2019 European Elections: 3 exam class activities

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.

Class background

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.

Useful links

Here are some useful sites and documents I found that I’ll refer to in the following activities.

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).

ACTIVITY 1

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.

 

ACTIVITY 2

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.

 

ACTIVITY 3

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.

Task:

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.

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First Certificate Speaking Part 3: More bang for your paired speaking task buck

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.

What I got, today, was this:

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate B: Monologue, monologue. Monologue, monologue. (45 seconds)

Candidate A: Monologue, monologue. (20 seconds)

Candidate B: Monolo– (10 seconds)

Me: Thank you.

Why does this happen?

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:

Agreement

  • Totally
  • Definitely
  • Sure
  • Uh-huh
  • Yeah

Disagreement

  • I’m not so sure
  • I don’t know
  • Maybe, but
  • Well, …

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.

Conclusion

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).

 

Reading texts as writing templates

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:

  1. Introduce a commonplace idea
  2. Introduce a contrasting idea (first as a teaser, delaying the full explanation)
  3. Develop the contrasting idea
  4. Offer a supposed rationale for the contrast
  5. 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.

 

Further reading:

They Say, I Say: The moves that matter in academic writing. Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein, 2014.

Use Google Drive to co-create an a posteriori syllabus

So if you’re not using a coursebook, and you can’t wait for some super duper platform with all the bells and whistles like I proposed, then what are you using? 

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:

  1. Organization. I’m not naturally very organized. And lessons ― when you’re producing one after another yourself ― can tend to vanish into nowhere.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).

2018-02-13 22_15_03-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs
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:

2018-02-13 22_06_35-Wednesday Class Record - Google Docs

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.

2018-02-13 22_51_32-Daily Listening - Google Drive

Learner training

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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…

2018-02-13 23_19_06-Saturday Writing - Google Docs

And sometimes just as crazy-man-with-a-highlighter lists.

2018-02-13 23_26_42-Wednesday Writing - Google Docs

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.

Other programs

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

Some obstacles

Technical

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.

Affective

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.

Business

Lastly, as Paul Walsh pointed out re my last post, in-company classes put up all sorts of barriers to using tech.

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.

 

 

The coursebook I want

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:

A platform

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).

Curated

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.

Connected

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.

Customizable

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.

Flexible

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.

Emergent

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.

Repetitious

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.

Productive

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.

Social

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.

Conclusion

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?

 

 

Exploit cognitive bias to get the student evaluations you deserve

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

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

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

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

Go out with a (happy) bang

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

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

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

What you can learn from a colonoscopy

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

The peak-end rule

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

Duration neglect

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

Implications for SET

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all it took was 10 cents.

Implications for SET

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

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

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

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

Want less criticism? Ask for more

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

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

Implications for SETs

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

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

Do you feel that your English has improved this year?

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

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

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

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

Game on

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

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

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

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

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

Asylum seekers, refugees & migrants: Discuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any given Tuesday

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

20170509_142712
Art project by students at the European School, Varese. It recreates La Porta di Lampedusa.

DAY 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advanced:

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

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

Proficiency:

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

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

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

SAMPLE 1

Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area

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

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

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

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

SAMPLE 2

Facilities and accommodations for refugees

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Day 1 conclusions:

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

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

DAY 2

Pre-class reading:

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

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

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

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

An aside: on special guests

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

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

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

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

CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms

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

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

20170516_214507.jpg

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

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

Student Feedback

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

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

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

What did you learn?

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

How will this help you?

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

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

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

Inspirational conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Next steps:

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

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

And that’s it! Well, almost…

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

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

To the attention of the BBC reporter Alan Johnston,

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

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

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

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

Kind regards,
Beatrice

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