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How do my learning experiences colour my teaching?

I’ve just started an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL.  I’m doing it part-time and I’ve got to say my decision to get on this course (late) was a rather hasty one but nevertheless one that feels right.  I had my first lecture on Friday (a bit weird being on the student side of the classroom again) and the following questions were asked,

1.  How were you taught?

2.  How has this affected your own teaching?

3.  Is there anything you do that you feel you ought not?  Basically, do you have any guilty secrets?

What astounded me was how difficult I found it to answer the first question and, by extension, the second.

I suppose I had probably repressed it in some cases and had been oblivious in others.  I had to turn to my partner and say, “I have no idea how I was taught at secondary school.”  This is not due to it being so very long ago – 12 years in all honesty – but I guess it comes from distinctly negative experiences.  I took French and German at school and continued them up to Standard Grade (the Scottish equivalent of GCSEs).  I passed relatively well but I couldn’t put a sentence of French or German together now if my life depended on it.*  I do remember one thing though – I remember not liking my classes one little bit.

What was also fascinating during these groups discussion on Friday was the shared experience that many of us on the course had of absolutely dreadful French classes in Britain growing up.

It was only after talking with my classmates for a little while that I started to remember a little more about classes.  I came to a few conclusions.

Image from comedy_nose on Flickr

Audio Resources

I don’t use tapes/CDs/mp3s of conversations that much.  This is due to all those awful tapes of poor quality that I had to listen to in French and German classes.  I think it demotivated me more than anything else, listening and listening and listening and not having a clue what was being said, not really even getting the gist and just generally feeling hopeless about the whole thing.   Even on my worst days, I don’t really want to inflict that on my students so I tend to shy away from using audio resources in the class.  I do recognize their usefulness and I am making myself use them more but I’m still not hugely comfortable with CDs or mp3s and I know that I’m not using them particularly effectively yet.

Photo from florriebassingbourn on Flickr

Dictionaries

I don’t do a lot of dictionary work in class.  Another memory that resurfaced was the supremely boring task of translating a text word by word using a dictionary.  I never asked for help because I always felt that my need to use the dictionary all the time was based on that fact that I was a lazy student and that, had I gone home and properly learned my vocabulary, I wouldn’t have needed the dictionary even half as much.  Of course, my completed translation usually ended up making absolutely NO sense whatsoever and this was for a couple of reasons.

  1. Nobody ever really made it known to me that language doesn’t work in words, it works in chunks.  In trying to translate word by word, I completely missed the important chunks of language which, had I been more aware of them, I wouldn’t have completely obliterated them by dissecting and translating them word by word.  This lack of understanding made my dictionary work slow, inefficient and most of all, absolutely fruitless.
  2. I don’t think enough work was done to show us how a dictionary should be used, how the phrases or phrasal verbs might be listed and where to find what you really wanted.  This basically connects with my lack of awareness with regard to set phrases and expressions (or what Michael Lewis would call polywords) – I didn’t know where the phrases began and ended therefore I didn’t know what to look up.

So at this point I feel the need to admit a guilty pleasure of mine, or not so guilty if you’ve read some of my previous posts.  As a teacher, I like translation (yes, the teacher and student inside of me are in a little bit of conflict here).  I think shying away from translation or saying that we should be trying to get students to think in L2 is just a bit ridiculous.  We all use our L1 to give us hooks to hang our L2 knowledge on.  I tend to feel there is a certain conceptual framework established when we learn our first language that, for most of our L2 learning, we are far better using and adapting that framework instead of throwing it away and starting again.  Apart from this, I think trying to get learners not to translate is an impossible task anyway.

Therefore, I think there is a lot of benefit for learners to translate in both directions.  L1 to L2 is much easier to manage when you are working in a TEFL environment, abroad and with monolingual classes; bringing a local newspaper into your classroom in Spain, for example.  However, L2 to L1, if you have a multi-lingual class is quite possible as well.  If you have a few different language groups; some Arabic speakers, Mandarin, Portuguese, etc, then this is the opportunity to band them together and get some meaningful analytical discussion (in both L1 and L2) that might just enhance some learners’ understanding of a few grammar points.

Well, now that I’m starting a Masters I’m wondering if I should change the name of my blog.  I mean “So Where Did It Go Wrong?” seems a bit defeatist now, almost pessimistic in the face of all this research and assessed essays.  Need to give that some thought.  Wish me luck!

