Thursday, 21 June 2018



Summer is my source of inspiration. Here is a poem I wrote quite recently to celebrate summer.

SUMMERS

I hanker after them in winter
But spring my longing makes feebler
And when the midday haze
My body in a stupor lays
Subdued and beaten hollow
The Sun my king I follow

The glorious day is gone
A blaze on the horizon
A myriad stars shoot the skies
Which skywards draw my eyes
The silver sliver slices through
Its sovereignty to claim with a coup

Friday, 15 June 2018

The Proud Needle



Time leaves its indelible mark on everyone and everything. We become attached to objects that helped shape our life or sometimes even changed its course. These objects fall into disuse as others take priority over them and are left somewhere, forgotten and neglected—silent witnesses to past glories.
Here is a poem of mine, which was meant to evoke the nostalgia of a past lost to us forever.

THE PROUD NEEDLE

It boasted once
A slender figure
It crafted quilts
And wondrous things

With time it tired
Of frantic hands
It curved and bent
And lost its lustre

A mighty sunny winter day
A casual throw of a hand
Consigned a best companion
To a lake's fathomless depths

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Images and Imagination: various forms of writing



It will have transpired by now that I find images a great tool to stimulate learners’ imagination and provide them with some concrete basis on which to build language.

Having said this, however, I must make it clear that I don’t normally ask for a description of a picture as this is far too vague and leaves the students at sea as to which aspect of the image to focus on.

An image may simply serve as a source of inspiration for creative writing without further prompting on the part of the teacher. In fact, I often find that the more uncomplicated the image, the broader the scope for letting your imagination run away with you.

Depending on your students’ level and ability, you can move from the basics to more sophisticated questions and make tasks gradually more challenging.

Here is an image which is highly suggestive and lends itself to all kinds of activities. If nothing else, it puts the learners into a trance, numbing all kinds of inhibitions that they might harbour towards writing!


Dovile, Dagiene, Lithuania,2nd place professional, lifestyle, Sony World Photography Awards

I prefer to prompt my students by providing some basic clues and brainstorm for words or phrases which can be used to answer these basic questions.

Here is the framework for building a text, whatever form of writing the student or the teacher might choose.

WHERE scene, children
WHEN time of day, time of year
WHO
WHAT action(s)
HOW (MOVE)

If you find that the learners are not prepared to do their bit of research in order to find some appropriate words and phrases to use, you may wish to do what every self-respecting teacher does(!): supply a list and demand the students to use them all while answering the questions.
An indicative list follows:

pier
half way along
on the edge
on an autumn afternoon
11 or 12-year-old children
cast a fishing rod
peer at the sea
sound the depth of the sea
bend over
squat
kneel
calm sea
 ripples

You may want to ask your students, after they have answered the questions, to flesh out their notes into a story entitled, for instance, A summer day in the life of three childhood friends.

On the other hand, if you are in the mood to teach describing simple processes, you could do so by asking your students to explain step by step how one can fish.

Here is a very schematic plan, which you might want to expand into full-length text.

Get a fishing rod
Get a bait
Hook the bait on
Cast the fishing rod
Dangle the rod over the water
Sit and wait till the fish bites
Hook the fish
Lift the rod
Pull the fish out

You could ask your students to link the ideas by using some linking words or phrases or you could even proceed to ask them to orally describe a very simple process to one another without completing it and get them to name the process or continue one another’s processes.

Example:
Take a small cup.
Fill it with bottled water.
Put a small pot on a cooker ring.
Turn on the cooker.
Pour the water into the pot.
Open the sugar bowl.
Scoop a spoonful of sugar.
……………..
For those who have not guessed yet, the answer is :
making Greek coffee!

Friday, 25 May 2018

Digressions


A common problem that teachers have to deal with in our days is the ever-diminishing attention span of young learners due to their addiction to the social media. That means that a session of study consists of a number of digressions from the main activity, which is studying.

Occasionally, I create activities which imitate this interrupted session of studying. They do not require a long attention span on the part of the learners and can be broken down to smaller units which gradually unfold as questions arising out of a larger framework – digressions. The questions are meant to challenge the learners’ notion of comprehension and get them to think about content, focusing on a deeper understanding of the input rather than a cursory read-through with the aim of answering some multiple-choice questions.

Here is an illustration of digressions.

