The world’s first virtual reality school

Virtual reality is back in the news (again). According to Google, you’ll soon be able to insert your smartphone into a new plastic headset and use it as a virtual reality headset. Using a controller that acts as a virtual hand, you’ll be able to explore the natural world, become part of YouTube videos and step inside news stories.

Until recently, virtual reality was associated almost exclusively with the gaming world but Google wants to make it part of our everyday lives. The New York Times has gone into partnership with Google to produce VR news reports and there are already many VR documentaries out there designed to make the user experience a new environment such as a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan.

In the entertainment world, Google is working with IMAX which has just announced its plans to create virtual reality entertainment hubs for cinemas, shopping malls, and tourist spots across the United States. Meanwhile, at this year’s Facebook developer conference in San Francisco, the company’s Chief Technology Officer gave a live demonstration of Facebook’s Oculus Rift virtual reality headset. As part of the presentation, he “teleported” to London and took a selfie with a UK-based colleague.

This story reminded me of a classroom activity I wrote for iT’s for Teachers back in 1992. It was an April Fool lesson in which students read about the world’s first virtual reality school which had opened in Mataró, near Barcelona.

This revolutionary new teaching aid is the idea of Tony Hoax, who plans to open other Virtual Schools in Madrid, Seville and Barcelona. “It’s a whole new way of teaching. Instead of using books and relying on teachers, the system actually allows people to virtually travel to Britain and learn the language by using it in real situations.”

Back in 1992, virtual reality was already going to be ‘the next big thing’ but it never really took off. One of the main problems has always been the expensive and cumbersome headsets and the fact that exploring a virtual world is a solitary activity. But the world is a very different place now and we are more accustomed to interacting with people in a digital world.

Hollywood is also wondering if virtual reality will save the film industry. In the same way as 3D did?! Industry figures fear we’ll lose the unique live experience of sharing a film with other people. In spite of the fact that I try to go to the cinema at least once a week, I’ve never been a great fan of sharing the cinema experience with other people who talk, eat popcorn, constantly check their phones and kick the seat in front of them. So maybe virtual reality will be my kind of entertainment.

In the meantime, I dug out the original virtual reality classroom activity and thought it’d be fun to share it. You’ll find it here.

Spot the difference

A news story sparked off a debate last week. It all started with an item on the BBC Today radio programme in which presenter Jim Naughtie mentioned author guidelines that had been sent to an educational author by Oxford University Press. As the Daily Mail put it: 'Schoolbook authors have been told not to write about sausages or pigs for fear of causing offence'. The publisher (and many ELT authors) reacted with surprise. As Jane Harley, a primary publishing director at Oxford University Press, wrote in The Guardian: 'Given that our editorial guidelines that reference pigs and pork have been in place for as long as I can remember, little did I imagine that they would attract international headlines.' The fact is that if you are writing or publishing an educational book for a global audience then you have to be aware of certain issues that might be culturally sensitive. That's why it's always preferable to publish local editions of courses.

Writing for a local market can be very liberating. I was reminded of this when I created a page at this website a few days ago for The Calendar, a newsletter that I edited for teachers of English in Eastern Spain back in the 1980s. Apart from including articles and information for teachers, The Calendar (which was published by International House Barcelona) provided teachers with activities that were up-to-date and that didn’t shy away from difficult topics. You have to remember that back then there was no Internet or satellite television, video was a novelty and the British newspapers usually arrived in Spain at least one day after their publication date. So topical activities were in demand.

Looking back at those issues of The Calendar now, I wonder how we got away with some of the things we printed. Our “Alternative Dictionary” would never make it into a publication today without some heavy editing. In April 1987 we had a classroom activity on AIDS, and our “Acid House—The Lesson” issue in 1989 even got a mention in El País newspaper.

When I started editing and publishing iT's for Teachers for a wider readership, I became more aware of what was and wasn't acceptable. I still managed to get it wrong on occasion with some choices of artwork. But it wasn't until we produced American editions of our student magazines iT's Magazine and BiTs in 2002 that I started to understand just how careful you have to be. In our very first American issue there was an authentic text that included a reference to an adult taking a bottle of champagne from a fridge. I received an angry letter from a High School principal in the United States accusing me of encouraging young people to drink alcohol.

When I asked our distributor for more guidance, I was sent a list of things that could and couldn't be included in educational material. The document had been drawn up by a major ELT publisher and included the following: "Baseball caps should be worn facing forward. There should be no contact between wild animals and children. Animals in zoos should not be seen behind bars in cages. Settings should not include any religious buildings, symbols or individuals (rabbis, priests, etc.). Storylines should avoid religious overtones or holidays. There should be no references to the occult, magic, ghosts, witches, etc. Do not depict or include in storylines card playing, dice, drinking alcohol, smoking or weapons."

We received the list as we were preparing our James Bond issue. As you can imagine, writing about James Bond without mentioning weapons or alcohol was quite a challenge. We ended up with two Bond covers (see above). The first showed the Bond silhouette with his trademark gun. The American issue had Bond without his gun.

As a result of our US experience we felt confident that we could create a magazine that could be used by students in almost any country around the world and soon afterwards we were asked to create Class Out for British Council students around the world. As far as I remember, we only had one problem with a map of the world that didn't get past customs in one particular country.

Although it can be frustrating at times when you're told that a particular idea or piece of artwork won't be acceptable in a certain territory, writing material for a global audience can be tremendously rewarding. And being aware of what is and isn't offensive to people is an extremely useful life skill. Having said that, there's still space to do something alternative from time to time. Although English for the Zombie Apocalypse might not be the best resource for teachers in some countries, hopefully it'll be a hit with teachers and their students in other countries.

New resource book page

I’ve added a new page to the site with information about some of the resource books that I’ve co-authored. The first title on the page is the latest – English for the Zombie Apocalypse which I co-wrote with Lindsay Clandfield. In the past, this would probably have ended up being an activity in the magazine but when Lindsay first told me about the idea, he managed to convince me that it could be more than just a magazine activity. We ended up with an eBook and audio download which we’ve just co-published through ExLT (Extreme Language Teaching).

Over the course of ten units, students follow the adventures of three people as they struggle to survive a zombie apocalypse. Each of the ten units focuses on a specific area of language or vocabulary.

Each unit begins with an introductory activity that establishes a survival situation. Students are asked to make a decision based on the situation. Students then listen to a short scene to find out which decision the characters made in the same situation.

Next, students follow a script of the scene and listen for missing information that will help them to answer a question. After listening and repeating key phrases from the scene, students prepare their own scene using the language and content of the unit to help them. The book also includes an 'A to Z of the Zombie Apocalypse'.

It was a fun project to write and, after Lindsay tested it with a class of teenagers, we think it’s a fun project to teach. It’s the kind of book you can work through as a project or dip into when you feel like doing something different in class. You don’t come across many zombies in course books and zombies have never been as popular as they are now so we’re hoping the book will be popular.

If you’re interested in ordering a copy, English for the Zombie Apocalypse is available through gumroad at the address below:
https://gumroad.com/l/englishzombieapocalypse

The other titles currently on the resource book page are titles from the iT’s English series of photocopiable activity books. These titles are currently out of print but it’s good to see them on the site especially with Derek Zinger’s cover designs looking so good.

Follow this link to visit the resource book page.

Using horror in the classroom

With the launch of 'English for the Zombie Apocalypse' tomorrow and Halloween coming at the end of the week, I've been thinking about the use of horror in the classroom. One of the most successful activities that I created for iT's for Teachers magazine was called The House. In fact, when I looked for it in the iT's archive yesterday, I discovered that we published it three times between 1995 and 2005. In the activity, students describe a picture of a creepy house (one of Piet Luthi's wonderful illustrations for the magazine) and then find out why the house is cursed by ordering the horrific story of its first owner. They then use picture prompts to create and write their own horror stories about the lives and deaths of the other owners. Finally, they read out their stories preferably by candlelight.

Over the years, we created related activities for The House to introduce some horror vocabulary that you don't normally find in course books, to look at the ingredients of a good horror story, and to analyse the structure of a story and the different tenses used. By using horror as the theme, students can really let their imaginations run wild. They not only enjoy using the language, they inevitably want to know new words and phrases to include in their stories. In my opinion, horror can be a great way to get teenagers engaged in learning.

So while waiting for tomorrow's launch of 'English for the Zombie Apocalypse', here's a link to download The House in case you'd like to try it in class. The PDF has the teaching material and includes teaching notes. There's also a short audio in which Derek Zinger, the talented designer (and actor) who designed the magazine, reads the story of Professor Eckenthorpe.

Click here to download The House in PDF format

Click here to download the audio in mp3 format

First night reviews

Each morning, after a first look at the Spanish newspaper, I download my daily UK newspaper and look at the First Night Reviews section. I think I do it partly to keep in touch with what's going on in the theatre in the UK and also out of habit.

Back when I was trying to make a living writing music for plays in London, opening nights were special. They always started earlier than other performances so that the critics could get their reviews written before the next day's edition closed. This was in pre-internet, pre-computer days so we're talking typewriters and telephones.

Then there'd be the long wait for the papers to appear on the newsstands. I'd buy all the papers and go through them, checking to see if there was a review and then checking to see if there was any mention of the music. I think the best review I ever got was from Jim Hiley writing about The Children´s Crusade in Time Out who wrote: 'And the music by singer/songwriter-to-watch Robert Campbell, is bloody marvellous'. And the worst review? Maybe Frank Marcus writing about Dean in The Sunday Telegraph: 'Robert Campbell will not cause sleepless nights to Stephen Sondheim'. Actually, there are other review for that show that hurt even more!

The thing is, when you read theatre, film and TV reviews in newspapers, there are always positive and negative reviews. You expect it. You can agree or disagree with reviews but you know that the reviewer is giving their opinion.

As an aside, you never know when theatre reviews are going to appear in Spanish newspapers. There doesn't seem to be a tradition of first night reviews and when reviews do finally appear, it's usually after the show's closed. Could there be a connection?

Anyway, when I edited and published iT's for Teachers magazine, we had a regular book review section called First Impressions. The idea of the section was for a team of magazine contributors to give their first impressions of new ELT titles. I naively thought that this meant we could give positive and negative opinions, always stressing that they were first impressions and not in-depth critical reviews. Unfortunately, it was not to be. After we printed one particular negative review, it was implied that we were going to lose an important advertiser. For a small independent magazine, losing a major advertiser can be a major blow. So from then on, we decided that we'd only review titles we felt positive about. If we didn't like a book, we'd simply ignore it. 

I got to thinking about reviews this week because the first two reviews of Beyond have just appeared in the EL Gazette and Business Spotlight. It would be good to read some more in-depth reviews that aren't afraid of being critical (or saying how amazing the course is!). But for the moment, these are welcome...

EL Gazette review of Beyond

EL Gazette review of Beyond

Business Spotlight review

Business Spotlight review


Where were you when ...?

Before taking a break from its-teachers, one of my weekly tasks was coming up with a topical teaching activity for the coming week. No doubt at this moment in time, I'd be putting the finishing touches to a classroom activity on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which took place 50 years ago on November 22, 1963.

I asked Rob Metcalf, a long-time collaborator on the magazine, where he was when he'd heard the news of the assassination. 'Probably in a cot', he replied, proving that not everyone who was alive at the time vividly remembers where they were when they heard the news. I was 7 at the time and I have a strong memory of returning home from a concert with my brother and finding our parents sitting, listening to the radio news.

Thinking about the anniversary reminded me of a Jackdaw Publication I bought (or was bought for me) five years later. It was a dark blue folder that contained copies of material related to the assassination. After digging around in a trunk, I found it this morning. On the cover it says 'recommended for adults and older children only'. I'm not sure if 12 can be considered 'older children' but I do remember spending hours going through the contents of the folder that included:

  • The final Page of the Warren Commission Exhibit 387: Summary of autopsy report
  • Warren Commission Exhibit 385: Medical illustration of President Kennedy’s neck wounds
  • A full size reproduction of the alleged assassination weapon
  • Dealey Plaza plan and model

I seem to have lost the model but everything else seems to be there. The folder and its contents must have had a big impact on me a) because I still have the original folder and b) because the iT's English activity books were originally published as loose pages inside a folder. Did the idea come from Jackdaw?

Assuming that these folders must have gone out of print decades ago, I had a look online and was surprised to discover that Jackdaw still exists and still sells its Kennedy pack which it says is 'sure to inspire lively classroom debate and help students form their own hypotheses and opinions'. If you click on the link to the next page, you'll find another of their publications - Black Death: The Plague. 'When they (your students) see the “Plague Banner” and “Dance of Death” posters, you will have their full attention.' I'm sure they're right.

I have to confess that I've never written a classroom activity on The Plague or the Kennedy Assassination although it did feature in our Conspiracy Theories activity. If you have an original idea for a classroom activity to mark the Kennedy anniversary, let me know!

The Jackdaw folder and contents