The French Elections: listening lesson and rough plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rough plan

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the materials:

Listening: The Front National on BBC Radio

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

Listening: FN: We want out of EU and Schengen

Activity/Transcript: FNwewantoutofEUandSchengen_transcript

In brief:

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

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

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

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

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

Background Reading + Viewing

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

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

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

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

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

Discussion Questions

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

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

 

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

ELECTION DAY UPDATE:

 

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

Advanced

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

In class, they shared:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m waiting for their letters.

Student Feedback

feedback 1

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

What did you like about the lesson?

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

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

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

Did you change your opinion about either candidate?

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

Summary:

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

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

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

Upper-Intermediate

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

In the first class the students:

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

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

feedback

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

What I liked about the class:

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

What I didn’t like

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

Summary

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

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

Teens Upper-Intermediate/Advanced

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

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

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

 

Conclusion

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Taking the classroom into the world

Earlier this week I wrote about global issues, social justice and the possible imperative to bring those issues into the classroom. So it’s only fitting that I take the opportunity to talk about the opposite ― taking the classroom into the world.

Fresh from our workshop at IATEFL 2017, my Dynamite blogging partner Lindsey Clark has just arrived in Athens to volunteer as a teacher trainer at the No Border School, an association dedicated to empowering refugees and migrants through language teaching.

I urged her to write something about it for the blog. When she told me she was (understandably) too busy settling in and preparing for her workshop, I suggested an interview by phone to get her first impressions. (All photos by Lindsey Clark)

What’s it like there?

It’s like no school I’ve ever worked in, that’s for sure. I’m volunteering for the No Border school which is collaborating with, partially housed in, but funded separately from the Khora Community Center (or see here, on Facebook). At the center they run classes and provide services to help refugees/migrants ―  there’s a kitchen, a creche where parents can leave their kids with volunteers as they attend classes, medical assistance and dentistry. There’s also a workshop where they make furniture for the building.

So language teaching is only one aspect; they teach German and French as well. The No Border school works partly from the center but also in other locations around Athens.

What’s the plan for the workshop?

I’m going to be training volunteer teachers in some of the basics. Some have teaching but not EFL experience, others may have no experience at all. They’re from a variety of different countries, as well: Italy, Spain, Greece, France, America, Canada and Brazil. Some have been here for a few weeks or months and some have just arrived. So the first step is figuring out what knowledge and experience the volunteers are bringing with them.

They might need to know about things like lesson planning, giving instructions, setting up activities. One thing we might work on is simply awareness of learner language level and knowing how to grade your own language.

I’m going to both share some of the no-prep activities we demoed at our IATEFL workshop as well as trying to find out where they are with their actual knowledge of grammar. The plan is to start with examples, find out what they know, have them do some basic research, and then help them create exercises.

The school would like to get on online platform up and running to help start the volunteers on training tasks before they come, and I’ll be helping them with that. New teachers are coming all the time. Anyone can sign up for minimum 2 weeks.

What are the students like?

To be honest, I don’t know personally yet. Just judging from the translators and what I’ve heard there are Syrians, Kurds and Afghans. Urdu speakers and Farsi speakers. I’ll find out more as the week unfolds.

What’s the English-language program hoping to achieve with the students?

For some students, they’ve got to start with basic literacy skills in English before they do A1, mostly due to unfamiliarity with the English alphabet.

But others come in with a great background already. I know there are IELTS classes already going. And the exam fees will be paid through funding and donations.

Foto da Kyle Dugan(4)

What kind of materials or resources do you have to work with?

I have to say I was amazingly fortunate to get great help from the publishers at IATEFL. I had checked out No Border’s Amazon Wish List when I was in Glasgow and managed to talk to a number of publishers before the book fair was closed.

Lucy Constable from National Geographic donated a ton of coursebooks from their Life series at from beginners to upper-intermediate, as well as a range of IELTS books. Pearson was also a huge help with lots of graded readers. I brought it all down in the car with me from Glasgow, including a printer got donated as well.

The volunteers are busy writing up a syllabus based on these coursebooks.

How did you get involved with this in the first place?

I wanted to go to Greece. I also wanted to get involved in teacher training, and do it for a worthy cause. I heard about another school setting up schools in tents. I contacted them but didn’t hear back from them.

Then I found the No Border school ― I think on Facebook. I wrote to them, told them I was interested and asked them if I could bring materials. They said yes, bring anything you can get, and like I said before I set about trying to make contacts at IATEFL for resources. I even gave a very brief talk at the Global Issues SIG day.

When I’m finished I’m going to send an outline of what’s been done to Linda Ruas and Julietta Schoenmann of the Global Issues SIG and then they are planning to come here and do more training sessions.

What’s made the biggest impact so far?

The wonderful thing that I’ve seen so far is that everybody’s patient. Everybody’s kind. Everybody talks and listens to each other. It seems like there are constant meetings because there are so many people to keep in the loop.

I’ve been here such a short time but it’s already a pretty emotional experience.  

Yesterday one teacher left who’d been here for six months. It was really difficult for her to tear herself away. You want to give and share as much as you can. 

Of course, volunteers don’t have the worst of it. As one refugee said: “You are volunteers ― if it gets too much you can go back to your families and homes.” They don’t have that luxury.

The school and the community center need support.

If you want to donate money or teaching materials (or find out more about what they need), click the link below.

Donate to No Border School, Athens

Donate to Khora Community Center

3. Global Issues, Social Justice & PARSNIPs

 

Ok, ok, so you’re all on to new conferences with (hopefully) new issues and angles and presentations, but before the dust settles entirely on IATEFL 2017 I’d like to take one last look at the Big Issues that emerged for me from the conference.

For this third and last installment I’m going to throw together talks by Steve Brown, Elaine Hodgson & Viviane Kirmeliene, JJ Wilson, Judy Boyle, and Katy Muench (winner of the IATEFL Gill Sturtridge First Time Speaker scholarship), all of which centered on the extent to which we as teachers have the right and responsibility to discuss, debate and educate students about global issues and issues of social justice, many of which overlap considerably with topics that are considered taboo in the English classroom (the so-called PARSNIPs issues of Politics, Alcohol, Religion, Sex, Narcotics, –isms and Pork).

And like all the presenters, I’m going to throw in a little disclaimer:

You know your teaching context better than me, and it’s naive and silly to assume that what’s possible for me is possible ― or even desirable ― for you. If talking about topic X puts your job, legal status or life in danger then I’m by no means insisting that you should.

