Thursday, 26 February 2009

Building paragraphs

I have just corrected another pile of papers written by my students. The topic of these papers was the film Whale Rider and the culture of indigenous people. Many of the students said that they found the essay questions a bit harder than usual this time (but that is just natural, is it not, knowing that the exam is just three months away), but I still feel that many had managed to come up with fairly good answers anyway. What I usually do when the students write at school, is that they write for a certain amount of time, they hand in their papers and I correct them. Then it is time for feedback and for the students to read my comments and correct their own mistaks. This time we decided to do it a bit differently, however. The week after they had written the papers, they were all given some time to go back to their texts and work on the language. We even allowed them to work in pairs and to give each other feedback on what they had written. When correcting the papers I could clearly see who had taken this seriously and who had not. In many of the papers there were almost no spelling mistakes, and there were also fewer grammar mistakes than usual. This made my job a whole lot easier.

Even though the language part seemed to be better, many of my students still have problems structuring their papers. There is often no logical order in how the various points are presented, and sometimes the paragraphs are so poorly structured it totally ruins the message of the paper. My number one task this week was therefore to put focus on paragraph building and text structure. I first gave them a presentation in which I told them some of the basic rules when it comes to writing papers. In this presentation I have also included some small exercises to keep the students busy. They were then to work individually on various exercises and activities I have found on the web page of Exploring English. The students all worked quite well on these exercises. Hopefully it will pay off when their writing their term papers next month, too.

Wednesday, 25 February 2009

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, part one

'The dog was lying on the grass in the middle of the lawn in front of Mrs Shears' house. It looked as if it was running on its side, the way dogs run when they think they are chasing a cat in a dream. But the dog was not running or asleep. The dog was dead. There was a garden fork sticking out of the dog.'

This year I have decided that I want to read Mark Haddon's novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time with my first year students. I have heard about this novel since it was first published in 2003, but this is the first time I have read it. This is not the hardest novel to read when it comes to the language part, and I believe many will find the story quite simple. I nevertheless believe this novel can help my 16 years old students understand that a novel can be read and understood at various levels.

I have just started planning how to teach this novel (please leave a comment if you have any great tips!), and I will come back with a lesson plan later on. When searching on the internet for resources, however, I came across this Swiss page, which has various ideas for teaching literature. My plan so far is to use the audio book-version of the novel in the beginning, so that all of the students get into the novel as fast as possible. My experience is that even students at 16 like to listen when someone reads to them, and even if the language here is not a challenge, it may help them through the first pages. At Randomhouse you can also read an extract from the novel and also listen to a section from the text.

More resources on the novel:


CRASH - colliding with prejudice

"It's the sense of touch. In any real city, you walk, you know? You brush past people, people bump into you. In L.A., nobody touches you. We're always behind this metal and glass. I think we miss that touch so much, that we crash into each other, just so we can feel something."

One of the films I have learned to love is Paul Haggis's "Crash" from 2004. This is a film that really works with students. This is the third year I have shown it to my classes, and so far only one of my students has said that he did not like the movie. Several times students have actually come up to me after class, just to tell me how much they liked it.

The plot in "Crash" is quite complicated, and though I have seen the film 7-8 times, I still see new, interesting things in it. We may think that the themes in the film apply to Americans only, being a film set in LA, but I believe this film is quite accurate in describing how afraid we all are of the unknown, how little we know about other cultures, and how quickly we put the people we meet into boxes and categories. Our own feelings and beliefs are challenged here, and I believe most people actually have to admit that we have some prejudices towards people different from ourselves.

What I like about "Crash" is that this film has it all; you laugh, you cry, you scream, you get upset. It is also a film that sparks off interesting discussions in class. Some of the students may not have seen all the connections between the various plots in the film, but they all have something to say. On, I have found some questions for discussion which can serve as a starting point for a class discussion on the film. also has some questions/discussion topics that work well.

Before watching the film this year, we worked on the topic "Race and ethnicity in the USA" in class. This is a huge topic, and spending only a couple of lessons on the topic as we did this time, does not allow us enough time to really go into the complexity of the US society. I nevertheless find it important for us here in Norway to put focus on this and to stress that the US is so much more than what is presented in the traditional Hollywood-movies.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Resources on South Africa and Cry Freedom

I love films and one of the films that is on my top ten list is Cry Freedom from 1987. Here we meet the white journalist Donald Woods who gives up almost everything in order to tell the true story about what happened to political activist Steve Biko.

I believe this film can be used to illustrate how rotten the Apartheid regime in South Africa was at the time, and how much the black population had to suffer.

I do not think we will have the time to deal with South Africa this year, but I have gathered some online resources on the country. Hopefully these text can also teach our students something about South Africa after Apartheid and after Nelson Mandela's presidency.

The brutal imprint of apartheid
Country profile, South Africa:
Rainbow nation - dream or reality?
South Africa's widening divide
South Africa in transition

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Sugata Mitra: Can kids teach themselves?

