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.

20 ways to use a song

One of the great things about the Innovate ELT conference in Barcelona last weekend was the group work. At the start of the conference we were assigned a group and a room for the group to meet in. Having to spend part of the time completing tasks in groups gave everyone the chance to get to know other people they probably wouldn’t have spoken to otherwise and share the conference experience. In one of the final group sessions, conference speakers went from group to group, answering questions about the talks they’d given or anything the group members wanted to ask. As I went from room to room, it was interesting to see how the different groups wanted to talk about different things. I was asked about writing material, self-publishing, the story of iT’s and whether or not it was true that I’d once been a rock star. Another group asked me about using songs in class. ‘What’s the best way to use a song?’ they asked. I remembered that I’d once written a piece about using songs for the magazine so I promised to include it here.

The article makes reference to a song I wrote called ‘Pepe’s Song’. You’ll find it in the songs section at this site. At the end of the article you’ll also find a link to download the song and a complete lesson plan that uses the song. The lesson includes teaching notes and printable worksheets with illustrations by Piet Luethi (see above) who was also at the conference last weekend. So apart from getting to know new people, it was a great opportunity to see old friends again. Here’s the article ...


20 ways to use a song in the classroom

Here are 20 different things you can do with a song in class. Next time you want to use a song, choose the task you think suits it best. I’ve used some lyrics from the first verse of a song called 'Pepe’s Song'. Please note that this song includes references to crime and drug use. Check to make sure the themes are appropriate for your students before using it. You’ll find a link to download the song and a lesson below. You can also listen to the song here and read the complete lyrics here.

Pepe emptied his pockets
Had no money for the train
Stood on the crowded station concourse
Thinking – I’m never ever going home again

1. Take out the verbs and list them at one side. The students then put them into the correct place and correct tense. Or remove some of the more interesting vocabulary and encourage students to speculate on what the missing words are. Then listen to the song.

2. Make two copies of the lyrics and create an information gap activity. Student A has the text: "Pepe emptied his __________ ". Student A has to ask student B "What did Pepe empty?" to complete the text. Student B then has a missing word to find etc. Then listen to the song.

3. Before showing the complete text to the other students, choose 6 or 7 words from the lyrics and write them on the board: Pepe, pockets, money, station, never, home etc. The other students then speculate about what the song is about. Give them the whole text with the 7 words missing. Can the students place them correctly? Then listen to the song.

4. If the song has a strong story, cut up the verses (or the lines in a verse) and ask the students to put them into the correct order. Students then check the order by listening to the song.

5. Cut the text down the middle. Leave the first halves of lines as they are but jumble the second halves. Students have to match the half lines and build the complete text. They check their work with the song.

6. Ask the students to translate the lyrics into their own language. This works particularly well with songs that have bad lyrics! When the translation's done, play the song.

7. Write comprehension questions using the song lyrics as you would use any piece of text. Where was Pepe standing? On the station concourse etc. Finally, listen to the song.

8. If the song contains a lot of obscure vocabulary then create a dictionary activity. Remove the obscure words and write a sentence for each word. Half of your sentences use the words correctly and half incorrectly. The students use dictionaries to find out whether or not the sentences are correct. They also discover the meaning of the words which they will be able to place in the text. Finally, listen to the song.

9. If you don't want to use the song lyrics then there is often other reading material you can use that is linked to the theme of the song or the artist. Play the song while they are doing the work.

10. If the song tells a story then ask the students to predict what happens next or what happened before. Why does Pepe want to leave home?

11. If the song includes an interesting situation you can role play a scene from the song or use the other students' speculations (see 10) as the starting point for a role play.

12. Perhaps there's a writing link in the song such as a letter. In this case maybe Pepe left a note for his parents at home. The other students can write the note.

13. Your students can write about the artist or the theme of the song. They can also write a blog post or tweet about the artist. In both these cases, the song is an excuse for other work.

14. If you're very lucky then you might be able to use the song to look at some specific language. Songs are a good way to learn new or difficult language because they stick in the mind and are not easy to forget.

15. Use the song to start or end a discussion a discussion on a particular theme. In this song there are lots of themes to talk about. Maybe there's a song related to something you're working on in the course book. 

16. Song lyrics usually include rhyme. Copy the text and take out one of the rhyming words. Other students think of possibilities and check with the song. Or play the song, pausing the track before the rhyming word. The other students then speculate.

17. If there's a video for the song then maybe you can use it without doing any work on the actual song at all. Write visual questions for the others to answer during or after the video.

18. If the song has a video that isn’t well known, get the students to listen to the song and come up with an idea for a music video. They could create a storyboard for a video and then compare their ideas with the actual video. 

19. Ask your students to react to the song. What do they think of it? Encourage students to ask each other what they like or don't like about the song. Don’t forget to give your own opinion.

20. A listening activity! Write 3 questions on the board based on the lyrics of the first verse. The other students listen to the first verse (they don't see the text) and answer the questions. Go through the song in stages and only listen to the whole song at the end.

Finally, why not use the song for background music. Play it while you are doing some writing or group activity. Playing music while students are arriving for class or doing certain tasks is a great way to create a positive and relaxed atmosphere.

Follow these links to access the lesson plan for Pepe’s Song:

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.