* Actually, I do have one sentence in French which I still remember – a testament to the drilling method I suppose – “J’habite a Dumbarton en Ecosse.

 

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12 Angry Men: A Dramatic Activity Plan

The drama that can happen between a group of people in one room has always been of great interest to me; Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit, J.B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, Jerome Bixby’s The Man from Earth and Reginald Rose’s 12 Angry Men to name but a few.* This last one, 12 Angry Men, was a movie with Henry Fonda in 1957.  In 1997 the film was remade, this time with Jack Lemmon in Fonda’s role.  Lemmon’s turn as Juror #8 was so well received that Ving Rhames, upon winning the Golden Globe that year, immediately invited Lemmon on stage and instead passed the award on to him!

The basic story of 12 Angry Men is simple: 12 members of a jury sit down to decide the verdict of a murder case, an 18-year-old accused of murdering his father.  So within the next 90 minutes (or 110 minutes depending on which version you watch) you witness the discussion, debate, arguments and reasoning of twelve men as they try to come to a unanimous decision: guilty or not guilty.

Drawing upon Alan Tait’s idea for bringing some drama into the classroom, I was quickly drawn to this story for a number of reasons.  Having 12 characters, it is easy to give out roles.  The topic of crime and punishment is often in the syllabus somewhere and acting out roles and rehearsing dialogue is a great, creative way to work on pronunciation and intonation.  Nonetheless, what I’m laying out here is for B2/C1 students or above.  I doubt that any lower level students would have the necessary vocabulary or listening abilities for such an activity to flourish and thus remain fun.

So this is how I would start…

The end and the beginning.  No, I’m not being cryptic, but I fully agree with Pablo Ponce de Leon’s point about stories and storytelling being a good activity to complete a unit, chapter, coursebook, topic, etc (see previous post).  The topic wouldn’t necessarily need to be about crime and punishment although that is one option.  If you take a look at the transcript dialogue (here’s the handout) there are a lot of phrases, question tags, etc, that would all be useful for a “small talk” activity.  So I would definitely use this activity with a high level class at the end of a unit.

As for where in the movie?  I’d start at the beginning: the first two scenes.  These are the courtroom scene and what I would call the ‘character introduction’ scene.

The Courtroom Scene

This scene sets the context, explains what is at stake and visually introduces the characters as well as the focus of the whole story, the accused.

Activity 1

Go over vocabulary the students will need to understand the first scene.  The list will probably go something like this:

murder in the first degree

case

pre-meditated

serious charge

tried in the court

testimony

at stake

verdict

unanimous

the bench

mandatory

Best to put these, jumbled up, on the board before the activity starts.  In pairs or small groups, get the students to write a list putting each of these into one of three columns: understand/might understand/don’t know.  Leave enough space on your board to write these three columns as well.

After a couple of minutes, get the students to tell you what they put where.  The key is to put as many of these phrases into the first column as possible and if this does not reflect the lists of all the students then they can get the explanations from each other.  To accomplish this, it’s best to ask something like “What do you have in the understand column?” and exhaust that before you move on.  See where the students take you.

Activity 2

Watch the courtroom scene.  Give the students the following watching activity before you start.

Put all of the words and phrases from Activity 1 into order as you hear them in the dialogue.

Again, let them collaborate with partners and watch it a couple of times.  This does a number of things.  It gets the students ears ‘warmed up’ for the next activity.  It also gets the students familiar with the characters they will be working with in the following scene.

After having reviewed the dialogue with each other and as a class, give them the handout to check against.  However, before watching the scene one more time with the students now having the transcript to follow, give them a new watching task.

Thoughtful, bored, sleepy, impatient, distracted, indifferent, angry, worried, scared.  Which of these words would you use to describe the jurors?

There are a few red herrings in that list (remember this is supposed to be a B2/C1 class) as I wouldn’t say that any of the jurors looked sleepy or scared; all the others are up for debate.  After watching one more time, get the students’ ideas about what they think about the characters.  This leads nicely on to the next scene.

The Character Introduction Scene

This scene is a series of short conversations as the characters first get into jury room.  This is an opportunity for the students to see if their initial assumptions about the jurors were right or wrong.

Activity 3

The students can follow the scene reading the dialogue (on the same handout already given out).  In fact it is probably a good idea to give the students 30 seconds or a minute to skim through the transcript and get familiar with it before watching.

Give the students this question just before they start watching.

Judging from the dialogue as well as attitude and intonation, do you think this jury believes the accused is guilty or not guilty?

It might seem like an obvious question, but it gets the students actively watching during the scene for pieces of dialogue as well as intonation.

The transcript falls about 2 minutes short of the first vote amongst the jurors but the students will probably be anxious to see that part, or at least they should be.  An obvious thing to do is to let the film run for an extra two minutes while getting the students to predict who will vote in what way.  I don’t think I’m giving anything away by saying that not everyone agrees 15 minutes into the movie. 😉

Activity 4

After watching through once, you can start to give out roles and get the students to start practising the mini-conversations in groups.  The teacher in the role of ‘bailiff’ keeps you in the activity but away from the important roles.  There are actually 12 speaking parts including the bailiff as Juror #9 spends this scene in the bathroom.

From this, you are on your own.  Switching up roles is a good idea to keep things fresh.  Moving around the groups and drilling short, important phrases to improve intonation and general fluency is also a good idea.  Phrases such as ‘give me a hand’, ‘what gets me is…’, ‘you know something…’ and ‘but if you ask me…’ are all short phrases that learners should acquire to improve their spoken English.  There are plenty of other phrases but it’s a good idea to know beforehand some specific phrases you want to draw their attention to.

Enjoy!

Notes

Where possible, I will usually put the English subtitles on in a movie or at least give my students that option, unless I have a specific reason not to.

For my activity plan, I’ve gone with the 1957 version.  There are a few benefits to this choice and one drawback.  Firstly, the drawback is that the 1957 movie is in black and white and unfortunately more and more people, especially young people, immediately disconnect when they see black and white.  This is an enormous shame as they miss out on amazing masterpieces like Ninotchka, Stalag 17, Arsenic and Old Lace, Some Like It Hot and a movie that will always make it into my Top 5, Beau Geste.  If you haven’t heard of or seen any of these movies then watch them and thank me later. 😉

However, I digress.  The benefits of working with Henry Fonda’s earlier version are as follows:

  1. In the 1997 version, the opening scene in the courtroom does not show close ups of each of the jurors.  Hence, my first prediction activity would go out of the window.
  2. The second scene in the 1957 version is slower (5m40s as opposed to 4m50s for the same scene in 1997).  The speaking itself isn’t much slower but there are more pauses, which your students will be grateful for.  The dialogue is also a little bit more precise with less elision and fewer contractions.  I’m not saying this last part is a good thing, but it leads me nicely to a follow-up activity.

Following up with the 1997 version

Having watched both versions of both of these scenes more than a couple of times now, I’d say that a brilliant way to follow up the activity, perhaps to finish off a long class or perhaps for another day, would be to show the 1997 scenes directly after showing the 1957 scenes (thus if done on another day you should show the 1957 scenes again first).  With this you could get the students to do a number of things:

  1. What differences in dialogue do you notice?
  2. What differences in character do you notice?
  3. Is it easy for the students to identify the characters again?
  4. Which version do you prefer?  Why?

You might even want to start off the whole thing, before Activity 1, by showing the 1997 courtroom scene first.  A newer, in-colour version might make the story more accessible and it would give your students a sense of achievement to recognize their improvement of comprehension between the beginning and the end of the activities (again, I recommend reading Alan Tait’s ‘zombie’ article).  Here is the handout for the 1997 transcript.

* A couple of other ‘one room’ dramas that are worth mentioning are Loring Mandel’s chilling Conspiracy and Frank Cottrell Boyce’s compelling God on Trial.  Both of these deal with the less-than-pleasant topic of the Nazi concentration camps during World War 2.  I’m not advocating using such heavy material with an English language class, but I think they are certainly worth watching.

AND

In doing a YouTube search for 12 Angry Men I managed to find the full movies.  I’m not sure how long they may stay on the site but here are the links.

12 Angry Men (1957)

12 Angry Men (1997)

 
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Posted by on September 13, 2011 in Activities

 

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Why I suck at storytelling… and what I need to do to fix it! (Reflections on the August 2011 ABS International Conference, pt 2)

If you clicked onto this page then you are probably interested in storytelling.  So am I.  I think stories in some form or another must represent a large majority of our day-to-day communication: what we did last night, what someone told us once, what you learned from your parents, what the boss told you to do 5 minutes ago.  Not all of these are stories of note, but they are stories nonetheless.

For this reason, I think storytelling is an incredibly important skill and one which learners are hungry to have in L2.

Unfortunately, I suck at it.  As it turns out, I simply didn’t know enough.

Pablo Ponce de Leon’s Talk at ABS

I was very grateful to Pablo Ponce de Leon for his seminar on digital storytelling at the ABS International Conference for ELT Managers and Directors of Studies last Saturday in Buenos Aires.  What I particularly loved was that he didn’t cover the hows and whys of digital storytelling (covered very competently in his handout) so much as the hows and whats of storytelling itself.

I’ve told my classes plenty of times, “Now I want you to write/make a story.”  I recently tried this creativity-heavy exercise myself and it’s really not that easy.  So this left me with a problem; I love stories and I believe they should figure prominently in a lot of our language teaching/learning but I have no confidence in myself to produce an even half-decent story.  We shouldn’t really ask of our students what we cannot do or don’t know how to do ourselves, so I was stuck – no storytelling.

Here are a few symptoms of poor storytelling abilities.  You will probably recognize these as reasons that storytelling activities sometimes fall flat in your class:

  • What should we write about, I don’t have any ideas.” (The infamous blank page!)
  • How many words should it be?” (Perhaps my favourite quote of the whole conference, paraphrased here, “Teenage students tend to see the word count like a prison sentence – counting down the words until they are finished.”)
  • I’m stuck.  I don’t know what to write next.
  • A boring and un-engaging story
  • A poorly structured story, with shifting focus and that is difficult to follow
  • A story with an abrupt, unsatisfying end
  • A story with no apparent end
  • A story with no details (something that reads like a police report)

So how do we fix this?

Like everything else new or challenging, the students need support and structure, in other words, scaffolding.  Like a new essay form, the students need to be aware of every paragraph’s structure, every sentence’s purpose.  That means we, as teachers, need to know this too.

If you pay close attention to Pablo’s case study, Toy Story, in the slides (see slides 14-16) you start to get a better idea about the structure of a modern movie plot.  The point being, and it’s a good one, that the three-act structure usually employed in a Hollywood movie is a familiar structure that is easy to relate to.  So from this we have our structure and quite honestly, I think there is a lot of mileage to be had in an English language class from just exploring, discovering, discussing and picking apart a movie’s structure.

To give you an example, I watched a few of my favourite movies (it was a tough job but someone had to do it).  I believe it is customary here to give a Spoiler Alert and say, if you haven’t seen these movies yet and don’t want to know what happens before you see them, don’t read further (or at least, don’t click for the bigger picture).

So how and where should we use this?

The recommendation for this was simple.  Digital storytelling works best as the end of something, a unit or level, as a way to give closure and to produce something creative.  What I also took from a sample video that was shown is that the grammar point doesn’t need to be complicated for digital storytelling projects to be worthwhile.  A slideshow of few pictures with some present simple narration, either text or voice, is a fantastic achievement for a low-level student (a visual family tree, for example).  We were also reminded that “the journey is as important as the destination” and that the process, of course, yields its own language learning opportunities.

A warning we were given was that student projects, if they are young learners, should not be made public, through youTube for example (of course youTube has privacy settings that still make it a viable way to share class videos).  There is a temptation to publicize the great work that our young learners do, but I couldn’t agree more with the speaker here – we have to be very careful what goes out into the public domain.

For a more creative project at higher levels, the following procedure was suggested (see slide 23): submit a story outline, go into preproduction, continue with production, finish off with post-production work and then take pride in your work during its presentation.  We were also given homework, again!  (I’ll learn from this because I haven’t been giving homework in my PD seminars.)  We were told to download Microsoft Photostory 3 and start playing around with it.  I’ve got to apologize to Pablo here and say, no, I haven’t downloaded and tried it out yet – but I’m about to move country so I’ve got a few other things on plate.  BUT, I will because apparently it is very easy to use.
Microsoft actually has a very detailed pdf, Digital Storytelling in the Classroom, that provides links to real examples of students work along with a step-by-step ‘how to’.
Pablo Ponce de Leon’s experience inside and outside of ELT, as a teacher as well as professional screenwriter/producer/director made his talk something really informative which answered a very simple yet difficult question: how to I tell a good story?  Even in Microsoft’s guide, the tendency in the activity plan is to simply say “identify the key elements, and arrange them into a beginning, a middle and an end” or “Collect/sort/decide which ideas to pursue”.  This is simply not enough scaffolding for students or their teachers, but now I will be far more confident to plan out and try not only a digital storytelling project but just a storytelling project with my students.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
You can follow Pablo on Twitter (@storybusiness), on his blog (HUX Consulting) or on his website (The Story Business).
Thanks Pablo!
 