But one of the best things about IATEFL for me ― thanks in no small part to the speakers I’m going to discuss ― was that it made me stop to consider the different rights, duties and privileges that you may have as an English teacher in different contexts, whether your students are children or adults, in state schools, universities or private language institutions, where you’re a native, a linguistically-integrated foreigner, or newly arrived expat, teaching where students are customers, where you’re seen as an educator, a professional, or “just a language teacher”, where students have choice, where students all speak the same language, are foreign guests or on their home turf, where there is political violence or the threat of it or where you have no job security or official legal status.

These factors and others may stymie any attempt to bring the real, challenging and often ugly world into your classroom; but equally they might make it not just a choice, but an imperative.

3 ways teachers approach controversial topics in the ELT classroom

First I want to look at 3 ways that emerged from the talks of how we try (or are forced) to deal with controversy in the classroom. They’re not mutually exclusive, but overlapping.

Then I’m going to look at some reasons why we don’t (and it’s not just “because coursebooks” ― but if you want a taste of that argument in the form of a coursebook beatdown see Scott Thornbury, Geoff Jordan, Paul Walsh and many others). Finally, I’ll report on and make some suggestions for how we can approach controversial topics in the ELT classroom.

1. It’s not in the lesson plan!

The first is the in-the-moment response to a student saying something controversial or potentially offensive in class. It’s what Steve Brown called the Can of Worms: you’ve got a split second to decide whether you open it or not. (Note, the issue never seemed to be one student turning on another and directly insulting him or her; rather it’s one student saying something offensive to a certain group)

Brown had a list of “stuff you hope your students don’t say in class,” and in Katy Muench’s presentation she asked us to discuss how we’d respond to a student saying, “Nelson Mandela was a [n-word]. Ha, ha.”

What would you do?

I was chatting with Tyson Seburn, who told me he’d just shut it down. Don’t ignore it, but make it clear that the word is not acceptable. You can’t let one student hijack the class with a remark made in ignorance or out of provocation. Russ Mayne seemed to sympathize:

But Steve would argue that it’s a teachable moment. We should use the comment as a springboard asking why the student would say that, what was meant. We have an obligation, as teachers, to not only help the student inquire into the meaning of his or her own statements, word choices and beliefs ― and interrupt whatever lesson we’re supposed to be teaching to do it.

2. It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing Human Trafficking!

The next way of looking at controversial topics is planning to deal with them as a lesson. Put that wriggling can of worms right on the syllabus. But this approach has real dangers to it that JJ Wilson revealed so perfectly ― and unintentionally.

In a talk that meant to inspire and even equip teachers with activities they could use to get students thinking about social justice issues and give them a voice, in a throwaway line he unintentionally revealed the all-too-familiar approach to serious and controversial topics.

I had an argument with my editor. We wanted to do a lesson about social justice issues….

In other words, a lesson in a unit in one of Wilson’s many authored coursebooks.

I know that unit, or at least many like it. If it’s not a sweat-soaked Chris Martin of Coldplay guiding an ox-drawn plow in a save-the-rainforest photo-op while a bunch of grinning natives gratefully look on (although to be fair, Wilson was arguing with his publisher ― unsuccessfully, I think ― against white savior representations like Martin, Bono and Sting), then it’s that four-page social justice grab-bag that name-checks Women’s Rights, Animal Rights and Equal Rights (but not Gay Rights), shoehorned between the World of Work and the Trouble with Technology.

Anybody who’s ever mocked the arbitrariness of the grammar syllabus (“It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing the Present Perfect!”) should equally recognize the absurdity of dealing with social justice issues in the same way (“It’s Tuesday, so that must mean we’re doing Human Trafficking!”).

Let’s be honest: school has an amazing ability to suck the life out of the most fascinating topics. At its worst, school ― and by school here I include both the global-market coursebook or the best-intentioned home-made lesson plan ― can turn anything golden it touches, anything fascinating and interesting and shocking and challenging, into the dullest lead.

So any teacher hoping to slot Something Controversial or a Serious Global Issue on the syllabus runs the risk of turning out one hell of a dud.

Just ask the Brazilians.

Survey says…

According to Elaine Hodgson and Viviane Kirmeliene in their presentation on writing coursebooks for the Brazilian market, publishers in Brazil have a fairly free hand when it comes to creating coursebooks. There is no officially-mandated nation-wide curriculum. The one obligatory topic for inclusion is a unit on African and Indigenous people; the other “global issue” commonly included is Global Warming.

When putting together a new coursebook for the Brazilian market they decided to do market research on the actual end-user. Not on the typically-surveyed teachers, but students. The results?

In a politically turbulent time, the kids wanted more politics ― in the coursebook. Global Warming was fine as a topic but, they said, boring and repetitive in coursebook practice. And the one topic they were truly fed up with? “Social Issues”, i.e. the one mandated by the government: African and Indigenous issues.

Given their interest in politics, the students surveyed clearly weren’t put off by serious topics. But they seemed to make clear what every student knows to be true and every teacher can so quickly forget. The most earnest high diving socially-minded lesson plan can produce the biggest flop.

But it doesn’t have to be so bad.

“We want this in our coursebooks”

Katy Muench (who ominously reported that she had toned her own presentation down significantly in light of a fellow teacher’s recent dismissal and deportation) talked of some wonderful attempts she made to challenge her students stereotypes about blacks in Turkey using YouTube videos produced by Ayo and Ebun. The videos feature a presenter of African origin who lives in Istanbul and the purpose is to raise awareness about stereotypes or ignorance or racism about Africa and Africans (by Turks and others). They videos are Buzzfeed-style videos, sometimes serious but more often silly and playful. According to Katy they manage to charm rather than lecture and gently poke fun and provoke thought about serious issues.

The prepared-lesson approach can also take some fascinating guises, as when Steve Brown described using dialogues and roleplays to present and practice language that empowers the immigrants he teaches, as in the example of how to complain to your MP about bad service from the NHS. And it’s one thing to learn some facts about the host government, another to learn how to negotiate its bureaucracies, and still another to question and debate whether those bureaucracies are actually living up to the promises they make ― or whether another system would be better, and how to fight for it.

Judy Boyle’s presentation on her No Project at the Global Issues day was an absolute showstopper: she runs seminars teaching students about the over 45 million people worldwide living in slavery, victims that that are working to produce the chocolate, clothes, gold and other products we covet and consume. Students produce art, dance and write letters (in English) to large local manufacturers that don’t certify their products Fair Trade.

And like those Brazilian kids who recognized that in a time of political turmoil there was a world erupting just outside their classrooms, the Greek and Italian and Bulgarian kids whose eyes were opened to the horror of human slavery told Judy Boyle: “We want this in our coursebooks”.

