Monday, 7 January 2019

Popcorn on the move or how to build a fun lesson for juniors around a poem.

Let’s build a lesson around a tasty poem this time. It is ideal for young children at junior a level.

The poem comes from Tasty Poems, collected by Jill Bennett and illustrated by Nick Sharratt and published by Oxford University Press.

I am citing the poem below:

Popalong hopcorn

I’m a hopalong
popcorn in the pan!
Catch me

The following comes with a warning: you need to be fit!

It is not often that a teacher gets the opportunity to tire their students out physically so better make the most of this one.
Here are some suggestions about what steps to follow in priming your young learners for the poem and introducing the vocabulary – mainly by deixis.

Step 1: Bring in some popcorn. Go through the motions of sampling some and invite the students to do the same saying
 "Let’s taste some popcorn."
The children can repeat this as they taste the popcorn.

Step 2: Draw a pan on the board or show the learners a real one and get them to repeat the word.

Step 3: If you haven’t introduced prepositions of place yet, put some popcorn in the pan and say:
The popcorn is in the pan.
Take some out and say:
The popcorn is out.

Step 4: Demonstrate “hop” on one foot and “pop” on both feet.

Step 5: I happen to have lots of space outside the classroom so this works quite well, but even in more cramped circumstances, it is fun.
I normally hop and pop along the length of the yard to simply give the learners a rough idea of “along” and then I ask them to “hopalong and “popalong themselves.

Step 6: Draw a circle on the ground and practice “in and “out”.
While you are at it, also demonstrate “up” and “down” by jumping high and then coming down with hands pointing downwards.

Step 7: The real fun comes now. After performing the movements of “in”, “out”, “up” and “down”, run away and shout “Catch me if you can.
There is no doubt in my mind that the children will catch on to the idea!

Recap: the children should be comfortable with the new language and act it out bit by bit several times before they go on to execute the whole poem pretending to be popcorn kernels.

Monday, 24 December 2018

The lost magic of childhood Christmas

It’s Christmas, and the nostalgia of all years gone and all fulfilled and unfulfilled dreams is overwhelming. Here is a Greek poem of mine about the lost magic of childhood Christmas:

Η χαμένη μαγεία των παιδικών Χριστουγέννων

Ήρθε τότε ένας χειμώνας
Στα ολόλευκα ντυμένος
Θλιβερός και πεινασμένος
Και με ένα φύσημά του
Σάρωσε όλες τις χαλκομανίες
Κι έγινε η φωτιά στο τζάκι στάχτες

Κι ένα αστέρι εκεί πάνω
Στο βουβό τον ουρανό
Που τρεμόσβηνε δειλά
Κάπου πήγε να κρυφτεί
Σ’ ένα σύννεφο μολυβένιο
Και γεμάτο με βροχή

Τα Χριστούγεννα εκείνα
Χάθηκε όλη η μαγεία
Ψάχνω όλα αυτά τα χρόνια
Ίσως κάπου να τη βρω
Μα θα έχει ξεθωριάσει
Και αδύνατο να τη δω

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Some of the challenges about teaching adults-beginners

The greatest challenge about teaching adults -- especially beginners --is how to reinforce grammatical structures in a stimulating way. Course books typically provide plenty of practice in more or less repetitive exercises, which are meant to hammer home to the learner the new grammar. Those exercises mostly consist of single sentences with limited vocabulary.

My feeling is that once the grammar and the vocabulary of the unit have been presented and consolidated, the teacher is still left with time on their hands, time which they must fill with meaningful input before moving on to the next unit.

Besides, compared to young learners, adults are far quicker at understanding and applying rules and they also have a head start in terms of experience and factual knowledge and, therefore, a higher boredom threshold in class.

I have been trying various ways of interspersing the wasteland of grammar and repetition with some extracts from poems and songs. My main criteria for the selection of this supplementary material are its potential for reiteration of the structures presented in the course book and the intellectual stimulation it provides for my students.

 I will illustrate my point by providing an example which worked quite well with one of my adult students. The grammar practised in the course book is “there is/are” in all three forms – positive, interrogative and negative. Along with the practice material in the course components, I handed out the following:

Apart from striking a chord with the student, it is the kind of input that the student will go back to, if not to remind themselves of the grammar, to relish in it.

Before completing the work on this specific unit, I provided the lyrics of the following song, which the student was to listen to in the comfort of their home.

While I am aware of the fact that the song as a whole will not make perfect sense to a beginner- or elementary-level student, I have reached the conclusion that nuggets of gold are better than no gold at all. After all, we do not understand everything in its entirety in real life, but we don’t let this deprive us of the joy of discovering things.

Wednesday, 5 December 2018

Writing a description of an object: a playful challenge

Describing an object is often a topic set at high-level   English language exams. It is normally one part of a composite task.
Descriptions are a real challenge and not only for the student but for the teacher as well. Not everyone has an eye for detail or is gifted enough to bring an object alive through the accurate use of language.

When you describe something, you have to know the appropriate terms and you can’t resort to generalities as they do not contribute to the task by any means.

Besides, you need to “deconstruct” the object described so as to handle its different parts while not losing sight of the whole. Last but not least, you have to prioritise the parts you describe on the basis of an underlying principle: larger parts-smaller parts, interior-exterior, upper-lower, right-left and vice versa. The list is indicative but far from comprehensive.

The ugly question that arises is whether we need to develop the skill at all. I dare say that it is well worth cultivating as the description of anything leads to a better understanding and raises questions which would have not otherwise been posed. It leads to a more profound and thorough knowledge of anything, and it is of utmost importance in science too.

There are some ways of leading up to full-scale descriptions. Perhaps “game” is not the right word; consequently, I will call the activity a “challenge”. 

The teacher or different groups of students think of, research and write a description of an object without naming it. The other groups have to guess the actual object. The description should be structured as a series of “detachable” or “interchangeable” chunks of meaning so that the information can be revealed step by step – or should I say chunk by chunk – and not necessarily in a linear way but selectively depending on how difficult or easy the group may wish to make the task for the others.

The activity is appropriate for any level of English.

Here are some examples at different levels:

TOOTHBRUSH: a stick of hard plastic with a head of bristle at its end used as a tool of oral hygiene – teeth and tongue

RING: band of a precious metal often set with gemstones (diamond, ruby, emerald etc) worn round a finger offered as a vow of love or worn as a pledge of allegiance

CONCH SHELL: It is an elongated spiral with two ends: one pointed and another tubular. Close to the tubular end is a small cavity. There are five whorls on its surface of an off-white and vanilla colour.
If you hold it to your ear, you are supposed to hear the sound of the ocean.

Here is a graphic way of what I mean by detachable chunks of meaning:

Friday, 9 November 2018

Small things and lesson plans: “spin” is the word

Small things and lesson plans: “spin” is the word

I am a great believer in small things. Small things possess a lot of potential, and this is magic. A small thing can be a single concept examined in as many ways as one can imagine in one’s mind’s eye.

Let us, for the sake of illustration, take the concept of “spin”. I had never bargained for this
Spinning by firelight The boyhood of George Washington Gray, 1894  Henry Ossawa Tanner

while trying to prepare a first-time lesson plan for an online student.  For me “spin” evoked spinning car wheels, spinning tops, spinning dancers but not spinning wheels for spinning yarn!

So here are some suggestions about a lesson plan though of course examples and language production expectations will vary depending on the students’ level. One more word of warning: I always overshoot the time limit of a teaching session. (It’s a leftover fear of my early days of teaching: what if I run out of ideas before the lesson is over?)

To begin with, show the painting and try to elicit as much as you can about the setting, the era, the thoughts of the people portrayed in it. I suppose it is rather unlikely that the students will know the word “spinning wheel” or its use for that matter, so you can explain all about it. You could use the familiar image from Sleeping Beauty, which most students will have seen before.

Next provide some examples of the different nuances of meaning as well as some idiomatic expressions with the word:

·       The woman quickly spun around and pulled out a short sword.

·       Her head was spinning and it wasn't from any of the alcohol she had consumed earlier.
·       I must say my head is spinning as I contemplate these troublesome questions.
·       Aunt Betty often offered to spin neighbours' wool for them as a source of extra income.
·       Unlike insects, spiders spin silks throughout their lives.
give sth a particular emphasis or bias
·       They spin the story from an African American perspective, making us the centre, not the periphery of the story.
·       This time, they try to spin the story as a ‘legal way to download music.

·       spin a yard=tell a long far-fetched story
The Oscar-nominated Perlman, who's worked extensively in children's TV, manages to spin a yarn about bullying that's both entertaining and thoughtful.
·       spin one’s wheels=waste one’s time or effort
So for at least five of the last eight years, I was just spinning my wheels.

And since everyone is entitled to a bit of fun, you can play the following song:

You Spin Me Round
Dead or Alive

If I, I get to know your name
Well if I, could trace your private number, baby

All I know is that to me
You look like you're lots of fun
Open up your lovin' arms
I want some, want some

I set my sights on you (and no one else will do)
And I, I've got to have my way now, baby

All I know is that to me
You look like you're having fun
Open up your lovin' arms
Watch out here I come

You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round
You spin me right round, baby
Right round like a record, baby
Right round round round

I got to be your friend now, baby
And I would like to move in just a little bit closer

All I know is that to me
You look like you're lots of fun
Open up your lovin' arms
Watch out, here I come

You spin…

Finally, ask the students to write a short story about spinning in whatever sense of the word they choose – ideally including as many different shades of its meaning as possible.

Also while you are at it, better not miss the opportunity to assign some dictionary work on the difference between set eyes on and set one’s sights on (the latter is in the song). 

Hope you have fun and perhaps you can add a new spin on this lesson plan!

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Humble concoctions: In my Mind's Eye

Sometimes I gather stray thoughts together and I come up with humble things like this:

In my Mind’s Eye

My old mother used to say
If you can’t see the ocean
Behind those pale blue eyes
You are likely blind

And if you can’t feel the heat
In those dying embers
You’ve never been touched
By the divine

Your world is there
And you are forever
Reshaping it only
 In your mind’s eye

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Writing as a process: let's get extreme!

Writing at any level in our days has become a burden rather than a time of reflection and quiet introspection.

Technology and its concomitant distractions prevent young -- and more mature -- learners from  concentrating  on the task at hand. I dare say the social media, with their semblance of sociability, cultivate the attitude that being left on our own and to our own devices points to inflicted isolation, which is to be avoided by all means.

Motivating learners to write somehow involves persuading them to rethink the value of spending time alone with their thoughts, and this is not an easy thing to do but definitely worth trying.

A word of warning: I am not advocating a school environment free from technological equipment nor am I in favour of leaving students to deal with a writing task without support from the teacher. What I am saying is that independent thinking also occurs when the students are given time and opportunity to examine a question with the freshness of their own mind.

Writing at an advanced level is an extremely demanding activity as it requires performing many different subtasks. I therefore suggest that the teacher develops a method of guiding the students through the different stages of drafting and editing a piece of writing -- perhaps a different one depending on the nature of the task.

I will now focus on a specific form of writing and suggest an approach which could not only enable the learners to complete the task but would also teach them skills and ways of addressing similar writing tasks while at the same time it will activate their minds.

This is the topic
A sports magazine has invited its readers to write letters on the topic of dangerous sports. You have decided to write a letter (280-320 words) expressing your views about dangerous sports and what you think the responsibilities of the people who do these sports are.
It is a task set in the coursebook Masterclass for the Cambridge Proficiency published by Oxford University.

The first step was to ask the students for a definition of extreme sports to which the answer is typically an activity which carries a high risk possibly incongruous with the pleasure derived from practising it – though the last point is highly questionable.

Although the task seemed and indeed was quite straightforward, the students did not have enough ideas to develop into a 300-word letter, which brings me to the next step.

By focusing on structure and format, coursebooks tend to overlook the dearth of ideas and arguments, which is really the raw material for structuring anything at all. Rather than providing the students with a ready-made model, which is often well beyond their scope and abilities, I consider it a priority to train them to look for information on the Internet. It takes some time to learn the ropes since searching should yield the most relevant results, which requires thinking carefully of the key words of the search.

On this particular occasion I did the search for the students and gave them the links so they could read up. The first text was a New York Times article:
Taking sports to the extreme

The second one was a post from a blog:
Should extreme sports be banned as they put people’s lives at risk

The third one was an article again from The Conversation:
Adrenaline zen: what “normal people” can learn from extreme sports

The most important thing to warn the students about is that the texts they will read are in different formats and styles from what they have been asked to produce, which means that they will have to select the points that they will include in their own writing. They can copy-paste the relevant extracts onto a sheet of paper but the teacher must point out that they have to read the whole texts and then select relevant bits.

When the students had garnered all the relevant information, I gave them my notes, which evidently lay no claim to stylistic uniformity or structural integrity. The important thing is to make it clear to the students that their notes are a bank from which they can draw but not necessarily exhaust. The notes may contain ideas about linking devices which will come in useful later.

Here are the notes I made and passed on to my students as an example of what I was asking of them:

Once they have done the above, they are ready to start the laborious task of organising the ideas in the format required (a letter in this case) and adapting the material collected to their own personal style if their writing is not going to read like a mosaic of different styles and loosely connected ideas.

The final stage is the actual writing. When this is done in class, which it normally is, I make sure that I keep an eye on what each student writes in order to help with phrasing and stop them from wandering off. It is a painstaking process for the students and teacher alike but one that pays off in the long run.
Once they have finished their writing, I usually give the students the end result of my writing. Here is the letter about extreme sports: