Friendship and Filoxenia: ‘Otherings’ or Facts?

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My Greek is actually coming on. Not thanks to my ‘friendship’ (long story – I should write a book.. or better, a soap opera) but the friendship (no scare quotes), hospitality and general loveliness of Greek people. I have a bagful of scribbled notes of things that people have taught me. I don’t have a teacher, I have hundreds of them. It’s as if the island itself is willing me to learn Greek. It’s actually an incredibly effective way to learn, because I attach new vocabulary to the person or situation where I heard it, which helps me to remember.

Since my MA research is about the influencing factors on English language learning, it got me wondering about whether students of English in the UK ever meet anyone who has the patience to help them in this way. I seriously doubt it. I don’t imagine many of my respondents will say ‘I studied in England and everyone I spoke to wanted to help’. Picture a grumpy pub  landlord saying ‘Yes of course I can explain the use of the present perfect. Oh and have some free food and wine too!’

I may be wrong though. Adrian Holliday would say that I’m ‘othering’ or ‘essentialising’ (1) about my own culture. That is, I’m making assumptions based on the stereotypical attributes of people from a particular country. People in the UK are: individualistic, capitalist and hence less likely to be hospitable and give time to someone without the expectation of financial gain.

Greece, however, is a different story.

There’s even a word for this phenomenon from Greek mythology: ‘filoxenia’, which can be said to be the opposite of xenophobia. Basically, (I’m ‘othering’ again) Greek people are hospitable to foreigners.

Where do these differences come from? Is it to do with the climate? In the summer in Greece everything slows down.  And what do people do? They chill out. They chat. The other day, after shamefacedly admitting to one Greek friend that I’d just walked to the beach then done nothing all afternoon, she said ‘It’s normal to do nothing when it’s hot. And it’s a 5km walk there and back- that’s not nothing!’. Thus my busy-Britishness revealed itself. (I have henceforth decided to make an effort to do absolutely nothing for at least four hours a day in attempt to liberate myself from such embarrassing capitalist tendencies. This is actually way more difficult than it sounds, hence why I’m currently lying in a hammock… writing a blog post).

Seemingly, Adrian Holliday would do away with cultural generalisations altogether. Benjamin Whorf (2), on the other hand, famously emphasised the importance of culture on language. And from my own experience, I know there is no word in Italian for ‘hangover’ and there is no word in English for the Italian ‘dislivello’ (the difference in altitude between the start and end point of a climb in the mountains) presumably because the British drink a lot, and Italy is mountainous. There seems to be a hundred different ways to say ‘no problem’ in Greek, suggesting Greeks are chilled out people. Are these otherings or facts? And I’ve heard that in Swedish there is a word for the inside of your elbow. Goodness knows what that means…

I agree with Holliday insofar as stereotypes are dangerous…But surely some differences are to be celebrated and enjoyed?

—————-

References

1. Holliday, A. (2016). Doing and Writing Qualitative Research. LA:Sage Publishing

2. Whorf, B. (1940). Science and Linguistics. Retrieved 21.01.17 from:http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/whorf.scienceandlinguistics.pdf

 

 

 

Exploit cognitive bias to get the student evaluations you deserve

If you’re here in Italy, terms run later than many other places, but finally, finally, your students are counting down the hours until they can put their English on the shelf and you out of their mind and get down to full-on summer fun. Actually living life! But wait, before you say goodbye, there’s one more thing you’ve got to get from them.

It’s time for student evaluations… of your teaching!

If there’s one thing you actually do have to prepare for in the academic year, it’s student evaluations of teaching (SET). So before you set foot into that classroom again, go check out Russ Mayne’s awesome list of sure-fire ways to ace your SETs this year. Go on, do it.

Now that you’re back, read on. I’ve distilled some insights from my reading of behavioral economist and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s 2011 bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow to produce one big fat evidence-based footnote to Russ’s article.

Go out with a (happy) bang

Before you hand out your SET forms, consider this: what’s the most memorable thing you did before asking them to  fill out the SET? Was it a game? Was it a pizza party? Or was it the dreaded final exam? How you answer could make all the difference in the world for your students and, perhaps, your future career.

In his book, Daniel Kahneman describes the relationship between our experiencing self and our remembering self. Whatever the first self has to say about an experience while we’re in it, it’s the second one that gets the final say in how we’ll think about and judge that experience for the rest of our lives. It seems that we always confuse memory with experience.

And what happens at the end of the experience is what we remember most. To illustrate, Kahneman relates the story of an audience member at one of his lectures who reported listening to a wonderful production of a classical symphony on a CD only to find it interrupted by a terrible scratch at the end. Despite the fact that the first 30 or 40 minutes of the symphony had been a joyous experience ― “musical bliss” ― the memory of the experience was defined by the scratch heard at the end.

What you can learn from a colonoscopy

Kahneman tried to formulate rules to predict how we remember pain based on some patients’ experience and memory of a painful colonoscopy procedure.

The peak-end rule

This rule states that how we remember pain ― our official memory of it, so to speak ― is the average of peak state (i.e. the worst level) of pain plus the end state of pain, or (peak + end)/2.  

Duration neglect

This rule states that duration of pain is entirely irrelevant to our after-the-fact perception of pain. Whether it’s six minutes or six hours doesn’t matter; only the peak-end rule conditions our memory.

Implications for SET

What that means, of course, is that you want their pre-SET memories to be good ones. Which means ending not with a test, but a pizza party.

If you’re trying to manipulate positively influence your students’ memories of the experience, you then put some time between that painful final exam and the actual questionnaire. Don’t let that exam be the scratch on the otherwise lovely classical symphony.

But don’t just fill the time in between with pizza parties: as Kahneman argues that “gradual relief may be preferable to abrupt relief” when it comes to the end. So you might consider having a series of increasingly less painful tasks before the big pizza-filled pre-SET sendoff.

And when planning for next year, with your end-of-year pizza party far in the distance, you might consider leveling the peak-pain experience. Rather than a high stakes mid-term and final opt instead for continuous assessment. Assessment based on a series of low stakes tests will ensure that the peak pain level is never very great. And what they’ll remember from your class is not a series of short sharp shocks but one fairly smooth (or only mildly uncomfortable) ride.

As Kahneman concludes, the remembering self is the one that “keeps score”. If you want to get a good one yourself, better hold the test and double down on the pizza margherita.

The best SETs money can buy (only 10 cents!)

When it comes to making judgments or predictions about anything from the frequency of terrorist attacks to estimates of our own life satisfaction, we often don’t do the difficult task of digging up all the relevant examples before reaching a conclusion. Rather we base our judgments on the nearest available information, a shortcut called the availability heuristic.

One of the dangers of the availability heuristic is that it operates by unconsciously reformulating the question in light of the most available evidence. By substituting one question for another, it can produce readily produce an answer that seems like the right answer to original question.

To illustrate, Kahneman reports on experiment from Norbert Schwartz in which participants were asked to complete a questionnaire on life happiness. Just before they took the questionnaire, however, half the group was sent out to make a photocopy where they found ― as luck would have it ― a dime laying by the copy machine. When they completed the questionnaire, these same students ranked their happiness markedly higher.

In a general sense, this is the availability heuristic at work, as when asked to consider our general happiness we reach for the readily available memory of the very minor stroke of good luck. Kahneman further defines this as a mood heuristic, or a short of shortcut that extrapolates our general well being from our feeling in the specific moment. In effect, participants were unconsciously answering the much easier-to-answer question: How happy are you right now?

And all it took was 10 cents.

Implications for SET

Make it your job to sow happiness before you hand out those evaluation forms. Fill your pockets with ten cents in your local currency, and have those students rushing to the photocopier.

You could also (for no cost at all) announce that you’d made a mistake marking their last exam, and that you’d added an extra two points to their score.

It’s not clear how much a feeling of just “getting lucky” and a sense of exclusiveness are essential to this increase in happiness (if everybody found a dime on their seat, and they all knew about it, would the effect be the same?), but to be safe you might announce exam-mark increases by way of private note.

The important thing to remember is that it shouldn’t cost you an arm and a leg (I mean, they’re not paying you that much, right?) to make sure your students are substituting any unrelated positive feeling for how they actually feel about your course when completing their SET.

Want less criticism? Ask for more

When it comes to our personal beliefs, the more evidence or examples we can marshal in support, the more confident we are. This is the availability heuristic at work again, as we make judgments based the information closest at hand. Which also means that the less evidence we can quickly access, the less confident we feel.

This is especially true when we expect the task to be easy: when we suddenly can’t think of examples, and we’re surprised by it (what Kahneman calls “unexplained unavailability”) our confidence in our own belief gets dealt a serious blow.

Implications for SETs

If you want to set yourself up for success, precede any general evaluation by varying the number of examples you ask for:

Think of three ways you’ve improved your English this year.

Do you feel that your English has improved this year?

Thinking of three way you’ve improved should be easy, and produce a more positive general feeling when answering the second question. Ask for 12 ways, however, and as the students run out steam producing enough of the requested answers, they’ll start wondering how, and if, any improvement was actually made.

But this is exactly what you want them doing when asking them for criticism. Compare a question like: Think of three ways this course could be improved to Think of 12 ways this course could be improved. The relative difficulty of retrieving enough ideas for the second question ― even if they produce six or seven ― should leave your students struggling to reach the target number.

This means that even the most troublesome students, waiting to tear you to pieces in the evaluation form, may find themselves a victim of “unexplained unavailability”: unable to produce enough negative examples, they’ll suddenly be left thinking that, relative to the expectations,  there’s not much about the class that needs improving.

Kahneman cites a UCLA professor who tested this theory by varying the amount of suggested improvements students were required to produce. Students who had to produce more rated the class higher: even though they actually listed more improvements, they failed to reach the (higher) minimum number.

Game on

In summary, by exploiting cognitive bias you’ve got a much better chance of getting good SET results than actually hoping they’ll be able to fairly and accurately judge the quality of the course, their learning and your teaching (this is science, people!). To get the SETs you deserve, just make sure that

  • their memory of peak pain (e.g. the test) is comfortable behind them
  • good fortune smiles on them immediately preceding the SET
  • it’s easy to produce enough praise but hard to produce enough criticism to meet questionnaire requirements.

Sure, some people claim that SETs are biased against female instructors, don’t correlate to effective learning, or even downright worthless. But I say they just aren’t trying hard enough!

So what are you waiting for? Get out there and put a Nobel Prize winner’s insights to work for you today.

Got any other smart ideas for how to game your SET? I’d love to hear about them in the comments.

‘Friendships’ and L3 acquisition on the beach

At the risk of sounding narcissistic, for my MA dissertation I’d planned to study myself. That is, my L3 acquisition experience here in Greece. Unfortunately the proposal looked more like a PhD thesis: too much stuff. So instead I’m going to research language identity by interviewing Greeks about their English language learning experiences.

But the L3 thing is always present in my mind for obvious reasons. After having learned Italian, it’s exciting to be at the bottom of the acquisition ladder again and slowly feel how the pieces are starting to fit together. It’s all too easy to feel complacent here with learning Greek, though, because so many people are proficient in English. I found that Athens was the worst place to learn. It’s almost as if English is an unofficial second language in the capital. Most people switch effortlessly from Greek to English as soon as they hear you’re struggling.

So now I’m on a tiny island and have finally found a few people whose English is marginally less amazing, so it’s giving me more opportunities to learn. I’m trying to follow my own teachery advice: trying out new language without worrying about making a fool of myself, immersing myself in Greek conversation, make notes of new vocabulary. But I have to say that I’m not being very systematic and it’s much more fun to.. erm…let’s say… form a ‘friendship’ with a native speaker.

In my reading about second language identity I came across an article by Kinginger (1) which says that sex can be seen as a valid learning strategy and should be researched more thoroughly.

I feel exonerated.

And in fact many of the competent speakers of English that I’ve met here have told me that they reached proficiency through having a relationship with a native speaker. When I do the interviews it will be interesting to note what sort of effect this experience, what Benson et. al. (2) might call a ‘critical incident’, has on feelings of language identity.

Integrative motivation

Apart from my ‘friendship’ as motivation, my desire to integrate and understand conversations is pushing me forward. I’ve gone back to being that dumb person sitting at dinner not saying anything, but when there are occasional recognisable snippets it feels pretty amazing. I’d actually missed being the dumb person! I remember experiencing something like disappointment when I felt could understand everything in Italian, like there was nothing fascinating about it any more. I guess it works both ways: once you think you’ve integrated you feel demotivated. I’m sure there is plenty of Italian lexis that I don’t know but I’m not particularly driven to learn it any more. Maybe because I don’t have an Italian ‘friend’ any more…

Reading and writing are of course tricky in Greek. Apart from the different alphabet, there are (for example) four ways to write /i/. So my reading speed is pretty poor. SMS messages help with writing thanks to suggestive text, as does my dictionary app, which provides me with essential lexis for my… ‘critical incidents’.

Multicompetence

Cook (3) said that multicompetent language users have different sorts of brains. And in fact I can feel that my neurons are firing in two directions. I’ve noticed that: both of my languages activate when I’m listening and speaking. I code-switch between English, Italian and Greek. Some words are similar in Greek and Italian: portafoglio (wallet), cappello (hat) have Greek cognates, and Greek has lots of loanwords from English: ‘hangover’, ‘party’. Not that I’m partying much, obviously (just in case my dissertation tutor is reading this …). But it can be as much of a hindrance as a help. Having been used to communicating freely in Italian for the last few years, it’s frustrating not to be able to say what I need to say, especially in those…erm…important moments.

Identity

About my own language identity, I don’t feel ‘just’ English. I feel European. It’s as if my experience of living in Italy gives validity to this idea, and my knowledge of Greek will strengthen it. Dornyei (4) writes about how integrative motivation for learners of English now refers to the international community (as ownership of English is global) and thus also implies an international identity. Perhaps by my attempts to learn European languages I’m trying to psychologically ‘remain’ despite the decision of my fellow countrymen? Maybe my new friend will help me with that. 🙂

 

References

  1. Kinginger, C. (2015). Student mobility and identity-related language learning. Intercultural Education 26:1, 6-15
  2. Benson, P., Barkhuizen, G.; Bodycott, P.;Brown, J. (2013). Second Language Identity in Narratives of Study Abroad. Palgrave macMillan
  3. Cook, V. (1999). Going Beyond the Native Speaker in Language Teaching. TESOL Quarterly  33(2): 185-209.
  4. Dornyei, Z., Ushioda, E. (2009). Motivation, Language, Identity and the L2 Self. Bristol:Multilingual Matters

Asylum seekers, refugees & migrants: Discuss

I teach, and have always taught, mostly adult-student-customers in private language schools. If you’re like me, you teach grammar and lexis, help students developing writing and listening skills, and focus on communication of meaning. Meaning, but not content. Not ideas. Or beliefs. Or values. Or knowledge or ignorance. Because, like me, you’re just an English teacher.