I picked a BBC video called Can Magnets Improve your Brain and started showing it to a group of advanced students. As one can see, the video is subtitled and very easy to follow. 


When the phrase Crafting cognition appeared on the screen, I stopped the video and asked the students to give me a definition of craft, which they did quite adequately and then I provided a dictionary definition of the word.
craft=exercise skill in making (an object), typically by hand

The next question was “How can one craft cognition”, which did not receive much feedback but posed a question, which  primed the students’ mind for what would follow.

The next question was what steroids are. The students had an inkling of anabolic steroids and explained how they are used, or rather abused, by athletes. At this point, I mentioned that there are natural and artificial steroids and gave them a short definition I found online.
Cortisol is one important adrenal cortex steroid hormone, and it regulates carbohydrate metabolism and has an anti-inflammatory effect on the body. Aldosterone is another steroid hormone that comes from the adrenal cortex. It helps maintain blood pressure and regulate the salt and water balance in your body.

The anabolic steroids abused by athletes are synthetic versions of testosterone, a male hormone. Both men and women naturally produce testosterone. But like all hormones -- which regulate the body's most basic functions -- throwing one's testosterone out of balance can have wide-ranging consequences.

As the main idea of the video is Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, the next question to ask was what a magnetic field is. My students were old enough to have come across the idea in their science class, but a clear definition escaped them. So here is a short definition and a link I asked them to have a look at:
A magnetic field is a picture that we use as a tool to describe how the magnetic force is distributed in the space around and within something magnetic. 





   Motor skills came up next, which was answered in a very basic way:
           Typically, they are categorized into two groups: gross motor skills and fine motor skillsGross motor skills are involved in movement and coordination of the arms, legs, and other large body parts and movements. They involve actions such as running, crawling and swimming.


Finally, I asked my students what an ethics committee is and why it is involved in scientific research, which they had no clue about. So I teased out the answer by asking what happens when for example scientists try to find a new cure for cancer (animals made sick and given the new drug, patients volunteering to try the new medicine). I did not fail to also give them a short definition.
An ethics committee is a body responsible for ensuring that medical experimentation and human research are carried out in an ethical manner in accordance with national and international law.


At the end of the class, the students were given a handout with all the relevant information and links, which they might or might not have a closer look at. The point is that they were made to see how much pith lies in a short video and how much interest it can generate.






Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Trivial pursuits: embrace the extraordinary


I will call this trivial pursuits as I feel it encapsulates my philosophy of learning and teaching.

Every single idea or brainwave – no matter how small and insignificant it might appear at first sight --contributes to the big picture of learning and shaping one’s teaching methodology.

The top to bottom approach of teaching has its value as teachers, especially inexperienced ones, need a framework to guide them in their first uncertain steps. Adopting a methodology should be the springboard for trial-and-error. Whatever works in one’s reality might not work in another’s. Theories are there to test and adopt creatively or turn down.
This goes together with my motto ‘embrace the extraordinary and build solidly on gossamer’. 

Children and -- I dare say -- many adults too are eager to follow the teacher’s forays into the realm of the imaginary and the unreal. Somehow the unreal and imaginary can provide the basis for real language input and practice.

I will illustrate both concepts with a painting I took to the moment I set eyes on it.

Houses in Motion by Jennifer Bartlett





You could build a series of lessons on this at any level you choose.
·       Elementary level: adverbs of frequency, present simple vs. present continuous
Ø Do houses normally move?
Ø Houses do not normally move, but in this image they are moving.
Ask your students to draw pictures of “out of the ordinary” and write their own captions.
Ø Cats do not usually bark, but in my picture the cat is barking.
Ø Birds hardly ever roar, but in my picture the bird is roaring.

·       You could use a different pattern for intermediate level:
Houses are not supposed to hover, but some houses are hovering in this picture.

The image lends itself to speculation too as it is unclear – at least to my mind – what everyone is doing in this topsy-turvy universe.

You could ask older and more advanced students to look for the cause of the commotion:

A whirlwind has torn off houses sending them in different directions or causing them to stand on their side. This in turn has set in motion a chain of actionspeople running after their houses, cats in mid air in hot pursuit of their miniature houses, cracks slicing through houses, people throwing their hands up in despair.

If your students fail to come up with the items you are trying to elicit, you can provide them asking the students to write a paragraph using some or all of the lexical items given.

For homework you could ask your students to look at the following image of houses and think of a caption for it.



Waiting Houses by Friedensreich Hundertwasser




The actual name of the painting is Waiting Houses so if they fail to come up with it, you can provide it and ask why ‘waiting’ or what suggests in the picture that they are waiting for something or someone.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Forever stories: The River in the Pines


Forever stories: The River in the Pines

Stories are the pith of our existence: we tell stories to pass the time, we listen to or watch stories to entertain ourselves or to excite our imagination or even to test our limits (thrillers will do that for you). Books tell stories; poems can be narrative; films show stories just about anything. There is a very basic feature in stories: beginning, middle, end – though not all stories are told in this strict order.

Reading or watching stories has its unquestionable merits for language learners, but creating stories brings together all kinds of skills learned and can be entertaining and rewarding.
So this time I used a song to elicit story-telling from my students. The song happens to be one of my favourites though my criteria for choosing it were other than my personal preferences.

The song is The River in the Pines by Joan Baez. It tells the sad story of two star-crossed lovers who live in Wisconsin, him a river boy and her a maiden.

It is evocative swaying between spring and autumn, happiness and sorrow and engaging all our senses: birds singing, cedars whispering, rapids pounding, birds twittering, a riot of colour in spring and autumn, a cold gravestone where wild flowers are left and smells of budding trees and a blooming rose all in one mind-boggling go.

This time I thought I would tease my students’ brains by preparing a slide show and providing a key word or phrase on each slide and asking them to compose a story on the basis of the slide show. Working with the visual stimuli before the learners make up their stories helps clear up some lexical or cultural issues that might detract from the thorough enjoyment of the song while the key words facilitate production but also per force maintain a certain level of language.



Students’ stories can be read and shared in class or stuck on a noticeboard (traditional methods of presentation still have their value) and finally the song can be played so that the students can discuss how their tales relate to the one told by the song.  

Here is the link for the song.

And here is the slide show turned to video.


Enjoy!


Sunday, 1 April 2018

Videos, co-operation and fun: how to linger on words and get the most out of them


It is often hard to find material that will suit your students’ level and interests. For me ideal in-class material is relatively brief and manageable, stimulates the average student’s interest and lends itself to repetition without getting tedious. (not asking for much!)

Another challenge in my teaching has always been how to get the learners to treat words like curiosities found on a deserted beach on one of their outings. They would then scrutinise them perhaps fumbling them clumsily to begin with but getting more and more dexterous as they spent more time taking them in, sizing them up.

It is a tall order expecting young people who are used to today’s fast pace of life and cursory manner of looking at things to slow down and linger on words. However, this is what I often seek to do mustering whatever method I can come up with to hold their attention.

Here is a video which lends itself to “deconstructing”. 


Bird of Paradise


I used it with teenage students preparing for their Proficiency exam.
You can divide your students into four groups and ask them to watch focusing on content the first time while the second time each group will be assigned to note down one specific group of words: verbs for group 1, nouns for group 2, adjectives for group 3 and adverbs for group 4. They might need to watch a third time.

You would need to pre-teach a couple of words that your students may not be familiar with.
I also showed a map of New Guinea so they could relate the facts to the place.

I provided images for “tutu” and “plume” and a mother tongue equivalent as well as an example in English for “ward off”, “rag”, “polish” and “meticulous”.

Once the students have watched the video, you can invite them to contribute the words they have written down to “reconstruct” the video. They may need a bit of spurring on, but it works well.

The most important thing is that they collectively recreate real language and mull over stringing together words to make meaningful and complete sentences in a playful and enjoyable way.

Indicative groups the students will come up with:
verbs
nouns
adjectives
adverbs
tidy
display ground
incredible
obsessively
decorate
performance
attractive
meticulously
found
female
old
quickly
add
berries
strong
highly
ward off
floor
healthy
too late
use
snake skin
well-fed

afford
cleaning cloth
meticulous

pass on
patch
better

rehearse
rag
critical

tempt in
males
ready

flies off
time
perfect

delivers
effort
precious

lost
preparation



genes



audience



act



dance steps



show



female



rag



dance floor



nest



cloth



chance



heart




The exercise might hold some theoretical interest in that I am not sure how easy it is to isolate different parts of the speech while listening. It didn’t seem to inhibit my students, but of course it is open to testing out!