Thoughts and Reflections on the 14th ELTA Serbia Conference

by Hon Chong

After the whirlwind of the last two months, hon elta profileI have finally got around to writing about my experience as the SKA and SKA Drama SIG representative at the 14th ELTA Serbia Conference, May 20-21, in Belgrade. It wasn’t my first time in Belgrade but it was my first teacher’s conference outside of Slovakia.  It was also my first experience as an official representative of SKA and my first workshop in an international conference.

These are stories about the valuable lessons I learned from others and from my own mistakes at the 14th ELTA Serbia Conference, but also the memories and new friendships I want to keep for a very long time.

Serbian Hospitality

International conferences can be quite intimidating.  I’m not a natural extrovert and I don’t enjoy making small talk with strangers.  It was rather intimidating for me at first when I was seated right in the front row in a big hall with hundreds of teachers from various countries.  I was there by myself and most of the participants were Serbians who knew each other. So, naturally, people form groups.  Here’s when I really appreciate that the organizers came to introduce themselves to me and were for very friendly right from the beginning.  I was also introduced to other teachers and representatives from different countries.  The organizers took us out for dinner, arranged a walking tour for all partner associations’ representatives and even a Latin American dance party to get teachers socializing and having fun.  I want to thank all the wonderful people at ELTA again for your warm hospitality.  I do hope to see you again soon in the future.  There are simply too many people to thank that I will not list them all here but you know who you are, my dear friends. 🙂

hon elta group

My First Workshop

I must admit I was a little nervous about my workshop.  My workshop’s topic was using improv theater as a teaching tool.   I didn’t have any PowerPoint slides, handouts, or props.  Not because I wasn’t prepared; in fact, I had prepared weeks in advance.  I wanted to share a few improv activities that teachers with zero or little drama experience could use to enhance their teaching.  I wanted the workshop to be completely hands-on and interactive.

Of course, things don’t always go as planned.  The conference was held in a newly renovated university with new equipment and classrooms. I’d had in my mind a classroom where we could move chairs and tables out of the way and get everyone to form a circle in the middle of the room to play a variety of improv games. To my surprise, all the chairs (more like benches) and desks were bolted to the floor.  There was absolutely no way to move even one piece of furniture in the room.

Here we are in 2016 and we still build schools and universities with the goal of keeping students firmly seated and the teacher at the front lecturing.  So, all that preparation and planning goes out the window.  My first thought was to speak with the organizer to ask for a more suitable classroom, one where we would have more space to move around.  But then I stopped myself.  If I want teachers to be able to use improv in their classroom, I first need to understand their environment.  Not every teacher has the luxury or resources to teach in an open space classroom conducive to theater activities.  I’m pretty sure most schools have classrooms where the desks and chairs are not easily movable.  And what about the teachers who teach adults in companies?  Most meeting rooms are designed to keep people firmly seated.  You don’t want people running around during a meeting, I guess.

With that in mind, I improvised.  I adapted as many activities as possible to the seating arrangement.  My workshop was still interactive, but now the teachers could clearly see how this could be done in their own classrooms.  The 45 min went by quickly and when the time was up, there was a big, disappointed ‘aawwwww…’ from my participants.  It was one of the nicest compliments I’ve ever received.

A Note about Culture

The 14th ELTA slogan was a quote from Malala Yousafzai: ‘one child, one teacher, one book and one pen can change the world’.  The conference had a strong focus on cultural awareness and embracing diversity.  In fact, one of the plenaries, Mark Andrews, dedicated his whole closing plenary to this topic.  He did bring up one very important point that we’re not only teaching a foreign language, we’re also sharing cultures.  These areas are connected.

Attending an international conference is one of the best ways for teachers to learn about each other’s cultures.  What better way to learn about other cultures than to spend some time learning with and from them?  It’s about having mutual respect for what our colleagues in other countries do.

I found out that many teachers had to travel by bus for over 15 hours just to get to the conference.  Some of them came from villages without permanent access to electricity and water.  Hearing stories like these keep me humble.  It is so humbling to know that some of my colleagues have to daily face many difficulties just to do their job and on top of that, they still make the effort to attend conferences in order to improve their skills and be better teachers.

One memorable experience was when I was in a taxi with the Bosnian and Serbian representatives.  They told me how similar Bosnian and Serbian languages are and yet both nationalities make a big deal out of it. And we all laughed and poke fun at how crazy our world is.   In that taxi, we saw each other not as different nationalities but simply people we can share a few good laughs with.  There were also teachers from Kosovo who visited Belgrade for the first time in their lives.  All these teachers shared incredible stories with me about how in their own countries students had to go to different schools only because of race and ethnicity.  If I had to give one important reason for an international teachers’ conference, it would be because it brings people together.  People who otherwise wouldn’t find the need to be together.  This is how we can change attitudes.

After my workshop, a Serbian teacher came up to me to tell me that she really enjoyed my workshop but I was too polite and shy.  She said Serbians are not afraid of being direct.  She added, “Just be strong and don’t be afraid to be direct with them.”

Any culture that teaches me to be strong and to not be afraid of voicing my opinions definitely has a special place in my heart.

hon elta

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