The Selfish Giant – teaching values through stories

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.


Jigsaw activities

June has been challenging but exciting at the same time. I’ve finally been able to work with my students face-to-face and full time, which is the exciting part. The challenging part though is that we’ve been in the middle of a heatwave and since summer holidays are slowly approaching, it’s harder and harder to keep up the ‘serious‘ classroom work. In other words, lately, it’s been a challenge to find suitable materials for the final revision which would be a) meaningful and b) fun. Now, without trying to toot my own horn, I must say that over the past couple of weeks, this very blog has proved to be one of the handiest places to turn to whenever I needed inspiration. After a long period of time passivity, I caught myself frantically searching the site for some speaking activities I remembered from the good old times. I mainly needed to dust off the rules and instructions I had already forgotten. And I was pleasantly surprised how valuable this teaching journal actually is in this respect.

In the meantime, full of energy and enthusiasm, I kept inventing new activities as well. I’ve discovered that jigsaw and information-gap activities work really well in my teaching context these days. I don’t know if it’s because the students, after a long time of self-isolation, crave cooperation and collaboration, or because it is me who likes to see my students fully immersed in an activity, communicating and negotiating in the target language.

Today, I’d like to share a couple of activities that worked really well. I’m doing so for half selfish reasons – because some people out there might find this entry useful but also, I realize my future self might find it handy too.

General Knowledge Quiz (45 minutes):

I googled about 60 interesting general knowledge questions with answers. They were challenging enough to pique my students’ interest but adjusted to their current level. The students worked in pairs. Each student got the same handout. However, Student A got questions 1-30 with answers and questions 31-60 without answers. Student B, on the other hand, got questions 1-30 without answers and questions 31-60 with answers. Students took turns. Student A asked question number 1. If Student B knew the answer right away (this was possible but quite unlikely) – he or she got two points. If Student B didn’t know the answer, they could ask their partner for help.

At this point, Student A had to offer 3 options (one of which was the correct answer). If Student B guessed correctly, they got one point. Then it was Student B’s turn to ask a question 31.

Example: What’s the highest mountain in the world? Correct answer: Mount Everest (Student A had to come up with two more mountains, e.g. Mount Elbrus and Mont Blanc). 

In case you are wondering, yes, I could have provided the students with the three options right away but it turned out that the fact that the students had to come up with 3 plausible options was the most interesting and fun part. This way, in my opinion, the students were more engaged. In other words, the felt like they own the activity since they were partially responsible for the content.

Crossword – across vs down (45 minutes)

I went to an online crossword generator and created a large crossword in which I used words and their definitions we had covered over the past few months. Each student got a handout with an identical blank crossword. Student A got the clues for the across words (on a separate handout) while Student B only got the down clues. First, they worked individually on their part of the crossword. When they both finished, Student A provided the clues for the across words they had come up with (without looking at the original clues) and Student B provided the clues for the down words. So, in stage 2, the students had to create the definitions off the top of their heads – in their own words. Sometimes, the students came across a problem, e.g. a word did not fit in, so they had to figure it out together. For example, this happened in situations when two or more synonymous words could be used for a particular clue. Eventually, the whole crossword was complete and the teacher was happy. 🙂

In conclusion, the first activity is well-suited for heterogenous groups, i.e groups which don’t necessarily have the same learning backgroud. There is no particular grammar or vocabulary area you are focusing on. Its main aim is to generate discussion, creativity and collaboration. It’s fun and competitive too. The second activity is great for revision of specific vocabulary areas.

Here’s another set of activities I wrote about some time ago here on my blog.

This person flies an aeroplane.
This person helps people to look after their teeth.
This is a TV programme that makes you laugh.
This happens when the ground shakes and buildings collapse.
This is an event with lots of dancing and singing in the street.
This is a big house. The queen lives here.
This is a place where you can watch boats coming and going.
If you stand on your feet all day, it’s very …
You can see shows and plays here.
This person greets people when they first come into an office.
This person looks after cows and other animals.
You wear these to cover your lower body. They are dark blue and very strong.
You wear them in winter to keep your feet warm and dry.
It’s a large open space in a town, with buildings around.
You wear them on your feet, inside your shoes.
It’s like a jacket. It’s very soft and warm, and it has a part to cover your head.
You wear it over your clothes when it’s very cold outside.
You can see famous paintings here.
You can see animals there, such as tigers and monkeys.
If your jobs involves a lot of repetition, it is ….
Men wear one around their necks when they go to work.
This happens when there is no rain for a long period of time.
You wear these to cover your hands when the weather is cold.
This is a place where you can buy local goods. It’s outside.
This person cuts people’s hair.
You go there if you want to hear your favourite band playing.
This person writes computer software.
You wear these on your feet when you run or exercise.
This happens when water covers the ground in places when it’s usually dry.
This is a TV programme that includes singing and dancing.