In 2014, I started writing a textbook with National Geographic Learning that was part of a series for teens. For six months, before any writing took place, our team of authors and editors conducted lengthy discussions on the content and methodologies that would go into the books. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on what and how I wanted to teach not only my students but also whoever picks up the book. What follows is an introduction to some of the main ideas I contributed about teaching English and how they came to me.
Guiding Principle #1: A classroom is no place to learn a language.
When I was seventeen, I was deep in the rainforests of Costa Rica when I realized I wasn’t bad at Spanish. I had always been a B student back home, but just two months into my summer homestay, I was somehow able to talk late into the night with my host brother about movies, music and whatever else teenage guys talk about. Spanish became a superpower, like x-ray vision: the more I mastered the language, the deeper I could see into the culture. From that point on, I would never receive anything less than an A in a foreign language.
Over the years, I have excelled at languages, but there’s a catch – or perhaps a confession: I have never been able to learn one in a classroom. And now I find myself as a foreign language teacher, confined to a classroom each day. How do I teach students like me? In other words, how do I make language learning relevant to my students in the classroom and help them unlock this superpower for themselves?
Well, if I can’t send them out into the world, maybe I can bring the world to them! This is what I have tried to do, and it is what National Geographic does so well. Of course, in the 21st century, we are also armed with digital tools and virtual reality, so we are actually able to transport our students to the target culture without leaving school at all. I have a class project called “My Seven Wonders.” It is part of a unit I teach on World Heritage education. First, students break into seven groups and investigate the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Each group goes online and discovers a different Wonder: What was it? Where was it? What happened to it? What does it look like today? After they have done their investigation, they report back on places like the Ancient Pyramids of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes.
Then I segue to the students’ Seven Wonders by asking, “What are seven of your favorite places in the world? What are seven places that you hope your children can visit long after you are gone?” They choose places they have been to or places they would like to go. They can be famous or unknown.
The students then begin searching for their favorite spots using Google Earth and “pinning” each spot they want to go. Then I teach them how to make a simple Google Earth Tour of each site. After they put each pin in a folder, Google Earth automatically connects them and flies from place to place across the globe. While it soars from one location to the next, students add vocal narration, describing each site and why it is special. Once they are finished, they can upload their “Seven Wonders Tour” to YouTube and share it.
Every year, I find that my students take a great personal interest in this project: 1) because it is interesting to them; 2) because it allows them to use very cool technology; and 3) because they can create something that can be shared and preserved online; and 4) because they don’t feel like they are locked in a classroom. They are using their English actively and to communicate information they actually want to share. For me, these projects are a joy to watch and assess, especially when compared to more traditional homework assignments.
Guiding Principle #2: Go deeper.
Another roadblock I’ve encountered: While other subjects grow more intellectually challenging as students proceed through primary into secondary school (think Math and how it advances from arithmetic to algebra), in the average high school language classroom, we are still grappling with questions like, “How is the weather?” instead of more intriguing questions like “How has climate change affected your country?”
Lower level English students need not and should not be restricted to low level topics. Yes, they need to learn the basics but with proper scaffolding, no topic is too difficult to tackle in a foreign language. We can go deeper. Students need to be challenged in order to be motivated. “My Seven Wonders” is an example of investigative or inquiry-based learning. I often give students assignments to investigate a topic or question and report back to class. If my students are lower level, I make sure to provide them with more frameworks, models and examples to help them complete their tasks.
The good news about teaching English is that we are not limited in what content we can teach. In fact, we are free to teach almost anything we (or our students) like as long as we are also improving our students’ language abilities. Why teach only English vocabulary, grammar and skills when our students have so much else to learn? And when language can be presented, taught and practiced more effectively through authentic communication?
I am a proponent of content-integrated language learning (CLIL). So I try to set not only language goals, as well as content goals with each lesson plan. When I teach my Japanese students a typical subject like food, we don’t just learn about the four food groups. We learn how to eat sustainably. Students research whether or not their favorite seafood is endangered, and as a final project, create sustainable sushi menus and recommend them to local restaurants.
As I told my students a couple weeks ago, after they’d heard a classmate’s presentation of the well-known chef Alice Waters’ 12 Principles of good eating, “If this is the only English you learn this week, then I have done my job.”
Guiding Principle #3: Teach understanding.
Finally, there have been some events outside the classroom that have given a sense of urgency to my teaching. 9/11 was one. I was in New York and saw the towers fall. I witnessed New Yorkers selflessly help each other in the aftermath. 3/11 was another: when the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown hit my adopted homeland of Japan, I watched helplessly on the school TV with my students. Together, we saw the live footage of tidal waves engulfing the communities on the northeast coast. There have been positive experiences as well: I’ll never forget leading groups of American students on eye-opening study trips to Hiroshima; collaborating on an award-winning UNESCO project with Trinity College Kabale in Uganda; and exchanging tea ceremonies with extremely polite and generous students from Morocco.
All these experiences have taught me to cherish the time I have with my students, whose minds are wide open, to help them learn not just foreign speech patterns, but more importantly, how to relate to others around the world, help them if at all possible, and in turn become global citizens. We all need to learn to become better neighbors both at home and abroad. In Japan, I am often asked to teach students how my culture is different from theirs. I am happy to share stories of forgetting to take off my shoes indoors, but my ultimate aim is to show how we are fundamentally alike, despite our differences.
One way to do this is through the Model United Nations. My advanced students role play UN delegates and work together on issues like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in an attempt to resolve global issues that affect us all. Students must research the country they represent and how the issues affect them. They must write position papers, and they must listen, discuss and deliver their thoughts for solving problems. In my experience, I have yet to find an activity that so effectively exercises the four skills, while at the same time, giving students a greater understanding of our world.
These are three of the principles that have most influenced my teaching. On a trip to Finland a couple years ago, I learned that to graduate from the University of Helsinki’s highly selective School of Education, all students must explain and defend their personal methodology before they can become teachers. I have been fortunate to develop mine over time. Take the time to reflect on three or more thoughts of your own that guide your teaching.
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Author: Tom Fast
Tom Fast is a teacher, author and education consultant based in Japan. Over the last twenty years, he has taught and produced materials for early teen to adult learners. Tom has presented internationally, led a number of teacher training workshops, and consulted for the public and private sector.