a steady drip-feed reminder of it for me.

In one week’s time, I will be starting another Futurelearn mindfulness course, also delivered by Monash university (with the same tutors who did the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance one referred to earlier in this post) which is called Maintaining a mindful life. The former is aimed at beginners while the latter is aimed at people who have already done the former or are familiar with/already practice Mindfulness. I am very much looking forward to it!

Do you practice Mindfulness? If so, what resources do you recommend?

  • I’m aware there are various apps e.g. Headspace (I’ve used it a bit but not yet bothered paying for it as I have had enough to be going with through the Futurelearn course materials including the guided meditations and my Padraig O’Marain books. Who knows, maybe one day!) and others. Do you use any such apps?
  • Rachael Roberts’s site has some good stuff on it too (including a link to that book, downloadable as a pdf, which I mentioned at the start of this post!)
  • This site belongs to one of the course tutors from the Futurelearn course I did. “Body scan”, “Training the puppy” and “Body, breath and sound” all feature on the course. Body, breath and sound is the 10-minute one I most often do when I do 10 minutes. There are loads of others there, a wealth of experimentation possible. I have barely scratched the surface. (It is very easy to just use the ones you are familiar with repeatedly!)
  • Padraig O’Morain also has some guided practices and from this page links to another where he has even more audios! Info about his books is here. The website will prompt you to sign up for his “Daily Bell” which is an email newsletter thingy that includes a nice mindfulness-related quote as well as the usual guff about courses he is doing, resources and suchlike.
  • Here is a link to the Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance course on Futurelearn (running again in July in case you are interested) and here is the follow-up course, Maintaining a Mindful Life. Highly recommended.
  • For the science behind it all, Daniel Goleman and Richard J.Davidson have written “Altered Traits: science reveals how meditation changes your mind, brain and body

Please share any resources which you use by commenting on this post! I would really love to hear from you! 

And on that note I do believe it’s time for a guided meditation. 🙂

Scholarship Circle: Giving formative feedback on student writing (1)

Today, Tuesday 2nd October, was the inaugural meeting of the newly formed “Giving formative feedback on student writing” scholarship circle which will take place weekly on Tuesdays here at the USIC arm of the ELTC. (For more information about what scholarship circles involve, please look here and for write-ups of previous scholarship circles, here.)

With a healthy turn-out of  ten teachers, the main goal for this initial meeting was to pin down what we want to get out of the sessions and how we are going to achieve it. We started with these questions:

  • What are we all here for?
  • What do we want to learn?
  • What shall we do with this scholarship circle?

We established that we were all there because we want to be able to give students better feedback. By better, we mean the right kind of feedback: feedback that they will a) be able to understand and b) benefit from. We therefore want to avoid the situation in which we put a lot of effort into producing feedback on their work and they don’t use it.

Our particular focus for this is first drafts of coursework assignments. We have CW1 which is an essay outline and CW3 which is either an essay based on the essay outline (foundation students) or a synoptic assignment research proposal (pre-masters students).

These are some of the questions that we want to answer, or respond to, in the course of this scholarship circle (the list may grow or change over the course of the scholarship circle, this is just our starting point):

  • How much feedback can students cope with? What is the right amount to give them?
  • What language should be used? (H’obviously this doesn’t translate as should we give feedback in English or Mandarin…)
  • How can we help students to access/use feedback more effectively? This includes Quick Marks (i.e. error correction code, on Turnitin), in-text comments and general comments, as well as helping students use them in combination. We also have some evidence from research done on our students suggesting that students prefer specific in-text comments as they are more memorable long-term than Quick Marks, which is something to keep in mind.
  • How can we help teachers use Quick Marks more effectively and consistently?
  • How and when do we praise students’ work? How do we do this most effectively, without seeming insincere?

From these questions, we settled on a short list of things to do:

  • Read “Sugaring the Pill: Praise and criticism in written feedback” by Fiona Hyland and Ken Hyland in Journal of Second Language Writing, so that we can discuss it next week. Dana Ferris was also recommended as a good author for sources about feedback.
  • Discuss and standardise our use of Quick Marks in a future Scholarship Circle meeting.
  • Discuss designing/creating learner training materials/classes to help our students develop independent use of formative feedback to correct their errors.

