Monday, 1 July 2019

Stories, videos and imagination

Rare occurrences almost invariably hold the attention of learners -- both children and adults.

What would offer a couple of hours of fun and suspense is the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin followed by the video The town that nearly danced itself to death available on BBC, which is about the dance epidemic which led to a shocking number of deaths. A similar outbreak of dancing mania in Germany is thought to have been the basis of the tale of The Pied Piper.

The level of English required is B2 or post B2.

The original story is available online, plus there are several video versions available on YouTube. But I prefer to stick to the original so I can introduce new vocabulary and provide more practice on it.

Here is where you can read the original story:

A key concept you could start with is “plague”. An explanation in the students’ mother tongue would be appropriate -- accompanied by some images. It is a great opportunity to present relevant words such as “infest”, and “infestation”.

I have prepared a vocabulary exercise to use for extra practice:

The story of the Pied Piper is an enchanting one: man’s powerlessness to deal with nature’s strange ways, the power of music to tame, human greed, vengefulness. You could explore one or all of these themes depending on your students’ eagerness. The students could be even asked to think of or bring to class other stories revolving round those themes.
The video on the other hand about the outbreak of dancing in Strasbourg in 1518 contains more sophisticated information about the way the incident manifested itself and the possible explanations for people literally dancing themselves to death: from purely physiological (typhus or epilepsy) to socio-cultural ones (mass hysteria).

Here is the link for the video about Strasbourg:

Mature students, especially those who specialise in Medicine or Psychology would find some food for thought in the video. It could serve as the springboard for an oral session on what motivates people to become self-destructive.

Monday, 24 June 2019

The screen is a "dangerous" place to be in many different ways. Talking to strangers is one. But we can't lag behind; we need to keep up with the times. The poem below is the result of dissecting the contradictory feelings the web may give rise to. I wrote it a couple of years ago, when I was "newer" to the online community.

SCREEN LURKER You lurk right thereIn the corner of the screenYou call yourself a friendYou dissemble unabashed When the screen gets blankLittle friend you are not enoughYou are so much more than a drugSo much less than a cure Every day your image
Fades with the tempo
Of a novelty turnedThreadbare with the use

Saturday, 15 June 2019

The value of the mother tongue in foreign language teaching

I have touched upon the value of using the learner’s mother tongue in foreign language learning. I know I may be carrying coals to Newcastle by repeating a view that has probably been expounded by many a linguist or EFL teacher around the world but there can be no harm in sharing some thoughts from my long experience as an EFL teacher of Greek origin.

I will briefly enumerate the benefits for the learner of being provided with or even better working out a mother tongue equivalent for a word or phrase in the foreign language.

To begin with, the learner, especially if they are children, realises the difference between an equivalent and a word-for-word translation (the latter being pointless and leading to no real learning of the foreign language.) The teacher plays a significant role in this by acting as a facilitator rather than as a translator. Not insisting on a translation when another method of illustrating the meaning of the word is more straightforward is always preferable. This means if I can show an image of a “kettle” or a “pulley”, I simply will. Whether the student is familiar with the mother-tongue word for it is of secondary importance as long as they associate image and meaning without the agency of the first-language translation.

Secondly, the learner, whether young or adult, is obliged to mull over the concept(s) both in their mother tongue and foreign language and in the process  of doing so to activate their mind in order to discover the meanings of the words or phrases and reorganise the knowledge heretofore saved in their memory. Comparisons, even misguided ones, will help make the concept and lexical item more memorable.

Another outcome of using the mother tongue in understanding a foreign language is enriching your knowledge of your own language, which can only further enhance your overall linguistic skills. I will briefly describe a wonderful opportunity I had to do so together with an adult student of mine while working on an article called The Woman Defying Tradition with pistachios.

The word in question is “figurehead”. Although I knew what it meant, I had no Greek equivalent in mind so I set out to find out and I was fascinated by my discoveries: a few more Greek words in my stock:
ακρόπρωρο= το άκρον της πρώρας (πλώρη in Modern Greek)
αχυράνθρωπος= a man made of hay
υποχείριο=under sb’s orders (under sb’s hand, literally)
ανδρείκελο <ανήρ (Ancient Greek for “man”) + είκελος (Ancient Greek for :similar”)
In Greek the above word collocates with the word “government” to denote a “puppet government”.
So in English the phrase implies that someone behind those in power pulls the strings whereas in Greek it implies that those in power are only men in outward appearance.

A short discussion of the different ways of perceiving                     nominal leaders could further stimulate learners’ curiosity about other cultural differences encoded in the two languages.
I am aware that this cannot be done with every word, but it can be applied whenever the teacher and the learner need this extra support to save vocabulary in their long-term memory. 

A student of mine once said to me that he would never forget the word “idiot” after I explained to him that it came from Greek and in Ancient Greece “ιδιώτης” was someone who did not engage in public affairs. Somehow the impact of the meaning hit him.

Saturday, 1 June 2019

Using videos to stimulate discussion of abstract concepts

It is often difficult to use a proper springboard for discussion of abstract concepts. In the exams normally the stimuli are either visual or short questions.

The point is that different learners would respond differently to the same stimuli depending on their temperaments and personalities.

However, there are occasions where I would be happy as a teacher if, rather than a long utterance, I managed to elicit some words for qualities or concepts which do not exactly come naturally to a foreign learner regardless of their level of English though perhaps more closely related to their age.

Using videos of any kind that a teacher thinks relevant can be effective in motivating students and in serving as the basis on which to build a conversation.

Here is a video of Yann Tiersen’s Porz Goret and a couple of ideas about how to use it.

First simply show it to the students and allow them to indulge in the beauty of the movement. Since it is a short video of under five minutes, it could be replayed. This second time ask the students to write down a few nouns and adjectives which come to mind while watching the video. Make it clear that the nouns could be concrete as well as abstract.

If the yield is satisfactory, you could proceed by requiring the students to use their nouns and adjectives in order to verbalise their feelings about the video – images and music.

Otherwise, here is a list of nouns and adjectives and a task to perform, which will hopefully get the students to reflect on their possible use in a short speech that they can ultimately prepare.

Now ask the students to divide the nouns into causes and results and the adjectives into those that would qualify the music and the ones that would describe the movement.

The question now is what verbs to use in order to include the above nouns in their speech. Perhaps you could refer the students to a good online dictionary where they would search for verbs collocating with their list of nouns. (a very productive process at all times)
exert discipline
require perseverance
display skill
driven by perfectionism

Another idea is to show the students how to arrange adjectives in a sentence so as to create a climax.
You can use some of the adjectives on the list to demonstrate this stylistic device:
The music is soft, mesmerising, almost otherworldly.

You have now reached the point where the students are ready to prepare their speech using all the ideas suggested above to produce a meaningful response to the video.

Thursday, 16 May 2019

Η ύλη της πλάνης

I often despair of the limited take on life we have. We may aim at understanding but time, memory and the fetters of our language and culture prevent us from merging with the world even from turning a sympathetic ear to the sufferings of those we do not comprehend. So here is a poem of mine verbalising this feeling of helplessness. It is called The Matter of  Fallacy.


Από ύλη ρευστή
Το είναι μας γνέθουμε

Τις θολές αναμνήσεις
 του χθες
Κι ανυπόμονες χίμαιρες του αύριο
Σε αέναες συνθέσεις συμπλέκουμε

Με  το χρόνο τον φιλοπαίγμονα
Σύμμαχό μας
Τις πλάνες του νου μας
Σε δόγμα αναγάγουμε

Monday, 29 April 2019

Kept In or Hey teachers leave those kids alone

The moment I started teaching I realised sadly that I was now on the opposite camp from the one I’d been as a student. No matter who we are and how vastly different from other teachers, in the students’ eyes we are authority figures to be respected and obeyed.

In the course of time, depending on our personalities   and circumstances, we forge our own relationships with our students and develop our own ways of dealing with all kinds of behaviour so as to facilitate the teaching process.

Trying to strike the correct balance between the concern for making the most of every single minute of my students’ time and allowing enough space for them to express themselves has always been my main preoccupation.

Teaching people – among other things – involves gaining people’s trust so that they will let down their guard and embark on that wonderful journey of knowledge which will benefit not only the students but the teachers as well as there is always a lot to be learnt from teaching different people with different attitudes to life.

Punishing students in various ways can result in them loathing the very people who should be their major prop –their teachers.
I have chosen a poem by Barbara Giles that focuses on the alienation children can feel and the resentment they harbour at being detained at school. The title of the poem is Kept In and the only slight adaptation I took the liberty to make is to turn the “lad” in the second stanza to a “girl”.

Here is a video I made to liven up the poem:

After showing the slideshow, you could ask the students to replace the following lines with their own ideas preserving the rhyme if possible:
With a Ho and a Hoo
I could turn you all blue
With a flash and a crash
I could turn you to ash.

You could also ask them to imagine a different place of origin from that of further off from Mars and explain why they chose it.
Another idea is to use an extract about Harry Potter’s detention at Hogwarts and ask students to compare reactions to detention.

If your students are old enough, they could be asked to write a letter to the press asking for the abolition of such a harsh and pointless form of punishment.

Sunday, 31 March 2019

Multidimensional Living

In our mind’s eye we all create alter egos populating this and other worlds simultaneously. Imagine living parallel lives like much science fiction – or not so “science” – would have us believe. How many of our secret wishes would come true if only we could.

Here is a poem of mine on this possibility of a multi-dimensional existence.

Σε μια άλλη διάσταση

Θα σε πάρουν μακριά
Οι άνεμοι της μνήμης
Στων ευχών μου την πατρίδα
Θα ζεις δίχως πρόσωπο ή όνομα

Θα είμαι ελεύθερη εδώ
Μα αιχμάλωτη αλλού
Θα περνάει ο χρόνος
Πάνω στις πέτρες του πάντα

Θα σκαλίζω σχήματα
Στην οικτίρουσα άμμο
Θα τα νιώθει το σύμμαχο νερό
Και απείραχτα θα μένουν
Εις μάτην των νόμων της φύσης