ELT Summer Courses as Learning Communities

ELT Summer Courses as learning communities and ways of developing a rich learning environment: A process approach from the perspective of a course tutor.

It has been a long time since I last wrote on my blog and I think it’s to do with changing circumstances. I have taken a year out from teaching in Budapest and have been dividing my time between being with my mother in Wolverhampton and developing materials for courses at SOL in Barnstaple where students come, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe, for a 10 day immersion course in British language and culture. I’m also taking a break from my role as co-ordinator of Hungary’s IATEFL Culture and Literature Special Interest Group, it was in IATEFL-H’s mELTing Pot that this first appeared.

Last summer I was working on two teacher training courses and have been reflecting on what makes those courses effective and enjoyable. This blogpost addresses these issues. Some of the things are just as valid on any teacher training courses and some are specific to a summer experience.

“A summer school doesn’t work without people who are there for you, care for you and help you. All in all, ingredients on their own don’t make a dish, but putting them all together you can make a delicious meal.”
I have taught on summer courses every summer since 1991 in the Czech Republic, Hungary, Serbia, Romania, Russia and Britain and drawing on that experience I’d like to 1) give practical examples of what seems to create a quality, rich and relaxed learning environment and 2) address what a process approach to a summer school might be. Earl Stevick argued that what goes on between learners is the most important part of what goes on in a language classroom. Similarly, during a summer school, if you adopt a process approach, attending to what goes on between sessions and between days might be the key to a course’s success.


mixing ingredients

The “meat” of a summer course is traditionally seen as the pre-prepared sessions which tutors bring to summer courses. I have now come to realise that concentrating on getting the meat right might not be the key ingredient of a summer school. 10 years of my life were spent as a vegetarian and I’ve never liked the “meat metaphor” to describe the main element of anything anyway. I prefer the idea of a risotto, partly because of my love of Italian cookery and partly because the success of a risotto is to do with how much something is stirred, when it is stirred, how it is garnished, what is sprinkled over it and when. How things are glued together and recycled will depend on constant attention to the unfolding of the course process, much in the same way as being attentive to when we add and blend in herbs and spices in a risotto.
There isn’t a recipe for the success of summer courses but what follows are some ingredients which seem to help the process along. I have included some relevant comments by teachers to exemplify and illustrate key aspects.

I. Creating a stress-free atmosphere

1. Balancing work and relaxation

Teachers who attend summer courses have usually just finished a hectic and exhausting term and see summer courses as partly holidays and we need to bear this in mind in any preparation. A recurring issue is striking the right balance between content, time allocated to reflection and time for relaxation. Summer schools are places where teachers can share common concerns and gain strength and a sense of optimism from being together, in the knowledge that they are not alone and that their concerns are not specific to their own teaching contexts. Being freed up from family roles and responsibilities allows space for these issues.
“On our way to Lynmouth, I talked to one colleague and I found that we have so much in common, discussing even a delicate private matter and getting the best advice like we have known each other for ages, a benefit from a 10 minute informal talk.”

2. Setting the mood by pre-course communication between tutors and course participants

A process approach to summer courses will involve constant discussions with tutors both before and during the course. Writing to course participants beforehand and asking them to do a pre-course task is a nice way of gently getting teachers into the mood of the course. This might involve reading an article of relevance to the course and commenting on it. Asking teachers to bring photographs or objects of personal interest to be used in sessions or just welcoming them to the course with a kind message and expressing how much you are looking forward to working together can also be part of a pre-course message. You can also provide information for teachers and be available online to reassure them about things they might be unsure of.

Hiya everybody,

Just wanted to say that I’m really looking forward to meeting you all next week on our course. Devon is an enchanting place. I spent my holidays there every year from the age of 2 to the age of 16…..

Hi Mark,
I got your message, thank you for the nice words. As this will be my first time in England, you can imagine how excited I am. Counting the days,

3. Getting to know each other and learning names

All courses include “getting to know you” activities. These may involve getting teachers to meet each other and write down where people come from, a good teaching experience they have had recently, a band they like, or something interesting they have just read.