3. “It isn’t a body of knowledge, it’s an approach”

The third way of looking at controversial topics is, well, an approach ― an approach to your students, to your class, and to yourself as a teacher. “You can’t teach social justice,” JJ Wilson said. “It isn’t a body of knowledge. It’s an approach.” I’m not sure he was quoting Paulo Freire, but it was his best line, and I think, the whole thesis of his talk. And it was equally what Steve Brown was arguing for.

The ability to deal with controversial topics of any kind is not just a matter of reacting to one student’s uncomfortable outburst or slotting a unit into the syllabus, it’s about creating a culture in class that gives students voice and allows for discussion and debate on challenging, discomforting topics.

It’s what JJ Wilson was talking about when he mentioned Augusto Boal’s letting the spectators burst onto the stage. And, although they were never mentioned explicitly, it’s what Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner were talking about when they said (in Teaching as a Subversive Activity) that in school, the medium is the message: you can talk about democracy in class but if your classroom management is a model of totalitarianism it’s only the latter form of government that’s going to make a meaningful impression.

While I sincerely hope that nobody teaching at IATEFL would be guilty of that charge, the idea of a class with students who were empowered to voice their opinions, their concerns, their anger, their feelings with utter frankness may for some seem a long way off.

But trying to achieve that doesn’t mean we abandon our role as teacher. On the contrary, it enhances it. Students come to us — and not just an online conversation bot — because they trust in the idea of having a teacher. And we can use that leverage not just to weigh in on grammatical accuracy but on matters of fact and belief while he help them grapple with difficult topics and come to know their own voice.

What’s stopping us?

It’s time for me to repeat that disclaimer! Assuming that 1) your job, legal status or life is not at risk, and 2) you’re not chained to a single coursebook or curriculum you’ve got to adhere unit by unit, page by page, until the end, what’s stopping you from raising your voice and talking about the big issues so often omitted or pushed aside?

First I’m going to mention what wasn’t talked about, and then I’ll describe Steve Brown’s very compelling argument for why we don’t serve up PARSNIPs in the classroom.

Lack of knowledge

There seems to be an assumption from teachers like Steve Brown, and Judy Boyle that if it weren’t for external constraints (those mentioned above), we’d all be running challenging discussion classes on important issues. (Linda Ruas even asked me, in utter sincerity and without a hint a sarcasm, what would compel anybody to sign up for the Testing and Assessment SIG (as I had, even though I attended the Teacher Development SIG pre-conference event) or any other SIG when there were Global Issues to worry about.)

But even though I might like, share and post articles about the big issues and discuss them with friends I might be seized by massive self-doubt if I tried to bring them up in the classroom. Do I really know what the hell I’m talking about? Particularly if it relates to the country I’m residing in.

And I think many students might be in a similar position. Global issues may be the stuff they read about and watch and talk about with their friends but they fear being exposed as ignorant if they try to talk about it in public.

Lack of time

As everybody who’s ever tried the big lesson on say Terrorism knows, it takes time to prepare. You want to make sure students have equal access to resources to discuss and to have an informed discussion. Otherwise the ones who follow these issues regularly will have more to say and can dominate the discussion. And you want comprehension questions and language work and all the rest of it so you can feel like you’re having a “real lesson”.

And if you’re suffering from the anxiety of getting found out as a know-nothing on the topic, clearly you’re going to need time to read and research before you can confidently pose questions about it.

And of course, there’s always the fear that global issues have a shelf life. As they often say in the world of corporate blogging, your best time and money investment is in “evergreen” content ― stuff that you can publish over and over again. It’s obviously the global coursebook industry’s bread and butter. If you want to plan ripped-from-the-headlines lessons, you’re talking about a lot of investment for a single lesson plan.

Lack of training

But Steve Brown argued that more than anything it was the lack of training that kept PARSNIPs off our classroom plate. 

Steve surely relishes his daily Can of Worms, but why don’t I (and probably many of you)?

Because I’ve done a TEFL Certificate and the first two modules of the Cambridge Delta, and no other formal training in between or after. I was trained to diagram the Present Perfect and say Great! to whatever mumbled half-utterance my students produced. I was trained in the PPP. I was trained to create a mind-numbingly detailed lesson plan and give instructions and create gap fill exercises. I was trained to guide students to discover grammatical rules, but only when I’ve cherry-picked the examples. I’ve been trained in and assessed on what Steve Brown aptly called “low-level skills”.

What I wasn’t trained to do, however, is to actually respond to what goes on in the class. How to assess which avenues, in terms of language or argument, are worth pursuing, regardless of what’s on the plan. I wasn’t trained how to question a student’s beliefs ― not to show off my superior position, or make them reveal their ignorance, but out of personal curiosity and a desire to help them dig deeper into their own preconceptions or system of values. I wasn’t trained how to manage spontaneous debate, or full-class discussion, or moderate heated arguments.

I wasn’t trained for any of that, and outside of Hollywood films I’ve never seen what that looks like in action. Because no one in an observed lesson for any standard teaching diploma scheme is going to risk that kind of thing in the classroom.

So if those are (some of) the problems how can we better, as Linda Ruas put it, let the world into our classroom?

Letting the world into the classroom

Training:

Teacher training should involve more instruction, observation and feedback on how to actually work with the language, and arguments, that come up in class. Do training videos like that exist? I would love to see videos of say Steve Brown teaching some of the classes he describes.

We teach students functional language for debate and disagreement, but do teachers learn the language for moderating one? We’ve got to have more in our arsenal than “Ok, let’s move on”, and we can’t just assume it will come naturally to everybody.

Maybe we should spend time in training courses watching moderated political debates (from Sunday morning news shows or the like) or chaired panel discussions or how-to-negotiate seminars and see apply those principles to the classroom. I’m not being facetious. There are methods and professionals for that kind of thing; it can be taught.

Lessons:

The news is out there. Your students are probably watching and listening to it. So just jump in next time something comes up. I remember one particularly “successful” moment with this approach when news broke of the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris. In class that very afternoon we compiled information about what we knew and then turned the debate to the wider (and even by then, longstanding) issue of freedom of speech and its (possible) limits in relation to the infamous Dutch cartoons. For homework and in the following week we continued to discuss and debate the issue while using BBC Radio news clips and reading for more language (and content) input.

Fresher news, however terrible, might work well in a group because no one person is much more informed than the others. And the old authentic materials dictum to “grade the task, not the text” is never more apt ― to save time, grab hold of one useful audio or video clip and see how much mileage you can get out of it in multiple classes.

Of course, the shelf-life issue may be less true than we think. The Syrian civil war is still going on. Refugees and migrants are still fighting to get out of their countries and into Europe and the US (among other places). The economic crisis, the rise of reactionary politics and the possible dissolution of Europe have been front page news for at least as long as I’ve been in Italy (since 2008).

