Thursday, February 10, 2005

Guns, Guts, & Glory in the Classroom

by AJ/Skald

Here's an idea for an English lesson: Guns! Big firearms. Instead of meeting in a stale classroom.. bring the whole class on a field trip to a gun store and shooting range. I'd let the owner give a talk and a demo on technique and safety (in English of course). I'd assist and paraphrase when necessary, to keep the language comprehensible for the students.

I guarantee they'd start speaking and asking questions... even the "shy" ones. I'd let 'em handle the guns if they wanted to... and shoot them. As they did this I'd keep up a running narration: describe what was happening, etc as a level appropriate to their English ability.

If I didn't have access to a store or range (ie. teaching in Japan) we'd read articles from the NRA, Soldier of Fortune, etc.. Also advertisements from firearms stores. I'd show vignettes (or full movies) such as Falling Down and Bowling for Columbine. I'd use the interactive reading technique (see Effortless Acquisition) to make the articles comprehensible. And would use the focal skills movie technique with the movies (basically: pause often and paraphrase).

I'd finish with an article about the Japanese student who was killed by a paranoid Louisiana gunowner a few years ago. Then I'd form the class into groups to devise "solutions" to what happened: how to prevent a similar tragedy.

Of course all of this is a setup because I know the topic will scare and horrify most Japanese-- who simply can't fathom the American fascination with guns. Im actually an anarchist/libertarian on the issue but who cares.

The point is to create a topic so absorbing that the students forget that everything is taking place in English. That's my definition of a successfull lesson: one in which the students forget that its being conducted in a foreign language.

This is what we should be doing as language teachers. Our central mission is to create powerful, shocking, wondrous experiences in the target language. Or to borrow a phrase from Tom Peters: "Wow experiences". That's what a language school (any school) should be-- a series of Wow experiences in comprehensible Engish (or whatever the target language): Stories. Field trips. Plays. Projects. Movies. Social events. The teachers duty- craft these projects and keep the input 90%+ understandable for the class. Not an easy job but certainly more interesting than what passes for teaching in most schools.

This field needs radical change. Why? Because "95% of students who begin study of a foreign language fail to achieve functional fluency" (Asher). We all know this. Most of us took the required French/Spanish/German courses in HS/College and most of us cannot manage even the simplest conversation (after 2,3,4+ years of study!).

In Japan, students begin mandatory English study in Middle School (many start earlier)... take three years in MS and another three years in HS.... and many take yet another 2-3 years in University. Yet most still cannot manage a basic conversation. Japanese chalk this up to the fact that "English is impossible". But neither English nor the students are to blame. Its the classes, stupid. (Where else but language education is a 95% failure rate tolerated?).

At the end of 6-8 years of study Japanese students are confused; and terrified of English. They've spent that entire time microanalyzing grammar points that stump even professional linguists. A few years ago, a student once asked me "How do you know when to use the past progressive?"

"Uh,.. what's the past progressive", I said, playing dumb.
He was horrified. He couldn't believe I didn't know (its the tense used to express continuous action that occurred in the past at a specific time (basically): "At 5pm yesterday I was watching a movie".

"How do you know when to use it if you don't know what it is?", he asked.

"I just know what sounds right", I said.

And of course, that's exactly what native speakers do: they choose language based on a feeling for correctness (Krashen's term). Students don't need to memorize these obtuse rules, they just need to develop a feeling for correctness.

In other words: Zen. Wu wei. Quiet the analytical mind and let the process unfold on its own. This is the essence of effortless acquisition. This is the teacher's challenge.

"Under the right circumstances, language acquisition is as natural and unconscious as digestion. Not only is it unconscious, it is involuntary. Like it or not, when students are exposed to comprehensible input in a no-anxiety environment, they acquire language" (Krashen).

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