Teachers can arrange themselves into a map of where they come from. This year in the four corners of our map we had teachers from England, Bulgaria, Morocco and Poland. They then said who they were and where they come from. You often hear people asking whether the group is good or not, but tutors also have a role to play in promoting good group dynamics, even on courses which only last four days and good beginnings can contribute to this.

Where is Madedonia in relation to Serbia and the Czech Republic?

“I liked the idea of recalling positive experiences in the warmer (remembering a good lesson). I’ll definitely use something similar in the warmers after the summer holidays.”

Learning names and using people’s names appropriately is always good. Name cards are sometimes used on courses, although they may lead to not investing the time and effort which is usually needed to memorise and use names.
Time spent in between classes and on the first two evenings can be devoted to this by regularly consulting the list of course participants and trying a bit harder each time to make sure you know who is who. This year we took photos of all the teachers on the first day and on the second day projected them and got people to identify everybody.
“I love being here and I appreciate all the effort on the part of the tutors to get everybody involved”

4. Playing music on courses

The value and importance of music on a course

Music has a huge influence on the mood of a summer course. I sometimes have a tendency to play music too loud but greeting people in the morning with songs like “Good day Sunshine”, “Raindrops keep falling on my head”, “ It’s a beautiful day”, “Manic Monday”, “Friday I’m in Love”, can be very welcoming, played on the appropriate days and at appropriate moments. Playing music in between sessions also has its place but we should be sensitive to when silence is best. Songs can sometimes become soundtracks to courses which come up either in sessions or as part of social events and which can then be sung on the last day. My own examples of this have included “Falling Slowly”, “Streets of London”, “Steal Away” and “Green Grow the Rushes O”.

“Using music was so relaxing for me because sometimes I feel very nervous”

5. Paying attention to timing and breaks

I have never experienced a course where there haven’t been people who have been upset at tutors going on too long in sessions and eating away at precious break time. When you are working with process this isn’t always easy and I have been guilty of this on many occasions. However, I also know that sometimes deviating from the pre-planned programme or taking a break in the fresh air is best. Giving up a session might also sometimes be the best course of action when working with process if a fruitful discussion emerges.

This should be negotiated openly and sometimes voted on, preventing resentment from building up throughout the course. If teachers are able to make choices they feel empowered. Taking feedback early on can also be very informative for tutors. This might be best done either informally, if you don’t want to make a big issue of something, or you might choose written feedback at the end of the second day.

providing fruit on courses

Providing fruit during breaks or during classes is always appreciated. This may be passing round grapes, cherries, strawberries or blueberries or whatever is in season. Sometimes teachers share their own fruit. On one course I made the watermelon the actual content of the session, teachers tasted it and we looked at literature about watermelons. In the final poster summaries of the course a nicely coloured red and green watermelon featured on all posters: an example of the power of VAKOG and engaging all the senses! (Namely: Visual, Auditory, Kinaesthetic, Olfactory and Gustatory.)

“It was so nice to go for a five minute walk, to have lunch together in Cafe Libri, to talk to local people there.”

II. Reflecting on and recycling course experiences

Keeping course diaries which tutors may look at informally during the course and then go through and comment on at the end of the course can be an excellent way of getting teachers to reflect. The content and structure will depend on the nature of the course but reflections on new experiences and implications for teachers’ future classroom work are likely to feature on most summer courses.

“Writing diaries is a great idea not only for making interesting or important academic notes but also for remembering certain moments, feelings, people and situations”

Reflecting and making sense of daily experiences

The use of course photos and videos in breaks or at the beginning of the following day is a useful tool for developing course cohesiveness. This might involve regularly projecting photos and videos of the course taken by both course tutors and course participants as part of the beginning of a session or as background to breaks. It is wonderful to see the smiles and laughter on teachers’ faces when they see moments they have experienced collectively. Making the teachers themselves and the content that they generate part of the course itself helps teachers to feel part of the course rather than just having “input” projected onto them.

