Up in my (family) tree.

At the beginning of the week I found myself flicking through the course book that I should be using with the class. Lo and behold the first chapter opened up on an interesting reading about the BBC programme ‘Who do you think you are’. Interest stirred, I picked up ‘Teaching unplugged’ and flicked to an activity called ‘What’s in a name’. Perfect. I had my lesson.

I started the lesson by asking each student to write their name on the board. I then asked the class if they liked their name, if not, would they like to change it. Most people said they were happy enough, except one student. She said that most people always shortened her name or they couldn’t spell it properly and this annoyed her. With this flicker of interest I revealed the three questions I wanted the students to discuss.

Does your name have a meaning?

Does anyone else in your family have that name?

Is it a popular name here in Cantabria/Spain?

(Thornbury&Meddings, Teaching Unplugged, 2009)

The noise level increased, the students started talking away, I picked up my pen and pad to take notes and all of a sudden the talking stopped. This was new. Normally they enjoy talking in pairs and it gives me time to perhaps feed in other questions to stimulate the conversation. Clearly not this time, so I decided to get some feedback. Out of a class of ten, two people knew the meaning behind their name, apart from those two, everyone else in the class had someone else in their family with the same name. Unsurprisingly the names of the students were all fairly common to Spain so not much came from that. Okay, don’t panic I thought. I went back to the two people who knew the meaning behind their names. One was named after a flower, but didn’t know why. She didn’t really want to say much else on the subject. I went to my last option. It turns out the student’s name is Greek in origin and means messenger. I probed a little further.

“Do you know much about your family history?” (me)

“Yes, I study History in University”

 “Have you done any research or looked into your families past?” (me)

“Yes, I……..(lots of back and forth between her and her friend in Spanish to find the right word) …. a coat of arms.

“Really!?” (me)

You beauty. I couldn’t believe my luck. I drew an outline of a shield on the board and asked if this was what she meant. She nodded enthusiastically and, with some encouragement, told us about her family coat of arms and it’s significance. Despite this, the class didn’t seem fully engaged yet, so I decided to bring the reading into play.

I asked the class if they knew what ‘Family tree’ meant. A few mumbles and then the Spanish version was shouted out. We talked about what a ‘family tree’ could tell us and whether anyone had one or would like to have one made. The interest level seemed to be rising. I told the class that I wanted to show them pictures of six different people. (Colin Jackson, Matthew Pinsent, Nigella Lawson, Davina McCall, Jodie Kidd and Kim Cattrel) In pairs I asked them to discuss who these people were and where they came from. They only knew the woman from ‘Sex and the city’ but guessed they were all from Britain. I explained that these people had taken part in a popular T.V programme on the B.B.C. I wrote the programme title on the board, ‘Who do you think you are?’. I asked the students to discuss with their partner what they thought the programme was about. After a few wild guesses, I explained what the show was all about and that I had an article about the show for them to read. The article was all jumbled up and they needed to work together to put it back in order. Once this was done I wanted them to highlight any unknown vocabulary and answer the gist question I had put on the board.                                                                      This was the first reading we had done in class so far and the students seemed to enjoy the task. Once the texts were put in the right order we discussed what clues had led them to putting it into that order. Then we discussed all of the new vocabulary that they had highlighted. This lead to me, finally, to doing some good standard pronunciation work, individual and choral drilling, which had been missing in the previous lessons. The white board was filling up, parts of speech were discussed and, a breakthrough for me, phonetics were included.

Next I talked about the fact that in a normal class I would set five or six other questions based around the text for the students to get specific information for. I told them that now they would become the teacher and it was their job to write the five questions for the other groups. But also I mentioned that the other groups would be from another class and that I would be getting feedback from them about their questions. This seemed to spur the students on and they worked really hard on the questions and finished them before the end of the class.

I was pleased with this lesson. After a quiet start the students become engaged in the subject and enjoyed the activities. Lots of new vocabulary came up and I finally did some pronunciation and improved my board work. I think the most important thing to take away from this lesson is that it is important to ask the right questions and perhaps probe a little deeper to find the right point at which to spring into the next part of the lesson. I got lucky this time, but it could have been very different. The class was language light and not for the first time. This is becoming a worry, yet the students are enjoying the classes and seem to be gaining in confidence when speaking and working together in groups.


