Six original topical teaching ideas for March


Beware the Ides of March!


1. Overdose on grammar! March 4 is National Grammar Day in the United States. Mark this day with a wholehearted, unashamed, in your face grammar class.  You could also use some of the stuff from the Society of Good Grammar website (they sponsor this day) to promote discussion of language standards and “good grammar” even in the students’ own language. There is a Bad Grammar Hall of fame at the above website, with songs they say “we love despite their bad grammar”. Perhaps worth checking out?

2. Talk gender! March 8th is International Women’s Day. Bring out discussion questions on gender (men’s work, women’s work, role of women in the society, work and the home). Do a critical analysis with your students of a local glossy magazine or even (gulp) your coursebook. Ask them to speculate what the images say about women and men. March 9th is the 50th anniversary of the Mattel doll Barbie, which makes it a good opportunity to teach the meaning of the word “irony”. (there is, in fact, a whole teaching activity about this at It’s magazines, you can see it here)

3. Beware the Ides of March! The Ides of March are on the 15, and are best known today as the day that Julius Caesar was assassinated. Use this day to stage a bit of Shakespeare. Students could read the famous bit from Act 1 Scene 2 where the soothsayer meets Caesar and utters the warning. Or the “Friends, Romans, countrymen lend me your ears” speech.

4. Welcome Spring! March 20. If it’s warm, see if you can take your class outside for a walk. I’ve published ideas on outdoors classes here. Or create a wordsearch or crossword puzzle here. Use Spring words, and give the class a bit of a break.

5. Be thankful. Asl the class to make a list of things they are thankful for in English. Help with vocabulary and put the list on the board. When someone asks why the hell are we doing this, tell them about the following. March 23 is the 20th anniversary of Near Miss Day. On this day in 1989 a huge asteroid nearly hit the planet. It was the size of a mountain and came within 500,000 miles of a collision with Earth. In interstellar terms, this is considered a near miss. Had it collided with us, it would have left a crater the size of  several cities and generally wreaked total havoc. 

6. Do a U2 song. This month the world famous band from Ireland releases another album. I’ve grown a bit tired of U2, but it’s sure to be played around the world and will therefore perhaps ring bells with your students. You could do a song class with one of the new tunes or crack out your favourite one from the vault. You could do this to coincide with Saint Patrick’s Day if you  like.

Published in: on March 1, 2009 at 8:25 am  Comments (1)  
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Six ways to exploit the Oscars in class

academy_award_oscarI have tried to avoid many of the “typical” topics at this site, which is why there wasn’t anything about Valentine’s Day last week. But the Oscars are too much to resist. For those of you, like myself, who are planning the week’s lessons and want to include a bit of Hollywood glamour then here are six ideas. None involve gawping at celebrities or debating who had the best dress by the way, I leave that to others.

1. Watch the trailers! You can see all the trailers in one place, here. Otherwise find them on youtube. Select half a dozen or so and make a worksheet to go with them. You could extract a line or two from each film trailer and then students have to listen and match. Include a couple of “distractors” too (lines that don’t belong to any film) to give extra challenge.

2. Make a speech! Ask students to work in pairs and write a one minute acceptance speech for an award. Use this to teach them phrases like: “I’d just like to thank…” “I owe a lot to…” etc. This could lead into discussion on the culture of speeches and speech-giving (who usually gives speeches in their culture, when is an appropriate time for a speech…)

3. Trot out your movie discussion questions! Lots of teachers I know have a bunch of these. Examples: What was the last film you saw? What’s your favourite film? Where do you sit in the cinema? What film do you remember from your childhood? How often do you watch a film on television? etc. I like to set up small groups with one person as the “questioner” who interviews the others and reports back. 

4. Make a scene! Put the students into groups. Give each group a title and a mini synopsis of one of the nominated films. For example: Revolutionary Road. A husband and wife in 1950s suburban Connecticut, dissatisfied with life, decide to move to France and their relationship deteriorates into an endless cycle of squabbling, jealousy and recriminations.

The students have to organise themselves into a frozen scene from the film. When they have done so, the other students must comment on what they think is going on. Alternatively, one of the students is the director and he/she explains the significance of the scene.

