Monday, 7 April 2014

Sparks of inspiration, Headway and Georges Melies

Do you know those little moments in life, split seconds, that everything just clicks? I was lucky enough to have one in my class today.

It was my first day back from what will forevermore be known as Lea's Extreme Conferencing Feat, where I went without sleep for two whole days at one point. Needless to say I was intending to stick to the book and hope for the day to pass without falling asleep in my coffee.

I was staring at my Headway Intermediate book, where they were kindly offering a listening about space and space tourism. There were a few pictures of rockets there, one of them a tiny segment that I recognised from a 1902 film Voyage Dans la Lune. The school bell signalled the beginning of my lesson and rockets went off in my head. I decided in a split second to ditch the book and do the following instead.

First I wrote Space in big black letters on the whiteboard and invited students to come up with any and all words connected to the concept and write them down. That gave me the three minutes that I needed to find the version with music only.

This is the one I used:

There is nothing but music and moving pictures, so no language input.

We put up all their ideas on the whiteboard, they came up with words and phrases like keyboard, Star Trek, meteorite, rocket, and many others. By then they knew what the general topic of today's lesson will be.

I then showed them a still of the film and asked them when do they think it was made and we speculated about different years and why they thought that.

Then it was time for their writing assignment - watch the film and write down the story as it happens. The narration is slow which gives them time to think on their feet. I didn't help with any vocabulary, but I wrote down questions that might help them write the story as we were watching. They're only in their first year so I thought it would be helpful for them to have a frame to which they can refer.

There was much giggling when the rocket landed in the Moon's eye.

They were herded together into groups of four and instructed to add all the information that other students got and they didn't to their own work.

While they were busy doing that, I took a picture of the questions I wrote up so we can refer to them tomorrow when we do the rest of the activity.

There were thought up as the video was playing. Mind, if I didn't know the video extremely well, this would be impossible to do.
The lesson ended with us talking very shortly about how differently they imagined the Moon landing way back then. This is important for the last activity, as you will see below.

Tomorrow, they are going to finish comparing their narratives and then we will spend a bit of time discussing what makes good feedback and how to give constructive feedback. Then they will exchange their narratives and comment on each other's work, perhaps paste the narratives on the walls and I'll give each student two post-its and they will be required to write two comments on narratives other than their own.

Next step, we'll compare our narrative with this charming version which has a narrator telling the story as it happens.


I'm pre-watching this version now and I anticipate these are a few words that my munchkins might need pre-taught to understand the main gist of the film or I think might be useful for them in their later studies and/or life.

Made with worditout.com. If you want your words to stay together, write them with a tilde ~, for example to~ascend makes it stay together in the word cloud.

I am not expecting them to understand everything, this is just a bit of support to help their own unique narratives. I decided for this version as the one I like best has a pretty heavy French accent. It can be found here if you have a more high-level students that would enjoy the charming accent.


Here you can tell them the colourised versions were quite popular back in the day and it took immense skill and patience to do them. If they show any interest, I'm doing a cross-curricular lesson on technology of film.

After that, we revise the texts once more to get a complete text that will be used as a basis for the next activity.

As a final step, we're watching this lovely music video, which was inspired by the film.
(Fun fact about your resident blogger: I used to be obsessed with this song. I would play it five times in a row. Aaaand I'm doing it again.)

We're going to write down the similarities and differences of the two films, which gives us a lovely chance to practice linking expressions (also, however, but, in comparison, while, whereas, likewise, same as, just like,...).

We might round up the series of lessons with a short debate on history of film, the long way special effects have come and are they important for enjoying the film. We will definitely talk about how people viewed the future in times past and what we can learn about predictions of the future from that fact (protip: They're all rubbish). The topic we are covering, is in fact, Life 50 years from now.

I am full of win!
The general outline of the lesson took me three seconds to decide, the rest came together in a series of quick flashes. I actually wouldn't be able to do this at all if I hadn't been a huge fan of silent films and that film in particular. As I said, a magical, once-in-a-career moment.

The hornet's nest plenary

Recently I've had the utmost pleasure of attending two of the biggest ELT conferences around, the TESOL 2014 in Portland and, immediately after, the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate. A complete account, including what to do when you want to escape from a plane that just took off will follow shortly, when my sleep-deprived brain recuperates.

What got me thinking more than any other thing in both conferences is the last morning plenary in IATEFL, Sugata Mitra's talk on Schools in the Cloud. I refer to it as the hornet's nest plenary, because one of my PLN referred to the fact that IATEFL decided to invite prof. Mitra as kicking the hornet's nest. After seeing the responses on Twitter and Facebook, I'm inclined to agree. Personally, I enjoyed the plenary as it offered food for thought for days to come and was well executed. I think everyone's ideas deserve to be listened to and the listener is then free to either agree, disagree or just simply not care enough to make up their own minds.

Let me make it clear at the very beginning, I don't think anyone will ever replace teachers. We are more than educators and sorry to burst some techie's bubble, but a machine will not replace a teacher any time soon. First it will have to learn how to listen empathically, grade instructions for different levels as well as different moods and times of day (after-lunch dead-period, y'all know what I'm talking about here!) and patiently explain to parents why their darling will not learn if his idea of studying is falling asleep with a book under his pillow.

Learning by osmosis, totally legit.

Nor do I think that all students will teach themselves/each other just of their own accord. Left to their own devices if my boys, 15 - 19, are left with a computer in groups of four and instructed to find an answer to what is molecular biology, they will start playing games three times out of five. Or looking up naughty pictures. Or looking up things that are interesting to them, like the newest tech gizmos. I'm not saying it happens all of the time, but in some classes it does often enough that it would seriously impede their education if I wasn't there giving them the stink-eye when they try it.

I can hear your thoughts, go wash your brain out with soap!

Maybe the idea of minimally invasive school works for his context. I don't know, I haven't seen any numbers that would back-up this claim long-term, over generations. What I can be almost sure of (again, I can't be completely certain, I have no numbers to back up my claim, only anecdotal evidence) is that minimally invasive school for teenagers will leave a massive pool of children who can't see beyond next weekend sadly under-educated.

I'm sure many of you educators have noticed that some children tend to be excluded from groups. That's one of the reasons why groups need teachers, to ensure the excluded ones are included, that no-one is hogging the resources and that the Facebook status updating and Instagraming are kept to a minimum.

To be honest, I was surprised to see that the experiment with the hole-in-the-wall computers was evidently such a success. I'd anticipate the computers would be used mainly for playing computer games.

That being said, I'm also convinced beyond any shadow of a doubt that the educational system is in dire need of a revamp. I work in a public school and I can see that although it's full of very dedicated and knowledgeable individuals, the system itself could stand a bit of a make-over, starting with the size of classes and the classroom itself. Collaboration is, in my opinion, the way to go, but excluding the teacher might not be the best move. Although probably half the population in Slovenia is convinced we're good-for-nothing freeloaders that only hog the public finances.

There are some lessons to be taken from Sugata Mitra's experiment and from his talk. The bus ride back to London was a good chance for sitting down with my two good friends Sandra and Nina and coming up with a few thoughts we will take back to our classrooms.


  • Don't underestimate the little munchkins. Don't hold back the knowledge because you think it'll confuse them, they're smarter than they look.
  • Let them do some work on their own. Step back and let them organise themselves. Sure, it might backfire. It did in my classes often enough, but it succeeded more often, just enough to give me a reason to not stop doing it.
  • Never underestimate the power of praise. Yes, it's important to let them know when they're wrong, but it's also important to let them know you see when they're trying. I try to do that, but I know I don't do it as often as I'd like. Sometimes I'm afraid they'll stop trying, sometimes they tick me off (I'm only human) and I don't tell them what good boys they are.


So, my post-conference resolution? I can't ditch testing, and I can't, with a clear conscience, just step back and let students teach themselves, and I can't ditch instruction completely, with 30 people in a class that's a bit idealistic.

I can, however, make small changes. Let students participate in test-building perhaps. Let them do collaborative tasks. Let them alone for a bit and give them more freedom, within limits.

And give a kind word or two more.