5 thoughts on “Up in my (family) tree.

  1. Adam, I truly think these are the moments that *make* teaching so interesting and enjoyable. I’m not sure there’s another profession (other than maybe psychologist) where there’s such opportunity to learn about people. Good on you for sticking through the first initial stages of the lesson, and I totally agree that getting students to create questions for reading comprehension is a good thing to do (though I’m not sure this would work at all levels…).

    Regarding the language lightness you’re feeling – you can always come back to the content in later lessons. This is something I’m trying to become better at myself, the recycling of language. Try vocab guessing games with terms that have come up in lesson. Do something like taboo – students have to describe the word ‘uncle’ for others to guess, but can’t say father, brother, man, for example. Get students to categorise words you’ve captured in conversation activities – are they verbs or nouns? can they be both? – sort of thing. Mine your texts. You’ve done general comprehension activities, now give students the content words – can they fill in the ‘grammar’ to rewrite the text you looked at in the previous lesson.

    Just a few ideas I can think of right now!



    • Some great ideas Mike, thanks. I especially like the one about the grammar gap fill.
      As regards to the language lightness. Well I think it’s more of an experience thing, or lack of. I need to really think about what the students are trying to say and create building blocks for them to work with. Even if this means me spending a lot of time at the board feeding in the language. The topic and ideas might well be student centered, but with this level/particular class the language needs to be supplied and extensively highlighted to raise the students awareness.

      As always thanks for commenting. Greatly appreciated.


  2. Hi Adam. Great stuff again. If I had been in your position my heart would have been beating at 100 km/h when the initial questions didn’t stimulate much conversation. It’s all about waiting for the right wave (to shamelessly plug my own metaphor) and I think this is a perfect example of patience and calm in waiting for the right opportunity.

    I asked myself the same question concerning language lightness. Do you think this might be one of the drawbacks of using Dogme as a less experienced teacher?

    Thanks for the reflection, keep ’em coming!


  3. Without a doubt the language lightness is a drawback of my inexperience. It was my greatest doubt before the project started and still continues to plague me now. My own background in English, despite obviously being a native, is relatively poor. I am learning English all over again. I never went to University and have never studied English beyond G.C.S.E. I never really had to use or think about my use of English until I did my CELTA. These aren’t calls for sympathy, just simple facts. Ones that I am well aware of.
    Despite all that I think the language lightness is more about my own awareness of what the students want to say and building on this. As I mentioned to Mike in my reply above it is about building blocks, but the foundation needs to be laid first before you can do that. Even a simple response to a simple question in class can lead to five minutes at the board explaining ways in which we can improve that answer or even the process we go through to answer that question. I tend to skip this, because I don’t think it’s important or I think they should know it (the syllabus tells me so) and therefore I wait until something more complex comes up. At the moment the more complex structures aren’t coming up. Why? Maybe because they are struggling with the more basic structures to begin with. Maybe because I’m not creating the right conditions for them to emerge in. Maybe the complex structures are coming up but my lack of experience doesn’t allow me to recognise them. Only time and reflection will tell, I guess.

    A bit long winded, but I hope that answers your question. It has certainly created some questions for me to answer.

    Cheers Dale.


  4. Hi Adam, I’ll raise your long winded response with another!

    it’s certainly an issue I considered at the start. I came to teaching following very much the same route as you. Think that in some of my university essays, looking back now, my grammar and style were embarrassing! The facts are plain and simple as you said, you leave CELTA at the beginning, with an awareness of the language studied for teacher practice, confronted with a veritable sea of language to become familarised with. The problem is how to increase your understanding of it and how to then translate that to the classroom. No call for sympathy, as you said, these are the tools of our trade, we just need to get acquainted with them.

    Personally I think unplugging your classroom, at least one of them, is a great incentive to get better acquainted with our trade – language. Now, just over two years in, questions like you mentioned provide learning opportunities and I feel much more confident than I did once about explaining them and providing practice for them.

    In essence, the issue will always be there for any teaching entering the profession at a base level. Maybe using Dogme makes us more aware of it and pushes us towards a proactive approach. I wouldn’t suggest for a moment though that there are non-Dogme teachers out there in teacher-land who don’t try and take charge of their own development.


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