The Parsnip Lessons

When teaching is more than just teaching

gcen-teachingThis post is about what we do and our responsibility as teachers, beyond just language teaching.  It is about teaching higher levels and how the themes and content of our lessons can help to build a space in which students can share their views and beliefs openly and honestly without fear of judgement.  It is about developing a group dynamic and building connections between human beings.

Student experience

I teach at a language school in Brighton.  It’s a very special school in that its focus is on academia and the development of teachers and students, rather than profit, and as such it has a very strong and supportive staff team who recognise and appreciate the uniqueness of the school.  The staff are happy, and so the students are happy.  One of the joys of teaching in the UK is that from the moment they arrive the students who come to the school are part of an experience.  They are abroad, experiencing a different culture and meeting people from around the globe.  This immediately creates an environment in which students form strong and memorable bonds, but this post is about further developing and strengthening those bonds. This isn’t a ‘how to’ post, but is a record of some of my experiences in this area.


I’ve recently been teaching a high level class of C1/C2 students.  Although with continual enrolment some students have departed and new students have joined, it has consistently remained a confident and intelligent group.  Because of this I wanted to use my time with them to share and explore their ideas about life and the world as well as challenge myself as a teacher.  When I took over the class from another teacher they were working from a novel rather than a course book.  We finished the novel within my first two weeks with them and I had intended to work more from a course book – if only to reduce the amount of time I was spending preparing lessons – but despite my intentions we’ve hardly used the book.  The group has inspired me and my ideas for lessons have been flowing to the extent that there hasn’t been much time left for the book.  Nonetheless we’ve been covering all areas of any good syllabus and the feedback from students has been great.  Some students need the security that comes with sticking with one course book, whereas others – such as this group – are more open to the unknown.

The World of Words

I have met teachers who feel their role is solely to teach English, but it is also our job to inspire students to learn and use the target language.  As students’ understanding of a language progresses and develops, so must the themes which we use to open up the world of words.  With higher levels we are fortunate to have the opportunity to explore broader themes than jobs, food, work, and those basic topics which are necessary with lower levels.  After all, once students have acquired a certain level of English, jobs, food and work are not the things they really get to talking about socially.

The Parsnip Lessons

Each and every week with this group I’ve had and continue to have some brilliant lessons and I’ve been learning a great deal about group dynamics and my role as a teacher in relation to this.  In this post I want to focus on a two week period in which I feel the group bond and lesson content were particularly unusual and therefore at their most interesting.  I’m calling this two week period ‘The Parsnip Lessons’, and much of my lesson material has come from and been inspired by 52 – a year of unconventional, critical and subversive activity for language teachers (Lindsay Clandfield and Luke Meddings) and the work of ESL teacher and resource writer Andreas Grundtvig.




The first five minutes

After collecting and bringing my new students to the classroom and some brief introductions, I told the class I was going to leave the room for 5 minutes and in this time the old students should talk to the new students about the lessons, the school and Brighton.  I told them they could say anything they wanted but that their aim was to give the new students an idea of what to expect and that they should answer as best they could any questions the new students might have.  I then went to stand in the corridor for 5 minutes while they talked.  As I stood there I wondered whether I was mad.  I knew I was taking a risk – after all I had no idea what was being said and didn’t want the new students to be put off on their first day.  But I had wanted to kick off the week with something unusual, to empower the students and to set the tone for some rather radical lesson style and content.  I was aware I had a good relationship with the students who had been in my class in previous weeks, and in the short time since I’d met them the new students had struck me as being quite perceptive and mature so I trusted that it wouldn’t go too badly.  I knew that the fear I was experiencing was more to do with the unknown and relinquishing control than it was to do with what might be said. When I re-entered the room the class were smiley and excited – engaged and ready for whatever was coming next.

Something I often neglect to do when teaching higher levels – which could be seen as a shortcoming – is write the lesson aims on the whiteboard at the beginning of a lesson.  Sometimes I’ll talk to students a little about the plan; often I’ll reflect with a class about what they’ve learnt; sometimes I’ll ask them to predict the purpose of a lesson after a lead in or warmer activity.  But I rarely spell it all out for them beforehand as I like to keep them on their toes, and if I’ve built a good rapport with a group and they trust me, this doesn’t seem to cause them any concern.  Some past feedback has included comments that my lessons are dynamic and students are excited by the fact that they never know what’s coming next.