It was a short but fruitful session, setting us up nicely for our future weekly meetings. Watch this space for future posts tracking our progress and my reflections on our journey! 🙂

University of Sheffield Workshop: Promoting positive mental health and challenging homophobic behaviour – 23 July 2018

On the 23rd July 2018, I was happy to be able to attend an LGBT+ inclusion workshop hosted by the LGBT+ Staff Network and Open@TUOS Allies, deliberately scheduled to coincide with Sheffield’s Pride week. (It also coincided with the one Monday that I didn’t have to lead a module meeting at 1.15, which would have clashed with the workshop and a day in which my teaching hours didn’t clash either!)

It is part of ongoing LGBT+ inclusion work at the University of Sheffield. Other examples include the “Open@TUOS” campaign (which currently has over 2200 supporters across the university, most of whom wear rainbow lanyards as a visible sign of support) and LGBT History Month . According to Professor Gill Valentine, who is the Provost and Deputy Vice Chancellor and who opened the event, the workshops were hugely oversubscribed.

The workshop was delivered by Josh Willersey from Stonewall.

The first session was focusing on mental health.

We started with a matching activity for terminology and definitions relating to LGBT. I was familiar with all the words except “gender variant”. Click on the link to have a go yourself!

Some of the things I learnt:

  • Until 1990, “homosexuality” was on the WHO’s mental illness list. (Very recent past!)
  • A “cisgender ally” is someone who is not trans but supports trans people. (“Cisgender” means your gender identity matches the gender you were assigned at birth – that I knew)
  • 1 in 200 people are born intersex (that’s more common than having red hair!) but often don’t know until if/when they try and conceive.
  • Gender dysphoria can affect intersex people who have invasive surgery at birth.
  • There is a lot of overlap between Bisexuality and Pansexuality (I knew that!). Some people who come out as Bi may actually identify as Pan but not want to spend their life explaining it to people.
  • 62% of graduates who were out at university go back into the closet when they start work as they don’t know if it is ok/safe/acceptable there or not. (You can out yourself by how you answer general questions e.g. answering honestly about what you did at the weekend. You make the decision whether to do that or not depending on how safe you judge that situation to be. This bit I know!)

After the terminology exercise and feedback, we moved on to mental health. Josh used himself as an example of a person who may be perceived to be “happy” (and even receive an award for it at work) but actually simultaneously be going through a hard time. This led us to the first question.

What are the barriers to talking about mental health?

We had to discuss this in our groups and then there was some “whole class feedback”. Here is a list of everything I managed to note down in the course of this:

  • still a stigma about admitting it
  • looked at different to physical health (e.g. at the uni, NHS delivers physical health services, but mental health services are the university’s responsibility)
  • people feel they should be stronger, that mental health issues are a sign of weakness and they don’t want to appear weak
  • labels have certain connotations – a person may be suffering from from a particular issue but not actually match up with peoples’ perceptions of what a sufferer of that issue is and does.
  • people feel like a failure if they have to “admit” to a mental health issue
  • the term “mental health” is too broad to be helpful. E.g. within the NHS they wouldn’t say “let’s improve our physical health service” it would be more specific like “we need to improve our asthma-related services”
  • gender issues e.g. “I am a man therefore I cannot talk about this” (i.e. norms and expectations)
  • cultural issues/pressures (again, norms and expectations-related)
  • lack of support available

Then we had a few statistics:

  • £70-100bn is the estimated cost to UK of mental health issues
  • 91 million working days are lost to mental health, it is the most common cause of absence (UK centre for Mental Health)
  • 53% of people would not feel comfortable disclosing mental health issues to an employer (MIND)

Focusing on LGB+ issues:

  • LGBT+ people are 50% more likely to experience long-term mental health issues
  • LGBT+ people are 2 times more likely to commit suicide than the wider population
  • Bisexual men are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than the wider population
  • 45% of LGBT+ young people are bullied at school, including via social media and text: home is no longer an escape/safe space. They are often bullied for being different, which is closely to linked to gender norms/expectations.
  • Young LGBT people are 6 times more likely to commit suicide
  • Alcohol misuse is 50% higher

