Asylum seekers, refugees & migrants: Discuss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Any given Tuesday

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

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

Or:

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

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

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

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

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

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

DAY 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

Advanced:

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

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

Proficiency:

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

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

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

SAMPLE 1

Report about facilities and accommodations for refugees in the local area

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

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

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

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

SAMPLE 2

Facilities and accommodations for refugees

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Day 1 conclusions:

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

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

DAY 2

Pre-class reading:

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

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

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

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

An aside: on special guests

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

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

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

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

CASses, SPRARs, and other official acronyms

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

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

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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.

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How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 1)

If there’s one thing that can be said about presentations it’s that few people like doing one, but everybody loves having done one. In the EFL classrrom they’re highly motivating moments for students to work on organizing their discourse, polish their language, face their fears and, with the help of self-recording, listen to and reflect on their own performance and opportunities for improvement.

All reasons why I regularly ask my students to do presentations in my class. While there are many kinds, How-to presentations are among the most structured and straightforward to plan and perform. In this post I’ll describe how to set up how-to presentations in your class.

This activity cycle runs for 2½ homework-classwork sessions:

  1. Homework: listening activity with model text
  2. Class: model text plus presentation scaffolding
  3. Homework: write and practice presentation
  4. Class: deliver presentation
  5. Homework: reflection on presentation

1. Homework: listening activity with model text (pre-task)

Before I even announce that we’re going to do presentations, I usually get students primed with an at-home listening activity based on a YouTube video called ― wait for it ― How to get a beautiful girl to approach you, from the Tripp Advice channel (and, in case it needs to be said, linking does not equal endorsement).

I first stumbled across the video when it came up in a YouTube search for How-to videos. I’ve used it (and continue to do so) because the presenter has made it:

  • Short
  • Clearly delivered ― intermediate students should have little problem with it
  • Perfectly structured
  • Freely available

It additionally generates classroom discussion on gender roles, stereotypes, societal rules/expectations, modern love, and whether women do really notice a guy’s shoes. Frankly, it ain’t the sort of thing you’ll get in your average coursebook. In short, it’s a model text.

Below is a shortened version of the activity ― the full activity (which I share with my students via Google Docs) includes some pre-teaching of key vocabulary and some work on verb patterns with get (this authentic text uses get a full 10 times in 3:38 seconds ― the kind of repetition course book writers labor to stuff into theirs. But I digress.) What follows, however, are the parts particularly relevant to presentations.

In part 2 of this article, I’ll talk about how I model a How-to presentation and help students construct theirs.

How to get a beautiful girl to approach you

Guys, why do all the hard work? With this video you can learn how to get girls to approach you. Girls, what do you think? Is this advice brilliant or total bull?

Before listening: How would you approach a person you find attractive? How could you make them approach you instead?

1. Listen once and take notes:

  • Tip 1:
  • Tip 2:
  • Tip 3:
  • What else he’s offering

2. Listen again for more details. Do you agree with his advice?

3. Do the language focus exercises

Language Focus:

Giving a presentation/sales pitch

Whatever you think of Mr. Tripp and his advice, it is a well-constructed presentation (and a sales pitch ― he wants you to check out his other products). Look at the excerpts from the presentations below and connect them with the function of each. The first has been done for you. (Answers are below)

  1. Wouldn’t it be great to have a girl finally approach you for once instead of doing all the work and having to muster up the courage to go over and talk to her?
  2. Well, today I’m going show you three steps to get a girl to come over and approach you whether you’re at a bar or out during the day.
  3. And wait for step number 3, where I’ll tell you the most effective way to get her to come over to you.
  4. Let me tell you a quick story
  5. Step number 1: Dress up sexy
  6. The more open that you look, the more open that she’ll feel to start a conversation with you.
  7. So remember: put on some stylish clothing, start with your shoes. Open up your body language and force eye contact with the girl. Then wave her over and give her your killer smile.
  8. So go ahead, click the link, get that series, get it immediately.
  9. Thank you so much for watching and I’ll see you on the next video.
  • A. tell a story to connect with audience and create interest 4
  • B. give a call to action (in other words, tell the audience what to do next)
  • C. ask a rhetorical question to get audience thinking
  • D. give a brief summary before going into detail so you know what to expect
  • E. use sequencing language (first, second, etc.) to give a clear structure to the talk
  • F. emphasize positive the results of following his advice
  • G. provide a “hook” to keep audience listening until the end
  • H. thank the audience
  • I. summarize the info that’s just been presented

Answers: 1C, 2D, 3G, 4A, 5E, 6F, 7I, 8B, 9H

How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Are your students struggling with authentic listening activities?

