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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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The Never-Ending Sentence (a.k.a. Cheddar Gorge)

Why the game is called Cheddar Gorge, no one knows.

I’m sure most of us have done this activity in class and it is certainly not original but it is fun, there are lots of possible variations and I want to share something I did with my classes this week which really seemed to work quite well – yes, this might be the first time I’m posting about a positive classroom experience!  Don’t worry, I’m sure I can find something in the activity that can be improved. 😉

So this is inspired by the I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue game, Cheddar Gorge.

Part 1

Put the students under the clock!

The students get into groups of four or five.  One student is nominated as a “writer” for the activity.  The class is then given 5 minutes, timed.  The objective is for each student to contribute a word to the sentence and the aim is to make the longest sentence possible without it finishing.  While the speakers are contributing words to the sentence, the writer is recording the sentence on paper.

Example of spoken dialogue:

  1. Amelia:  We
  2. Barry:  are
  3. Carlos:  all
  4. Deanna:  very
  5. Amelia:  happy
  6. Barry:  and…

You get the idea.

Part 2 (My numbers refer to the corresponding slides)

2.  After the five minutes are up, the students have a couple of minutes to review what they said and make any corrections to spelling or word choice (they have probably already been doing this during the original five minutes already).  They also have to do a word count.  Meanwhile, the teacher writes this up a table on the board.

3.  The teacher then gets the word counts from all the teams (I’ve put A, B and C, you could engage the learners more by getting them to make up their own team names).  After this, the students have to pass around their written sentence to another group.  With another team’s sentence they can get more points by finding errors.  I am quite open with what makes a mistake and this can include handwriting if the students are having problems reading it (this is an issue that learners need to be aware of just like any other).

So now the learners have all their points though you could get them to pass the writing round again for a second ‘proof-read’ by another group.

4.  For every error they found in other groups’ sentences they get 5 points.

5.  For every error they made in their own sentence they get 5 points off.

6.  Once they have gone through all of these, the teacher reads out each sentence to the class.  Any extra errors that the teacher finds will get deducted from final score.

Part 3

Once the students get the idea they then play the game again.  The 2nd round scores will be added to the 1st round (so teams have a lead to protect or have another chance to gain the lead).  This time you will notice that the learners are far more focused on not making mistakes that will hurt their points later.

So Why Did I Do It?

I’ll be honest, I initially thought of it as a fun little activity for the end of a class and mostly as a time-filler more than anything else but after seeing the reaction and studying the activity while it was happening I noticed that it can be so much more than that.

Students are involved in a highly communicative exercise where, after getting to grips with the activity, they quickly negotiate meaning and peer-correct as they “cheat” and help each other out.  The person who is writing soon understands that poor handwriting will lead to poor marks (illegible handwriting will lose points) and this helps put them in the same sort of mindset they need to various exams, like Cambridge ones.  Self-correction also improves as the students are eager not to lose and give away points for silly mistakes.

For the teacher this is a wonderful way to see what errors are being missed by all the students and therefore what correction will be of universal value.  For the other errors that are caught by the learners themselves, the students become each other’s teachers.

This is a wonderful activity and I highly recommend it.  It can be tailored be about a specific topic or to include specific vocabulary and right off the bat it forces increased use of relative clauses.

 
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Posted by on June 2, 2011 in Activities

 

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2 Website Recommendations for Listening Skills

Spotlight Radio

I’m using a website called Spotlight Radio with a couple of my classes (about A2/B1 level) for their listening practice. These are radio programmes which are about 15 minutes long and each one is a completely different topic. The speaking is slow and very clear (so not very authentic) though I’m using this site at the moment because helps to build the confidence of the students. It also works well to focus on their active listening skills. There is the transcript available as well.

How do I use Spotlight Radio in class?

I have to give credit to my primary school teachers for this one.  This is basically an exercise we did once a fortnight when I was in my final year of primary school.

I let the students select whatever topic they want from the pretty large archive. We play it (maybe 5 minutes at a time) and we all take notes. I then stop the programme and ask a series of questions based on my notes. Students write down their answers from their notes, compare and share answers, we discuss the answers as a class and then we listen to the same section again (just like the Cambridge exams if that is what you are teaching) to check if the answer was correct or to try to answer missed questions.

If you like Spotlight Radio then you can always “like” it on their Facebook page.

Lyrics Training

A second recommendation is Lyrics Training. A brilliant website that produces interactive gap fills from music videos on youTube. I’ve shown this to about four or five of my classes and they LOVE it. At least a couple of students from every class have come back to me the next class and told me they tried it over the weekend! There isn’t a better vote of approval in my book! 🙂

If you like Lyrics Training then you can always “like” it on their Facebook page.

Thank you to Russell Stannard for this recommendation.  Check out his website as well, it’s brilliant!

 
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Posted by on April 28, 2011 in Recommendations

 

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