Focusing on Trans issues:

  • 88% of trans people have experienced depression vs 1 in 4 of the wider population
  • Trans people are faced with two challenges: dealing with their own experience and dealing with transphobia in society which may take the form of harassment in the streets, people denying their identity, rejection by friends/family/general society
  • Transphobic rhetoric/language use is on the rise at the moment because of the changes in policy being discussed currently that would make it easier for trans people to transition
  • 60% (or 66% I can’t read my writing!) of trans people have attempted suicide
  • 77% have used antidepressants

In terms of health care provision:

  • 6/10 health and social care workers don’t believe orientation is relevant (And if LGBT+ people seek care, they may have to explain themselves/educate the care worker
  • 51%of mental health workers/counsellors/psychologists don’t believe orientation is relevant to mental health
  • 1 in 10 care practitioners believe you can be cured of being LGBT+ (Though there is now a commitment from the government to ban conversion therapy as it is proven to be very damaging)


  • People with BAME backgrounds are more likely to be detained compulsorily for mental health issues
  • The greater someone’s level of socio-economic deprivation, the higher the risk of suicide being attempted
  • 25% of older people have a mental health problem
  • 54% of people with learning difficulties have a mental health problem

Having considered these statistics, we moved on to the all-important question of…

How the workplace can help/support people

Again small group discussion was followed by “whole class” feedback

  • take time to ask how people are and listen to the response
  • be alert to recognising differences in peoples’ behaviour that may signify that something is not right
  • be aware that people may be putting up a front (and a knee-jerk “yes” to “are you ok?” may not reflect the true picture)
  • be careful how you talk about people with mental health issues – others will pick up on it and respond accordingly (i.e. if you are disparaging or negative, they will endeavour to hide problems)
  • #Timetoalk prompts: shouldn’t need a prompt, caring, supportive discussion should happen all the time
  • if it reaches a “crunch point”, too many opportunities to intervene have been missed – it shouldn’t get that far
  • One of our group who works in the uni health service said they have a buddy system and timetabled coffee breaks for GPs, to combat isolation/stress
  • If someone is off sick, keep in touch with them (in a supportive way rather than a harassing way!)
  • Training about mental health should be offered (awareness-raising etc)

Here is the slide of suggestions that Josh shared afterwards:

We were finally given some suggestions for promoting better mental health in the workplace and some resources relating to LGBT+ and to mental health:

The second session focused on bullying and harassment in the workplace specifically in relation to LGBT+ people. 

We started with some statistics relating to bullying/harassment of LGBT+ people in general:

Bullet point three is partly due to increased likelihood of reporting compared to before but also links to rise in populism and validation of far right attitudes that has been seen in the last 5 years.

Then we looked at statistics specific to the workplace:

We talked about  behaviour and what is unacceptable behaviour:


  • Still rife in modern society, common to hear language such as “poof”, “gay boy” or “faggot”
  • There is still “moral panic” i.e. a fear of LGBT+ being more acceptable having a negative effect on children (why it should have a worse effect than heterosexuality being acceptable, I’m not sure…)
  • Calling something “gay” to mean sad/pathetic/rubbish still common e.g. “This lesson is so gay”. This use of language does impact people who hear it.


  • People consider bisexuals to be “confused”, “greedy”, “selfish”, “going through a phase”
  • People say bisexuals should choose one or the other – “choose a side”
  • People say that you can’t be bisexual unless you’ve slept with ‘both’ genders
  • People consider bisexuals to be more likely to cheat on their partners
  • People say things like “she used to be bisexual but then she married a man” (This does not make her magically straight…)
  • People make assumptions based on who the bisexual person is in a relationship with at that time
  • Bisexual people face discrimination within the LGBT community as well as from heteronormative society


There are more people identifying as non-binary (or various other gender labels, other than male/female) these days. This is partly because there is now the language to express it, there is information available online and times are changing: fluidity is more acceptable among young people. (This acceptance of fluidity and increased likeliness to have a fluid identity applies also to sexual orientation, with 50% of young people identifying as something other than 100% straight in a recent survey)

  • Tends most heavily to be aimed at male to female transsexual as that is the most commonly known about narrative
  • language such as “tranny”, “shemale”
  • People might say something like “you really can’t tell, can you” – which can be hurtful because the transition wasn’t about pleasing people aesthetically, it’s about identity
  • People might say something like “oh she was such a pretty woman before”
  • People might assume that it’s “just a phase”
  • People might police the toilets – “Excuse me, I think you are in the wrong toilet”.

