HOW TO TEACH ENGLISH
(A MODEST PROPOSAL)
I teach English by telling stories. Fun and crazy stories, stories of heartbreak, made-up stories, uplifting stories, stories that make you think, stories that give you pause. Like this one:
Amelia, John, John, Amelia
John and I met at a party sixty years ago. He'd had a lot to drink when I was introduced to him by a mutual friend. In fact, he had just poured a glass of beer straight down his throat right in front of me as if to say, Sweetheart, this is how real men drink. I said I was worried about him, but he insisted he was fine.
For a small guy he sure knew how to hold his liquor. It then turned out that it was a party trick of some sort that he was famous for. He especially enjoyed doing it in front of people who had never seen him do it. It certainly made an impression on me. Still, I kept an eye on him for the rest of the night, just in case.
When we bumped into each other a little later, he called me 'funny face.' He just made that up on the spot. He later admitted that he forgot my name so he had to come up with something. He's called me 'funny face' ever since, come to think of it. I didn't mind then and I don't now. As far as nicknames go, you could do a lot worse. And I do have a funny face, so he's got that right.
Anyway, we both ended up having a really good time at the party and we stayed so late that we missed the last bus and had to walk five miles in the rain. Not only did we get to know each other on the way home, by the time we got there we had planned our honeymoon and agreed on what we were going to name our three kids.
Now, I don't read these stories. What I mean by that is, I don't stare at a sheet of paper while talking. That'd be cheating, as far as I'm concerned. I practice telling the stories at home so that later in class I can make them sound as if they happened to me, or someone close to me.
I don't announce a story beforehand, either. More often than not I just drop it in the middle of a class with no prior warning. That's a surefire way to grab everyone's attention. I also make sure I hook the listeners with a great opening line.
Telling a story is just the start, though. There's so much more that can and should be done with a story. What follows are a few ideas that you may find interesting. Or detestable. Either way, consider yourself served.
In order to make the most of a story, you need to spread it over a few classes. Here's what I do with a story like Amelia and John.
- I introduce and explain the vocabulary, without in any way indicating what type of story it relates to.
- Later on I tell the story. That's the fun part. Or the scary part, depends.
- Either right after that or a little later, I inquire about the story to make sure everyone understood it, all of it.
Let's say you came across a great story. You edited it and honed it to perfection. And you have just told this gem of a story in class and the students seemed to enjoy it. Now what?
Well, first of all you need to make sure the students actually understood it. So you ask a lot of questions to tick off that particular box.At the end of class, it's conversation time, during which I have the students piece the story together in pairs.
More importantly, the students need to be aware of what exactly they are supposed to learn. (The storyline itself isn't really important. Neither are names, dates or figures. It's how the story is told that matters.)
That's why you need to focus on bits that you know your students will struggle with but need to know. Drill those things into their poor little heads relentlessly and mercilessly over a period of weeks. Then do it some more.
- I recall the story to bring everyone up to speed.
- Later, I point out the most important bits to see if the class can connect them to their native language.
- Then, once again, it's conversation time, this time with a little twist. (Hint: Must-Use sheet)
CLASS 3 / 4
- I ask individual students to translate random point-out bits in front of the whole class. That'll teach them.
- There's talking, too, this time centered on spin-off improvized conversations.
* Since I teach 90-minute classes, I have space to do other stuff besides the main story. This means that by the time I get to class 2 with the Amelia story, I'll already be introducing a new one and finishing work on a story I had begun three classes earlier. In other words, in most classes I work on three different stories in various stages.
Vocabulary is the least important part of the process and the students need to be aware of that. (This goes against every instinct in a student's body, but it's the truth.) You can make things fun by defining through examples and letting the students guess the meaning of each term before actually translating it. But generally speaking, fun and vocabulary don't mix.
HOLD ONE'S LIQUOR ... You know how some people can drink incredible amounts of alcohol without seeming drunk or getting a hangover the next day? You can describe this by saying that a person can hold his or her liquor, meaning they don't have that urge to throw up after having a few drinks like you and I do. I mean, I always get drunk really quickly and I often end up throwing up and then the next day I wish I was dead. So you could say that I've never been able to hold my liquor. Does that make sense?
