How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It’s as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it’s easy because many people have already done it before. It’s as if you were asked to do karaoke – it’s basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I’ve nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.… All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments – they’d probably remembered something resembling my story, or they’d simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support – because my story suddenly didn’t seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all – not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It’s not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it’s often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it’s something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example…

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About Hana Tichá

I'm an EFL teacher based in the Czech Republic. I've been teaching English to learners of all ages for more than 20 years. I love metaphors and inspiring discussions concerning teaching, learning and linguistics.
This entry was posted in Personal challenges, Teaching ideas and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to How much risk are you willing to take?

  1. lizzieserene says:

    I had a similar experience a few weeks ago. I gave my students a story to read – “My Friend Marco” from Kevin Stein's short stories for ELLs. And I asked them if they had any of their own stories about bullying. They're a talkative class but this was something they had nothing to say about. So I widened the topic and asked them if they had any stories where they had witnessed something bad happening and not done anything. More silence. The topic we finally ended up on was stories about time when they had helped strangers or friends. It was an uncomfortable class and only afterwards did I realize what had probably gone wrong.

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  2. Hana Tichá says:

    Hi Anne. Based on my experience, it's not easy to make Ss talk if the topic is controversial as well as personal. That doesn't mean Ss have nothing to say though. Maybe they don't know how to start or how to put their ideas into words without feeling awkward. It's often the case that Ss actually want to talk about such a topic, but they need a soft nudge and lots of support. However, you never know in advance whether such a lesson will go well. Sometimes you do your best as a teacher but your objectives go up in smoke anyway. The more authentic and personal the lesson gets, the more unpredictable the result, I guess.

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  3. Sandy Millin says:

    Hi Hana,
    I strongly believe that we shouldn’t ask students questions we’re not prepared to answer ourselves, and I think this post demonstrates that. The amount of personal information we ask our students to share is incredibly high compared to what they might share with a teacher of any other subject, and sometimes we forget that not everyone wants to share. There’s also that embarrassment of being the first to speak. On the other hand, you mention that the story had somehow been watered down: often it’s the anticipation of what other people will think that makes things more difficult, rather than the actual process o what happens when we do speak. Maybe if we spoke about difficult/taboo situations more often, they wouldn’t be so difficult/taboo (at least, that’s the thinking behind some of what’s on my blog!)
    By the way, I’ve just noticed the photos in the bottom right of your blog – I love that idea! Is it a widget?
    Sandy

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    • Hana Tichá says:

      I absolutely agree, Sandy. I’m sometimes shocked by the questions we have to ask in the oral part of the final English exam. ‘How often do you wash your hair?’ or ‘Have you ever been on a diet?’. Actually, some of the questions are so personal that it would be perfectly all right if some students just refused to answer. Then we’d have to fail them and it wouldn’t be surprising if they sued the company that creates such silly tests. And they might even win the case!

      Yes, it’s a widget 🙂 I love the idea too!

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