The details of any particular news cycle may change, but the issues, problems and values that are to be debated have not. Investing the time into building a particular lesson around any one of these issues may be time very well spent in that you can go back to it with multiple groups and multiple terms.

And if you’re not sure where to start in terms of some perennial controversial issues, some clever and generous ELT teachers have put together a series of free ebooks with PARSNIP-focused lessons that might be worth checking out.

Processes:

Student selected topics

But I think the most important way to bring the real world in is empowering students to do it themselves. Because as with the Brazilian high school students I mentioned above, social justice issues we serve up to our students in tidy packages are most likely to be the ones they resent the most or find the most tedious.

So I think we need to get the topics to come from our students. That might simply mean asking students to find an article of their individual choice on a controversial topic. Give them some language-oriented follow-up tasks ― and see what they come up with.

But if you’re asking them to vote as a class on a topic, you might need to get them to dig deeper. It’s not enough to turn the tables on the students and say, “What do you want to talk about for the rest of the year?” Believe me, I’ve tried.

About 5 years back, fresh from having read the description in Luke Meddings and Scott Thornbury’s Teaching Unplugged of a teacher in Ukraine whose formerly “inert” students produced their own “Alternate Textbooks” with topics like Human Rights, AIDS and Drug Abuse and the Post WWII World, I asked my own students to come up with a list of topics for the year.

Their answers? Hobbies. Sports. Travel. Work. Fashion. In other words, the table of contents of any coursebook ever published. Where was the crisis? Where was the challenge? Where was the newsworthiness?

In reality, this is another training issue: I had no idea how to coach my students toward whatever real and stimulating topics I had imagined.

These students were interested in and read about world events. The problem was when the question was dumped on their laps they responded in the blandest, and least interesting way possible.

You might have to overcome the unspoken classroom bias against controversial topics in class. As Steve Brown talked about, the silent omission of such topics from any syllabus or classroom they’ve ever encountered might have long ago convinced them it just wasn’t appropriate. Finding out what was on the news last night, or what news stories they read or heard about on social networks, might be a jumping off point.

Overcoming the burden of expertise

Which leads to the last point. By making them part of the process of choosing and selecting topics, you’re encouraging your students to use their voices. But best of all, you’re taking the burden of expertise off yourself.

If “Today we’re doing Global Warming” then you’re expected to have one ace, student-proof lesson plan to back it up. But when your students select the topic for you, you can confess your ignorance, and ask them to teach you everything they know. Be what Paulo Freire called “co-learners” in the classroom.

You can still be the language authority, of course, but you can relinquish your role as subject authority.

Routines and mechanisms

And lastly I think we need to have routines, activities and mechanisms that allow this to perpetuate itself. That means being practiced at setting up impromptu debates. Pop-up debates. Just-a-minute style talks. These are all formats that, like a professional panel discussion or political talk show, in theory encourage a level playing field to speak and be challenged.

But there’s more: in his recent blog post on challenging confirmation bias, AnthonyTeacher reports that in terms of actually challenging student beliefs, “debates and other side-taking activities may be counterproductive”, suggesting instead consensus-seeking “cooperative critical discussion of evidence to reach a mutual conclusion.” (Although I’m still thinking about what this would mean as a practical activity.)

By far one of the best mechanisms I’ve found for level-playing-field discussion is Tyson Seburn’s Academic Reading Circles, which I’ve adopted for the general English classroom (more on that in a coming-soon blog post). It essentially gives individual roles to students that, all together, mimic and train students in the reading processes employed by fluent readers. But what’s great is that it also creates the context for hour-long student-led discussions (as well as intensive language work).

Reading Circles is a great opportunity for reading about challenging, even controversial, topics and giving students a mechanism for discussing them. It levels the playing field (in that students are all working from the same text and have had time to think about how to articulate their opinions). And it relieves the teacher of the burden of subject authority.

Conclusion

If we can talk about controversial topics in the classroom, should we? We might thinking we should avoid politics, but as Steve Brown argued, silence ― omitting those topics from the class, the lesson plan or the syllabus ― is itself a political act.

A classroom is a safe space where students can try out their language and make mistakes without fear of ridicule; it should also be a safe space in which to air views, debate, to challenge and be challenged on the beliefs and issues that outside the classroom may be our most dear ― or dangerous.

Of course, as every presenter intelligently reiterated, you are the best judge of what’s possible in your teaching context.

But just as intelligently, what each presenter was clearly suggesting is that maybe each of us, in our own situation, can do more than we think is possible.

2. Research and practice: the great divide

Of the 200 or so soundbites I tweeted from IATEFL 2017, the one that produced the longest discussion thread was Scott Thornbury’s declaration that “it’s a well-known fact that teachers don’t read research.” And Thornbury wasn’t the only one to mention it.

The idea that research is research, practice is practice and never the twain shall meet (to paraphrase Kipling) was cited, lamented, and baked into sales pitches by a number of speakers and commentators throughout the week.

Why don’t teachers read research? Lack of time, lack of money for that time, lack of perceived relevance and the simple “inconclusiveness” of research findings themselves. Which came as a shock to many.

But I teach in private language school. I could play a Liszt rhapsody with the fingers I’d have left over after counting up the number of teachers I personally work with who read primary research.

And I’ll be honest: I don’t read research either.

Opening the door

At least, I didn’t, until I started doing Delta Module 1. Like every great learning experience I’d ever had, the best thing I can say about my otherwise excellent tutor was that she opened a door for me and helped me step through.

I started reading the research. At first it was what Thornbury referred to as mediators, that is, those who help us interpret the science: methodology books like The A-Z of ELT, Jack Richards, Pearson’s How to… series.

Then, in Delta Module 2, I took a different approach. I wanted to know where these “mediators” were getting their stuff from. So I really started digging into actual research.

You know, like the stuff you find on the internet.

And that, of course, is the problem.

I’ve got a university degree, and years of experience as a teacher, but when it comes to actually interpreting and making use of what Thornbury termed the “inconclusiveness” of research findings, I was sailing without a rudder.

My choices were skewed by a number of factors:

  1. I only accessed papers freely available from Google search
  2. I had limited time
  3. Lack of knowledge meant I had little way of evaluating the truth of any claim or measuring it against other research

And I drew my own conclusions. In the end, consciously or unconsciously, I’m sure I was guilty of cherry picking. Or of using research inconclusiveness in the name of my more opinionated or decisive conclusions.