AS FAR AS ... GO ... So you go to a restaurant, right. And you have a meal and it's a fine meal, but the service is awful. So you get back home and you go write a review of that restaurant on Yelp or whatever. And you mention the meal and the prices and then you say "As far as service goes, I can't really say I liked it. The truth is they were slow and lazy and I didn't even leave a tip, which is something that I never do." The phrase "as far as" is very similar to "in terms of." So you could also say "In terms of service, I can't really recommend the place." Got it?
I try really hard to do every story justice by telling it in a manner it demands to be told. Considering how much effort I put into each story prior to introducing it, I'd hate myself if I somehow just phoned it in. There's usually several perspectives to choose from.
1. NARRATOR: So Amelia finds herself at a party one night. She doesn't know anybody there so a friend of hers introduces her to people whose company he thinks she might enjoy. One of these people is a guy named John...
2. JOHN: So I'm at this party, right, and I'm doing this party trick that I'm kind of sort of famous for...
3. AMELIA: So you know my husband, John, right? You wanna know how we met? Let me tell you the story, it's kind of interesting...
Once I'm done telling the story, I start asking questions to make sure everyone understood what the story was about. I usually choose a different perspective and a different starting point to shake things up a little. (I do pretty much the same thing again the week after, in case someone was absent the first time.)
Am I going to marry this girl? (Yes.) But how am I going to get her attention though? (By drinking a lot, maybe.) Is that really the best way to a girl's heart? [The class is split on this point by gender lines] Of course it isn't. But there's more to me than that, right? [Half-hearted nodding.] I mean, come on, I'm a fun guy. If you spend some time with me at a party, for instance...
Next, I point out what phrases and grammar I expect my students to learn. I make a point of explaining why these particular phrases matter or are worth remembering. I also point out that they may be difficult to recall down the road, which is why I will bring them up over and over again in the weeks to come. (At some point, I test my students on these very phrases in different contexts to prove my point.) I also create a translation sheet that I randomly spring on the poor things for months afterwards (see POINT-OUT sheet).
The long-term goal is for students to be able to retain as much of this newly-gotten knowledge for as long as possible. That's a pretty tall order and teachers really needs to adjust their expectations depending on what type of students they are dealing with. (Also, the undeniable fact that students forget more than they remember brings home a very important point, namely that we need to avoid burdening them with marginal words, phrases and grammar points. I can't stress this point strongly enough.)
she and I met at a party
by then he's had a lot to drink
it turned out that it was a party trick
look honey, this is how real men drink
let's keep an eye on him, just in case
we ended up having a great time
AND MANY MANY MORE
The short-term goal, a much more achievable one, is for the students to be able to recount the story pretty much as it is. To that end, I provide a MUST-USE sheet containing the most useful bits of the story. It is meant to pressure the students into actually using these phrases while recounting the story rather than dumb it down to the most primitive level possible.
(While my students are engaged in this activity, I walk around the classroom, stopping at desks to correct errors, doing some extra explaining, occasionally frowning or shaking my head but mostly doling out compliments. Yeah, I'm pretty nice that way. It is a also great opportunity to address individual students' problems.)
At a certain point in the process, students will be able to tell the whole story, give or take. We're not stopping there, though. (Not to mention everyone's probably totally bored with the story by that point.) Which is why I always come up with a bunch of spin-off conversations loosely based on the story. These may take the form of an argument, a brainstorming session, a phone call, what have you.
The point here is that students are forced to improvize, which may sound scary at first, but is actually a lot of fun once they get used to the idea. There are no boundaries, no guides, nothing. They can go crazy and invent the weirdest scenarios. However, correct and rich English is still key. Students must not get overwelmed by emotion to the point where the exchange turns into a series of primitive exclamations.
There are other activities that are fun and not as exhausting. There are the fill-in sheets where students guess the right words to fill the gaps. There are the point-out sheets for students to practice their translation skills. The sky's the limit. Actually, the teacher's imagination is, but you get the idea.
- tell story
Early in the class I introduce the vocabulary (without indicating what kind of story it comes from or if there's even a story attached to it). I write all of it on the whiteboard and then define each word/phrase using entertaining real-life examples.
Once I notice most of the class nodding their heads, I move on to the next word. It's only when I go through at least five or six that I ask for translations into Czech. This makes it a little more challenging and, dare I say, fun.
TELLING THE STORY
Then, later on, after one or two non-related activities, I get to the story itself. The first line really needs to grab the students' attention and make them wonder—hey, what's going on here? where and when is this happening? who's this John guy?
