There is much discussion about the method of selection of plenary speakers at ELT conferences and their role once they are there. There is less discussion about how to close conferences. This article is aimed at bringing these two issues together by describing the practice at IATEFL Hungary, most recently at our annual conference in Eger.
At our last few conferences at IATEFL-Hungary we have made sure that the last event is a reflection session rather than introducing new content, and in the last two years we have invited the plenary speakers to stay till the end to mingle with the teachers and give people opportunities to ask questions and share their thoughts about the plenary speakers’ talks, both within small groups in and in plenary mode.
Four of our six plenary speakers stayed right to the end and were there to be with our teachers to answer questions and interact. Norbert Gálik had also done two video interviews with the other two plenary speakers who had to leave and showed clips of them to us in the final session.
We also had a box where people could submit questions, some of which we then asked the plenary speakers so there could be a mixture of both questions submitted beforehand and some spontaneous questions that arose on the spot.
Organising the closure like this gives a strong community feel to the end of the conference, moving away from people being elevated to the stage in the classic missionary role of experts flown in to bring the good news about ELT. This way of closing a conference also gives people a reason to stay to the end, not just because of a raffle.
If teacher associations are more communities of people than service providers, then strengthening the community building aspect of a conference is something to attend to more carefully.
In 2003 at the IATEFL conference in Budapest, Roy Cross, Enyedi Ági and Gabi Matei actually presented a summary of the conference as a closing plenary. Margit Szesztay, one of this year’s plenary speakers, was the moderator at that time and it certainly helped the teachers to leave on a more reflective note. Over the years we have further developed these final sessions, where people share their feelings about the conference and now, as with this time, the plenary speakers are involved.
There is much to be gained from allowing conferences to breathe more easily, with a less is more approach, and an emphasis on digestion, process and community building with less new “input” and more time for reflection.
There could even be a one-hour session half way through the conference, moderated by the plenary speakers in several different rooms, where people discuss what has gone on so far and which are the main issues which have emerged. This would leave more room for processing and exchange than usually happens now.
Visiting plenary speakers giving support and encouragement to local teachers
Plenary speakers can be invited not just to give their plenary talks but also to mingle with local teachers throughout the conference and to go to workshops of local teachers to give support and encouragement.
Lenka Kroupová from the Czech Republic was very much encouraged by the feedback she received from Scott Thornbury and Ken Wilson.
“The IATEFL Hungary conference was absolutely great! I did my workshop on using Jing with Scott Thornbury, Ken Wilson, Frank Prescott and a bunch of motivated Hungarian teachers in the audience! The workshop went nicely and I received some useful feedback and tips for future ‘upgrade’ from Scott and Ken.”
If we advocate a model of working which is discussion based, then inviting plenary speakers to share their knowledge and experience in more than plenary mode seems to make more sense.
Facebook reaction to our closing session from both conference participants and people from the wider ELT community
“It sounded like a great way to finish the conference.”
Carol Read, Incoming IATEFL President
“What a great way to end indeed 🙂 I wish more did this.”
Tony O’Brien, British Council director Serbia
“Mingling with the local teachers and attending workshops by plenary speakers is a great idea. People who are invited to conferences in Serbia as plenary speakers are not so eager to mingle with the teachers, so this one in Eger was a remarkable experience for me”
Katarina Tomić Janković, Serbia
I wrote to Katarina and said that: “maybe you can pass on your thoughts to ELTA, the Serbian teacher association, or write something about this for the ELTA newsletter to see if this resonates in the Serbian ELT community at all.”
IATEFL committees could sometimes actually base their decisions on who they invite as plenary speakers according to whether they see this more consciously involved approach as part of their role. It would strengthen the community aspect of conferences, make plenary speakers more accessible to those teachers who don’t feel confident enough to just go up to them and talk in the breaks, and go some way to replicating the kind of democratic and accessible culture that some of us enjoy in ELT on Twitter, Facebook and blogs at ELT conferences.
“I was very impressed when I saw this last year. I could talk about nothing else for days! It’s hard to get the speakers to stay on for 30 minutes after their talk, much less for the whole conference. I am so sorry to have missed IATEFL Hungary conference this year.”
Lea Sobočan, who was the Slovene IATEFL representative last year.
“I totally agree – why fly in ‘experts’ if they’re not going to be interested and want to share experiences with the people they’re talking to! One of the great joys of doing an invited plenary is meeting people and hearing what they’re doing – learning from them. (Sadly not every speaker wants to, though.” He said too that he thought that he’d probably learned more talking to the “average” punter at conferences than from most presentations.