(This seems like a good place to share a photo taken at the IATEFL conference in Brighton this year:)

Like our classrooms should be – nice one, Brighton Centre!

  • Continued use of the wrong pronouns despite knowing the person’s preferences
  • Continued use of an old/dead name -known as “dead naming”, shows non-acceptance of the true identity
  • Asking what someone’s “dead name” was – can be hurtful/upsetting as often it is loaded with trauma for the person
  • Asking a trans person when they will have surgery – not all trans people do a medical transition

Then we considered what barriers there may be to reporting bullying/harassment in the workplace…

  • Fear of the effect on one’s career: not wanting to rock the boat.
  • Knowing that it could be explained away as “banter” (which can cover a multitude of sins)
  • Not wanting to be out to your manager
  • Not wanting colleagues to look at you differently

as well as the impact it can have on the person and the organisation. For a person, they may develop low self-confidence, become demotivated and/or suffer from anxiety/depression. For the organisation, overall it can lead to low staff morale, increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, recruitment and retention problems and possibly costly legal action/

So what can organisations do? 

  • Cultural change (takes time)
  • Policy: it should mention LGBT phobia as unacceptable specifically – it’s a lot harder to report something if it isn’t clearly articulated in company policy
  • Organise training around awareness-raising
  • Make use of inclusive messaging e.g. messages sent to all staff that send a positive, inclusive message around LGBT+ (such as the LGBT+ history month here)
  • Make sure reporting routes are clear to all employees
  • Have an LGBT employee network group


Who is responsible?

  • The source: the one whose behaviour is offensive
  • The target: should tell someone if their behaviour is upsetting. Discriminatory behaviour must be challenged (also among students!)
  • Any observers: there is no such thing as an innocent bystander, you should call out offensive behaviour
  • Person in authority: Managers should address inappropriate behaviour. It is the employer’s responsibility to maintain a respectful, inclusive environment.

How to call out inappropriate language/behaviour

UHT – I UNDERSTAND you don’t mean to be offensive when you say x, HOWEVER, it is offensive (and against company values?) to say x. THEREFORE, please don’t use language like that again.

Stop, Identify, broaden: Stop the harassment (if you feel threatened, you could just speak to the target so that they aren’t stuck in a 1-1 with the harasser); Identify the behaviour as discriminatory; Broaden the response by linking to company values etc.

I feel <x feeling> when you do <y action> and I’d like you to <a preference>

Having considered these approaches, we looked at three case studies:

Again, group discussion was followed by coming together.

Case Study 1

  • We thought the main difficulty in such a situation is having “a way in” to talk about it. We came up with “I’m sure you’re not trying to cause offence but…”
  • We also thought the response might depend on the environment e.g. if this was at the uni, we’d be acting in a professional capacity and know that it is against organisational values etc. Policies/training may not be in place elsewhere, so if you are elsewhere, you might flag it up to a manager
  • Flip side, if you only speak to a manager, nothing may happen, so it may be better to speak to the receptionists (especially as regardless of location, reception is public-facing so anybody could hear what they were saying)
  • Don’t just do nothing

Case Study 2

After making sure the person being harassed is ok, challenge that person by getting them to explain their statements, using “why” a lot. Challenge their thinking:

  • There are LGBT+ people of all faiths. There are inclusive people and readings in all faiths. The two are not mutually exclusive.
  • Orientation is not “a lifestyle”, it’s part of someone’s identity
  • Both people of faith and LGBT+ have experienced discrimination for that identity
  • Faith values: acceptance and love, not hatred.