But my wise Delta tutor once made a useful distinction being just a teacher and being an educator, reminding us that we shouldn’t forget about being the latter. What she meant, I think, is obvious to anyone who sticks their head out of ELT for a moment, and pushes aside, if just for a moment, all the talk about exam performance and teacher accountability, and thinks back to the idea of a school teacher that predated our corporate model of an efficient, corporate school measuring its success in spreadsheet-ready KPIs.

Educators are more than just teachers. They’re part of a community, and perform a public service, helping their students think about and grow in ethical, moral and intellectual dimensions.

It’s the sort of description that normally makes me blush, because it feels so embarassingly far from any conception I’ve ever had of myself as a teacher. But last week, with those same adult-student-customers I’ve always taught, I got a glimpse of what it’s like to be both a teacher and an educator, helping facilitate a real eduucational experience and a community service.

Because we spent two class periods investigating and discussing the Refugee crisis here in Italy.

But just to be clear, I’m not the hero of this story. Her name’s Valentina. My only claim is that I got up the courage to do something that seemed daunting to me at first and went beyond my remit as “just a language teacher”.

First I’ll outline what we did over the two, 2-hour sessions, then I’ll relate some of the feedback I got from the students (which, frankly, got me choked up and was the inspiration for the whole preamble above).

Any given Tuesday

Throughout this year my classes have usually taken one of two patterns:

  • At-home narrow reading + viewing/listing (i.e. a number of articles on the same topic)
  • In-class pair/small group + T-guided discussion

Or:

  • At-home intensive reading using Reading Circles roles
  • In-class student-led small group discussion

Usually the second pattern followed the first, with a Reading Circles text based in some way relevant to the narrow reading that preceded it.

In other words, students come to class with at least of minimum of familiarity with and language relevant to the discussion (see my lesson on the French elections for another example).

This time, as in the French elections topic, I gave them more guidance than usual by providing them with a list of questions to consider. I also tried to vary the offered readings a bit more as I received one (valid I think) criticism that the Guardian articles I recommended were so obviously pro-Macron.

I’ve included the pre-reading selection as well as the questions I gave them as a PDF here: Refugee crisis articles

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Art project by students at the European School, Varese. It recreates La Porta di Lampedusa.

DAY 1

In class, before discussion, we spent the first hour examining a Cambridge Exam-style REPORT writing task (using the sample texts on the pp. 25 & 35 of the Cambridge Proficiency Handbook for Teachers and pp. 33 & 49 of the Cambridge Advanced Handbook for Teachers. We hadn’t done one yet, and I thought it would be a good opportunity since, unlike with other topics, a number of the readings were so obviously reports.

After that, we had small group discussion, where students shared what they read and their opinions about it. The groups were slightly larger this time, with 5 people each, and I realized at once why I never do that.

There were too many silences, or too few people participating in the discussion. I’ve found that large groups need a lot more structure to work well, which is why I love the highly structured Reading Circles. If you’re not doing that, you need to nominate roles ― leader, note-taker, etc. So the discussion ended up a bit less energetic and engaged than I was hoping for.

The homework task was to both more reading and listening and write a report. I asked students to:

Write a report on facilities for asylum seekers/refugees in the area (the Province of Varese, if not Varese itself). You’ll have to do a bit of research. If you know of any informative articles/reports that explain the facts (in Italian, most likely) please share with me.

I encouraged students to read the local papers, and a number of students posted links to relevant articles (that in many ways revealed their feelings about it). I have both aspiring C1 and C2 students in my group, and so I gave them each a slightly differentiated task:

Advanced:

You have been asked by a visiting commission from the European Union to write a report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area.

Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and suggest any improvements that should be made.

Proficiency:

Same as above, but:
Your report should explain what facilities and accommodations exist, describe any problems with the structures/situations, and evaluate whether this system is adequate to dealing with the influx of asylum seekers as a whole.

Just to demonstrate it is possible to produce high quality Cambridge-exam-style writing with a very non-Cambridge style topic (which demanded some research, as well), I’ll share two very good examples (without my comments), one of each.

In a fit of Victorian coyness I’ve removed the names of the cities because in fact I didn’t verify if the numbers are exact (though perhaps, considering the point of this was to get to the facts, I really should have!)

SAMPLE 1

Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area

Introduction
This report aims to provide an overview of the current situation in hosting refugees in the province of V. It is based on the information published online by local press and institutions.

General findings
The Prefettura, which depends on the “Ministero dell’Interno”, is in charge of the reception of refugees on the territory and has the power to sign agreements with local operators that provide facilities and housing. At the moment it seems that approximately 1500 people are accommodated in this way. Additional accommodations are provided directly by the “Ministero dell’Interno”: 25 in V., 26 in M. and 35 in C.

Issues
The number of places available in these facilities is not enough with respect to the increase of refugees in Italy. Furthermore it is worth considering that people accommodated in these structures are those who have requested asylum, which are a small part of the refugees coming to Italy, and not all of them will get it. People who do not get the status of political refugee join the economic migrants that are not entitled to receive help from the institutions and are assisted by charitable organizations. I wasn’t able to find any news about the number of economic migrants in the V. province and where and how they are assisted.

Conclusions
Firstly institutions should plan in advance how to increase facilities to host the refugees even if it is difficult to forecast the needs. An increase for the next three years at least should be considered, because it appears unlikely that the immigration trend might change. Then it is recommended an improvement in the way of managing economic migrants with the aim of improving security and control of the territory.

SAMPLE 2

Facilities and accommodations for refugees

A growing number of refugees: Italian facilities in the spotlight
In the last five years the growing influx of refugees and asylum seekers landing mainly in the Southern coasts of Italy has put a strain on the whole nation.

The Italian government, already weakened from the political and economical uncertainties, is trying to come up with a solution to the big issue of finding an accommodation to the asylum seekers that have landed in Italy.

The problem is due to the large number of immigrants reaching the Country and the consequent need to find decent facilities to host them with dignity.

Case study: V. and its province
To illustrate how the problem has involved towns and villages all over the Nation from North to South, our team has monitored the reception of immigrants in this city and in its surroundings. For example in the town itself one of the biggest facilities is an old hotel which hosts 80 migrants and that it is managed by a local charity foundation, while in the province of V. the reception centre located in B. hosts about 180 people and it is headed by a private cooperative. Almost all the accommodations inspected resulted in old derelict buildings that previously were used as hotels. During the inspections refugees complained of being forced to live in rooms for 6-7 persons each and to have only one bathroom every 25-30 people. The quantity of food provided was also questioned, together with the lack of activities to keep them busy during the day.

Unfortunately this is only the tip of the iceberg because the real problem is that these facilities should be a short-term solution but the red tape and the bureaucracy make refugees’ stay longer and harder.

Conclusions

It is clear the complexity of the situation and that the influx of migrants is not going to slow down in the foreseeable future. Nevertheless, this problem has to be faced as soon as possible to give refugees a ready answer to their needs while respecting their dignity. This answer should come from the EU which should provide faster procedures for the initial screening and referral of the migrants as well as the allocation of specific funds.