After this initial introduction for the new students I wrote the word ‘parsnip’ on the board.  From here on I’ll give a brief outline of (some of) the lesson activities along with some thoughts about how they went.  Bear in mind that for each activity, there was also – where applicable – group feedback, on-the-spot and delayed error correction and vocabulary & pronunciation awareness and analysis.  These are areas I consider an integral part of any lesson, so I don’t feel it necessary to go into them here in detail.


from 52: a year of unconventional, critical and subversive 
activity for language teachers, 
Lindsay Clandfield & Luke Meddings, 2012

PARSNIP is an acronym for the things you don’t find in EFL 
course books.  
Students work in pairs to try and guess what it stands for: 


Discussion points: 
- the pros and cons of talking about these topics 
- which topics you would/wouldn’t like to talk about 
- ‘respect’: what it means to you



During the discussion it was clear that students were keen to talk about politics and religion, and this interest influenced some of my choices for later lessons.



from, Andreas Grundtvig

- Deciding which subjects are safe for small talk
- Discussion: making small talk
- Cultural differences (corporate and national)


from, Andreas Grundtvig

- Recognising how context and intonation affect how we are 
  understood in different cultures
- Interpreting the politeness of spoken sentences





material taken from 
What we Believe but Cannot Prove; 
Today’s Leading Thinkers on Science in the 
Age of Uncertainty - 
edited by John Brockman, Harper Collins 2009

- Reading for gist and detail
- Summarising (authentic) text
- Vocabulary analysis and content discussion


- Analysis of presentations
- Presentation Language
- Body Language, sentence stress and intonation




from, Andreas Grundtvig

Pecha kucha, originally meaning ‘chit-chat’ in Japanese, was 
developed as a short and direct way of presenting. It proved 
to be such good fun that it has become popular worldwide, 
often with evening events called pecha kucha nights.  The 
presenter prepares a series of 20 slides, each of which moves 
on automatically after 20 seconds so the presenter must make 
sure that he only speaks for that length of time.

- Practising the planning and organising of presentations
- Presenting ideas precisely, deciding on the most relevant 
  language to use and avoiding digression
- Presentation theme: What I Believe but Cannot Prove 
  [adapted to 10x20 format: 10 slides, 20 seconds]
- Content discussion in groups

The topics students chose for their presentations included Karma, Love, The Moon Landing Conspiracy, UFOs in Ancient Art, Team Work, God and Possible Alien Life Forms.  One of the group discussions following the presentations became quite passionate and a little heated, but fortunately students maintained a degree of respect and sensitivity that prevented any bad feeling.

Today’s Meet 
inspired by Lindsay Clandfield’s ‘Critical Thinking’ workshop, 
ELTABB, Berlin 2014

- Homework: contribute to discussion forum on topic 
  What I Believe but Cannot Prove



Right & Wrong

- Vocabulary on the topic of right & wrong: analysis and practice

Parsnip Reflection

- Feedback from Pecha Kucha discussions
- Reflecting on and sharing experiences of PARSNIP topics

Today’s Meet Review

- Writing review and error correction
- Modern day writing styles; discussion forums, Facebook comment 
  threads and text messaging.



During the second week ‘The Parsnip lessons’ were interspersed with the occasional course book lesson (Life Advanced, Paul Dummet, National Geographic & Cengage Learning, 2012).  I chose lessons with ‘ethical’ themes.



- Analysis and practice of modal auxiliaries

The lead in for this lesson was a running dictation of 10 
environmentally and politically themed sentences.  Students had 
to identify what the sentences had in common (themes and 
modal verbs)



from 52: a year of unconventional, critical and subversive 
activity for language teachers, 
Lindsay Clandfield & Luke Meddings, 2012