Earlier I have told how we used a "hole in the wall"-approach to our work on indigenous people last year. Here you can watch Sugata Mitra telling about his experience.

Friday, 6 February 2009

Discussion groups, "The Bottle Queen" and "Panache"

Some days ago I wrote about how I had worked with the topic Native Americans in my groups. The glogsters turned out to be quite a success, even if not all of the students had managed to save theirs properly, and most of them also liked Kinsella's story "The Bottle Queen". We read this story together in class and I also gave the students some study questions for homework. This week we have been talking about the story in groups of four. Since Christmas I have started using group discussions rather than going through a whole bunch of questions in class, and this works quite well. Most times I have given each of the groups some time for preparation, so that they can compare notes and start speaking English before the discussion. The feedback from the students is that they like these dicsussion groups, and for me it is a way of seeing, and indeed listening to everybody, not just those who generally have a lot to say. I have told the students that these discussions will influence their grade at the end of the semester, and I use a rubric like this when assessing them.

Having finished this week's discussions, we turned to another short story by William P. Kinsella's, "Panache". I had planned for the students to work on this story in groups and a roleplay was one of the activities. You find my plan for how to work on "Panache" here. Summing up the two short stories at the end of the day, many of the students suggested themes, topics and possible interpretations, and it seemed to me that they had also learned quite a few things about the social conditions of the Native Americans.

Monday, 2 February 2009

Billy Elliot

Teachers love it, many students simply hate it: the film "Billy Elliot". I have shown this film to my students several times, and time and time again I have heard that this is a film for sissies. Neverthelsess, I believe this film can illustrate many elements in British society, if the students are just willing to look beyond the plain story of a boy who finds more pleasure in ballet classes than in boxing. In this film we can see the fragile relationship between father and son, an eleven year old boy missing his mother, and a community which is totally paralysed by the longest lasting miners' strike in British history. When working with this film, it also makes sense to discuss regional differences between the northern and southern parts of England, social classes, what kind of expectations out society has to boys and girls, and to which extent it is important to pursue your own dreams in life. It is a fact, though, that this film is almost ten years old, and that most of our students believe 1984 to be in the Stone Age... Anyway, under I have listed some resources on the film, and despite protests from the students, I believe I have not shown Billy Elliot at school for the last time in my career.

Photo: Arts journal

Serendipity moment in the classroom

I just wanted to share one of my "serendipity moments" ( I am not quite sure this is a serendipity moment by definition, but I just love the expression) from the classroom this year. Since late August I have given my students time to read English novels at school. They have been free to chose whatever English novel they like, and my number one aim is for them to expand their vocabulary. As this picture illustrates, my students quite enjoy this reading time. Most of the boys occupy the floor in the back of the classroom, the girls like to curl up in the corners in front, and the teacher really enjoys the silence of the room for 30 minutes.

Exploring English!

A while ago, I came across a book called Exploring English written by Magne Dypedahl and Hilde Hasselgård. Remembering Hilde Hasselgård as one of the greatest teachers I met at the university, I started reading the book, and I soon figured out that this was just what I had been looking for. This is a book in which the students can learn more about language and communication skills. I have also become an eager user of the Exploring English web page, where you can find exercises and tips on how to improve your skills. My students have liked working with these activities, and I believe some find it useful that there are short texts in Norwegian explaining the grammar. To me, this page has also come in handy when commenting on my students' papers; whenever I spot a particular problem at hand, I can give them the link to this page and they can read up on the topic. The idea is that this will save me a lot of discussions in the classroom. Am I the only one who has had questions like: "Why is this wrong? It sound natural and correct to me? What you have suggested is just odd, I think..."

You can read more about Exploring English here.

Teaching Sue Monk Kidd's "The Secret Life of Bees"

One of the things I find difficult when teaching English, is to find novels that my students really enjoy reading and discussing. Nick Hornby's About a Boy has been one of my favorites for several years now, but I have realised that many of the students just watch the film instead of actually read to novel. Last year, I therefore wanted to go for a new novel, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Personally, I find this story to be just beautiful, and I believe there are so many aspects that can be discussed when dealing with this novel. I was quite lucky when we were to read this novel. We had asked the students to chose between "my" novel and About a Boy, which my colleague Ingunn was to teach, and only a group of 15 students ended up reading The Secret Life. Talking about literature with only 15 students is so much easier than doing it in a class of 30, and even though not all of them were as active as I had wanted them to be, we had interesting discussions.

We had only set aside three weeks for working on this novel, and looking back I admit that was too little. It takes time getting the students to start reading, and they read a whole lot slower than we do. I was therefore not completely satisfied with the result, and I am not even sure all of the students finished the novel before the end of the year. Evaluating the novel, one of the conclusions was also that this novel appeals more to girls than to boys.

You will find my lesson plans and questions for discussion here:

Online resources (you will probably recognise the questions in my lesson plans...):