Day 1 conclusions:

Everyone seemed to agree that this was a big, nay, overwhelming topic. And it was difficult to get to the actual facts about the local situation, let alone the national situation. The local press is full of very opinionated reports and attention-grabbing headlines, which often didn’t make it easier to follow the story.

However, a number of students were able to produce excellent reports. In the future I’d like to actually spend more time fact checking, or at least checking sources. I don’t teach EAP; I teach CAE, and everybody knows that on Cambridge Exams there is no obligation to the truth. What matters is your ability to argue. It wouldn’t be such a step for me, in this case, to simply ask that students provide a list of references and insist that they be as accurate as possible (even when inventing an inspection-report style as in the second writing sample provided above).

DAY 2

Pre-class reading:

In addition to the articles from the local papers (in preparation for writing the report), I had students do a guided listening on The Palace of Shame from BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent . (If you want to have a listen, the report is from 1’30” to 7’20” in the recording. Here’s my activity as PDF with my own transcript 90PalaceofShame)

It’s a report from 2012 that I’d only used once before (more on that below), on the plight of asylum seekers coming to Italy, many of whom, once they got refugee status, had little choice other than to find lodging (illegally) in a massive squat in Rome. I asked students to consider what had changed, and what hadn’t, in the intervening years (based on their reading of EU/Italian policy, institutions and accommodations, laws, etc.)

In class I planned to discuss the listening, but most of the class would be devoted to interviewing our special guest.

I was extremely lucky to be able to call on the help of a friend (and former student) named Valentina who has a master’s in immigrant and refugee law and currently works in a local reception center.

An aside: on special guests

Scott Thornbury had mentioned it in various Dogme-style contexts, but having a “special guest”, an authority on some topic, always struck me as something you did for elementary schools, or if you lived in an L1-English country (where special guests are a dime a dozen). But two things changed my mind:

  1. IATEFL 2017 scholarship winner Katy Muench mentioning it again in her IATELF presentation on challenging stereotypes in Turkey. You don’t have to lecture to your students, she was saying ― just bring someone else in to do it ― or to testify to the reality your students barely know. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard it, but it suddenly seemed like something I just had to do.
  2. Look carefully at my self-justification above (...if you lived in an L1-English country where special guests are a dime a dozen) and you’ll see reason number 2 quite clearly: I thought a special guest had to be a native speaker of English. But thanks to this year’s pushback against native-speaker hegemony (by Marek Kiczkowiak, TEFL Equity Advocates, and the many, many people on Twitter who sympathise with and advocate for the cause) I finally woke up to the fact that so-called “native-like proficiency” didn’t have to be a prerequisite for a special guest with authority and topic knowledge.

I’ve known Valentina for five years (and she’s been personally and professionally passionate about refugee issues for all that time). And I’ve been wanting to really dig deep into this topic with my students for the last two years. But until IATEFL 2017 I’d never put the two together.

Finally, with the scales fallen from my eyes, I asked Valentina (who, in her defense, is a highly proficient speaker of English and, what’s more important, clearly an authority on this topic) to come and speak to the class.

CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms

After some preliminary discussion of the Palace of Shame listening (in which Valentina joined one of the groups), Valentina stood up to introduce herself and answer questions about the situation for refugees and migrants in Italy.

Throughout the discussion, I functioned as a kind of secretary boarded the points from her explanations.

20170516_214507.jpg

Students had questions answered about different legal statuses and treaties that migrants could be granted, the various types of structures refugees are housed in, the regulations that established them, why some towns have some and others do not, the process (or lack of one) guiding integration, and much, much more.

What amazed me was how little many of them actually knew about the local reality behind the screaming headlines (and where I live and teach, there are a lot of screaming headlines ― we’re sort of the spiritual homeland for the anti-refugee, anti-open borders movement). It’s not that all ― or even most ― of the students had negative feelings about immigration, it’s just that they had so little definite information about it which with to try and form an informed opinion.

Student Feedback

With ten minutes to go before the end of class I asked them to write down their answers to the following questions:

  1. What did you learn?
  2. How will this help you?
  3. How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class.

There were 10 students in class ranging from upper high school aged (18/19) to about 50, with each decade in between well-represented. I’m going to quote them at length because I found so many of the answers thoughtful, eloquent and moving. My conclusions follow.

What did you learn?

  • Many of the information provided in the classes were completely unknown to me. I have learned what journalists mean when they say that Italian bureaucracy is not helping to solve the immigrant issue.
  • This topic helped me to become more informed about a problem that our society is facing. I listened to views but I didn’t know very much about immigration. I’ve learned much more about the difficulties to cope with the situation and I am more of aware of what has been done and what hasn’t.
  • Today I’ve learned that in this world there are many people struggling for the rights and the facilities I’ve always had. Here, in Europe, we are very lucky, but sometimes we forget how lucky we are!
  • I did not learn new things, but surely I have a deeper vision of them. That will help me because it is very important to think and behave considering the opinions of the people you get in touch with. (NB: In this student’s defense, they were rated as “already extremely informed” about the facts of the situation by other students; I interpret “did not learn new things” as I was already very informed about this issue.)
  • This lesson I learned a bit more about the law process of the asylum seekers and I understood how it is difficult to explain it to people who aren’t dealing with it in everyday life.

How will this help you?

  • Based on the information I have acquired, I will definitely read or watch the news with more awareness about the issue, even though we only scraped the surface of this topic.
  • I often read articles about this kind of topics but it’s easy to look for news which supports your own opinion. Talking with different people lets you see the problems from different points of views which is very useful, both for discovering new aspects and for finding good arguments to support your opinion.
  • This lesson helped me to organize better my idea about the issue and has been very useful to learn the specific language.
  • This issue will help me in order to approach this people in a different way. It will help me to clarify my opinion about immigrants and refugees. To talk and discuss this topic in this way helps me also in not having common ideas of mistrust and distrust.
  • This experience has been very useful for me because my knowledge of this topic was very bad, especially about technical aspects of reception centers, process related to asylum, timetable and people status. I’ve never gone in depth of this problem maybe because the news explains always the problems and I wasn’t interested to understand the topic, but the testimony of a person who works everyday in contact with this situation has given me good input to analyse the problem.
  • What I’ve read about immigrants and refugees, what I’ve heard this evening from Valentina… will surely help me in the future to appreciate the social welfare I can enjoy here in Italy. It will also help me recognizing the need of the others, wherever they come from.

How useful is it to talk about “serious topics” like this in class?

  • It’s difficult to talk about serious topics in a foreign language because you don’t know the vocabulary and you do not feel at ease to express your opinion in a polite way.
  • In my opinion it is very useful to talk about serious issues like this also during a language lesson because it can help you understanding…
  • For me it is absolutely necessary to talk about real issues in order to learn English because only if I’m involved and determined to know or to express my opinion, I’ll be able to improve the language. That has always been my experience.
  • I think talking about “serious issues” like immigration is fundamental to create an elaborate and not ignorant opinion, especially because these topics happen to be controversial and therefore a great source for debates to spread new ideas and improve or develop the ones we already have.
  • Talking about serious issues like immigration, politics, etc. it is really important in my opinion firstly because it is necessary to be aware of “what’s going on” in the world and secondly because opinion exchange helps with opening our minds and learning new things. For example, thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.
  • Discussing serious issues is better than discussing lighter topics because you are forced to express your opinion and it is more likely to find someone who disagrees with you.
  • Before this class, I thought that this issue would have been too difficult for me, because it’s really complicated and hard, but now I can say that I really learned something thanks to my classmates and our special guest.
  • I think that it is useful talk about real problems during class, especially as I’m not a good reader. This is a way to forme me to inform and even if it takes energy it’s interesting. This is useful and I like this way to learn new vocabulary and expressions.

