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Putting a name to a face (or a term to a method).

September 14, 2011

(AKA – You don’t need to know the name to be part of the movement!)

For three years I have been teaching a class of three middle-aged men at a large company. I began the course with a needs analysis; realised they didn’t need English at work at all. And then I set about “fixing” their grammar.

Yep, looking back at my records of work it seems that my sole intention each Wednesday at 8.30am was to batter as much goddam present perfect vs past simple into them as humanly (inhumanely?) possible.

Needless to say, I failed.

Each 90 minute session was hell: Desperate cries of “We’re too old for this!” and remorseless replies of “Fine, but remember – when referring to a finished past situation, you can’t say ‘have been’. Ok?!”

And the tests, oh the tests…! I wrote them, set them and marked them, all the while rather annoyed at the woeful marks my students achieved. Those tests were truly horrific displays of what a grammar hungry teacher can do to a room of full-grown men. I once caught one of them trying to cheat by copying vocabulary onto his desk notepad before I got to class (he timed it wrong).

I was coming to the end of my tether. So were they. I was on the verge of quitting the class when I thought to myself that maybe, just maybe, the problem didn’t lie with the people in the room; it lay with the “stuff” in the room. Namely, the stuff I was bringing into the room with me – the coursebook material. Eureka!

I turned up that next Wednesday (about two and a half years ago) a tonne of paper lighter and without that grammar-induced scowl on my face these men had come to know and certainly not love.

I had a better idea: I started this first lesson of our new method by handing them each three pieces of paper and asking them to write down topics they wanted to talk about. We put these 9 pieces of paper into a plastic wallet and they selected one at random for us to discuss. The topic was The Best Ever Inventions. As we discussed, I fed in new language and put it on the board. If a specific grammar point would help them say something better, we focused on it briefly and then got back to the conversation. We have continued this process every Wednesday since. Every time the plastic wallet gets a bit empty, I hand out more scraps of paper for them to write on and we continue the pattern. Some of the topics have been particularly complicated (e.g.: 25/05/11 – Is it the people who make the policies or the policies who make the people?); some have been so simple but have lead to 90 minutes of thoroughly interesting, productive and educational discussion (26/01/10 – “What is your job?”).

The students choose the topics and I support them in their quest to partake in such conversations in English. It works. It’s fun. Wednesday mornings are no longer something to fear, in fact I look forward to them. It has been incredible to see how these three men and I have travelled through topics, discussions, arguments, opinions and laughter that I honestly didn’t imagine was possible before.

And you know what? The progress they have made is amazing. I notice that they are using forms that I certainly haven’t focused on with them, so they must have got this from being active in a conversation with a native speaker on topics that grab their interest, no? If not, I don’t know where, as these men all admit to not using English at all out of our lessons.

They even use the present perfect accurately nowadays (almost)!

So, to the title of this post – I started this new approach before I had heard of the word “Dogme” or the idea of “unplugged teaching”. Once I came across these terms, I was actually already a devout follower; it’s just that now I had a name for it!

Have you ever discovered a method you were using was actually already in wide use?

What lead you to using it? Did that change your approach?

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 15, 2011 5:57 pm

    Thanks for sharing this story, Jemma: it’s a great read! You should check out Candy van Olst’s blog over at – she also discovered she was Dogme after the fact 😉

    • September 15, 2011 10:24 pm

      Thanks Anthony,. I finally got around to writing it! Will have a look at Candy van Olst’s blog too, good to know there are other “after-the-facters” out there!

  2. September 15, 2011 9:01 pm

    Nice little blog and a nice opening story. Looking forward to reading more from your blog. Good luck with it all.

  3. September 16, 2011 10:17 am

    Great blog thanks for starting up, thanks as well for sharing your story… Look forward to reading more of your unplugged musings. As far as my discovery of unplugged teaching goes, I found it in the first two weeks after qualifying and it fitted perfectly with what I thought are the best conditions to facilitate language learning. So I guess I discovered it before the fact?

    P.s. like the title of this post a lot.

    • September 16, 2011 5:48 pm

      Thanks Dale!

      Wow, first two weeks? That’s pretty quick off the blocks there! What qualification did you do? Was the style of it what lead you to developing this belief? Or was it that you’e always been Dogme inclined?! : )

      P.s. Now I have to try and be as clever with all my titles….

  4. September 16, 2011 9:34 pm

    Love the title and the PHOTO!
    I’m discovering, bit by bit, how much can be achieved by teaching unplugged. But these discoveries have a lot to do with the ability to read about teachers’ experiences on their blogs and be in touch with them too. Glad you have begun a blog – looking forward to reading more posts!

    • September 16, 2011 9:40 pm

      Thanks Naomi!
      The photo was taken just before I was almost squashed by a snow plough in South Tirol, Italy. A wonderful place for reflecting on life, the world and everything!
      I can only recommend continuing with the unplugging process, it reaps rewards far larger than simply cutting down on planning time 😉

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