Where Inspiration Was Born – Memories from Slovenia IATEFL 2016
Danny Singh, UK and Italy
Danny Singh, born and raised in London, but now based in Rome, gives creative English language lessons and teacher training courses all over Italy and abroad. He also offers stimulating monthly presentations on language related issues at Rome’s biggest international bookshop and is visible on web TV www.inmagicartwebtv.eu with a series of interactive English video lessons. He is author of two books, “I was a happy man...then one day I came across Laughter Yoga” and “Learning English through the mind and the body”. He regularly attends Pilgrims TT summer courses as a Guest Speaker. Website: www.laughnlearn.net
A long Friday
One happy family
The final hurdle
Don’t stop me now
Homeward bound, well almost
This was my third IATEFL Slovenia conference. The first one in 2013 was held during a very cold March, where snow, rain and hailstones were a serious hazard to any form of travelling. My first impression had been walking up the hill towards the hotel in Topolsica and seeing several smiling people jumping up and down in an outdoor swimming pool. Peter Dyer, the great drama teacher had been present at the conference, so it was an opportunity to catch up with him again. When he’s around, you are never in your comfort zone! In 2014 meanwhile, the weather was far warmer and the highlight of that conference was winning the pub quiz with an excellent team around me. I had missed the 2015 conference, as I was putting the finishing touches to my first book, “I was a happy man, then one day I came across laughter yoga”. As a result, I was quite excited about returning to what is undoubtedly one of my favourite conferences.
I got to the Topolsica hotel in good time for dinner after a journey which had begun early in the morning with a train journey from Rome up towards Trieste and then over the border into Slovenia. I’m well aware that like most people, I tend to over-eat at conferences. I was also extremely hungry after my long journey, so I had to think rationally and not get too emotionally involved with the food. In the end, I ate quite a lot, but not excessively.
The evening began with an international evening, where we were asked to bring along something typical of our country. This had only been introduced the year before, so it was my first experience. Each table had the name of a country and on it you could find an assortment of products representative of that country. The Serbian and Croatian tables were covered in food and drinks, as well as a few souvenirs. The smaller countries all had representatives proudly exhibiting something; Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, then there was Slovenia of course, Hungary, Austria and Slovakia. England had some teabags, marmite (you either love it or hate it), some Cadburys chocolate which I brought and a model size, black cab.
I drank some amazing Hungarian sweet wine, a Croatian digestive, a Macedonian red wine and a few other drinks, tasted various culinary delights which presented themselves, though I have no recollection either of what they were, or of what happened afterwards. I was in no condition to go to the treasure hunt in the swimming pool, but all in all, I was aware that it had been a great evening.
On Friday morning, I began by attending a plenary by Ken Wilson on strategies for teacher-student communication. I had met Ken Wilson for the first time at the TESOL Northern Greece conference in March 2015. Like the other speakers on that occasion, he was an excellent storyteller. During this plenary however, I had the feeling that maybe I had heard some of this before. Indeed, thinking about it afterwards, it is quite plausible that I had heard the whole plenary before in Greece. However, I only recalled about 25% of it. That’s not surprising! The plenary in Greece was at the end of the weekend, when I was shattered and moreover, as Grant Kempton said in his plenary at the HUPE conference in Opatija in 2014, on average, we only remember about 10-15% of what we hear at conferences. That’s why it’s actually useful to attend the same plenary or workshop two or three times. I felt as though I had understood what Ken was trying to communicate much better this time.
After this revelation, I went to Margarita Kosior’s workshop on learner autonomy. Before she began, she recounted her complicated journey, which involved three flights to get to Ljubljana from Thessaloniki in Greece and then of course find her way to Topolsica. Her workshop was about learner autonomy and although I already knew a lot of the points she mentioned, it indirectly helped me with a couple of issues I had in the final touches I was making to my new book, “Learning English through the mind and the body”. The workshop finished with a lovely video showing a project that her students had put together.
After a well-deserved coffee, I made off to Luke Meddings workshop on pronunciation. He promised in his notes that he would bring in a few regional accents, which he did. He also imitated the Queen and Elvis Presley among others. This workshop was quite entertaining and emphasised the fact that as teachers, we should be prepared to make a fool of ourselves occasionally.
Before the lunch break, I went to a short workshop done by Barbara Kragelj Jeric on learning by standing up and moving. This was exactly what I needed myself, not only because I am a very kinaesthetic person, but also as I was suffering from sciatica, which is both literally and metaphorically, “a pain in the ass”. She had us doing all kinds of singing and dancing, which was just my cup of tea. She also gave us some alternatives to sitting badly on chairs, which was highly interesting.
After the lunch break, I went to Karen White’s workshop on how to do numerous activities with just one piece of paper. Karen is based in Austria and I remember her giving us a great workshop on students with dyslexia back in 2013. We left this workshop with hundreds of ideas on what we can do with just one piece of paper.
I decided at this point to take a break from workshops, so as not to suffer burnout before Saturday arrived. After another coffee break, I decided to go to Sharka Dohnalova’s workshop. I was used to seeing Sharka give us playful activities for children at kindergarten. However, this was about bringing history into the lesson with participants trying to solve the riddle of the story. As I was the only male at this workshop, I was obliged to be a volunteer; the father of the girl who was going to be married into a foreign country. I survived that experience, but decided on another break before the final plenary of the day, Thom Jones entertaining us with his story entitled, If music be the food of love, wrap the guitar in lettuce and throwing biscuits at hungry-looking teachers who had one eye on their watches and the other on the canteen.
