This post is part 1 of a series based on a talk I gave at the IH Barcelona conference on February 8th.
Exam classes always run the risk of ending up the same: with testing, testing and more testing. Whether it’s bad planning, midterm exhaustion, pre-exam pressure from students (is this gonna be on the test?) or simply course books and materials that don’t offer anything but testing, exam classes can sometimes devolve into doing one test prep task after another.
And exam prep listening lessons can often exhibit these tendencies in a more acute form.
Because listening is all in the head. You can’t see it. You, as in anybody, but especially you, the teacher. So how do you know if they’ve got it? You test them. So, as ELT listening expert John Field has written, all listening teaching tends to look like listening testing.
And I’d say it’s even worse in exam classes. When exam pressure and expectations of success come into play, everybody simply chases after the right answers. Did you put A or B? What was the answer? Did you get it right? Two plays, check your answers, and move on to the next task.
I teach mostly classes preparing students for the Cambridge First and Cambridge Advanced exams. While most test prep materials are good at teaching what Field calls (sneeringly, or so I always imagine) test-wise strategies, which he associates with exploiting loopholes, I’d more charitably call test-specific strategic competence. Students need to figure out the best way to approach each task, how to listen, how much time they have, and what they should do in their precious seconds of reading time.
But the reason Field sneers, of course, is that most of this doesn’t have anything to do with listening. It’s simply knowing and practicing the test.
But what students really need to succeed at listening is the ability to decode fairly fast speech – because without that they can’t begin to do the deeper operations of matching the audio signal to a written paraphrase (in the form of a test item) and distinguish it from similar-looking distractors.
Better decoding is essential. So how do you get better at decoding?
In this series of posts, I’m going to look at a couple of ways I try to help test takers get better at decoding, while (best of all) letting them turn on and tune into the stuff that interests them.
10-Step Process Listening
The upper intermediate and advanced level students – particularly teens – I teach all have their favorite YouTube channels and Netflix series that they watch in English. Do they understand them? Sure! Do they really understand them? Er, yeah?
Learners who can self-select YouTube audio usually get the gist, but there’s so much more they don’t. Listening tasks are designed to take them further into detail, but if you’re a busy teacher and you want them to listen to stuff beyond exam material, you probably won’t have time to make new tasks all the time.
That’s where a process comes in. Processes or routines are great because if you do it right you can give students something that’s materials light, learnable and repeatable (remember, like the PPP method you might have learned in your Celta course, but a whole lot better) and lets students work in relative autonomy.
When students are faced with a video/audio text, here’s the process:
I demo it in class. I just tell them to number their paper 1-10, then give them the list above, then explain what each means, orally. Then, before they it at home individually, I’ll follow up with an email/handout like this:
1. Look: write down basic info like the title, source, speaker, etc-
2. Predict: predict what the speaker might say (topics and vocabulary)
3. Gist listening (once straight through) What’s the speaker’s main point? BLUE pen
4. Detail listening: listen again for more information. This time you don’t have to listen straight through. Advance, pause, skip around, repeat as much as you need. But don’t use the transcript/subtitles yet. BLACK pen
5. 3 tough spots: Identify three spots (minute:second, e.g. 02:45) that are difficult to understand. What’s so difficult? Performance (accent, speed, etc.)? Words (unfamiliar words)? Or non-explicit meaning (you know the words, but not the meaning)?
6. Dictation: Choose a 30-second section of text and transcribe it word for word
7. Check. If there are subtitles/a transcript, listen to check your dictation and understanding. RED pen
8. Vocab: 5-10 topic-related words that help you talk about the topic, 5-10 new/useful words/expressions
9. Respond: What do you think about the video? Do you agree/disagree? How is it relevant to your life?
10. Reflect: Think back on the listening process
I understood ____ % after the first listening; ____ % after the detail listening
What caused the most difficulty? (speed, accent, presentation, topic, vocabulary, etc.)
Which steps above helped you most understand the listening? (e.g. 1, 4, etc.)
What should you do more of/less of next time?
Note to the teacher:
The first 4 steps all work together, with each step creating the reason for the next. You look at the YouTube video/webpage and write down some details. This leads to prediction, where students write down what they think the speaker will say (based on their own outside knowledge).