Encourage the person who was being harassed to report it

Case Study 3

  • Ask James what he wants you to do/how he wants you to proceed (very important)
  • Offer support/options (e.g. confront the colleagues involved, make a formal complaint)
  • If you are a colleague, encourage reporting
  • If you are a manager, follow it up

Focus on the action

In all cases, it is important to focus on the action rather than the person. I.e. “x is a homophobic thing to say/do”, rather than “you are being homophobic”. If you use the latter, then they will immediately be focusing on defending themselves (“I’m not, I have a gay uncle, I have gay friends” etc!) and that is not dealing with the issue of the behaviour.

Don’t be complicit

It is uncomfortable to challenge but it is also important, as we don’t know who is listening or how it could be impacting them.

That brought us to the end of the workshop.

My thoughts

I feel very lucky in that my workplace (my staffroom, my colleagues etc) always feels like a very warm, safe environment. I love seeing the rainbow lanyards around! It’s a nice feeling. I love that this university is 24th in Stonewall UK charity’s list of the top 100 most inclusive employers.

I think the topic and content of this workshop also has relevance to the classroom and to us as teachers as well as as workers. Statistically, there will be LGBT+ students in our classrooms. We need to actively make our classrooms an inclusive, safe place for them. This means that if students say things that are LGBT+phobic, we, as teachers, shouldn’t be a quiet Switzerland on the issue. We should be calling it out. Obviously this gets a lot more complicated if you are working in a context which is not tolerant of LGBT+ people and/or in an institution whose policy on this is undefined. I think ELT school managers should, where possible, have clear policy around LGBT+ bullying being unacceptable and teachers should be aware of this and know that they would be supported in calling students out on it. (A teacher can’t tackle such a problem without the support of the school – if the student complains, the school needs to be supporting the teacher.) This, of course, is affected by the students as customers perception that is common throughout ELT. Training around how to deal with LGBT+ issues in the classroom may also be useful. E.g. what would you do if in a unit talking about personal relationships, a female student refers to her partner as “she”? Is it a pronoun mistake or an assertion of identity? How do you establish which it is? How do you deal with other students’ response?

I also think that ELT materials need more LGBT+ normative content (gay people rarely exist in ELT course books – as Scott Thornbury famously said, they are firmly in the course book closet), but that’s another topic for another day…

What do you think?

Questions I want to leave you with

  • Is your workplace supportive of people with mental health issues?
  • Does your workplace have policy in place to combat workplace/classroom LGBT+ bullying/harassment/phobic behaviour?
  • Would you feel able to report this kind of behaviour (would you know who to report it to?)
  • Do you think that if you did report this kind of behaviour that something would be done?
  • Have you ever attended training relating to LGBT+ issues?
  • Have you had to deal with LGBT+ phobia in the classroom? What happened? How did you deal with it? (To give an example, I remember I taught a class that consisted of 3 Arabic men and I can’t remember why it came up but at some point they were ALL spouting some seriously vitriolic opinions about gay people. This was in the UK, in 2012. I had no idea what to do and I didn’t/don’t know what that school’s policy was on the issue. It was very awkward and uncomfortable! What would you have done? Fast forward to 2017, working at the ELTC, and in my elementary group, one of my students said he hadn’t seen any gay people in Sheffield/at the university. I challenged that by asking how he knows and gently pointing out that gay people don’t go around with labels on their foreheads to tell us they are gay. Gay people are just normal people. I also included gay family images in my Smartboard materials for the unit on families to supplement what was in the course book and statistics around mental health in wider vs LGBT populations in the UK in the spread on mental health issues. That was a much more benign situation BUT it needed to be dealt with and there was scope for awareness-raising. It DOES happen, the frequency is irrelevant – that it happens at all means we need to be equipped to deal with it effectively when it does. I think it would be useful for there to be more help with how to do that.)

Sorry for an extraordinarily long post, but it’s an important topic and there was a lot of ground covered in the workshop!

Bite-size TD at the ELTC

Teacher development is a key part of working life at the ELTC and the team who are in charge of it this term recently rolled out a new initiative, “Bite-size TD”. The idea is to build up a collection of recordings done by teachers of short talks on a range of topics, that other teachers can watch when they have 15-20 minutes spare and fancy a bit of CPD.

