Saturday, September 18, 2010

“HE TALKED ON FOR EVER AND YOU WISHED HIM TO TALK ON FOR EVER…”


William Hazlitt “On Coleridge” from “Lectures on the English Poets” 
Coleridge is reputed to have been a truly magical speaker whose rapt audience was enthralled by what he had to say… When was the last time you were thus carried away by a speaker? When was the last time you lost track of time, all sense of anything other than the words uttered by the speaker and felt that nothing else mattered? When was the last time you left the auditorium in a daze; your head filled with memories of a lecture or speech never to be forgotten? I am one of those fortunate individuals who was taught by just such a speaker for a whole year when I was a freshman; so yes, I listened to just such a speaker three times a week and seemed to absorb everything he said by osmosis. For that is what happens with a good public speaker: learning is complete, comprehension guaranteed. All is consigned to long term memory where it stays intact for years. The lecturer in question is Professor Demir Demirgil; our then economics teacher now sadly deceased. When I was a freshman, Boğaziçi had a system more akin to a liberal arts education and we Language and Literature students had, among other things, a science elective – I took physics and loved it – and economics which thanks to Professor Demirgil, I developed a lifelong love for. He held his classes in the theater, which held about 250 students, and kept us hooked for the entire duration of the lesson. He would lecture from the stage which was dominated by a board and a concert grand both of which he used to great advantage. What it was that set him apart from teachers like the one I described in the paper on teaching grammar was that he had a good strategy, a marketing ploy if you like; as both these people shared, as far as we were concerned, the advantage of marketing a product with potential – economics in the case of Demirgil, and the teaching of grammar in the case of the latter. In all sales pitches, whatever their nature, it is, after all, the product itself and how it is put across that matters.  It is to the choice of product; i.e. subject matter in our case, and methodology; i.e. the sales pitch in the context of the listening lesson which is, in our case, closest to a lecture, to which we shall now turn.
If you want people to listen, make sure what you say is worth listening to!
The key to determining what is worth listening to lies in knowing your audience: their background, their upbringing and probable tastes. That information will, in the case of the listening lesson where there is a choice of subject matter, give the speaker , in this case the teacher, a choice; one that doesn’t exist  for specialists in their field who are compelled to focus only on their field. The assumption is, of course, that the students are there because it is their chosen field and the product – the subject matter – is bound to appeal. The fact that this is not often the case and some potential engineers are reduced tearing their hair out as they suffer through what should be a riveting lecture on “the second law of thermodynamics” is an idiosyncrasy of the university entrance system in our country and not our concern at this point. In the case of the language teacher during a listening lesson, there is always a choice; a fact that some may be inclined to deny. After all, one doesn’t have to stick to the dishes on offer; one can always eat “a la carte” so to speak, and branch out on one’s own.  The hesitation to do so is understandable in the case of inexperienced teachers, but impossible to condone in more experienced members of staff who should know better. It takes courage to branch out on one’s own; but once one does, one never looks back. There is a little poem, which I love, which expresses this point beautifully; it is by Christopher Logue and it goes like this:
COME TO THE EDGE
Come to the edge.
We might fall.
Come to the edge.
It is too high!
COME TO THE EDGE!
And they came,
And he pushed,
And they flew.
My purpose in this paper is to “push” if you will only come to the edge; for fly you will, guaranteed.  The first step to flying solo in this case, as I have said countless times before, is knowing your audience. The audience – the students – and their background have been described in detail in the paper on motivation in this blog so common sense dictates that we know what they are interested in or should. “Now wait a minute” I hear you say, “What they are interested in doesn’t come in to it at all; it is what they should be interested that we need to focus on”. Really? Are you sure? Think back on some of those exciting listening lessons on “Psychotherapy and Mental Health” or the “Opera” for instance and reconsider. Both these texts were designed to start with pre listening activities: lists of emotional and mental problems for the former – these are run of the mill secondary school graduates not medical students – and a discussion on the opera for the latter. I wonder what percentage of the class got up and claimed, for instance, that Italian opera was always superior to German opera and supported his argument ; or claimed Rossini, who  once claimed to  be able to put a laundry list to music, was misunderstood? I don’t, in any way, mean to belittle such topics; the point I wish to make is that they are inappropriate. The fact that the teacher loves them is beside the point; people learn best when they are interested, intrigued, enthralled not when they hear the first line of a lecture and groan. The teacher can go to great lengths to doll such topics up but it will be a very exceptional class who will buy them, however good the sales pitch.  