You need to make it sound as if all this stuff really happened to you or someone close to you. Even if the students suspect or know that neither is the case, they'll still play along because why wouldn't they, right?
Also, you can tell the story from a different perspective than the original. The ich-form obviously works, but so do others. As long as you don't start like this:
I will tell you a story about a woman named Amelia who met her husband at a party. It is very funny and interesting. Is everybody listening? Listen very closely please because we will be talking about the story later on and I will ask you questions, ok. So one day sixty years ago Amelia was at a party and she met John, her husband...
Booooooooooring. Right? Here's a bunch of good opening lines:
So I grab a beer and pour it down my throat. And the girl looks at me, like, are you kidding me? And I'm like, honey, obviously you have never seen a real guy drink. All this is happening at a party...
It was four in the morning and it was raining and was walking home with a guy I barely knew, but I wasn't scared at all. let me tell you why...
Ok, here's an idea for a movie, all right? There's a girl named, say, Amelia, who has just broken up with her boyfriend. She comes to a party where she meets John. John is a bit of a show off and Amelia does not like him at all at first...
Once I'm done telling the story, I start asking questions. The point here is to make sure ALL the students know what happens in the story, not just the smartest ones. Picking the opening question is key. You may want to start from the bottom of the story and then work your way to the beginning. Or you can just zigzag all over the place. Whatever works. Also, why not confuse the students a little by asking the question from a different perspective than you have just used?
At this point the story is still fresh and fun and it's a bit of a challenge to recall it so students usually don't need extra encouragement. Still, you may want to pick a different context just to shake things up a bit. (Like, you're two fortune tellers talking to John about what's going to happen to him in the next few days.)
Alternatively, hand out the MUST-USE sheets and have the students tell the story using the phrases/grammar in them. Or just give them KEYWORDS and have one of them interview the other one. ("Why did I call the girl by a nickname?")
- point out
It's not a bad idea to recall the story one more time (inquiry-style, only from a different perspective because why the hell not) at the start of the next class just in case everybody forgot what it was about or for the benefit of previously absent students. You need to bring everyone up to speed or else some students will be left out of the loop and may disrupt the rest of class.
Later on, you can point out the best parts of the story by calling them out (in your native language) in random order and maybe a different context. The students collectively try to guess the best possible translations. Keep it short and sweet.
what if it turns out I was right?
he ended up getting fired
what did you just call me?
who am I trying to impress here?
that sounds made up
Make sure that no one student hijacks the exercise. Give the class some time to think about the translations. Urge the students to ask about phrases/grammar points that still don't make sense to them.
The students will then be expected to use these phrases in narrating the story. In order to make things easier/harder, provide them with MUST-USE sheets. That way, they can't dumb the story down as they are forced to hit all the right spots.
CLASS THREE/ FOUR
- point out individually
Early on, hit each student with one or two phrases that they have to translate. Take into consideration each student's level and choose the lines accordingly. Knowing that they will be called out in front of the whole class will force many students to study harder than they normally would. It may have the opposite effect on others, sad to say.
By now the students are pretty bored with the story so you need to keep things fresh.
John's ex-girlfriend complains to a friend (Can you believe he left me for this girl? -- Yeah. What a jerk! -- I mean, what does she have that I don't have? -- Nothing. You're perfect. -- So how come he likes her so much? -- Apparently, she really enjoyed that party trick of his that you hate. -- Oh. Could that be it?)
a beer tells its side of the story(So the guy pours me into a glass and then he waits for people to gather around him. Once he has an audience, he lifts the glass and he pours me down his throat. I have no idea what happens next but I'm guessing everyone is pretty impressed. I travel through his body until I join my fellow beers in his stomach...)
bus driver (I'm done waiting for those two, I'm leaving. They must be having a pretty good time if it's worth missing the bus for. It's a pretty long way to walk. It's at least five miles. But they don't seem to mind. At least it'll give them a chance to get to know each other. Then again, it's raining pretty hard so maybe they'll regret it after all. But you know what they say, whatever floats your boat.)
So Amelia finds herself at a party one night. She doesn't know a lot of people there so a friend of hers introduces her to people whose company he thinks she might enjoy. One of these people is a guy named John. John has been at the party for a while and by the time he and Amelia meet, he's had quite a lot to drink. Amelia thinks to herself "This guy is a little drunk already." And she's right. John finds Amelia cute and he tries to impress her by pouring...
