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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57 responses to “Teach teens unplugged? Why on earth….?!

  1. Hi Fiona,
    When I took part in the IH Online Teacher Training workshop on Dogme in January/February, one of the things we often discussed was whether it was possible/desirable to teach YLs and teens unplugged. Since that workshop I’ve seen so much about dogme/unplugged and am thoroughly convinced that it would have been the best way to teach the teen class I had this year. They have just taken their end-of-year test, and the only things they managed to remember were from the coursebook-based lessons where they were really engaged – if only the whole year could have been based on their needs and interests!
    Looking forward to future posts with more hints and tips on how to go about this 😉

    • Hi Sandy,

      the plan is to mix ‘thoughtful’ stuff like this post with practical ideas. I’ll then sort them as links in the Chalkface (practical) and Mind’s Ear sections, for quicker reference. Assuming that works!! 🙂 But yes, the next post or two (3?) will be tips and whatnot. And yes, a learner-centred, unplugged take with teens does work… and some of the stuff I intend to post should also be applicable for areas like South East Asia etc where the teacher culture is different from Europe.


  2. Wow, that brought memories back … 2-hour long phone calls with friends, usally in the bathroom
    I agree with you and Sandy, I hope one day I don’t have to tell teachers anymore to use this or that coursebook with teens. Next year we will offer/have pure conversation classes for teens for the first time, alongside the normal coursebook-based once though. It still needs convincing parents, and also the people in charge in the schools, that there is a different way of teaching.

    • Hi,

      in my experience, as soon as results start to come to the fore, parents are convinced. Some teens will learn whatever approach you use, but some are harder to ‘reach’, and it’s with these that I’ve found unplugged works particularly well. Dogme/unplugged isn’t just conversation, though, it’s somewhat more structured and demanding on the teacher than that, but hopefully blog post by blog post, I’ll manage to cover that – with a little help from comments and guests…
      Glad you enjoyed the memories…. lying on the hall carpet was a favourite one with me – I still did that in my parents last house, when I was in my 40s! Freezing in December, mind you, heehee

  3. Luke Meddings

    Fiona, a really beautiful article that makes one wonder – how on earth has the idea of talking to young people in classrooms become a radical notion? We must resist the idea that our lives as teachers and learners need to be validated by coursebooks in some way – or that coursebooks need to act as our guarantors.



    • Coursebooks and exams. I think exams are worse, as, as we all know, a huge number of teachers forget to teach a language or the students, and just teach to the exam willynilly.
      Also, a lot of teachers see teens as some sort of alien race incapable of human communication. These are the teachers who roll their eyeballs and look skyward when asked how their class went. ‘Oh, they’re just SO not at the level’… And there’s the ‘that won’t work in my class’ folk, who teach as they were taught and that’s it so stick! Not an ideal situation in, say, Spain, where a right-wing dictatorship oversaw at least part of the education of more than half of current-day secondary teachers. Control is an issue here. How can you control conversation? What if someone asks a risqué question? Or wants to know how to say something and I can’t think of it on the spur of the moment? What if someone asks me a grammar question – or any other sort of question – I don’t know the answer to? What if no-one asks me about the present perfect continuous in the whole year?
      Self-esteem is often a big issue with teachers (me included) so I guess it boils down to character and how safe/exposed you feel with teenagers. Me, I feel safer with them than most adults… they have easier ‘tolerance parameters’ ie if you’re fair, honest, calm, respectful and don’t try to be too pally, remember they expect you to be a Teacher not a Friend, then little by little…..
      And you’ll have to read my blog in the future for the rest of that comment 😉

  4. Wonderful post.

    I’m glad it’s Sunday ONCE AGAIN… and I can read your words slowly and soak with them. It’s fun to shoot back to what life was like for you as a teenager, and how that was fairly close to what it was like for me.

    Times have changed, and they continue too, and I FEEL and KNOW that your ideas for dialogue are important. It might not be easy, and there might be some akwardness for teens that don’t want to “relate” their self-conscious story, but this too is something to be “heard” through patience and space.

