Sunday, 29 July 2012

The Jade Emperor Pagoda, Saigon

A couple of weeks ago, on one of our regular weekend trips into Saigon, our plans to take a day trip to Can Gio were thwarted at the last minute – overbooked buses or not enough of us to make it worthwhile to run the tour – we never did find out which!  Anyway, finding ourselves at a loose end, we decided to visit the Jade Emperor Pagoda in District 3. 

My guidebook (Lonely Planet Vietnam) said, ‘If you only visit one pagoda in Saigon, make sure it’s this one’, and then went on to give a short, but highly complimentary account of the attraction.  So, with high expectations, we flagged down a Mai Linh taxi to take us there.  It soon became apparent that we had inadvertently got into a taxi driven by an opportunist who thought he would fleece the foreigners and take them on the longest route possible to their destination!  When he didn’t respond to our protestations that he was going the wrong way, we phoned our English-speaking Saigon taxi-driver, Hiep, who told our man off in no uncertain terms and ensured that we paid less than half the amount that was on the clock by the time we got to the pagoda!  Mercifully, this kind of behaviour is not the norm amongst Saigon taxi drivers, especially the ones who work for the two most reputable companies, Mai Linh and Vinasun, and perhaps our man will think twice before he tries it on again!

So, we found ourselves at the entrance to the Jade Emperor Pagoda and, I have to say, we were a little underwhelmed.  I don’t know why I expected the pagoda to be in the middle of landscaped grounds with lots of green around, but that’s the picture I had in my head!  Instead, it is on a side street in the heart of a rather rundown commercial and residential district.

At the entrance we were encouraged to buy goldfish, turtles and toads, seemingly as offerings to the gods – we declined!  Once through the gates, we realised that the pagoda was very busy, mainly with worshippers, rather than tourists.  We were struck by how pink everything was!  Given its name, we’d been expecting the building to be green!

Inside, the pagoda comprises a series of rooms with an eclectic mix of images and statues, some of which are very grotesque and could scare young children!  The pagoda was built in 1909 by the Cantonese community and the images, many of which are made of papier mâché, depict Taoist, Buddhist and other ethnic mythical stories.  The figure that dominates the main hall is a statue of the Jade Emperor who is believed to be the ‘god of the heavens’, with the power to admit or refuse entry.  One of the anterooms houses an idol of Kim Hua, goddess of fertility, often visited by childless couples praying for a baby.  The King of Hell is portrayed in another room along with elaborate carvings showing the ten levels of hell and the Chinese equivalent of the apocalypse.

Throughout the entire building, however, is an overpowering scent of incense.  The pungent smoke fills the air and gets in your eyes.  Worshippers continually light more joss sticks and temple assistants pour oil over burning candles, adding to the suffocating atmosphere.  It was a huge relief to emerge into the daylight and (relatively) fresh air.

Reading my guidebook in the open courtyard, though, we realised that we had missed a staircase leading from one of the side rooms up to the roof.  So, we braved the incense once again, found the steps and emerged on to the roof where we could see the elaborate green tiles!

The pagoda is interesting and worth a look if you are in Saigon for longer than a couple of days, but, in my opinion, shouldn’t feature on anyone’s ‘must-do’ list for the city!


See more of my photos of the Jade Pagoda here.

Weekends in Pham Ngu Lao, Saigon

We live in Binh Duong New City, 40km from Saigon, Vietnam.  As I've described before, it is a brand new development currently inhabited by a small number of ex-pats and offering few facilities in the way of shops or entertainment.  This is not much of a problem during the working week, but come the weekend, we often like to escape to the hustle and bustle of the city.

