When teaching is more than just teaching
This 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.
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: Politics Alcohol Religion Sex Narcotics Isms Pork 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.
HITTING THE SMALL TALK BULLSEYE
from playlands.org, Andreas Grundtvig - Deciding which subjects are safe for small talk - Discussion: making small talk - Cultural differences (corporate and national)
IMPOLITENESS? OF COURSE NOT!
from playlands.org, Andreas Grundtvig - Recognising how context and intonation affect how we are understood in different cultures - Interpreting the politeness of spoken sentences
WHAT WE BELIEVE BUT CANNOT PROVE
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
PECHA KUCHA PRESENTATIONS
from playlands.org, 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.
www.todaysmeet.com 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
- 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 www.adbusters.org - 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).
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.
www.todaysmeet.com 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’?
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.
The 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.
from 52: a year of unconventional, critical and subversive activity for language teachers, Lindsay Clandfield & Luke Meddings, 2012 - PTV - 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
For 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.
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.
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:
Many 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.