    Merci 4 the great post !

  5. Great post, Fiona! Slide rules – haven’t heard that word in decades! The problem with teens is reaching them. If we can reach them dogmetically, fantastic, but what do we do if they don’t want to be reached? What do we do to narrow the teacher-student gap? That’s the challenge we face, I think.
    By the way – 2 questions ;-): 1) is there anywhere where your name appears (apart from in our comments)? 2) Is “fule kno” Glaswegian?

    • Brad, Chiew,
      thanks for the great comments and kind words. How to ‘reach teens’ is something I’ve been thinking a lot about today, and I feel a blog post coming on. It’s such a slow process, but well worth it – rather like crocuses open one by one in your garden – patience and sticking with it, but also being very clear about what you’re doing and who YOU are, as well as learning who your students are. No teen is going to like you because of your status as teacher, or as adult, you have to earn their trust. Shall we explore it together in a later post? What say thee?

      • Sounds like a challenge coming up!
        Some of the teens I’ve worked with did open up to me, but you know, I think it aroused some jealousy amongst the other teachers. Once, a student’s grandmother died, and he sort of asked me to go to the ‘burial’. And I went. Not sure why. Not even his classmates were there.
        At the risk of being accused a sexist, I think being a woman makes it easier to be closer to your students without the risk of funny looks and gossip behind your back. You know what I’m getting at?
        Perhaps what you said about being clear about what you’re doing and who you are is important, but when you spell too many things too clearly, you can be seen as closing doors, and to reach them, your doors have to remain open.

    • By the way, well spotted re my name. I hadn’t noticed, probably didn’t think it important… but I’ve now added an About me page, with not only my name but how to pronounce it 🙂
      ‘As any fule kno’ isn’t Glaswegian, no; it’s a phrase coined by one
      Nigel Molesworth, a character created by writer Geoffrey Willans and cartoonist/illustrator Ronald Searle, also famous for St Trinians. Nigel was the hero of books like How to be Topp and Down with Skool, which were pretty much compulsory reading when I was maybe 13 – I still have copies of the books on my bookshelves. Here’s an example http://www.stcustards.free-online.co.uk/intro.htm

      • I do know what you’re getting at, yes. But being clear means being clear and quiet. Listen and answer questions. I don’t think teachers who use their classes as an audience to practise tales of past battles and conquests are on the right track either; it’s fine line. My personal line is to encourage, then listen and if I’m asked, be honest (which may mean saying ‘that’s part of my personal life, I don’t feel happy talking about it’). As the rapport develops, I’ll sometimes give an example of something from my life, ‘unsolicited’, but it’ll be in response to something, like when you say ‘oh yes, exactly the same happened to my sister’ or whatever. You close doors when you brag, you know they’re open when students try to come in, however tentatively.

      • That wasn’t exactly what I was insinuating. To be blunt, it’s looked upon with suspicious eyes when a male teacher appears to get on well with his female students, not so with female teachers and male students. I’m the ‘he who speaks does not listen’ type, so they (of both sexes) find it quite easy to speak to me, or at least that’s what I think…

  6. Hi Fiona,

    What a wonderful blog post to read at the end of a Sunday. Got me all happy about Monday now…

    Think that there are 2 points you raise in your post which resonate the most with me:
    1) Time – and “slow time” – we´re not giving ourselves much time for loads of things today and I feel the classroom is suffering from the same ill. Things seem to go so much faster. Just look at the pace of films made about 10 years ago and compare them with today’s films ! And children´s programmes too..it´s all about how many images, cuts, frames, sounds you fit into a minute or so…We have teenagers raised on a diet of “fast food, fast images, fast talk” etc. So I often think teachers feel the need to emulate the same pace to get teenagers interested…but I´m not sure at all that a frenzied pace is what teenagers really want….
    2) Learning to listen: to build up an empathetic teaching/learning environment takes time and we need to hear learners´ voices in the classroom and not ours in order to build this up. Bridging the gap between tennagers and teachers does take time, true, so unless the environment is conducive to this type of interaction, then the chance for dialogic interaction is shortlived or nonexistent.

    Well, your post touches on so many issues…thanks for sharing and for making me mull over things a bit more.


    • Thanks Valeria, an inspiring comment – in fact, many of the comments here are going to end up being the starting point for more posts – this is wonderful, thank you!
      Time. Yes. When I was a teen, I ‘didn’t have time for homework’, because I spent it daydreaming, writing poems, listening to music, chatting on the phone, in my own little world. Nowadays, though, kids have training, rehearsal, guitar/oboe/violin, private classes (English usually…), golf, tennis, swimming, artistic gymnastics, a quick burst of XBox, food.. and if they do their homework, they collapse into bed two hours later than I ever did. Kids need time. Quality time with adults, as well as with each other. They need to be able to recharge batteries. They need to be stuck in a lift together. We had powercuts at home last winter, and they were great, the three of us on my bed, chatting and laughing by candlelight. The removal of all the demands and distractors. Maybe the English classroom can be that lift or that candlelit room. They don’t NEED to learn information in a language classroom,so your content syllabus is fairly free, they need to learn a way of expressing themselves, so i think it’s worth taking Time to help them understand who and what they’re trying to express.
      Of course, another thing about time is that you need it to process. We often race through things so quickly they’re like.. well, eating breakfast while you get dressed – one hand clutching toast, other hand leading an arm down a sleeve…there’s a moment later in the day when you’re not sure if you had breakfast or not. If you sit at the table with your breakfast and enjoy it, you’ll remember it. You’ll digest it better too, I’m sure. Preparing to speak or discuss, reading a text and reacting to it, listening and reacting, working out language patterns, brainstorming and many other things we do in the classroom, they all need time, more time, enough time to be effective.
      Learning to listen and building up an empathetic classroom atmosphere has to be my next blog post – has to be! – so I’ll leave it for then,
      but thanks, Valeria, really thought-provoking stuff.

  7. Candy

    Chorusing with the rest: “great post” and “thank you”. As a dyed-in-the-woll dogmetist, I can only heartily concur with all that you have said, but particularly giving them what they lack which is more and more meaningful social interaction that goes beyond the regurgitation of drop-dead one-liner sound bytes they have picked up from “Friends” and “Two and a Half Men” and the kind of “short-circuit” thought processes encouraged by advertisng and music videos. I have yet to see a thought developed and expanded on or followed through to a reasonable conclusion in any of those. As teachers, we are responsible for making sure our students can think and express themselves. Their lives are the best things for them to think about and express and probably the things they are most interested in anyway.

    • Candy, hi!
      Reading your comment had me on youtube last night! It was your comment about music videos that did it. It made me realise that, when I was my sons’ age (11-14) a lot of the music out there was story-telling stuff that let us dream – not just songs, but whole albums. Evita (with Julie Covington) came out in 1976, then we had The War of the World (compare Justin Hayward with Justin Bieber.. now there’s an essay assignment!) then The Wall. ELO and Supertramp also told stories that took us away to Blue Skies and times when all the world’s asleep. Nowadays, though, kids listen to songs about domestic violence (I love the way you lie), breaking out of self-destructive cycles (also Eminem) and Enrique Iglesias would appear to be promoting serial rape. Of course, there’s still regular boy/girl stuff, Gaga reworking ABBA to an extent, but as well as being encouraged to listen and think and take time over expressing things, maybe kids need to dream more, to be taken away from ‘the harsh realities’. I’m thinking younger teens here. There’s justification for discussing drug abuse and responsible/irresponsible sex, but I don’t think they need that ALL the time, I think they should be allowed to go from children to adults at their own pace and via creativity and imagination, they don’t need to lose that stage… they shouldn’t lose that stage, or we won’t have any ideas people in the future. So I agree they need to be helped to think and express, but also to imagine and create.
      You have another comment lower down…. see you there 🙂

  8. Joanna Budden

    This was a real pleasure to read! It brought back happy memories of twisting the swirly phone cable to chat in private! Despite having been working on a coursebook for teens for the past few years, I am happy to admit that in my own classes I only use the coursebook as and when I feel it’s appropriate, useful and engaging for my students. I would never cut short an interesting dialogue with the class to ‘crack on with the book!’

