Five ‘dark horse’ topics to get students talking

a dark horse (n)

a candidate or competitor about whom little is known but who unexpectedly wins or succeeds

– Google

Not all interesting dinner-table discussions translate to the English classroom. Controversial subjects like politics and romance might work brilliantly with some students, but won’t with others. A lot of ‘safe’, worthy themes – the environment, healthy eating – are a bit overused in textbooks.

Are there any fresh, less utilised topics which will win every time? Probably not every time, but thinking back over my teaching years I can recall five which were pretty successful:

  • Getting students to teach me about their own culture or area. They particularly seem to enjoy making a foreign teacher say dialect words. Could we prepare a lesson to teach them, in turn, some little-known facts about their own country? I’ve never done it, but it could be interesting to try!
  • Binaries. Country versus city living, freedom of speech versus stopping hate speech, security versus freedom. The key is to find something which will genuinely divide students, and preferably not along predictable political lines. For instance, my students in Andorra a few years ago had generally taken up entrenched positions on one side or the other regarding Catalan independence – and this was before the situation escalated over the cancelled vote. Many of them were ready to debate, and would have done so intelligently, but nobody was likely to learn anything new or be forced to rethink their arguments. On the other hand, this post and these questions regarding the Paris atrocities led to many more nuanced discussions.
  • Life-hacks, philosophies, ways of life and living. This list of upcycled objects sparks interest, for example, and this forest-dweller could do so too. Or try sharing some life philosophies or time-saving hacks – students will be proud to share their own!
  • Money, house prices (okay, so this one is a classic dinner party topic), supermarket shopping and gadgets. Not all students will like all of these, but if you pick the right one then you can tap into a rich vein! I’ve had 14-year-olds doing a property-search on my behalf in the Sydney suburbs, in order to practise housing-related vocabulary. This hilarious shopping website has been useful in all sorts of ways.
  • Finally, try asking students for advice! Many people love to help others, and pulling the ‘little lost foreigner’ act sometimes gets the most taciturn students speaking fluently about how to open a bank account, fix your computer or navigate the local public transport system. Just be careful about asking for advice you don’t actually need – it’s fine if one student marches you over to the phone shop to get you set up with an account, but when the second student insists on doing the same, things can get a little awkward.

These have all worked for me. Are there any you’d add to the list?

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