I volunteered to do a whistle-stop tour of which is a corpus tool. Without the /academic part of the web address, a general corpus of texts is analysed, with the academic part included, it analyses a corpus of academic texts from a range of disciplines. Both sites work in exactly the same way, so what I talked about today could equally be applied to the general version. My powerpoint was adapted from one that I used with my ESUS (English Skills for University Study, which has since undergone a few changes and been renamed) students last term, with the aim of introducing the site to them through the medium of guided discovery.

My talk worked in two ways: a) For teachers unfamiliar with the site, I suggested they use the pause button a bit and try to do the activities on the site as they went along, to understand better how it works. b) For teachers who were already familiar, and for the teachers in a) once they were familiar, it modelled my approach to introducing students to the site and provided some example activities that they could use with students.

I suggested that as well as using this approach in class with the students as an introduction, it’s useful to reinforce it by:

  • modelling use of it yourself in class if students ask you something about a word/phrase. (Particularly if you can project it)
  • using it in tutorials based on students’ written work, to guide error correction
  • encouraging students to use it before submitting a piece of work, to check their use of key language

Here is the powerpoint I used (click to download):

I’ll add the recording later if the link is a public one, but you should be able to follow what to do via the powerpoint, it’s step-by-step and the answers are included.

Do you use with your students? How? Would love to hear about your approach/ideas for using it via the comments box below. 🙂

Happy weekend, all!

Mental Health in ELT

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

Yesterday I read a Guardian article stating that the number of referrals to mental health crisis teams in the NHS has gone up by 60%  in the UK. It didn’t seem to specify the time period in which this increase has taken place, but nevertheless it’s clear that mental health problems are something that a lot of people face to varying degrees of severity. Another recent article argues that in adopting the new GCSE result grade scales, schools are putting elite performance ahead of pupils’ wellbeing while yet another discusses the increase in mental health issues in students at university, with the number of drop-outs being three times higher in 2014-2015 than it was in 2009-2010. The context of education can be, by its very nature, a very pressurised situation where the stakes are high and failure unthinkable, even for children as young as six years old. Meanwhile, the Independent reports that at least one tenth of the 4908 teachers questioned rely on anti-depressants to combat work-related stress. An interesting initiative responds to the issue of pupil mental health at schools by proposing to give teachers the training they need to be specialists in mental health. I would argue that everybody involved in the education system – students, staff, managerial staff – would benefit from greater awareness of (potential) mental health issues, how to recognise them and how to address them.

Within education, mental health can be considered from three main angles: pupils/students mental health and mental health awareness, teachers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, colleagues’ and their students’) and managers’ mental health and mental health awareness (both of their own, their colleagues’, that of their staff team, and that of the students in their school). That’s a lot of mental health awareness needed, and alongside it, systems both for dealing with the problems that arise and, importantly, addressing the causes in order to bring down the number of these. I think this applies as fully to ELT as it does to ‘regular’ teaching, whether teachers are based in the primary, secondary and tertiary sectors or whether they are based in private language schools. All contexts are high stakes in various ways, demanding in various ways and potentially conducive to mental health issues in the staff and students within them. Universities often have support services within which students and staff can seek help if they are struggling but this relies on people a) being aware that they are struggling more than is ‘normal’/need help b) knowing how to access that help and c) not being ashamed to access it.

Looking  back on my own experiences of poor mental health, the requirements stated above are not necessarily easy to meet. If you are struggling, you are generally too focused on trying to keep your head above water, in one or multiple contexts, to see the bigger picture. Things accumulate, build up, things that each individually by themselves may be minor but in combination become more difficult to overcome. For example, at one school I was working at, I was told that I had had some complaints from students in one of my classes. It eventually transpired that there was a mismatch between their current syllabus and their expectations based on the syllabus of the previous level they had studied. However, between the issue arising and being resolved, my confidence took a massive hit. This spilled over into my personal life, as I lost confidence in my linguistic abilities too, meaning that when my gas bottle ran out, and I had to phone the service for obtaining a replacement, instead of it being a little thing and easy to do, it was a difficult thing and I couldn’t face it. So I didn’t. Which meant that I then wasn’t eating particularly well as I couldn’t cook. I was also having issues with my social life that were making me very unhappy, details unnecessary. I reached a point where I would sit in my flat in the morning feeling physically sick at the thought of going into work (and this ‘work-dread’ anxiety took a while to ease/wear off even after I changed jobs due to my contract reaching its natural end.) While all of this was going on, there was a workshop that required me to use the language I had lost confidence in, and as a result of all the issues described (which I just had to resist the temptation to qualify with “silly”!) I didn’t participate properly. This led to me being hauled into the DoS’s office for an explanation. I was asked if everything was ok, but my automatic reaction was to say yes. (I don’t know about anyone else, but that tends to be my knee-jerk response, almost a defensive one, but also what was wrong was all ‘little things’ that I was ‘dealing with’, it didn’t occur to me to talk about them when asked what was wrong.) So then I was told off, which shocked me into ending up in floods of tears explaining what was wrong and did then get the help I needed to sort out the gas etc. I think this is one example where better mental health awareness, both on my part and on my manager’s part, could have made a big difference.