    I believe that the time spent actually taking to your students, and them talking to each other is often the most valuable part of the class. There must be plenty to time in class to find out about what your students are into, for them to get to know you, and for them to get to know each other; to talk about real things that are important to them. Sometimes this can be generated from the coursebook topics and content, and other times it’s much better to focus on the people in the room and forget the book completely. As Valeria mentions above, bridging the gap betweens teens and teachers takes time, but to create good class dynamics and a collaborative atmosphere, it’s essential.

    On the other hand (I’m just throwing this in here!), I’m not sure how many secondary school teachers with large classes would feel about going totally unplugged in their classes? I think if you took away their books, some might run for the door. The two worlds of teaching small groups in a language school once or twice a week, to teaching huge mixed level classes in secondary schools are very different. Does anyone out there teach large groups of teens several times a week without using a coursebook??? I’d love to hear from them!

    Thank you for such an interesting post. Best wishes, Jo.

    • Hi Jo,

      you sound exactly like me 🙂 (in fact your course and mine even have similar titles… eek!).
      Re larger classes etc, well, you’re in Spain like me, so it’s simple – a large number aren’t going to go unplugged even a bit, that’s the teacher culture here and it’ll take at least two generations to change. I realised last night that every teacher in Spain who’s my age did their entire primary education under Franco. Some teachers were progressive, but the prevailing wind was not… HOWEVER, I do think it’s possible to unplug part of a course, and to semi unplug most of it. That’s what this blog is about. Larger classes need a different set-up, but they’re perfectly manageable – maybe more tiring, but that’s always true. One person standing at the front of 40+ people, teaching transmissively AND keeping control of all 40+ isn’t easy either, so it’s just a case of using the effort in a different way. Classroom management rather than whether to unplug or not.
      But you’re right, no, many will remain unconvinced, but never mind – if we all taught the say way, we’d be androids not teachers, and as long as learners are learning and happy, and we’re aware of their needs and are true to what we feel and believe rather than just unthinkingly and unquestioningly to what we saw as kids or trainees, well….

    • Antonia Clare

      Beautiful to read all of this, though I’m a little late arriving. I just wanted to pick up on what Jo said about teaching large groups of teens without coursebooks. I was very lucky in Italy teaching in the state system a while ago, to be given free reign with a few classes for a couple of years. I taught them twice a week, but the classes were called ‘conversation’ classes, so we were allowed to choose our own materials. I didn’t choose a book, I chose to take in films, and we worked our way through various films as a class, just viewing for a short time in each class, working on some of the language which came up, and then using the video as a springboard for conversation, and other skills work (often writing). It was great to watch how the teens responded to the radically different approach / teaching style. They opened up, and for the most part there were very few behavioural problems / issues. They were genuinely engaged, and for me, it was most definitely one of my most treasured teaching experiences. However, they were covering a more traditional syllabus elsewhere. I very much felt that the film helped to grab their attention and provide the initial stimulus, and focus. This is where I think media, gadgets and technology can help. The teacher’s job is to then be able to work with that, to develop it into something more meaningful, which involves a more active participation. Something deeper.
      Also, one of the advantages of the film work was that it appealed to all levels, so it helped with the huge mixed ability you refer to, Jo.

      Thanks for the insights. Antonia

      • I also use film in class sometimes. I don’t think we need base an entire course on dialogue – any given class has different types of learners, and films make a good visual reference and change focus, but that focus still isn’t the teacher. When you work on a film, though, although the watching is individual, any activities or dialogue will then be whole group or smaller groups – computers will tend to be even smaller. Different dynamics. I don’t say Don’t use technology, I say use it wisely, but base your practice on dialogue and listening to your students. Films will often throw out topics of interest to students giving them the chance to discuss some subjects without getting into personal terrain where they might be sensitive. As you say yourself, they opened up.