Now, this is not a very exam-useful skill (exam takers have only a short amount of time that they have to spend reading the test items, not predicting – and anyways exams are designed so that outside knowledge shouldn’t be a factor). But it is a very useful life listening skill, and as I said it sets up the point: gist.
In this process, listening for gist is basically checking your predictions. Were you right? And detail listening is checking your gist understanding. Were you right when you listened the first time? What more would you add?
Make sure you tell students they can listen as many times as necessary, backing up, skipping, jumping forward, to get the maximum out of it. That’s detail – real detail.
This is usually the maximum of most listening, but the idea here is to get students to listen further, beyond gist, and start figuring out how the listening is succeeding or breaking down for them.
Ah wait, and the pens. If you can get them to use different colored pens, it’s another way to make the listening visible – to show both them and you how understanding is deepened with each task.
3 Tough Spots
To help students (and you) understand where they aren’t able to decode, have them write down 3 spots and try to determine what made it difficult. This isn’t an exact science, but it will help students try to pinpoint difficulties to get beyond simply “I don’t understand”.
Choose a 30” spot and transcribe it word for word. This is way tougher – and takes way longer – than you might think at first (Try it yourself!). The beauty of this is that listening really becomes visible here, as you can see what they hear, and where even their own understanding of English and the topic is not sufficient to compensatorily fill in the gaps in their own decoding.
You might find that while students are getting the content words, they’re missing out on the functional stuff like auxiliary verbs and articles and prepositions that allow listeners to get more than a Swiss-cheese understanding of the content words. And can easily form the basis for many listening lessons to come (stay tuned for the next blog post on that).
This is simply getting students to express why they picked this listening and what they personally learned from it so they can better share in class (or help you understand their choices).
Like the tough spots, this part is simply to get students to think about how much they understood and why, so they can think strategically about the listening texts they choose, and what they can do themselves to keep improving.
How do you set it up?
This is really an at-home task. There’s no set-up for me (no writing test questions, yay!), students can choose their own texts, and I just take a peek at the results. But the first time, definitely go through it in class. In a small class, you could have somebody control the computer for a whole class listening. In a bigger class, with equal access to personal tech, you could have everybody listen on their own device with a headset.
Model what you want them to do at home, and let them work in pairs for the dictation and other steps.
When they do it at home, they could either bring in their work next week or (better I think) email it to you – with the link to the audio they listened to. Check to make sure they’ve done it right, and then look into a couple more deeply. What kind of texts did they choose? What were their tough spots? Where there common language features in their dictations?
Exam task extension
10-step Process Listening works with YouTube, but it also works with exam tasks as well – and helps you get beyond two-listens-and-done.
In this version, prediction is simply the test strategy of listening, and the first and second listening are played straight through normally. But the rest of the process is kept in place (with a series of steps before students even check their answers – remember, this is not a test, but test prep!).
One feature I add to doing this process with exam tasks is asking students to say how confident they are (0=not at all, 2=confident) with their answer after two listenings. Why?
The one “cognitive style” said to influence exam success is risk-taking (Note: I’ve got a source for this I’ll add soon). In a multiple choice test, where wrong answers are marked the same as no answer, there’s no reason not to guess. But risk-averse people may not do it. Conversely, risk-takers may guess too easily and frequently, confident the odds are on their side as a short-cut to improving their listening. So the idea with putting their confidence level is simply letting them see if their own estimates are correct – while encouraging both types to see the weakness (if any) of their habitual strategy.
If you students are using a test prep coursebook, have them try this at home to go beyond simply chasing after the right answers and get more out of their listening prep.
In the next post I’ll go into some different ways to recycle your listening exam tasks and extend them for teaching.
Before you go “here’s that guy talking again and again and again about why we should talk about politics in the classroom but it’s easy for him to say because he teaches in a liberal democracy and not in country X where I teach,” have you heard the one about the teacher in Palermo who was suspended from her job for talking about politics in the classroom? She has defenders and detractors (many of whom make no attempt to clarify what actually happened in that classroom), but what’s clear is that politics, in our politically charged times, can be tricky even in countries that in no way resemble country X.
