The sharp end...
- Hello Doggies,
Some of you may remember I posted last year re: 'Dogme Style DELTA'; belated thanks to those who replied with help and advice...
Since then I've been lurking and been enthused, amused, stimulated and motivated by what I've read over the last year or so. Hopefully, somebody out there can help with the mire I find myself in at the moment...
Basically, I moved back to London after 5 years EFLing around the world and blagged a gig teaching ESOL in an FE college. I say 'blagged' as the job spec required a B.Ed, PGCE or Cert. Ed. Armed with my hard won DELTA however, and chock-full of buzzwords (inc. 'Dogme'...), I got the job on an hourly-paid basis and now find myself up to my neck in sh*t creek, out of my depth and having lost both my paddles, (have I metted enough mixaphors yet..?)
The basic problem is that this isn't the fluffy world of EFL that I'm used to with motivated students who pay for their classes and give some respect based on the fact that you're a fount of knowledge re: English. My students are all 16-18 year old asylum seekers/refugees who've been in England for around 3/4 years, (they're from Iraq/Iran/Somalia/Sierra Leone/Ivory Coast/Zambia/Kosovo - in fact, pick a civil strife ridden country...). They've had a couple of years secondary education in the British state school system but drowned in it; hence they've been kicked out at 16 with no qualifications and a whole heap of coping strategies. These involve never letting anyone know, (particularly your teacher), that you don't understand - and never mind your perfectly formed concept-checking questions. Violence - mainly verbal - is an accepted communication technique, concentration is at a minimum, and 'front' or 'attitude' is all...
Fluency is most definitely not a problem - they can diss each other in the most varied (and, it has to be said, most amusing), ways imaginable. My main problem seems to be 'engagement' (not in a military sense - that's all too easy...). I'm supposed to be working on their language accuracy and an ill-defined beast known as 'Life Skills'. The latter involves preparing students for survival in the 'real world' which, in one sense (that of 'street life'), they're all Ph.Ds...
The current situation is this; I've built up a rapport with all my classes, can get their attention with EFLy games/activities and have connected with them on a personal level. The problem is where to go from here...I'm not so old that I can't remember being 16 myself and I'm fully aware that the problems I'm having would be the same with any group of 16 year olds anywhere in the world, (though perhaps without the conversational gambit that opens with 'your mother'...). I've asked other teachers/my head of dept. for advice but as 'new boy' I'm becoming aware that these are the 'problem' classes that no-one else wants for precisely this reason - no-one's sure exactly what to do with them. In fact, I've recently discovered that I'm the 5th teacher in 6 months for some of these students, (a badge of pride for a couple of the classes...). By the way, the classes are all mixed level - some students are Elementary, some Intermediate...
So, what am I exactly asking for?
Does anyone have any ideas about how to work on accuracy with highly fluent students? (Fluent in 'Street', elementary in 'Formal').
How does one introduce the idea of working on interview/presentation techniques with people who're more interested in not getting stabbed on the way home (this isn't the most pleasant part of London...)?
How can I integrate things that do engage them (music/sports/the opposite sex) into a very 'dry' (and government directed) curriculum?
As the concentration span is fairly brief, what techniques can I employ when approaching project work?
Has anyone else been in a similar situation and how did they approach it?
Finally, I'm aware that this post might be unconnected with the EFL world that most doggies (including myself until recently), currently work in. On the other hand, there's a wealth of knowledge/experience out there that I'm desperate to tap into. I guess that a lot of you have had so-called 'problem classes' and I'm hoping that the strategies/techniques you adopted are applicable to my situation. I'd be pathetically, grovellingly grateful for any help anyone can give - perhaps there are teachers out there who've found themselves making the move from EFL to ESOL and encountered the same 'challenges'...
I don't want to be Miss Jean Brodie or Mr Chips, but I don't want to live in The Blackboard Jungle everyday either...
Thanks in advance for any help/advice,
P.S. - There are no coursebooks, so I can be as dogmetic as I like...
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Your job sounds one hell of a challenge - immensely worthwhile
and down-to-reality, but I can't pretend I'm not relieved that
it's your challenge rather than mine!
What was that about a government syllabus? Mislay it.
You've clearly got to have your students with you all the way
otherwise nothing is going to work. How do they see it? What do
they want you to enable them to do with their English? You make
it sound as if they might ask for the English of prostitution,
gun-running and drug dealing. Accuracy? What do they need that
for? Have they asked for it, or have your masters decreed that
this is what they should be given?
