Surprise surprise!

How do your lessons start? Do you go over the homework you set and give feedback on what the learners have done? Do you start an informal chat about the weekend then go on to ‘more serious’ work? Do you introduce or give out some new material for the class to work on? Do you elicit what students know about some new topic or language you’re going to work on?

All of those look like plausible ways of starting a lesson, and they will depend on your teaching style and approach. But I find them too predictable, with the potential for setting a low-profile, unadventurous mood for the rest of the lesson. A potential for boredom! Now, I don’t know about you, but if there’s one thing I hate is getting bored. I might do some of those things at the beginning of a lesson, but before I want the class expectant, in suspense. I want learners to feel that something unexpected might take place. I want SURPRISE!

There’s nothing like surprise to get your class alert, turned on, interested, motivated. I need to establish a mood that’s loaded with anticipation, with positive energy. I find if I get the learners thus motivated the rest of the lesson will flow seamlessly. So how do I achieve surprise at the start of the lesson? Here’s some examples of things I’ve done or am planning to do:

My favorite is visualisation. For example, I’ll use a short film like this one:

Dead Light: Sleeper – NOWNESS from NOWNESS on Vimeo.

As the learners get into the classroom I announce, ‘I’m going to play a short video, first sound only; you’re invited to close your eyes, let your imagination fly and figure out what’s going on’. After ‘listening’ to the video, I prompt them to write down what their mind’s eye saw. Next we compare what we imagined and then we play the complete video and check how those imagined landscapes compare with the actual moving images.

I also love to use still images; for example a word cloud like this one, generated from a newspaper headline:

Councillor fined

I’ll project it and ask the class to try and predict the story behind it. After comparing their different efforts I’ll tell them the real story, which in this case is a glorious example of poetic justice (here)! Yes, telling a joke or short story is always an excellent motivator –a line that never fails to create suspense is ‘I’d like to tell you a story’.

I also love to surprise by introducing changes, for example asking learners to come outside to the corridor and do a starter activity there; or changing the way we sit in the classroom. Likewise, I often bring and display some unusual realia (once I brought a coupe of coffee beans) or invite someone to the lesson (check my previous post Guess who’s coming to the classroom today!).

These days I’m playing with other possibilities, like hiding an object and giving the learners some cryptic directions to try and find it (thanks go to my dear colleague Angela for this idea), sharing a personal secret with one learner and challenging the class to find out who knows and what it is (without asking direct questions, of course!) and finally provocation (one of my students  says I’m a provocateur!); like… what about getting into the classroom wearing a clown nose?

There are loads of other ways of creating surprise, of course, and I invite you to come in with your ideas in the comments below. Cheers!

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Beginners acting out their own sketches for language revision

My beginners are a handful, and I’ve got two generously populated groups! But they’re a joy to work with, and well worth the energy I muster to help them learn English.

After six two-hour lessons in the first three weeks, I decided to stop and look back at the language we had uncovered. There are a few absolute beginners and I felt they would benefit from some extra time to sort of digest what we have done so far and reuse the language in a creative way. This is what had emerged in those three weeks:

  • introductions and basic personal questions, including likes and favourites
  • where you live, how you get to school and how long it takes you
  • objects we’ve got in our bags and at home
  • daily routines.

So I decided to have the learners create simple dialogues. Would they be able to get engaged and come up with interesting pieces with such little language? I wanted to get them to realize that even with such few elements they could build up something meaningful and fun.

What we did is I gave each student one slip of paper and asked them to check their notes and the Padlet walls we had created, select one phrase or sentence and write it on the slip. Then I collected all the slips into a cardboard box and I asked them to sit in groups of four. I shuffled the slips in the box and went around the classroom inviting one person from each group to pick up four slips. Next I challenged the groups to invent a sketch including the four chunks they had –they could also include other ones they knew. While they were working on the dialogues, I went around the classroom offering help with the writing process and also plugging in extra chunks to make the pieces sound more natural. Here’s one of the scenes they came up with:

In class: teacher and one student.

Student: Excuse me!

Teacher: Yes?

S: I’m curious. Can I ask you a question?

T: Yes, of course.

S: How long have you been a teacher?

T: Over 30 years.

S: And, What’s your favourite colour?

T: It depends on the day; today it’s black. What about you?

S: Red.

T: Anything else?

S: Do you like cooking?