 Images from

- Discussion based on a selection of 15 Adbusters images

I booked the lecture hall for this lesson so I’d have access to the IWB and ample space for students to move around and work in groups undisturbed.  Before the students arrived I set up the space with one block of tables grouped together (chairs around) and 15 printed colour images spread around the table.  On the white board I left one instruction: ‘discuss’.  I then deliberately waited until ten minutes after the start of the lesson before coming into the room. This felt so unnatural for me especially given I’m pretty Swiss when it comes to timekeeping, but this decision, along with the way I’d arranged the space, was my attempt to shake things up by creating a different working environment.  I was confident that the group were mature, intelligent and motivated enough – and that the content was engaging enough – for it not to fall flat on its face. When I did come into the class I asked the group to feedback their thoughts and responses to the images.  Whilst they had discussed the content of the images I needed to ask a few more probing questions and give them more time to consider their thoughts (so if I were to repeat this lesson, I’d leave a more detailed instruction on the board).  We then looked at vocabulary related to the images (the term ‘subvertising’ tied in nicely as several students had studied portmanteau words in some poetry themed lessons I’d carried out a few weeks beforehand).

adbusters_nike_runningimages adbusters

Where is the Love?

Where is the Love? ‘War edition' video & lyrics, Black Eyed Peas

- Video description (students in pairs, one facing away from 
  the IWB and one facing who describes in detail what they see
  in the video, which is played silently)
- Song prediction: having seen the video students predict 
  what the song is about
- PTV and lyrics jumble

What’s Wrong With…?

Computer based 'research and present' lesson in which students in 
pairs choose a multinational corporation (McDonalds, Starbucks, 
Nike, Coca Cola, etc), research What’s wrong with …? and 
present their findings in groups.

Today’s Meet 
inspired by Lindsay Clandfield’s ‘Critical Thinking’ workshop, 
ELTABB, Berlin 2014

- Homework: answer and discuss the question posted on todaysmeet:

Are we living in an age where multinational corporations wield 
more power than national governments?  Will wars in the future be 
fought between corporations rather than nation states, and if so, 
what would be the implications for ‘the people’?



Team Building


Led by students

- Sharing difficult/challenging
  childhood experiences
- Reflection and discussion
- Language feedback

Two of the students in the group during this time were a Swedish couple who run a Team Building company.  I wanted to give them the opportunity to try out some of their workshop practices in English and the nature of the lessons and group dynamic lent themselves well to such an ‘experiment’.  I was careful to discuss the content with these two students beforehand and to get agreement from the group – who were extremely supportive and encouraging.

I chose the second of two 90 minute lessons so that the group was ‘warmed up’ and during the break the two students rearranged the classroom (circle of chairs, no tables).  They then led the first 45 minutes of the lesson whilst I observed and took notes for error correction and vocabulary development.

10038379-corporate-team-buildingThe focus of their activity was on the ‘trust’ stage of team building and they asked each person in the group to think of a difficult and challenging experience from their childhood which they were comfortable sharing. Having already worked closely together on some challenging topics I felt the group as a whole had a relatively strong bond, but during this session it was heart warming to observe the trust and respect grow between individual members of the group as they listened to each others personal and touching experiences.  The couple running the session handled the group with perceptiveness and sensitivity that had extremely positive results.

They then moved on to talk a little about team building and the principles behind what they do, and I joined the ‘circle’ to join in a reflective discussion about the activity before moving onto some error correction and topic related language.  The following day I made time to sit with the couple and give more in depth feedback related to their work.


The Machine

from 52: a year of unconventional, critical and subversive 
activity for language teachers, 
Lindsay Clandfield & Luke Meddings, 2012

- Running dictation
- Discussion

There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious,
makes you so sick at heart, that you can't take part. You can't 
even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon 
the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the 
apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to 
indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that 
unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working 
at all.

(Mario Savio, American Free Speech activist.  Speech made in 1964)

- What does ‘the machine’ represent for you?
- Can you think of three modern-day situations in which this speech
  might be appropriate?
- ‘… the machine will be prevented from working at all.’  
  Is this possible?  Can you think of examples?


from 52: a year of unconventional, critical and subversive 
activity for language teachers, 
Lindsay Clandfield & Luke Meddings, 2012

- Creative writing and sharing: monologues & dialogues 

Mr X and Ms Y are top executives for a large multinational company.
They want to move the whole company to somewhere cheaper for a 
few reasons: 
- Their government wants them to pay more taxes. 
- They want a country with weak environmental laws. 
- They want access to cheap labour, and do not want to have 
  to deal with unions 

Students imagine that while Mr X and Ms Y are scanning the globe 
for possible locations, a voice from somewhere in the world 
starts speaking to them. 
- Whose voice is it? 
- What does it say to them? 
- How do they respond? 