Below is a brief guide I wrote to help my EFL students overcome both confidence issues and poor strategic choices when doing independent listening at home (the full story of which can be found here).

In addition to coaching them on how to choose what to listen to, the point was to make the structure of standard-issue listening activities visible to them so that they could make it part of a self-guided listening routine.

For the record, this is not a replacement for doing regular listening work in the classroom, whether it’s activities you’ve created, canned coursebook texts or ad-hoc micro-dictations. But this guide gives students one more tool for developing independence and autonomy in their learning.

Since I first created it, I’ve used it with a number of groups from lower intermediate to advanced level. Sometimes I’ve read through it in class, point by point. Other times I’ve just handed it out and had the students read through it (and apply it) at home. But in any case I regularly have students bring in the results of their independent listening to share and guide discussion in class.

Feel free to use it or adapt it as you like for your classrooms!

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How to use the internet to improve your listening skills

Do you get nervous at the thought of listening online? You shouldn’t! When you listen to anything online, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Be selective

First, be selective about what you listen to. You’re going to spend 10-20 minutes on this, so don’t just force yourself to listen to the first thing you find. Being selective means you should prioritize:

  • Brevity ― a 2-3 minute selection will probably be more doable than a 10 minute selection because you’ll be able to go back and re-listen to it.
  • Difficulty ― choose something that’s a good challenge, but not impossible.
  • Interest ― a topic you’re really interested in will usually motivate you to try to understand more. (Also, you might already know something about the topic, which will help.)

Don’t stress about catching every word

Next, don’t stress about not understanding every word. Remember, in real life, when you listen to the radio in the car or at home, you probably don’t pay attention to or hear every word. You hear some important points and then later reconstruct a memory of what you heard. Also, remember that a lot of things like pop music and talk radio can be difficult for even native speakers to understand, because it’s fast, the sound quality may not be good, people don’t always speak/sing clearly or the speaker’s accent might be unfamiliar.

Have a plan

Finally, have a plan for when you listen. It’s important to listen more than once and think about different things each time. My listening plan would look something like this:

 

Listening Plan

  1. Before you listen, look at the title and (possible) summary. Think about the following questions:
    • What do you know about the topic?
    • Have you heard anything about it in the news?
    • What do you think they’re going to talk about?
  1. Listen once:
    • Who? What? How? Where? When? Why?
    • Briefly summarize (out loud or in writing) what you heard/understood. Realizing what you understood/didn’t understand should help you focus on what to listen for next.
  1. Listen twice for more detail about the previous questions.
  2. Listen three times:

Write down some key vocabulary. I’d try to put key vocabulary in 2 categories:

  • Key topic-related vocabulary (if the topic is “Scientists discover water on Mars”, topic-related vocabulary like: spaceship, astronaut, space probe, atmosphere, etc.)
  • Other interesting/important/unknown words you hear. It can be words you know, or words you don’t know.

 

Mars/space vocabulary Other
spaceship

astronaut

space probe

atmosphere

find out

seek out

investigate

 

(If there’s a script, listen a fourth time with the script. Check your vocabulary list against the text and add to it.)

  1. After listening:

Say or write a brief summary of what you heard, using the key vocabulary you wrote down. Look up any unfamiliar words. Then, go and listen to something else on the same topic ― you might find a lot of similar vocabulary, and maybe even find you understand more!

Conclusion

At first, it may seem like a lot of steps, but the better and better you get, the fewer steps you’ll actually have to do. The goal in the end is to automatize the whole process so you listen consciously and effectively but without the stress. Follow these tips and you’ll be healthier, happier, more confident and have stronger listening skills.

First lesson routines: get beyond getting to know you and start building class culture

What is your first class or first lesson for? Getting to know you? Or just getting through the first page of the coursebook? In Planning Lessons and Courses, Tessa Woodward says that first lessons are an opportunity for:

  • Name learning
  • Building a sense of community
  • Understanding student expectations
  • Assessing level

While I agree, I would add three things:

    1. Materials distribution: Decidedly unsexy, but if you’ve got admin duties like passing out coursebooks you’ve got to schedule time for it.
    2. Grammatical or lexical improvement: it might sound obvious, but I have previously been guilty of forgetting that students should both learn and practice new language on Day 1, of forgetting that when students think “What did I learn today?” they’ll be thinking in terms of discrete grammar items (and not in terms of community-building).
    3. Establishing class culture

Number 3, I think, might need some explaining. What is class culture? To paraphrase a great definition from a different context (by Jason Fried, founder of program management app Basecamp), [class] culture is the by-product of consistent behavior. In other words, from how you teach, to what you teach, to how you interact with students and expect them to interact with each other, your class culture will be the result of what you do everyday. Whether your classes are conversation-driven or lockstep by-the-(course)book, whether you’re up scribbling at the whiteboard or hovering over their busily working pairs, whether you’re assigning day one homework or giving them the night off, your first lesson routine should exemplify the principles you teach by. Day one is never a one-off.

