In your hands

My life as a teacher of English and other curiosities

November 23, 2015
by annavarna

TESOL France 2015 – Paris and the English Teachers

It is about 10 days since the horrible events in Paris, on November 13th. We have all been moved beyond words by what happened there. We don’t even want to start thinking what it must be like for the families who lost their people. Ans despite this, despite the pain, the tears, the unconfessed fear,  life goes on. Although we may have wanted her (life is feminine, obviously) to stop for a while, because this is too much to take, life goes on. She doesn’t care about us. Her aim is just to go on. Nothing stops life. Not even death. Life goes on whether we want it or not.

It was amid these thoughts and after the city where I live in was declared in a state of extreme alert that the annual English Language Teaching even of TESOL France would take place. Only one week after the terrorist attack and the death of 129 people. My parents were calling panicked from Greece, pleading me not to go. My husband, usually cool, was also concerned. I could hear it in the silence that followed my announcement that I would go.

But I felt I had to go. If for nothing else to show our support to the people of TESOL France who had worked so hard the whole year to prepare this event. On Saturday morning, when I arrived at the train station in Gare du Midi, Brussels was almost a deserted city. No metro, no tram, no information. People who had just woken up were wondering what is happening. And me trying to put all the different cables in my carry-on (mobile, laptop, tablet, internet cable just in case WI-FI failed us) and forgetting my toothbrush. C’est pas grave…

Nevertheless, what a pleasure to arrive to a conference once more! What a pleasure to see people you haven’t seen for some years and now they are different people: they had a kid in the meantime, or they lost someone dear, or they divorced but found a new partner. How I love that part of the hugs and the smiles, and the connections being re-connected. It’s the best part of all conferences. And meeting the Greeks, of course! Mind you, there are always Greeks in conferences. And they are probably the people who will drag you to the best food in the area, and make you go late to a couple of sessions, mais c’est pas grave, life is like that, you probably learn more by drinking a couple of wines with your colleagues than by following a presentation.

This time in about 31 hours, I managed to cram in everything: presentations of other people, a funny plenary, a lunch with amazing French food in a local restaurant where everybody else was French, discussions with participants, learning about new mobile applications (Socrative and Kahoot – thanks Iria for the crash course), attending a presentation that could change radically the way we think about questions in our classes (check out @studiomentals on twitter and his site) , gave my own presentation with very positive feedback, saw Les Galleries Lafayette for the first time and saw the amazing exhibition about prostitution in Paris at the Orsay Museum. 31 hours well spent!

So below you can find the updated link to my presentation to include some of the things I added. Further down a sketchnote by Sylvia Duckworth about the teachers learners remember which resonates what we were saying during the presentation. It was great meeting you all people – looking forward to connecting with you online and offline!

Sylvia Duckworth: Find all her wonderful sketchnotes here:



May 14, 2015
by annavarna

No brains will be harmed in the process

I don’t remember exactly when I started reading about neuroscience and learning. I don’t even remember which was my first book. But I remember that when I came here in Brussels I wanted urgently to understand, remember, revisit my readings on language acquisition. I brought with me the books of Lightbown and Spada (How languages are learned) and reread part of the Ellis book (Second language acquisition). I still found them interesting after all these years but a bit too technical. I needed something more practical. I read again the book on motivation by Dornyei. And then I did what was my first mooc online (but then it wasn’t called a mooc J  and it wasn’t so massive) and I got interested in critical thinking and thinking in general so from there it was a short step to brain sciences and cognitive sciences.


By then, neuroscience was becoming ubiquitous. You could see articles about it in the New York Times, covers in The National Geographic, advertisements, TV series and the whole nine yards. More and more books came out, specializing in neuroscience in schools, in the class, in language learning. TED has a whole series of videos making reference to it. All the conferences I have attended the last two years have had talks about it. It’s like a craze, it’s the flavor of the month. And still, I think there is so much to learn that I never tire of it.