Mental health, like physical health, is always in flux, is affected by what we do, what we consume, what situations we find ourselves in and other such factors. Like physical health, we need to be aware of how to manage our own mental health to avoid becoming ill and of symptoms that our health is off. Like physical health, sometimes ill health is minor and can be adjusted/improved fairly easily and other times it is a longer and more difficult process to heal. Like physical health, sometimes we need help to treat the symptoms and identify the cause. For that to happen, we need to be able to recognise and acknowledge when things are not ok with us, and we need to be able to help others to recognise and acknowledge when things may not be ok with them. Mental Health First Aid  is one interesting approach to enabling this.

“Mental Health” (Pixabay)

I don’t have the answers to it all, but it’s certainly something that I feel is important and want to explore further. To finish off this post, I leave you with Sandy Millin’s very useful post that brings together a lot of links relating to mental health and recommend that you have a look through. I also invite you to share any thoughts you have on the subject as I would be very interested to hear them. 🙂



Scholarship Circle “TEFLising EAP” (5 and 6)

Today was the sixth session of our new scholarship circle “TEFLising EAP”. (You can read more about what a scholarship circle is and what it does here.)

–  Yes, the sixth: the fifth was last week but Friday seems to have rolled round again before I’ve got round to writing it up. Life and work happened! The sixth, and also the last for this term (sob!), so a special thank you to my colleague, Holly, whose brainchild it was and who has consistently brought along interesting ideas to get the discussion going. We’ve all got a lot out of it, in terms of ideas, motivation and generally a happy Friday feeling! 🙂 

To quote from my write-up of the first session,

The idea behind this one is that EAP lessons can get a little dry – learning how to do things academically is not necessarily the most exciting thing in the world even if it is essential for would-be university students – and for the students’ sake (as well as our own!) it would be great to bring in more, let’s say ‘TEFL Tweaks’ – things that we used to do when we taught at language schools abroad (warmers, personalisation, fun activities etc!) and have got out of the habit of doing in the EAP context but that could actually be adapted for use here without losing the all-important lesson content.

Session 5

Last week, the focus of the session was how to make students more aware of what words they can and can’t use with countable and uncountable nouns – to try and minimise, amongst other things, the number of instances where we see “These research show” and “Many research prove” etc. This sequence was adapted from Teach This 

We began with a variation of backs to the board/jeopardy:

To start with, there was nothing on the board except the score table. The teacher writes a word on the board, e.g. spare key. In order to get their team member whose back is to the board to guess the word, the students have to ask a grammatically correct question, e.g. “what do you give to your neighbours so that they can water your plants while you are on holiday?”. Rather than erasing the word to write another, the word is left on the board and another is added, either underneath it or in the column next to it. Obviously one of the columns is for countable nouns and one for uncountable nouns.

Once the game is finished, the teacher then elicits from the students what each column of words is (countable/uncountable) and what question you could ask about each (How many…? or How much…?) Students should then work in pairs and identify one similarity and one difference between them, using these questions. So, student A might ask “How many tattoos do you have?” and Student B might reply “2”. Student A would either say “me too!” or “I have ten” or “I have none” and that would be a similarity or difference, depending on the response.