And in order to be true to the kind of culture I want to help foster in the classroom, some years ago I decided the best way to start any class is engage with my students, with nothing more than a pen and paper.

My first day routine goes something like this:

PART 1

Take the focus off you with a mingle activity

I really don’t like the me-centric, time-killing forced conversations you go through when waiting for the class to arrive and settle in. So once the proverbial bell rings (or the real one, if you’ve got one), I switch the dynamic, no matter how many students are still missing.

Get up and find three things in common with each of the other people in the class. The following things do not count:

  • anything with the words Italy/Italian
  • evident physical similarities
  • where you live or went to school

Why? I teach mostly monolingual Italians, mostly who come from the provincial city in which I work (which means they mostly go to the same schools). And evident physical similarities ― we both wear glasses, we’re both wearing jeans ― are just too obvious. I want them to dig a little deeper.

“Find X things in common” is great because it forces them to ask questions, and lots of them. And any mingle activity is great because it gives you lots of opportunity to hear them talk, and note down good/improvable language. And as the late arrivals filter in, you can shove them into the mix.

Stop the activity at an appropriate time. While they’re still on their feet, tell them they’re going to have to tell the class what they have in common with other people. And they’re going to have to name names. So give them one last chance to double check names with the people they talked to. Have them sit down. You might want to give them some whole-class feedback about positive/problematic structure, lexis, etc., particularly if you think it will be important in sharing what they have in common. Or you might want to put it on the back burner until later.

Ask everyone to share what they have in common with one other person, introducing that person by name. And tell them to pay attention, because there’ll be a quiz. As the chain of contributions advances, you should repeat the names as much as possible, both for yourself and for the sake of the students.

Finally, quiz them: Who studies Engineering? Who also speaks German? Who went to France for holiday? etc.

PART 2

All about me: getting to know the teacher

Now I give them the chance to do what they’ve been dying to, which is find out something about me, the foreigner.

Now, it’s your turn. You can ask me anything you want. Personal, professional, whatever.

There’s usually a moment of silence as everyone (or at least the most courageous) starts mentally scrambling for what to ask. Then I add:

Ok, I’ll give you some help. You’ll have some time to think of the questions you want to ask, and write down the questions. And you can do it in groups.

Put the students into small groups. You’ll want to have at least two.

Write 5 (or 7, or 10 ― in inverse proportion to the number of groups) questions you want to ask me. But your group is your team. The goal is to ask me the original questions. You get a point for each original question you ask. If they other team thinks of the same question, you don’t get a point.

Why? Because, just like my list of too-obvious similarities, this point-per-original-question system eliminates the usual small-talk list of questions. It will give them some often juicier things to remember about you. And it may reveal a lot about their personalities and preoccupations (I’ve had students ask me things like “How many girlfriends have you had?”)

I will, however, give them another chance at the end to ask me anything that we didn’t talk about during the game (where I’m from, etc.).

When they’ve got their list of questions, I say:

You’re going to ask me your questions. But I’ll only answer “grammatically correct” questions (more on this admittedly problematic term in a future post). Double-check to make sure your questions are grammatically correct.

Give them a few minutes to check their questions again (without asking you for help). As they finish checking, ask each group for a team name. I usually suggest silly American-pro-sports-type names like the Jaguars or the Tigers, but they can choose whatever they want.

Let the teams take turns to ask questions, and after you answer them, award one point per original question. Tell groups to shout out if a group reads a question that they’ve also written (in which case no point is awarded).

Dealing with grammatical incorrectness

The best way to deal with a grammatically incorrect questions is simply don’t hear it: play deaf. What? Sorry? What? Students quickly realize they’ve got to reformulate. Give them a number of chances, then help nudge them in the right direction. Then, after you finally “hear” the question and answer it, ask them to repeat the original (as-written) question again and explain the problem.

Getting beyond accuracy

Some other things I “correct” for are appropriacy, register, intonation and idiomaticity. For example, I make it clear that questions like With whom did you go on holiday? are accurate, but sound strangely formal in spoken English. I also make a point about the inappropriacy of the age question (they always ask). Admittedly, if I’m encouraging students to ask me about my past girlfriends on a first meeting, they might as well as me how old I am, too. But does any adult, in any culture, really ask “How old are you?” ― or volunteer that information ― the first time they meet someone?

You can board the problems in shorthand (pres. perf vs. past simple, preposition position in questions, final -s, etc.). When someone makes a similar mistake, help nudge them toward a better question by referring back to the original group who made and explained the mistake ― and let them re-explain it ― or point to the board to show them the problem.

And by boarding such a list, you’re taking the first steps toward creating the kind of grammatical syllabus that addresses their specific needs, not those simply generalized in a course book list.

Follow up

Once you’ve tallied up the points and declared a winner (even though the focus is clearly on the process, and not winning points, it’s still important to keep up the pretense of the game all the way to the end) the first thing I like to do is see what they remember. I say:

Now, with your partners, quickly write down everything you remember about me.

I like including a step like this in any teacher-class or student-class interaction (like presentations) because it allows them to communicatively and communally (re)construct what they’ve learned. And gives those who may not have been paying attention a chance back in.

You can quickly check a few facts, based on their questions (What did I say my most embarrassing moment was?) or let them quiz the other groups.

Turning on each other

Now tell them they’re going to ask each other the questions they’d written for you. Give them a minute to edit their question list ― if any deal with you explicitly as a foreigner, or based on some specific knowledge ― and rewrite those that would inappropriate for their classmates. You can model and then elicit some changed questions.

Monitor and get whole-class feedback, asking each student to share the two or three most interesting things they learned about their partner.

PART 3

Writing: my personal profile

The next step is to get students to write a personal profile. I’ve written my own example as a model. Below is the B2 edition, at Cambridge-First-appropriate 140-190 words. I’ve also got other exam-appropriate editions for other levels. Before giving it to them, I ask:

When would you write a personal profile? (e.g. specific social media contexts)

What info would you include in a personal profile to share with your classmates? (e.g. name, date of birth, reason for taking the class etc.) Board their answers.

Then I hand out my profile:

personal-profile-text-image

I tell students to quickly scan for the information thought they might find. What was included? What wasn’t? Then I ask them to check if I’d answered any of the questions from the getting to know me game.

Writing the student profile

The next step is for students to write their own profiles ― whether in class or at home. To get them prepared for the activity, make sure to highlight:

  • Organization ― paragraphs, headings, title
  • Content ― I want background and course goals, but the specifics are up to them
  • Word count, if relevant

Next steps

What do they do with the profile? I text like this is meant to be read by others, so the worst option for you would be to collect them and comment on them in private. Instead, I’d recommend:

  • Live carrousel: Students tape their completed texts to the wall. The class circulates and reads. I like to have students comment on other texts in some way to generate more discussion. You can have students put their initials next to things they have in common with the writer, or put their initials + a question mark about something they want to ask. When all the texts have been read, the writer takes down his or her profile and then finds the people who’ve written their initials to discuss commonalities or answer questions. As the teacher, you can underline examples of good and problematic language (you didn’t pick up while monitoring the writing phase) to be discussed in group feedback. But don’t forget to put your initials to commonalities first (sometimes it’s easy to forget that the profile was written for a real purpose ― to introduce the writer to you as a reader ― and that you’re more than just a red pen!)
  • Virtual carrousel: Increasingly, I use Google Docs to share class work, and any similar cloud-based document sharing app will do. Essentially, the idea is to have students post their profiles on a shared document, and to leave comments as above. Profile writers can respond in the comments.

Conclusion

As of this writing, that’s my day one routine. Like all great routines, it focuses on the big blocks and leaves lots of room for improvisation where it counts, like getting feedback and working with emergent language (but make sure you plan for the worst, as well). And it, along with my day one reading homework, serves to set expectations for the kind of contributions I expect from the students, and what they can expect from me. And crucially, it’s not a one-off or something to get out of the way, but the foundation for the consistent class culture I hope to establish.

Now, over to you: what’s your day one routine?

 

References:

Woodward, Terssa. Planning Lessons and Courses. Cambridge University Press, 2001.

