Life skills in Brazil

I recently returned from a trip to Brazil where I was talking about teaching life skills to teenagers. By happy coincidence, the previous month I'd finally got round to reading Dear Me, a letter to my sixteen-year-old self. If you've never come across it, this is a book that consists of letters written by a selection of well-known names to their younger selves. What words of wisdom would they pass on after the experience of so many years. As J.K. Rowling writes in the book's Foreword, 'the overwhelming message of this body of letters seems to be: Be yourself. Be easier on yourself. Become yourself, as fully as possible'.

So I started my Brazil talk by quoting some examples from the book. A lot of the advice is very practical. For example, the actor Hugh Jackman advises his teenage self to “Buy shares in Google when they are invented!!!!” Other advice is more personal such as these words from J.K. Rowling. “Stop smoking NOW. Stick up for yourself a bit more. Forgive yourself a lot more."

Some advice comes up time and time again. James Woods is just one of several people who refers to listening to others: “Listen more than you may be inclined to do. Talk less.” Many writers refer to the low self-esteem they experienced as a teenager. “Expand your horizons," writes Gillian Anderson, "your world is a bigger oyster than your low self-esteem wants you to believe. Follow your dreams not your boyfriends.”

I also came across this letter from Lucas Cruikshank. “Don't fret about the whole 'shy thing' you're enduring right now. I mean, give yourself a break!” In case you don't know, Lucas Cruikshank was one of the very first YouTube stars. His was the first YouTube channel to reach a million subscribers. Lucas was actually sixteen years old when he wrote his letter so he wrote it to his thirteen-year-old self.

Writing a letter to your younger self is a fun activity. You should try it sometime. The book thoughtfully includes some blank pages at the end where you can write your own letter. After reading Lucas's letter, I wondered what advice I'd give to my thirteen-year-old self.

So that's me in the photo when I was thirteen years old. It's from a provisional passport I needed for a trip abroad. (I love the fact that it has a space for a photo of my wife.) And here's my advice to my thirteen-year-old self:
“Don’t take life so seriously.” I used to worry a lot when I was a teenager.
“Work more with other people.” I don't remember ever doing group work or even pair work at school. (This was a long, long time ago.) I didn't really appreciate the benefits of working with other people until after I'd left school.
“I know you hate speaking in public but it will be very useful one day.” I was extremely shy. I still don't feel at ease talking in front of other people.
“Think more about other people.” I admit it. I was very self-obsessed as a teenager. Aren't we all?
“They can be right too!” OK. Point taken.
“Learn to speak Portuguese.” I originally put 'learn to dance' but after spending a few days in Brazil, I realised how much I love Portuguese and how much I'd like to learn it.

I think a lot of the advice I'd give to my younger self is similar to the advice we'd give teenagers today: Learn to deal with stress, understand the benefits of teamwork, be more self-confident, think more about other people, respect other people's opinions. These are all life skills. And Portuguese? Is learning a language a life skill? We had a discussion about that over dinner. Answers on a postcard, please.

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.

Using multimedia in the classroom

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On Wednesday this week I gave a webinar as part of the 2014 Macmillan Online Conference. The topic was ‘using multimedia in the classroom’ which is one of those themes that could easily fill a whole week of webinars. While I was doing some research, I came across two surveys that served as an introduction to the theme.

The first was a survey carried out by Ofcom, the independent communications regulator in the UK. Ofcom carries out research to help understand people’s awareness of technology and communications. In August this year it published the results of a survey to find out how tech-savvy people are in the UK. It discovered that we’re at our most tech savvy between the ages of 14 – 15 years old. This seems to reinforce the belief that students know more about technology than their teachers. But do they really know how technology works or is their knowledge limited to carrying out the tasks they’re mainly interested in?

For 12–15 year olds, more than 90% of their device time is message based (‘chatting’ on social networks or sending instant messages) while 10% of device time is spent sending video and photo messages, sharing or commenting on photos. That doesn’t leave much time for using their devices for other things.

The results of the second survey were published in the journal Educational Technology Research and Development and reported on in Science Daily. The survey revealed that teachers still know better when it comes to using technology. The researchers looked at the technology skills of 24 science teachers and 1,078 middle school students from 18 different schools in two US states (middle school students are typically between the ages of 10–14).

According to the survey, most students were not very familiar with information and communication technology or even Web 2.0 tools designed to make information production and sharing easier. They have little opportunity to practise technology beyond pursuing personal interests, such as entertainment. Their teachers, on the other hand, depended much more on using technology to solve daily problems, to improve productivity, and as learning aids.

So it seems that teachers have a lot to teach their students about using technology to solve problems, enhance productivity, and develop creativity. This gives force to the case for using mobile phones and tablets in the classroom rather than banning them.

If you were one of the 500+ teachers at the webinar, thanks for coming. It was good to see so many teachers with a positive attitude to using technology and multimedia in the classroom. And if you want to try a simplified version of the Ofcom survey to find out how tech-savvy you (or your students) are then follow this link.

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.