After the evening meal, there was the customary pub quiz. I managed to insert myself into a team with the potential for winning, or so I thought and although we gave it everything we had, we weren’t quite able to get into the top three. As usual, there was some excellent beer provided by a local company, making the evening loud, if not victorious!
Saturday morning began with a plenary by Sharka. It dealt with the idea of teaching something that you are not good at, thereby helping you to understand the plight of learners who may not find the subject too easy. Geography was the subject she chose and most of the participants were in difficulty, although the subject was extremely interesting.
After this session, I would have liked to go to Ken Wilson’s workshop entitled, Is anyone listening? I hope someone was, however, on this occasion, I wasn’t! I had to prepare my materials for my workshop presentation. It was called, Mother Europe, the title of an article published in the summer 2014 issue of In magazine. The title was based on a Slovenian film of the same name, which I had seen at the Rotterdam film festival earlier that same year.
I had copies of the article to hand out, copies of my first book, “I was a happy man...” and some laughnlearn t-shirts. But more importantly, I had four special guests arriving for the workshop. They duly arrived in good time. Petra Seliskar the director of the film, Terra, the nine-year old girl, who was the main actress in the film alongside her mother, Brand Ferro the half-Cuban, half-Macedonian cameraman and last, but not least, the two year old Nil, who was running around in circles, consuming large quantities of chocolate from sympathisers on the bookstands and looking up at surprised teachers from under their feet. In short, one happy family!
I told my story of how I came across the film, my interpretation of it, a film dealing with the problem of borders imposed by political powers, but made audience-friendly by having the true story seen and told through the eyes of a five year old girl. I showed one of the three trailers available on you tube and asked the audience to describe what they considered the most notable changes since the dismantling of Yugoslavia. This was quite animated as there are both positive and negative consequences, but naturally enough, when you are involved in the dismantling of your country, feelings can run high.
I then allowed Petra to give her version of the film and finally at the end, participants could exchange contact numbers with Petra. As this film is educational, it lends itself well to teachers and my suggestion was that if anyone wanted to watch it, they should have it relayed to their classes, thereby killing two birds with one stone, not only being able to watch it, but also to use it in their lessons for discussion. I made sure that all members of the family got a round of applause for their attendance and participation and I then went for a coffee with them in the hotel bar, where the two year old Nil insisted on feeding me cream from his cake.
After removing all the cream from the contours of my mouth and using a cup of coffee almost as a mouthwash to ensure all traces of cream were cleansed from my tongue, I made my way to Mike Harrison’s workshop on drawing. This was a session where our stimulus came essentially from sounds and images, the use of the senses. This certainly assisted my imagination and I had some great pictures in my head, though putting them down on paper was not so easy, as I am not famous for my drawings, but as a lot of my students, especially the younger ones, do like drawing, I left this session with a fistful of ideas.
After another break from workshops and a much-needed coffee, I attended Luke’s plenary, which dealt with using natural resources as materials for our lessons; cafes, buildings, trees, the sky, much as I do with my English in the City courses, which are all located outside the classroom. Luke mentioned a book which I personally regard as one of the worst language-learning books ever written, English Grammar in Use, a book where you read the instructions, do the exercises, but still do not understand either the concept, or how to use it in real life communication. This reminded me of the importance of finishing my second book, Learning English through the mind and the body, before the end of March.
The final session of the day was either going to be out of this world, or a horrific experience, as it lasted for ninety minutes. I decided to take the plunge and was surprised to discover how few people bothered to attend this session. This workshop was being done by an ex-teacher, Dr Apolonija Klancar, who is now working as a full-time therapist. The session which was predominantly practical, made us analyse our senses and different symptoms that we have relating to our balance, vision, hearing and movement. She gave us some simple exercises to guide us through these potential difficulties, so that we could experience the therapeutic benefits and explained how she uses them with kids.
The final evening served up something that I hadn’t experienced before, no high quality beer unfortunately, but miming songs without actually singing them. These performances would also be judged by the public. Initially, I wondered how we could possibly judge a song that wasn’t sung, but then it transpired that in order to gain votes, you were encouraged to dance and move as much as possible.
Several volunteers had the courage to go up and perform, some better than others of course, but all part of the fun. There were some great performances with crazy songs, but eventually it came down to the final two contestants, who I have to say were definitely the best of the bunch. While in the early stages of the evening, you could choose the song that you wanted to mime and dance to, the semi-final and final song was chosen by the person who had the audacity to organise this event.
The two contestants were Jaka Cresnar and Biljana Makuljevic and the song was one of my favourites, Don’t stop me now, by Queen. Even more than a month after the event, I can still visualise both of them dancing around to this great song. It was a shame that there could only be one winner, but the runner-up will certainly be remembered for his great performance.
One of the many things that I enjoy about the Slovenia IATEFL conference is the small gift that we find in our carefully prepared bags. In 2013, I received some pills, or at least they looked like pills, but they were in fact sweets, an alternative to laughter yoga as a form of medicine. In 2014, I was given an original-looking whistle and this year 2016, I got a pack of IATEFL cards to use with my students.
On Sunday morning, after consuming pancakes for the last time until the next conference, I departed on my long journey, homeward bound. A drive to the coast before picking up a train to Rome. However, when in these parts, it would be a sin not to make a short stop at Trojane, famous home of Slovenian doughnuts. So I did, and as the sun shone brightly and I stood there consuming one blueberry and one apricot doughnut, the dodgy marking in the pub quiz, the controversy of the raffle ticket winners and the culinary delights left over from the international evening which had not appeared at the coffee breaks as promised, were all but a distant memory.
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