Such weekends invariably begin at 4.30pm on a Friday when we squeeze on to the company minibus which ferries some of our Vietnamese colleagues backwards and forwards to Saigon on a daily basis.  The length of the journey is very much dependent on the weather and traffic conditions, but we are usually deposited at Turtle Lake (I think this is our nickname - I'm not sure what this landmark is really called) in District 3 sometime around 6pm.  From there, we grab a taxi to Bui Vien in the Pham Ngu Lao area of District 1.  This is better known as the backpacker district and is teeming with both long and short-term travellers of all ages, nationalities and backgrounds.  As a consequence, the streets are crammed with inexpensive hotels, bars, restaurants, tour operators, bespoke tailors, hairdressers, massage parlours, ATMs, 24-hour convenience stores and souvenir shops – everything the weary traveller could possibly want or need.



When we first moved to Vietnam, we tried staying in lots of different parts of Saigon during our weekend jaunts, but we were invariably drawn back to Pham Ngu Lao, not least because we found Baba's Kitchen and wanted to eat there regularly!  Some friends and colleagues prefer to avoid this area, believing it to be dangerous and rather seedy.  It probably is, but if you take the necessary, common-sense precautions you would take in any big city, you shouldn’t have a problem.  We love it because it’s cheap, it’s vibrant, it’s interesting (the best place for people watching!) and we can find everything we need there.



We are well past the age for clubbing, and loud music is an anathema to us now.  Indeed, we are usually in bed by 10.30pm even at weekends!  Even so, the backpacker district is still our destination of choice.  After all, central Saigon is walkable and, for slightly more remote areas, taxis are inexpensive and numerous.



So, where do we stay in Pham Ngu Lao?  Well, we’ve tried several hotels over the months, and, for a while, we were regularly staying at the Duc Vuong Hotel at the far end of Bui Vien.  This is a friendly, family-run, three-star hotel with comfortable, well-equipped rooms and a good breakfast included.  We had no complaints on any of our seven or eight stays there (except once when we had a street-facing room and it was very noisy!), but a room will cost you between $28 and $40 a night and we discovered that you really don’t need to pay that much!! 



Now, our hotel of choice is Kim Hotel 1 on Bui Vien Street, a small alley linking Bui Vien to Pham Ngu Lao.  The staff here are very friendly and the rooms are spotlessly clean and have everything you need for a short stay.  They don’t include breakfast in the room rate (which is between $12 and $20 a night), but they can supply it if you want.  Alternatively, there are many restaurants offering breakfast in the vicinity.



As for eating, as well as the previously mentioned Baba’s, there are so many restaurants in the Pham Ngu Lao area, serving a range of food from all over the world.  A couple of others that we particularly like are the Vietnamese kitchen on Bui Vien and Cappuccinos (great pizza, but there are two branches – the one on Bui Vien is better than the one on De Tham).



During our weekends in Saigon, we often have other ‘chores’ to do, all of which can be accomplished in the backpacker district.  We have both found places to have our hair cut that we are happy with.  I have had several garments made at the same tailors and, if we’re heading straight home by taxi on a Sunday afternoon, then there’s even a little shop that will sell us a slab of Diet Coke cans (impossible to buy where we live)!



All in all, we enjoy our lively, interesting weekends in Pham Ngu Lao and return to our quiet lives in Binh Duong New City feeling energised and ready to face the week!



You can see more of my photos of the backpacker district here.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

7th VUS-TESOL Conference, City Hall, Saigon - 14th July, 2012

This was the first time that I had attended a conference such as this in Vietnam and I wasn't sure what to expect.  However, with Alan Maley as the keynote speaker, my hopes were high!

We travelled into the city straight from work on Friday night and enjoyed dinner at our favourite Indian restaurant, Baba's Kitchen.

Early the next morning, Mark went off to do his own thing and I took a taxi to the conference venue.  It was an impressively large building and there was no mistaking that we were in the right place - there were huge banners everywhere and a steady stream of attendees pouring through the gates and up the wide marble steps.