So I'm at this party and I'm doing this party trick that I'm kind of sort of famous for. What I do is I basically just pour a whole beer straight down my throat. It's not a big deal to me, but apparently not many people can do it. So whenever I perform the trick, people applaud and many are impressed. So I'm getting ready to do it when a friend comes up to me and says, "Hey John, there's someone I want you to meet..."
So you know my husband, John, right? You wanna know how we met? Let me tell you the story, it's kind of fun. We actually met at this party—that's not the fun part, that's how most people met back then. This was sixty years ago and I had just broken up with this guy that I'd been with for a year or so. A friend invited me to this party so I went. I had no expectations at all, I just wanted to take my mind off the break-up. So anyway, when I got there, my friend started introducing me to a whole lot of people, one of whom was John...
I'm guessing the likeliest answers here and base my next questions on those guesses. Obviously. If there's a really good answer that the students fail to think of right off the bat, I'll just wait until someone puts on their thinking cap and gives me the right answer. Meanwhile, I grimace to convey my disappointment.
1. Why did I call Amelia "funny face?" (Because you forgot her name.) Does that happen to me often? (Probably.) What do I do when I forget someone's name? (You come up with a nickname.) Am I good at making up nicknames? (Yes.) Did Amelia like hers? (She didn't mind.) Did I keep calling her "funny face." (You still call her that.) I do, right? How long have I been calling here that? (Sixty years.) That's right. When did we decide to get married? (On the way home from the party.) Did we take a bus? (No, you walked.) We did, didn't we? Why didn't we take a bus. (You missed the last one.) Was that because we were drunk? (It was.) How much did I have to drink? (A lot.) Was I drunk by the time I was introduced to Amelia. (Oh yes.) Who introduced us? (A mutual friend.) ...
2. What's my favorite party trick? (Drinking beer.) That's not a trick. Everyone can drink beer. (Yes. But you drink it very fast.) How fast exactly? ...
3. Am I going to marry this girl? (Yes.) But how am I going to get her attention though? (By drinking a lot.) Is that really the best way to a girl's heart? [The class is split on this point] Of course it isn't. But there's more to me than that, right? [Half-hearted nodding.] I mean, come on, I'm a fun guy. If you spend some time with me at a party, for instance...
1. So... why am I looking so worried?
2. Why are we going to miss the bus ?
3. Do I have an ordinary face?
1. So five miles... is that a long distance? (Depends on the situation.) Right. So what situations are there where it's not that long? (When you're with someone...)
This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. If by the end of your engagement with the story your students are still unable to tell it from a different perspective and in a different time context, then the whole thing was a major waste of time. Same goes for if they can't use the best bits outside the context of the story.
In most conversation set-ups students work in pairs, helping each other out / taking turns talking.
The mutual friend, PAST
You probably don't know this, but I'm the one who introduced Amelia to John. It happened at a party. John and Amelia had never met before, but I knew them both. I also knew that they would make a great couple. That's why I invited them and hoped that they would enjoy themselves. John arrived first and as usual started drinking right away. By the time Amelia showed up, he was pretty drunk...
So I've been talking to this lady that knows the future... a fortune teller, right. Anyway, I'm going to meet this girl soon. Apparently, we are going to really like each other's company and if the lady is right we are going to get married and have a bunch of kids. So there's going to be a party and we will both be invited. We are going to have a great time and we will both stay late and will miss the last bus home...
John + Amelia, LIVE
So I'm here at this party and I don't know anybody /// Yeah, you and I haven't met /// but I guess we will soon /// right, we have this mutual friend who is coming over right now /// and he is introducing us /// I'm kind of tipsy by now /// and you are trying to impress me /// by drinking a whole beer /// don't you do this all the time? /// I do, but you seem pretty impressed /// that's right, but I have decided to keep an eye on you /// you don't need to do that, I'm fine /// yeah, you know, but just in case /// all right ... anyway, good to see you again, uh, funny face /// did you just call me funny face? /// I did, does that bother you? /// no, not really CONDITIONALS
If I hadn't met you at that party, I wonder who I would have married instead. /// If we hadn't missed that bus, we might not have been together now.
If John wasn't drinking so hard, you wouldn't have to worry about him, Amelia. /// If you knew you were going to meet this guy, would you have come to this party anyway?