But does that mean we shouldn’t try? Despite the Palermo incident, the Italian Ministry of Education says we should. As of this year in Italy, Cittadinanza e Costituzione– citizenship and the constitution – is a set subject in curriculum and on the matriculation exam, which means that government, human rights – and by extension, politics – will be taught to help foster more “active citizens” (and this in a country with higher than average voter turnout where many state schools already teach religion or non-religious morality classes as well as philosophy classes – deep-thinking topics that in my opinion students should be exposed to).
Which brings me to the European elections.
In this last week before the elections I’ve wanted to engage two classes of students on some basics about the elections, including why people (don’t) vote and how to get informed about your choices. Youth voter turnout is terrible (in much of Europe as well as my own country of origin, the US), and the one thing that all educators should agree on is that young people should understand how and where to vote. If that doesn’t sound so controversial, it shouldn’t. If they want to debate policy we can, but I’ve explicitly said that what I’m interested in is how they make decisions, not who they decide for.
The first is a small group of 5 high school students preparing for the Cambridge Advanced, two of whom are 18. The other group, an IELTS preparation class, has six students, including two 18-year old high school students, two under-24s and two over-30s. These are classes in a private language center, and the students are mostly L1 Italian.
Here are some useful sites and documents I found that I’ll refer to in the following activities.
EU socio-demographic index (it’s a 124-page document – and the master source for some of the previous links – but the first few pages have some summaries of recent trends)
Here are three activities. These were all pretty spontaneous creations — knowing there’s something big like the EUROPEAN ELECTIONS coming up makes me practice avoidance strategies. It’s always something I want to deal with, but the topic can seem too big or overwhelming to start. But a few minutes of googling showed me youth voting statistics and I knew I had my in. The rest are back-of-the-envelope activities that evolved in class (as is often the case, the post-lesson reflection has taken a lot longer than the pre-lesson planning).
Cambridge Advanced proposal
Set up activities:
Guess/predict voter turnout for age groups/countries in recent elections
Compare predictions to reality using the charts above
Brainstorm reasons as to why young people (or Europeans, or Italians) don’t vote
Brainstorm possible solutions
Writing set up. A proposal (but you could equally do a CAE Report writing task)
EU Votes, an NGO, is looking for ways to increase voter turnout among young people for the 2019 EU elections. Write a proposal (220-260 worlds) in which you:
Discuss why young people don’t vote
Suggest possible solutions
Say why these solutions would be effective at increasing voter turnout among young people
By the way, the reality of youth voter turnout (28% in the EU overall, and a slightly better 45% in Italy) was a real shocker for my students. All of the voting-age people said they would vote and the high school students predicted 90% of their friends would – which goes to show how outside the norm they are, and how educational the acutal research has been.
Comparing political platforms
When do you decide how to vote? We looked first at the question in the EU socio-demographic index about whether people report deciding in advance or right before the vote. And how do students know who to vote for? One of the suggestions from the writing task was to have a unified comparison site – like the ones you use to compare prices and features on a new mobile phone – where you could compare political party platforms. So we created our own analogue version, using the following set up:
Board list of main parties
Board list of major issues parties are addressing
Students used their phones to look up the platforms for the various parties, e.g. Cinque Stelle, Europa Verde, the Lega, Forza Italia and Partito Democratico and take notes in English (from Italian sources)
Due to limited board space, students discuss how to group issues – Abortion with Women’s Rights or the Family; Women’s Rights with Employment, etc. – to create useful categories for comparison
Students board information
In pairs, write sentences comparing and contrasting party ideas
Students were surprised by a number of discoveries, and in the process we talked about austerity and the right to asylum and the students left with larger vocabularies and more practice in useful structures and somewhat more informed about the impending vote than when they came in.
IELTS Writing Task 1: EU Election Voter Turnout
One thing I like about IELTS exam prep is Writing Part 1 task – especially when you can find (or have students find) their own data visualizations to analyze. But here we started with the introduction to the socio-politico index – which I swear is basically an IELTS coursebook in itself (so many charts and graphs, so much IELTS-ready language).
Here’s the outline of the procedure:
Make predictions about results to survey questions in the socio-politico index – do more men or women vote, what age group votes most, what professional level, etc.
Check predictions in introduction (pp. 3-6)
Scan text for 3 examples each of big differences, small differences, superlatives, language for introducing a new topic (e.g. when it comes to…)
Then I selected 5 countries from Politico’s awesome interactive chart and had students use the language to make comparisons. Followed by the same task using chart on voter turnout by age group.
The line graph shows voter turnout in European Elections between 1979 and 2014. The chart shows voter turnout by age group in the 2014 election.
Summarize the information by selecting and reporting the main features and making comparisons where relevant.
That’s it. No, there was no challenging of the dominant hierarchies — just run of the mill activities used with authentic materials and some fairly real-world objectives. While most of these documents will be still relevant – or updated – for the next elections, on the eve of this very important European vote I can’t think of anything I’d rather be discussing with my students.
Like any other speaking exam, the First Certificate Speaking Paper attempts to get natural speaking performance from a highly artificial situation. With rigorous timing, set questions, obligatory interaction patterns, and an interlocutor who has to stick at all times to the script, there’s no wonder it feels almost miraculous when candidates manage to surmount all this and actually sound like two human beings.
But today I discovered that starting to overcome some of these problems (3 specific problems, in fact) was as easy as banging my fist on the table.
If you don’t have time to read all my revelations as they came to me here’s your executive summary:
To encourage more natural turn-taking in pair speaking exam tasks (e.g. First Certificate Speaking Part 3), signal when candidates have to abandon their turns by banging loudly on the table every 15 seconds. The surprising benefits of this are:
More turns taken
More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
More cooperational support given by each candidate
Keeping reading for the long version.
Problem 1: Monologues
Take First Certificate Part 3. My 18-student group today was decimated (no not literally) by illness, school trips, and school exams, which left only 6 of us. I got a pair of guinea pigs for candidates (no not literally) while the other four watched. Part 3, if you’re not familiar with it, requires students to have a conversation about a set topic – really, to answer a set question – using a series of prompts to help them discuss. They’ve got two minutes before they’re interrupted with a follow-up question.
Because the situation is highly artificial. Because they’re afraid to interrupt. Because they don’t know what to say. Because they’re afraid of the other person not saying anything, and so they keep talking. Because they’re not listening to each other, just talking in a vacuum.
So today I did something different. I told the students:
When you hear me bang on the table, your partner takes over. I’m going to bang on the table every 15 seconds.
The same pair went again. Wham. Bang. Boom.
Both students clearly felt they were under the gun. They were talking faster, tenser, and nervouser. (Yes, I just wrote that). But they each took a lot more turns.
Then I got all three groups working on their own activity, and I kept banging on the table. The high school classroom where I was teaching is basically cinder block, there’s no sound dampening anything, and the desk jarred and jangled on the floor. Really satisfyingly obnoxious.
But the thing is, each student ceded their turn when I banged. Which meant that each student contributed more, and it was much easier for students to use 5 of the issues, rather than only two or three. And as I tried to explain, rather than feeling like they’re under the gun, like they’re prisoners of my maniacal table-banging, a 15 second turn is the opposite. It’s not imprisoning; on the contrary, it frees you of the responsibility of filling the silence. Because you only have to speak for a 15 second run, not 30 seconds, or 45, or one minute, or as long as you can because you’re terrified your partner’s not going to say a thing. 15 seconds isn’t confining, it’s liberating.
And by creating moments of transition, it suddenly opened up space to confront another problem.
Problem 2: I disagree with you, sir. And I with you, madam
This is the over-use of a few brick-heavy stock phrases, particularly I agree and I disagree. Yes, we do say these things, but they can also come across as heavy, provocative and final. In conversations we often seek agreement, and soften disagreement. I usually try to get my students to say things like:
I’m not so sure
I don’t know
Tone is key. Particularly with disagreement. We drill these expressions. I try to get them to use the agreement expressions as backchannel input, and often to signal to their partner that they’ve got a contribution to make. But students don’t always produce them when they have to (in exam simulations).
What I discovered, however, was that by forcing more transitions (bang bang bang), it suddenly opened up space for the use of a variety of agreement/disagreement responses. I brought this to their attention, and when we did the next round of table banging, I started hearing more and more nice noises: yeah, totally, I’m not so sure, well…
Problem 3: Blah blah blah
The last problem is just simply candidates not listening to their partner. I think, in part, this is caused by the fear of the endless turn. If you think your partner’s going to blather on forever, and you’ve just got to get your say in before the clock runs out, you don’t really care what the other person says.
However, when you know your partner may get cut off (bang) in the middle of the sentence, then you’ve got to be listening to paper over the awkward transition. So in addition to students suddenly using more language of agreement and disagreement, I said bang might be a good time for not just agreeing or disagreeing, but:
Supporting your partner’s statement/opinion with
a) exemplification: yeah, like X or Y
b) continuation: just finish your partner’s sentence, then add more
And they did. I don’t have any recorded evidence, but you once you give students permission (bang) to pick up the utterance their partner dropped, they will. They’ll finish the sentence, add to it, run with it.
In the end, it was by forcing artificial breaks into a conversation that suddenly made it sound much more like a conversation. It’s a silly, ugly technique, and like all training wheels should be taken away as soon as possible, but it sure got results, and fast – a lot faster than simply interrupting the activity to say, Come on, let’s try to do a bit more… and letting them spin on for two more minutes. Banging away got me:
More turns taken
More coverage of obligatory talking points (prompts)
More range of agreeing/disagreeing language
More cooperational support given by each candidate
So if you’re prepping students for speaking exams, try it (bang) and let me know if it works (bang bang).
Texts, any texts, can serve as models for writing. Not just the long-form, formal writing tasks that students have to do on exam tasks, but as sentence or paragraph frames, or templates.
As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein explain in They Say, I Say, their really awesome book on academic writing, templates
have a generative quality, prompting students to make moves in their writing that they might not otherwise make or even know they should make…. In showing students how to make such moves, templates do more than organize students’ ideas; they help bring those ideas into existence (Graff & Birkenstein, 2014:xxi).
Last week students in my IELTS prep class were discussing issues from the reading homework (from a text called “Walking with dinosaurs”, in the Cambridge IELTS Trainier book) when suddenly the structure of the first paragraph jumped out at me:
The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.
What got my attention was the series of moves made by the writer:
Introduce a commonplace idea
Introduce a contrasting idea (first as a teaser, delaying the full explanation)
Develop the contrasting idea
Offer a supposed rationale for the contrast
Overturn the supposed rationale with the true one
And there are a series of clear and reusable frames – a template – that could easily be used by students:
The media image of palaeontologists who study prehistoric life is often of field workers camped in the desert in the hot sun, carefully picking away at the rock surrounding a large dinosaur bone. But Peter Falkingham has done little of that for a while now. Instead, he devotes himself to his computer. Not because he has become inundated with paperwork, but because he is a new kind of paleontologist: a computational paleontologist.
My rationale for all this is that one of the challenges of academic writing (ok, some of you might debate that Cambridge and IELTS exam writing is true academic writing) is getting students to deal with opposing viewpoints, offer differing views, and develop, even if to dismantle, contrasting arguments.
So I boarded the language of this template but substituted:
The media image of Italy is often of…
They brainstormed a series of possibilities, including the Mafia, mothers, fashion, food, and work habits.
Then they worked in pairs to write and revise their paragraphs. Hopping from group to group I got to help them a series of interesting issues, mostly around the idea of the expectations you set up with each sentence and how to satisfy them in the successive sentences to make the argument flow (moving from general to specific, setting up contrasts, exemplification, etc.).
The only student example I’ve got written down is a fragment on my whiteboard photo:
….Not because the media’s depiction of us as addicted to pasta isn’t true, but because Italy also has a whole host of other food traditions to choose from.
I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more reading-text-as-writing-template opportunities.
They Say, I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.
While I’ve never used Blackboard or Edu-whatever-it’s-called or any of the big brand name edtech platforms, I have tried a few smaller, freer ones, including the now-defunct collaboration tool Wiggio and a sort of Post-it note board whose name I can’t remember.
