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.


Dream Reader

This post is not about books or extensive reading, as the title and the image might imply. It is about another useful teaching/learning resource I’ve recently learned about and used in class. 
A few days ago, on his A new day, a new thingblog, David Harbinson shared a newly learned thing that had come to him via Mike Griffin’s blog. If you go to Mike’s blog, which I did today, you’ll find an interview with Neil Millington, a university teacher based in Japan, who, six months ago, co-set a website for English learners called  
After reading David’s post, nosey me immediately went to the website to see what it’s like. It reminded me of another website I like and use – News in Levels – so I decided to experiment with it a bit in the following lesson. This was on Friday and it was supposed to be a small class of only 10 students. Due to a flu epidemic, though, only 4 students finally turned up for that particular lesson, so the conditions were much more convenient for a language experiment I was up to. It turned out that four was actually a perfect number (but I believe it could work well with larger classes too). So, I’d like to tell you what I did with the website. Spoiler: it went really well. 
My students were pre-intermediate language learners aged 16 (3 boys and 1 girl). The lesson was in the morning and it was 45 minutes long. There are five categories on the site: Easy English, Interesting English, Fun English, Practical English and Academic English. For starters, I chose Fun English. I selected two audios which I thought everybody would be interested in: Minecraft – a PC game everybody knows and plays (or played in the past) and The Simpsons – an animated comedy TV show that is hugely popular over here in the Czech Republic. My plan was to exploit the two short texts to the full.
I projected the web page on the screen. I gave students some brief background information about what I was doing and why, we did some brainstorming, and I started with the first recording. I played the audio and asked Ss to answer the four simple questions that accompany the transcript (note: I had scrolled down the page so that Ss could not see the transcript while listening). The questions are very easy to answer; they serve as an introduction to the topic rather than as a listening/reading comprehension exercise. This is only to the good because it doesn’t put too much stress on Ss during the first encounter with the text. Then we checked the answers quickly as a class. I played the audio again; this time I let the kids follow the transcript. After that we looked at some useful expressions, especially collocations, and put them on the board. I removed the text and got Ss to retell (in pairs) what it said, in their own words, using the chunks on the board. I did the same with The Simpsons. 
I moved on to the next stage. I’m a big fan of Paul Nation’s Learning Vocabulary in Another Language and I love using some of the activities he suggests in this thick volume. So I projected the first text (Minecraft) on the screen again. I asked Ss to work in pairs. One student was sitting so that he faced the screen, the other one right opposite her partner. The one facing the screen was asked to read the text in this way: Look at the text and remember as much as possible (the amount doesn’t really matter – it can be two words up to a whole sentence). Then look at you partner and reproduce the bit you’ve just memorised. Then look at the screen again, memorise the next bit and tell your partner. Do the same with the rest of the text. It doesn’t matter if you only manage to memorise one word, but you must not look at the text and speak at the same time. You can only speak when you are looking at your partner. It is best if you only manage to move your eyes. Try not to move your head too much – it makes reading more difficult. 
This activity is called read-and-look-up and its value lies in the fact that the reader has to carry the words, phrases, or even sentences in his mind. The connection is not from the text to mouth but from text to brain, and then from brain to mouth (see this pdf for further info). 

The Ss then changed roles and worked the same way with the other text (The Simpsons). The final stage was something that I’d never done before but that I’d always wanted to try – simultaneous interpretation.  I asked the Ss to work as a class (which was actually a group of 4). The Ss were sitting in a circle, facing each other. I played the audio and asked them to take turns to translate the speech as the audio played. I only paused the audio when I wanted another student to take over. As the students were already familiar with the text, it made things much easier for them. However, I believe this technique helped them make more new brain connections because once again, they received language input which they had to retain in their memory for a short moment before letting it out – this time in their mother tongue. So it offered Ss an opportunity to work with L1 in a meaningful way. Needless to say, it was fun! 

I believe I managed to exploit the two short text/audios in a very effective way. Also, I gave my students a useful tip for an online resource which they can explore and use on their own. I wish there were more handy websites like this one. Hats off to those who take the time to create them and offer them for free!