5. Organise a “class Oscars”! Basically, by this I mean a class awards ceremony. You could have different categories, for example: Best Joke told in Class, Quickest Speaker in English, Best Pronunciation Award… choose categories that won’t cause resentment depending on your students. Students could decide some of the categories themselves. Have an awards ceremony, having different students open the envelope and read out “And the winner is…” + the name inside. Winners have to make an acceptance speech.

6. Teach passives. Can’t bring myself to add an exclamation mark at the end of this one, but all this film stuff does lend itself very well to teaching or reviewing the passive voice. And we are language teachers after all. You’ve got “was won by…” “was played by…” “X and Y were both nominated for…” “was directed by…”. Impossible to ignore! One possibility would be to create a series of sentences about films, actors, awards etc. Students must complete the sentence with the passive, or switch the active sentences to passive or some kind of language focus work. Once they have done that, tell them that three of the sentences contain false information (e.g. Titanic was directed by Ridley Scott). They must decide which sentences are the false ones. That way you are focusing on form and meaning.

Published in: on February 16, 2009 at 10:25 am  Comments (3)  
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Six original topical teaching ideas for February

Photo from Morguefile.comTo help get you through the winter blues and those cold February classes, try one of these ideas this month!

1. Teach your students about Black History Month. Many teachers have probably overdosed on Obamamania with their students already (studying the victory speech, talking about the election etc) but you could use this month to look at other famous black and white people from American history that put Obama’s victory in historical context.  February 4 is the birth anniversary of Rosa Parks. February 12 is Lincoln’s birthday. February 22 is the anniversary of the Montgomery Boycott Arrests.  Any one of these could be a good subject for a reading, as during the Obama presidency people will begin to hear more references to the American Civil Rights movement than before.

2. Talk up the Credit Crunch! The world’s financial woes are the perfect fodder for your lessons on money. It’s beginning to spread to Hollywood too, with a new movie The International that focuses on the big banks as the enemy in a thriller (starring Clive Owen and Naomi Watts, looks very ho-hum) . Some ideas for conversation questions about money here. Plus keep an eye out for the February Learning English section of the Guardian Weekly, I’ve got a column there on credit crunch class ideas.

3. Do some drama! It’s Carnival time, so a good excuse to pull out some drama activities. I mentioned in an earlier post  that Ken Wilson has a whole book of these out now. I also find that the following site has lots of potential inspiration for English classes. I really must do a top six favourite drama activities – they are so much fun.

4. Celebrate the Superbowl! For anyone outside the U.S. you may be forgiven for NOT knowing that February 1st is the 43rd Superbowl of American football between the Steelers and the Cardinals. Use this event to talk about sports, to teach sports idioms or expressions relating to football (quarterback, sack, scrimmage etc). Sounds unbearably dull? Remember that during each Superbowl there are premium advertisements, these are usually going to be the best the American advertising industry can muster and are sometimes hilarious. Do a youtube search for top ten superbowl commercials to find them. If you don’t believe me, look at the 2008 ones here

5. Read some Dickens! February 7 is Charles Dickens’ birthday. Find an excerpt from one of his books to do with students. Yeah, you may think that reading and understanding a piece of Great Expectations or Tale of Two Cities sounds boring and old-fashioned but you’d be surprised how many adult students might find it motivating. 

6. Study superstitions! This month has a Friday the 13th. Use this to talk about superstitions in various countries and cultures. I was looking for a good internet page on superstitions but the Wikipedia one seemed disputed. You can try this one for some material but I’m not sure how good it is. A side note: they are rereleasing the film Friday the 13th (the original) this month too. This is what is called a “series reboot” in the film industry and could be the topic of a different class on films.

Of course, the big language class favourite this month will undoubtedly be Valentine’s Day. I leave that for others to “do” on the web… plus I get the feeling that most teachers have their own tried (tired?) and true activities for this special day. 

Have a good month! The school year is half-over and spring is here soon!

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm  Comments (5)  
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Six teaching ideas for Australia Day

River Tree, Wellington Point Brisbane by Jennifer ReneeSorry but this post is actually a little bit LAST MINUTE because I got distracted by the whole celebrity thing (see the last post) and forgot this one. However, I did receive a request about this and being a fellow Commonwealth citizen thought I’d suggest some ideas. Here are six ideas to coincide with Australia Day which is celebrated on January 26. Use any of these for a class this week.

1. Do an Australia Quiz! This is the easiest and most straightforward activity. If you can’t think of questions beyond kangaroos and Crocodile Dundee then check out the official Australian citizenship test for more information. Either that, or get students to do the research on the internet and make their own quiz.