“They aren’t interested in anything; I gave up long ago trying to find something they would be enthusiastic about” I hear you protest. If this is the case, what you were probably doing was thinking back to when you were their age; a grave mistake for it was a different age, a different life with different influences. It is the conditions of today, life today and its product, our student body, which must be the center of focus. Naturally, the conclusions reached will be radically different. For one thing, the life of the modern youth is dominated by technology, secondly he has ADHD as explained in previous papers and these two factors should be of prime concern whenever planning a listening lesson. This brings us to the magic formula: the visual should be combined with the audio with frequent shifts between the two adding color, variety, excitement and familiarity to the task.


Thinking outside the box: sample listening activities
I do agree that the modern listening teacher is working with a very limited pallet but we do need to start with this particular pallet if we want the troops on board. They have got to learn to listen first – and enjoy it – before we can introduce new unfamiliar colors and teach them to enjoy them as well. As with reading, pussy footing pays and those academic texts do get aired and enjoyed, only not immediately. This is, after all, basic common sense and is true in all walks of life. I remember my daughter was a terribly fussy eater in her own very unique way: she was an instinctive vegetarian. Anything green was fine; nothing else was. I had a toddler who would gobble up spinach, okra, green beans, bell peppers, cabbage, curly kale and similar stuff but turn her nose up at bread! Meat? Forget about it! That came much later. I remember the first of the “forbidden foodstuffs” that she took a fancy to was pizza; needless to say, I plied her with the stuff without so much as a murmur; delighted that we were moving beyond leafy greens. The same principle applies for listening: get them listening first, and then move on to the greenhouse effect for instance.
Returning to the target audience, subject matter that combines video games, action movies and the thrill of the chase are ideal but there is no harm in slipping in something useful too; after all, nobody said you couldn’t be devious. On television in The States, there is this wonderful program called “Whale Watch”. It is prepared and broadcasted by a rather special NGO called “The Sea Shepherds”. This organization has been waging a daring and often very dangerous campaign against the Japanese whaling fleet in The Antarctic whom they resist bravely in their small boat. The tactics they employ, their victories and tragic failures, including the injuries to the charity workers, are filmed and aired every week and are more exciting to watch than any Bruce Willis movie. I have watched a pod of humpback whales being saved and mothers swimming off supporting their calves to help them breath with tears in my eyes. I have also watched instances where they failed and the carnage that followed. Combine such footing with a lecture on The Sea Shepherds, delivering a section of the lecture then showing a little of the program after which you return to the text, and I am pretty sure it will work. You need to watch the program to experience the adrenalin rush. The founder of the charity says that his dream is being able to cease to air the program and retire.
A second example would involve the use of vimeo.com; a site similar to the infamous YouTube but accessible.  Why not have the students watch the moving story of Danny and Annie rather than listen to you droning on about some old fogy whose works you enjoyed reading in your youth? After all, both will involve those narrative structures which are being targeted. Does it really matter if the students don’t know the life story of some forgotten writer in the scheme of thing? Stick to the basics to start with; topics everyone is interested in like love for instance. And let’s face it: a tired old text is no match for the real thing, in real life. Trawling the internet, I came across “storyvan” an NGO (or NGV – Non Governmental Van) that goes around recording real life stories of real people – currently only in America I believe. Anyway, there I came across the interview of Danny and Annie: two Brooklynites born and bred – and married for 25 years.  The story is not very long: it starts with Danny proposing to Annie –rather abruptly it has to be said – and her accepting – rather matter of factly, as suited to the occasion. Danny, naturally, calls her up the next day to make sure she still wants to marry him, and this becomes a ritual with them. Every year, on that date, he will call her and ask “if it were today would you do it again?” They have the kind of marriage we all dream of having (those of us who want to get married of course) – every morning before he goes to work, he writes her a little note stating the weather and how much he loves her – “A romantic weather forecast” in his own words. But then, the only thing (other than taxes) that is certain in this world comes knocking at their door: Danny is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Part of the montage is a section of a second interview done towards the end of his life. The interview is aired on the radio two weeks after it has been recorded.  The next day, Danny passes on.  Annie has received so many condolence letters; she has been reading one a day to this day instead of her daily “romantic weather forecasts”. Now, yes it’s short, yes it’s an animation, yes the people recorded are elderly and have pronounced Brooklyn accents but it IS listening…
(Danny and Annie: http://vimeo.com/12562270)
So far, I have tried to show that you don’t need to condemn yourself to whatever set of listening material it is the official policy to use; by all means endeavor to alter things for the better in the institution you work in but failing that, spice up your own lessons. Ultimately, it is the class teacher who is responsible for motivating the class and teaching them in the most effective way. Countless examples of activities such as the ones described are available in that parallel universe, the World Wide Web! All you need is a bit of imagination and a fishing expedition.  While on the subject of alternative listening activities, we also need to discuss the use of films as teaching aids.
Drama” in the classroom: films
Modern technology and extensive commercialization has brought all the products of the cinema industry to our living rooms and classrooms in our case. With the right program, it is possible to watch not only current satellite TV, but also programs dating back years on a laptop. It is possible to watch literally hundreds of movies, as DVDs are sold very cheaply anywhere in the world. What could be better? Films have the sound, the visuals and messages; in short, variety. There is no reason why they shouldn’t be effective teaching tools provided the right kind of film is selected. My dear friend Muazzez Yazıcı, with whom I shared classes for many years and with whom I really saw eye to eye in terms of teaching, was a firm believer in the use of films as vehicles for teaching listening and made frequent use of them in class with excellent results. I was designated senior research assistant and was responsible for selecting the films from my daughters’ extensive archive. This is the crux of the whole matter: I don’t believe in using “whatchfortwohoursandpromptlyforget” type of movies; those light hearted comedies, frivolous love stories, cliché crime dramas have no place in the class room. I believe that anything that is done in the classroom should contribute to the students’ intellectual growth in one way or another so I go for real historical films, political films, films about social problems and the like. Another thing to remember is that this is a classroom activity not time out, which means the teacher needs to be teaching, and the students need to be learning – while also enjoying themselves of course. The teacher, depending on the film, might need to assign some research to be done beforehand, and discuss the issue before the film. Alternatively, reading can be done post viewing if you like, and both these activities could lead to a writing task. The latter is invaluable and the reason is that most of us love discussing a film we enjoyed; admittedly, this is not possible with three dozen students. What better way to exploit this natural urge than get the students to write a reaction essay for example? The added bonus is that all this will seriously motivate students. During the viewing, it is a good idea to hit pause every now and then for a discussion of events thus far and a little previewing. In other words, work a film rather like a reading text but not to the extent that you ruin the whole activity; two or three such pauses usually do the trick. It goes without saying that for all this to work, the teacher needs to know the film back to front. Watching films in the classroom should not be confused with viewing them in the comfort of your living room – the purposes are different. I have asked a guest blogger to write us a paper on the use of films in the classroom and will post it as soon as I receive it.
It is party time: songs
A lot of people get very sniffy when songs are suggested as listening material, as music and singing conjure up images of first graders sitting round in a circle with their teacher and singing to the accompaniment of a piano or “bouts” of ring-a-round-of-roses which was, incidentally, about the plague. I am sure you recall how it went:
Ring a round of roses
Pocket full of posies
Atchoo , atchoo ( spelling anyone?)
We all fall down (and die of course)
The roses were those horrible pustules; the flowers were for the stench of the pustules which were in turn followed by the coughing and death. And bizarrely, there is a children’s song about it, accompanied by dancing round in a circle would you believe it! There are many other truly sick examples of children’s songs and nursery rhymes in the English language like “Who Killed Cock Robin?” for instance; not to mention those wonderful classics written by those psychopaths Hans Anderson and the Grimm brothers. It is amazing that generations of kids raised on this fare have turned out with any modicum of sanity at all, but I digress. Adult songs are a lot saner and make a lot more sense. Songs have a great advantage over average prose in that they are more easily committed to memory – thanks to the music – which, in the case of language teaching, is a distinct advantage.  Songs can be remembered, hummed and sung over and over again, enabling vocabulary, ideas and concepts to be painlessly ingested. Plus, they are fun and where is the harm in that? This is all very well but songs do not mean it is party time; songs, like every other activity in the class room, require the active involvement of the teacher (sorry folks). Songs can be used for various purposes and one is pre reading activities. “Bloody Sunday” by U2 for instance, could be followed by that brilliant essay in the Guardian titled “Instead of Two States Side by Side, Why Not One Superimposed on the Other?”;  similarly, the Pink Floyd classic” Another Brick in the Wall” could be followed by that wonderful text Humanizing Teaching by William j. Congreve. The important thing is to devote a little thought to the issue and make the connections. We have all used songs for grammar practice and then of course songs can be used as good old listening on their own, and it is the latter that I would like to touch on. I usually have a song up my sleeve for those last fifteen twenty minutes at the ends of lessons, for I feel that if the kids have downed their meat and two vedge like lambs, they deserve their sticky toffee pudding or their spotted dick for example. I like to use a song with a message or a plot which will lead to a discussion or perhaps some writing. The message could concern a truism, a social issue or a problem; I avoid those third rate love songs sung by inane, tone deaf blonds.  I like to give the students the lyrics and encourage them to sing along which, incidentally, they will do provided you go and stick your head out of the window! Songs like “The Common People” by Pulp all about class differences, “Fragile” by Sting detailing the horrors of war, “Bohemian Rhapsody” by Queen detailing how easy it is for working class kids to slip into a life of crime and “Reciprocity” from the musical Chicago all about the problem of bribery and corruption and many others can be played and discussed at the ends of lessons both for the purpose of teaching and relaxation. Encouraging the students to listen to plenty of songs with English lyrics can do them nothing but good after all. In brief, songs are brilliant time fillers and are shamefully underestimated. It is now necessary to turn to what makes or breaks a lesson regardless of the quality of the material: the boss; i.e. the teacher.
If you want people to listen, you need to be worth listening to!
An expert once said that in order to understand what kind of teacher someone is, one needs to observe his/ her expression while leaving the class. The reason this expert made this observation was that one couldn’t very well do the same while the teacher was entering the class; only the students have the benefit of seeing the teacher’s face as he/ she enters the class. In my view, the teaching proper starts as you are walking through the door; not after you have plodded across the room, sometimes with nothing but a cursory glance and a mumbled greeting to the class, plonked your books on the desk and dropped into your seat never to rise again. All this takes no more than thirty seconds but it is enough to lose a class. My advice is not to hide behind a desk or anything else for that matter; the teacher is the leader, the conductor, the commander in chief and who ever heard of any of these people being affective sitting at a desk? The teacher needs to exude confidence, knowhow and strength of personality and this can’t be achieved by hiding. What I usually do is push the desk to the side of the room and leave it there; I never sit, not ever. Remember those varicose veins and requisite comfortable shoes? 
Listlessness and apathy can grow on one, and this is a very real danger. Teachers, over the years, can get in to a rut approaching every lesson in exactly the same way and drifting through them on auto pilot, which I can quite understand. There are those everyday pressures of life, the kids, the home, day to day hassles and it just becomes easier to stick to the tried and tested. Now, it would be foolish to deny that some “tried and tested” is brilliant and should be preserved; the problem is the effect – psychological – it has on the teacher: the excitement and enthusiasm diminish to a flicker and this is mirrored by the students’ attitude.  Such feelings are highly infectious and students take minutes to catch on; once they have, forget about motivation. When all is said and done, the teacher is left wondering why this brilliant piece of material, which has always gone so well, just doesn’t seem to work anymore. It does and it can; the students aren’t the problem, the teacher’s mind set is. In Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, that wonderful nicotine addict, Ambsolom the caterpillar, shakes his head and tells Alice she is “not nearly Alice”. She, of course, has no idea what he means until the same sentiment is echoed by the hatter – Johnny Depp – who tells Alice she has lost her “muchness”. In all fairness, Alice first becomes “almost Alice”, then dons the armor of the white knight and fights and beheads the Jabberwoky. So there is salvation: those who have lost their muchness, if you like, need to make the effort to regain it both for their own sakes and the students’.
Ruts are like a bog and the longer you stay put, the deeper you sink. The key is to make an effort to take the first step; the rest will follow. This is rather like that outing you didn’t really want to go on but went anyway and later really enjoyed. A novel approach, material you have never tried or a new teaching aid will electrify sending the adrenaline rushing through your veins. Your heart pounding, your mind alert, your eyes shining you will march into class with a purpose. Even your tone of voice will be different. The students will pick up the mood at once and respond; especially, if you surprise them. Then you can all set off together on the wonderful new adventure you have planned for them. When you finally cross the finish line, you will feel strangely exhilarated and uplifted. This feeling is, I have found, extremely addictive and it is what pushes me to keep trying and pushing the boundaries. Try it and you will not look back.
The teacher is the lynchpin
The teacher is the main and most important factor contributing to success in any lesson; the material is secondary – not the other way around. This is why although a good syllabus – with good material, correct pacing and the like – may be prepared and implemented, the program will collapse without the correct approach on the part of the team leader: the teacher. If we want to be honest, we have to accept that there comes a time in every teacher’s career when he has to take a long hard look at himself and decide, hand on heart, whether he would listen to himself if he were a student. This is all very well but it is rather hard to be objective which is why two other methods are recommended: observing the influence one has on the students – their body language and actual verbal reactions – and consulting peers who can be asked to observe lessons and provide feedback. Being quick on the uptake and sensing the mood of a class is vital for a teacher but surprisingly, many have a serious blind spot when their own performance is concerned which brings us to the second remedy: peer observation.  Peer observation can be invaluable provided that it is done with consideration and sensitivity, in an amicable and constructive way. Human beings, contrary to what some may think, can’t be programmed like Doctor Who’s Darlects and won’t perform in the same perfect way year in and year out – nor should quite frankly – so  a little honest to goodness soul searching won’t do anyone – not even the most experienced teachers who may think they have achieved Godliness – any harm.

1 comment:

  1. Feride'cim, check out www.ted.com if you haven't already. I'm sure you'll love it! The lectures on ted are easier to follow for intermediate students- they have subtitles.
    Ahu

    ReplyDelete