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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24 responses to “A place of greater safety

  1. M Kenis

    Thank you for this wonderful post; for sharing your ideas in this very personal way.
    I couldn’t agree more with you. Class atmosphere is a key factor in motivation.
    Teens are perhaps the most vulnerable group but I believe whatever age our students have, a safe class environment is essential. Just think about ourselves, adults, teachers… does not the same apply to us when we are in that ‘learning’ position?

    Was it the tone of your introduction, the very personal way in which you addressed us, readers, or the way in which you slowly built up your post to the demo? It was so inviting and promising 😉 And then there was that voice – so I could not resist and enjoyed it very much.
    (How lovely to include your voice in a blog – so much more personal again)

    It will take me some courage to try this with my (older) students but I will give it a go. I believe they can create things they/ I had never imagined they could.
    It even feels safe for me (newbie in the world of blogs & comments) to write this comment.
    What a nice way to end this day that started with a thank you for an #eltpic.:-)


    • Hi Mieke,
      sorry to take so long to reply! And thank you for your comment, I’m glad you enjoyed the activity – I was sitting in my garden when I recorded the soundfile, which probably helped 🙂
      I use this technique with adults as well as teens – it’s relaxing, so it’s a change from the hustle and bustle of the working day. The script I wrote myself for the recording was aimed at teachers like yourself, but it’s easy to simplify, as it’s mostly the verbs of the sense, simple questions and a few imperatives like ‘walk to the window and look out’ or ‘look at his eyes; what colour are they?’ ‘look at his hands; can you describe them?’… If you do try it with a class, it’d be interesting to hear how it goes!
      Thanks again,

  2. This was incredibly helpful. As I’ve told you, I’m new to dogme and while the concept is enticing, I’m in need of examples. Thank you for providing an excellent one as I have a much better idea how this should look among my own teenagers. I also thoroughly enjoyed the listening activity-how creative and interractive!

    Thanks again!


    • Hi Bret,

      Glad you enjoyed it! I hesitate to use the term ‘dogme’, but it’s definitely unplugged, although the teacher does lead it, and may even decide on the topic but it’s materials-lite, conversation (both internal and external) are driving forces and language you may focus on is emergent.
      Keep popping in – I hope to post more and more examples here, especially from next week onwards when work eases off!


  3. Lu Bodeman

    Great idea!! I had done something like this before, but didn’t know it was dogme! 🙂 Still, like Bret, I would like to know more. In fact, last night in the staff room, this was the issue: what does an actual dogme lesson “look like”? I am still very curious.

    Also, years ago I published an article on Teens (entitled Teaching the Terrible Teens) that goes very much along the same lines that you have posted here. I am looking for a program that can convert my doc into a pdf doc. Once I do, I could send you a copy, if you’d like.

    Thank you.

    • Lu,

      If your article is a Word .doc you should be able to convert it to a pdf simply. Just open up the doc in a newer version of Word, hover on Save As (I’m going from 2007 here) and there should be a ‘PDF or XPS’ option. Click on that and away you go!


    • Lu,
      Mike is right, although I’ve never done it that way. I use CutePDF; it’s free. This allows you to convert any printable document to pdf. After installing, it appears in your list of printers. Whenever you want to convert something to pdf, just select print, select Cutepdf as your printer, and print. You’ll be asked to specify a filename/folder, and there you’ll have it. There are other programs that convert files to pdf – just google it.

    • That would be great, thanks Lu.
      As for whether this is dogme or not…. dogme is a word I hesitate to use, I far prefer ‘unplugged’ (or even dogmetic). OK, the first is from the world of film and the second from the world of music, but ‘dogme’ sounds more gimmicky to me for some reason. As I’ve just commented to Bret, this activity follows the dogme line in that it’s materials-lite, learner-centred, the language you’d look at afterwards emerges while they work on sharing their images and then during the writing stages and that language initially emerges during conversation BUT of course, the teacher probably does decide on the topic – so I guess it’s soft-core dogme.
      Depending on what kind of teacher/person you are, many things you do in the classroom may be dogmetic, as dogme also emerges, to an extent. It isn’t an approach that was devised and then activities grew from it, quite the opposite – it’s an umbrella label for a way of teaching that already existed, but were seen as a bit ‘deviant’ from the prevailing line at that time. Unplugged or dogme teaching is very intuitive, so ‘sensing’ type teachers are less likely to be inclined to teach in this way – too many surprise! I strongly believe that how we teach has a lot to do with what we are like as people, so if you’re at the intuitive end of the scale, unplugged/dogme teaching will almost certainly already be part of your ‘toolkit’.

  4. Haven’t got headphones or speakers here, but will bookmark this for a future look. Have always intended to try something guided-visualisation-y but never had the stones. Maybe I’ll have a better idea after listening to you, Fiona!

    Mike =)

    • Let me know if you give it a go – I’d love to hear how it went. Ideally two or three people try it at the same time, so they can compare what they ‘saw’, which is why I rather hope that anyone who does give it a go then posts at least part of what they saw here…. Volunteers? 🙂


  5. Thanks for an important post about a topic I’ve been reading about lately in Jonathan C. Erwin’s book “The classroom of choice”. learners can’t thrive without this sense of security!
    I would love to lend you the book but meanwhile check out this great webinar of his on a related topic.