We were greeted by friendly looking security guards who directed us to the appropriate desks for registration.  Having pre-registered online, the process was quick and efficient.  I then picked up a bag of literature, free pens and a very impressive glossy brochure.  I was enjoying spending time looking at books and talking to representatives of the publishing houses when my colleagues arrived and urged me into the main hall which was filling up fast.  So fast, in fact, that the only available seats were right at the front of the auditorium.  We took our places and arranged our papers and bags and sat with notebooks and pens at the ready.  We were, however, soon moved on, being told that the seats, despite not being marked as such, were, in fact, reserved for dignitaries!  We were shown to the cheap seats upstairs, not nearly as comfortable and without the convenient writing desk in front of them.  At least we were early enough not to be condemned to the ubiquitous small red plastic stools which were hastily being arranged on the peripharies of the room!

'Crackerjack' - childrens' TV show 
Proceedings got under way a little late, as is the norm in Vietnam, and then were delayed further by a seemingly unending stream of speeches and presentations.  The people being honoured were party members, local dignitaries, lesser politicians, the conference speakers, publishers, sponsors, representatives of VUS and so on and so on.  Each presenter and recipient was sporting a lavish corsage and was accompanied on to the stage by loud applause and rousing music.  Once on stage, they were given framed certificates, elaborately wrapped gifts and bouquets of flowers.  As they stood in line for numerous photos, I was reminded of the final game of the popular 1970s kids' TV show, Crackerjack, where children were loaded up with presents until you could no longer see them behind a pile of goodies, and what they didn't drop, they could keep!!  It made me smile!

Alan Maley
With the formalities finally over, the conference proper could begin, with Alan Maley's plenary on 'Standardisation: Interrogations and Implications'.  It was very interesting, but seated, as we were, in 'the Gods', some of his message was lost on us.

That said, the day was very successful.  I made a couple of poor choices of sessions to attend, but, fortunately, my colleagues made better selections, so they were able to fill me in on what I'd missed.  Between sessions, there was an opportunity to chat to some of the other 2,000 attendees, browse the wide selection of books on display, talk to presenters and publishers, or partake of the very generous variety of food and drink on offer.

As the day drew to a close, there was a raffle draw which followed a similar drawn-out pattern to the early morning presentations and then a mad scramble to acquire a certificate of attendance.

As we emerged into the bright sunshine and heat of a Saigon afternoon, I felt it had been a worthwhile way to spend a Saturday and I'm already looking forward to next year's conference!

How Webinars Have Transformed my CPD

Until a few months ago, my CPD consisted of my own reading, attending an odd seminar when the opportunity arose, and my weekly participation in #eltchat on Twitter.  Not being fortunate enough to work for institutions which put much emphasis on the professional development of their teachers, or indeed with colleagues who were interested in their own, these methods were all that were available to me.  I didn't mind too much.  I felt that I was keeping up to date with what was happening in my field and that I was serving my students well by taking the best of what I learned, particularly through #eltchat, back into the classroom.

Then I discovered webinars.  I can't remember what the topic of my first one was, but I do remember that it was good to be a part of a global meet-up of teachers, all with a common interest and with similar problems and issues in their daily working lives.  The opportunity to 'chat' with these colleagues before, during and after the webinar meant that it was a social experience rather than a solitary one.  And I learned so much!

Since then, I've attended webinars presented by some of the biggest names in the ELT field on a range of topics from 'How do we generate language from a topic?' and 'Digital literacies' to 'Creativity in ELT' and 'The difference between written and spoken grammar'.

These webinars have been hosted by organisations such as:
I tend to make copious notes during these webinars which I then summarise and keep as a record of my CPD.  Some of these summaries make their way on to this blog, as a reference for myself as well as a help for other colleagues in the blogosphere.  Others have been used as the basis for workshops in my current place of work.  Professional development has not been given much focus here, but, slowly, this situation is changing, and I have high hopes of helping with the implementation of a more formal series of training sessions in the new academic year.

There have been times when I've been unable to attend a webinar which was of particular interest to me, and I've tried to watch the recording later.  For me, however, this hasn't worked.  I like the immediacy of a webinar and the fact that it is a shared experience rather than an act of solitary learning.  There is a bit of a lull at the moment in the number of webinars on offer, mainly due to summer holidays, but I'm already registered for one or two in September and am looking forward to another fruitful period of CPD.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Creativity in ELT

This is a summary of a recent webinar presented by Antonia Clare.  She shared so many good ideas that I need to record them here for future use in my classroom and in my training sessions for other teachers.

In a creative classroom, students are active participants and are fully engaged in the learning process.  The aim is to shift the responsibility from the teacher back to the learner.

Creative thinking is about:
  • FLUENCY - generating lots of ideas.
  • FLEXIBILITY - the ability to shift perspective and come up with a variety of ideas.
  • ELABORATION - building on and expanding existing ideas.
  • ORIGINALITY - coming up with new ideas.

'Creative' versus 'Critical' thinking


How can we encourage creativity?

We need to use a framework to trigger creative thinking.

Examples of this are:
  • writing without using the letter 'e'.  (This is something that I've done with an upper intermediate class, using this British Council podcast and worksheet.)
  • using writing prompts.  For example, http://writingexercises.co.uk/ has a first line generator for creative writing.
  • using Flickr five card stories to encourage inventive narratives.
  • giving students the first lines of proverbs and getting them to invent the endings.  Then they can think of stories in their own lives that prove or disprove the proverb.
  • 'My Life in Film' - encourage learners to write their life story as a movie trailer using prompts (in the beginning....., then...., later......, a big decision......, now........, etc.).
Ways to use your emotions

There are six basic emotions:
  • fear
  • anger
  • distress
  • joy
  • surprise
  • disgust
We can:
  • look at pictures and discuss these emotions.
  • talk about situations when we've felt these emotions.
  • write some 'emotions poetry'.
       For example,   Distress is like ____________.
                                It tastes like ___________.
                                It smells like ___________.
                                It sounds like ___________.
                                It looks like ____________.
                                It feels like ____________.

This is good for all levels, from pre-intermediate upwards.  The lines could be made to rhyme, but they don't have to.

Using the five senses

When it comes to the senses, try getting students to think about evocative smells, for example.  To get the ball rolling, tell them an anecdote from your own past.  For me, this would involve the aroma of warm tomatoes growing in my Grandad's greenhouse when I was a very small child!

You could also use a website like Talking Memories and encourage students to think about memories of their childhoods.  They could record an oral account or write a description of an event, adding details of how they felt and why it was special, remembering to include all the senses.

Thinking outside of the box
  • Take students outside of the classroom.  The effect is often very liberating and gets the creative juices flowing.
  • Use a website like Voxopop to get students talking.  You could, for example, ask them to talk about their 'perfect day'.
  • Make a film.
  • Use a video to stimulate discussion.  For example, you could use this video about Banksy to trigger the debate, 'Is grafitti art or vandalism?'


Using images
  • Show images of people and ask, 'What kind of person do you think he/she is and why?'
  • Choose images to create a 'Museum of Me' - include pictures of clothes, food, drink, books, places, etc.
  • Use eltpics - get students to choose pictures which are indicative of them  and write a story or do a presentation around them.

Finally, we need to be.......


Creation of stories and poems
Response framework
Engagment of the emotions
Activation of the senses
Thinking time
Imagery as a prompt
Video
Elaboration


Thanks to Antonia Clare for a great webinar!




Helping Students Improve their Speaking Abilities for Proficiency Tests - an #eltchat summary

Smith & Jones Talking Heads
This is a summary of the #eltchat which took place at 12noon BST on Wednesday, 11th July, 2012.  It was an informative discussion with most of the ideas coming from the participants themselves, rather than through links to external websites and articles.  The chat was expertly moderated as always, this time by @Shaunwilden, @rliberni and @BrunoELT.

We began by establishing that we were including all types of speaking tests in our chat, not just CPE.  We also agreed that the main worry for students taking a proficiency test (apart from the speaking itself!) is the thought of the exam room and wondering what the examiner expects.

Should we be aiming for accuracy or fluency?

Whilst in an ideal world we want our learners to be both fluent and accurate, the consensus seemed to be that fluency is the key for proficiency tests.  'Drying up' is the worst case scenario for most students and, if it happens, it knocks their confidence and it's very difficult for them to get going again.  Accuracy is more difficult to achieve in the heat of the moment and the effective communication of ideas is usually the most important thing.  If we focus on accuracy or grammar over fluency, the danger is that students think about words and structures and don't actually speak!