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Posted by on September 2, 2011 in Activities, Conferences, Recommendations, Review

 

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Wrong Side of the Bed (A Video Activity Plan)

This is an enjoyable little lesson activity that could really spice up the somewhat dull topic of morning routines.

  1. Elicit from the students English surrounding the topic of morning routines.  Get it up on the board.
  2. Get them thinking about whether every morning is exactly the same, whether every day is exactly the same.  They should soon be talking about good days and bad days.
  3. Ask the students if they can suggest what the phrase “Get up on the wrong side of the bed” might mean. (There are usually similar phrases in the students’ L1.)*
  4. Divide the students into pairs.  Arrange them so that the pairs are facing each other, with only one partner facing the board, or wherever you are going to display the movie.  You are probably familiar with this technique.  One partner will watch the movie and describe everything they see as they see it and the other partner has to write it down.
  5. Tell them they are going to watch a short video using a lot of the ‘morning routine’ vocabulary that they came up with.  The whole class will see the first 12 seconds.  This helps them to understand that the video is going to look at two alternative realities.
  6. Go through a practice run with the students describing to each other what they saw.
  7. Watch it again so the students can practise observing and describing at the same time as well as dictating the notes.  Get one half of the class to focus on the left story, the other half to focus on the right.
  8. Run through the video once.
  9. Get all the writers together to compare and build their notes.  Get all the speakers together for them to ask the teacher questions about specific vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.
  10. Run through the video a second time.
  11. Get the pairs to look over the notes together.  Can the watcher give any last help or piece of information?
  12. Get writers to read what they have.  Write up any errors you hear and open the floor to corrections. Also make sure to write up good phrases and chunks of language as well – never good to just focus on the mistakes.
  13. Get the whole class to watch the video.  (By this point the writers will want to see the video.)

* It would not be a waste of time to pay attention to these various counterpart L1 phrases.  Maybe get them on the board, or get the students to write it (or them, if there are multiple L1s).  A little bit of translation work to make the various phrases accessible would certainly help the students to remember it and if it is a multi-cultural/multi-lingual class there are obviously other benefits to students each taking a turn to present just a smidgeon of their culture.

Dramatic Finish (for those teachers brave enough and depending on your group)

The students are going to devise and act out their own ‘wrong side of the bed’ day.  But first, get one of the students to read this summary of the story out, one line at a time.  The teacher acts out these plot points.  The reason for this is to give a model and help students not feel so self-conscious.

  • The alarm goes off.
  • The man turns off the alarm… but accidentally breaks his glasses at the same time.
  • The man gets dressed… but trips over while putting his trousers on.
  • The man opens the curtains… but they fall off the rail.
  • The man makes some toast… but it is burnt.
  • The man washes his hands… but the water splashes all over him.
  • The man leaves his house… but his scarf is caught in the door.
  • The man is shouting at a homeless man… and his wallet is stolen.
  • The man wants to eat an apple on the way to work… but he forgot it.
  • The man is knocked down… but a lady helps him up.

While there is a temptation to pick all this English apart and analyze it with the class, your students can only assimilate a certain amount at one time.  Maybe just focus on the vocabulary or the use of ‘and’ and ‘but’, or a few phrases like ‘get dressed’, ‘open the curtains’, ‘on his way to…’.

So after this model acting, get the class into groups, give them some time to work on a ‘worst-case scenario’ morning of their own and make sure they have an actor and one or more narrators.  Float around the class now feeding in phrases and chunks as and when needed.

If you do this part, make sure you allow enough time for every group to perform!

Enjoy.

 
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Posted by on August 31, 2011 in Activities

 

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Teenagers learn English out of fear of Chuck Norris!

I’m ashamed that this didn’t occur to me a long, long time ago.  Within the first couple of weeks of teaching teenagers in Argentina, I started to hear mention of Chuck Norris… specifically Chuck Norris Facts.  I never followed up on it but the more I think about it, the more I think that Chuck Norris Facts might be a really good primer for quite a few grammar points as well as improving or reinforcing vocabulary.

Example 1:  A simple warmer where you give out one Chuck Norris Fact to each student.  A simple, fun way to get the class started that could springboard into some interesting, unpredictable discussions.

  • Chuck Norris won American Idol using only sign language
  • Chuck Norris won the World Series of Poker using Pokemon cards
  • Chuck Norris is so awesome he created fire by rubbing two ice cubes together.
  • Fear of spiders is arachnophobia, fear of tight spaces is claustrophobia, fear of Chuck Norris is called Logic
  • Ghosts sit around the campfire and tell Chuck Norris stories.
  • Did you know Chuck Norris had a role in Star Wars……he was the Force.
  • Chuck Norris smashed a mirror over a black cat’s head while standing under a ladder, then won the lottery
  • There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives.

Chuck Norris's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame (Image from Flickr)

Example 2:  Highlighting a specific grammar point.  A fun way to try this one would be to give the beginnings/ends of the sentences and get the students to suggest the other half.  Or give each student a mixture and get them to try to match them up.

  • Chuck Norris can turn Toast back into Bread.
  • Some magicians can walk on water, Chuck Norris can swim through land.
  • Chuck Norris can drive, fly, and run… at the same time.
  • Chuck Norris can eat rice with one chop stick.
  • Chuck Norris can stare at the sun, and the sun goes blind.
  • Chuck Norris can write a Dictionary by slamming his face into the keyboard.
  • Chuck Norris can send an e-mail with a pencil.
  • Chuck Norris can turn a hamburger back into a cow.

Conditionals

  • If Chuck Norris roundhouse kicks you, even Google won’t be able to find you.
  • If Chuck Norris were to ever run out of ammo, his weapon would continue to fire out of fear of disappointing Chuck Norris.
  • If Chuck Norris was in the military, there would be no war.
  • If Chuck Norris were to ever bungee jump, the earth would flinch.
  • If they made a movie of Chuck Norris standing still, it would be rated R for extreme violence.
  • If Chuck Norris were a battery, my cell phone would never die.
  • If Darth Vadar and Luke Skywalker were to fight, Chuck Norris would win.

Chuck Norris makes onions cry! (Image from Flickr)

Present Perfect

  • Chuck Norris once kicked the Earth, it hasn’t stopped spinning.
  • Chuck Norris died 20 years ago but Death hasn’t built up the courage to tell him yet.
  • Aliens haven’t visited Earth because they’re afraid of Chuck Norris.
  • Chuck Norris has found the end of the rainbow.
  • Chuck Norris has only lost to one man… himself.
  • Do you know how many push ups Chuck Norris has done?  All of them.
  • Chuck Norris has lit a fire at the bottom of the lake… with matches.

Used to

  • February used to have thirty days. Then it met Chuck Norris.
  • The Black Eyed Peas used to be called “The Peas”… until they met Chuck Norris.
  • There used to be a street named after Chuck Norris, but it was changed because nobody crosses Chuck Norris and lives.
  • There used to be life on Mars. Then Chuck Norris came along…

I got these from http://www.chucknorrisfacts.com.  There are similar lists on the internet for Jack Bauer and Vin Diesel (two other action heroes) but these lists contain a lot more swearing and questionable content.  The Chuck Norris list is, for the most part, good clean fun but I would probably not just go onto the website in class.  Also be aware that some of the jokes will be offensive to any students who are highly religious.

Obviously, it doesn’t take much work to change the name to someone more relevant so these jokes can be adapted to whoever is fashionable among your teenagers… just don’t let Chuck Norris know that you replaced his name. 🙂

 
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Posted by on August 9, 2011 in Activities

 

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What have I learned from my students? My students can be more creative than me.

This is a follow up to my last post.  I tried to get a little bit of written dialogue from one of my favourite classes after working through the verbs in a way similar to @eltbakery‘s suggestion.  It was the end of the day, end of the class and I knew this particular class was creative and always up for a challenge.

So here’s one that I thought was pretty clever.

A.  Nine years ago I almost gave up playing tennis because I didn’t get on with my coach but I carried on with it at a different club.