Well, if Amelia misses the last bus, I guess I will have to walk her home. ///If I'm funny, maybe she'll realize what a great guy I am.
TV NEWS: QUESTIONS
a) LIVE FROM PARTY: Are you having a good time at the party, John?
b) MEMORY LOSS: Why did I pour a glass of beer down my throat?
c) ASK A FORTUNE TELLER: Am I gonna meet someone interesting?
d) NURSING HOME: Mom, Dad, how exactly did you first meet?
SPIN-OFFS: IMPROVIZED DIALOGS
a) John Amelia: when they first met (why drink?)
b) John Amelia: later at the party (Funny Face)
c) John Amelia: end of party (bus gone?)
d) John Amelia: on the way home (honeymoon)
e) John's ex-girlfriend complains to a friend (Can you believe...)
f) John's friend (Hey, why don't you think of a nickname instead?)
g) bus driver (I'm not gonna wait for those two, I'm leaving...)
(John and his friend come up with ideas how to impress Amelia)
Why don't you do that party trick that you always do? /// Why don't I ask her out for you? /// You might want to take it slow, though. /// Whatever happens, don't ask her any personal questions. /// I guess I'd better not get drunk. /// Make sure you don't scare her away.
These are a few grammar points randomly selected from the story that you may decide to expand on in class. Ultimately, what you focus on depends on the level of your students and their particular struggles.
SHE AND I MET AT A PARTY
I met with her at a party / me with Amelia we met
x on a party / at a wedding, funeral
x at some / one party
HE'S HAD A LOT TO DRINK
has drunk very much alcohol / he's had a lot for drinking / for drink / of drink
IT TURNED OUT THAT IT WAS A PARTY TRICK
showed up that it was
LOOK, THAT'S HOW REAL MEN DRINK
x look, real men drink
+ is that how you did this? (
you did it in this way?) / that's not what I said ( x I did not say THAT!)
I KEPT AN EYE ON HIM, JUST IN CASE
x I was very
careful for him / you don't have to be afraid of him / I kept my eyes on him
+ keep the receipt, just in case it breaks
+ we look out for each other / watch out for ticks / make sure there are no typos / who's gonna watch the kids?
WE ENDED UP HAVING A GREAT TIME
it ended up that we had a great time
ended up to have a great time
it was really great for us at the party (we had a great time / we had a blast)
ALSO: stay late (+ work late, sleep late) / he got that right (+ you got it all wrong) / I said I was worried + I knew he had been drinking / and many more
The original version is designed for intermediate students. If you need one for less advanced students, this one could fit the bill:
John and I met at a party sixty years ago. He was pretty drunk when I was introduced to him by a friend. In fact, he poured a glass of beer down his throat right in front of me. I guess it was his way of saying, Sweetheart, this is how real men drink.
I told him that I was worried about him, but he said he was fine. I later found out that the beer thing was a party trick. He was pretty famous for it and he especially enjoyed doing it in front of strangers. I was impressed, but I kept an eye on him for the rest of the night, just in case.
When we ran into each other a little later, he called me 'funny face.' He just made that up. He later admitted that he forgot my name so he had to come up with something. He's called me 'funny face' ever since that day. I don't mind. There are much worse nicknames out there. And I actually have a funny face, so he's got that right.
Anyway, we both had such a good time at the party and we stayed so late that we missed the last bus and had to walk five miles in the rain. On the way home we got to know each other. In fact, by the time we got home we planned our honeymoon and agreed on the names of our three kids.
If on the other hand you teach advanced students, who breeze through stories like this, you may want to give them something more to chew on. Like a spin-off conversation that they can reenact, play around with, be tested on, whatever.
You might want to cut down on the drinking, John.
Actually, I'd rather not. Why should I?
Because I want you to.
It'll take more than that to make me stop.
Oh yeah? What do I have to do?
You're going to have to let me walk you home.
I'll be happy to do that.
As long as I stop drinking.
Yes. I'd hate to have to drag you home.
Have you done that before?
Not with you. But yes I have.
Sorry to hear that. But ok, we have a deal. This is my last drink.
You'd better not be lying to me, John.
I'm not. It's killing me, but you are worth it.
Look, there's plenty more where all of the above came from. But there's only so much time you can spend on a story before squeezing the last bit of life out of it. We are at that point right about... now.
Here's the whole damn thing.