Research in practice

When I’m not teaching, my other job (ah, that cringe-worthy phrase!) is in the world of marketing, where everybody shouts about the need for data, data-driven insights, etc. But the fact is that most marketing writers and bloggers (myself included) are guilty of the same exact things – cherry-picking statistics, circulating unquestioned facts and leaping to conclusions.

In drawing this comparison I’m not saying that the world of education and marketing are the same. In both fields there are serious people working to try to understand and explain how their respective domains work and using scientific methods and experiments to back things up. But there are many others, sometimes with the best of intentions, sometimes without, who draw less than scientific conclusions about the data that they find. In many cases because they have no training in reading, interpreting and making sense of research.

Think of some of the big ideas in (ELT) education, all of which, explicitly or implicitly, came up at IATEFL 2017: grit, growth mindset, resilience, learner autonomy, plurilingualism, English-mediated instruction, materials-light teaching, etc.

And those ideas have superseded (which is not to say disproved, but rather pushed, at least for the moment, off the attention-shelf) those of previous years: grammar-translation, audiolingualism, the lexical approach, the direct method, Universal Grammar, etc.

These are the ideas that inform the methodology books, past and present, that we read. What should I, as a teacher, make of them? And the fact that many of them thrive for one decade, only to be overturned in the next?

One of my Delta tutor’s favorite expressions was “throw out the baby with the bathwater” because (and I’m certainly not the first to say this) it so perfectly describes what many publishing and practicing in ELT seem so good at doing.

All of this is just to say it’s understandable that teachers, if they give it thought at all, are intimidated by, or skeptical of, what they can get from reading research.

A basis for skepticism

It’s a skepticism that was interestingly echoed by the very methodology writers that Thornbury interviewed in his informal survey. “JS” commented:

I’ve never found much formal “research” very helpful to my own classroom work. I am not “anti-research” but I do carry a suspicion of many statistical studies in teaching.

 

And he wasn’t alone:

In other words, despite all their years of writing about teaching, these ELT mediators can sound very much like the practitioners on the other side of the research-practice divide they’re meant to bridge!

A problem in search of a metaphor

But there’s a danger in suggesting, as I did in the title, that there’s a great divide between research and practice, because it suggests that they’re opposites. Research lacking in application vs. practice without any grounding in research findings. Evidence-based abstractions vs. unscientific gut feelings.

Maybe a more honest take is that we’re all on a continuum between the two extremes, and that we need to all try to pull each other toward the middle.

How can we do that? A few proposals:

  • Take off paywalls for access to research papers produced by public/state universities. If you’re supported by government funds, you’re supported by taxpayer funds, so let us see and think about what you’re doing.
  • Make mediated research available (in the form of methodology books) in every school and language center. As Scott Thornbury said elsewhere, many schools might do better to just dump the year’s coursebook budget into the Cambridge Teaching Library guides (and yes, as series editor, he admitted his choice of texts was biased). It would be a better investment for all concerned and a good start. Because even if the attitude some methodology writers offered toward research is, as Geoff Jordan wrote, “disquieting”, they still represent a jumping-off point for learning more about ― and beginning to question ―  theory.
  • More support ― and funding for? ― research mediation efforts like ELT Research Bites, a voluntary effort at research mediation, with follow-up from teachers about what research they made use of in their own classroom, in other words, how the research fit into their practice.

  • Give teacher-learners a reason to research. Mine was the expensive and time-consuming Delta, but independent, smaller-scale projects would work as well, including individual attempts at action research.
  • More time devoted in training and on teacher certification courses (Delta, etc.) to how we can assess and make use of research. There should be a strong push away from the Harmer and Scrivener basic teaching books that got you through the Celta ― or even time devoted to a critical reappraisal of them.
  • Accept and indulge some inconclusiveness. On the one hand, universities and researchers should push back against commerical attempts to make a fast buck on the latest edu-fad before it gets disseminated into methodology and teacher training. On the other, as Thornbury (somewhat controversially) suggested, I think we should be sensitive when seeking to debunk other people’s cherished or time-strengthened beliefs, drawing a line between what is in fact harmful or detrimental to learning and what’s simply been disproven but may have some sort of non-negative placebo effect (and I’m saying this someone whose knee-jerk response to any positive discussion of learning styles is, “You heard of the Foer Effect?”)

Some of these ideas might draw research and practice closer together.

None of them, however, would solve the problem of time. And pay or return on investment for that time.

But that’s a topic for another post.

1. Pronunciation and politics

Pronunciation, as I knew from my first moment trying to awkwardly mouth the RP-centric picto-phonemes in New English File Intermediate, is about identity. And politics. Cursing the Queen and her English (which was much easier for an American than actually saying “bull” in RP), I fudged a mocking, piss-taking English accent during the coursebook’s “pron section” for a couple of terms before just ditching it all together.

It was only discovering the wonders of connected speech on my Delta Module 1 course a few years ago that I learned there was more to pron than just individual vowel sounds, and I waded back into the teaching of pronunciation.

But the further I drift from those heady days of theory, the easier I find it is to avoid explicitly focusing on it. So I was happy to discover, in my first trip to IATEFL, a number of talks on pron, including the much-touted “first ever pron plenary” by Jane Setter.

And while Setter’s plenary was informed, inspiring, encouraging (just “focus on focus” ― tonicity ― she urged, and you’ll produce measureable gains in students’ perception and production), and super feel-goody, I’d like to focus on a different pron talk by someone I’ll nominate for the unsung hero of the pron crowd, Gemma Archer.

Her talk dealt as seriously and instructively with pronunciation but situated it, at times implicitly and at times very explicitly, in the very real of context of a global ELT industry, a looming Brexit, and an uncertain Scottish future.

The other 97%

In her talk, “The other 97%: pronunciation strategies for non-RP-speaking teachers” (according to a much-cited number by David Crystal, 97% is the percentage of native non-RP speakers) Archer, a speaker of SSE (Standard Scottish English) took aim at the published materials bias toward RP, particularly in EAP.

She highlighted differences between RP and SSE pronunciation: among other things, the latter has shorter vowels and the rhotic /r/ ― as she stated in perfect deadpan, and to laughter and applause, “In SSE we simply pronounce the R wherever it appears” (well, duh, says this American).

I found her talk particularly interesting as it came a few slots after listening legend John Field stated in his presentation that the use of regional accents in listening materials aimed at lower level learners was “worrying”.

While I don’t doubt his expertise, who, I wondered, is Field’s imagined pool of learner-listeners? And where do they study? Clearly not where Archer, or fellow Scot Steve Brown, hails from and works, or where any number of other teachers, from elsewhere in the UK, Ireland or abroad ― i.e. the 97% ― come from.

That Harry Potter talk

Citing a survey she had done as well as anecdotal evidence from her own experience teaching pre-sessional EAP courses in Scotland, what Archer seemed to demonstrate so clearly was that “regional” or non-RP accents are perceived as “difficult” or “strange” precisely and only to those who’ve had no exposure to them ― which includes an unfortunately large number of the IELTS 6.5 pre-sessional students landing in her neck of the UK every term.

What she has worked at, and advocated for, and what I would back wholeheartedly, is the local development of resources that allow teachers to highlight, analyze, and teach their own local accents. (Not, of course, to the exclusion of all others, which means including RP.)

Rather, she encouraged the teaching of something called, if I got this correctly, “high variance phonemic instruction”, which exposes students to lots of variations of individual phonemes (e.g. the word bull, mentioned above, spoken by people with a number of different accents) early on. It doesn’t mean doing whole volumes of Robert Burns in A1, but it does means getting them used to the idea that all non-RP accents are not simply deviations from some otherwise monolithic norm.

File under: “I’m Scottish!”

I’m sure someone might object: but my coursebook has lots of regional accents! In fact, I too clearly remember that red-bearded cartoon in English File Elemetary File 1 belting out, in response to a question about his origins, “I’m Scottish!” And I’m sure the ELT industry is more sensitive to it (and realistic about it) than it used to be.

2017-04-11 01_38_54-IATEFL Conference and Exhibition 2017 in Glasgow
The sensitive new 2017 IATELF mascot

But as Archer teaches EAP in her own country and is much more sensitive to the lack of resources in, in this case, her own accent, I’m going to take her word for it. I long ago learned to pick out that one hammy American voice actor every publisher seems to call on for their series. What passes for variety to the outsider might be extremely limited to the one with ears to truly hear.

So if that’s fine for SSE Gemma, teaching in her native country, where does that leave us EFLers, trying to teach pronunciation abroad? First, as Archer said, there should be more training and support of learning about a teacher’s own individual accent.

That should be balanced with an understanding and recognition of what’s best in English as a lingua franca (ELF) contexts. (According to Jennifer Jenkins’s findings, which were referenced by Archer and summarized helpfully here on ELF Pronunciation, my ― and Gemma’s ― rhotic /r/ makes the grade, but my American flapped /t/ ― I say bedder for better ― doesn’t)

Which leaves us with the final question. If local training and materials are needed, who’s going to invest in it? More on that next time.

 

 

 

The pre-service TEFL certificate: 12 things I learned

With industry veterans like Geoff Jordan, Hugh Dellar and others out there swinging their hammers at CELTA, I thought I’d take the opportunity to defend the pre-service ELT teaching certificate. Not the CELTA, mind you, but its oft-snubbed, dubiously legitimate little brother. I’m here to defend the humble TEFL certificate.

For the record, I completed a 120-hour TEFL program with 6 hours of teaching practice at the now-defunct ITC Prague (i.e. not an internet-only certificate). The instructors were Geoff Harwood and three other guys whose names I no longer remember (Geoff’s was written on my end-of-course certificate). ITC Prague (as I found out later) eventually failed as a business, but the teaching instruction these guys gave was excellent. The TEFL has had a sort of slow-drip effect on me, and some of what I learned only really struck a chord years later.

Looking back on it from 13 years later, here are 12 things I most definitely learned on my TEFL course. Whatever pre-service course you’ve done or will do, I hope you’ll have the chance to learn some of the same.

1. What it feels like to be in your students’ shoes

Once a week during the 4-week training course we got taught a lesson in basic Czech. It was L2 only, and we learned some of the usual basics like ordering a beer, ordering a beer… and, well, whatever else you do in Prague. (Oh, that’s right, and the akusativ case as well). I still find it silly and somewhat ridiculous when Delta trainers or presenters ask you to model activities and instructions on your English-speaking colleagues who are roleplaying as students; this sort of suspension of disbelief would have been impossible to accomplish with day-0 teachers if we hadn’t had the bracing shock of our first dose of elementary Czech.

Of course, L2-only instruction has no shortage of critics now, but as a teaching model in the context of mostly monolingual native-speaker Americans (as we were) en route to who knows where, it makes a lot of sense. So much so that when I started helping with teacher training in Istanbul I also liked to demonstrate the basics in elementary Turkish.

2. Be prepared to teach in any condition

Maybe because we weren’t the silver spoon babies from the Cambridge CELTA nursery there seemed to be an emphasis on being prepared to teach in any condition. We heard stories about jobs around the world with horrid living conditions and monthly payments in cash-filled suitcases that had to be rushed to the local currency exchange before the rate plunged and four weeks’ pay turned into two. You might have a library full of resources, we were told, but it was more likely we were to have an out-of-date coursebook and a broken photocopy machine and just one color of chalk. (That’s right, I said chalk.)

As such, we learned to teach with minimal resources, like a blurry photocopy of a half-page of a coursebook (at least that’s how I remember it). Knowing how little is needed to actually teach a language ultimately both prepared me for some of the teaching experiences that followed (particularly when I spent lunches teaching two farm girls in a small village in Southern Italy with only home-made materials) and primed me to keep my head above water when confronted with the tsunami of lookalike coursebooks, CDs, DVDs, online components and apps that the profession is awash in today.

3. You may play only a small, possibly insignificant role in any learner’s EFL journey

ITC opened up their doors to the city to fill the chairs for the free trainee lessons. There was a slightly annoying, over-talkative older guy who never failed to show up in the advanced course. One evening after my lesson he button-holed me on my way out to meet up with fellow TEFLers at a bar. His English was very good, and his accent, at least to my American ears, was very British. Did he learn that much just from popping into trainee lessons? Of course not. As we walked across the Old Town Square he told me that he had learned all his English by listening emphatically, obsessively and passionately to BBC radio from the time he was a child during the war.

In other words, it was his own relentless motivation that allowed him to learn what he had. For much of his life that meant listening to the radio. At other times it might have meant studying grammar or sitting in and piping up during awkwardly delivered trainee lessons.

What’s great is that when you realize you’re only a small part of anybody’s learning journey you can stop worrying about cramming in and pounding away at every bit of grammar on the B2 syllabus. Every new teacher may secretly hope to be that one heroic, life-changing catalyst, but more likely than not there will be other classes, other teachers, other learning moments. You’re only a small stop along the way.

4. Be generous with your praise

I think one of the hardest lessons for any teacher to learn is that there’s no magic to spotting errors, and nothing is easier than criticism. Giving praise, on the other hand, is much harder, or at least harder to stay in the habit of doing day in and day out, in classroom speaking and homework marking. Fortunately I was given a great example of how to heap praise on struggling elementary students early on. The instructor was a grinning, floppy haired guy who’d mastered two dozen ways to say “great”, and he doled them fast and furiously whenever the students would talk. Amazing. Fantastic. Excellent. Awesome.

