Recently there has been a focus on dealing with ‘emergent language’, rather than following a syllabus. But does this mean that coursebooks are irrelevant? Surely coursebooks are ultimately a collection of topics, texts and tasks- the bedrock of any course.
In this 20 minute presentation, I look at some ideas for using coursebooks (or any other off the shelf material) while still allowing the teacher to facilitate and engage with emergent language.
In recent blog posts I have looked at some different aspects of writing in class. Common to all of them has been the point that good preparation is key to producing a successful piece of writing.
However, there is also a lot to be said for writing completely unprepared; short, fun activities where, instead of thinking and planning carefully, students just get on with it and write. These sorts of activities can be used as a warmer, or slotted into your lesson to change the focus and pace. They encourage students to see writing as fun and help to develop creativity and confidence.
In many cases the activities can also be used as a starting point for longer writing activities, but that’s up to you.
Play students a series of short extracts of classical music, with very different moods. If you don’t have your own collection, a good way of doing this is to use the free samples you can play when deciding whether to purchase a download. Tell students each one is part of the soundtrack to a film, and ask them to write down what they imagine as they listen. Where is the film set, what characters are in the scene, what are they doing..
Similarly, play students a short part of a film (perhaps from YouTube), but only let them listen to it (not see it). Again, ask them to write down what they think is taking place and what the scene looks like. They can then see the original and make comparisons.
With both these activities, students could then go on to use their snippets of writing as the basis for a story or film-script.
Give students a selection of pictures of people. Ask them to choose one each and write a brief description of the person (perhaps as much information as they can put down in 5 minutes). Then put them in pairs and ask them to imagine their two characters meet on a train (or anywhere else you like). They have a further 5-10 minutes to write a conversation between the two. Then take in the pairs of pictures and the dialogues and put them up on the wall, so that the pairs of people are together but the dialogues are separate. Number the dialogues and then ask the students to read them and guess which pair of pictures each dialogue refers to.
Or show students a photo of a friend of yours or a member of your family and ask them to write about who they think the person is, what they think their personality is like, how you met them etc. Then tell them the truth.
Bring in a bag with a selection of unconnected objects. Ask students to pick one out each and either and describe it in as much detail as possible (this is a great mindfulness activity), or put the students into 2s or 3s and ask them to each write a short story which involves all the objects in their group, before comparing their stories for similarities and differences.
Ask students to look around the classroom and choose any object they can see (clock, handbag, board pen). Students then write what from the viewpoint of the object. What can it see? What does it think is happening in the classroom? What else does it see during the day, or at night? What does it do all day? You could also ask students not to mention the name of the object, which then allows them to read each other’s and guess which object is being described.
Give out small 5 slips of paper to each student and ask them to write down words which they have recently learnt and want to recycle on each slip. Then put the slips into a bag and ask each student to pull out 3-5 slips (if any words are the same, one should be put back.) They then have a time-limit, say ten minutes to write a (very) short story, which uses all the words. These stories can then be read aloud (perhaps in small groups) and the others can guess what the 3-5 words were.
Tell students to write a short note to anyone in the class. Once the note is received, students read it and reply. It’s fine if some students are replying to more than one person. You have to be a bit careful about the kind of class you do this with, as you can’t possibly see what’s being written, but it can be a great warm-up for a class.
Reading and writing: Give students 5 minutes to open up the coursebook and read the first text or dialogue they see (it doesn’t matter if they only read part of it). They then have 5 minutes to write about what they read.
Show a picture of a Genie (or dress up if it takes your fancy !) and elicit what a genie does- gives three wishes. Ask students to write down their three wishes, saying why they would choose those things and how their lives would change as a result.
In all these activities, the focus is very much on fluency, rather than accuracy. Just as in a speaking activity, you could, of course, incorporate feedback in a number of ways. You could have a feedback slot at the end, where together you correct some errors you have noticed while monitoring. Or you could use the free writing as a first draft, and take a process approach. Getting students to repeat the writing task later, or on another day, would also be likely to improve accuracy.
However, the main point of these activities is really to have some fun with writing and to get students into feeling happy to just write freely.
In my previous post I gave a brief overview of what I think mindfulness is, and how it can be beneficial for teachers. As I think it can be beneficial for everyone, obviously, there are applications for students as well.
While I do believe that our remit as teachers can be wider than simply teaching language, I don’t think it is the teacher’s role to therapise the students, nor are most teachers in any way trained or prepared for this. That said, most teachers don’t have a problem with encouraging students to develop self-evaluation skills, and mindfulness can be seen as simply an extension of this.
Perhaps the central focus of mindfulness is the focus on the present moment. This doesn’t mean that you somehow aren’t allowed to think about what’s just happened or about to happen, but that you shouldn’t be so caught up in the past or future that you aren’t really ‘here’. So an activity where you describe a memory is absolutely fine; thinking about what you’re going to have for tea tonight while your partner talks to you about their memory, not so much.
Clearly, it is in the interests of learning for students to be fully present in the classroom, so how could this be facilitated?
Start the class right
In my last post, I mentioned the importance of starting the day right. The same principles can be applied to a class. It’s really important to start the class with everyone fully focused. Some ideas for facilitating this, from Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness
– For young learners, start with a song or jazz chant or clapping game.
– Take out something really interesting to look at and gradually pull in everyone’s attention
– Read something really interesting aloud
– Start with a riddle or puzzle
– If learners are engaged in discussing something as they come into class, start there.
[And there was another idea involving using a Tibetan bell….but I promised EBEFL that I wouldn’t mention anything like that ;)]
In this excellent post, Kevin Stein writes about keeping a real time journal- a reflective tool where he jots down notes about what is actually happening in the class as it happens. This helps him to make decisions about what to do next- in essence it’s a tool for focusing on the present.
The same kind of activity can work very well for students, and is a good short activity for early finishers. Rather than drifting off, ask them to write a few sentences about what they notice happening in the classroom and/or about what they are feeling. This might give you an insight into the class or the student from a different angle- unless the student wants to keep what they have written private.
Or you could occasionally carry out more extended noticing tasks. For example, the dogme activity, the Sounds of Silence, from Teaching Unplugged, where the class simply listens in silence for one minute to whatever is happening around them (open the windows or door) and then discusses what they heard.
A classic mindfulness activity (originating, I think, with Jon Kabat-Zinn) is to eat a raisin, with complete attention. For example:
Pick up a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand. Look at it. Examine it. Describe the raisin. What does it look like? What color is it? How would you describe the texture? Now, feel the raisin in the palm of your hand. What does it feel like against your skin? Pick it up with your other hand. What does it feel like in your fingers? Is it slimy? Rough? Smooth? Soft? Hard? Squeeze it softly. What do you feel? Smell the raisin. Describe how it smells. Put the raisin in your mouth, but do not eat it. What does it feel like on your tongue? What does the texture feel like now? How does it taste? How does the taste compare to the way it smelled? Move it around in your mouth and notice every aspect of the raisin. Bite the raisin and think about what you taste. Now how does the raisin feel in your mouth? Finish chewing and eat the raisin. How did it taste? Describe the experience of the raisin.
This can work really well in class-students listen, carry out the activity and then write about the experience. Of course, you could do it with any activity- not just eating a raisin!
Any approach, such as Dogme, where the emphasis is on real-time communication between the people in the class, will naturally promote being in the present (even if you’re talking about past experiences). If students are fully involved and engaged, they are present.
In this way, most teachers will, of course, already be promoting mindfulness with their students, and will be in a mindful state themselves whenever they are completely engaged and ‘in the flow’.
However, even in this kind of dialogue, we are not always in the present. Tim Lott puts this very well in a recent Guardian article:
In our western relationship with time, in which we compulsively pick over the past in order to learn lessons from it, and then project into a hypothetical future in which those lessons can be applied, the present moment has been compressed to a tiny sliver on the clock face between a vast past and an infinite future. Zen, more than anything else, is about reclaiming and expanding the present moment.