B.  Now that you bring up your coach, I bumped into him on the street.

A.  Oh?  How is he?

B.  Not good.  A car was driving towards him.  I shouted, “Watch out!” but he couldn’t make out what I was saying.  There was an accident and I had to look after him until the ambulance turned up.

A.  Hold on!  The coach was hit by a car?

That’s as far as the students got before the class finished unfortunately.  There are a lot of directions this story could go and I think it is certainly better, more coherent and more interesting than anything I was coming up with.  Just thought I would share.

 
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Posted by on August 6, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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What have I learned from a recent dry run? Creativity on demand is hard!

Recently I found a really interesting blog post about the 20 most commonly used phrasal verbs in English.*  Phrasal verbs are notorious among English learners and when I saw this I thought, ‘Cool!  How can I use this?’

I wanted to try something creative and that is where I have hit a, so far, insurmountable obstacle.  I’m going to go through what I have tried so far, not in class, just by myself.  I wanted to place myself in the role of my students.  Before I ask something creative of them, I wanted to see how I would cope with it:

1. Craft a discussion amongst 3 or 4 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

The idea being to get the students to act out this scene, switch roles, act it out again, etc.**  This was almost a non-starter as keeping 3 or 4 characters going in a story very quickly became too much of a challenge.  I’m not a professional wordwright.

2. Simplify it.  Craft a conversation between only 2 people that use all 20 of these phrasal verbs.

I thought, this should be relatively easy and it is certainly doable but the phrasal verbs seem to steer the conversation into a relatively negative story (at least they do whenever I am behind the creative wheel it seems).  Negative stories don’t help us to remember as well as feel-good or funny stories… so back to the drawing board.

3. Seek creative inspiration.  Storybird.

I haven’t used Storybird with any of my classes yet but I thought this would be a wonderful opportunity to try it out and make a story which could educate and whet my students’ appetites for trying to use this wonderful website for themselves.   Unfortunately, being stuck to these 20 phrasal verbs, which is the task I had set myself, meant that the pictures produced more restrictions than provided creative inspiration.

4. Change the objective.  Craft a story that works with only 5 or 10 of the phrasal verbs.

This works and really, it was unrealistic to believe that an activity that immediately included all 20 phrasal verbs would be of much use to learners.  I do want to find a way to make sure that the lesson provides a decent opportunity for all students to use, practise and learn all 20 of these phrasal verbs, but this has to be built up in steps.

At the moment I’m still thinking.  I’m still wondering if I can go back to an earlier story I wrote and improve it, make it funny or heart-warming or something.  The problem there is that comedy is incredibly subjective and when trying to cross a cultural divide (and an age gap of about a decade and a half), literal comedy is one of the most difficult forms to make work.

So what have I learned from this?

  • Even if I can put a decent story together, I will have spent FAR more time than I could allow my students in class.
  • The failure to produce a happy, funny or simply a well-written story with these restrictions has disappointed me.  Such disappointment for my learners would probably equate to a drop in motivation and self-esteem.
  • Working in a group might help me to produce a good story but what I’m really missing is sufficient structure and guidance.

So how has it gone?

With a couple of additions (I think ‘come on’ and ‘go well’ are just a couple of essential phrasal verbs to add to this list) I’ve covered this list with half of my classes so far but there still hasn’t been a spark.  I’m not happy with any of the stories I’ve made up and so I’m not using any of them and therefore I’m still presenting the list as just a list basically.

Well that’s not completely true, I’m actually presenting this as a memory/guessing game, a bit more interactive but my approach here has been less than inspiring for my students so far, I think.  I might throw this one over to Sandy Millin’s excellent brainstorm site, (Almost) Infinite ELT Ideas.

So that’s where things are at the moment.  Any ideas?

Notes

* Just in case you are wondering, the 20 most common phrasal verbs are apparently as follows: bring up, carry on, chase up, come across, come up with, fall apart, get along, get away with, get over, give up, go on, hold on, look after, look up, make out, pull over, put down, put off, turn up, watch out. (Click here for the original article with explanations)

**  This comes from Alan Tait’s recent idea about taking a movie scene and getting the students to act it out and, in doing so, providing plenty of repetition as well as taking some ownership of the text and playing with it.

 
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Posted by on August 3, 2011 in Activities, Reflections

 

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