Everyone is a genius.

I must admit that the older I get, the more I appreciate simplicity and spontaneity in language teaching. It makes me very happy when a beautiful, meaningful lesson grows out of something seemingly trivial or when an impromptu action leads to something truly valuable.

20151118_122225bThe other day, in class, we read an article about Albert Einstein. It was one of those classic coursebook texts accompanied by a classic reading comprehension check. Quite boring, I should add. Nevertheless, the text contained an idea that immediately grabbed my attention. Allegedly, Einstein was a pretty bad student. However, as we all know, despite his rather poor study results, he eventually became one of the best-known scientists of all times. So, after having read the article, we talked a bit about what makes somebody perform well/badly at school, about the role of grades, motivation, concentration, intelligence, etc. The students brainstormed some really great ideas.

Anyway, in the next lesson, I felt it might be interesting to elaborate on the topic a bit more. One thing I really love working with is quotes. Quotes are everywhere and everybody loves them. In language teaching, they can turn into nice warm-ups, cool icebreakers or efficient lead-ins. You can choose any word, grammar item or topic and you’ll always find quite a few related quotes. Apart from containing useful target language, a good quote is a well of wisdom and a springboard for interesting discussions. And (off the record), if you don’t have time to prepare your lesson, find a quote. 🙂

So, …

Supposedly, Albert Einstein is the author of the following quote:

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

Bingo! That was what I needed for my 15-year-old B1 students. At the beginning of the lesson, I drew 28 lines on the board, each one representing one word of the quote. I explained that it’s a quote by Einstein, closely related to what we had discussed in the previous lesson, i.e. education. First, I revealed that it includes an animal which people typically eat for Christmas in the Czech Republic. When Ss guessed the word, I put it on the appropriate line.

1___  2___  3___  4___.  5___  6___  7___  8___  9___  10_fish__  11___    12___  13___  14___ 15___  16___  17___,  18___  19___  20___  21___  22___  23___  24___ 25___  26___  27___  28___.

VýstřižekIn a random order, I gradually defined all the nouns, i.e. fish, genius, tree, life. Whenever Ss came up with a wrong word, I drew a part of the Hangman. Then I continued with adjectives and verbs, which, like nouns, are quite easy to define. We played with different parts of speech, i.e. able > ability, judge (which is a noun as well as a verb) synonyms, and antonyms. I said that the quote includes conditional tense – something we had spoken about a couple of lessons back. I also pointed out that some verb forms need to be changed (see believing, for example). At this point, Ss had to concentrate on vocabulary as well as grammar. I love it when lexis and grammar merge and blend this way. Anyway, when I added all the content words, I left Ss to their own devices. They had to fill in all the grammatical words themselves (articles, prepositions, conjunctions, pronouns, etc). This was a useful language practice too, and the fact that they were close but not quite right at times kept everybody in suspense till the very last moment.

When Ss guessed all the words, I asked them to discuss the meaning of the quote in pairs. To my surprise, it was not as easy as I had expected, but most Ss got it right in the end. I elicited some answers and put them on the board as bullet points. Then I got Ss to substitute fish with a different animal. Obviously, the rest of the quote had to be changed, as in … if you judge a parrot by its ability to swim … This helped Ss to reinforce the tricky grammar structure (if… to + verb) and some new vocabulary (judge….by, ability). Also, I made sure that each and every student was clear about the meaning of the quote. After that, as a whole class, we discussed whether we agree or disagree with the statement and why. I asked about the connection between the quote and what we had talked about in the previous lesson (Einstein’s failure as a student, education, grades, etc.).  This provoked an interesting debate too.

We also talked about Ss’ strengths and weaknesses and we mentioned that it’s important to focus on what they are good at.

Finally, as Ss liked the quote, I said it might be cool to learn it by heart. I used the erase-the-last-word technique. I erased stupid first and got a student to read the whole quote. Then I wiped off all the words one by one – each time somebody having to read the whole quote – until there was nothing left on the board. Eventually, I asked them to write the quote in their notebooks from memory.

I guess something similar can be done with practically any quote. To work with quotes, you can use various activities, such as the running dictation, Chinese Whispers, Spelling Contest, Bingo and many more.

A lion or a squirrel?

IMG_20150920_183610When I think of dogme, what first springs to mind is the type of teaching where, ideally, all the resources and the content of the lesson are provided by the students. Although I’m by no means a pure Dogmetist, I regularly love to indulge myself in teaching Unplugged.

