Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Arts and science in teaching language or The Story of Grass

One of the challenges in teaching, at least as far as I am concerned, is the difficulty in conveying my enthusiasm, as an adult with more experience of the world, for ideas which are perhaps not within my students’ grasp. But then again, as with everything in this world, that’s what is worth fighting for: whatever eludes us.

My attitude could be described as having my feet on the ground while my head is in the clouds! Most of my students are children and teenagers who are obviously learning general English in order to use it later in life as the situation may arise: graduate studies in English, job requirement, travel, moving abroad.

I therefore feel that there should be a strong practical core to the course which prepares students for everyday encounters in English as well as understanding a range of texts from different disciplines while at the same time they get a taste of literature and poetry. The latter will allow them to develop their imagination and creativity – essential tools in learning anything really.

As I have pointed out in a previous post, I quite like working on themes whenever this is possible. So, this time it was the theme of “lowly” grass. It all started with the Great Dust Storm (Woodie Guthrie) which led to a discussion of the Dust Bowl in the 1930s and the erosion of the soil in many states across America.

I then thought that I needed some scientific back-up for what was introduced as a creative activity which would elicit descriptive language by asking the students to explain what is happening in the muted video of the song frame by frame.  
This particular group of students are well on their way to the Cambridge Proficiency exam so I picked out a gapped text in the Cambridge Advanced English test book (volume 1) published by Cambridge University Press. The text is entitled The Story of Grass and it is a review of Graham Harvey’s The Forgiveness of Nature: The Story of Grass by John Carey. The students get a rough idea about the importance of grass and its gradual but irreversible destruction by intensive farming and the use of chemical fertilisers to maintain yields in cereal monocultures. At the same time, they improve their understanding of coherence and cohesion, which constitute  a big stumbling block as their understanding of these issues in their mother tongue is poor.
For those interested, the gapped text can be found here:

But where would grass be without Emily Dickinson’s exaltation of it in her poem The Grass Has so Little to Do. After my students had been filled in on the science of grass and its benefits for the environment, they were entitled to some fun. Therefore, I gave them the poem with a glossary in the form of example sentences and asked them to answer some questions I prepared. This was set as homework so that the students could have more time to brood over the poem. The questions ensure a more accurate understanding than a cursory reading and sensitise the students to the figurative use of language. Here is the poem and the questions:

Finally, I encouraged my students to listen to the poem being recited online. I was pleasantly surprised to find that there were several readings of the poem. Here is a link directing to one of them:

I do hope I have made the case for arts and science working together in perfect harmony to hone linguistic ability.

No comments:

Post a Comment