Of course, empty praise can be shallow, if not damaging, and some leading lights in ELT would probably take my instructor to task for not demanding high enough, but the thing I’ve learned to constantly remind myself of is just how much time and study it took for any student, whatever her level of interlanguage, to produce the language she has produced. When a student is stretching herself to express meaning, imperfect is no less praiseworthy.

5. Use the room

One of the best classroom techniques I ever learned was to simply back off when a student was speaking in whole-class mode. When someone timidly croaks out a few words or a sentence the natural impulse is to approach, protect and console. But outside of a major emotional breakdown by your student, this is the wrong approach. What I learned from the same grinning, floppy-haired instructor was that the best response to student production is to move to the diagonal opposite side of the room.

It forces the student to project (shouting What? while cupping your hand to your ear doesn’t hurt either), it’s a great justification for some Underhill-approved repetition, and it keeps the whole class engaged as nobody’s excluded from an unintentionally private conversation.

6. You want authentic? Tell a story

The best trainee lesson I taught on my TEFL certificate course was one where I recorded myself telling a true story about randomly ending up in a small French village to watch the home team win the final game of the 1998 World Cup, and the riotous, booze-soaked celebration that followed. Students listened to the recording then retold the story using elaborate pictures I had drawn and colored. Then they conceived, practiced and rehearsed their own anecdotes. While the stories vary, and the technology has changed (I don’t record on cassette tape anymore!) I still do variations on this lesson to this day.

What’s great about anecdote telling lessons is that they require no preparation (you can certainly do without the box of colored pencils), they’re infinitely variable and repeatable and within the timespan of one lesson they reward students with a perceptible increase in fluency. Anecdotes focus on whole texts, rather than discrete grammatical units (though of course they can serve as a vehicle for the latter) and allow both students and teacher to generate authentic texts. And best of all there’s no better way to get to know, and remember, the people in the class than by giving them the space and time to tell stories about themselves.

Humans are storytelling animals, and stories and anecdotes make for some of the best, easiest and most rewarding lessons you can create.

7. Coursebooks are lame

I don’t remember what coursebooks we were given to analyze, but I knew from the outset that they were not for me. As I wrote in an email to a friend at the end of week 3 of the course: You often have the option of working at least for structure from text/lesson books, but everyone remembers how mind-numbingly stupid those activities were. And un-cool.

I’d always romantically believed in Thomas Jefferson’s dictum that the government should be rewritten, by blood if necessary, for every generation, and thought it applied no less to my future career. I wrote: I’d like to make the first “hip” language textbook, to be tossed out, or modified, with each passing year and trend.

Though I spent later years lost in the wilderness of New English File, in the last few years I’ve been born again into my youthful ambition to rewrite the rules on what it means to teach a course. Without a coursebook.

8. Break fucking convention ― and learn from it

After getting an initial dose of what coursebooks were all about, I was itching to push back. I wanted to break the boundaries, and no doubt strike an imaginary blow at the anodyne, cookie-cutter texts I was going to be using for the foreseeable future. So I said I wanted to teach my students how to use fuck.

And in the tradition of all great educators ever, my TEFL instructor Geoff Harwood did the best thing he possibly could have: he said yes.

Geoff pointed me to an actual teacher’s book on teaching taboo topics (with an actual lesson on cursing), and let me have a go with lesson planning. So I developed, planned and taught a very legitimate pre-service trainee lesson on fuck. Why did he let me do it? I think there was something of the iconoclast in him, too, and he probably wanted to see if I could pull it off. More importantly, however, I think Geoff probably suspected what I found out in that post-session breakdown: that teaching a lesson on fuck wasn’t really as cool, or interesting, or worthwhile, as I’d hoped. I think the Czechs were amused, and mildly interested, but they hardly had the same need for rebellion that I did. And coming from another culture with its own categorically different swear words, they hardly felt the taboo-busting titillation I did.

To this day I can only remember one other time where I’ve actually sat down with the intention of teaching a student a whole litany of swear words, and that was a 1-to-1 situation, and on request. It’s not that I shy away from curses, but when they come up in authentic texts or students ask me about them I certainly deal with them in a more natural way because I’m not trying to feed my own need to break ELT taboo. I wanted to épater la bourgeoisie and by helping me get it out of my system, Geoff and the TEFL course helped me move on.

9. Lesson planning is a pain

I have my TEFL course to thank for indoctrinating me into the misery and wasted hours of lesson planning on my TEFL course. I remember spending what seemed forever thinking and rethinking, writing and rewriting, sweating bullets trying to complete all the boxes on my lesson plan.

During Delta Module 2 I came to accept that the Cambridge lesson plan format is, like other forms of academic writing, or FCE test papers, or recipes for Tiramisù, a sort of genre-writing where certain conventions must be respected. But for the pre-service teacher groping his way in the dark there seemed nothing more excruciating than vainly fiddling around trying to tick the right boxes.

What would have been much more helpful for me, I think, is writing a basic back-of-the-envelope plan followed by a one-to-one talkthrough of what I expected to happen and how to transition between blocks. And talking through what to actually do when the what-ifs came true. The post lesson feedback sessions were great, but hardly made up for all the agony that came before. Outside of professional-development hoop-jumping I’ve never written up a lesson plan in anything like as much unpleasant detail.

10. The present perfect is formed by HAVE/HAS + V3

I may have studied English Lit and fancied myself particularly fluent in my native tongue but like many native speakers I went into my pre-service course with little idea of how to identify, label, diagram or explain English verb tense and aspect, the bread and butter of your typical coursebook. Years after teaching my way through New New Headway, New English File and Speakout, the one thing that’s always stuck with me from my TEFL course (besides the diagramming lessons) is the way my instructors labeled what everybody else called the past participle: V3. It made sense to me, and I continued to label it so, despite what the coursebooks said, because the V3 (like V1 and V2) seemed such a better and more efficient label, and less confusing when dealing with issues like hypothetical conditional structures.

Michael Lewis’s The English Verb was a revelation to me when I read it years later on my Delta Module 1 prep course, particularly for his call to relabel, and reimagine, the system of tense and aspect as pertains to the English language (and not to Latin). I don’t know for sure if my instructors were inspired by Lewis in their descriptions, but I suspect they were, and I’m grateful that pre-service grammar intro planted the seeds for later understanding.

11. There’s a career to be made out of this, somehow

I remember visibly cringing when one of my instructors said he was 32 years old. 32? And still working in TEFL? OMG! Like many of my peers, when I first signed up for my TEFL course I was not in it for the long haul. I was giving myself two years before I went back to the states to do something serious. Or so I thought.

But as two years turned into three or four and friends back home stopped asking me when I was coming back (and 32 finally came and went), I realized I had to find some new role models. What came back to me, of course, were my very first models for developed, professional teachers, the instructors at ITC Prague.

They were dedicated, serious, and inquisitive (my first taste of what Richards and Rodgers call “alternative approaches and methods” was Geoff Harwood, gesticulating in his black turtleneck, as he demoed the Silent Way for us in class) and, in at least one case, by then well-rooted in the local environment. As I did go on to make a career out of it (however precarious it at times may be) I’ll always have them to thank for showing me that TEFL has a shelf-life past 32.

12. Say yes

In the end, the best thing I learned from my TEFL course was simply to say yes. Yes to late nights and the early mornings, yes to the horrible slog of lesson planning, yes to post-lesson feedback, yes to amazing, incredible, awesome, yes to diagramming tense and aspect, yes to chalk, yes to the akusativ, and to being a language student all over again, yes to fuck, fucking, fucked, yes to that pit in my stomach as I weighed up which unknown country, city and school to go to, yes to hours spent in smokey bars, and even smokier internet cafes, and yes to a 36-hour bus ride to Istanbul, to a city that had been horribly and repeatedly bombed only 4 months before, where I would spend nearly five great years and meet my future wife and fall in love and yes, even start on a real live career in ELT.

Conclusion

Of course, I’m not arguing that the a one-month pre-service course is necessarily the best or the only way to learn, but for now it remains the standard.

13 years ago I said yes to the TEFL certificate and I never looked back. I hope whatever pre-training certificate you do or did, you’ll end up doing the same.

How-to presentations for EFL classes. A lesson plan (part 3).

This is part 3 of 3 on How-to presentations, an activity cycle that 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

In part 1 I described step 1 above, in part 2 I detailed steps 3 & 4 (in other words, everything leading up to the presentation day itself). Now I’ll describe parts 4 & 5 of the activity cycle.

 

4. Class: deliver presentation

It’s the big day. The students are nervous. Depending on the time available, I try to give students the first 15 minutes to warm up. 5 minutes to mumble-read their presentations individually, then 10 minutes to practice with a partner.

Even though the presentations are short and the topics varied, the key to keeping a classroom of people really engaged and focused for two hours is to give them tasks before, during and after each presentation.

I use a presentation cycle of:

  1. Presenter question to the audience/pair discussion
  2. Presentation (self-recorded)
  3. Evaluations
  4. Pair reflection/discussion

Ask each presenter to think of a question to ask the audience, to get them thinking and talking (in pairs) about the topic. With how-to presentations, it’s usually just a brief variation on the presentation topic, e.g. How do you give a good presentation in English? or How would you give a presentation? or What makes a good presentation? Let students discuss in pairs for a couple of minutes.

The presenter gives their talk, recording it on the smartphone voice recorder (if they don’t have one, I offer mine).

While listening to the presentations I always ask students to evaluate each other’s performance, which they mark on little slips of paper. Judged on a scale of 1-4 (1 = weak, 4 = great) the three (non-technical) criteria are:

  1. Fluency (little stammering, hesitation or pausing)
  2. Clarity (is the how-to procedure clear and easy to understand)
  3. Presence (stance, posture, eye contact, body language, facial expressions)

Students should hang on to their evaluations until the end.

I evaluate each presentation as well, and add lots of comments. Correction is usually limited to pronunciation issues that I couldn’t have caught from the written text. I focus my praise on performance issues (fluency and presence) and particular instances where they’ve succeeded in improving on the written draft (by incorporating my suggestions or improving it in other ways).

Give students 10 seconds to complete their marks, and then give the student pairs a couple of minutes to discuss what they learned and whether it matched their expectations. I also encourage the presenter to walk around and listen to what the class is saying ― and offer clarification or answer questions.

When all the students have presented, students should go around and distribute their evaluations to the presenters.

Then there are a couple of options to wrap up the day:

  1. Take a (secret) vote for the best presentation (or two or three) and award a prize. Discuss reasons for their choices.
  2. Put students into groups and have them write quiz questions for another group to see what was remembered.

 

5. Homework: reflection on presentation

As homework I send students an email asking them to reflect on their presentation (see below for the full email). In summary, they should:

  • Look at the evaluations ― do they think they’re fair
  • Listen to their recording again ― listen for my pronunciation notes, and check the pronunciation of words in question
  • Decide what they liked, and what they need to improve

All good things are worth repeating. And the next time you do a presentation activity, ask students to pull out the email they send you to give them a goal for what to work on.

Conclusion

As I mentioned way back at the beginning of part 1, nobody likes having to do a presenation, but everybody loves having done one. And EFL students are certainly no exception: in mid-term and end-of-class surveys, students routinely tell me that presentations are one of the most challenging, rewarding and enjoyable things they do in class.

And you don’t have to stop with one. Giving students the opportunity to do 2 or 3 throughout the course will mean you can really work to improve different performance aspects as well, like stage presence or intonation.

By providing students with good models, scaffolding and an encouraging (and safe) environment, you’ll find students are willing and eager to share their passions, with the best English eloquence they can muster, on the classroom stage.

 

Student post-presentation self-reflection letter

Hi!

Good work today! You successfully got through your first English presentation (for this class)!

I know you may not like the sound of your voice (most people don’t), but recording yourself is one of the best ways to begin to work on improving your speaking. You can actually hear the things you need to improve! This homework will give you a chance to reflect on what you did well and what you can improve.

Look at your classmates’ evaluations of your presentations, as well as my own, and then listen to your presentation. A number of my comments had to do with pronunciation—sometimes I put (p) for pronunciation. If you want to hear the word said with US or UK pronunciation, look up the word in e.g. the Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary.

Next, I’d like you to write me an email. In the email, I’d like you to tell me 2-3 things you liked/were happy with about your presentation (even if you’re naturally a pessimist, you must find something positive to say about yourself! For example, you could say “I remembered what I wanted to say” or “It was easier than I’d feared” or “I managed to say some difficult words like X, Y and Z, which I’d looked up in a dictionary”. Also, tell me 3 things you need to work on to improve your English for presentations. Please be specific: DON’T say “I need to do better presentations” (too general), but DO say, “I need to memorize my transitions” (more specific).

To repeat:

For homework, listen to your presentation and read my comments. Then write me an email. Say:

  •  2-3 things you liked about your presentation
  • 3 things you need to work on to improve

I look forward to hearing your self-assessment! Thanks!