Handing it over to the class can result in an enormous wave of creativity and genuine, meaningful conversation, not only in the actual lesson but later on with other classes too. The key is to let yourself inspired by your students.

The other day, a 13-year-old Jane was eager to share a personality test she had come across on the internet. We had a couple of minutes left of the lesson and it was before Christmas anyway, so I thought it may be a great way to wind up. So she enthusiastically marched to the front of the class and told the following story:

Imagine a very tall banana tree. Under the tree, there are four animals: a lion, a giraffe, a chimpanzee and a squirrel. The animals decide to compete to see who can get a banana from the tree first. Who do you think will win? 

If you’re curious to see the results, you can watch this video, which I’ve just found on YouTube. Or you may well think about the answer yourself and wait till the end of the post. 🙂 To cut it short, each answer, i.e. animal, equals a different personality trait. Anyway, Jane elicited some answers from the class and after a short discussion, she revealed the results.

It was fun and everybody loved it, but I immediately realized the activity had a much greater potential. So the next day, I shared it with other classes. By the way, I’m not a great storyteller but I did quite well with this one (it’s very short after all). Needless to say, each and every time, the story provoked different reactions and different language points emerged, depending on the students’ age and level of proficiency.

However, the trick is not to reveal the results immediately. Obviously, there is no correct answer, even though at first sight, some alternatives appear more logical than others. So, let your students tell you what they think and see what happens. Remember that you’ll keep them in suspense and fully engaged as long as you keep the answers a secret. But even later on, once your students are familiar with the results of the test, you will definitely hear some interesting ideas. Most likely, there’ll be words of disagreement or doubt, which is highly desirable and beneficial at this stage. Based on my experience, with advanced classes, you’ll probably end up having a serious, deeply philosophical debate while with younger learners, it’ll be just a light-hearted chat.

Here are some of the questions you might want to ask after you elicit the answers (before you reveal the results, which you can see below the image):

  1. Why did you choose this particular answer?
  2. Why did you dismiss the other options?
  3. What do you think your answer will reveal about your personality?
  4. What will the other answers reveal about people in the class?
  5. In the other class most people chose ‘answer 1’ but here most of you agreed on ‘answer 2’? What do you think this might mean?

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  • If your answer was the lion, you are a fighter. 
  • If your answer was the giraffe, you are a logical thinker. 
  • If your answer was the squirrel, you are an optimist. 
  • If your answer was the chimpanzee, you are a deep thinker. 

Now, I have lots of follow-up activities up my sleeve, but that would be another longish post. So, until next time ….

C’mon, let’s speak

IMG_20150619_111735In this post, I’d like to share a couple of speaking activities I recently tried out with some of my classes. I believe that the activities are worth sharing because they generated a lot of genuine conversation as well as some useful language. As most of the language input was produced by students themselves (not the coursebook or the teacher), the content was highly personalized and thus motivating. In fact, I was just a mediator & moderator while the students were responsible for all the language & content emerging along the way. This enabled me to use the activities with any level and age group I currently work with (from a fairly low-level classes up to C1 level). Also, I needed next to no prep time or materials – just paper and pen (and a coin for Activity 1).

Activity 1:

IMG_20150819_123933Give each student a blank card. Ask them to write a question they’d like to ask their peers. Ideally, the questions should generate some controversy/disagreement/interest. They should neither be too personal nor addressed to one specific student. Examples of how your students can start the questions: Do you believe… What do you think about… What’s your viewpoint/attitude/opinion…. Your students are totally responsible for the content of the questions, but you should keep an eye on what they come up with, just to make sure it’s not going to be embarrassing or inappropriate. This is a great time for working on PARSNIP topics.

Collect all the questions and shuffle the cards. Ask Student X to come to the front of the class and pick a random card. He reads the question and tries to answer it in 4-5 sentences. Then he flips a coin (a real one or a virtual one). If it’s heads, other students will have to find arguments to support Student X’s opinion. If it’s tails, they will have to disagree/find arguments to oppose his original opinion. This is much more interesting than if you just let everybody say what they think. Some students noted that they didn’t like the fact that they had to pretend disagreement or agreement, but I explained to them that they can circumvent this by saying something along these lines: I personally don’t agree but I imagine some people might argue that (for agreeing) … I agree but my friends often say that (for disagreeing)  ….. 