2. Talk citizenship! At the Australia Day site there is a section called My Two Cents. This has a lot of small texts by people talking about what it means to be Australian. You could take one or more of these, let students read them and then ask them to make a similar text about citizenship in their country.

3. Teach Australian words and expressions! Go to this site to find a list of Australian popular slang expressions. I’d take some of these and make them into an activity as follows. I’d give each group of students some of the words and definitions. They make two or three alternative definitions for each of the words and then present them all to another group who has to guess the correct definition.

4. Listen to some Australian accents! If you are Australian yourself then skip this one – they hear you enough already! However, I found the following site of world voices. It’s basically a place for voice actors to leave a clip (like an audio calling card). You can download samples for free. Maybe use some of these as a dictation, or play them along with other accents and ask students to see if they can spot the difference. 

5. Find out about Australian Aboriginal art! Find and print some images of aboriginal art (I used this site) and ask students to do a “compare and contrast” speaking exercise about them. Don’t tell them where the paintings come from, ask them to guess and speculate about the meaning behind them. Once they’ve finished, you could provide them with this information about Australian aboriginal art and the concept of Dreaming.  

6. Watch trailers  from films that feature Australia! If you have an internet connection you could get students to watch trailers of different films that feature Australia. Examples could be Australia, Crocodile Dundee, Gallipoli, Priscilla Queen of the Desert…Ask students to find out what the trailers have in common, i.e. what elements of Australia are they “fronting”. How is Australia being packaged? This could also be assigned for homework if you didn’t have the connection. Alternatively you could set up a “trailer treasure hunt” with these films. Make questions like “Which film is about WWI? Which film stars a man with a big knife?” etc

Published in: on January 26, 2009 at 9:23 pm  Comments (2)  
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Six ways to exploit the “atheist bus” in class


It’s another one of what the Spanish would call a “noticia insólita” (which means unusual news, but it sounds better in Spanish!): the atheist advertising campaign on London buses that is spreading to other cities. This is one of those things that just can’t be ignored. As soon as I saw the video on the news and the reactions it was provoking I started getting ideas on how it could be used to spark discussion in class. Six ideas, actually.

1. Play “Guess the word”. Write on the board the following: There’s probably no ______. Now stop worrying and enjoy your _____. Ask students to suggest different words that could go in the slots. At the end, once the words have been guessed or you tell them ask them what they think of the quote. Then explain the backstory.

2. Focus on word order. Give the following words jumbled up in two groups. no there’s God probably / stop enjoy and worrying life now your. Ask the students to form two grammatically correct sentences. Accept all grammatically correct sentences. Then ask them what they think of the quote. Explain the backstory, or give it to them to read.

3. Teach adverbs. Use the sample sentence to focus on adverbs like probably (sometimes called adverbs of certainty). The others are certainly, definitely (watch the spelling on that one!), undoubtedly (there is no doubtedly), surely, possibly. Worth mentioning that they usually come in the mid-position in the sentence. You could use the slogan as one of your sample sentences, and ask students to speculate why the authors used “probably”. Could also lead to a talk about the other way we express certainty in English, through modal verbs (e.g. There’s might not be a God.) Interesting to follow this up with the slogan writer’s reason for including “probably”.

4. Read reactions. If you go to one of the news sites running this story they will almost certainly have a comment section at the bottom of it. Collect a few of the reactions to the story – a balance of in favour and against reactions. Put them on a worksheet and distribute this to the students. They first identify the position of the writer, then discuss which ideas they agree with.

5. Have a general class on world religions. By this I don’t mean a discussion on whether or not God exists, but perhaps more of a reading class on different world religions – matching different facts to different religions for example.

6. Have a discussion on advertising. Use this ad as a starting point for a discussion on advertising. Areas you could make questions for would be: where can/shouldn’t people be allowed to advertise? what are some of the best ads the students have seen? and the worst? is this ad suitable? are religious ads suitable?

WARNING: using the atheist bus in class could be controversial and perhaps even illegal, depending where you are teaching. I leave it up to you to decide whether or not it’s appropriate. Even if you think it is, it is potentially a hot topic. I’ve written stuff on using hot topics in class with Scott Thornbury, you can read some tips here.

Published in: on January 12, 2009 at 10:33 am  Comments (7)  
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