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.

David Bowie - Blackstar

Like many people, I was having breakfast this morning when the news that David Bowie had died flashed up as breaking news on the different digital devices dotted around the flat. I couldn't believe it. How could it happen now? It was only last Tuesday that I'd heard John Wilson talking about the new Bowie album Blackstar on BBC Radio's Front Row. At the time I'd made a mental note to listen to the album when it was released on Friday 8th January to coincide with the singer's 69th birthday. Then, after I'd listened to it, I remember thinking that it needed a closer listen. So early on Saturday morning I lay in bed with headphones on, listening to the whole album. And for the rest of the weekend I had the songs spinning round in my head, especially Blackstar, Lazarus, and I Can't Give Everything Away. And now I'm being told that he's dead? It sounds like a hoax. But then the one line news alerts start to get longer and more detailed and it becomes clear that it isn't a hoax - it's real.

I wrote to my friend John Howlett and said how Bowie had always had impeccable timing - leaving an album for his fans and then dying a couple of days later. In one statement I read, Brian Eno, who had worked with Bowie many times over the years, said: "David's death came as a complete surprise, as did nearly everything else about him." How true.

My friend John replied to my message saying 'You’re the first person who came into my mind when I heard about Bowie.' It's hard to say just how much influence Bowie had on me over the years. I remember being told to listen to Hunky Dory when it first came out in 1971 and loving it. And I can still remember seeing the cover of the Ziggy Stardust album in the shop window of an Edinburgh record shop and thinking this was something totally new and different. I went to the Ziggy Stardust concert in Edinburgh and immediately started writing songs that sounded a bit too much like wannabe Bowie songs.

Another friend asked me today if I'd ever met him. I wish I had. I went to mime classes with Lindsay Kemp and sold tickets for his Turquoise Pantomime on the High Street in Edinburgh. Bowie had studied mime with him. I was introduced to the songs of Jacques Brel and Kurt Weill and fell in love with them as Bowie had done. I read William S. Burroughs and loved the idea of cutting up and re-assembling song lyrics as Bowie often did. And I loved songs that were theatrical. I'm sure we would've found something to talk about.

Bowie also appeared on the pages of iT's for Teachers magazine in various classroom activities and on the cover of one of the final issues coinciding with the 2013 exhibition David Bowie Is at the V&A in London.

Tony Visconti, Bowie's longtime producer wrote today: "He always did what he wanted to do. And he wanted to do it his way and he wanted to do it the best way. His death was not different from his life — a work of Art. He made Blackstar for us, his parting gift."

When a singer dies we usually have old songs going round in our heads. There aren't many artists who can fill your head with new songs just hours before they pass away. 

We're almost there

For various reasons (including one of those landmark birthdays that come round from time to time), this summer I ended up with a brand new 12-string Ovation guitar, a new microphone, two rather nice monitor speakers and a couple of audio interfaces to be able to connect everything to my computer and iPad to record some new music. It's a long way from the two-track reel-to-reel tape recorders I used when I first started writing songs, adding harmonies by bouncing from track to track.

The array of sounds and effects on GarageBand and Cubase helped to make my first musical attempts both exciting and overwhelming at the same time. The first two pieces of music I came up with were a song that I'mstill writing lyrics for and 'We're Almost There' which isn't really a song at all. After I added the line 'Wake up. We're almost there' and the sound effects of the cars passing on the motorway, I remembered a video I made in Mexico City.

The trip to Mexico was part of the research we did for Beyond. We visited a lot of schools there and met some amazing teachers. Most of the schools were out of the city and we spent hours driving from place to place. I thought the network of roads in and out of Mexico City werespectacular with its two levels. It reminded me of an old Tractorial Base song called 'Underneath the Overpass'. Anyway, I made a couple of quick videos in order to keep a record of it. I tried setting 'We're Almost There' to the video and it fitted almost perfectly.

Anyway, I'm hoping to be able to spend more time making music, writing some new songs and recording some old ones. I'll keep you posted...

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.

Using multimedia in the classroom

multimedia.jpg

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.

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

Only Lovers Left Alive

There's a scene towards the end of Only Lovers Left Alive in which Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton)  stand outside a bar in Tangier, listening to Yasmine Hamdan sing 'Hal'. Eve says she'll be famous one day to which Adam replies: 'She's too good to be famous.' or words to that effect.