Activity 2:

Ask your students to help you generate a list of pairs from certain lexical sets. They can be opposites such as day/night, black/white, or just similar items, i.e. smartphone/tablet. Ideally, they should always be nouns or gerunds. Prompt Ss with categories, such as sports, food, colours, electronic gadgets, school subjects, seasons, etc. Record the students’ ideas on a sheet of paper. When you end up with a list of about 20 pairs, ask Ss to take a piece of paper and a pen. Tell them that you are going to read the pairs one by one and that they quickly have to decide which item they prefer, i.e. day or night? fishing or golf? English or maths? Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings? movies or books? etc. They always have to choose and record one option. If they aren’t sure, they still have to make a quick decision. Based on my experience, at this point, even the most demotivated and lazy Ss will liven up. So, each student will eventually end up with a slightly different list of words. Now, put Ss into pairs/groups and ask them to glance at their lists first to see if they are ‘on the same wavelength’, i.e. if they have the same preferences. Then, get them to discuss their answers one by one. My students came up with interesting ideas and lots of useful language which we then worked on as a class, such as: I prefer night because everything’s quieter and more peaceful (comparatives). I prefer black to (preposition) white because it goes with every clothing item (countable vs. uncountable nouns).

As a follow-up activity, you can ask Ss to come up with five more pairs each (crazy ideas allowed here) and during a mingling activity, they can ask people in the class about their preferences. This can be done as a survey, for example, which can later be presented in front of the whole class: Question: What surprised you most? Answer: That most girls prefer wearing pants to skirts. 

I hope these activities will work as well as they did for my classes. Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

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A win-win situation

20151117_131256The other day we had a regular parent-teacher conference at our school. Normally, the collective session lasts about 30 minutes – parents sitting in one room listening to the homeroom teacher. After that, parents usually go and talk to teachers of other subjects individually. They ask about the grades and behavior of their children.

Although these meetings are very important, nothing epoch-making really happens. However, last time was different. The collective session took two hours because the parents wanted to get things off their chest. When I think about it now, I’d say they must have trusted me completely at that moment because what they were saying took a lot of courage. It was clear that the things they were sharing on the spot had probably been on their mind for long.

Unfortunately, there was not much I could do to help them directly. The only thing I could do was to listen to them. Some of the opinions expressed resonated with me, others didn’t. However, I chose not to oppose too much. I don’t think it’s not my job anyway. My job is to listen patiently and help if it’s in my power. The parents sometimes started with “What do you think about this…….”. I felt that the aim of the question was not to find out what I think. The main aim was to air their views.

There were a couple of things I realized during the session. For one, parents may be afraid to express their opinions because they think their child might get into trouble. It’s hardly conceivable, but they believe that if they honestly say what’s on their mind, some kind of revenge will happen (the teacher will have it in for the kid from now on).

For two, each parent has a different view on education. For example, some think project-based lessons are a waste of time while others think they are a great way to learn things and connect with peers and friends of all ages.

Some parents think the teacher’s job is to teach the kids. Thus, nothing that has not been taught/mentioned in the lesson should later be tested. In other words, the teacher can’t test what’s not in the book or in the student’s notebook.

Some parents are convinced that kids should not be forced to learn millions of facts. Instead, they should be able to find the information they need to solve a problem. Others believe their kids had better learn the serious stuff (read: facts) and ‘play’ after school.

However, what surprised me most was that many parents are convinced that “teachers are stressed and over-worked”. How do they know? Are we all like that? Do they see us this way?

Anyway, whatever I believe, my job is to listen to what the parents have to say. It may come in handy after all, especially when dealing with problematic students. For example, some of my students are content with rather average scores, but as their teacher, I know that they could do better if they tried. So I talk to their parents only to discover that they themselves don’t regard grades, scores and the student’s overall performance terribly important. In other words, the student and the parents are on the same wavelength on this. This is probably because the family’s priorities differ from the priorities of the system, which, I suppose, is perfectly fine, but it just makes my job tough at times.

On the other hand, there are parents who cooperate closely with all the teachers and thus the kid knows that we are not enemies but allies. It’s a pretty straightforward logic; if the loving parents’ objectives are the same as the teacher’s ones, then, inevitably, the teacher must be a loving creature, too. And this realization, I believe, is a win-win situation for all parties involved.