>Thinking outside the book

>One thing that students and teachers really struggle with is boredom. Maybe I’m just easily bored but I have yet to find a book or teacher that really keeps the student’s interest from cover to cover, it doesn’t matter how good they are.

Sometimes I think that the way English teaching works is that we often trap ourselves into thinking “inside the book”. Publishers have little interest in helping teachers think otherwise and because we often lean on manufactured materials we always wind up with a book.

We are basically teaching the same way Socrates, Plato and Aristotle taught thousands of years ago except for the addition of the printed book invented by Gutenberg.

Of course, there are guys who have rebelled against the book. You can find a bunch of them at Dogme. They have a Yahoo group and their leader has published in The Guardian newspaper ELT pages.

But to me, they seem more readily identified for what they are against than what they are for. And from my experience, it really helps to have a course or plan for students as otherwise the training can seem a bit aimless to the students.

So how can we escape the book but still have a plan?

First, let’s brainstorm a list of all the new tools and technologies and other things that are available to us since the days of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and Gutenberg. Without much order, here is my list:

Computers
Email
Telephone
Phone messages
PowerPoint
YouTube
PDA
Chat rooms
Blogs
Websites
Fax
MP3
MP4
Video
Email spam
Voice spam
Television
Shopping malls

Perhaps your list is longer. Now, just as a thought exercise to stretch us “outside the book”, what if you assigned yourself the task of using each of these to provide some part of a training course.

There was once a game called Majestic by Electronic Arts. They described it as “The suspense thriller that infiltrates your life through the Internet, telephone and fax, then leaves you guessing where the game ends and reality begins.” To play this game you had to check websites and periodically you’d receive frantic phone calls with clues or cryptic faxes.

I think something so pervasive would be an exciting way to teach and learn. What would a “Majestic” English course be like? The student would be receiving training from so many directions at so many times. Of course, not all of this is possible with every teacher and every student, but employing some of these technologies could really get us “out of the book”. Consider the possibilities that a ficticious Chinese student named Jerry Liang would experience:

– Jerry gets a daily Email that has a short lesson, story or MP3. This Email is pumped out to Jerry and all the other students by a program similar to those used by spammers.

– Jerry also receives a daily SMS phone messages that reminds him to study an assignment, do homework or join some activities that the teacher has organized.

– Every week, Jerry is directed to watch a certain TV program or movie which all the other students and teacher will be watching. Jerry doesn’t have to participate if he is busy that night but he does need to participate in at least two per week. Jerry tunes in the program and starts the chat program on his computer. While he is watching the program on his home TV, other students and the teacher are watching it and chatting with him about it, about the story, actors, what they like or don’t like, etc. (“Don’t go in that dark room!…don’t do it!…Ugh! I knew it!!!”)

– Jerry posts assignments on the blog.

– Jerry gets SMS phone messages with new vocabulary on set days. After first contact with the new vocabulary in a lesson he receives the vocabulary in a message on day 2, 5, 12, 19, 33, 63. He has a look at the words and reviews them.

– He has some specially recorded lessons made by his teacher or other teachers in MP3 format in his MP3/MP4 player or PDA which he listens to throughout the day.

– When Jerry visits the popular local mall he takes a walking tour via MP3. The teacher has made a short recording and guides the him through the mall, describing interesting things about the mall and shops and introducing more new vocabulary. (“Starbucks took its name from a coffee-loving character in the famous American novel called ‘Moby Dick’, a story about a man hunting a whale. Starbuck’s strategy is to become people’s ‘third place’, the main place people go outside of home and work.”)

– Sometimes Jerry receives a phone call from the teacher to practice his speaking, but more often than not, the teacher (randomly?) assigns Jerry and the other students speaking buddies, other students, who he calls to practice a particular speaking activity. Every week Jerry recieves an Email with a speaking lesson to practice and his speaking buddy’s phone number. Sometimes the buddy is in his class but most of the time the buddy is a student in one of the teacher’s other classes, perhaps a manager in a company. It’s interesting to have this way to talk to various professionals that he wouldn’t normally meet (and Jerry thinks it’s always interesting to talk to girls).

– Twice a month, Jerry is given a phone number to a company in an English speaking country that provides information about their services along with one or more questions that he needs to ask about. For example, he once had to call Trump International Hotel in New York to find out if they allow dogs in the room. (They do if the dog is under 10 pounds but the guest must pay a non-refundable $200.) This provides a real English challenge and practice for Jerry.

– Etc, etc, etc.