So, this year I took my personal big step and started thinking about creating a talk out of the things I had understood about neuroscience and how it can be related to language teaching. In October I gave a short online talk about it for the Larissa English Teachers’s association and in December I proposed a fuller version for the BELTA day (Belgian English Language Teachers’ Association) and I was accepted. I gave this talk on April 25th and there was a lot of interest about it. The people who attended were asking pertinent questions and they seemed to be genuinely interested and entertained by it J. I hope that I gave them some insights into our brains and as I had promised I didn’t do any harm!

I promised I would put online the prezi and that the discussion would continue here. As I said on that day, I do not purport to be a neuroscientist and I may have made mistakes. By all means, tell me so and I’ll try to correct them. I know that the Prezi itself without the notes is not self explanatory but it can give you some good resources to search further. And if you want to hear all the details about it, well, come to see me in another conference!

Special thanks to James, Mieke, Helen, John, Jurgen, Joris, the tireless BELTA team, of which I am a proud member.

brain hat

sketchnote christina

(the sketchnote of my talk, courtesy of Christina Rebuffet Broadus – thanks Christina, it’s amazing)

December 19, 2012
by annavarna

Farming Style and how to bring it in the classroom

This is for all my former colleagues in Karditsa and Larissa

In 2005 I first arrived to work in a school in rural Karditsa. I am not at all a city girl, I grew up in various little places with many different accents, from mainland Lamia and whereabouts to Rhodes with its characteristic singing intonation and Italianati diction that so confused me when I was a kid. But nothing had prepared me for the first day of assembly and common prayers in Karpohori, that small village of 1000 inhabitants: The first time I heard a kid saying the prayer, I thought someone was kidding me. I was looking at the other teachers waiting for them to stop the kid telling her to start again this time with all the vowels included. But no. This was it. Welcome to Karditsa!
TO learn to pronounce the name of that village, the name its inhabitants had been using since 1700 before the Independent Greek State gave it something sounding a little more Greek and less Turkish, was a challenge too. Try saying Gerbesi without the vowels and you will have an approximation!
But anyway, that year I was so happy to be working as a permanent teacher only 80klm from my home (the previous year I had been working somewhere near the borders with Turkey, 650 klm away) that nothing could curb my enthusiasm. The next year I went to a different village, this time with a pretty easy-to-pronounce name, Itea, which actually means Willow tree and I was even happier. The friends I made in that school, will be forever, no matter where we are…
And since 2006 until May 2012 I was working there. Oh boy, the things I learnt about agriculture and tractors and tools and animals. My posh friends in big cities, laughed at all the cute pictures of ducks and turkeys and cows and sheep I post on Facebook, but secretly I think they envied that every day I had the chance to get out of my ugly city and go to the countryside and enjoy glorious landscapes and endless skies!
One of the highlights of my time there was when we opened our first student e-mail accounts and I encouraged them to write to me. That was pre-FB times when people sent e-mails to each other! So the first e-mail my student Kostas sent to me was this: “Hello teacher. How are you? My favourite tractors are John Deree tractors. What are yours?” As you can see my education on tractor makes had already started!
Back to the present. It’s the year 2012 and Gangnam style has gone viral and is being danced by teenagers and serious eurocrats alike. And my friend Monika sends me this link with a parody of the song.

The Peterson brothers made their version of the song that has gone viral and they hit a nerve! What I like is that they take pride in their work, they talk about it as the most important job on earth and they aren’t wrong. As I remind my daughter every day the person who is putting the food on the table is the chief.
Into our classrooms now. This is a song I would bring in my classroom. I would talk about agriculture with the experts, that is my students, and would discuss what the brothers are doing. I’m sure they would have lots to teach me! Plenty of vocabulary opportunities there. I would also discuss how fresh food is hardly featured in the video. At some point when they are singing about providing food they show a table full of cereal boxes and no fruit or vegetable whatsoever. Plenty of opportunity for critical thinking there and discussion about cultural differences and similarities. With some older classes I could even discuss GM food and the differences between European and American legislation.
And of course there would be lots to discuss about different makes of tractors people!! But even if not much of a conversation in English could take place I am sure we would enjoy the movements.
Now it’s Wednesday morning and I’m getting ready to cycle to work. No teaching for me this year, only observing teachers, designing eLearning courses, checking the quality of courses and so on. But if any teachers out there are inspired by this and they go on to try it I’d love to hear from you people and feature your work here!
Happy Holidays!