John McRae, who I first met on my first British Council course in Hungary (which subsequently led to me coming to work in Hungary and going to my first IATEFL conference in Eger in 1996).
This echoes the way that Michael Breen, Chris Candlin, Leni Dam and Gerd Gabrielson described a teacher training programme in Denmark.
“We were ‘bringers of good news’; the assumed sources of expertise, greater knowledge and innovative ideas from outside. The trainees, on the other hand, were placed in a state of assumed deficiency. They were willing and no doubt interested recipients but to some extent simultaneously obliged to ‘have faith’. At the same time they were a little defensive of their own assumptions and practical experience in the face of visitors proposing at least implicitly that they should change or improve upon what they currently did.”
Breen, Mike, Chris Candlin, Leni Dam and Gerd Gabrielsen (1989) “The evolution of a teacher training programme”. In: Johnson, Robert K. (ed.) The Second Language Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 111-132.
These words applied to an extended teacher training context but it may be possible to incorporate more discussion and mutual exchange in conferences. This would involve fewer traditional sessions and more follow-up sessions specifically devoted to the digestion of and reflection on what teachers have already attended.
“I agree 100% on asking plenary speakers to stay during the entire conference. This year TESOL France is expanding on this idea and sponsoring Tom Farrell to stay in Paris a week before the conference to offer Reflective Practice workshops to language schools in the area. We’re calling it an Expert in Residency program. We are really looking forward to it and maybe other associations will want to do the same.”
Bethany Cagnol, President of TESOL France
Reactions from three of our Plenary Speakers to the closing session
“Several conferences (such as IATEFL in the UK) have instituted a ‘meet the plenary speaker’ session that follows on – usually a day later – from the plenary itself. It’s a great chance to ask the sort of questions or make the sort of comments that are not really possible in a large forum. But the idea of getting all the plenary speakers together in the same room, and having them sit and interact, initially, in groups, as at the IATEFL Hungary conference in Eger last week, is (to me at least) totally original. It provided both a sense of community and also of closure. So often conferences end, not with a bang, but a whimper. And this was a bang!”
“There is something inherently democratic and deeply human about sitting round in a circle. For me, it just feels good, perhaps something in our genes about prehistoric times, sitting around a fire… So ending the conference in this mode to me sends out the message: we’re all in the same boat – plenary speakers included. It also felt good to end on a personal note, for the plenary speakers to share something about their lives. The only thing I missed on Sunday morning was listening to ALL the questions. Questions reveal where people are coming from, what their concerns are – I like to appreciate them without necessarily answering or discussing them.”
I didn’t mind staying to the end of the conference…on Sunday I finally had time to attend some wonderful workshops. I also thought the final session was GREAT. I was afraid I would have to sit up in a front in with all the other presenters. I liked the more “cozy” arrangement. I also appreciated the length of the session.
Reaction from Hungarian teachers who attended the final session
“I think it’s a good idea to do the closing session this way. Asking questions retrospectively allows for time to think of quality questions and the arrangement of seats in a circle creates a more personal atmosphere, encouraging everybody to talk to the plenary speakers. The whole activity felt like doing group work in class, with all its benefits.”
“The closing ceremony at IATEFL Hungary – What a brilliant idea!!! The organizers at IATEFL Hungary came up with an excellent idea last year, which was repeated again to meet the presenters, where we could ask questions -even personal ones-, from those we really admire. I have attended many conferences before but have never experienced this. What a brilliant idea. It gave us –participants- the chance to get to know the plenary speakers closer. I myself have known all of them from books but have only met Margit Szesztay before. For me it was a session I would not have missed for anything.
I was the lucky one, the SOL prize winner of last year, who could take part in an unforgettable 10-day course in North Devon where we could experience what teaching unplugged is about. After the inspiring two-day conference I could meet and talk to Scott Thornbury the co-author of the book Teaching Unplugged.
“I am very thankful to the organizers as I came home from Eger fresh, inspired and packed with brilliant ideas.”
We would appreciate any thoughts or reactions to what we have been developing in IATEFL Hungary and feel that conference methodology is as important as the methodology that we are discussing within the conference itself.
Less may well be more and creating moments of recycling and reflection within the conference itself may be one way of doing this. Our blog provides plenty of material for post-conference reflection, which will hopefully be taken up over the next weeks and months and may well provide the input for further sessions throughout the year in different parts of Hungary and elsewhere. There was enough material at the conference for a whole teacher training degree!
Written by Mark Andrews, SOL (Sharing One Language)
Email Mark at firstname.lastname@example.org