Inspirational conclusion

Sometimes in English teaching it’s easy to forget that education is anything more than teaching grammar and vocabulary. But consider a comment like this, from above:

…thanks to Valentina, this evening I’ve learnt and thought about issues that I barely knew before…. It was all relevant information that as a citizen I should have known before.

Reading this after class, and re-reading this again as I write, I get a lump in my throat . That’s English class the student is talking about.

And for me it’s the difference between “just teaching English” and playing a small but real part in a person’s education.

Because education is about more than verb tense. It’s about more than phrasal verbs. It’s about what all those students said, and did. About investigating. About inquiring. About learning new modes of expression and new ways of seeing. About acquiring the ability to assess and interpret new information and opinions. About opening your mind to new possibilities and new realms of knowledge. And about being able to use all these things in your confrontation and collaboration with other people and the society around you.

And the students in my class did all that while learning and practicing new vocabulary and Cambridge ESOL-approved written discourse (see those reports for examples of both).

Like I said, I’m not a hero. But to me, Valentina is. And my students are. As are all those educators like Katy Muench and Steve Brown and Linda Ruas and Judy Boyle who insprired me at IATELF to get off my ass and try to make it happen.

Did these two sessions change anybody’s world? I don’t know for sure. But the student feedback is eloquent testimony to how the same-old English class may be the perfect vehicle for just that.

Next steps:

I’d definitely like to work on improving some of this for next year (call me crazy but I don’t think this refugee crisis is going away any time soon). Of course, what made this so magical was Valentina’s participation ― and I don’t know that I can guarantee that for the future. What else can I do?

  • It would be interesting to actually begin the unit with a survey of beliefs and understanding about the topic in order to see to what extent these things change. Clearly, the feedback was all positive in this regard, but it would have been interesting to get a statement from the beginning.
  • Or, perhaps, better: rather than providing students with a list of questions I’d like to have the students create their own list before we started. We’ve done that with other topics: we spend 20 minutes at the end of class generating questions to guide their research on a topic. (It also helps me select pre-class reading texts). By starting with questions rather than opinions (as in the proposed survey) students aren’t forced/encouraged to take a position. Of course, it takes some knowledge to ask good questions, but it’s still a start.
  • Find/refine the source list. Especially lighten the load a bit. It would also be interesting to compare and examine claims in competing articles. That was surely a byproduct of the day 1 discussion, but I’d like to critically examine some of the claims as a class. (Although I definitely avoided populist dailies or alt-right news sources, which obviously would have created a different dynamic in terms of critical reading).
  • Modify the report task in a more EAP direction to get students to cite sources and compare them (even using Italian-original sources).
  • Provide new opportunities for writing and feedback. Only half the class actually did the report task; I’d like to include other non-exam style options for the others.
  • Roleplay: I’ve had this idea for some time of a role play based on the very real issue of settling refugees in the local community (a mayor of a nearby town was just in the papers saying he would refuse refugees by “chaining himself to the gates” of the disused school that was intended to house them). A recent blog post by Anthony Teacher got me thinking about preferring that to a debate-style task for actually helping the students examine different sides of the issue. I jettisoned an early idea when Valentina made me realize how little I understood of the situation. I hope to develop it ― with her help ― into something both realistic and useful.

And that’s it! Well, almost…

P.S. When I was looking for an authentic listening task for the students I remembered I had done something with the Palace of Shame text from the BBC ― when it was first broadcast a few years back ― but I didn’t remember I’d actually used it with a class. In fact, I had, with a group of post FCE high school students.

I found their post-listening writing. The task was simply to write a letter to the BBC expressing their opinion about the broadcast. Here’s one particularly eloquent final draft:

To the attention of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston,

Recently I listened to your report about migration across the Mediterranean Sea, entitled “Palace of Shame”, and I would like to express my appreciation of its humanity and of its timeliness.

As an Italian resident, I hear news about boats sinking, countless arrivals and the growth of illegal immigration in Italy almost every day and I think that telling and informing people about the existence of this reality is of great importance if we hope to improve the situation. In fact, this is not only an Italian problem; all people able to do so should contribute in order to solve this situation in a way that is favourable for everyone.

In recent years, more social, political and religious problems led to the outbreak of wars in many of North African countries and, as a consequence, to the increase of migration of people that hope to find peace outside their country. In addition, on account of the disproportionate distribution of food and prosperity, Africans are the most inclined to leave their continent for better prospects.

Your article, denouncing the difficult situation of these people, also through personal experiences, induces us to reflect on its gravity and to ask ourselves what is our contribution to its solution( if one does exist) and if it is fair to mention the word ‘equality’ nowadays.

Kind regards,
Beatrice

Which goes to show what Judy Boyle, with her NO Project, and many others (except, perhaps, coursebook publishers) already know: that high school kids may be sufficiently capable, mature and ready to thoughtfully deal with “serious issues” like this too.

“I don’t understand your writing feedback and correction.” Oh, the horror.

Imagine the horror: a few days ago, with three weeks left before the end of the course and the Cambridge First Certificate exam, I found myself sitting across from a student who told me that she did not understand my writing correction system.

“What do you mean?” I said. She had submitted her FCE writing task – a report – as a Google Doc and she was looking at the marked version on her phone as we waited for the other students to arrive.

“The colors. The green stuff. The red stuff. The orange stuff. What does that mean again?”

My blood ran cold.

No, I’ve never actually written or typed or even said that egregiously clichéd sentence before but that’s just what happened: My blood ran cold.

I explained what the colors meant. Then we went on talking about the goods and the bads of her report and did a bit of brush-up work on her use of comparative forms. But the whole time there’s a sort of ringing in my ears and a pit in my stomach and suddenly I am the guy in the movie who’s just got the message in the Sex Pistols font that there’s a bomb in the building and I’ve got to keep it together and keep everybody blissfully unaware until I can calmly slip out and defuse it before the whole thing blows up and kills us all.

After class I found myself repeating the student’s question. What does that mean again? What does it mean that she said she didn’t understand the marking system? That she’s never read any of the corrections and comments I’ve given? That she had, but had no idea what I was trying to say?

Like some character from Dostoevsky, ill-prepared for the weather, I skulked home, umbrella-less in the cold rain, feverishly gripped by a sort of existential fear that nothing I had done as a teacher that year had any meaning whatsoever.

But thankfully that part of my mind that was as far as could be from Russian existentialism, the part that had been trained and brained in my years in all-American sales, shouted one thing to me loud and clear: Action Cures Fear (and yes, there’s an inspirational poster for that).

So on Saturday morning I stormed into my other First Certificate class. They had wanted a review of the Writing Paper (which I’ll explain in the next post), but first I wanted to get one thing clear.

I improvised a sort of Likert-scale questionnaire with never/sometimes/often/always:

writing_correction_dynamiteelt

1. I read the corrections you make on my writing (in the writing file)

2. I understand the corrections you make

3. I ask if I don’t understand the corrections

4. I read other students’ writing on the writing file

5. I take action to avoid making the same mistakes again next time I write

Just to clarify, the “writing file” is a shared, scrolling Google Doc where all writing homework is posted, and “public” for the rest of the class to view. I often make cross-referential comments. So if there’s a common problem, e.g. excessive use of “a lot” in formal writing, I explain the problem on the first piece of writing, offer alternatives, and then tell any other students with the same problem: See what I wrote on Cristina’s about a lot. I do the same with positive things as well: Elisabetta used a lot of good formal alternatives. I’ve highlighted them in blue. Read hers for some other ideas.