November 24, 2012
by annavarna

Critical Thinking and How to Dance it (the making of… )

Last April I started following an online course on Critical Thinking with the University of Oregon and professor Sherie Henderson as our basic moderator. The course opened up a whole new world for me, the world of Critical Thinking and involved a lot of thinking as you can imagine. At times I really struggled to follow it, mostly because it coincided with my relocation to Brussels, with the first month of changing everything: job, city, country. But I survived and learned a lot.

At about that time I was also trying to come up with an idea for a proposal for the 31st TESOL France Colloquium which takes place every year in Paris in mid-November. I had been accepted as a speaker there the previous year as well but hadn’t been able to go due to personal reasons. This year, with Paris being just an hour and a half away I was determined to make it.

So, before long, I put the two together and proposed a talk about how to promote Critical Thinking in the classroom. Little did I know that it would take me months of thinking, tens of books and hundreds of articles and many many hours of tinkering with Prezi to prepare for this presentation. It was the third one in an international Conference and I must say it was the one that tired me most, mostly because it was a vast topic and I was feeling inadequate to handle it. But I dived into it, anyway, like I usually do 🙂 Here is the result:

What I wanted to say was that: We, educators, have the duty to train our students to think more critically, to become good thinkers, to seek reasons and become reflective. It is OUR mission to do so, whether we teach English, Maths or Physical Education. It is not easy but it CAN be done. I hope that with my talk and prezi I have helped a bit to show you where to look for ideas and inspiration.

I would like to take this opportunity, to thank the fantastic team of TESOL France, Bethany Cagnol most of all, but also all the other educators who were there and with their ideas and enthusiasm keep the fire of education alive. Thank you James Taylor, Mieke Kenis, Ellen de Peter, Jurgen, Tyson Seburn, Vicky Loras, Sue Lyon Jones, Elizabeth Ann, Heike Philp, Eva Buyuksimkeysan, Julie Raikou, Vladka Chalyova, Chuck Sandy, Tom Farrell, Chia Suan Chong, Brad Patterson, Fiona Mauchline, Divya Brochier, Jeffrey D0onan, Dimitris Primalis, Nick Michelioudakis, Elinda Gjondendaj and all the others!

P.S. Don’t forget tomorrow morning to attend the brand NEW BELTA’s inauguration webinar! Click here for info



March 11, 2012
by annavarna
1 Comment

Too young for this? Not really…

One question that always bothers me is how to approach difficult topics in the primary classroom. Should I try to protect my students and keep them sealed from the outside world? Or would I act more pedagogically if I prepared them for what is out there? There are sound arguments for both stances:  “they are too young, why should you be the one to introduce painful notions like poverty, racism, injustice at this tender age? They will have all the time to suffer in the future, just try to make your classroom as happy and as innocent as possible”.

“But you are a teacher”, says the other voice. “it’s your duty to prepare them, life is not a bubble to keep them inside forever”.

Whenever I have dilemmas like this, I have a solution – I ask myself: what would you want for your child, what do you do with your child? And the answer is I wouldn’t want my child to not be aware of the darker side of life. OK, I won’t make her life miserable by showing all the injustice and violence of the world but I can introduce her somehow to the notion that not everything is pink and sugary out there. Otherwise I would be doing a disservice to her  and to all my students consequently.

So it was with great interest that I attended yesterday’s workshop with Judy Boyle, organized by the Karditsa English Teachers’ Association. The topic was Human Trafficking and Judy presented some hard-boiled facts as well as the work of the NO-Project organization.

Judy mainly works with teenagers and young people and I agree with her that it is unacceptable to graduate from Secondary Education and never to have heard about Human Trafficking. Our school books claim that slavery has been abolished but this isn’t true. Every year thousands if not millions of children are sold and trafficked mainly for use in the sex trade.

Just reading what I have written above makes me sick. I cannot grasp the notion that a human being is sold and objectified like that, I simply cannot. But it happens and just by closing our eyes it won’t disappear.