T: Oh! I love it! And you know what? I like to surprise my students and every year, on Halloween, I invite my favourite one for dinner at home.

S: Then, Am I invited?

T: Ah… Wait and see.

I had them rehearse the dialogues, again assisting with pronunciation and interpretation –mostly intonation and body language. Finally they acted them out in front of their mates; they even drew simple scene sets on the board!

They got really excited, especially those absolute beginners who felt proud to be able to act in a little playlet in English within their first month! Revisiting the language that had emerged in such a creative way did wonders for their self-confidence and motivation. They’ve become even more determined to pursue our learning adventures!

Our Community of Practice

I teach at the Escola Oficial d’Idiomes de Castelló, a state-run school that offers adult learners tuition in eleven languages. A group of teachers from different language departments started a teacher development group, which we call a community of practice. We’ve been running for three years now and Fiona Mauchline, from the TDSIG (Teacher Development Special Interest Group) of IATEFL asked me to contribute something to their October e-bulletin. The focus was on the setting of challenges and resolutions for the new teaching period, and what I did was enlist the help of ‘The Friendly Teachers’ and record a video about our teacher development group and our challenge for 2017/18.

The Friendly Teachers is the YouTube channel my colleague Sonia Vecino and I started about a year and a half ago. The idea was to produce short videos with tips and reflections for students of English, but when our friend and Italian teacher Anna Venuto joined us a couple of months later the videos became bilingual! We’ve also been recording vlogs at ELT conferences we’ve attended. Subscribe!

Eyelash curlers and online dictionaries

Showing and telling

On the first three lessons of my beginner courses we had learnt to introduce ourselves and ask simple things of each other (names, where from, jobs, age, favourites, etc.); we also learnt to say birthday dates, days of the week and uncovered some opposites (open/close the door, switch on/off the lights, happy/sad, fun/boring, etc.) that came up.

So on the fourth lesson I thought it would be a good idea to start talking about objects –since we’re not using a coursebook we’re free to follow our own learning path ;). The obvious place to start was the things we wear and carry with us. So I introduced I’ve got… and started showing and telling the class things I was wearing and had in my shoulder bag: watch, bracelet, mobile phone, wallet (with money, credit cards, receipts, ID, driving licence, etc.), pens, marker, hankies, lip balm, audio cable, car keys, etc.

After drilling the pronunciation of I’ve got … , I got some learners to show the whole class some of the things they had, so that I could help with names and pronunciation, and then they did the same with their neighbours. They produced phones, hankies, lipstick, notebooks, pens, necklaces, earrings, bottles of water, sweets, etc. while I walked around offering more help.

Empowering the learners from the beginning

I then announced their homework would be to pick other things they regularly use, find their English names and, if at all feasible, bring them to the class. Next we had a discussion about the tools and strategies they could use to find those names.

Unsurprisingly, the most popular strategy was using a translating app in their smartphones, usually Google translator or the Spanish-English section of Wordreference. I remarked that was the natural starting point, but advised them to always double-check, as very often one word in Spanish can mean different things and simple word-to-word translation can yield absurd and/or hilarious results. A favourite example is the infamous translation of sobre todo (meaning ‘especially, mostly, above all’) as ‘overcoat’, which is the first option you find in some dictionaries –in fact this is a double error that starts when you choose the wrong spelling of the Spanish word.

I discouraged the use of Google Translator and recommended Wordreference instead, which gives some information about the context of use, so you can override polysemia –for example, this is the entry for sierra. That will often be enough help to choose the right translation, but for me the ultimate double-checking tool when it comes to objects (or any other ‘visual vocabulary’) is Google Images –you know, ‘An image is worth…’ and all that. By looking at the image you can check whether the dictionary gave you what you were looking for. I demonstrated this with a favourite example from my teaching. Once an intermediate class were writing recipes and one of the students was working on a pasta one. Well, he needed to translate escurrir, which is the Spanish word for ‘draining’, and used the first translation he found: ‘wring’! Imagine wringing spaghetti to remove the water!wring.jpeg

So they went home and the next day they walked into the classroom carrying the objects they had chosen, and that’s when the fun of the unexpected started. There were eyelash curlers, lip gloss, nail clippers, tweezers, a small saw (!), sanitary towels, emergency rain cape, selfie stick etc, –things you rarely see in coursebooks. They presented the objects and told their mates what they had done to find their English names. My learners were taking agency; they were deciding what objects were important for them and developing vocabulary learning strategies they can use from now on. I’ve always thought that the most important aspect of my teaching is giving people the tools and help them develop the strategies that will make them self-directed learners. And I want to do that right from the beginning.

