Episode Zero

Sometimes getting the right name for something seems to be the key to making it work. I’ve wanted to do a podcast for a very long time, and I wanted to link it to my website, Bowler Hat Radio. So of course I named the podcast Bowler Hat Radio–perfect, right? And yet, I stalled for weeks and weeks and weeks. Couldn’t come up with a single idea. I had lots of big picture, long-term ideas, like interviewing old friends who were also ESL teachers, former students, colleagues, and friends who came from other countries to make their lives here in Vancouver. On the other hand, I wanted it to be relevant and useful to listeners around the world who are studying English. Should I include tips on improving fluency? Exam tips? Vocabulary? Grammar? How should these be presented? And how do I put together that perfect First Episode? Episode Zero–the one that will make the whole world want to tune in and tune up their English?

Then for some reason my podcast on Anchor.fm disappeared–I couldn’t log in, my password didn’t work; and when I finally did manage to log in, my little toehold was completely gone. Couldn’t find it anywhere–well, there was nothing to find, really, since I had never recorded a show…

Turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I ended up renaming the show, “Talking Through My Hat“–the same as this blog–and suddenly, the whole thing made sense! The show had focus: yes, of course it could and should be about all those things–interviews, stories, tips, vocabulary, grammar, all of it. Suddenly I was free to do and talk about whatever I want–because, after all, I’m just Talking Through My Hat!

So that’s what this is all about. Episode Zero: the far-from-perfect first episode of my podcast that will likely never be heard by anyone, but will be out there nonetheless–my first foray out into Vacuumland.

The first episode of Talking Through My Hat will be out very soon. Do have a listen, and let me know what you think!



A couple of recent successes in the classroom

What do Vancouver, Jimi Hendrix, and freeways have in common?

(Cue “Crosstown Traffic“…) If you answered “Hogan’s Alley”, then congratulations–you probably know more about Vancouver history than many Vancouverites!

This was a question I posed a couple of weeks ago in my afternoon upper-intermediate speaking skills class. The weekly unit theme was “Architecture”, and we had been practicing words like urban, traditional, modern, dilapidated, concrete, elegant, boxy, etc. Of course I didn’t expect any of my students to know the answer, but with a little guidance to a couple of websites, they were able to discover that Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother once lived in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood.   We talked about urban infrastructure, planning, and gentrification, and we had a fairly good debate about urban renewal vs gentrification. Lots of good questions were raised; for example, why does Vancouver keep tearing down all its most historic places? Such as the funny little brick building at 209 Union Street: site of the former Jimi Hendrix Shrine, and the last standing remnants of Vie’s Chicken and Steaks. You’d think it would be a perfect monument to a whole neighbourhood and far beyond, considering that everyone from Duke Ellington to Billie Holliday dined there! I think the biggest success of this lesson was getting my students to take a second look at some of the things they pass every day on Skytrain and to connect language, history, and culture to a real place where we all live, work, and study. 

Album cover art

My second big success was this past week’s “Art”-themed class. For inspiration, I drew heavily from the amazing website, TeachRock (teachrock.org). As a conclusion to the week’s theme, I usually get students to work in groups to produce a poster of some sort, demonstrating their reactions to some of the ideas we had been discussing up to that point. In the past, I used Roman Mars’ excellent TED talk, “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed” to introduce principles of good design. This time I used the video, but then segued into applying it to evaluating album cover art.  The five principles of flag design, according to the Portland Flag Association, are:

  1. Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory…
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes…
  3. Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set…
  4. No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing on any kind or an organization’s seal…
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections…

Since these don’t necessarily apply to album cover design, it provided an excellent opportunity to practice modals of possibility. The exercise of designing an album cover then gave students the opportunity to practice conditionals, comparing, contrasting, giving opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, and giving reasons for their choices. Plus, we all had a lot of fun and came up with some pretty cool stuff!



Learning to Teach English Online–Online!

I just completed the “Teaching English Online” course by Cambridge Assessment English, available through FutureLearn. I even got a Certificate of Achievement with the Cambridge shield on it–very impressive!

The course was three weeks long and involved about four hours of study per week. All the lessons were either pre-recorded videos, or articles to read, with follow-up questions for reflection and discussion. There was a discussion forum where you could leave comments on each section, as well as read, like, or respond to other students’ comments. The basic course was free, although I chose to upgrade for about $60.00, which gave me access to the course for as long as it’s posted on FutureLearn, as well as the Certificate if I achieved an average score above 70% on the weekly quizzes (I scored 97%).

I had been thinking about teaching online for years, but found the prospect quite daunting for a number of reasons. Firstly, there was the question of what to teach and how to teach it. It’s all very well to say “Oh, well, I’ll just teach an IELTS prep course”, but then the question arises, “how exactly will you do it?” Do you use a textbook? Do you act as a tutor, answering questions as they come up? Do you teach one-to-one, or group lessons? Do you create your own materials, or do you direct your students to other sites to watch videos or read articles? Suddenly the amount of planning required makes planning an entire semester for a face-to-face class seem like a piece of cake!

Secondly, the technology involved can be quite intimidating for someone just starting out. And even if you are comfortable with the various platforms, apps, etc. available, there is still the terrifying prospect of having to face a camera and record yourself! And we haven’t even considered a business model yet.

Fortunately, the course is designed expressly to address almost all of these problems. It prepares you to teach online in both one-to-one and group lessons, and it explores the tools and resources available and the key skills you will need. It turns out that all you really need is a computer with a good internet connection, a webcam, microphone/headset, and a videoconferencing platform such as Skype or Zoom. You don’t even really need a virtual whiteboard–you can just use a small physical whiteboard that you point the camera at as you write on it! The course also covers how to teach the four communicative skills using online tools, as well as how to develop learners’ language use and pronunciation skills. For example, one assignment in the second week was to plan and record a short (5-minute max.) lesson on video and upload it to Padlet. Even though I procrastinated for about a week, I found this one of the highlights of the course–without it, I would likely never have gotten round to making a video and posting it online. There was also a lot of discussion on different teaching contexts and professional development, which again was very useful since it prompted me to join a couple of Facebook groups, and perhaps more significantly, to start this blog in earnest!

The course didn’t cover the business aspect of teaching online, apart from helping you decide whether teaching for an online company or setting up independently was better for you. But that was fine, because it was beyond the scope of the course. Nonetheless, having a clear idea of what to teach and how to teach it, as well as having the confidence to explore and select the most appropriate tools has made it much easier to come up with an overall strategy. Plus, there are other online courses on how to set up and grow an online teaching business, which will be the next step after getting a website up and running.

If you’re interested in teaching English online, or teaching any subject online for that matter, I would highly recommend this course.

Test Pattern/Logo

After years of kicking around various ideas for a name for an online teaching business, I’ve finally settled on Bowler Hat Radio. When I worked as a Centre Exams Manager and did some consulting work for Cambridge ESOL, I used to wear a bowler hat with a suit and tie, and it sort of became my “thing”. When I finally decided that I wanted to make ESL podcasts in addition to teaching via videoconferencing, the name “Bowler Hat Radio” just made sense. Once I had the name figured out, an old-time TV test pattern seemed to provide the most logical basis for a logo. Here is a rough mock-up I made, by physically cutting and pasting photocopied bits and pieces and then scanning it back into my computer: englishbowlerhat1

Getting Started

After several years of letting this page sit idle, I’m finally getting started on setting up an online ESL teaching/tutoring service. Watch this space for more information, coming soon!