A Fresh Ride

January 14, 2012 § 7 Comments

“I may not have gone where I intended to go,
but I think I have ended up where I wanted to be.”
Douglas Adams
“A Hitchhikers’ guide to the galaxy”

When I worked in the Alps as a waiter in a 4-star hotel, a guise solely enabling me to go snowboarding at every opportunity, ah snowboarding, what a ride, skimming across the soft fresh glistening powder, weaving in and out of trees and rocks, landing head-first in chest-deep snow and gulping down the mountain air for hardly-existing oxygen as you struggle to dig yourself out, where was I? oh yes, mornings in the hotel were spent clearing the tables after breakfast and setting them for the evening meal. It’s where I learned to fold napkins into swans and fans and the like, seven designs, one for each day of the week.

How annoying, then, when they’d saunter in after a day on the slopes and whip my artwork into their laps without the slightest hint of acknowledgement, let alone admiration.

Hotels would run perfectly if it weren’t for damned guests.

A few years later, having swapped Alpine snow for Atlantic surf, ah surfing, sun, sea and sand, paddle paddle, the wave picks you up and you slide down an ever-shifting slope seeking stability, what a ride, where was I? oh yes, I had also, in my eyes, moved up a rung on the career ladder by working for the British Council in Portugal.

Here, I encountered a teacher with the most extreme and opposite views to mine I had ever heard. I can’t remember which coursebook we were all supposed to be using, but he wanted every level in every centre, twelve or so dotted around the country, to all be doing exactly the same thing in exactly the same lesson at exactly the same time. Order. Precision. Perfection.

Syllabuses would flow perfectly if it weren’t for damned students.

Because people, life, lessons, can’t be planned to the letter. You’re always going to end up somewhere else, somewhere you hadn’t envisaged. It’s not wrong, coz there was never any right, only a pitiful attempt to impose order and feel safe.

Luke said recently:

“Conversation-rich and materials-light (and the implications of pursuing these in the classroom) are not new – but I believe that focusing on emergent language is new, or at least represents a challenge to ELT orthodoxy – and is the most interesting and challenging of the three.”

I agree. Dogme can be a gentle breeze blowing the dust off the coursebook’s pages or a hurricane tearing it from everyone’s clutches entirely. Dogmers describe how exhilarating this ride is. But anyone who laughs at the well-intentioned but ill-informed idiocy of trying to map out a country’s language lessons for a whole year in an afternoon has the spirit of Dogme in them. Because if you do sympathise with such a prescriptive view, then just for starters you’d be missing out on the wonderful drama classes that Luke was part of in Nick Bilbrough’s cosy retreat in Devon.

And so this is where I find myself, making and selling interactive language plants, but with this spirit in me that has been brought into much clearer focus over the last few years, thanks to Teaching Unplugged and the blogs it has spawned.

Especially this third principle, dealing with emergent language.

Because too many teachers and pupils, those who have never heard of Dogme, have said to me: “Can we make our own language plants? Can we add our own words to the ones you’ve made? Can we make our own activities?”.

Reading between the lines, this is what I hear teachers saying:

“We love language plants. The interactive activities have brought a breath of fresh air. We also love creating an environment where learners are encouraged to contribute their own language and their own ideas and can grow and learn in unpredicted and unanticipated ways. Can you marry the two?”

This is the ride I now find myself on.

“You can’t stop the waves,
but you can learn to surf.”
Jon Kabat-Zinn


§ 7 Responses to A Fresh Ride

  • DaveDodgson says:

    I’ve been there and done that with hotel service too (in the somewhat less spectacular setting of Newcastle city centre, however). I recall going through all the training and practice sessions to do ‘silver service’ properly, only for one guest at the first wedding reception I served at to say “why don’t you just use the spoon lad?”

    I think uniform standards do work in some industries, especially service ones so every customer can (in theory) experience the same standards wherever they are whoever serves them.

    But education is not a service industry and uniformity does not work across all classrooms. I have worked with people like the one you mentioned from Portugal. “Where are you in the book?” was a question I was commonly asked followed by a look of horror as I answered that we had done a little bit from this unit, a little from that unit and jumped ahead to a page near the end of the book… For those colleagues, I guess education IS a service industry.

    Slowly but surely, I see blog posts like this one and discussions like the ones we are having online so often these days changing all that. 🙂

    • David Warr says:

      Hi Dave, that’s a nice point you make about the service industry compared to teaching. I never jumped around like you do, but I will keep this attitude in mind when I am trying to design (online) course material later in the year. Thanks for letting me know about your irreverence 🙂

  • Really enjoyed the symmetry, contrast and then twist in this post. Best to you and the Language Garden in 2012, David !

  • languagelego says:

    I’ve been musing over my beliefs re: the big Dogme debate. My position is not crystal clear to me yet, but I must say I agree that dealing with emerging language is vital in any classroom. And challenging. And the most attractive thing about Dogme so far.

  • Kathy F. says:

    Nice post! I love the quote. My sentiments exactly!

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