Guess who’s coming to the classroom today!

My first duty as an unplugged teacher is to create the right conditions for conversation to flourish. Sometimes the learners themselves provide a starting point for the lesson, and I wrote in my last post that I love it when this is the case. But more often than not I tend to bring something to the classroom to provoke conversation. This might take the form of an object, a picture, a short text (quotation, short poem) or a video. But by far my favourite ‘thing’ to bring is… someone! (So much for materials light teaching! LOL)

I’ll ask some English-speaking friend of mine if they’d like to come and place themselves at the centre of the lesson. They usually agree. I sometimes tell the class ‘next day I’ve got a surprise for you’. I like to start with a little guessing game, so I’ll ask my friend to give me a cryptic word and/or phrase that connects, perhaps laterally, to their lives. When I get into the classroom I write those on the board or read them aloud to get them intrigued and challenge them to try and guess what relationship those things might have with our visitor.

Last year I brought in my very dear friend, colleague and Friendly Teachers member Anna. She provided a single word as a clue: mountain. I arranged for her to turn up 30’ after the lesson was due to start so I could have my B2 students guess in groups what that mysterious clue could mean. When she turned up (they didn’t even know whether she was a guy or a woman), we welcomed her and I announced that to begin they could ask only yes/no questions to try and confirm their hypotheses. It was real fun and after they gave up Anna revealed that mountain referred to mount Etna, the great volcano on her native Sicily. Then she answered all sorts of questions: why she moved over here, when she started teaching in our school, was she married, etc. –you know, gossip is always a winner 😉

Last week, also for a B2 class, I invited Annelise, another friend. This time I hadn’t warned the group we would have a visit, so it would be a surprise. I met her ten minutes before the lesson, we went into the classroom and she wrote wellness and four seasons in a day on the whiteboard. When the students arrived I said she wasn’t a new student but a surprise visitor, a friend of mine, and challenged them to guess things about her through yes/no questions, drawing their attention towards the two clues she’d written on the board. In the end they found out that wellness means a lot to Annelise; after finishing her degree in Psychology she felt somehow disconnected from her own body and her femininity, so she decided to try and regain that connection through dance. Her quest for wellness had started, and today she coaches and teaches belly dancing. Four seasons in a day related to her native city; no, not one in the UK, as many would assume, but Curitiba in Brazil!

So, what are the benefits of bringing a visitor to the classroom? Just off the top of my head:

  • In terms of motivation, there’s nothing more intriguing than a new person, nothing more engaging and stimulating: Is that another teacher? What’s their connection with Amadeu? (again, the gossip ingredient)
  • In terms of language, loads of things come up, giving me the chance to focus on the language that emerges, either at given intervals during the conversation or afterwards:
    • Guessing and suggesting possibilities: perhaps, might, must, can’t
    • Agreeing and disagreeing: right, I don’t know…, no way
    • Questions: yes/no during the guessing period; open and follow-up for the rest of the activity
    • etc.

All in all, this is great fun and brings a breath of fresh air to the class.

My pimped-up unplugged teaching approach

Back in March 2000 Scott Thornbury, inspired by the Dogme95 Danish filmmaking movement, published the seminal article A Dogma for EFL, which in turn started what’s also known as the Unplugged movement in language teaching. He deplored the way EFL had been ‘hijacked, either by materials overload, or by Obsessive Grammar Syndrome (OGS)’. Many thought he seemed to be advocating not only a conversation-driven, materials-light approach, but also a tech-free one. However, in June this year, in the post M is for Manifesto from his amazingly encyclopedic blog An A-Z of ELT, he states that ‘While the idea of taking students to the bar or library is clearly impractical, technology now allows us to bring the bar or library into the classroom’.

I’ve been using an unplugged approach for some years now, and I love the freshness it has brought to my teaching. Developing the lessons from my learners’ life experience, interests, worries, dreams, etc, and ‘locating’ them in the here-and-now of the classroom has afforded me and my students a measure of freedom and enjoyment I rarely experienced when I used textbooks and all their paraphernalia of workbooks, DVD-ROMs, IWB digital editions, etc. that buried ‘the inner life of the student’, the real story that unfolds from genuine conversation.

I enjoy this stripped-down, back-to-basics way of teaching, this celebration of the people in the classroom as the source of the learning adventures we embark on. Although I usually do have some sort of lesson starter up my cuff, I’m more than happy to go with the flow when something crops up. Actually, the first thing I do when I walk into the classroom is observe: watch and listen. Ideally lessons just ‘happen’, and that’s really magical. Like when I walked into the classroom once and noticed two learners having a whispered conversation and that unfurled into a whole two-hour lesson in which we discussed the pronunciation of voiced and unvoiced consonants and ended up inventing stories featuring words containing the ‘v’ sound.

But far from being solemn, my Dogmevow of chastity’ is pimped up by the use of EdTech. We use web tools and mobile device apps to edit texts collaboratively, do activities around images and record audio and video tasks. Most importantly, we use other tools as the online component of our particular blended approach. This year I’m using Padlet with my beginner groups and Google+ communities with my B2.1’s for this. We use the rich possibilities these web tools afford us in various ways:

  • They provide us with an online or virtual space for the group where the conversation started in the brick-and-mortar class can go on.
  • The language that emerges during the lessons is captured and lesson summaries (or ‘post plans’) are shared on those tools. [1]
  • Homework tasks (text, audio, video) are posted and shared there.
  • Links to media related to the themes dealt with and the language uncovered during the lesson can be freely shared by any members of the class, including the teacher!

Made with Padlet

The Wikipedia page for Dogme language teaching lists its key principles, on of which is the empowerment of both students and teachers ‘by freeing the classroom of published materials and textbooks’. The web 2.0 brought about a ground-breaking change in making everybody not only a consumer of Internet content, but a producer. According to this blog post, ‘Web 2.0 encourages participation, collaboration, and information sharing’. Padlet is a user-friendly online digital board where everybody who has the URL can post; Google+ is the Google social media tool. I see the adoption of web 2.0 tools like these as a way of giving learners agency. The most important element in the learning process are the people, and the learners are the main characters in the story: they’re the ones doing the learning! I believe that by enhancing my unplugged approach with the addition of these EdTech tools I’m only affording my students more opportunities to communicate, to interact, to tell their true stories.


[1] I owe the concept of ‘lesson summaries’ to Ceri Jones (check her amazing blog, Close Up) and that of ‘lesson post-plans’ (love the oxymoron!) to Luke Meddings.

Introduce yourself… with a twist!

(featured photo: New York, by Pedro Szekely)

This week I started teaching a conversation class of twelve highly motivated upper-intermediate adult learners. (And some people ask me why I love my job.)

A lesson is a social event, so on our first meet-up we started by introducing ourselves to the group. That’s the done thing, isn’t it? Natural enough on a first day. But it can be boring. I’ve always thought there’s nothing worse for communication than getting people to state the obvious. How can you be expected to get interested in what someone has to say if you more or less expect what they’re gonna say. Apart from their name, which you will struggle to remember but won’t, it’s gonna be a string of I live here or there and love reading and watching series, etc. Just ordinary things. No way will you be able to put faces to that string of commonplaces.

That’s why some years ago I came up with a twist on the activity. If the objective is to get the members of the class, me included, to start getting to know each other a bit, we need more substance from the beginning. We need something memorable. So I tell my students:

Can we please introduce ourselves to the class? Say (1) your name, (2) your job or occupation, and (3) … think of something special, unexpected, unique, weird, …. maybe dangerous  [I get some raised eyebrows and/or giggling here] about yourself; something we can remember you for.

I usually break the ice by starting myself, which usually stimulates the learners to overcome their natural first-day reticence.  This week we got things like…

  • Once I went to a party in Julio Iglesias’s house in Miami
  • I’ve got a vegetable garden and grow the vegs I eat
  • I’ve got three families
  • I enjoy walking inside Lidel [sic!]
  • I got married in NYC and we only told our families when we came back home; they freaked out!
  • I’ve been married twice
  • I used to do synchronised swimming

And this does the trick; in more than one way. Firstly, we’re intrigued by the unexpected. We switch over to curious mode: what’ll be uncovered? And when those things are shared, it feels natural to ask follow-up questions; it’s spontaneous. Secondly, what’s being revealed stands a far better chance of being remembered; it will probably be easier to match those snippets of life to the new classmates’ faces. And finally, it’s far more fun and helps break the ice from the beginning and set a warm, supportive atmosphere for the rest of the course.