Today’s Meet review

- Writing review and error correction


The Dangers

Danger-SignFor me as a teacher and I believe for the students, this was a fascinating two week period on many levels.  I developed and encouraged a space in which students could openly share their views about issues which can be very contentious.  At times I felt it was precarious – as if I had built something brilliant within the group.  But with brilliance there often comes fragility and I wondered whether what we’d built would come crashing down around me at any moment and relations in the group would break down.  Had I gone too far?  The book which was my inspiration for these lessons asks the question ‘can one new idea per week make a difference?’, and here was I exploring a number of potentially divisive topics all within a fortnight.

The Good in People

Fortunately my instincts about the maturity of the students in the group were right and they were admirably caring toward and supportive of each other.  The struggles they encountered were not restricted to the degree with which they had the language to communicate; even as native English speakers we still struggle to articulate – or even truly know – our feelings and opinions on a topic.  And added to this were the cultural differences in how we communicate, from directness and politeness to body language and facial expression.  But an important factor in my choosing to tread such potentially dangerous ground was that I found each and every one of the students to be innately good and warm hearted human beings.

Classroom Management

I interact with my students with humour and rarely hide my true British cynicism – I strive to be myself as we are all human and I believe that showing our human side helps us to build rapport with our students (see earlier post: Is it important for students to like us?).  But by nature I am also an optimist and am blessed with the ability to see and cherish the good in people.  Perhaps I’m reading too deeply, but despite occasional tensions between one or two (old and new) students, I believe my positive opinion of and respect for each of the individuals in the group was contagious and helped to build relationships.  If my instincts about this are right – I pride myself on how I handled the group.  My choice of groupings for each part of each lesson was conscious and deliberate, and they worked.  Classroom management is so much more than discouraging students from speaking in their first language and using mobile phones.

The Benefits

Regular feedback from students throughout the two week period was extremely positive and it was clear they had enjoyed working in a different way and had developed a strong group bond.  The material used in the lessons gave us access to far wider topics than those usually found in course books, and of course the language and vocabulary that goes along with that.  

At the end of the two week period, the Swedish couple reached the end of their course at the school (although the group enjoyed a brief reunion with them the following Tuesday), and two other students moved onto exam courses they had booked as part of their programme.  The following Monday we were joined by four new students.  I sensed a little sadness on the part of my old students at the changes within the group, but was proud to witness the way in they welcomed the new students and encouraged them to integrate.  We continue to use some of the resources and activity types we discovered in the Parsnip Lessons.

Teaching this group has been and continues to be an incredibly rewarding experience for me.  I’d like to thank Lindsay Clandfield, Luke Meddings and Andreas Grundtvig for sharing their inspiring materials.  I’d like to thank my school for creating a supportive and nurturing environment in which its teachers can experiment and thereby develop their skills in the classroom.  But above all I’d like to thank my students, for their intelligence, openness and honesty, without which I would not have been able to try out such unconventional materials.




A couple of weeks after the Parsnip Lessons when several of the students involved were leaving my class to do an exam course or return home, they brought me a parting gift.

During some of our discussions I had told them the following (true) story about the effects of marketing:

01060Many years ago, while I was sitting at 
home watching TV one evening, an advert 
for Kelloggs Coco Pops came on.  I sat 
and watched the ad before standing up 
and turning off the TV.
I put my shoes on, picked up my purse and 
keys and left the house for the nearest 
shop.  Five minutes later I came back into 
the house with a packet of Coco Pops and 
a pint of milk.  In the kitchen I poured 
myself a bowl, took off my shoes and went 
to sit back down in front of the tele.  
I wasn't a huge cereal eater at the time, 
but although I was fully conscious of what I was doing, 
the advert had worked it's magic.

My students’ gift to me was a box of Kelloggs Coco Pops, along with a framed photo of the group with the caption ‘Jade’s class, 16th – 27th June 2014‘.  Needless to say, it was a heart warming moment when they presented it to me.

Only a handful of those students remain at the school now, but when I run into them in the corridor it’s evident a fondness remains between them, and we’ll have at least one more reunion before they’ve all left.  And my attentions have turned to developing other exciting themed lessons for this level and building the dynamic with a constantly changing and evolving group.



