Monthly Archives: June 2011

A place of greater safety

Motivation is key to learning, the carrot being better than the stick, and if the carrot is brought in by the learner themself, why, even better. Of course, motivation is a lot of things: it’s output from input (as a ratio), it’s challenge, engagement, effort, empowerment, being energised, it’s having needs met and then some. As teachers, we often think of needs in linguistic or language learning terms: he needs to be able to write business emails to engineering companies, she needs to be able to understand articles about plant genetics, he needs to pass his first year secondary school exam, she needs to improve her pronunciation as she’s difficult to understand.. and so on. But there’s more to life than language, and the classroom – if we open ourselves to it as teachers – is more than just a language box or drip, it’s a microcosm – and a good place to be.

Do you remember Maslow and his five neat layers working their way up the hierarchy of needs?

Maslow's hierarchy of needs : thanks to Cecilia Lemos

The first level is probably fairly clear, our most basic level of motivation, the most essential ‘needs’, the reason we get out of bed on a lazy Sunday – for food, drink, a ‘call of nature’. However, the second level, security, is the one that has always nagged at me. As adults, when we think of a need for security, we probably think of a safe house, with locks, secure windows, solid, non-leaky ceilings and walls, a safe house in a safe place, we think of a job with a decent contract, health insurance and enough income to cover the rent/mortgage, clothes, food… and we may think of safe (ie non-violent), familiar relationships – our world is shaken by deaths and divorces that take away that familiarity and upset our emotional security, as if we’d lost a bookend.

Now cast your mind back again to your teens days, feel yourself in your teen skin: what made you feel secure or insecure? Hm? Think about it.

Perhaps you were a happy, popular, relaxed teenager and a good student. I wasn’t, so in this particular area I have a loooot of personal experience. My background was different from most of the other girls in my class, they lived in rambling old houses with creaky floorboards, rickety old semi-hidden staircases leading to what had once been the servants’ quarters, they had swimming-pools, orchards… you get the picture. We had two growbags on the balcony and I shared a room with my sister. That feeling of being different, of being ‘less’ – less what, I don’t know, less glamorous, less Somebody – was one issue. I had my group of friends, but the rest…

The other issue that cropped up involved nasty rumours, gossip, bullying, ‘practical jokes’ – add to this certain practices such as some inspiring teachers handing back exams in order (best grade first, worst grade last, so your sense of humiliation grew as you waited for your name), and school became an unhappy place for me, I hated it, felt permanently insecure and resentful, I stopped studying, rarely did homework (except for ‘special’ teachers), scraped through exams, spent most of my breaks in detention. Security to the Teen-Me was about other people and how they made me feel about myself. It wasn’t until university (yes, I made it in the end) that I finally encountered a teacher who seemed fully aware that emotional security seriously affects academic motivation.

Anyway, it isn’t my intention to spend this blog talking about myself, but looking back at my own experience (when it finally dawned on me to do so) and then, as my curiosity had been piqued, asking many secondary school and language academy teachers over a ten year period (I exaggerate not), it became obvious to me that the atmosphere in the classroom is a key, vital factor in teen motivation. A secure atmosphere. And that by security in this context we actually mean something more like this:

macappella's hierarchy of teen needs : thanks to Cecilia Lemos

 whereby security is inextricably tangled up with social integration and self-esteem. In fact, where this fundamental tangle is missing in a class, apathy/dislike for a particular subject, lack of achievement and lack of understanding/aptitude – the usual suspects on the ‘why teens fail’ list – will tend to be symptoms rather than causes of demotivation.

Why am I banging on about this? Because it underlies everything I do when teaching teens, and it’s what brought me to unplugged teaching – dogme – after studying successful leadership models (ie approaches, not people), modes of communication, all that kind of thing. And, in conjunction with the previous (‘friendlier’) post, it’s what the rest of this blog will be about, the subcurrent, the foundations. Creating a place where teen learners are at ease, are part of a productive group, each have – and know they have – something to contribute, feel they can speak without being judged, feel they are empowered, feel and can see progress and even, on occasion, can escape the things that threaten their emotional wellbeing and simply fly. To a place of greater safety.

 If you want an idea for one activity showing how, read on. You might enjoy it.