All of this is possible with current technology but will never be offered by a book publisher. It just remains for the teacher to sort out his content and figure out the different ways to deliver it.

A student, going through a course like that, would have an experience they’ve never had before. But as I said, maybe I dream up this stuff because I’m the kind of person who is easily bored.

>Making podcasts for low level English students

>Here are a few ideas for making podcasts for your students:

1. Make recordings of your experiences like the time you met someone famous or thought you were going to die in an accident. Don’t be boring but be simple.

2. Interview friends and other teachers. Don’t rely on the friends to be simple enough or talk slowly enough. If the friend is using some language that you feel is too advanced for your students then jump in and ask your friend to define it or define it or restate it yourself.

3. Take your students on a tour to a favorite local haunt. There is a shopping mall here that is immensely popular with all students in this area. Record a tour of the location that they could listen to and use to follow your footsteps. Describe what you see, tell some funny stories and go in to the shop and talk to some clerks about their products. I did this with my notebook computer in my bag running Audacity with a microphone clipped on my shirt. Many mobile phones have recording functions on them. You can include some insights into some of the businesses or some of the fashions even if you have to look them up on the Internet. Check this out.

4. Make your case for your method. Students always want to know what is the best/fastest/easiest way to learn English. Explain how you are teaching your students. Some of our teaching methods are counter intuitive. I think Grammar-Translation makes a lot of sense but is not as good as Communicative Approach. If our teaching method is not always easily accepted by students you should take every opportunity to “sell” your teaching methods over and over.

5. Don’t just make a recording on any subject but try to steer it in a way to augment units you are teaching in one of your courses. This way you can further the unit, even if you have to ‘assign’ the listening item, or you can use it as a collection of materials students can listen to on a voluntary basis. For example, if you have a unit discussing Human Resources you can interview a friend about their experience in hiring or with working with colleagues.

6. Record your lessons. This is normally quite boring but it can be very effective if you just extract some of the jewels, ancedotes you tell your students, special tips on learning English, fun facts, a story about your travels, etc.

I am also trying some projects along this line and am starting to post them at GCAST.

>Using a "podcast tour" as a teaching exercise

>A teacher asked: “Does anyone else have good lessons for teaching directions?”

Here’s an idea that goes beyond the box.

This is an article about a really cool idea. They have developed dial-up audio guided tours through various cities. I think it’s fantastic.

When I went to Beijing and visited the Forbidden City I opted for an audio cassette recorded tour. I think it was Roger Moore (AKA James Bond) who narrated it. It was great. He told you to go to the left, look up and then explained the ceiling. Then told you to walk over to the door and he told you about the door. He was kind of funny, too, and slipped in a few jokes. I really enjoyed that tour.

This is something teachers could do. Teachers could record a tour for their students to listen to. Lots of students have MP3’s these days.

The teacher could guide the student through part of the city or campus or whatever. The teacher doesn’t have to give a straight tour but could tell little stories about what the place reminds the teacher of (“This is where my bicycle was stolen”), could relate it to places in the west by comparing (“These McDonalds are exactly the same all over the world”), make up a drama to go along with the surroundings (“She was sitting there, on the park bench, when she saw a shadow moving behind the bushes”), make it like a treasure hunt (“Your next clue will be on the second tree to the left”), a city crossing (“Take the number 12 bus to the third street past Beijing Lu, get out and walk to the right”) or other personal comments (“I liked the lunch box meals they sold here until the time I got sick for three days”), etc.

On a recent trip to Macau I was thinking about doing something like that. I was following some tour from a book but it was a bit boring. So I thought about making my own tour in audio but just invent stories and totally crazy made-up things to make it at least more interesting than the tour book although not as factual.

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NEW YORK — Would you like Steven Tyler to tell you to “walk this way” in Boston, or Jerry Stiller to escort you through New York City?

The Aerosmith rocker, “Seinfeld” actor and “Aliens” actress Sigourney Weaver are among several stars lending their voices to new cell phone-guided tours of U.S. cities, a technology-based project that trades unknown docents for high-wattage celebrities.

In the “Boston: City of Rebels and Dreamers” tour, for example, visitors to the Massachusetts capital can call a special number and be treated to Tyler’s quirky take on Fenway Park, Boston Common and other historical hotspots.

“Eh, this is Steven Tyler. This stop is about gardens that even a rocker can love,” the raspy-voiced rocker says, describing Boston’s public garden. “Don’t worry, we’ll get to that rocker stuff later.”