Leaving space for teacher contributions every morning and giving different participants opportunities in pairs or threes to review the previous day’s work in the form of a poster, powerpoint or pictures is also good recycling. This might involve reviewing new language, new teaching ideas or memorable course moments.

“Filming was great, seeing myself in the videos and then using them for different purposes worked really well.”

III. Being inspired by and drawing on the participants and their culture

1. Giving teachers opportunities to introduce their own culture

On courses where there are teachers from different countries it is always good to create space for talking about their cultures. Singing evenings are good for this. I often work with teachers from the countries of ex-Yugoslavia and it is always heart-warming to see teachers singing songs together which they love and have in common. Cooking together can also be great for this.

Teachers from Serbia and Croatia joining together singing at our folk night

For instance, this summer teachers showed us T-Shirts, dresses, flags and banknotes  from their different countries. ELT courses are not just about ELT, they are also about learning about each other and each other’s countries.
“The group is great, the people come from different countries so we can share experience from our countries and we can compare our countries”

Explaining one's own T-Shirt to the other course participants

2. Celebrating birthdays and anniversaries

If anybody has a birthday on the course, which they invariably do, it’s a good idea to acknowledge and celebrate it. On the last course I was on, the teachers organised a party for Ahmed from Morocco. It was a wonderful initiative and contributed greatly to the cohesiveness of the course. Other anniversaries might also be referred to such as July 4th and the birthdays of famous people.

Celebrating birthdays

“We celebrated Ahmed’s birthday with his host, John. His home made birthday cake was so delicious.”

IV. Better communication between tutors and course participants alike

1. Noticing teachers’ moods and responses to the course

On any course there are different ages, levels of English and levels of engagement. Some people experience the course as more tiring and others won’t be feeling good for whatever reasons at any given moment and some might be struggling with being away from home. We don’t need to know everything but we need to be attentive to how people are feeling and respond appropriately.

Making an effort to spending an equal amount of time with people might be a part of this. Obviously tutors will get on better with some people but at the end of each day checking the list of teachers and seeing who you have spent time with is likely to help you in deciding who to give more attention to at future “in-between” moments.

There isn’t enough time on a summer school to go through Tuckman’s group cycle of forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning but there is forming and adjourning, and there may be a moment of storming where resolution of group conflict might be necessary.

“I would say your ‘every person matters philosophy’ works brilliantly as each person in the group feels rewarded and supported”

2. Communicating and co-operating with other course tutors

Regular communication with other course tutors about the content and process of the course is crucial. Course participants need to see that tutors work well together and misunderstandings, which always occur between tutors, need to be talked through. Even tutors who have a very similar concept of how summer schools should be run will need to work through conflict and it is vital that time is found for this. Some element of team teaching can contribute to this.

3.The use of people’s mother tongues

Giving teachers space to speak their own languages is obviously necessary, it can be tiring speaking English all the time. Some teachers might feel excluded from conversations if they do not share the other teachers’ mother tongue, so intervening can be helpful, but the teachers often realize this themselves.

“There is only one thing that I’m sorry about which is that some people use their mother tongue quite a lot. I don’t think it’s appropriate to do this in a multicultural environment where English should be spoken and used.”

4. Socialising with the teachers between and outside sessions

Knowing when to leave teachers alone and when to engage with teachers in coffee breaks, at meal times or on excursions can be important. No tutor is the same and some tutors love going off with teachers and having a smoke while others like being quiet in the classrooms, gathering strength for the next session. What I do feel though is that being generous with your time and being available for teachers outside the sessions is one of the responsibilities of being on a summer school. On residential courses a willingness to stay up late might also be desirable! On two Serbian summer schools I remember us offering late night films for those who were interested.

