Last week, for the first time, my colleague and I ventured out into the wild outside our language centre (the concrete jungle of La Défense) to investigate first-hand the kinds of things we’d like to use for class excursions (see my earlier posts).
I marked a few points on the map where the municipal council had installed sculptures and other pieces of public art. We stood first in front of the sculpture below, a metal piece called “La Connaissance”, which means the acquaintance or the knowledge, among other possible definitions.
We started discussing its form and placement, how it fitted into the different backgrounds of tall buildings, its colours and how the artist intended it to be perceived or considered in its environment, etc. This discussion went on for nearly an hour, until we had to stop ourselves for fear of missing lunch. Realising the potential for emergent language and class discussion, we had a long discussion about how to exploit this opportunity next week with our first guinea-pigs (a small pre-intermediate group of adult professionals).
We decided to start the 4 hour class with an open discussion on examples of street art – what they represent, what purpose they serve, and how to express oneself to describe them. We wanted to put the students at ease, fearing that some may feel incapable of artistic commentary. Once we’ve allayed their fears with useful vocabulary, as well as reinforcing the importance of personal interpretation, we’ll take them outside to put their learning into practice. The teacher’s role will be to fuel discussions, ensuring groups constantly have new perspectives and ideas to discuss, yet leaving the content of the discussion up to the students. Once finished, groups will present their thoughts and opinions to the whole class for further discussion.
Once done, it’ll be back to the classroom to reflect on any emergent vocabulary and communicative skills they practised in their learner journals. We understand that not all vocabulary will be recalled after the event, but I believe that words able to be recalled represent the most meaningful for that student. The teacher can consolidate by role-playing follow-up scenarios, such as imagining a public promotion to increase exposure, or writing a letter to the local council to give advice on long-term protection and conservation.
All of these ideas sprouted from simply getting to know the subject we intended to use in our lesson plan. Célestin Freinet (Nowak-Fabrykowsk 1992) encouraged teachers to find a personal link with the materials they taught, to develop their own interpretation, before imparting it onto students. In my experience with the sculpture, being personally connected to the subject and fostering my own opinion about it made me excited about the prospect of taking students there to expose them also. I’m confident that, even if some of them aren’t particularly interested, my own enthusiasm about it will be enough to create productive, meaningful language affordances and make the trip worthwhile.
This serves to further remind me how little interest I have these days in textbook materials and inauthentic listening activities. It’s very difficult to develop a personal link with fictional, out-of-context characters like the two-dimensional business partners Monique Bresson and James Turner (Taylor et al. 2010). I’ve found myself inventing a whole love story around their suggestive interactions to liven up the gapfills, which tickles my students endlessly.
I’m constantly aware of students’ expectations, especially when coming from institutionalised education to private courses. Grammar filled textbooks are often necessary to avoid discouraging potential customers from joining courses. That being said, with experiences like last week, I feel I’m cheating them by not providing the full, connected, meaningful experience of language use that’s available just outside the door (and up a flight of stairs).
In conclusion, I now seek to test the balance between my new way of developing students’ communicative capacities and their expectations of traditional, grammar-oriented course content. Next Thursday is the big day, and I’ll be excited to share my first observations and feedback here. Wish me luck.
Nowak-Fabrykowski, K. 1992. Freinet’s Concept of Teachers and Theory of Teaching. McGill Journal of Education, Vol. 27 No. 1 http://www.reteccp.org/biblioteca/disponibili/letterature/Freinet/freinetconcept.pdf
International Express: Pre-Intermediate Student’s Pack, Second Edition. OUP