We talk about ‘teachable moments’, and it is my experience that the more fully engaged people are, the more teachable moments appear. So, conversation with students can, I believe, be taken deeper, and made more memorable, by asking questions which bring students back to now.
How do you know that is true?
Can you think of any situations in which that might not be true?
Is there another way to see that?
This doesn’t mean that you are saying that what they believe isn’t true, by the way, just that you are getting them to think about it again, from a fresh viewpoint.
A central part of awareness is being aware of emotions and feelings. Fiona Mauchline recently wrote a wonderful blog post about getting in touch with emotions as a way of making language more memorable.
Similarly, you could have a lesson about what things make people feel angry (bearing in mind the questions under dialogic teaching above).
In mindfulness, however, there is an important distinction between being aware of emotions, and believing that the emotion IS you. Mindfulness works on recognising the emotion, accepting that you’re experiencing it (rather than suppressing it), but seeing it as a passing event, like feeling hot or cold. They’re just sensations in the moment, and will pass.
The element of surprise
You can’t learn if you’re not awake , said Kevn Stein in another blog post you should check out. He was talking about introducing elements of surprise or challenge to wake students up. Mindfulness, far from being a passive kind of drifting off, is all about being awake, really awake.
So, ultimately, anything which (gently) pulls students (and teacher) awake and in touch with what is actually happening right now, is mindfulness. With this in mind, I’d argue that it’s easy to see how mindfulness applies to the classroom, as much as any other part of life.
Taking part in this weeks’ ELTChat (www.eltchat.com) on the future of coursebooks, has got me thinking, once again, about the seeming stand off between those that like and use coursebooks and those that hate them.
At the risk of sounding like Tony Blair ;), I’m sure there must be a third way. I’d like to explore this a bit further in subsequent posts, but to kick off I just wanted to share this set of images:
Imagine, if you will, that this first picture represents a teacher’s lesson plan. The steps could, perhaps represent the ‘target language’, the boulders and plants, other elements of the lesson that he or she intends to weave in.
This second picture could represent the experience of the lesson from one student’s point of view. They get so far up the steps, but not as far as the teacher anticipated, and one of the steps is partly missing. On the other hand, there’s a nice little collection of boulders and plants in there!
For another student, the lesson might be all about the language explicitly taught. They’ve doggedly marched up those steps- and haven’t even noticed that they’re in a garden.
And this student is enjoying the garden, but hasn’t noticed the steps. And maybe he (or she) doesn’t need to if they’re getting something out of that part of the garden…..
Now, this metaphor has been couched in terms of a more traditional language lesson, where the teacher imagines (and I use that word advisedly) that they can decide in advance what the learners are going to learn. They can’t of course, because there is no way to stop the learners from wandering where they will in the garden, or even curling up in a sunny corner and going to sleep.
But, I would argue, even if a lesson is completely unplanned, organic and student led, it’s still going to be a different experience for every student in the class.
I wonder therefore if the key issue isn’t less about whether we’re using pre-prepared material or not, and more about what we are doing with it, or how we are helping the students to explore the material and take from it what they individually need?
Equally, teachers are all different and work in different ways and need varying levels of support. For some, I believe it will be very helpful for the coursebook to suggest what language could be highlighted in a text and provide clarification and practice. I know I learnt an awful lot about how to exploit texts from using coursebooks. But the coursebook certainly shouldn’t be used as a bible; at least I would hope any material I have written is not used this way. It’s a resource, pure and simple, just like any other resource, such as a newspaper or a recording. The only real difference is that someone has already thought about ways that you could choose to work with the material and, if you find it helpful, you could benefit from their experience and knowledge.
Use it, don’t use it, use part of it, use it in a different way… whatever you do the learners will undoubtedly be learning what they are ready to learn and what they choose to learn.
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