Next, students brainstorm quantifiers that can be used with each column (or you can give them a list of quantifiers and get them to match which ones go with which column). Then the teacher hands out an empty grid of quantifiers per pair or group of students:

What now follows is a few rounds of Stop the Bus! In other words, the teacher gives the students a category (e.g. no. 1 above was “Things you might have in your bedroom”) and students have to write nouns that fit the category and go with each quantifier.  After each round, do some whole class feedback to make sure groups have correct words. (Be aware, a teacher, I mean a student, of course, from one group might argue rather tenaciously against a word given by another group 😉 )

Once you have done a few rounds of Stop the Bus, write up a few examples from groups’ tables.


  • happiness
  • carrot
  • books

Elicit a correct example definition for each and use it to review what words are and aren’t used with uncountable, singular countable, plural countable.

In the case of our EAP classes, this whole sequence then leads onto editing their coursework writing: students choose four nouns that they have used repeatedly (e.g. research!!!!) and use the ‘search’ function in Word to find all the occurrences and check the grammar around them. They should check if the noun is countable or uncountable, and if the noun is countable they should think about whether they want it as singular or plural. The grammar around the word is then edited accordingly.

Session 6

Today, we started by looking at Getting to know you activities: the current term is drawing swiftly towards its conclusion and the new one will arrive sooner than anyone might think, so this was a bit of forward-thinking.

So, here are the ideas that were shared.

Find that person

  • Each student writes one thing about themselves on a small piece of paper and screws it up.
  • All the papers are thrown up in the air in the middle of the classroom.
  • Each student comes and takes a piece of paper (throwing it back and taking again if it is their own)
  • Students mingle and ask questions to find out a) who their piece of paper belongs to and b) more information about what is written.

Getting to know the teacher

Variation 1

  • Students work in pairs to write 5 questions they want to ask the teachers. Each question should be in a different grammatical tense.
  • Pairs swap questions with another pair and check the grammar.
  • Depending on numbers/time, group pairs and pieces of paper and allow a question or two from each pair or group, that you then have to answer.

Variation 2

  • Choose 6 pictures (the more obscure the better) that relate to different periods of your life and display them on the board.
  • Students discuss what they think the pictures are about and what they suggest about the teacher.
  • Students share their ideas with the teacher and bit by bit the real story comes out.

This could also alternatively be done with 6 names or years or places.

Variation 3

  • Teacher writes 3 truths and one lie (mixed up) about him/herself on the board.
  • Students have to ask questions to try and decide which is the lie.
  • Once the lie has been guessed, they can then do the activity in pairs and share their findings with the rest of the class.

Conversation starter

  • Students write their name in the middle of a piece of paper. Around it, they write the name of someone important to them, a year, a place, and something random (their choice) about themselves.
  • Students mingle and find out more about each of the things their classmates have written on their papers.


This is for when you’ve done a bit of getting to know you but still have more time left and want to get students talking some more.

  • Give the students the scenario that there is a shipwreck, a lifeboat that only holds 5 people and a need to decide who is going to be allowed onto that lifeboat.
  • Give them a list of ten people (for example roles search “lifeboat ESL game”
  • They have to discuss and decide who to save
  • Extension: they have to take on that role and try to persuade the others on the ship to let them on the lifeboat (obviously creative license comes into play, they can go beyond the information on the role card!).


As above, this is for when you’ve done a bit of getting to know you but still have more time left and want to get them talking some more.

  • Linking back to the shipwreck, now that students have decided who will live and who will die, they have to decide what to take with them.
  • Give them a list of things they have on the boat, of which they can only take 5 or the boat will sink. You could include some of the things mentioned here and some random other things. (And I bet none of the students will decide to take the condom because it makes a good water bag!)

For more getting to know you activities, see my posts here and here

After the getting-to-know-you brainstorm (or what are we supposed to call it these days – thought shower or something?), we talked about self-observation. The idea suggested was that every couple of weeks you pick one of your weaknesses  (can be very simple little things e.g. instructions, board-work, getting down to student eye-level to speak to them etc.) and focus on it in all your lessons for that period of time. Whether or not you pair it with reflective writing etc was thought to be a matter of personal choice and not for everybody. Have you done something like this before?

And that was the end of our last scholarship circle for the term (because All The Marking lands next week and continues in week 9…) I will miss them!!