Spending time on walks together

The social aspects of summer courses can be just as important as the pedagogical aspects and a willingness to join in these activities by tutors and course participants contributes to a cohesive fun summer experience. For instance, I once saw a great pub quiz by Philip Kerr, and Verissimo Toste did a brilliant illustrated talk on his visit to Mozambique. Success of the evening activities usually depends on audience participation and interaction and doing a quiz at the end which draws on the course itself is perfect for that as well as being learner-centred and a good review of the whole course. As one of the quiz activities I have sometimes used pictures of the teachers showing a bit of tongue or necklace  from which their identity should be guessed.

“The pub quiz was brilliant, full of good ideas, highly competitive and in a really nice atmosphere. The ‘Picture Quiz’ was just great! Really motivating, bringing people closer to each other. I will try it with my new class after coming back from our class trip at the end of August. Thank you for organising this, it was great FUN!”

5. Providing proper closure to courses

Having ceremonial beginnings and endings gives a satisfactory sense of both accomplishment and closure. Some courses fizzle out as people drift away without proper endings. I’ve found creating group posters which capture the essence of a course effective in this. As an activity, teachers can then vote on the best poster.

This summer, Uwe Pohl, my co-tutor, made coloured cards for teachers with their names on each one. Each teacher drew a card with somebody else’s name on it and they were invited to write a gift for them and say why they were giving it. It was a lovely activity and many people were very moved by what people had given them when they read it out to the whole group. I was given a picture of Ukrainian storks with “Made in Ukraine” written on it, as I had worn a “Made in Poland” storks T-shirt. The teacher had noticed this about me and thought I’d like it as a present. I did!

If there are certificates to be given out, tutors might share this task, as well as singing a song, having a drink and sharing a few nibbles. It is the end of the summer school but it won’t be the end of people’s newly found friendships or even professional co-operation. Creating appropriate channels to share both personal and professional concerns will extend the summer school experience and keep precious memories alive and keep people in contact with each other. This might be done on Facebook or another internet site.

Final Thoughts

Working on summer schools is one of the most satisfying professional experiences that I have had throughout my career as a teacher trainer and I am still in touch with people who were on summer schools I taught on 15 years ago. It’s good to go the extra mile and be 100% immersed in the summer school experience. I’d like to end with a comment from one of the teachers which I received inscribed in a book, “The Still Point” by Amy Sackville.

Dear Mark, It’s difficult to capture in words what this course has given to me. During these days I felt like being ‘at the still point of the turning world’. Being with you all was a really exceptional and inspiring experience. Thank you. Barnstaple, 23rd July 2011.

And finally the sea and in particular the Atlantic Ocean is very special for teachers from Central Eastern Europe and being by the sea and reflecting on its role in British society and British history is a key ingredient of SOL courses in Devon as you can see in the responses of these teachers from Serbia and Croatia in the video.

2 thoughts on “ELT Summer Courses as Learning Communities

  1. Hi Mark,

    You and Uwe are brilliant ” cooks” when it comes to Barnstaple Summer Course and the “risotto” you have prepared was unique. Reading all this now I realize how much preparation is needed on the course tutors`s side to make this course a successful one.This proves that love for your work and complete dedication is the final and most important ingredient in every meal. I enjoyed literally every minute spent in the classroom and the outdoor activities, especilly the singing evening and the closure day. I`d recommend these ELT Summer Courses to all English teachers and students since they are a package course memorable experience – immersion in British language and culture, a chance to meet great people from so many different countries and cultures at one place and make friends. British countryside is something I have never imagined to be so breathtaking, not to mention the sea. Actulally, don`t believe a word I said – go and see it for yourself and you`ll feel blessed.
    One more thing – I have already used some of the materials from the course – photos I have taken ,videos, postcards, menus, playing music at the beginning of the lesson and I saw many happy faces, engaged and satisfied students. My mission is completed.
    Thank you Mark!

  2. i also believe using the student’s mother tongue to teach will improve both your skills and the student’s learning capacity.

    Sorry if i dont sound understandable. english is not my main language 😛

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