A New Start
I was thinking that this is a new year and that I would like to start by blogging or writing in an attempt to get back into things, so I decided to look at the ingredients I would like to mix into my teaching recipe for 2017.
Survival in the Desert
Whilst we would all like to be working in supportive environments where our efforts are recognised, encouraged and we can truly flourish, this is sadly not always the case, and quite a few of us are working long, underpaid hours in difficult environments. At times it can be hard to keep the enthusiasm, energy and positive thinking up, particularly in the political, socioeconomic climate of our world, where so much is based on fear and frustration: the idea, for instance, that you should consider yourself lucky to have a job at all! Each working environment will have its own twist on this and I don’t want to dwell on it too much as what I want to do is to reflect on the way in which incredible flowers can bloom in the middle of a desert, so incredible teaching and learning can take place in the middle of negativity as
My own environment has its ups and downs too but I do consider myself lucky to be able to do a job I love with students who mostly support what I am doing. I wanted to take a little time today though to consider the ingredients I’d like to emphasise this year to make a heady didactic brew.
My first one is joy, and by this I mean feeling happy when you get up in the morning to go to work and to be able to interact with groups of individuals who can enjoy the learning/teaching process with you. This is one that I have to remind myself about otherwise it can become a case of getting up in the morning and focusing on the six hours of straight teaching that I have to do, becfore I crawl home exhausted. It is a question of how you look at things. I find that if I think about the individuals in my groups and what we are going to be doing together, it often brings a smile to my face, and whilst six hours of teaching are still tiring it is a creative tiredness, that comes from investing energy into something worthwhile. The second aspect to joy is that it can be an indgredient in the teaching itself. If the things you are doing fill you with wonder and joy, this will probably be communicated to your learners as well. It is the difference, I think between giving feedback on an exercise by saying:
“What’s the right answer to qusetion ‘2’?”
“Yes, what’s the right answer to question ‘3’?” etc.
“What’s the right question to question ‘2’?”
“Hmm, do we all agree? Do you think this is the only answer? When would you say this? What else could you say?” etc.
Basically, by taking basic exercises, and making them meaningful and natural for your learners in their own contexts and lives, we can take the most meaningless feedback check and transform it into a classroom conversation on all kinds of levels. As soon as content is relevant then there is enjoyment or engagement and agency.
You may think this is similar to joy, but recently came up against strong prejudices against “fun” and “games”. I was in a meeting about Academic English, where someone scathingly complained that his students had been on an English course during the summer where they “never did anything” and “spent the whole time using songs”. I didn’t say anything at the time, because I neded to work through this one in my own mind. Whilst it is possible that if you are studying engineering and need certain types of language to do th
is, singing songs may not be appropriate, I still can’t see why there was such a strong reaction to “songs”, and even if you are studying engineering I think that songs could be used in all kinds of profitable ways. There are so many ways in which music, rhythm and rhyme can help the memory as well as being fun, or a springboard to discussion etc. that what I finally concluded is that the problem was the idea that having fun is often seen as being a waste of time or childish. It is not part of the “adult business” of studying engineering or whatever the subject is, so the accepted thinking goes, although many may disagree. Einstein comes to mind, for instance: “Creativity is intelligence
having fun”. The prejudice against “fun” runs deep in our grey world of adulthood, but those who dare to think outside the box and have fun doing so often achieve surprising results. Creativity is also looking at things in new ways and “playing with the accepted wisdom” questioning things and thinking critically. Our brains like to play rather than be subjected to crashing boredom, or even just the expected and routine. My lessons this year will be full of fun and laughter in a very serious way.
I rather unfairly linked ‘grey’ to bordom above, whereas, actually grey is one of my favourite colours, if it is combined with others. The problem is when everything is the same colour and this could be grey, black, red, yellow or whatever, monotony leads to boredom and ultimately disengagement. I want my lessons to include unexpected moments that dleight us all. iIwant my learners to be there on the edge of their seats waiting to see what will come next, and not just from me or from the materials we are using but from each other as well. One of the most successful activities we do is ‘presentations’ and this is initialy because they are seen to be useful but then somewhere along the way the magic is cast and they become more than just useful, they are the chance ofr learners in small groups to share their own worlds with each other and the quality of what is communicated is astonishing. Colour means variety in som many ways, but it all has to be blended in a tastelful way. Too much and it becomes disorientating, the steps in the process need to be clear, leading to destinations that we all want to reach.
We all need love in our lives and we can build this by listening to each other. We can listen to what our learners want or need, work on the topics they have chosen or the language that they want to work on as far as our syllabus allows, and we can ask them to help us build our programmes, where this is possible. This may simply be in small ways, by giving them choices, or, depending on what you can do in your context, by asking them to help build the programme itself. Love is also the love of the language you are teaching and your learners are studying, by asking them what they like about certain collocations or phrases, which words they love to pronounce etc. What new ideas English can give them and how introducing metaphors from their own languages can enrich their English, for instance. You don’t have to love English to be able to use it, but if you don’t it become a code you use and not a language you live. Love, it must be remembered is the opposite of hate, and in a world where hate seems to be so prolific, perhaps a return to kindness, tolerance and growth is no bad thing.
Looking at a beautiful landscape of image, listening to uplifting music or finding the best aspects to a difficult situation: these are all examples of what I mean by including beauty among my ingredients. We could spend a lot of time discussing problems, particularly when it comes to learner eror analysis, or university essay writing, but we can also celebrate the language that learners are proud of producing, the beautiful turn of phrase, that someone has notices when reading/ listening/viewing etc., or has used themselves. We can celebrate the best solutions to a given problem, and masters of this are the Zanders in “The Art of Possibilty”. Benjamin Zander talks a lot about these mindsets and how positive solutions are simply a question of the way we look at things. He begins the talk about the transformative power of music in the video below with the example of two shoe representatives sent to somewhere in Africa to explore the market and one writes back saying there is no hope here as they don’t wear shoes. The other wrote back saying that there is a wonderful opportunity here as they have not seen shoes yet! To see more about the magic of classical music and other things see below:
Beauty is about transformation, I think. If you look at a sunset over the sea and feel lifted that is beauty, and the same thing can happen in the classroom when the language lifts the learners to a new level, and the teaching lifts the teacher too.
And so we come to the magic of it all. In fact, magic is not really an ingredient in the mix, it is what happens when the ingredients work together and are transformed into something totally new. This is what I want to happen in my work this year. I want to work together with my learners to produce an ongoing process which is magical. Oh, and if their English improves along the way we’ll all be happy too!
Happy New Year from Verona: