Teaching and writing inspiration – Part One: Real Life

Would you like to see some of my holiday snaps?

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Now, before you go thinking that the summer heat has nuked my poor wee sun-starved Scottish brain, let me reassure you that this post does indeed have something to do with ELT teaching and writing.

It is, in fact, inspired by a question I was asked at the beginning of summer:

How do you approach finding unique resources?

Interesting question, this. For me, the key word here is “unique”. As us old-timers know too well, there is nothing new under the ELT sun. The internet is buckling under the weight of “innovative” content, while new ELT publications jostle to be original and fresh.

This can be challenging for a writer at times. Yet dreaming up fresh angles on old subjects is one of the real perks of the ELT writer’s job (it beats the hard slog of actually writing things down on paper any day).

So, where does this inspiration come from? Where do writers find their ideas for materials? Where can teachers find fresh new texts and activities to try out in class?

My next few posts will have a look at some of the places I get inspiration for creative teaching and writing ideas. My first port of call is real life experiences. We are all unique so where better to find inspiration than looking at our own lives with all their twists, turns, peaks and troughs?

Real life material

The gorgeous snaps above are of a distinctly unlovely holiday apartment in France which my family and I had the misfortune of booking online this year.

As you can see, it wasn’t just the cleanest place in the world. The cutlery was so begrimed with engrained filth that we had to eat our breakfast in shifts, there were sinister stains on the ripped mattress protector which covered the (broken) bed and there were life forms growing on the bathroom walls. A lot of the furniture was held together with sticky tape.

We stayed one night. As soon as dawn broke I began phoning around to find a cleaner apartment. New accommodation secured, it was time to break the news of our departure to the landlady and (more importantly) get our money back. I called the landlady and explained the situation. She seemed to be surprised by my dissatisfaction and, rather grudgingly, agreed to come round and see what I was talking about.

Show time

Getting into situations like this provides great inspiration for teaching and writing. As I geared up to make my complaint, I realised how nerve wracking it is to complain in a language which is not your mother tongue. If I was making a complaint in English I might mentally rehearse what I was going to say, but this process would be a brief, almost subconscious one. In French, however, the rehearsal process was much more deliberate.

First of all, our children helpfully made a list of all the things I needed to mention.

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Next I had to be sure I knew how to say these things in French. Unfortunately, I couldn’t remember how to say “mould”. This wasn’t too much of a problem, as there was plenty on display.

I had to rehearse what I was going to say under my breath (in French, bien sûr!). I told my family what I was going to say (in English) so they could suggest any additions/modifications.

A knock on the door signalled the time had come. I launched into my prepared speech. While I was talking, I became aware that my mannerisms, facial expressions and very essence became altogether more Gallic. Being my phlegmatic, rather meek British self was not going to cut the mustard. It was not enough to speak French: if I wanted a satisfactory resolution to the problem I had to BE French. (We were, eventually refunded our money and deposit, so I think this must have worked.)

So, what does all this have to do with teaching and writing?

The experience made me realise how challenging such situations are for foreign language learners. I was very aware of the distinct process I had gone through: recalling the language I needed and then rehearsing it. Getting the intonation right was important, as was non-verbal communication (such as hand gestures).

Reflecting on the process I went through, I automatically began designing a lesson around it. Experiences like this can be a real gift for both ELT teaching and writing, as they provide a nice lesson shape on which to build content.

So in this case:

  • The images above (or images like them) can be used as a stimulus to generate language.
  • Certain phrases are also needed at an early stage of the process. It isn’t enough to know the word for “mould” or “urine stain”: standard complaint phrases need to be learned as well, for example: This is not acceptable, I want you to refund me my money etc.
  • It is not enough to teach the phrases and then let the learners loose on the situation (or even role-play). Learners need the opportunity to rehearse phrases too: paying particular attention to word and sentence stress, intonation and body language.
  • In any lesson on making a spoken complaint, role play would be a key part. Of course, the partner who is listening to the complaint should not be passive or overly helpful. They should be (as my landlady was) indignant, adamant that no one else has ever had reason to complain and quick to tell you that you are neurotic.

Looking to your own life for inspiration

What other real life situations have I used in the past to inspire lessons I’ve taught and lessons I’ve written?

What all these situations have in common is that the stakes are high. No one ever died from sending  a badly written postcard, or not being able to talk about their favourite food. But if you look at the situations above, there is a lot to be lost or gained which is what makes them worth teaching.

My next post will look at finding writing inspiration from online sources.

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