I've been waiting to see this Jim Jarmusch film since it was first shown at the Cannes film festival in 2013. It took its time getting to Barcelona. And when we did manage to sit down to watch it at the Floridablanca cinema, the projector decided to pack in. Ticket price returned, we tried again a few days later at the Verdi. Going to the cinema these days can be such a depressing experience when there are only a handful of you there. A couple of weeks ago we went to the Icaria cinema and there were plastic bags over broken seats and no-one noticed that the film had started without any picture. But I can't help it - I love going to the cinema. And watching Only Lovers Left Alive on a big screen in a near-empty session felt very appropriate. A bit like Adam and Eve driving down those desolate Detroit streets.

Anyway, the film took me back to my early days in Barcelona when most of the V.O. films were shown at the Casablanca or Capsa cinemas (both now closed). Jim Jarmusch was so much a part of that period: Stranger Than Paradise (1984); Down by Law (1986); Mystery Train (1989). I think I saw them all at the Casablanca.

I wasn't disappointed by Only Lovers Left Alive. The IMDB summary reads: 'A depressed musician reunites with his lover, though their romance - which has already endured several centuries - is disrupted by the arrival of uncontrollable younger sister.' How could I not love it?

Tilda Swinton was the perfect vampire and Tom Hiddleston was great as the depressed musician. He reminded me of Mike Sheppard, bassist, guitar player, engineer, and third member of Tractorial Base. The egg boxes on the wall of Adam's room, the Revox reel-to-reel tapes turning, and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush where we wrote and recorded most of the Tractorial Base demos.

The egg boxes on the wall, the Revox and the collection of guitars took me back to Steve's home studio in Shpeherd's Bush.

So I've added Welcome to Tractorial Base to the Tractorial Base album. It's really three songs linked together. It lasts more than 8 minutes but it'll give you an idea of how mad and exciting things were back then.

The valley and the dales

Vall de Llémena

So what does the Vall de Llémena near Girona (pictured here) have in common with the IATEFL conference in Harrogate (on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales)? Well, let's talk about the conference first. This year's IATEFL was special for different reasons. To start with, it's been four years since the conference was last held in Harrogate and therefore four years since the launch of Lindsay Clandfield's course Global, my first project for Macmillan. It was at the same conference that I'd had lunch with Emily Rosser and Dulcie Fry which marked the beginning of what was then called the NISC (New International Secondary Course). The NISC went on to become Beyond which we launched at this year's conference but more about that soon. 

This year's conference was also special because I received a Language Learner Literature Award for The Green Room which I wrote for Helbling Languages. I hadn't realised beforehand that I was expected to say a few words at the awards ceremony. In hindsight, maybe it was better not to have known. The last time I prepared an acceptance speech for the ELTons, I didn't win the award. There's something magical about being handed a microphone. Being a singer, I love microphones but the truth is I'd much rather sing than speak into one. There was a video interview with Jennifer Basset too. At one point we were asked if we ever wished we could write 'real books' ...

But the best thing about IATEFL is going to talks and workshops and suddenly feeling inspired again. It's so often the speakers you've never heard of who turn out to be the most inspiring. So, even though we only finished the main writing of Beyond the day before we set out to Harrogate, I left the conference with so many ideas and wanting to start writing again. Which brings us to the Llémena valley and a long walk through woods, down mountains, across rivers, and into some of the most beautiful and magical countryside I know. The surroundings were as inspiring as the conference and as soon as I got home, I found myself adding more notes to the notes I'd already made at IATEFL.  Now it's just a question of turning those ideas into words...

Teaching is an art form

'Teaching is an art form.' These were the words of Sir Ken Robinson, the educationalist, speaking on last week's Desert Island Discs on BBC Radio. Between playing the eight songs he'd chosen to take to a desert island, he talked about his life, including his childhood in Liverpool and his education which would fundamentally shape the rest of his life. 'If a teacher hadn't seen something in me that I hadn't seen in myself, my life might have gone in a very different direction.'

Now he's a successful author, speaker, and international advisor on education. His talks on creativity are famous around the world. In fact, his 2006 TED talk How schools kill creativity is the most viewed video in TED’s history. After listening to him on Desert Island Discs I watched the video again. At one point he talks about the reaction of people he'd meet at dinner parties when he told them that he worked in education.

Things don't seem to have changed much. In the same week, I went to see La vie d'Adèle (Blue is the Warmest Colour). I know people are talking about this film  for other reasons, but I was really surprised by the attitude of Emma's art-loving friends towards Adèle when they discover she's a teacher. Don't they know that 'teaching is an art form'?

In case you're interested, Sir Ken's favourite record was the Traveling Wilburys' End of the Line. You can listen to the Desert Island Discs programme here:
http://bbc.in/1cxIufB

And if you're not one of the 25 million people who have viewed his 2006 TED talk, here's your chance.