It's ok Ma, I'm Only T-ching English
Having set out my manifesto for autumn last month, I urged alacrity in response: "come on," I cried, "we only have three days!", writes Luke Meddings
Well I almost had less than that; nagging abdominal pain as I completed the piece (I'll make the gag about it having the same effect on readers, thanks) turned out to be appendicitis. "The future's bright," I heard docs say as I came round from emergency surgery, only to discover they were talking about my suture. Yep, they had me in stitches.
Is there a lesson in it all, I have since been asked? Eat and drink a little more moderately, perhaps - oh, that kind of lesson. Trauma dogme. Well there is, I'd say, but only while the wounds are fresh.
If something is news, it has real currency in every day conversation. So it is with lessons that feed on the detail of our every day lives, and this particular one would start quite naturally as someone asks: "How are you?" Or, more pragmatically: "Where were you?" Or perhaps, if you have been away for a while: "Who are you?"
Answer in a chatty way that encourages more questions. By all means contribute correct form and vocabulary in the course of the conversation, but don't make this explicit - students may echo you, but they may not, and telling them to do so won't make it any easier. Remain seated, ideally away from your desk; make notes unobtrusively as people are speaking.
When there is a natural pause in the conversation, go to the board. Use your notes from what has been said, and match your interventions to the language needs of the people in the room.
Build outwards from any vocabulary that comes up, and work with what you have. If all you have for starters is "how are you?" and "fine, thanks," there is enough to work with. What about a synonym for "fine"? An antonym? Stronger or weaker words for the same? More or less friendly or formal ways of having this conversation?
Ask students to write down the original exchange they heard at the very start of the lesson, as far as they remember it. Ask them to compare notes in small groups and read a version back to you. Write it on to the board and compare their memory of what was said with your own. What can be learned from the differences?
Keep the language moving from speech to notebook to board, and back again. Fold in some idioms.
How might the exchange proceed by email? By text message?
How again might such an exchange proceed between two people talking about a third party who is either really not very well, or not half as ill as they think or say they are? How do people express real concern, how do they express scepticism? What intonation do they use to do this (there is a lot of fun to be had with this - exaggerate it, make it absurd, and people will remember the vocabulary that goes with it: intonation as an integral part of chunking).
Invite students to write down some other examples of (not very) bad luck, which might prompt a conversation of this sort - different reasons for someone being away from work for a day or two - then invite pairs of students to role play a brief exchange on the subject.
If much of this sounds familiar, you're right. Strategies learned from "delivery" teaching, from the best course books and materials writing, will serve you well in the unplugged classroom. The opportunity is to allow the conversation to arise from real life, the language to emerge from the conversation, and to match the language development, analysis and practice to the needs, interests and abilities of the people in the room.
Of course, one doesn't have to wait for big news to start a conversation. In fact it is important to establish a class dynamic where the bar for "interesting" input is explicitly set very low. Ask students on a Monday to share the most enjoyable thing they did over the weekend, rather than an enjoyable one. It allows everyone in - people who are shy, people who can't think of anything off the top of their head, and people who had a rubbish weekend.
Relish banality, and enjoy each other's company. In this atmosphere, people will feel able to talk about each other's lives with a degree of openness, with some seriousness where it is appropriate, and with general good humour.
Managing this atmosphere, as much as the conversation and the language it generates, is your responsibility. It demands the most constant attention to the detail of how we ordinary human beings respond to ordinary things: the expressions on our faces are as important as the expressions on the page. Don't you agree?