Sunday, 4 February 2018

Flipped brainstorming

Brainstorming is great as far as it goes. However, I do feel there is a need for flipping it from time to time.

If by brainstorming we mean a quick succession of student responses on a certain topic, I will keep the tempo and the group participation in what I call flipped brainstorming though my goals will vary each time, and this will become clear further down, when I attempt to demonstrate my proposition.
How and why?

The answer to “how” is not so simple. Suffice to say, the students will extract the ideas from a given text.
As for “why,” briefly, there is a lot to be gained and no waste of time. 
1.  The students are sometimes hard put to reel off the ideas and dress them in words to boot.
2.  There is plenty of opportunity to tease the students’ brains by firing questions at them.
3.  The teacher can test the students’ assimilation of already taught vocabulary and/or activate the students’ minds by inviting them to extrapolate meaning from context.

However, to be able to totally engage the students in the process, the teacher must use the right content – it is a prerequisite.

Therefore, I will now illustrate, reinforcing the points I made above.
Level: advanced
I used it with my post-FCE students on the road to Proficiency.

Many of us, yielding to the pressure of imminent exams, compromise on enjoyment. We often find ourselves selecting material which will serve a dual purpose: teach new language and familiarise our students with issues and questions which are beyond their age and scope of interests but crop up in language qualification exams.
My instinct is to resist exam requirements though, to be honest, I usually engineer some kind of middle-of-the-road attitude to save the day.

Literature and poetry are great resources for killing two birds with one stone, and James Thurber is a writer whose works constitute ideal material for introducing serious issues in an amusing and challenging way.

I chose his story The Night the Bed Fell to illustrate my “flipped brainstorming”.
I divided the story in three parts for manageability and a touch of suspense.

I am well aware of my students’ knowledge and ability, so my use of this text and choice of activities suits my situation, but one could easily adapt them to their own reality – whether that is upgrading or downgrading the difficulty or the focus on the new vocabulary. I provide images when this will save me valuable time and will be a more appropriate way of explaining the meaning of lexical items.

First, I gave my students a copy of the first part of the story and asked them to read it. I deliberately kept the text free of activities so that they would concentrate on content.

Here is a copy of the first part of the story (arbitrarily divided) with the vocabulary exercise and the explanatory footnotes.

When they were ready, (I could already detect some faint smiles) I started asking questions which were meant to elicit all the detail I wanted and place emphasis on guessing meaning wherever possible.
Here is a copy of the questions:

My first question was a way of making my students guess the word “verisimilitude,” which they did as the context allowed them to do so.
Question 6 was meant to check whether they remembered the word “wobbly”, which I had recently revised and reinforced. I was pleased when I got the answer by one of them. Question 9 was designed to remind them of the meaning of “interval” as “break” and introduce its meaning in the phrase “at intervals”. And so on and so forth.

I am simply trying to explain how different teachers can take advantage of a resource depending on their aims and their students’ knowledge and needs.

Of course, I almost never forgo the opportunity to boost the students’ learning of vocabulary with a vocabulary exercise!

Parts 2 and 3 are structured in the same way. The story went down really well, and my reward was to see some students hardly able to contain themselves!

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Moi, je rêve: Time against Memory

Time against memory

The scorching flesh
Under the merciless sun
The splash of waves
On the sea-chiselled pebbles
The lifeless shells
 Washed  ashore

The taste of salt
On the thirsty mouth
The time-dimmed memories
Of all bygone summers
The dazzling nothingness
Of the engulfing heat

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The tier approach with images or La Casa Abbandonata

This is my 100th post so I thought I would allow myself some frivolity by way of celebrating.

Images will yet again come in handy in this free-writing venture. This time we will look at the painting of a house in its surroundings. There is enormous potential for language production there for almost any level and age of learner.

I will not use standardised levels of knowledge as I am disinclined to label anything that defies categorisation. I will simply make some suggestions for exploiting the image in different ways in class moving from a lower to a higher level.

La Casa Abbandonata by Carlo Carra

Ø How many windows are there?
Ø How many windows can you see?

Ø Where is the house?
In a forest
On the edge of a forest
In the middle of nowhere

Ø Use some adjectives to describe it.
·       big, old
·       ruined
·       abandoned
·       solitary with big empty eyes of windows
·       decrepit
·       fallen into disrepair

Ø What is inside the house?
·       Nothing
·       I don’t know.
·       I have no clue.
·       I haven’t got the foggiest idea.
·       The remains of old furniture
·       Overgrown grass
·       Emptiness

Ø What happened to the residents of the house?
·       They moved to another place.
·       They emigrated to a more promising land.
·       They grew tired of isolation and loneliness.
·       They died off.

Ø Say something about the surroundings.
·       There are lots of trees and bushes.
·       There are tall trees and thick green-greyish foliage.

Ø Ask a question about the house.
·       When was it built?
·       Is it haunted?
·       Will it be inhabited again?

Ø You are allowed to add one item in this image. What would it be? Where would you place it?
·       A roof on top of the house.
·       A swing suspended from the bare tree in the left corner of the image.
·       A stony path leading to the house.

Ø What emotions do you experience when you look at this image?
·       sadness, discomfort, nostalgia, apprehension, fear

Ø This was the first or the last scene in a film. Write the first few lines of a character’s reminiscences of this house.
·       We left the city to live in the country for the rest of our lives.
·       When father passed away, mother could not face spending another day in the sprawling unfriendly city.
·       The house stood there with its arched windows boarded up – alluring and intimidating at the same time. How were we to rid it of its past and make it ours? How were we to efface all the remnants of its previous occupants’ lives still lingering inside and outside?

Ø You once lived in this house. What is your best or worst memory of it?
·       My brother and I raced to the top of the tree, and I always won.
·       Every morning, when I opened the window, the sunlight would stream into my room making everything bright and transparent, a minuscule wonderland.
·       The wolf was right there on the doorstep emaciated and in dire need of food and shelter, and mother’s hard-headed defence was in shreds. The wolf was taken in and nursed back to health, but when the day came to let him go, …

Sunday, 14 January 2018

In my Mind's Eye

When I slip into reveries, I am lost to the world.
Anyone relates to this condition?

In my Mind’s Eye

My old mother used to say
If you can’t see the ocean
Behind those pale blue eyes
You are likely blind

And if you can’t feel the heat
In those dying embers
You’ve never been touched
By the divine

Your world is there
And you are forever
Reshaping it only
 In your mind’s eye

Saturday, 6 January 2018

The liberating power of learning and teaching or Five Ways to Kill a Man

Learning in general is a personal matter as it is -- much more so learning a foreign language. Having come a long way in teaching and learning (one must continue to learn so one can remain in touch with one’s students and, more importantly with oneself), I have reached some very simple conclusions and have freed myself from the self-imposed fetters of strict planning and adherence to methodology.

Of course, one might argue that it took me a lifetime to realise what others have practised by default. This is not an effort to preempt criticism, but I do feel that delving into different approaches and assimilating them in my teaching has in fact enabled me to reach this point where liberating myself is an informed  conscious decision.

Here is a poem which I prepared and presented following my instinct though I did my bit of research beforehand.

Five Ways to Kill a Man by Edwin Brock
There are many cumbersome ways to kill a man.
You can make him carry a plank of wood
to the top of a hill and nail him to it.
To do this properly you require a crowd of people
wearing sandals, a cock that crows, a cloak
to dissect, a sponge, some vinegar and one
man to hammer the nails home.

Or you can take a length of steel,
shaped and chased in a traditional way,
and attempt to pierce the metal cage he wears.
But for this you need white horses,
English trees, men with bows and arrows,
at least two flags, a prince, and a
castle to hold your banquet in.

Dispensing with nobility, you may, if the wind
allows, blow gas at him. But then you need
a mile of mud sliced through with ditches,
not to mention black boots, bomb craters,
more mud, a plague of rats, a dozen songs
and some round hats made of steel.

In an age of aeroplanes, you may fly
miles above your victim and dispose of him by
pressing one small switch. All you then
require is an ocean to separate you, two
systems of government, a nation's scientists,
several factories, a psychopath and
land that no-one needs for several years.

These are, as I began, cumbersome ways to kill a man.
Simpler, direct, and much more neat is to see
that he is living somewhere in the middle
of the twentieth century, and leave him there.

When I first read the poem, it strongly reminded me of the recipe conventions mainly in two ways:

1.   There are all those “ingredients” which one can use.
2.   If you follow the “method” in combining them, you will get the right result, which, in the given context, is to kill a man.

So I searched for some images of the “ingredients”, placed them on slides on PowerPoint – one slide per verse – and asked my students to name what they saw and think of how the images were related to each other.

They were rather pleasantly surprised by the apparent lack of relevance, and yet they did their best to answer the question. It actually took plenty of speculation and discussion. Funnily enough, they got the “psychopath” right!

My surprise came when a student of mine saw the “recipe” structure in the poem so I presented the students with the following text and gave them time to “see” the similarities.

To make the flatbreads, tip the flour into a large bowl with 1 tsp salt and the cumin seeds. Make a well in the centre and pour in the oil and 150ml warm water. Mix together well. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead for a few mins until smooth. Leave to rest in a lightly floured bowl for 15 mins. Meanwhile, mix together the yogurt and dill. Season and set aside.

All in all, it was a stimulating session for both the students and myself.

Monday, 25 December 2017

Winter and Christmas(es)

Winter does not come alone. It carries a whole baggage of withdrawn dreams from the summertime and the blue skies and lolling seas. It is also laden with a lifetime’s dim memories of Christmases that have been and hurt us vaguely but intensely.

Here is a Greek poem of mine, a mere attempt to hint at the pain mixed with nostalgia and long-forgotten happiness.

Χριστούγεννα σαν φάντασμα

Τα Χριστούγεννα κάθε χρόνο
Μια ιδέα λειψά μας φτάνουν
Σαν μια τούφα χιόνι το δρόμο της να έχασε
Και η φωτιά  στις στάχτες
Τη θέση της να έχει δώσει

Η πάνινη κούκλα σε μια άδεια
 Ντουλάπα να μαραζώνει
Και η κουνιστή πολυθρόνα
Εκεί δίπλα να πηγαινόρχεται
Στη χαραμάδα μόνο του ανέμου

Και οι φωνές, οι φωνές σαν
Απόηχοι να μας φτάνουν
Δίχως ψυχή πού τραβάμε
Στου καινούριου χρόνου
Την πολλά και ψευδή
Υποσχόμενη χίμαιρα;

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

End of the year with a poem

And as the year is drawing to an end, we continue our soul-searching ...


Κάποιες φορές
Όταν έχω τη σχόλη
Μες απ’ το παράθυρο
Τη θέα ν’ ατενίζω

Βλέπω μια πράσινη άπλα
Και στα όριά της άσχημα
Σπίτια με κάθε λογής
Τσίγκινα παραπήγματα

Και πέρα μακριά στον
Ορίζοντα μια σκληρή
Ολοκάθαρη γραμμή
Ακολουθεί του βουνού τις καμπύλες

Το γαλάζιο τ’ ουρανού
Δεν είναι πάντα το ίδιο
Μια λαμπρό μες το φως λουσμένο
 Άλλοτε θαμπό στις ομίχλες πνιγμένο

Όμως όπως και να ‘ναι
Τις αισθήσεις νεκρώνει
Και τη σκέψη υπνώνει
Και με μιας το χρόνο παγώνει

Να μπορούσα σ΄ αυτή
Την ύπνωση
Τις σβησμένες μορφές

Να διακρίνω …