They discussed the statements in small groups. And then I added a sixth item:

6. What could Kyle do to improve the corrections? (Give me some ideas!)

 

I collected their answers to the survey, and their suggestions for part 6.

Unlike a lot of the feedback I ask for, this time I wanted names. I sorted them into two groups: frequent writers and infrequent writers. Because there are a couple in the group who never do the writing homework, and their feedback obviously has less weight than the ones who actually use the system. (Why some students never do the writing homework is a useful line of inquiry, but I don’t think it applies to trying to find out if the feedback system is functioning – unless, of course, you posit that the feedback system itself is to blame for their entire lack of writing, but I’m not willing to go there right now.)

Out of 10 students:

8 students said they always read the feedback, with only 2 (very) infrequent writers saying they sometimes did.

7 students said they always understood the feedback, with 2 frequent writers saying they often did and 1 (very) infrequent writer saying they sometimes did.

3 frequent writers said they only sometimes asked if they didn’t understand the corrections, along with 3 infrequent writers.

2 frequent writers said they always read other students’ writing, vs. 1 sometimes and 1 often. The infrequent writers mostly reported they sometimes did.

2 frequent writers and 3 infrequent writers said they always take action to try to avoid making mistakes the next time, whereas 2 frequent writers and 2 infrequent writers said they often did.

What does that mean again?

While it was quickly thrown together and, like all surveys, limited in scope, in many ways the survey calmed me down a bit. Between it and the discussion that followed I understood that the system was comprehensible to those who use it most.

And, most importantly, the students have shown vast improvement in their writing. Lovely paragraphs. Clearly linked ideas both within the sentence and across the text. Great awareness and application of the conventions of the different genres.

From an FCE writing-product perspective, they – and particularly the frequent writers – are producing some great stuff that is light years from where they started.

And yet…

At the same time, the fact that two frequent writers said they often – but not always – understood my corrections and only sometimes asked me about it means there’s another problem to be addressed.

Writing and writing correction is done via Google Docs. But should I take time in class to go through the corrections with students face to face?

One group suggested as a response to question 6 that there should be social interaction on the writing file in the form of questions and comments. It’s a lovely idea that I’ve never managed to make work. Is it the platform (Google Docs, vs. something more social like Facebook Groups)? Is it just my expectations? (The one student who made this suggestion is the only one who regularly emails me about grammar questions.)

I usually do the corrections the night before class – but often students don’t have or take the time to read them before the next morning. Is it a time-management problem?

These and other questions to be pondered in a further post.

 

What’s your writing feedback/correction system like?

Leave a comment and a link if you’ve blogged about it elsewhere. I’d love to read what you’ve written.

 

My week in Athens

My week in Athens is almost over, and I’ll be sorry to leave the amazing people I’ve met here, who have made me feel so welcome. I’m off to finish my MA and collaborate at distance, but I’ll be back at NBS as soon as I possibly can. So much has happened this week. I’ll try to put it in some comprehensible order…

Scale

The scale of the refugee crisis is truly immense. It’s estimated that there are 60,000 displaced people in Greece, most of whom are in the Athens area. I only started to get a real idea of what that means when I visited a camp. One camp alone houses 1,500 people.

Volunteers

There is an incredible community of volunteers here, some of these are refugees themselves. Everyone uses whatever skill-set they have to contribute. They live very simply, give as much of their time as they can, and are constantly working together to get stuff done. I’ve seen people responding to calls at midnight to go to pick someone up or do some other job. They achieve so much: for example Khora community centre feeds 1,000 people a day. These people are practically moving mountains.

One of the problems volunteers have is that if they’re non-EU citizens (as, actually, I will be in the not-so-far-off future thanks to Brexit) they can only stay here for three months after which they have to return to their own country for a certain period before they can come back. I met one teacher who is from the US and has to fly back there (obviously at her own expense) every time her visa runs out, after which she comes right back. As I said, the level of commitment and humanity I’ve seen here is simply mind blowing.

The students

The motivation level of the students is generally high. English is the lingua franca in the camps and outside in Athens. There’s a mix of L1s, mostly Arabic, Farsi and Kurdish speakers, so English is used as a lingua franca between the residents too. English is absolutely essential for them to be able to do anything, which makes them want to learn.

That said, students can get depressed, which can stop them from coming to class. Some people are trapped in their housing as going out would mean running the risk of getting stopped by police, (which because of racial profiling they often are) and being deported back to their country. Thankfully, if they are able to explain themselves in English the police tend to be more lenient.

Many students are multilingual. I met one man from Afghanistan who could speak six languages and subsequently teased me mercilessly about my paltry knowledge of only two! And yesterday an Afghani 8 year-old taught me how to write my name in Greek (see pic).

What’s needed…

What they need most is long term teaching volunteers. A lack of continuity is a clearly a big problem for both the school and the students. It makes assessment of learning progression very difficult. And, as displaced and often vulnerable people, the students need to feel secure and form a trusting relationship with their teacher, which is impossible if someone new is arriving every two weeks.

Most of the teachers that come have had little or no teaching experience and have no teaching qualifications, but lots and lots of generosity and enthusiasm. They need and want support and training. No Border School offers teachers’ workshops open to all teachers in the Athens area. I was fortunate enough to run a couple of these this week on using technology in the classroom. The students here usually have mobile phones and most buildings (apart from the camps) have WiFi, so using apps and Google searches can be a good way to personalise lessons and can make up for a lack of materials. The teachers were very enthusiastic and they’ve asked me to do more sessions.

But my lack of experience in this context means that I’m not able to help them with everything. What they need most of all is ideas on how to teach adult literacy. They find that it’s difficult to keep students engaged while they’re learning to write in our alphabet, as adults aren’t exactly enthusiastic about copying text from the board. They find that the materials available are either aimed at children, or at people who aren’t literate in their own language, which is rarely the case here. I’m afraid I came up blank when they asked me about these issues.

If you can help with any of these things please do get in contact. Thanks for reading. Please share.

The French Elections: listening lesson and rough plan

I wrote Part 1 of this post on 26/4. Post updated: 07/05 (Election Day). Scroll down for Part 2 of this post, including a description of what I did in class, student feedback, and some chock-full-o’-PARSNIPs #eltwhiteboards.

With the French Presidential Elections less than two weeks away, I thought it was a good time to talk politics in class. Why? I mean, I teach in Italy. Talking about other people’s politics means there may be a big knowledge gap.

But it’s also emotionally easier. And so many of these are the big issues I’ve talked about teaching: immigration, security, terrorism, the future of the EU that are 100% relevant to my students’ lives — even if it’s not the sort of relevance usually granted when the syllabus topics are Cooking, Shopping and Sports.

As the clock is ticking till the event itself, I wanted to throw together some resources and a basic plan that I can use, change and expand upon in 3 classes (1 teens upper-int/advanced, 1 advanced adults, 1 upper-int adults) over the next two weeks.

Here I’ll share the resources and a rough plan. They’re the Big Blocks — don’t take what follows as a step by step plan. I won’t use/do everything, but there’s more than enough to hang a 2-hour class on.

If the materials are relevant to your teaching context, by all means: take, modify, improve, use and share.

