It goes without saying that by the very nature of our job, we English teachers teach values. Most of the time, however, we teach values implicitly, along with the course content. So, apart from teaching the foreign language itself, we also expose our students to different cultures and ways of thinking. Other examples of implicit values that are always present ‘behind the scenes’, so to speak, would be teaching students to show respect for others during discussions, take turns in pair/group activities, take responsibility for one’s words and/or actions, etc.
Obviously, we can always teach values explicitly – like I did the other day in two of my recent lessons. One of the most effective ways to teach values, in my opinion, is through literature and particularly storytelling.
So, I chose a story called The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde, which I found on one of my favourite websites. First, I only revealed that we were going to read a story by Oscar Wilde. I asked the students what they knew about the author. In one group (30 twelve-year-olds), they didn’t know much, so I shared some bits and bobs. The other group (30 thirteen-year-olds) was already familiar with Wilde’s work from their literature lessons, so they told me what they knew. Next, I gave them a hint of the title.
The Selfish _______________
At this stage, we focused on the adjective. We briefly discussed what it means to be selfish (and selfless). The students were allowed to answer in L1 or L2. I asked a few more questions: Have you ever done anything selfish? Has anybody you know done something really selfish to you? Now, on a scale (see below), they were to decide how selfish (or selfless) they thought they were.
0% (selfless) ________________________50%__________________________100% (selfish)
Even though this may seem a bit too personal, the students volunteered to share their conclusions. It didn’t particularly strike me as a surprise that nobody thought they were 100% selfless or selfish. So on that note, I asked them whether they thought it is actually desirable to be 100% selfless (as we may sometimes be told). Some interesting answers popped up (a totally selfless person may be used and abused).
Now, it was time to guess the last word in the title. I offered a few clues, one of which was that it is a fairy-tale creature. Again, some interesting vocabulary got brainstormed (knight, prince, princess, king, elf,…).
No, when the title was uncovered, I asked the students in what way they think a giant can be selfish. Some amusing replies followed (He doesn’t want to share his rocks with others. He kills humans by treading on them.).
I gave each student a copy of an abridged version of the story. Beforehand, I had also downloaded an audio MP3 file to play along with the text and I had created a crossword. The students listened to the story and followed the text. Afterwards, there was a short discussion regarding the meaning of the story. I asked them whether they thought the story had a happy or sad ending. We took a vote. Most students thought it was sad but some thought that it was actually happy because (spoiler alert!) the selfish giant was turned into a selfless giant through unconditional love.
Anyway, after a heated discussion, it was time to calm down and dive into some language work – the task was to complete the crossword. This time, the students had to read the story again, more closely, in order to find the answers in the text. The fast finished got an extra task – to write a few sentences about how they felt about the story. Finally, they shared their ideas with the rest of the class.
Although in both cases I worked with unusually large groups (normally I teach groups of 15), the activity panned out really well. Now that I think about it, I believe the trick is to include a bit of suspense as well as surprise, but at the same time, the lesson needs to be well-structured. It needs to develop slowly towards a sort of a climax (the revelation of the ending of the story). Also, there must be a closure of some sort (the final discussion) as well as something tangible and simple (the crossword) because not all students, particularly at this age, are mature enough to dive into philosophical debates. Having said that, the topic of selfishness is tangible enough to pique students’ interest and elicit interesting ideas. Due to the fact that the topic is presented via an imaginary story and the students can always refer to somebody else (not necessarily to themselves) when discussing the values, there’s little danger of getting too personal.