A real-life shopping game

One of the novelties for me of teaching in London again is that English is everywhere. I’ve been exploring ways to make the most of this, and today I came up with this shopping game. This was partly because I needed some shopping and I thought I’d get my students to do it for me!

Instructions

In the classroom I explained that they would be split into three groups, given £10 and a shopping list. They would have half an hour to go around Borough market and buy the things I wanted. They had to ask for some information, like whether the eggs were free-range, if the apples were English. They had to ask to taste some cheese and choose a nice one for me. The winner would be the team who got all the things on the list and brought me back the most change, so they also had to ask how much things cost.

I also showed them the route we would take on Google maps and an approximate travel time.

Since the instructions were pretty complicated I got them to repeat them in pairs so I could check that they’d understood. Then I put a mini quiz on the board:

  1. How long will you have?
  2. How much money will you have?
  3. How do you win the game?
  4. How will we get there?
  5. Which bridge will we walk over?

Language and rehearsal

They had a look at their lists and we went through the meaning and pronunciation of the vocabulary.

I then gave them some language they might hear (Next please!,  Are you waiting? ) and elicited what they would need to say (Could I have some…?). They rehearsed the dialogues in their groups. Then off we went.

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Happy campers and a happy teacher. The pineapple was really good, and the English cheese was amazing! Carlos, Ana and Thais’s team (the Sharks) won. They gave me £2 change. 🙂

An Olympic Crossword part 2

In my previous post I explained how I got the students to create a crossword for their peers about the Winter Olympics. They completed them in today’s lesson and here are the finished versions.

DSC_0021DSC_0022

 

As you can see, the mistakes in the questions and answers have been corrected. This was done by the students with very little prompting from me.

You may be wondering what the language value is of this exercise, and (quite rightly) thinking that ‘luge’ and ‘bobsleigh’ aren’t exactly useful words. I think what they got out of it linguistically was:

a) the use of the +ing form of the verb for activities

b) using relative clauses without studying tedious ‘rules’. At least for speakers of languages with Latin roots, the structures are pretty much common sense and don’t need a lot of teaching. They were able to correct ‘a person *which‘ when I pointed it out.

c) some useful vocabulary that can be used figuratively such as hurdle (as in a problem or obstacle), sweep (as in swept away)

d) the use of the passive (which they corrected without my help)

e) some lexical chunks in the questions such as third place, make a descent, sweep the floor, hold the Olympics, get closer to (something), a piece of music

f) the difference between city and country.

 

But it’s not perfect!

Having said all that, two of the students complained about doing it, saying it was boring and they weren’t interested in the Winter Olympics. Fair enough! I gave them some grammar exercises to do instead and they were quite happy after that.

 

Your feedback

What do you think? Useful/not useful?

Would you use it with your students?

 

Learner-centred teaching from A1: An Olympic Crossword

Crossword A1Hurdles

Since we’re in the midst of the Olympics, yesterday one of my colleagues handed me a crossword with names of Olympic sports and other associated vocab. She’d used it as a filler, but I thought I’d extend it and make a whole lesson out of it.

How? Well I started with a miming game. This entailed hurdling two chairs and nearly doing myself an injury, but gave everyone the giggles and broke the ice for the two new girls who’d joined us today. The students then took turns. Carlos’s ‘equestrian’ was particularly  interesting! In this way, and with the help of Google images, I elicited most of the vocab they’d need to do the crossword, which they then merrily got on with.

I then explained that they were going to make their own crossword about the winter Olympics. At this point there was vociferous protestation from one student ‘Teacher I’m A1 not B1. It’s too difficult!’….and: ‘We’re from Brazil! We not know winter Olympics!’. But I stubbornly soldiered on with my plan. I happen to believe that students are capable of a lot more than they (and we) give them credit for (as I discussed in my IATEFL talk at Birmingham).

I wrote the stages on the board:

  1. Find out about the Winter Olympics.  (using their mobile phones)
  2. Write the questions. Use the crossword we did as a model.
  3. Design your crossword using the grid. Colour the squares at the end of the words. Don’t forget to write the numbers for the questions.

The product

DSC_0020

By the way, for the grid simply Google’crossword grid’.

As you can see, it generated some pretty impressive lexis for A1 learners. One of the girls exhaled a loud ‘phew!’ when they’d finished. It IS hard for them, but achievable if you give the right support. With activities like this, in contrast to using a book or a photocopy, the students do most of the work and are actively engaged with the language, which of course (we hope) makes it more memorable.

The next step is that they swap their crosswords and complete a puzzle created by their classmates. That’s today’s lesson...