  9. Candy

    Chorusing with everyone: “Great post” and “thank you”. As a dyed-in-the-wool dogmetist, I cannot help but applaud and second your feelings and thoughts. and in particular – “Let’s give them what they lack” and what they don’t have is a space and time to talk about themselves. As English teachers it behoves us to give our students the language and practice to express themselves clearly and effectively. I’m convinced this greatly enhances their ability to order their thoughts, reflect and make decisions and in some way to get their sometimes overwhelming emotions and experiences under some sort of control. And this in turn gives the mthe tools to express themselves beyond the drop-dead smart-alec oneliners picked up from “Friends” or “Two and a Half Men” and the “short-circuit” meaninglessness of advertisements and music videos.

    • Thank you, Candy, and a great comment. I’ve answered it above, mostly, but just to reiterate that I agree wholeheartedly that, apart from teaching English, as language teachers, we are somehow responsible for students’ thoughts – not for what they think, but for how they think it and then of course for how they externalise it. The more words we have, the more thoughts we can put into those words, the more discourse patterns we have an awareness of, the easier we can communicate those thoughts clearly, and the more practice we have, the more confident we feel about expressing those thoughts. We L2 teachers probably won’t bring about miracles, but we should be able to at least boost our students’ confidence in their own self-worth and abilities. Yes, I agree totally.


  10. Good stuff. I love ignoring coursebooks and chatting with teenagers. They love ignoring coursebooks and chatting with me (mostly, so far). I wouldn’t necessarily want to got totally ‘unplugged’ – I’d happily do without the coursebook, but I still think variety keeps them on their toes.

    I often hear criticism of the idea that we might ‘just’ start the class by asking them how they’re doing. It’s boring, apparently. And of course they don’t want to talk about school. Actually, I’ve found that they LOVE talking about school! In particular, complaining, moaning, telling me stories about annoying classmates (and teachers) how over-worked they are and how difficult the maths exam was. These conversations often lead on to other things and build good rapport and a better classroom community.

    • Hi Richard,

      I agree that variety is the spice of life, but basing a course on dialogue doesn’t necessarily mean ‘conversation class’ every class; there are many more things you can do. But whatever you do or use, whether conversation, film, coursebook, IWB, story-telling…. unplugged or semi-unplugged teaching will still avoid both imposing a set of predefined language aims and focusing attention on the teacher or the source of the information, and will look for emergent language to meet the needs of the learner while keeping the focus firmly on the student and off the materials used.

      I also agree with you about the ‘How are you doing?’ moment, or ‘How was the weekend?’. Just as in another kind of relationship ‘How was your day?’ is one of the key questions that show caring and can lead to moments of intense listening and sharing, ‘How are you doing?’ can be just as significant, though you need to actually pay attention to the answers! (in both cases..)

      So. How are you doing, folks?

  11. Thanks so much for this, Fiona. It is good to read about someone teaching teenagers. Dennis

  12. A great read, Fiona, and a reminder that all teachers of teens need to hear.I think it’s only teachers who take an interest in teens and their world that are able to do this. Knowing your class – who these people are in the room and what drives them – is so important when it comes to Dogme, and ironically it can only happen through the kinds of conversations you suggest having above. Age is also very important too – Dogme with 13-14 year olds would be very different than Dogme with 16-17 year-olds. Funnily enough, last week, I found myself with only one teen (17 year old) student in (an exam) class (the others had school exams) and for the first hour-and-a-half we just talked. When he left, he thanked me for the interesting class – I have to say, it’s the only time he’s said that. That said, I agree with Jo above – the challenge here is teaching unplugged with a large class.

    • Hi Graham,

      nice to ‘see’ you! As you say, only teachers who take an interest in teens and their world…. but, let’s face it, that’s the only kind of teacher that should be teaching teens. Indifferent teachers should be … oh, I don’t know… put out to grass, or at least made to take a course where the instructor is as indifferent as them. And, as you know, taking an interest doesn’t mean enjoying Justin Bieber or L’il Wayne, but it does mean being willing to learn about them and listen to people talking about them (tho they’re as likely to be into Queen or ACDC, thankfully 😉 ). We need to know how to build that bridge between the teen and ourselves, while staying on our side of the bridge.
      Re dogme with different ages, yes, there is a difference, but it has more to do with their ‘listening dynamic’ than anything. Under 15s are less likely to listen as a group, they tend to be more ‘pairy’, especially the girls, and you get wee pairs chatting on the side while one student expresses an opinion to the class, but a combination of training their attention, and also varying the dynamic helps overcome that…. but that’s something we can explore together in the blog…. the more the merrier. See you in here again, I hope, Graham.

  13. Thanks Fiona for making the strongest argument I have read so far in the ELT blogosphere for using the classroom for listening to young people+getting young people to listen to each other.There is a huge need, amongst all our new devices,to develop the skills of really listening to each other attentively with real eye-contact without thinking about or waiting for”something else”. More and more I think we need to use classrooms for these skills for the very reasons you outline here.

    • Thanks for the comment, Mark, and for the compliment. I agree totally about developing teens’ capacity to listen. I’ve been doing a lot of work on listening skills recently, including surveying teachers’ ideas in mainstream secondary here in Spain, their ideas re the problems their teens encounter. Everyone said more or less the same (except in one area), and we worked together on some ideas for listener training and involvement. I’ll be blogging about it in a post or two. Meantime, I must read your post! It’s the end of term time where find extra minutes for ‘treats’ isn’t easy, but I will.

  14. Helen

    Thanks for the interesting post Fiona and the prospect of some interesting discussions to come !
    I’m a teacher of teens in the French state secondary system. In the midst of all sorts of cutbacks, reforms and upcoming exam reform, it’s good to step back !
    I can’t remember the last time I used a coursebook – just the sight of those books with : “Select the present perfect or the simple past” or Oral Comprehension exercises that even as a native speaker, I can’t get the info down fast enough !
    One point (among many) that I agree with, is the importance of treading the fine line between teacher and friend. We are not their friends and they don’t want us to be – but a well-meaning, fair teacher who’s interested in them.
    It’s a shame but as a mum of teens and a teacher – there is a lot of indifference towards pupils out there.
    Is it really possible to spend 3 hours a week with a class, from September to June and still not know their names ?
    (my classes are only 25 – 35 pupils, so abject apologies for folks with huge classes – I don’t mean you !)
    So thanks again and looking forward to more conversations !

    • Hi Helen, and thanks for a great comment. So much depends on the teacher, doesn’t it? We talk about learner.centred teaching, but I do think we need to think more about the ‘teacher-person’ when applying one approach or another, and also when deciding who teaches whom. So often it’s just about seniority and comfortable timetable…
      As a mum, it also drives me potty when I get report cards with names misspelt, and in the staffroom teachers refer to ‘one of the Martas, I don’t know which one’ and so on. Wish we could have this conversation sitting at a table with some tapas on it…. 🙂

  15. Looking eagerly foward to your next post!
    I’m a newbie and my first experiments teaching unplugged with teens were good!
    Love the way you presentedthe issues!

    • Thanks for dropping by, Naomi – next post hopefully tomorrow, or even later tonight…
      By the way, glad to see a ‘newbie’ grasp the nettle (which is a truly horrible expression, sorry for using it) and give teaching unplugged a go. Do you blog about it anywhere?

  16. Pingback: Listening to Teenagers and teaching teenagers to listen | Classrooms on the Danube: An exploration of the quality of classroom life.

  17. Great post and a great discussion. I’m intrigued by the questions raised and the doubts voiced about larger classes and a dogme approach, the assumption that it’s easier with a coursebook. I taught large-ish classes (OK not that large, 19- 20 students) as part of a mainstream high school timetable this year. I found that the open-ended classes based on brainstorming and discussion and anecdotes and story-telling were the ones that worked best. Much better than the ones based on texts and photocopied materials. It made it much easier to respond to, and work with. all the levels and needs in the class. Have yet to try it with a class of 40+, but I suspect it might well be the same. I’d like to give it a go.

    • If you do give it a go, I hope you’ll be up for writing about the experience here! 🙂 I think I’ve said above that with 40+ the issue isn’t to plug or unplug, it’s a control issue and control is much easier if students are engaged. It’s pretty hard to use a coursebook effectively with a large class too – and whatever you do to overcome issues brought up by the numbers in the room can also be applied to an unplugged classroom – engagement, grouping, monitoring… I must make a list of the topics/issues coming up this comments thread and see how we can look at them, post by post.
      Thanks for that, Ceri – nice to see not only a newbie like Naomi trying out unplugged teaching, but an oldbie 😉 who writes coursebooks also giving it a whirl. It’s not that radical really…………….

      • love the oldbie handle 🙂
        and this particular oldbie has been “trying out “materials lite and student- created classes for much longer than I’m about to admit right here 😉

  18. No complaints!!!!! Rather a huge “WOW!”. This was without a doubt the best, more clearly put reason ever for going unplugged with teens. And written so poignantly Fiona! I’m blown away at how you were able to touch the right buttons – at least for me.

    It’s just that simple isn’t it? We get so caught up into keeping up with the fast pace life these days has that we forget to look at the people sometimes. Like so many who have commented already, your description of teenage life before really resonated with me. And the one of life today too unfortunately. Food for thought for sure…

    It makes perfect sense to give students what they don’t already have and to make use of technology IF they bring to class, WHAT they bring to class and as the means to motivating learning, not the end product.

    I still feel uncertain about the backbone, the where from where too and unity when looking at the whole, the reality of a 4,000-student school… But I like the idea.

    Thanks Fiona! x

    • Looks like another idea for a future post, Ceci, thank you! Backbones and bedrocks… though maybe that sounds more Flintstones than simply unplugged. I may email you so you can tell me more about your concerns, then I can – or you can – post something here for us to discuss. I do hope this blog is more of a discussion than a monologue, I really do. Your feedback – everybody’s here – is really making me think and re-evaluate. Thanks for that.

  19. Hi Fiona,

    I’m new to your blog, and have RSSed you ( u kno wot I mean). Very thought-provoking piece, and looking forward to the follow up, esp re. Chiew’s comments above.

    I’ve had a fair bit of UK summer school experience with teens, much less on a year-round basis, and am getting to grips with a couple of teen groups now. The dynamic seems to be very different.

    In the meantime, will just echo the applause. Thanks again.

    • Teens are a ‘love em’ or ‘hate em’ bunch to teach. Indifference cropped up earlier (see Helen’s comment above) but indifference to my mind shows a dislike for your job, or for the teen part. I love teaching teens, they’re quite a challenge but when you ‘catch’ them, they’re loyal for life – my facebook friends include many of my ‘old’ teens who I still keep in touch with – I had a two hour chat with one guy just the other night, he was telling me about his life and hopes… all in English… and asking my opinion on stuff. Maybe it’s just a self-esteem thing, to be ‘significant’ in someone’s life, but I don’t think so, not many of us are in this profession for ego boosts, but I thoroughly recommend sticking with teen teaching and most of all enjoying it. Your enjoyment will rub off.

  20. Lu Bodeman

    I thoroughly enjoyed the post, Fiona. In a world where there is so much available to them, and they can easily get wrapped up (lost?) in so many gadgets, it is nice to turn away and have some quality-time interaction in class. Technology or gadgets should do the same as in other contexts: complement, not replace (the teacher). Though I’m not advocating that we become a close friend of our students, it is still important to create a bond and connect. By showing interest and actually LISTENING (loved this part!), things become much easier – and more meaningful, from both them and us.

    • Hi Lu, thanks for popping in and leaving a comment. I agree with everything you say, especially with the fact that lessons become more meaningful for both the learners and the teacher, and there’s little to beat that feeling of ‘that was a good class’ as motivation to go back in the classroom and keep giving it your best shot.

  21. It’s very much tangential, but as I don’t teach many teens at the moment, humour me. Just to say that Postman didn’t think that gadgets were evil, he thought that an uncritical acceptance of the need for gadgets was…well…not evil exactly, but undesirable.

    • Hi Diarmuid,
      yes, I’m fairly familiar with Postman, but having written a huge, long, meandering post on him for Henrick (there’s a link in the post above and also on the Mind’s ear page), I didn’t want to get into that again here. Check it out, if you like.

  22. Hi Fiona,

    Only just found my way to this post but I’m very glad I did! 🙂

    Even through I work with a younger age group (9-11), I see many parallels with what you have said here. My students often don’t get to spend that much time with their families either. As I teach in a private college, they are from well-off backgrounds but that means their parents usually work hard and a lot of my students tell me how one or both of their parents work late on a regular basis or spend long periods away from home on business trips etc.

    As a result, they get spoiled a bit with the latest gadgets and must-have items as the parents try to make up for not being around as much as they would like and they tend to have quite a free reign at home. That stands in stark contrast to school where they are shepherded into a class of 30 and expected to listen to the teacher and follow the book.

    In a similar way to you, I try to talk to them more, respond to what they are interested in and what they want to know. The same as Richard, I’ve fostered an environment where they want to talk and they feel comfortable talking, even when venting about the frustrations of school life, 🙂

    The main problem with this is the other teachers who come out with the usual ‘so you just chat to them’ or ‘you wing it instead of following a plan’ or ‘they are too young for that kind of thing’ – as Luke said in his comment, “how on earth has the idea of talking to young people in classrooms become a radical notion?”

    The only problem I’ve encountered in class is that, while they are comfortable talking to me, they aren’t always so willing to listen to each other. In part it’s an age thing and in part it’s because of the home life I outlined above – on top of that many of them are the only child in the,r family so sharing, listening and co-operating are not skills that come naturally. Still, as a teacher, I think it’s part of my job to introduce them to such notions and that’s what I try to do!

    • Well said, Dave, definitely. Yes, younger kids are far less likely to listen and far more likely to be caught up in the land of bakugan and whatnot, but I recognise what you say about the wealthier ones. I used to teach the offspring of regional government ministers, and they all had massive ‘issues’ at 13 or 14, as they rarely spent any time with their parents and were farmed out to aunts, grandparents, nannies, and English teachers. The resentment was tangible. But again, that so much more reason for giving them an adult who cares, who listens and who has time for them.
      As for the teachers, well, refer them to your post on the Five Stages of Dogme 😀

  23. Rob

    Sorry I’ve come to this so late (in cyberspace time). I really liked reading your post. Sorry if it’s been said, but I would add that teens – and adults – need time to contemplate the ‘ordinary’ events of their/our everyday lives in a sacred space, be it a warm bath with candles, a comfy chair on a rainy afternoon, a meditation mat… you get the idea. Listening in is as important as listening without in this digital age.

    Imagine people who adopt teens, and imagine being a teen adopted! I bow in reverence. 🙂

  24. Great to find you. Ahh yes, the phone in the hallway, remember it well.

  25. Ann

    Hi Fiona,

    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments. – it’s been on my list of great blog posts I wanted to share for some time.

    Please feel free to post there when you have anything you’d like to share.



  26. Just one quick question :which specific culture are you referring to in the post, or should we accept that everyone in the world is basically experiencing the same stuff these days? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a dogemtista as much as the next man. I am, however, waiting for some longitudinal evidence that we’re actually helping students to achieve their goals and not merely making the learning environment a nicer place. Having told us that we can, I greatly look forward to your future blog posts where you show us how.

  27. Pingback: Teach teens unplugged? Why on earth….?! | ELT Digest | Scoop.it

  28. Pingback: Dogme ELT | Pearltrees

  29. Pingback: The SM Debate | macappella

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