    • And thanks for the comment and link, Naomi! Great to dig deeper into this area – it’s so important for our learners. Don’t you think it’s strange that so many teachers just go into their classroom and Teach without thinking about their aura or the atmosphere at all? I went to a talk by Adrian Underhill on this aspect years ago – I wonder if he has written anything ‘easily available’ on it. I’ll have a look.

  6. Oh Fiona!!
    That’s the kind of surprise I like, although I knew that you wouldn’t be obvious in your mention of a questionable hierarchy when you told me you’d write about it. But anyway I couldn’t help a little suspicion when I saw you actually had a figure of Maslow’s hierarchy in the blogpost, but then… an expected surprise (interesting collocation by the way, quite dogme-ish in a way) – your pyramid is, oh, so much better!
    I would even be as bold as to make it without the bottom and the top; you know, take a look at it, just at the center, doesn’t it look more real? and more realistic?

    My little problem with this hierarchy is that ‘physical needs’ seem to be a necessary condition to the other ones. More than ‘seem to be’ actually, being the bottom of a pyramid it suggests they’re the base of all human needs, when they are not. Just look at ‘life’ in very difficult, adverse, risky conditions – like war for instance. In war, men and women may have their physical needs downgraded to a minimum and physical health challenged to a maximum; in spite of it, we can still see the development of compassion, brotherhood, self-awareness, etc, among those that are struggling to survive, together. And these are very much top-of-the-pyramid stuff. Okay, war may be too extreme, but anyway, there are other examples that expose the pretensions of hierarchizing human needs.

    As to the top, self-actualization, there are also many faults to be uncovered. But maybe later. My point here is that you improved the pyramid by eliminating some boundaries and thus inter-related learners’ needs in a way that makes more sense. I love it!

    You said:
    “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)”

    It is said that bloggers shouldn’t write too much about themselves – I disagree. If they are teachers who can tell their stories and reflect, question, provoke, and so on; I think that’s all they should do. So, please, feel free to talk about yourself 🙂

    • Hi Willy,
      So. Physical needs. It still seems to me that security is the fuzzy one, as security can be a basic need. Physical security is perhaps more fundamental than emotional security. Ever seen the film The Wall? The one with Tom Conti, not the Pink Floyd one. There’s a spine-chilling scene with a crying baby as a group of Jewish Poles try to escape the ghetto through the sewers under the German guards…. (shiver).
      Yes, there are situations like wars, or like the situation in Palestine where the sense of community is strong, the people I met instantly adopted incomers and made them welcome, somehow kept them safe, (no suspicious looks from a distance like you might get in Europe) and children may not have their basic physiological needs covered, but have schools and football practice and build kites with their friends (there’s a photo & an anecdote about that on my other blog…) – the building together and the emotion, the fun, the sense of freedom, power & achievement when the kite flies THAT high, incredible. It’s soul food where body food is short. Again that’s where I think this sort of visualisation activity is great, it feeds the soul (counterpoint to ‘angst eats the soul’, perhaps), it weaves colour and dreams.
      However, all this community forming, teamwork, the importance of education as a way to the future or a way out, the baby in the sewers, the Grameen bank with its micro-loans for mobile phones and sewing machines in Bangladesh, the hole-in-the-wall computers in India… they may not be part of the physical needs level, but they are a way to covering physical needs and security. Which also overlap. I agree with you about the top level of the pyramid, it’s a sort of add-on, the false eyelashes on the face of motivation, but the base is the base, and for me it’s a mesh formed by elements of physical and emotional needs and security, why people and peoples flee their homelands rather than just why we get out of bed. Plenty examples of that over the last couple of centuries or so.
      I wonder where power fits? Are power and fear part of security? Or of self-esteem? They’re certainly great motivating forces…. So much overlap indeed.
      Any pyramid is a simplification, any categorising system too. I’m sure a more accurate diagram representing motivation would be like a complex Venn diagram, a net with many nodes, rather than a neat and tidy pyramid (that could be my challenge for the weekend… )… It certainly might be worth doing as a way of focussing on what is truly of some use in the classroom and to making it a place of greater safety.


  7. Wonderful, as usual, Fiona. This reminds me of an old post I did, Ideas for the first lesson (look under section F – end of lesson). I call it ‘travelling without moving’, but I’ve heard labels such as stilling, visualization, scripted fantasy and guided imagery. This method, if you’d like to call it that, will be the basis of my presentation in RSCON3 – “Moving beyond the first dimension”.
    Sorry it took me so long to come to your garden – I’ve been tending to my wild one 😉 My garden tends to be surrealistic; I wonder what yours is like…
    Looking forward to the next one! And the interview 😉

    • I love visualisation. Technically it grew from the Multiple Intelligences movement, as it involves visual, verbal, and intrapersonal and is kinda kinaesthetic, then moves to interpersonal. It’s sensory stimuli, intuitive, feeling stuff to me, and takes students away from Real Life. I met a large group of teachers from Palestine last year… this is the sort of thing that works as well in a classroom there as in, say, Paris or Tokyo. Which leads me to Willy’s comment above…..


  8. Oh, Fiona, it would have been better, in my humble opinion, to open the audio file in a new tab/window, don’t you think so?

    • Hahahaha, you wouldn’t believe how much trouble I had just trying to embed! which .com wouldn’t let me do. I’ll edit it at some point, though – when I have time to breathe and think and that sort of thing 😉

  9. Ann

    Hi Fiona,
    Just posted a link to this on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check for comments.

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



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