The rough plan

I’ve sent background reading/listening and the discussion questions (see below) to the advanced group with these instructions:

  1. Find out some information about both politicians (you can also read/support your reading with reading in Italian ― it would be interesting to see if there’s an “Italian perspective” to compare with the UK/US perspectives in the resources above).
  2. Try reading some of the comment sections to the articles ― you may find contrary opinions and good language for debate.
  3. Keep a list of articles/videos you consulted (completely or partially ― I’d like to know what you found useful)
  4. Write down useful vocabulary related to politics and the issues and consider the discussion questions (and write other questions if you have them).

This is our normal pattern. Read and research a topic before class, come in and talk about it. So this level of doing stuff is not new — it’s just that I’m steering them a bit more time because we hadn’t discussed it previously.

As of now, in class the plan is to do (some of) the following:

  • Board the issues and info about the candidates
  • The BBC listening
  • Discuss the questions/issues
  • Do a roleplay I’m still cooking up

Here are the materials:

Listening: The Front National on BBC Radio

The listening is a clip from BBC Radio 4 Today. The program can be a source of great clips because they’re short, the speakers are professional but unscripted, and the links are permanent and well-labeled.

Listening: FN: We want out of EU and Schengen

Activity/Transcript: FNwewantoutofEUandSchengen_transcript

In brief:

The interview is between the presenter and Jerome Riviere, the defence advisor for Marine Le Pen and the Front National.

I produced a transcript and some Cambridge Exam Listening Paper Part 1-style gist questions (I’ve got a number of aspiring exam takers).

There’s also a brief transcription exercise where I’m going for, among other things, what-clause sentence frames for debate (“What I’m trying to say is…”)

Yes, Riviere does make some slips with the English (dropping final -s or definite article, and a bit of muddling about immigrants pouring into Europe), but I don’t think it’s worth dwelling on. However, I was once criticized in an observation for using a recording of a non-native speaker as a model but not pointing out all the speaker’s errors to the class — so you make the call.

A note about the facts. I don’t know what the UK thought about being in the Europe in 1958; I don’t know how many police it would take to secure the French border. But I do know that Riviere’s implication that the Champs-Elysee killer was a foreigner abusing Schengen freedoms is false. On the contrary, the killer was French. I think it’s important to highlight this in relation to Riviere’s claim that those critical of him are using “fear” as a tactic.

Background Reading + Viewing

Here’s a brief Guardian article that sums up each candidate briefly. If your students don’t know anything about the candidates this is enough to get started.

The text is interesting because the titles (and video subtitles) provide a stronger, soundbitey description of the candidates, whereas by reading just the candidate description it might be harder to get the intended picture of each candidate.

Trying to define each of claims in the subtitled video could be worth an entire discussion class alone. What is patriotism? Nationalism? The far right? What does it mean to defend national (e.g. French) culture? Against whom?

I might have students do just that — try to define them, and work in groups to come up with an agreed upon definition.

Here are other explainer videos if you can give them time to do some pre-class work. With all it would be useful to discuss the source and slant.

Discussion Questions

These are some discussion questions I came up with for one group that’s going to do some of the background reading/viewing at home before class. I gave them the questions to think about as well but we’ll see where the conversation goes.

  • What are some of the big issues?
  • What is the “political narrative” of the candidates in the news?
  • Do the videos/articles you read seem to support one candidate or another?
  • Why are many people alarmed by the rise of Marine Le Pen?
  • What has led to her increasing popularity?
  • Is the far-right really surging across Europe? Consider England and America but also Holland and Austria? If so, what does that mean for Europe?
  • Are these candidates both “outsiders” as some have claimed?
  • Why do some people consider outsiders appealing?
  • What are the pros/cons of electing an outsider?
  • What makes a candidate “presidential”?
  • How much does experience count in an election?
  • Who is “favored” to win? Should we be confident in these predictions?
  • Are there any scandals related to the candidates? Has it affected them? Should it?
  • Should politicians from other countries openly support one candidate or another during the elections?
  • How much can a president do about terrorism, immigration/migration, etc. ― the big issues?
  • What would a victory for either candidate mean for Italy?
  • What parallels to these candidates exist in Italy? What’s similar/different? Why are they popular? How much support do they have? How are the French and Italian political systems different (basically)? What effect does this have on the nature of the candidates?
  • If you were French, who would you vote for? Why?

 

In an update or further post I’ll describe what happened in the class.

ELECTION DAY UPDATE:

 

As the polls have closed and it looks like Macron is going to be the next president of France, I wanted to take a few minutes to describe what I did with the above material in three classes (an Advanced group, an Upper-Intermediate group, and a 4-person class of mixed Advanced/Upper-Int teenagers). I’ve also included some feedback my students gave me about whether politics in general, and the French election specifically, were of interest and relevance to them.

Advanced

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This group of 11 students did research on the topic by choosing from among the resources I had selected for them or finding their own. Some did look elsewhere — particularly one student who found that the Guardian articles were too obviously slanted toward Macron, and so found a number of articles critical of him.

In class, they shared:

  1. What they had learned about each candidate’s history and personal life, including the stories about Macron’s wife and Le Pen’s family history re the Front National. Students were in small groups, they reported the info to me and I boarded it. Then we had a whole-class discussion about the extent to which these things (apart from the issues) could/should influence your choice. We also discussed (at my provocation) why there was little talk of Le Pen possibly being the first woman president and whether a victory for Le Pen would be a victory for women. The class said she was not a woman candidate in the sense that she didn’t make women’s issues a part of her campaign.
  2. The 6 biggest issues for the election (according to them: the EU, the economy, terrorism, immigration, security)Again, they shared info in groups then reported to me. I then had the students rank the issues 1-6 in order of importance. As usual, group ranking activities are brilliant for generating discussion in small groups.
  3. We did the BBC listening activity — but we were out of time before we could continue with much discussion.
  4. Homework. Here’s a writing task I created with a significant excerpt from the brilliant “Undecided”, a New Yorker article by writer David Sedaris that is no less relevant despite being written about the 2008 US election:

You see this article in a newspaper regarding the upcoming election:

I don’t know that it was always this way, but, for as long as I can remember, just as we move into the final weeks of the Presidential campaign the focus shifts to the undecided voters. “Who are they?” the news anchors ask. “And how might they determine the outcome of this election?”

Then you’ll see this man or woman — someone, I always think, who looks very happy to be on TV. “Well, Charlie,” they say, “I’ve gone back and forth on the issues and whatnot, but I just can’t seem to make up my mind!” Some insist that there’s very little difference between candidate A and candidate B. Others claim that they’re with A on defense and health care but are leaning toward B when it comes to the economy.

I look at these people and can’t quite believe that they exist. Are they professional actors? I wonder. Or are they simply laymen who want a lot of attention?

To put them in perspective, I think of being on an airplane. The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is like pausing for a moment to ask the flight attendant how the chicken is cooked.

I mean, really, what’s to be confused about?

Write your letter to the editor saying whether you agree with the writer and his understanding of this election ― or his assessment of politics in general. You may refer to other elections than just the French one.

I’m waiting for their letters.

Student Feedback

feedback 1

I wanted some feedback so I asked students 3 questions: what they liked, what they would change, and (for my own curiosity — this was not a goal of mine) whether reading about the candidates changed their mind about the election, the issues, the candidates. The responses:

What did you like about the lesson?

