IATEFL 2012: Teacher versus preparation: born survivor

Just seen Howard Smith’s resolutely low-tech session.  A pleasing antidote to all the tech sessions I’ve been in this week so far!

As a teacher who hates having last-minute cover dropped on her, I was really looking forward to this talk, which promised some ideas for how to cope with such a situation.  Here’s how it went… with my asides/thoughts in italics this time, just to mix things up a bit.

To start with, he gives us a brief comment/warning/whatever: he’s one of those grumpy types who loathes participation in CPD meetings like these, and is more than happy if we don’t want to do the activities he’s gonna give us (er, because he’s going to get us to do stuff… maybe just to vindictively subject us to the stuff he’s been tortured with in the past?!).

His session is also not intended to be any sort of overarching vision or mission for EFL.  It’s just lessons learned from his experience of often being stuck with having to do something with some random class at the last minute.

So.  Off we go.

All you need are some bits of paper.  You can always tell the classroom he’s been teaching in because it’s littered with bits of paper like droppings (his words!).  (My thought at this moment… so he’s one of those irritating teachers who doesn’t ask his students to clear up after their lesson, leaving the next teacher to tidy up the mess?)

Activity 1.

– Everyone’s got one long strip of paper.

– They write something on it that they’ve done in their lives which they don’t think many other people have done (doesn’t have to be unique, just fairly uncommon).


– Two of us swap our papers; then we swap those papers with someone else.

– So everyone’s now got a bit of paper with an uncommon experience on it and we don’t know who wrote it.

– Now we all get up and mingle and ask people if they’ve done the thing we’ve got written on our bits of paper.

– We’re not allowed to say “yes” or “no”.  We have to say precisely this: “strangely enough, yes I have.”  WHETHER IT IS TRUE OR NOT, WE MUST USE THESE WORDS.  (This ensures everyone starts off equally and on a slightly artificial foot.  Gives some thinking time, gives a way into the activity.)

– Then the person talking to you has a couple of minutes to find out if you’re telling the truth.  We can (have to?) lie through our teeth!  Try to make it credible.

– (Note: if this were being done with a multilingual group of students, they should try and make up lies that don’t reveal their nationalities.  Similarly, avoid things which require specialist knowledge – it’ll give away who wrote it if the students know anything about each other’s professions, hobbies, etc.)

My verdict: lots of laughter, lots of speaking, lots of careful listening. A very enjoyable activity.

Howard’s comments: the lying helps, or else it can be a bit embarrassing to go on and on about one’s achievements.  Howard hates “tell your partner something interesting about you” – it always leads to people squinting at you disbelievingly like, “seriously? you think that’s interesting?”

Activity 2.

– Everyone’s got one long strip of paper.

– We have to write in the middle of the strip a time in our lives that was memorable.  Could be very specific (e.g. 7am yesterday morning) or much more vague (e.g. summer 1975).  Doesn’t matter if other people in the group are likely to have been alive then!

– Underneath this, we have to write how we were feeling at that time (a word or phrase).

– Thinking about why we felt that way, we have to make one-word notes on the left-hand side of the paper about things that had happened before that which contributed to your state of mind at the time.

– Then on the right-hand side, we make notes about things that happened afterwards (related things, obviously!).


– In pairs we discuss the feelings we had at those times (i.e. what’s in the middle of our slips of papers), using the prompts just to help us if necessary.  Basically, we share our stories.

My verdict: You don’t really need slips of paper for this.  It maybe just acts as a memory aid.  But it is certainly a nice activity with plenty of personalised speaking.

Howard’s comments: This is one of the very few activities that naturally produces past perfect.  Not to mention other narrative tenses.  He gets students to write down key words before and after a time in the middle because it gives him a good way to anchor language study or review of things previously studied (i.e. past perfect to talk about things before other things in the past).

Activity 3.

– Everyone’s got a long strip of paper (or several – might need more).

– On it, we have to write down a song lyric we like.

– If we absolutely hate music in all forms or any kind of music with lyrics, maybe we can write a line from a poem or prose – something we like and respond to in some way.

– We have to write these on the strips of paper in nice big words, with nice big spaces between them.

– When that’s done, we have to tear up the strip, leaving lots of bits of paper, each with one of the words on it.

– Pairs swap their piles of words and have to re-arrange them back into the correct original order!


– Once they’ve got it, they discuss the songs, why they like them, etc.

My verdict: Another fun activity!  It’s fun to tear language (and paper) to bits.  Language begins to belong to you when you can break a pattern and put it together again.

Howard’s comments: Song lyrics works well because they’re emotive, memorable, and learners usually have plenty to say.  But you could use this with any other stuff – example sentences, or whatever.

Activity 4.

– One side of the room has blue strips of paper.  The other side has orange.  One strip per person.

– On the strips, each person writes a declarative statement.  It can be anything.  My example: This workshop is full of good ideas.

– Everyone stands up, blue and orange people meet “in a harmonious pile of love” (!) to make meaningful conditional sentences.  This might involve some stretching of reality… but we have to try and make at least one good combination.

– We get up and mingle – it’s chaos!

My verdict: Too messy.  Maybe the instructions could have been clearer… the blue half of the room had the first clause of a conditional; the orange half had declarative sentences.  But they were so ‘out there’ we only had sentences like “If I hadn’t stolen the haddock… this workshop is full of good ideas.”  Having said that, some others in the group managed to come up with things like, “If you enjoy climbing mountains, everything’s going to be fine.”  But I think it’d be really hard to check the learners really understood what they’d just produced – this activity seems way too much of a free-for-all.

Howard’s comments: Standard coursebook examples are often not representative of how we usually use the form.  Exercises like this help practise any way of putting together 2-part utterances (like conditionals, or sentences with relative clauses).  Students have to find a way to make the parts ‘gel’.

A twist on this activity: Half the students write down something they need to communicate; the other half write down roles.  They all mingle and have to achieve these things with these people (e.g. ask a policeman for a £5 note).  Good for practising register, requests, etc.

More tips from Howard:

– give students bits of paper with common words on top (e.g. ‘get’, ‘just’, never’).  For homework, they have to carry around these bits of paper in their pockets and jot down phrases etc. when they hear the word in use.  It’s amazing how much useful, interesting language this generates.

– give students bits of paper that are too small for what you ask them to do – somehow this makes it fun, funny and motivating.  Consider how when you have to leave a message on a Post-it, you always end up needing more space!  This kind of thing makes students write MORE – they have to scribble to fit it all in, but it’s a challenge.

One leaving idea:

In your next lesson, go into class with a bunch of bits of paper.  Just keep them by the side in case inspiration strikes you!

My overall verdict: An entertaining and instructive session.  Plenty of ideas here that I can’t wait to try out!

Just one bug bear: As predicted, the state of the room when the session finished… OK, I’m nit-picking, but I can’t stand inconsiderate teachers/presenters who leave the place in a state for the next person to clear up.  Everyone had fun and all, but what a tip!


About Laura Patsko

Teacher trainer, language learner, language teacher, linguist, researcher. Not necessarily in that order.

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