So for the moment I am trying to come up with a lesson plan for my sixth graders that will revolve around the two videos below and I hope there will be good response to them.

The first one is an awarded animation film by Effie Papa and it won a prize in 2011 in Animfest, the International Animation Festival that took place in Athens, Greece. Effie Papa was a student at TEI (Technical Education Institute) in Athens at the time. It is a beautifully made video with a powerful message.



The second one is a song and video clip by Radiohead. The lyrics are really a work of art too and could spark a lot of conversation in class. I could show the lyrics first and have my students guess the content and the story behind them and then show them the video clip which shows this world of injustice as clear as possible.

Thank you Judy for this, and thank you at all the people in Karditsa for organizing it. Tonight at 18.00 there is another event at the same place (ΤΕΔΚ, Μεγάλου Αλεξάνδρου 10) about projects in first grades of Primary School and about the Barefoot School and different and innovative approaches to education.

More Links that can help you with the Human Trafficking topic:

Jamie Keddie’s lesson plan about human trafficking

The No Project Organisation (You will find plenty of material, videos and info to use in your class)



September 29, 2011
by annavarna

#compare and contrast challenge

Since I was a child I loved these little quizzes in newspapers where you had to find the seven differences. My students seem to share the enthusiasm whenever we come across a similar activity. It seems this exercise in observation is fun and deeply satisfying.

I just found out about the blog challenge set up by Brad and already read five or six posts by other edu-bloggers. Their different styles of writing and seeing things seems to be another exercise into reflection and observation!

So here is my contribution from the beginning of our holiday: In the first one my teenage daughter is very expressive in showing how she doesn’t like photographs with her parents at this stage. In the second by pure power of persuasion we got our act together and presto! A respectable family photograph!




What is your compare and contrast story? Check these ones too!

Tyson Seburn

Mike Harrison

Baiba Svenca

Karenne Joy Sylvester

Anne Hodgson


Ian James

Paco Gascón

Jeremy Harmer  

Larry Ferlazzo

Tara Benwell

Chiew Pang

Ceri Jones

Chris Adams


July 6, 2011
by annavarna

My favourite videos this year

Thanks to Mike Harrison for inspiration to share some of the videos I used this year with my classes. I teach young learners from grade 3 to grade 6. I used these videos with different classes for different purposes.

1. Drawing Inspiration

I used this video with grade six to revise the narrative use of Present Simple. But it was also an excellent opportunity to discuss about inspiration to teach the word predictable, to elicit possible endings. What I liked most was that they went home and showed it to their parents as well and they would come to class discussing various options. “My mum says the artist was the kid with the ball”, one boy said and I thought it was a good activity if they went home to discuss it like this…

2. Early Flight Attempts

Grade 6 again. There was a Unit in our coursebook about Flying. It is a very interesting unit about the inventors behind flying, about the mechanics of flying. The only problem with this unit is that there is so much material you bring in. It is used to teach Past Simple and Pat Continuous, to teach how to write biographies, how to talk and write about paintings, plus a huge vocabulary bank most of which is virtually unknown to 12-year-old Greek students. The labelling the plane parts exercise is infamously disliked by most teachers. I like it though because I see it as an opportunity. So among all these things I thought it was a good idea to show students this short video about early attempts to fly. Apart from helping revise simple past verbs (run, jump, fly, move, etc) I saw it as an opportunity to show the importance of failing!

3. We are what we do (intro)

Grade 5. This is a video I have used the last two years with considerable success. It was used for Unit 5, Ready For Action which is a unit about environmental sensitivity, about pollution and what children can do to change the world.

4. Animal Sounds

Grade 3 and 4. This is by far my favourite video this year. It was an instant hit and was used for many purposes. In one activity students had to write the names of the animals (20 in all), in another to recognise the letters, in a third one to say the sounds (video played soundless). All in all it was very popular and for days if not for weeks they would sing it in the corridors. And it was one of the videos they always asked to be replayed!

So these were some of the videos I used this year in my classes. What about you?

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