  • I appreciated sharing opinions. I went into deep about my information about candidates of French elections.
  • The subject was interesting and the dialogue was open.
  • I found it useful.
  • The lesson was very open-minded and “informative”. I liked the fact that we discussed a lot and we shared our ideas on very hot topics.
  • I appreciate the material given and the structure of the lesson to focus on topics and go deeper on them.
  • I liked the lesson and the fact that everybody has given his answer.
  • I liked the topic. I liked the lesson because it gave us the opportunity to speak about a lot of different aspects. I liked the listening. The lesson was involving and useful to learn new things.
  • The class was interesting. I like the comparison of different points of view about French candidates and their programs.
  • I liked the topic and the fact that I learnt new words and expressions. I liked also the discussion part.

What did you not like/would you change about the lesson?

  • It would have been interesting to know the opinion of the others. What would they have chosen?
  • I felt uncomfortable discussing in my group about some issues (as immigration) because we had different point of views and with not enough time to explain well, not in our own language.
  • Most articles were influenced by the political views of the authors and it was not easy  to distinguish between real and false information.
  • We talked about politics and I don’t actually have a clear idea about that but that’s on me.

Did you change your opinion about either candidate?

  • I confirm my opinion of the candidate I prefer.
  • I didn’t change my mind, but I did increase my awareness about the political situation in France.
  • I learned more about the candidates but I didn’t change my mind.
  • They confirmed my opinion about both of them but I wouldn’t know who to vote for.
  • Comparing my ideas to the ones of my classmates helped me to have a wider view about the topic. I didn’t change my mind but I always appreciate to listen to different opinions.
  • Before today’s class I didn’t have an opinion on the 2 French candidates. Getting information about them helped me better understand their politics.
  • Before this homework I wasn’t really informed on the French political situation. This topic and the way to explore it (videos, reading) has been very useful for me, more than other topics (like cinema, arts…)
  • I didn’t change much my opinion because I wasn’t very informed before, anyway my research strongly confirmed my previous opinion.
  • No, I haven’t changed my opinion.

Summary:

We spent a lot of time compiling information based on their reading, which meant there wasn’t a lot of time (after the listening) for whole class discussion at the end. This is one of the perils of “issues” topics that get beyond the individual — you want to give everyone the opportunity to get informed and support their ideas with information. But I did almost feel like sharing information was almost a way of avoiding debating some of the issues.

Interestingly, one student said they didn’t know what the group members really thought, but would have liked to; another said they felt uncomfortable sharing their personal opinion in the group. But these two were the only two to make comments like that — most seemed to think they successfully shared opinions and ideas with the group.

Everybody was positive about having investigated the topic and informed themselves about this political issue, with one student even praising this topic above other more conventional ones (that we have addressed) including cinema and the arts.

Upper-Intermediate

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In this class with 13 students we talked about the election on two different Saturdays, dedicating about 45 minutes – 1 hour each time.

In the first class the students:

  1. Used the phones to check the Guardian article summarizing the two candidates. One group researched Le Pen, the other Macron. Then paired up with a student from the opposite group and shared what they had learned. We boarded the issues and each candidate’s stand on them, and the students shared their opinions about the issues.
  2. For homework they had to choose one article to read from the Guardian’s coverage of the election and consider:
    • What is the author’s point of view? Why?
    • What evidence/information does the author use to support this point of view?
    • What more do you learn about the candidates?
    • What is essential vocabulary for understanding the article?
    • What is other vocabulary related to politics/elections?\

In the second class, the students compared their articles in small groups, shared vocabulary, etc. and then ranked the issues in order of importance, then discussed who they would vote for given the chance. I visited all the groups to monitor and answer questions but we didn’t have time for whole-class discussion.

feedback

The feedback was simpler — we were out of time, so it had to be quick. But I’ll summarize a few relevant comments:

What I liked about the class:

Three students were happy to talk about the election because it was an “actual topic”, i.e. current/relevant and about “what’s happening these days”. Another liked learning something about the French election. Still another said they liked talking about the “French election and economy problems”.

What I didn’t like

There were few negative comments. One stated that the political vocabulary was difficult. Only one student said flat-out “I don’t like this topic”.

Summary

One of the challenges of the topic at this level was the vocabulary level related to using authentic materials — particularly as most had chosen opinion pieces from the Guardian’s Comment is Free section, where the challenge is even higher. I saw from their printed articles that they had done a lot of language work. But the discussion demonstrated that they could use a lot of the language in the context of their discussion.

Interestingly, the one repeated comment I did get in the “what I would change” section was requests for more Use of English, more Exam writing, more other exam-related things. This is an B2/FCE prep-class, and we use have a coursebook (which I mostly use to give them exam-task homework). This late in the course, deviation from exam prep may have seemed an unnecessary diversion to some. The takeaway for me is that if I’m going to do something like this at this point I should link it to some exam-like task. It’s something I do with the Advanced group, but didn’t think to do here because they have so many other explicit exam tasks to practice on.

Teens Upper-Intermediate/Advanced

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We spent one class period on the topic, with no out-of-class work. There were only 2 girls in class, and they started with almost no knowledge of the actual candidates (they didn’t realize that one was a woman). However, as we’ve used authentic materials, some of which they’ve chosen, throughout the year, and they themselves had in the past selected topics like the gender pay gap and gender inequality to discuss in class, I had little doubt they would be capable of and interested in learning about and discussing the topic.

After they made predictions about the candidates and the issues, they accessed the Guardian article on their phones and each researched a candidate and then shared their information and opinions.

They’re quick to pick up on and use new vocabulary and they picked up on the use of “patriotic” in reference to both candidates in the brief video. This led to a lengthy discussion on patriotism vs. nationalism, with the students writing and comparing their own definitions of each, and questioning about who “owned” each — the right or the left.

 

Conclusion

 

As I’ve argued previously, I think it is important, as Linda Ruas said, to let the world into the classroom. Talking about issues like these gives students the opportunity to learn and practice the kind of vocabulary that fills the front pages of newspapers but which they never have access to in the EFL classroom. It also gives them the chance to practice exchanging views on topics that are immensely relevant to their lives, even if not usually viewed as such by the ELT publishing houses.

I didn’t have any (as JJ Wilson would call it) “proselytizing” goal with these topics — I wasn’t interested in proving to these students which candidate was better. So much so, in fact, that perhaps we erred too much on the side of caution — there were no real arguments about which candidate had the superior worldview, even though maybe part of me did want to challenge, more than we did, some voices in favor of who I viewed as the much worse choice between the two candidates (What would Steve Brown do? I found myself wondering a few times). Of course it might have been easier because we were talking about the French election and not that of Italy. But that’s also due to the students. They were cautious when they needed to be, and didn’t seek to offend.

But I think what really made this work was that the students (in most cases) had to opportunity to get informed before class so that they could discuss and use the relevant language that they’d discovered. They also had enough questions and tasks to keep the conversation and sharing fairly self-sustaining.

With the right tasks and the right approach, it becomes a simple choice: do I talk about hobbies or do I talk about politics? They’re both topics described in language that can be examined, practiced, corrected and tested. They’re both made of language, and you can choose what to do with it. No less than hobbies or any other run-of-the-mill topic, the French election can provide the material for language study and development.

Now, did I change anybody’s mind about the election? The answer, based on one class’s feedback, was a resounding No. But that was never the point.

What I hope I might have changed some minds about, for you and my students, is that topics like this — or whichever ones you or your students choose — do have a place in the ELT classroom.