Thought for the New Year

firework1I’ve had a rather tricky mix of students in my class this week, with a some extremely serious students and a few very relaxed students.  Despite my best efforts, this has made for a somewhat dour classroom atmosphere.  I’d been hoping for some lively new students at the beginning of the week but was sadly disappointed.

So after two days of trying (and failing) to liven things up, I went into school on Wednesday with a new speaking & pronunciation lesson up my sleeve on the topic of Truth and Lies.  I began with a dictation gap-fill exercise in which the unstressed function words were removed (as opposed to stressed content words) to help build students’ awareness of stress-timing in English.  This led onto lots of practice of sentence stress and the pronunciation of schwa, some discussion activities about whether and when it’s okay to lie, and rounded off with some role-plays.

The lesson was inspired by the Ray Parker talk I went to at the IATEFL PronSIG event in September and I combined some of Ray’s ideas with some material that I adapted from Challenge to Think (Frank, Rinvolucri, Berer, OUP 1982).

The theme of truth and lies led quite nicely onto Thursday’s project An Alternative Tour of the Brighton Pier, in which students had to listen to and identify true and false stories about the pier before inventing their own stories.  The lesson took place on the pier itself and I team-taught it with a colleague, combining our two upper-intermediate groups.

Both of these lessons were very successful and students really engaged and started to come to life.  Perhaps the fact that the lessons were new and exciting for me rubbed off on the students, but no matter the reason, I was really encouraged by the outcome and now the students are really starting to bond as a group.  All of this led to my Thought for the New Year:

Anyone who’s been teaching for a while will be familiar with the fact that just one person can completely change the classroom dynamic.  Well, sometimes … that person is the teacher.  🙂 


Is it Important for Students to Like Us?

I recently started thinking about whether it’s important and/or necessary for our students to like us.  Looking back at my own learning experiences – from primary through secondary and university, countless training courses, the CELTA, language courses and teacher development sessions – at each point along the way it was clear that I enjoyed a subject more if I liked and respected the teacher.  And, of course, the more I enjoyed a subject, the more work and effort I was willing to put in to learning.


So for the student I think few would disagree that liking one’s teacher creates a more positive (and therefore effective) learning environment.  But I think it’s important for us as teachers too.  Aside from the fact that most of us like to be liked, I think the probability of teaching well and delivering a good lesson is increased if the atmosphere is comfortable.  If our students are enjoying a lesson we’re more likely to enjoy it too – positivity breeds positivity.

We all have bad days, and I think there’s no shame in our students knowing that.  Teacher is not a role I play, teaching is something I do.  It’s not about everyone being the best of friends though – some of my finest lessons have been with groups who have a more challenging dynamic – it’s about creating the environment in which our students can feel comfortable.  It’s ok not to love every activity, but it’s good to be able to see, or at least trust, that there will be some benefit.  Showing our students that we feel comfortable not only puts them at ease, but often us too.

Before I worked in EFL I trained and worked as an actress.  Much of my work involved writing and devising my own shows and over time I learnt that one of my strengths as a performer lies in building a rapport with my audience.

Of course this has carried over into the classroom and I’m not shy about showing my human side.  I think this quality really helps to build a positive dynamic with ones students.  After all, every one of us has our eccentricities and weaknesses and it’s the people who pretend that they don’t who we take longer to warm to.

Part of my CELTA course involved analysing my own teaching practice and during this process one of the points that arose was that I wasn’t smiling very much, perhaps because I was nervous and taking it all so seriously!  It was given as a small point during feedback – but for me it was huge!  Who wants a teacher who never smiles?!  So for every remaining teaching practice I made a point of putting a sign on the wall in the classroom reminding me to smile.  Of course I’m far more relaxed in the classroom now and smile without having to think about it.  But there are occasions in which we might not feel like smiling – we’re tired, a student is struggling and taking a long time – but a smile is so encouraging for a student, especially at these moments.  Obviously rapport is about more than just smiling – if we’re too smiley we risk looking a little unbalanced – but it certainly helps.

So back to my original question – is it important for our students to like us?  Yes, absolutely.  Is it necessary?  I don’t know.  I’ve yet to see a teacher who’s good and unlikeable.