Inner tidepools

Looking into inner tidepools: photo by Carol Goodey at #eltpics

I’d like to do a demo – I hope it works in this format!! If you want to give it a go, you need speakers or headphones (the latter is much better as it isolates you), a piece of paper and a pen (or the writing implement of your choice) – clicking in and out of a Word doc will probably distract. This is an activity I do in all my teen classes at least once or twice a term, and works well for many reasons:

  • it teaches teens that they always have something to say, that there are beautiful, interesting things hiding in the tidepools of their minds

  • it stays away from shadows of The Twilight Zone, which is what I call a teen’s sensitive area; for example, asking students to describe their house or holidays exposes them to comparison, leaving them potentially vulnerable. This is also true of discussion about the family, unless the students themselves bring the subject up. I remember one notable class of mine about ten years ago where the exercise read ‘Describe your brother or sister’, and a girl wrote a very short composition: ‘He’s dead’.

  • the language is emergent, dogme-style, though as it isn’t hardcore dogme, it may even appeal to the unplug-skeptics

  • it definitely appeals to various learner types

  • it’s relaxing

  • it’s teacher-led but learner-centred

  • it combines all four skills plus language nitty-gritty

  • it can be the launchpad for all sorts of stuff – language work, projects, audio recordings, dialogues, plays…

  • it gives students a technique they can transfer to, for example, exams

  • it’s a real feelgood activity

  • it relies on sensorial stimuli rather than external materials, and thus is so materials-lite it weighs as much as a dream

  • it’ll give you some interesting written pieces to mark, rather than the usual (yawn) stuff.

 I often do this in workshops, but if you ever coincide with me, I promise to do a slightly different one. 🙂

You’re going to close your eyes – students often giggle at the start, but stick with it, they soon stop when they discover they’re enjoying the experience – or, if you’re scared 😉 look at the ceiling (as long as it’s blank). I’m going to describe a situation and ask you some questions. I’d like you to ‘see’ the answers to the questions then open your eyes for a moment and write the answers down as simple notes. Then close your eyes again and listen to the next question. You can write your notes in any language, in English or your L1 if you prefer – the language shouldn’t break the flow. As this is a blog, you’ll need to hit the pause button between questions, but in the classroom, you’ll be able to see when students are ready for the next question. Ideally, your students will be able to switch off from ‘environment factors’ ie noise, a problem largely eliminated by this being a sound-file, though you may need to adjust your sound settings.

The title is In the garden (click for audio – but check you’ve read the instructions above and committed them to memory first!)


Finished? Got all your notes? This is a ‘place’ description, but you can ask them to ‘walk around’ and visit a place, describe a person, describe an ideal day or holiday, narrate something they ‘witness’…. all sorts. In class you would now put students together (threes is good for this one) to check vocab lagoons, and you’d monitor to help, then they’d compare ‘experiences’ ie gardens in this case. After that stage, you’d point out they all had something to say. You’d then ask them to write the description, using their notes, vocab, ideas from their partners, new ideas…. They then read each others’ texts and choose three things they really like about each. At home, they can rewrite, preferably in digital format, as that’s what they’re used to – they can illustrate, and you can upload to a blog, use as part of a poster presentation, you can record them giving their descriptions orally, use chunks of their texts as gapfills to review vocab, gapped dictations (ditto), dictoglosses, jigsaw texts etc etc etc. You can ask them to read classmates’ texts and answer comprehension questions eg categorise information under the five senses or write questions for another student to answer…. as Sandy Millin would say, an infinite number of ideas. The change from solo to small groups, then whole group if you use texts for dicto-activities also appeals, you cover all the skills, language eg it smells of/ it smells like (in this case) will ’emerge’, there’s a self-esteem kick to having something creative to say, the group dynamic is reinforced by the working together, especially if you aim for a group product like a presentation including text and image (remember #eltpics!), and, well, it feels good.

Give it a go.

Thanks go to: Nik Peachey, Shaun Wilden, Ceci Lemos, Ceri Jones and of course to Hilary Mantell whose title I have, um, borrowed. Teamwork through and through.

Next post: ‘The Fantastic Four or  I am what I am – I haven’t decided yet 😉



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Teach teens unplugged? Why on earth….?!

To unplug or not to unplug?

Do you need electricity to light the darkened room? **

When I was a teenager, if you didn’t have an encyclopaedia and you wanted to look something up, you had to go to the library. There was a lack of easy-access information in most homes. And as for gadgets and technology, well, we probably all had a radio, and access to record and cassette players in the house, we’d had a colour TV for a few years, and maybe a Kodak Instamatic camera. At 13 or 14, I got my first calculator – it’d been slide-rules all the way until then. There were no computers, videos or digital anythings in the home, and Bladerunner hadn’t even come out!

On the whole, my generation did, however, get conversation at meal tables, on car journeys etc. Our family was fairly accessible in most cases and
there was more face to face communication than now. When we spoke on the phone, conversations were perhaps longer and almost certainly
more meaningful than now, and the telephone was in a strategic place in the house, in the hall and/or kitchen; when someone phoned the teen you, you stretched the twirly cable as far as it could go, so you could sit in the loo, the hall cupboard or anywhere you might have some privacy. In fact, conversation was something personal and, enjoyable or not, it was meaningful. How much did you learn about life from conversation with friends and family when you were a teenager? Misinformation a lot of it, but we came out unscathed. Because we had conversation, we listened to stories, we told stories, we were enthused by stories, we dreamt. Many of us even read. What’s more, adults were adults, and teens were teens. We knew the difference: we had spots, bad dress sense and great music; they had jobs, mortgages, Radio 2* and respect. It wasn’t a Golden Age or
better than now, but it was different.

Teenagers nowadays live in a radically different world. Thanks to trendy TV series and teen idols (they have the Disney Brats, we had the Boomtown Rats..) and product placement, they don’t even make fashion faux pas or have dermatological issues as often as we did. They have information on tap, and oodles of Stuff, much of it often distilled into the casing of a mobile phone, but also home cinemas, netbooks, and various makes of game console, both ‘chunky’ and handheld. The number of chargers, USB jacks, memory cards and mains cables is almost ludicrous. Unlike Postman (click if you want to read my opinion of Prof. P), I don’t think all these gadgets are necessarily evil, but I do think the amount of information and gadgetry available to teens at home, in the street and through osmosis is one of the two main reasons I’m pro unplugged teaching.

The other reason is this. What teens have less of out of school now is supportive relationships. Family plays a different role; where there are two
parents, on the whole both work, where there is one, he or she is rushed off their feet. Time is short, meals are often accompanied by TV and haste, ‘family life’ is slotted in between after-school classes, activities, team sports and homework. Phones are everywhere, phonecalls are short, possibly replaced by a text message, and a crowded bus is as good a place as any for a chat. The value of conversation is dwindling – it is more functional, about problem-solving, negotiating, superficial, particularly in a world where teens have 200 social network friends, rather than a gang of between 3 and 7 or 8 pals. SMSes rather than letters, sharing and swapping individual downloads rather than albums or cassettes. Snippets and statistics rather than stories. Information rather than ideas.

So, it’s something like this:

 Then and now

As any fule kno, teens are a needy bunch, they are proto-adults, grown-ups with L-plates. They have great gulfs that a teacher can help to fill, but my attitude is why give them more of what they can get anywhere? Why not give them what they lack?

Unplugged, or dogme, teaching is about dialogue. It’s about supporting students so that they can express themselves. It’s also about listening. With adult language learners, you listen to their language and their stories, show an interest, identify needs, build a lesson, help them construct
knowledge. But with teenagers, although the process is essentially the same, it goes beyond just feeding in language to a hungry human. Through unplugged teaching, you can reach the person; you can provide the teen with an adult figure who listens, tells stories, supports them in their studies and ‘needs’, you can help them access their imagination, build their self-esteem, scaffold their need to hear ‘I can’ ringing out from their inner voice. You can use technology or gadgets or information if that’s what they bring to the classroom, but your role is to provide what YOU can bring and they can’t (which means, of course, it’s also dependent on your character/personality, not just theirs, but that’s another blog post).

That’s why I believe in Teaching Teens Unplugged. And that’s what this blog is all about. Any complaints?

** photo by Phil Bird at #eltpics

* BBC Radio 2 is the more middle-of-the-road / easy listening BBC radio station


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