Lesson: GIRL MEETS BOY (C1 level)

This lesson is suitable for older teens and adults.

The main focus is on giving opinions on what someone should do. You’ll also be listening for meaning, guessing what happened next in a story and using some dating vocabulary.

Talk with your teacher or with a partner about your answers. This is really important if you want to practise your speaking.

Start the lesson here, and click on the links if you want to look at anything in more detail!


1.  Do you know any of these dating-related words and phrases? What do you think they mean?

  • going Dutch
  • two-timing
  • double date
  • one-night stand
  • What’s your type?
  • ghosting
  • breadcrumbing
  • flaky

For answers, you can go to my Tumblr, here.

 

2.  Talk with your partner about your answers to these questions:

  • When someone texts, how quickly do you reply, on average?
  • Do you ever keep someone waiting for days for a text? If you do this, what are the reasons?
  • Would you text more quickly or more slowly than usual if the person you were texting was a potential partner and you were planning to meet up for a date?

 

3.  From what your partner has said so far, can you guess how they would answer this question? Think about what your partner would say, and tell them what you think.

  • You meet someone you are interested in dating. You send the potential date a short, simple message, and the date doesn’t reply. You go to your partner to ask for advice. What would your partner tell you to do?

Did you guess your partner’s reaction correctly? Speak with him/ her and find out!

 

4.  Here’s a video of dating coach Matthew Hussey speaking about a friend of his who was in this situation. Listen to Matthew speaking and think about the answers to these questions:

  • What does this woman reply to the text?
  • What does Matthew think of her reply?
  • What do you think of her reply?

Talk about your answers with your partner.

 

5.  Listen to some more of the video. Think about these questions:

  • What does the girl do next?
  • Why does Matthew not like this?

Talk with your partner about what you heard.

 

6. The boy doesn’t text back until Friday. What do you think he replies?

Share your ideas with your partner!

 

7.  Let’s find out the answer!

 

8.  And now, for what happens next:

  • Watch the video and note the most important points in the rest of the story.
  • Now compare your ideas with your partner.
  • What do you think Matthew texted this boy? What would you have texted on behalf of the girl?

 

9.  Let’s find out what Matthew wrote!

  • What reasons does he give for choosing this reply?
  • How do you think the story continues?

 

10.  Let’s find out how it all ends:

  • Do you think this advice is useful for people trying to set up a date? Why/ why not?
  • Can it be applied equally to the opposite situation, where a boy is trying to set up a date with a girl?
  • Do you have any unreliable people in your life? How do you deal with them? Is it appropriate to cut someone off for being flaky?

 

11.  For some related quotations and ideas to discuss, please click here.

 

Lesson: ISLAND RULES (B1 level)

B1 level. Main focus: You’re going to discover some phrases for giving instructions and advice, and you will then use these phrases to help visitors to an imaginary island.

Start here, and open the links in a new window or tab. Talk with a teacher or a partner about your answers. This is important if you want to practise your speaking! You can also write your answers here in the comments.


 

1.  Talk with your partner about your answers to these questions:

  • What is an island? Can you describe it in English?
  • How many islands have you visited? Which ones?
  • What are the differences between island life and mainland life?
  • Some people have bought islands and built a house there. Do you know of any famous examples?
  • If you became very rich and famous, would you buy your own island? Why/ why not?

I’ve written some of my answers here, so after you finish talking you can compare yours with mine!

 

2.  Now you’re rich and famous! You need to get an island so that you can get away from all of your crazy fans, journalists and paparazzi photographers!

I’ll give you a link below to a list of islands for sale. If money was no object*, which would you buy?

*This is an English idiom. It means, ‘if you had so much money that you didn’t have to worry about anything being too expensive’.

https://www.privateislandsonline.com

Here’s another website you could check out:

https://www.vladi-private-islands.de/en/

 

3.  This lesson is called ‘Island Rules’. What are rules?

 

4. What rules do you have to follow at work/ university / school?

For example, in my workplace you must not smoke inside the building. What others can you think of?

(If you can’t remember any rules, try thinking about…

  • the clothes you wear
  • your location/ the places you go
  • timekeeping
  • the things you use e.g. computers, books
  • forms you have to fill in)

 

5.  How did you say the rules in part 2? Did you use any modal verbs?

For revision of modal verbs, please look here.

 

6.  Do you know the meanings of these words and phrases? They’re all related to rules.

  • breaking the rules
  • against the law
  • rebel
  • obligation
  • tighten the rules
  • procedure
  • inappropriate behaviour
  • instructions

Can you fit the words and phrases into these sentences?

  • The teacher went out of the room for ten minutes, but before she went she left strict __________ to the class that they must continue reading their books quietly.
  • The __________ to join the school library is this: you fill in a form, get your tutor to sign it, give the form to the librarian, and then come back in a week to collect your library card.
  • In my school, the rules were that kids had to wear black shoes, but some of us wore grey shoes as a way to _________ against the rules.
  • Telling racist jokes in the office is _________ and we cannot let you do it!
  • From next year, the government will _________ on immigration. Anyone who wants to work in this country will need to have a full time job and be getting more than £23,000 per year. They must also pay their salary into a UK bank account.
  • If I ask ‘How’s you?’ then I’m _________ of English grammar!
  • My uncle sent me some money for my birthday, so I feel an _________ to visit him for his birthday!
  • It’s _________ to steal cars.

The answers are here.

 

7.  You’re now going to learn about some islands in Scotland.

Please look at the photos, read the text, and discuss this with your partner:

  • Would you like to visit these islands?
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Photo by Sum Doood, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/sumdoood/8409863218. (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

 

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Photo by Mark Hodgson, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/mhodgson/9065676505. (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

 

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Photo by Mark Hodgson on http://www.flickr.com/photos/mhodgson/9065682749. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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8.  Now you’re going to look at the webpage of the Shiant Islands. What phrases can you find for giving rules and advice?

  • Don’t just look for phrases containing ‘must’ and ‘should’.
  • If there’s a word you don’t know, you can search for it online or in a dictionary. Even if you don’t understand every word on the webpage, I think you can still find lots of examples of rules and advice!

http://www.shiantisles.net/visit

You’ll find a list here of some of the phrases I found.

 

9.  So now it’s your turn! You’ve bought your island from one of the websites linked in Part 2. You’ve got your house there (or treehouse, beach hut, resort…) and now you would like to invite some visitors to stay.

What rules and advice would you give them? Take 10 minutes to think about it and write these rules down. After 10 minutes, talk with your partner or teacher and show them your list of rules.

Be as creative as you can!


 

If you’ve enjoyed this lesson, please leave a comment! I’d love to hear from you – and I’d love to read some of your island rules too!

Lesson: SWITCHED ON (A2 level)

A2 level. Main focus: You’re going to practise some computer related vocabulary and learn some collocations.

Start here, and click on the links if you want more information about anything in the lesson.

Talk with your teacher or with a partner about your answers. This is really important if you want to practise your speaking.


 

1.  What do we call the things in the pictures?

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Raimond Spekking / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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FF UK / CC BY-SA 4.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

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Photo by Stuart Mudie, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/smudie/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

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Photo by evanrudemi, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/evanrude/ (CC BY-ND 2.0)

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Photo by cea +, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/centralasian/ (CC BY 2.0)

The answers are here.

 

2. Which of the words from Exercise 1 can also be a verb? What’s the past tense of these verbs?

The answers are here.

 

3. You’re going to watch a video clip from the 1980s about a new kind of technology.

– Before we listen, let’s just explain a few brand names that you’ll hear:

  • Database a TV programme about technology.
  • British Telecom the biggest telecommunications company in the United Kingdom.
  • Prestel the brand name for computer equipment sold by the Post Office in the United Kingdom in the 1980s and early 90s.

Now watch the video from the start to 3:15.

Think about these questions as you watch:

  1. What was the new technology?
  2. What did these people use it for?

 

My answers are here.

 

4. Think about these questions:

What were the differences between this network in 1984 and the internet of today? Are there any things which are the same today as in 1984?

Now tell your partner. Don’t forget to use past tense. You could also use ‘used to + base verb’.

For more about talking about differences and similarities, click here.

I’ve put some answers here.

 

5.  Read the following sentences.

(Example). I simply remove the telephone jack from the telecom socket and plug it into this box here – the modem – and then take another wire from the modem and _____  ______  ______  where the telephone was.

  1. The computer asked me if I want to log on and it’s now telling me to ______  ______ the main Prestel computer.
  2. It asks for the tone, and then I just ______   _______   _______ on the modem and replace the receiver.
  3. The Prestel computer is now asking me to enter my own personal password, which I have now done, and it ______   _______   _______ an opening screen.
  4. There’s a letters page so people can ________   ________.
  5. Some of them are free; some you do have to ________   ________.

Listen again to 0:00 – 3:15 and add the right words in the spaces.

Here’s the example again: I simply remove the telephone jack from the telecom socket and plug it into this box here – the modem – and then take another wire from the modem and plug it in where the telephone was.

 

You’ll find the answers here.

 

6. The words you added in part 5 were ‘phrasal verbs’ or collocations.

A collocation is a group of words that often go together. These can be verbs and prepositions, but also nouns and other types of word.

– Which verb collocates with ‘a switch’?

A phrasal verb is a special type of collocation. It’s usually made up of a verb + one or two prepositions.

Example:   plug in   (plug is the verb, in is the preposition).

You need the preposition, or the meaning will be different:

to plug = to fill a hole

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Someone should plug the holes in this boat! (photo by englishin3d.net)

to plug (something) in = to connect (something) to the electricity.

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If you want hot water you’ll need to plug it in! (photo from yourbestdigs.com, via Flickr. (CC BY 2.0)

With collocations and phrasal verbs, there is no list of rules like with grammar. The best way to learn them is just to keep practising until you know them!

See if you can fit the words from Part 5 into these sentences. You might need to switch between present, past and future tenses:

  1. The trains have been late every day this month! I am going to _______ _______ to the newspaper about this because it’s not good enough!
  2. I had to reinstall the app because it ________ ________ ________ an error every time I opened it.
  3. My boss is very kind – she _______ _______ my family holiday last summer.
  4. ‘Oh, hello, I’m just _______ ________ to check if you’ve sent my new modem. It hasn’t arrived yet but I had an email a week ago to say you sent it’.
  5. Using this machine is very easy. You just ________ the ________ and it starts.

The answers and another exercise are here.

 

7.  You’re now going to read the transcript of the video.

– Can you find prepositions which collocate with these verbs?

  • to link
  • to connect
  • to remove
  • to leave
  • to use

– And which verb collocates with these nouns in the video?

  • your password
  • the receiver

SWITCHED ON transcript

Here’s your link for the answers.

 

8. Here’s a picture of another old machine. Can you guess what it is?

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Photo by Joe Haupt, on https://www.flickr.com/photos/51764518@N02/ (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Here are some clues:

  • It makes a lot of noise.
  • Some modern ones have a shape like this, but usually they are much taller.
  • It will be a lot harder to keep your house clean if you don’t have one of these!

Can you guess it now?

If you can’t, the answer is here.

Now you’re going to show your partner some old machines and help him or her to guess what these machines are.

If you’ve got your own phone or tablet, it’s a good idea to use this now because you will be looking at a different machine from your partner.

Person A, you can start here.

Person B, start here.

Lesson: CITY LIFE IN WHITTIER (B2 level)

The main focus of this lesson is on listening for meaning, discussing and presenting ideas.

Start the lesson here, and click on the links at the bottom if you want to look at anything in more detail!

Talk with your teacher or with a partner about your answers. This is really important if you want to practise your speaking.

If you want to, you can write your answers down in the comments.

 

  1. Have you lived mostly in the city, in the country, in a town or perhaps a mixture? Which do you think would suit you best, and why?

 

  1. Here’s a photo of a city called Whittier. It’s in Alaska, USA. What do you think of it?

 

 

  1. About 200 people live in Whittier, and almost all of them live in just one building, called Begich Towers. The shops and the school are also part of this building. You can see Begich Towers in the photo.

– Imagine living your whole life in one building.

– What would you like and dislike about this way of life?

– How do you think it would affect daily life?

 

  1. Write down a sentence about how these things would change, for someone moving to Whittier:

– the journeys you make every day (to school or college or work)

– kids growing up and going to school there

– social life

– people’s health

 

  1. Can you think of any other situations where people spend all their time inside one building?

 

  1. We’re going to listen to a teacher called Erika who works in Whittier. She’s talking about her experiences living there.

– Before we listen, let’s just check a few words:

condo a condominium – a US American word for a comfortable apartment. Are there anything like condos in your area?

mayor the head of a town. Some mayors have a lot of power; some mayors’ job is just to go to important events and make a speech. Who is your local mayor?

 

Listen to the video and check your answers in Part 4. Does Erika agree or disagree with you?

 

 

  1. What positive things does Erika say about life in Whittier?

 

  1. Think of the town you live in, or the big city nearest you.

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Kapow!   Photo by Karli Watson: https://www.flickr.com/photos/karlequin/457858386

– Oh crikey! A disaster has happened and the city has been destroyed.

– The good news is that all the people have survived!

– The bad news is that the only safe way to rebuild the city is as one very big building.

 

Big boys play with big legos

Maybe it will look like this?    Picture by Rodrigo Filgueira: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rfilgue/36900190936

 

– Take ten minutes to think about what things the city will need, so that the people who live there will be safe, healthy and happy. Think of the important details which will need to be different in this new city. Make some notes.

 

I’ll start you off:

  • There will need to be a hospital, for anyone who gets sick. It will also need a very secure area for anyone suffering from an infectious disease (like Ebola or bird ‘flu) because living in one building makes these diseases even more dangerous!

 

– Your turn to think of some more!

– Now share these with your speaking partner. See if you can agree on a list of the 5 most important things to include.

– When you’re finished, don’t forget to write your answers in the comments below! Or join up at https://www.facebook.com/Englishin3d/!

 


A transcript of part of the video is available here. My answers (incomplete) are here.

The Lies of the Lesson Observation Process

1. “This is to help you become a better teacher”

While I don’t deny that a well-handled observation can help a teacher to improve, is this really the primary purpose of most observations? In my experience of being observed, most of the time the process ended with a grade or report which was briefly shown to me and then went up into the higher echelons of the institution. If that was genuinely supposed to be a way of improving my classroom skills (as opposed to measuring them) then it was a pretty rubbish one. The alternative explanation was that the institutions concerned lacked the courage to say outright ‘We don’t know for sure whether you’re any good, and we’d quite like to find out so that we can decide whether to offer you more work or edge you out the door’.

Just like with testing students, there’s a difference between summative and formative observations: summative ones basically measure aptitude at that moment in time, while formative ones are focused on figuring out where to go next in terms of skills improvement.

Let’s go into formative processes in a bit more detail, shall we?

Let’s say I’m the school’s resident expert, and you’re a novice teacher. I’ve got a couple of hours set aside to help you, personally, to improve your skills as much as possible. Which of these is likely to help you more?

  • For me to come in to watch you teach, and tell you things about how you could have improved.
  • For you to come in to watch me teach, followed by a discussion of why I did what I did in class.

It’s basically a choice between testing and modelling. Both are things we do with our students. I’d argue that while testing is very much necessary, it’s not actually the same as teaching. It might show students what they don’t know – but what if they are already aware of the gaps in their knowledge? It shows us what they don’t know, and by extension what we need to teach, but the teaching part happens only later. Likewise, if I come to watch your lesson I’m learning plenty about you, your strengths and weaknesses. You may learn something from the process too, especially as you’re a novice and may not be fully aware of your classroom practices, but we can’t rely on this happening.

Modelling, on the other hand, does teach something. We ask students to listen to the phrases that they’ll be using later, or show them how to do an activity in class. We might play a recorded dialogue and get students to analyse it. And in the upside-down observation above, the analysis is happening.

But I’m not satisfied with this either. One modelled activity doth not a lesson make, and one observation isn’t going to go very far in ‘training’ a teacher. If we recognise that our students’ learning is a process, then what excuse have we for not doing the same with our teachers’ learning?

So, back to our suggestions from above – let’s see if we can refine them to become more like, well, pedagogy. How about this? Could this be an improvement?

  • I watch you teach, followed by a discussion in which we both agree on several areas which you could benefit from developing. I plan a lesson, giving particular focus to these areas. You come in to watch me teach, followed by a discussion of why I did what I did in class. You now plan a lesson to cover these same improvement areas, not necessarily in way I did but tailored to your own teaching style and preferences. I supervise this process and make suggestions as necessary. I come in to watch you teach and we have a final discussion about what you’ve learned. At the end we set some aspirations for your next observation, whenever that will be.

Why don’t schools do this? Is it lack of time? If so, I’d argue that they’re mis-prioritising. It’s clear that this would take three times as long as a ‘normal’ observation. I reckon it would be many times more effective as a means to improve teaching skills.

2. “…..” (while in the classroom)

Okay, so this one’s not a lie, it’s a silence. A deceptive silence. The implication is this: the observer comes in, sits at the back unannounced and unobserved, and the laboratory conditions are preserved. The silent, ghostly presence at the back of the room will not alter the attitude of the students or the atmosphere within the classroom one bit, even when the teacher’s voice is tight with nerves and the first few minutes are full of fluffed instructions and the rather longer-than-usual lesson plan is clutched clammily throughout.

Well, you can forget that. Just as in physics, the observer affects the result just by being in the room. I’ve had a class of boisterous teenagers suddenly go quiet. I’ve seen an awkward class put on a particular display for their audience.

It may not be a huge effect in reality, but it’s noticed by the teacher – who may, in the midst of this stressful process, overestimate the influence that the sudden addition of a silent person actually had. And here’s the thing – the irrational part of the mind can use this in various ways. The lesson went badly? There’s an excuse for any prideful teacher:  the kids were unsettled today! The lesson wasn’t too bad but the teacher’s a born worrier? Oh, discipline really went to pot and I don’t know what happened and I really can’t cope and… panic sets in. At this point, any advice targeted at the teacher’s general skills is likely to go unheeded, because ‘that wasn’t a normal lesson’.

So the question is this: in order to preserve the illusion of laboratory conditions (which all of our teachers know is a lie, anyway), do we really want to risk having a teacher come out excusing or fretting and consequently taking on board nothing that we tell them at the post-observation meeting? Of course we don’t!

What do we do about it, then? I’d suggest the observer should take a lesson – or part of a lesson – with the same class beforehand, gets to know them a little and gets an idea of the students’ levels and personalities. This will have the bonus that the observer can then plan which students to watch most closely during the observed lesson itself.

Also – let’s abandon this silly pretence that there can be anything like laboratory conditions. Instead of silence, let’s have engagement, positivity. Let’s have observers join in with activities, ‘learn’ alongside the students and encourage the teacher as much as possible!

3. “My criticisms of you will be constructive”

Ah yes. It’s a big one, this. I’ve couched it as a statement, but more often than not it seems to be unspoken; just an assumption that saying ‘you did X and Y things quite well but there needed to be more Z’ is constructive and helpful.

We assume this even though teachers know that they’d still be given a target for improvement after teaching the perfect lesson, because that’s just what we do.

We assume it even though the observee is likely to be walking into the post-obs meeting thinking ‘so what will they say I did wrong?’ and walking out thinking of the negative feedback they’ve received. Even though it’s commonly stated that criticism has a disproportionately large effect on self-image, compared to praise, we still go through with this charade.

Even though we’re aware that many teachers bring a large part of themselves, their personalities into the classroom, we take the risk of damning not just their professional performance, but this very core of their personhood.

And yes, damning it is. As far as I can see, any criticism or call for improvement which might happen in observation feedback can be translated into an analogous playground insult:

Kindly comment from Director of Studies What the teacher might be hearing…
You need to work on your behaviour management You’re a wimp!
Some of your instructions could have been clearer You can’t communicate well.
You could have cut down on teacher talking time Nobody wants to listen to you!
Sometimes the transitions between activities felt a little disorganised Sort yourself out; you’re a disaster!
While you displayed obvious passion for the subject of William Heath Robinson’s work, I didn’t feel it was really relevant to the students’ interests. (yes, I received this one at a school which shall remain nameless). OMG! GEEK!

I exaggerate! Or do I? Well, I’m not so sure. Bear in mind that some teachers may have been subjected to these types of comments while they were growing up, from peers or indeed from authority figures. Asking for them to put aside any negative experiences they’ve had in the past and accept our criticisms calmly as helpful and constructive may be asking quite a lot!

So how to avoid doing this?

First of all, I think it’s clear that in some cases we can’t avoid it. If a teacher is consistently terrible, there will come a time when a hard conversation needs to be had, for the sake of their students, colleagues and indeed further career. But it doesn’t normally come to that!

If we’ve seen just one lesson by the observee and it’s bad, well, never mind, we all have bad lessons. Good or bad, the feedback from any one observed lesson can really only be about the lesson anyhow. It’s not an overall reflection of the teacher, and we’d do well to be honest about this! Of course, it’s also reasonable to say ‘I’d like to give you the chance to have another observation because I am convinced you normally perform a lot better than this’.

If the lesson wasn’t bad at all but there were things to improve, then that’s fine again – we all have things to improve. And if there was nothing that could unarguably have been done better, say so!

The tone should be less ‘expert talking to novice’ but ‘equals having a discussion’. After all, if the observer no longer teaches (or hasn’t been observed by the observee) then there’s not really any proof of their expert status, other than the fact that they’ve hung around long enough to get promoted!

I’d suggest that the scheme I suggested earlier (way back under Lie Number 1) would dispel this inequality by making the process higher-stakes for the observer (who now gets observed) and at the same time gentler and more formative for the observee. This also gives the observer the chance to evaluate not just the classroom practice of the teacher, but also their professional attributes such as self-reflectiveness, ability to work together, their motivation for self-improvement – and to get to know a member of the team a whole lot better!

4. “So how do you feel your lesson went?”

Another one that’s technically not a lie. It’s a classic, though! The nice, fluffy opening to the post-observation meeting – with a sting in the tail. What this one purports to be saying is ‘I care for you and am ready to respect your opinion’. Yet we all know, or at least suspect, that the real question here is ‘Are you alert/ self-reflective enough to guess what I’m about to say about your lesson?’. The teacher blethers something, after which the observer gives the ‘official’ run-down of what happened during the lesson, followed by a verdict on what was good and bad.

Again, though, this is something we advise teachers not to do with students. It’s the old ‘guess what I’m thinking’ game, and it’s dangerous. You ask a question, you get an answer, and that answer could be anything! It’s a perfect recipe for derailing a discussion, taking things off at a tangent and ensuring that as many wrong answers may be heard (and remembered) as right ones.

Jo Gakonga has described a lovely example of an observed teacher answering this question in a way that derails the conversation: while the observee worries blindly about her over-emphatic hand gestures during the lesson, the observer didn’t notice these gestures and tries to move the discussion onwards. But the damage has already been done. The observee is – metaphorically – in a bit of a flap, and possibly not able to take in anything more!

I think there are three productive approaches to take here. One is simply to leave the question out. As I’ve stated, many observations are done in a very summative way, without any attention given at any other time to the teacher’s own self-reflections. The beginning of the feedback session is hardly the most opportune time to introduce a token bit of democracy into proceedings.

Another way would be to make the meeting more conversational. The observer talks about various points, and makes time for the observee to respond to each, preferably referring back to the points previously raised at the pre-observation meeting.

Alternatively, hold the feedback session back a bit, in order to give the teacher some time to self-reflect. Both teacher and observer write down their reflections, and the meeting starts with these being swapped and read. Allowing the teacher to write has the benefit too that their self-evaluation can be retained along with the observer’s feedback.


 

In conclusion, I’d say that more honesty can be brought into the process of observing and monitoring teachers, more humility and encouragement too, and if we can achieve this then at the same time we could end up with a much more effective way of motivating and equipping our teachers to improve their classroom skills.

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?

Why should(n’t) we teach British culture?

I’ve recently been producing a series of lessons on various aspects of life and culture in the UK. While writing these, I’ve also been thinking about the teaching of British culture and I have to admit I don’t feel completely comfy with it.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s necessarily imperialistic; the lessons I’m writing are in response to students and particularly teachers in various European countries requesting a cultural focus and definitely not something that’s being imposed on them.

Yet I am aware that there’s a danger in teaching about Britain as though it’s uniquely interesting or worthy of study. With English being used worldwide, there’s a strong possibility that some of the students will visit China before they ever set foot in England, or that they’ll find themselves speaking English to more Russians than Brits over the course of a lifetime. Even in the Anglosphere, the influence of India and Nigeria is likely to increase, while Britain continues to wane. Shoehorning lessons on the Royal Family or dwile-flonking into English courses is increasingly going to look like an anachronism at best, or trivial and time-wasting insularity at worst.

But the schools go on asking for British culture! We have to consider why. And I think there are some good reasons to include cultural lessons:

  • First of all, it’s a great opportunity for students to practise their speaking. People naturally enjoy sharing aspects of their national culture, food, points of pride. If I talk a little about my culture, it’s not a big leap to get students talking about theirs, and this is an immensely fertile topic for getting them using comparatives, ‘used to’, ‘it is believed that…’ and a host of other language points.
  • With younger learners in particular, cultural lessons introduce the students to the notion that not everyone lives as they do. For example, school life in the UK may be a dry subject, but we can bring in the topic of school assemblies, uniforms and various other big areas in which things are different between countries.
  • Expanding their horizons in this way is worthy in itself, but we can also get students thinking critically: discussing ways that school and education might be done differently where they are, justifying their opinions on why a republican system is better than a monarchy (or not).

So far, so fine. But you might be asking ‘why do you need to prioritise British culture in order to do this’? And I’d agree – we don’t need to! All I’d say there is that I think it’s natural for us as teachers to tell students something about our own culture, whether that’s Northern Ireland or New Zealand. Almost all of the teachers working with my new materials will be Brits, so hopefully there’ll be no major disconnect there.

(Of course, if it’s a residential course in an English-speaking country then things will be different again. If students are travelling to London or Dublin or New York to study, then it’s natural to give them a certain amount of local information, regardless of the teacher’s origins.)

I have come up with a few notional guidelines for the teaching of culture, based on the lesson-writing I’ve been doing:

  • Learning about British culture shouldn’t itself be the lesson aim. More suitable aims could be to get them using the correct tense to talk about bands and musicians from past and present, to get them talking about their culture and differences with Britain, or to talk about which education system they’d prefer and justify their opinions.
  • On a related note, be careful about including things which are too specific or low-frequency. Students may enjoy learning about the ancient sport of shin kicking, but do they need to know that the referee is known as a stickler? Spotted dick may be a majestic name for a pudding, but is it really a necessary vocabulary item for students to retain after class?
  • Don’t exclude world cultures! TEFL teachers are a well-travelled lot, so why not use that? I’ve talked with students in Austria about my experiences in Japan; I’ve introduced Andorrans to the history of Kowloon Walled City. Even in my British culture lessons, I’ve included some descriptions of world food for students to match with pictures.
  • There is a time when Anglosphere can take centre stage, and that’s when the language itself has cultural connotations. A couple of examples: British English has a whole range of phrases for hedging and backpedalling: ‘-ish’, ‘rather’, ‘not wholly unnecessary’ and so on; I’d suggest there’s nothing wrong with talking about the cultural reasons behind this, and the way that we Brits tend to avoid stating anything too categorically. Similarly, in teaching students about taboo questions (‘Are you married? What’s your religion? How much do you earn?’) we may need to go into the cultural reasons behind what’s taboo and what’s not – but there’s no need to discuss the worldwide differences in order to get the point across!

What do you think of these guidelines? Have you any more to add? Have you ever had to teach British (or American) culture?