It sounds to me as if you need a real project, and not an arty-
farty, do-gooder one, either. Can't you - I don't know - set up
a couple of workshops (not academic ones) for ... recycling
second-hand furniture, repairing electrical appliances, running
some kind of club and get them involved in all the English that
- Dear Pete,
Amazing you and what a challenge!
Falling asleep here Dennis' suggestion floated in my brain: "You've clearly
got to have your students with you all the way
otherwise nothing is going to work. How do they see it? What do
they want you to enable them to do with their English?"
And I thought, exactly, exactly.
And then I remembered about how I didn't have a clue what I wanted at that
age, in terms of jobs or life goals, or anything, no awareness about what my
skills were and how I could make them work for me.
I didn't know how to assess the world around me to see how I could take
control or make it do what I wanted, I just functioned flawlessly and pretty
passively on the conveyor belt. You mention " a whole heap of coping
strategies","..in one sense (that of 'street life'), they're all Ph.Ds..."
Perhaps that's what they're doing too, only the surroundings and
expectations are different to mine.
I think what I'm trying to suggest is perhaps reading a book like "What
color is your parachute?" which explores career choices and personal
Or a kind of project whereby you research various professions and what
skills they require with lots of fieldwork and interviewing to expand an
awareness of what is on offer, what it entails and whether they might like
Possibly you could talk about your own life and career choices and how you
made them, how and why you are coping with your life now, sort of be a
positive role model...(Naive, Renata? )
How about exploring their rich and diverse backgrounds, do they define
themselves as/want to be English, or British, or Zambian, or refugee, or
ethnic, or world inhabitants or aliens or what?
As in helping them to set goals and clarify where they are, who they are and
what they might want to achieve, how they can achieve it. And dogme is all
about supporting and aiding autonomy, as I understand, (Tom's learning to
learn and Luke's paddling in the language ) and since you say you've been
using it then you are indeed well equipped.
Of course Dennis' advice is paramount, you can't be thought of as preachy
and patronizing...but you say you already have established rapport, and
there you go!
I'm sure there will be plenty of useful, perhaps more concrete hints pouring
in as the day wears on.
Well, I'm back to sleep, wishing you the best of luck with your budding
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- Hi Pete & everyone,
Firstly, good luck to you Pete! As I'm sure you will hear many say you are
in for both a challenging but potentially rewarding experience.
I first started teaching English to small groups of mixed-ability and
multi-cultural Students in Miami. They were all immigrants and primarily
adults 18+ years of age. Thankfully, I didn't have a 'dry government
syllabus' to contend with, but I did have a 'suggested' grammar syllabus to
'tick off' (you may interpret 'tick off' both ways!). We did a lot of work
with newspapers as well took field trips. Yes, the order of the day was
teaching 'getting along in life' skills. I've also worked with a lot of
16-18 year olds here in Greece.
I think you're on the right track with personalized tasks... but they are
still tasks. Somehow the tasks need to become more than just tasks. They
have to develop a life of their own. Same thing with project work. It has to
be meaningful and perhaps even student inspired and created. Ask them! They
might suggest something like creating the story line for a video game, music
The days I 'mislaid' the grammar syllabus were usually spent discussing
grammar or expression related 'life skill' items. At one point, when the
students were comfortable enough with me, they began bringing in vignettes
of the frustrating situations they encountered outside of the class in which
they couldn't express themselves or were confused. When the classes finally
took on that 'we are all in this together' feeling, there was much
discussion not only on what to say and how to say it, but also the
underlying social issues. The classes ran the gamut from ESL to group
I'd also venture to say that if you really want to succeed with this class,
you'll have to do your homework (probably more than they will), be a good
listener and become (if you aren't already) a reflective teacher. Play the
psychologist. Go home at the end of the class and keep a journal of who said
'what' and 'why' (and if you're into NLP don't forget 'how' :). Keep notes
of student interests as well as turn-ons & turn-offs and so forth. Simply
put: it's not enough to who they are and where they are coming from, you
need to know what's in their head.
Here are a few quick thoughts/suggestions/ideas:
Music: Why do boring canned listening exercises if they would prefer to
listen to Eminem, Panjabi MC, Dr. Dre and Snoop 'DOGME' Dawg?
Here's one idea if they are into rap (especially Gangsta Rap): Play some rap
music they bring in. Tell them you have a real hard time following what the
lyrics are or are about. Can they please write them down for you? Have the
students compare their lyrics. Even if they have most of the lyrics correct,
with rap music there is always room for interpretation. Ask them to read the
lyrics to you. Feign confusion about understanding them. Ask them what that
means in PLAIN English. Have them explain or translate it for you. Discuss
the story line, etc. Can they improve on the story line? Can they translate
that back into rap? Can they perform it to the music? I assume you can do
the same with Heavy Metal. If you are doing rap.. whatever you, don't
mention "Vanilla Ice".
Interviews: What kind of interviews do you want to do. Job interviews? They
probably won't be that motivated to do an interview for an imaginary job
they could care less about in the real or worse would not be qualified for.
Do you know what kind of jobs they would like to have? Find out. Go with
what ever they suggest and modify the task accordingly. Would you go to an
interview for a job you wouldn't want?
Use an alternative interview format. Let them be someone famous (or perhaps
as you seem to imply infamous) like celebrities or sports figures or
themselves (because of something special they did) being interviewed by a
magazine reporter. First the students discuss and decide who they want to
be. They must then justify their choice. Besides the oral work, it also
helps the 'interviewers' to form questions. Let them be who they want to be.
no censoring! In groups, have the students develop interview questions and
compare. Have them justify their questions to the class. they should make
amendments as appropriate. Alternatively, have the interviewees develop
questions they would like to answer themselves. Finally conduct the
interviews and then discuss the answers to the questions. Ask the
interviewers what the interviewees had to say. Ask for class comment.
For extra-motivation, tape their interviews - this gives it a semi-real
feeling. I've had better luck with hand with student motivation using hand
microphones rather than the built-in types. It gives you the real interview
experience. Using your thumbs might give some students mixed signals! Of
course the tapes can come in handy later for other exercises.
Just a note on having students be someone else: As communicative teachers, I
know that we are forever trying to put our students into a 'real word'
context. But, perhaps kids of this age and disposition have enough of the
real world already. They might not be happy with who they are or where they
are in life at present, and your class can be a real escape for them.
For writing tasks: Contests. Keep and keep them on the lookout for contests
in magazines (Guitar world, Rolling-Stone, Sports Illustrated, Guns & Ammo,
etc..). There are a lot of magazines offering prizes for short essays on
"why I want to win" or "who is my hero.." etc. There is motivation, there is
context, etc. Don't forget to send the essays in. Make sure the students
understand that YOU WILL send the essays in.
Lastly, but most importantly I think in terms of fostering a safe and
positive environment for them is: Listen and Don't Judge!
PS. Renata, good luck to you to with your new job!
- Dear Renata:
Thanks for the tangent, which was not tangential at all. It's
obviously relevant to the problem Diarmuid raised about cultural
expectations in the classroom (Confucian, Socratic, or otherwise).
And it's relevant to a distinction I'd like to make between "given"
cultures(national, tribal, of which we are the passive excreta)
and "emergent" ones (which, given half a classroom chance, we have
some say in creating).
First of all, let's think about greetings. For the most part, these
are so formalized as to be devoid of content: people do not really
think of health when they say "How are you?" (and in fact the
earliest occurence of this in Howatt's "History of ELT" is clearly in
a business context). The use of the greeting "Peace be with you"
neither increases nor decreases during this time of war here in
Korea, and it is not SEMANTICALLY true that Chinese greet each other
with "Have you eaten yet?"
A somewhat more interesting property of greetings (for me)appears
rather formal. But in fact it isn't. Take the problem you mentioned:
KOREAN: Where are you going?
AMERICAN: Huh? Uh...well...I'm going out, you see, because I have an
appointment with a man I met yesterday about a problem we were
discussing the day before with a...
This is partly a misunderstanding comparable to getting a health
check in reply to "How are you?". But it's also simpler than that: a
mistranslation. The real greeting is:
KOREAN: You are going somewhere.
ANOTHER KOREAN: Yes, I'm going somewhere.
What makes the it a greeting is precisely what makes it non-
threatening. Reciprocity. The level of generality remains the same;
the level of informativeness remains the same.
I think this principle of reciprocity is very extendable. It's
explicitly realized in language. For example, it's discoursal:
AMERICAN: How are you?
ANOTHER AMERICAN: Fine. And you?
ARAB: As-salaam aleikum.
ANOTHER ARAB: Wa aleikum as-salaam.
TEACHER: Hello, everybody. (DOWN intonation)
STUDENTS: Hello, teacher. (UP intonation)
Viewed in this way, almost anything can be friendly rather than
threatening, including all the material that passes in so-called
Confucian cultures as friendly mutual interest, but it considered too
nosy and intrusive in Western classrooms (e.g. marital status, family
composition, salary, etc.) And vice versa (weekend activities,
The cardinal rule is not YOUR rule or MY rule, but reciprocity. The
reversibility of the roles of questioner and answerer. (The same is
even true of an issue as apparently personal as names; I dont know
about Japan, but in Korea some learners have taken to reversing their
family and given names and wearing them in the Western way so as not
to confuse teachers. It confuses me, and I am thinking of introducing
myself as Kellogg David in revenge.)
Now, in the real world (the world where Pete's learner's live) these
roles are not reversible. Policeman, prosecutors, and Home Office
thugs ask questions; demonstrators, criminals and immigrants answer.
So called "real" cultures (that is national, tribal, even familial
ones) have non-negotiable roles. Alas, this is not infrequently true
of classroom roles too, and it's pedagogically disempowering in
The result is plain on the faces of my freshmen; they can understand
all the questions, they can answer "yes/no" or "a, b, c, or d", but
they are powerless to ask questions, and they have long since figured
out that, in the classroom as elsewhere, he (at this level, it's
usually a he) who asks the questions calls the tune (who pays the
piper be damned).
But of course it don't have to be like that. To a certain extent, any
classroom culture is not "given" but "emergent". The classroom (the
language classroom) is one place where roles are reversible, and
culture is creatable.
That's doubly true of my students, and it even extends beyond my
classroom. My kids will ALL be elementary school teachers, in about
four years time. That means THEY will ask the questions. But that
doesn't mean that they will create the culture.
The culture has to be something that will interest their kids. And
their kids will be Koreans, but not very thoroughly socialized ones;
mostly they will just be kids. So maybe they will be interested in
something to do with breakfast and computer games and fun-filled
weekends. Maybe not. What interests the kids will emerge. IF there is
a place in the conversation where they can take control.
And this gets me back to the point I was making about the non-culture-
boundedness of critical thinking and crit pedagogy in general. To me,
it's a lot about the reversibility of roles (which is why Jeff's
remarks were--perhaps deliberately--completely off the wall). That
means it's not about CULTURE with a big C, but only culture with a
Let me give an example. My wife (Fang again) began her illustrious
academic career in the "Criticize Confucius and Lin Biao Campaign" in
1972. This was, as the name suggests, an attempt to link a movement
in "critical pedagogy" with the murder/assasination of Lin Biao, once
head of China's secret police. Fang, scion of three generations of
textile workers, was required to produce an essay on how the dead
hand of Confucius had produced a stultifying educational atmosphere
that had resulted in people being judged on their "class credentials"
rather than real abilities.
Fang was seven years old. Her mum had not yet finished middle school.
So her mum asked a shopmate to write the essay, and he copied it
dutifully from the latest party newspaper. Soon Fang was launched on
a political career, reading her brilliant work at mass meetings all
over the city. She still laughs to think of the thousands of
assembled people hanging on her every word, and smiles when I talk
about critical pedagogy.
PS: Oh, Pete. You know, wierdly, in 1991 I was briefly in a situation
a little bit similar to yours. It was after the Beijing massacre and
a group of Chinese refugees had gone underground to avoid deportation
somewhere in London. Once a week I would meet with them and teach
I went assuming that they were like the activists I'd left behind in
China--terribly Occidentophile, intellectual, and articulate. In
fact, they were much more interesting than that; they were what would
be called today "economic migrants" or maybe "bogus asylum seekers",
and rather resembled your kids (only less cocky, because on the lam).
I don't really remember what I taught them, but I remember two
activities that went over a treat. One was a game of alibies that was
based on the scenario of a "white marriage". Two of the kids had to
pretend to be married, while the others interrogated separately about
the details of their partner's wardrobe and bedclothes in an effort
to trip them up and deport them. The other, actually, was a mock
trial in which one of them was being tried for libelling another
(he/she had used a bit of very juicy English similar to the ones you
described). This was very VERY successful at raising the level of
formality. Just a thought or two!
- coming in a bit late here, but
Pete's situation and all the related postings are at the heart of dogme
(and, as Diarmuid suggested, also at the heart of education).
a lot of things in Pete's original posting have been richly addressed, and I
don't want to repeat what's already been said (though I probably will a
One thought is that their 'defences' -
>These involve never letting anyone know, (particularly your teacher), thatconcept-checking
>you don't understand - and never mind your perfectly formed
>questions. Violence - mainly verbal - is an accepted communication- could (though maybe not!) be a tough nut to crack in Pete's desire to
>technique, concentration is at a minimum, and 'front' or 'attitude' is
develop accuracy (especially as they're mainly so fluent) even though it
really seems as if Pete is 'getting there' in all other respects (even if
from their point of view rather than Pete's own!)
Perhaps written work could help here??? Even working towards a letter to a
local or national newspaper or net publication about street violence in
area or a specific incident. Or a local 'what it's like living here' guide
or specific aspect rundown, (which are things that appear on a number of
sites - local area sites also linked into 'bigger' sites - and include 'Joe
Public' contributions). Or a music review that can be posted somewhere.
Or start their own mag. That type of thing. Maybe. Just a thought.
> How can I integrate things that do engage them (music/sports/the oppositesex) into a very 'dry' (and government directed) curriculum?
I have no direct experience of such curricula, but everyone I've known who
does have experience says, as Diarmuid and Adrian have said, that they're
much more flexible than they might seem; (perhaps 'newbies' tend to
take them too seriously/literally at first sight ....??) So, when Dennis
says 'mislay it', interpret it accordingly .....
and the obvious things can come
in handy (and perhaps even get neatly fitted into the dreaded curriculum?)
- old chestnuts such as finding opportunities for them to teach you about
some of their passions and areas of expertise and knowledge (which can
often also naturally lend a slightly more 'formal' aspect to the language
And drama?? (whether with a small or big d; but it probably seems there's
drama around as it is! - so a bit of 'make believe' can be a relief all
> As the concentration span is fairly brief, what techniques can I employwhen approaching project work?
the trick is letting them find/leading them to finding something that will
them; so they care enough about the 'product' enough to get involved in the
'process' ..... (whether it's a letter to a fan club, or a protest poster,
or a personal
statementmade via words or pictures; or whatever)
> Has anyone else been in a similar situation and how did they approach it?A few years ago I spent 3 months solid working with 18/19 year old army
they were military service - and they were only doing it at that age because
they'd bunked out of school and were already working in their dad's
'firm', or they weren't eligible for any further education
whatsoever (otherwise they get exemption from military service until they're
in their mid-twenties or older - in which case they come in for the
year as officers ...).
There were 30 to a class, lessons were held in the
barracks, and the atmosphere was pitiable (ie
trumped up 25 year olds bossing these 'inferior' recruits around as if they
were scum and punishing them with glee on the slightest pretext).
This was actually the airforce division, and I remember, in my ignorance,
asking them if they were learning about flying, and they dolefully told me
that all they were learning about was cleaning floors ..... A lot of them
away from home for the first time, totally bamboozled, and homesick, sent to
the southern depths of the peninsula for no reason they could really suss.
Others were already well versed in the ways their own talents could develop
in a real world, and just had to transfer their particular techniques of
survival capitalism to another social reality; and some were really
desperate - there were two stabbings during those months among the recruits
At times it was scary, but I (and 3 colleagues) came out not only alive but
also with a renewed respect for our fellow humans (well, perhaps not ALL of
them....); also because once those 'kids' realized that we weren't there to
order them about or say how things should be, and that what they said
and thought counted just
as much as what we said and thought, they (mostly!)
kinda thought, well, we've gotta be here anyway, we're stuck with it
whatever, so let's make the most of it ......
(sorry, I can't resist this: would you believe that the school invested in
over 400 English File 1 course books for these courses?? Needless to say
..... - though I suppose on reflection they did come in handy at times in
My sister-in-law works 3 afternoons/evenings a week with 'rehab' teenagers
(which basically means these kids are already considered to belong to the
'criminal classes'). She doesn't teach language
or any subject as such, let alone with curricula. She just has to keep them
occupied and out of trouble and hopefully develop both their interpersonal
and inventive skills via a thing that's loosely called 'crafts'.
I remember her telling me how terrified she was the first time - surrounded
by all these big seething guys with looks and language like daggers - and
how totally amazed she was once they started
doing things with their hands ..... you could have heard a pin drop;
interest, absorption, creativity and who knows what else. The sessions are
never always smooth all the time, but right from the beginning this was a
gutsy girl who knows what she wants and needs to do and isn't afraid to go
for it, at the same time as being aware of each individual in the group and
caring about who they are, what they want to do and what they do do. They
immediately felt 'safe' with her because - well, a number of reasons I
expect: she's clear about what she thinks and who she is and why she's
there; she's as street wise as they are and not afraid to use it; she's in
no way a 'do-gooder' with unrealistic aims - she starts from where they're
coming from, and shares her own ideas and skills to introduce
new things to them; and she's extremely flexible and open and reflective
within this framework of necessary 'authority'.
Which to be honest sounds a lot like the impression I got from Pete's
keep at it, and hope to hear more!
PS: thanks, Halima, for the great piece on your 15 year old student and the
(not only, but also, an insight into the value of having someone in to
'teach' both the teacher and the learner!)