13 September 2022

Tell your Story: this IS your lesson

“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.” 
― Hans Christian Andersen

I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years. I’ve done everything I now reject in terms of methodology. I started with Grammar-Translation because this is what I was told to do by my first employer. I taught exam-prep the exam-prep way for many years. I analyzed question after question, explained every tiny grammar point to my students, had them write down the theory behind the language. I taught Grammar explicitly. I changed. I’m cured!

I changed because I learned, I studied, I read, I listened, I experimented, I shared, I asked, I observed. I changed because I saw that something wasn’t quite working, there was clearly something rotten in the state of ELT. I changed, facing my own fears, taking uncalculated risks, trusting the learners more than the teachers, trusting the child more than the adult and definitely trusting research.

I see how ELT is changing in my context. Tiny steps forward but there IS change. I see how my TGWTG* approach is being used more and more. I see games and fun and special corners for fun and extra rooms for fun. All good. It makes me happy. However, this is NOT what I’m talking about. Let me explain what my approach to language education is in 3 simple principles:

  1. The lesson as a narrative or…burn your lesson plan. I don’t believe in fun activities or special corners or extra spaces. I believe in stories. Our lesson should be a narrative, with the fun and the props and the games and the role-plays intertwined in the lesson itself. It’s not a process of ‘let’s do some tenses, now let’s play a game with tenses and now let’s role-play with tenses.’ It’s a story that engages us all, we tell our story together and through it, language emerges. Don’t break your lesson down into pieces: we need a narrative with a flow. Learning is an exciting process, let it unfold in its full beauty.
  2. The lesson as a liberating experience or burn your practice test book. How many tests do students need to pass the test? Recently, in a discussion with colleagues I heard twice the same concern: ‘how can we ask students to do practice tests in class if we don’t tell them how practice tests are? We need to prepare them for the practice test.’ So we need a test to teach them how to take the test they take to take the test! ENOUGH! We need 2 practice tests? Perhaps 3? Why do we need more? Do we teach the language or the test? The only reason to use practice tests is to familiarize our students with the format of the test and help them with test strategies (time management, stress management etc.) We cannot teach the language through decontextualized, random items. There’s no story, there’s no magic. Remember: if you know the language, you can pass the test. If you merely know the test, did you learn the language?
  3. Forget about the word fun. Education does not have to be fun. We don’t have to play games all the time! Stories can be sad, scary, funny. Our lesson can be unsettling, not-easy-to-swallow. It can also be comforting, humorous, sweet, fun. I mean that our goal should be to make our lessons interesting, not necessarily fun. Fun is great but it’s not an end in itself. The end is knowledge and knowledge means some sense of challenge, even discomfort. Do my students leave my classroom with new questions, with a sense of wonder, with more thoughts, with hunger to learn more, with an insatiable need to read, ask, discuss, share? This makes our lesson successful! Don’t get me wrong: I love all the fun stuff! But it’s not just about that. It’s way more and beyond that. Or as Adorno says, education should be like this splinter in your eye; this is our magnifying glass.

Practically, think of your lesson as a story, your story. Share your story with your students but let them weave it with you while telling it. Let them bring in their own narratives. Do not interrupt your narrative to sprinkle in some fun. A good lesson is a good story. And all good stories are great fun!

*TGWTG: Teaching Grammar Without Teaching Grammar

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