But when I made the switch from Word and USB-sticks to Google Drive about 5 years ago, I discovered that it was easier to share links to “living documents” than send the files themselves. Sharing a link to master documents means you can always update them, improve them, and most importantly, spell check them (I can proofread other people’s stuff but I’m often totally blind to my own last-minute spelling errors). And you worry much less about whether someone’s got the “right” version.
Then I took the next step to start creating and sharing a Google Doc to collect all the links in one place (which all but eliminates email sending).
Now I use Google Drive to
co-create an a posteriori syllabus
share teacher- and student-generated documents and links
post (and give feedback on) writing homework
My tech approach is by no means revolutionary — in fact, I’d call it a pretty low-tech tech option. But it is what I’m using for the time being.
So in this post I’ll go through these tasks one by one and then mention a few obstacles you might have if you want to try it yourself.
The a posteriori syllabus
When I shifted away from coursebooks I ran into a series of problems:
Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
Emergent language. Coursebook or not, I’d always wanted some way to keep track of all that great stuff that comes up in class, because whenever you use a coursebook the emergent language seems to fade into the background. It’s hard to compete with Useful language boxes on glossy paged spreads.
I’m also someone who comes into class with a few big events in my mind ― what I think could happen and how long it might take. But I’ve often got more events, or the events expand to bigger than, I’ve planned. So I wanted a place to keep track not of what we were supposed to do, but what we actually did.
For each course I create a Google Doc that I store on in a folder on Google Drive. I create a reference section with few permanent links (and stuff gets added throughout the year).
At the beginning of each course (or as new students are added) I get their email address and share the link. I set everybody’s permission to edit, because I want them writing on it, too. (Nobody actually has to have a Gmail/Drive account exept you.)
Then, as we go, we write up what we did in class. The result looks something like this:
What we do is, each week I copy and paste the syllabus template, and the students take turns writing up the Class Summary and Whiteboard notes (literally what was on the whiteboard) and adding a (hopefully) catchy title to that week’s class.
I always include links to things we might have used in class. I write the homework in the appropriate box, immediately after class. (In this Class Record the page references are to a grammar books, Grammar and Vocabulary for First.) I also link to a lot of activities that I’ve developed over the last few years, like these listening activities.
I used to insist that students students get it right and I was very specific about what I wanted. I even created this guide, Writing the Class Syllabus (download Word file), and this activity, Writing a class summary (download Word file), to do on the second day of class. In a nutshell, it trains students to write the correct form by comparing and improving two sub-par class summary texts, like you might in a exam writing task.
I generally don’t do this anymore because I find that students get it, more or less, without this, and I’d rather have them think more about the other students and less about whether they’re following all the rules. Also because exam prep is so product-focused I don’t think they need to worry about getting yet another format picture perfect. But I might be wrong.
If you want to try this yourself, here are a few tips:
To decide who’s doing the Class Record for that week, just go in alphabetical order based on who’s in class that day (it’s the easiest way, trust me).
If you use the How to write… task above, finish the task by having students write up a summary of last week’s class (i.e. writing up Day 1 on Day 2). Then put everybody’s work up on the wall and get students to circulate and check who best fulfilled the task. The “winner” gets to actually put their summary and notes online. This makes for a not a bad start to the year if you want to get students reading and evaluating each other’s work.
If you’re not going to use the How to write task, do the Class Record yourself for the first few classes then give them feedback right away on the first time. If you’re slack, they’ll be.
Encourage the student writing the record to take a photo of the whiteboard for later. You’ll still be amazed at what comes out sometimes in the student’s version of the notes.
Set deadlines for when the students should post the summary/whiteboard notes if you like, but I’m more lenient these days. But always be strict with yourself about putting up the homework right away.
Refer back to the Whiteboard notes for in-class review. I’ll often dictate sentences with stuff from the previous week. It’s always a way of helping the person writing up the Class Record feel their work is worth something.
The Writing file
Another standard feature of my courses is a shared Writing document. It’s linked from the Class Record (see the box at the top of the first image above) and the students post their “formal” writing homework there (stuff for more careful marking and review).
I use the same document to put up a model task and tips, sometimes in the form of comments, as you can see here…
And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.
BTW: I still tend to over-mark (my New Year’s Resolution is to step back from that cliff).
But one thing the Writing doc has saved me from is repeating the same issues that I used to repeat by private email. By having one shared doc I can say “look at what I wrote on Marco’s text”. And it works well for positive elements, too.
Other student contributions
I’ll also create and link blank docs for students to:
Create vocabulary lists
Create exam-style speaking activities
Write writing cheat sheets (summaries of the genre types on the exams)
Share Reading Circles contributions
One thing I’ve not been successful at is getting students to comment “socially” ― on each other’s work, or whatever. But Google Docs is for collaboration (I use it for collaborating on copywriting at my other job), so I’m sure there are plenty of more opportunities for the eager teacher.
And of course, there are other useful (but standard) programs in the Google Drive suite, all of which I’ve used at various times:
Google Forms ― you can use to make surveys, homework activities or feedback forms.
Google Sheets ― like Excel, and I always make attendance forms that automatically total up days in class, etc.
Google Slides ― like PowerPoint, and we always use them for storing and running Pecha Kucha presentations
There are some technical issues with Apple users. I’m not an Apple user, but I believe things work much better if they download the Google Docs app for iOS (but they still might have issues viewing comments).
Another technical issue might be that students, with editing power, can delete everything on the doc. But I’ve never had that happen, whatever age the students (I’ve taught from 13 years old on up), and even if it did you can always view and revert to a previous version in the Version Control menu.
I’ve never had any problems with say, a shared writing doc that everyone can see. Everybody gets into it. And knowing that everybody can see your comments means I’ve become much more careful about not sounding too negative. It’s made me more human. But you know your situation better than I do so you be the judge if it would work for you.
Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.
When teaching Business English & ESP a platform is impractical. Too many problems w/ wi-fi, connections, devices. Often a dumping ground for Pdfs & content only.
I’ve had companies that block Google Drive, companies that let employees look at Google Docs but block any further links from those docs, and companies that gave me permission (but not the employees) to access it, though I quickly found out that the wi-fi was terminally malfunctioning and useless.
The good thing about Drive is that you can set documents to be editable offline. So even if you can’t connect, you can come into class with the doc open, add the homework or whatever without the connection, and it will automatically sync when you return to digital civilization.
But, in reality, I mostly don’t use the Class Record in class. The Class Record is there to keep us all together when we’re not right there in front of each other. Because that’s where the teaching and the collaboration and conversation happens, and I don’t need an app for that.
I’d love to hear if you’re using Google Drive and what for or if you’ve got better ways to give your course a little backbone without ever cracking a coursebook spine.
I and a lot of ELT teachers I admire spend a lot of time dissing, cutting down, criticising, mocking, disparaging and complaining about coursebooks. So I’d like to look at the other side for a moment: what kind of coursebook would I want? Well, glad you asked:
My ideal coursebook wouldn’t be a book at all, but a platform. I love opening books, but when it comes to a collaborative learning experience the one thing a book is is closed. In terms of platforms, I want something simple, accessible, sharable and open. Something like Google Drive. Wait, not just like Google Drive, but maybe Google Drive itself, because there’s nothing I hate more than proprietary platforms that want to gobble up your time, energy and resources and then collapse, or not get updated, or just plain suck. Google’s not going anywhere, it gets updated, and lots of people like myself already use it for a lot of other stuff. So, if not Google, my coursebook would work within a popular, easy and ubiquitous platform (not simply try to imitate one).
The pro-coursebook argument that’s hard to beat is that it saves the busy teacher (or the one keenly aware of how much her out-of-class time is really worth) time. So I imagine a sort of expert teacher working in each country as content curator, finding and publishing a curated selection of 5 or so new texts a day. But of course you’re not bound to use the curated texts: you could do it too.
This daily list would continue to grow until it contained hundreds or thousands of texts. Or rather, it wouldn’t contain them, but link to them, because I want my students seeing the contexts in which these texts ― academic articles, opinion pieces, blog posts, film scripts, poems etc. ― were really published.
At any point in the term you set a number of filters based on your location, student preferences, or favorite sites, and the coursebook would indicate texts and sources that might be of interest (and show you fewer or no texts outside your areas of interest).
Automated to help text selection
Any text “imported” (linked) into the coursebook would be cataloged and automatically tagged with an estimated CEFR level, word-count, estimated reading time per CEFR level (how long would it take a C1 student to read vs a C2 student), as well as a number of useful searchable tags relating to topic, variety of English, register, occurrence of grammar and lexis. This would all make the task of finding texts within the system much, much easier for the busy teacher.
Automated to help task creation
In one click, you switch from the text at its original source to a bare-bones, text-only “workshop” version that you could manipulate at will. The platform would also come with a series of tools that allow you to instantly create a variety of different activities, including gap fills based on various parameters (e.g. removing prepositions, auxiliary verbs or all function words). A variety of exam formats would also be supported, like the Cambridge Use of English tasks.
You could work with these text-activities online, in class, if your students use tablets/computers, or you could print them out. Or could link them as homework tasks on the evolving syllabus.
Of course the coursebook would have no chapters, or order, but teachers could make intelligent decisions about what texts to use based on class interest or language issues that need addressing. From one week to the next the teacher could share the texts with the students to create an evolving syllabus.
Simple interface for students
This evolving syllabus would be the user interface i.e. what students see ― basically a formatted document with links, texts, etc. the teacher has placed for each lesson. Layout would be basic ― you don’t want to spend your time worrying about pagination. And you don’t want to just replicate the jam-packed tiny-font landscape of a typical coursebook spread. Just a single-column format, like a blog. But you could also give students “creator” status so they could do the same operations on a text by using the same tools that you do.
Because the search functions work so well, when something comes up in class, like a student sees examples of inversion, and asks about, or you realize that students don’t have much vocabulary for topic X, you could easily search and find a text that would offer a context for addressing the gap.
You could create and share word lists from texts you’ve read. And the platform would have a series of reminders that would encourage you to recycle vocabulary/texts at set intervals. You might work on a text in class, and then 3 weeks later the platform reminds you to either recycle the vocabulary, or create a new recall activity based on that text.
The platform would also have a catalogue of communicative task types like debates, roleplays, etc. Rather than fixed any activity to that particular text, the teacher could choose an activity type and the platform would prompt her with suggestions for how to create that particular activity, including a framework for various stages. And templates would make actually writing up activities for distribution (either in paper or electronically) to students faster and easier.
Each of the texts would come with an “access community” feature, and you could share what you did or see what other teachers have done with a specific text, as well as what texts were used before and after it. Teachers could comment and share opinions, difficulties, and classroom reactions to texts. Texts that generate a lot of interest might get more visibility on the platform, while others, that generate no interest or uptake, could get phased out.
Supportive of teacher development
To start with, the platform would offer tips and suggestions to teachers about how to set up activities, prompts for writing comprehension questions, what texts to pair together, and even offer reminders to try other activity types. But, with the teacher’s consent, the platform’s “voice” would gradually get muted as the teacher grows in experience and internalizes frameworks or task types.
But even with the training wheels off, formatting options would still be accessible so you could create e.g. exam task activities that look like the real thing.
Yes, there’s a learning curve with any platform (or any new coursebook series), but the idea would be to help teachers save time sourcing texts and creating tasks, so that they could have more energy to devote to being in the class itself (discussing, debating, revising). And the tags, reminders and search functions would help teachers build internal consistency and repetition into a course that’s not fixed in advance but evolves as it goes.
Well, what about it? Is that the kind of coursebook you’d use? Or have you got something better?
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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:
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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).
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:
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.
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.
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.
With ten minutes to go before the end of class I asked them to write down their answers to the following questions:
What did you learn?
How will this help you?
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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).
Try reading some of the comment sections to the articles ― you may find contrary opinions and good language for debate.
Keep a list of articles/videos you consulted (completely or partially ― I’d like to know what you found useful)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
We did the BBC listening activity — but we were out of time before we could continue with much discussion.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.