Before you say well done, I must admit, it’s not strictly true. He’s not here, nor has he been. Now, for the record, I can’t assume he has never set foot on Moroccan soil in the past, his research may have taken him to these North Atlantic shores at some point. But I can say with certainty, that he’s not here. He’s currently at home. In Morocco, we’re all at home, too, in an attempt to stop the spread of Covid-19.
As the world slowly deals with this pandemic, we’re increasingly obliged to navigate our way through a virtual assault course of curfews, restricted movement, empty supermarket shelves and frightening newspaper headlines. It’s really difficult to find anything positive to say. Well, there is one thing. These events have brought one of the leading voices in second-language acquisition to the British Council, albeit via an internet connection. He lives in sunny California, which at the time of writing has austere but appropriate measures in place to ensure social distancing.
For those who are unfamiliar with the name Krashen, I speak of Dr Stephen Krashen, professor emeritus at the University of California. Any English language teacher who has researched why we do what we do in our classrooms will have bumped into his name. From diploma-level teaching qualifications to degrees in applied linguistics, Krashen’s research has informed our teaching. For example, we accept that learners of English need comprehensible input (ideally language input that is just above the level of what a student can understand) and that stress negatively impacts a learner’s ability to acquire language. These ideas didn’t materialise out of thin air- they’re Krashen’s input hypothesis and affective filter hypothesis, two of the five hypotheses of second-language acquisition developed by Dr Krashen in the 1970s and 1980s.
Under normal circumstances, acquiring the services of such an academic heavyweight are the preserve of the well-connected (it’s not what you know, it’s who you know, right?). But these are not normal circumstances. As previously mentioned, I’m confined to my flat in Rabat, Morocco due to the Covid-19 outbreak. As it happens, Dr Krashen is also currently self-isolating. Had it not been for this global pandemic, Dr Krashen may never have tweeted this message:
Stanford is moving all courses on-line because of the “spread of coronavirus in the Bay Area.” (LATimes, March 8). I will be happy to give guest lectures online for the rest of this month.
And I may not have had the cheek to send this reply:
“…guest lectures online…”, I’m really obliged to ask- would you like to deliver our INSETT next week in Rabat?!
As I have already said, under normal circumstances, this exchange would never have happened, nor would I have received a response from the man himself saying he would love to do it.
Just to be clear, in our British Council Teaching Centre we hold a weekly INSETT session (in-service teacher training) for our teachers. As you might imagine, these sessions are mostly delivered by us, the teaching team. The very notion that we might have the opportunity to listen and engage with such a distinguished academic is beyond our wildest dreams. As I keep saying, these are unusual circumstances.
My first step was to initiate real contact via email and the response came back quickly. Short, to the point and peppered with his dry wit. We set a time and date. There was further correspondence- half a dozen or so emails to establish the topic, send materials and most importantly, decide on the platform we were going to use.
From my end, there was real work to do: we had to raise interest and promote the session within our Teaching Centre and invite colleagues from around the world to this, truly, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Much of this work was delegated out. Helen Chapman, our Learning and Development Co-ordinator in Rabat, did the bulk of this, and I’m grateful for her assistance.
Our good luck and enthusiasm were what we needed to fend off the uncertainty thrown up by this pandemic. I can say for sure, the very idea that Stephen Krashen was delivering a session for us, raised our spirits and managed to distract everyone from the worry that has dominated many of our conversations. Having Dr Krashen as a guest speaker gave us some respite from it all.
As the time approached, I must admit I grew more and more nervous. What if he didn’t show up? How about the internet connection? The list goes on.
Fifteen minutes before the start of the session, I turned on my laptop, made sure I was connected to the internet, took a deep breath and logged in.
My eyes darted over the screen to see if anyone was on the online platform yet. Around a dozen people had made it. I checked to see if the main man was there, but no. The number of participants started to rise quickly. There was an awkward silence as I contemplated what I could do if he didn’t appear. I started receiving messages in the chat box, so I filled the silence by welcoming people to the session. I looked at the clock on my computer and realised that the session was due to start in two minutes.
Suddenly, as if by magic, Dr Krashen appeared on our screens. Ready to go!
I stumbled over my words, trying to establish whether he could hear me and more importantly, whether we could hear him. It was loud and clear, loud and clear. A short introduction later, I took a back seat in the proceedings.
The hour went by like a whirlwind. Krashen referred to his earlier work before moving swiftly on to talk about free voluntary reading and storytelling. His voice, delivery and humour were captivating (as one participant said, ‘I quoted your work for my masters and you have finally brought it to life for me’). The theory was interspersed with moments of candid personal accounts. His stories drew us in, using the skills of a seasoned raconteur, giving much needed colour to bolster understanding. Oh, and he’s funny, really funny. I’m sure he wouldn’t mind me saying that English language teaching’s gain is stand-up comedy’s loss.
Towards the end, we had an opportunity to ask questions to Krashen directly. The chat box lit up with comments and requests which I relayed. I glanced over the screen to see that we had 72 people watching, from all around the world.
As Dr Krashen answered the last couple of questions from attendees, my attention was drawn to the events taking place outside my flat. I could hear a police siren and a booming voice urging everyone to get indoors quickly. I remembered that a national curfew was about to come into place, prohibiting people from going outdoors. My attention turned back to the webinar and the realisation that just for this moment, we had all come together and momentarily forgotten about the world outside.
Wash your hands, everyone.