What role does personalisation play in a speaking test?

@teacherphili told us that, in his experience, some institutions 'help' students by making the test easier with familiar pictures.  This is probably not a problem if the tests are internal, but could mean that students are ill-equipped for external tests.

Of course, we all like to talk about ourselves, so it's helpful to have personal anecdotes to tell.  Students are given the opportunity to do this in all internationally recognised proficiency tests.  When students talk about something that matters to them, they sound naturally enthusiastic.


Practical ideas to help learners improve their speaking for tests:
  • Start with lots of general fluency practice to build confidence and overcome the fear factor, before moving on to more exam-type activities.
  • Encourage students to read about varied topics so that they have ideas.  If they do not have ideas, there test is over!
  • Use speaking board games to encourage fluency.
  • Play 'Just a Minute', based on the long-running Radio 4 programme - great fun and really engaging for the students, especially if you can supply them with bells, buzzers or whistles!
  • Play the old favourite 'Chinese whispers' - good for listening practice and also for highlighting pronunciation issues.
  • Play 'Impromptu Speeches' - someone plays the MC who invites students to speak for a minute on a topic drawn at random from a hat.
  • Use storytelling where each student gives one line and the next must follow on in his or her own way.
  • Try 'shadowing' - a technique where you begin by repeating what your partner says and then move on to paraphrasing, like a translator, but in the same language.  I attended a workshop on this recently and am currently 'road-testing' it in class.  Early results are good and I plan to blog about it soon.
  • Record students as they practise for their speaking tests and encourage them to critique each other.  When I started doing this here in Vietnam, my students were initially reluctant to peer correct, but, over the weeks, I think I've unleashed a monster and I now have to remind students to give some positive feedback, too!!
  • Use Web 2.0 tools to facilitate the recording process.  Start with mobile phones, which students find less intimidating, and then progress to sites like Audioboo, Voxopop or Vocaroo which can be used for students to build up portfolios.  These can then be used to show students their improvement over time.
  • Use correction sheets to give feedback after speaking practice and review/revise at the start of the next lesson.  (Leave room on the sheet for some positive comments.)
  • Use pictures and photos to spark conversation, especially from eltpics.
  • Practise the long turn with silly topics - this reduces the stress and students can concentrate on sequencing their talk (via @andyscott55). This activity is a great precursor to the 'real' tasks.
  • Get students to perform a live news programme as if they were on air.  They have to speak about exam-type topics and have performance pressure (via @Sharonzspace).
  • Practice speaking via Skype (student to student, rather than student to teacher!).
  • Don't forget to give advice on appropriate body language - a good speaking test score is not all about utterances.
  • You should also remind students about the role of listening in dialogic speaking, linking this to appropriate (physical) responses.
  • Get students to listen to/watch real candidates doing real tests to show them what is good or bad.  I use IELTS 5.0 from Garnet Publishing as a core text for some of my students.  This is a great book with lots of listening to real answers from candidates, which invites critique and reflective practice.
  • Make sure that students know the format of the test inside out - there should be no surprises on the day.
Practical ideas to help students overcome their nerves:

  • Encourage students to think silently for a minute about the picture or question before starting to speak. @timjulian60 believes that this can help them to gain confidence, though @Shaunwilden worries that examiners might misunderstand the silence and think that the candidate doesn't know what to say!
  • We need to remember that even native speakers stumble when faced with high-level proficiency tests (CAE, CPE, IELTS, TOEFL, etc.) so lots of practice is needed in gathering and organising your thoughts.
  • Nerves are a huge problem for my students, so I like to use roleplays with someone being their 'worst nightmare' examiner!
  • If you are teaching YLs, funny accents and voices can help.
  • Remind students that examiners are not monsters - that, in fact, they want the candidates to do well, but that they must demonstrate their ability.
(A few) Links: