How to make your students cry (Part 2)

IMG_1821Don’t mention the war?

In the first edition of Headway Advanced (OUP, 1989) there was a chapter called “War and Peace” (mostly war). In the teacher’s book, the authors say:

We have tried to adopt a liberal, objective attitude to the subject, and although it can fascinate, it can also repel, so you need to exercise a large amount of caution in the way you approach this unit.

Take a minute to think about that.

I’m not here to slag off Headway – I actually love that book, which is why I still cart it round from country to country with me. But while it may not have been immediately obvious in the Eurocentric teen-heyday of EFL, it’s obvious now that a coursebook can’t dictate the objectiveness of anyone’s experience, and that such material may be, for some people, pretty damn subjective indeed. To say: “although it can fascinate, it can also repel”, is to assume that the teachers and students using the book are outside the reality of war, that the worst that can happen is that their sensibilities may be offended. Of course this is not the worst that can happen. Of course some people in a class of adults will have experienced the violence and loss of war directly or indirectly. Of course none of us are “liberal, objective” observers, no matter how distant we may feel – we are all part of countries and cultures that have had a role to play somewhere along the line and, as individuals, we continue to make our choice – do or do not* – every day. None of us is getting away with this.

That’s not to say that I didn’t use the chapter – it really is fascinating and has some great content – but I was very selective and VERY cautious (and it didn’t surprise me to see that it had disappeared from future editions). Maybe I could have used the opportunity to be a subversive teacher, to combine politics and pedagogy to critically examine perspectives on war in our current climate . . . but if that thought had even occurred to me back then I dismissed it outright because I couldn’t take the risk of upsetting any more students with my bad material choices. Maybe I just really wanted to avoid that and just teach English and not have to deal with any terribly un-British crying.

However, whether you use a Headway-style “objective” approach (Here are a number of words connected with defence . . . put them into chronological order) or adopt a blanket “don’t mention the war”** policy, the elephant is still in the room. Perhaps avoiding it prevents both teachers and students from learning from each other. Uncomfortable segue to . . .

In 2008, I was teaching on a TESOL course in Australia which almost entirely consisted of young South Korean females. The exception was a single much older Japanese lady, who unlike the others, had been a teacher for many years already. It would have been easy for her to feel alienated by the age of her classmates, by their inevitable use of Korean both in and out of class, by their lack of teaching experience – but no. She threw herself in 200%. She’d planned and saved for the course herself and she really wanted to make the most of it.

During the course, something of great significance happened in Australia: the Prime Minister made an official apology to the Stolen Generations of Indigeneous Australians. All classes were allowed to gather in the school’s reception area to watch this live. When we got back to class, my “So what did you think?” was met with an emphatic silence. It didn’t surprise me; they didn’t really know what it was about, and I could see some were itching to get back to their lesson plan, concerned about upcoming observations. But suddenly Akiko stood up and announced she wanted to say something.

I couldn’t really understand her at first. I could see she was upset, and my first thought was that something had happened between her and the other students that had upset her. In a way it had. In stumbling English, she said she wanted to do what she felt her government had not done properly, and apologise to the Koreans for their sufferings at the hands of the Japanese during World War II. She was crying.

I’m ashamed to say that up till that point, despite many years with Korean and Japanese students, I had never really considered their shared history or taken the trouble to learn about it. I don’t pretend to know much more today, but I have at least had my Eurocentric eyes opened – I’ve learned some things that I almost wish I hadn’t and I realise that even today the question of Korean-Japanese relations remains problematic. But at the time, even though I didn’t really understand how meaningful this was, I knew I was seeing something very personal, very vulnerable, very important. There have been tears in my classroom that I’m not proud of. But these ones, I was.

Notes

* Yes, that is a Yoda reference.

** A famous Fawlty Towers reference. If you watch the original clip, you may find the cringe-worthy offensiveness outweighs the comedy – I know I do. The series is a classic though and can, in its less offensive moments, be very funny. In any case, it’s been influential enough for phrases like this to pass into common usage.

Value the unexpected

Let me just start by saying that this isn’t a failure post like I promised – however, some small degree of personal disaster was involved, so I hope that will do for now.

I’ve been watching some of the IATEFL tweets and happened upon this one by the lovely and fast-tweeting Sandy Millin on “preparing for spontanaeity” from a talk by Adrian Underhill and Alan Maley (you can read a great summary of the whole talk here):

Although I was reading this out of context – and there is a slide that follows on as well – this immediately struck me as pretty good advice, not just for teachers, but for anyone. It seems to me to be essentially a lesson in letting go, and this reminded me of a recent Twitter conversation I had with Retno Sofyaniek (@NenoNeno) about my first ever lesson as an employed teacher.

I was fresh off the CELTA (then called CTEFLA), and in my particular course, rather than teach you to use (and rely upon) a coursebook, you were simply given the target language/skill and topic area and it was up to you to find, create or adapt materials for your lesson. While this was intimidating at first, I loved it: it sparked a lifelong interest in materials development, it encouraged me to be creative and independent, and from the start to feel that I was 100% responsible for my lessons. On the downside, although I didn’t realise it at the time, I was horribly materials dependent – I felt the lesson was only as good as my materials, and so planning and teaching became more about that than about the students. In my mind, my job was to deliver the prescribed target language or skill in as interesting a way as possible. It would never have occurred to me, back then, that my students might not give a toss about target language, that they might have more pressing needs, or that they could guide the content and focus of the lesson. So, in a nutshell, I was all about the materials.

I got my first job through the fairly typical TEFL scenario of ‘No we have no vacancies’ followed swiftly by ‘Ah yes, we do have vacancies, can you start in about 30 seconds?’ Only it wasn’t really 30 seconds, I actually had a whole weekend to get ready for my brand new class of 15 students – and it really did take me two full days to prepare for a single, three-hour lesson. I even arrived at the school on Monday three hours early to make sure I had everything copied, knew where I was going, etc. I was PREPARED. And it was a damn good lesson. I had very warming warmers, pairwork, group work, a jigsaw reading – the works. Interactive, check. Fun, check. Varied, check. (Didn’t really care about aims in those days but) target language/skills, check. The first student arrived, a young Columbian kid of about 17, whose name I’ve forgotten, but whose face I still remember. We chatted for a bit. A bit longer. A bit longer still. And finally I realised: @#$% – only one student is turning up for this class. I looked at my painstakingly prepared materials and my heart sank. But I knew I could still do some of it because there were two of us and I would just have to make up the rest. And off I went. It wasn’t as lively and interactive as I had hoped, but it wasn’t bad. Actually, I’m not sure what my student learned, but I certainly learned a lot that day.

This is what Maley and Underhill’s advice reminded me of:

1. Bother less about trying to control, encourage connectivity

I had to give up my control for the first time, on my first day in my first lesson. I think I probably was still quite controlling in how we went about the activities, because there’s only so much you can ask a person to let go of all at once – but I did learn I could let go.

2. Work with what is happening rather than what you wish was happening

You had better believe that there was some fervent wishing that just ONE other student would turn up, some fervent wishing I could just blink and snuggle back up with my lesson plan – but no. I’m proud that it didn’t take me too long to just get on with it.

3. Start conversations about whatever matters to whoever is there

Of course, when there is only one student there you don’t have much choice, but this was a first for me in simply connecting in the classroom.

4. Give up trying to be interesting, and reach out and connect

This was my first step on a path that I still get lost on. It’s not so much that *I* am trying to be interesting, but I still tend to spend a lot of time finding/creating those “interesting” materials. For me the challenge still is [insert megaphone and police siren here]: PUT THE MATERIALS DOWN. STEP AWAY FROM THE MATERIALS. But that day I learned that students can be a resource too, that they have their own stories to tell.

5. Make plans but don’t expect them to happen – value the unexpected

This was really the big lesson for me that day. What I especially like here is that Underhill and Maley don’t say “expect the unexpected”. Don’t be ready, because you can’t be ready – not for anything, which is exactly what walks into your classroom every day: infinite possibility. But value the unexpected. See what happens and play it by ear. You will be alright. And you can end up learning some great lessons yourself.

How have you learned to “let go” as a teacher?

Desks in an Empty Classroom