Let me start at the end of the lesson. Two students made statements about the whole class. “We are all human,” said one. “We are friends,” said a second. These statements were made honestly, openly and with much general approval by the rest of the class, and it made for a lovely end to the half term.
It was diversity week at college, you see, and my colleague, with whom I share this class, suggested that rather than Valentines’ Day as I had originally thought (something vague around poems, I dunno), I might like to do something around diversity, following on from his own lesson where students taught each other something in their own languages. Now, I have to admit, the whole equality and diversity thing very often leaves me cold. It’s all so nice, and worthy and generally bloody righteous that a part of me wants to dislike it, just in principle. I can’t, of course, because a: I’m not allowed to, and b: it would be like kicking a kitten: easy to do and unnecessarily cruel. However, mostly, I can’t because c: E&D is important. No, really, it is. It’s so important, in fact, that it needs to stop being the preserve of managers in fear of OFSTED, and be something which we can embrace. I must admit, mind you, that I’m wary (and weary) of too much “let’s talk about Eid/Diwali/Hanukkah/Christmas” type celebration of diversity. I can find a lesson resource for an ESOL class on pretty much any given festival or tradition or whatever, no problem. It’s the work of half an hour to devise an activity to get students reading or listening to a text about suffragettes, equal pay, transgender issues and so on. I just don’t do it all the time: because it’s not what students are always interested in listening to/reading about all the time (someone out there will no doubt now be shouting “well, they bloody well should be!”) and because righteousness and worthiness is often quite dull (cue a further barrage of criticism).
Anyway, I wanted to do something to celebrate diversity, and it occurred to me that the biggest single source of diversity in the classroom is, of course, the students. In this case, it was a diverse group of students from Poland, The Gambia, Iraq, Kurdistan, Algeria, Pakistan and more, ages ranging from 25 to 60, from at least three different religious backgrounds, and a roughly even spread of genders and social backgrounds. So I cribbed an idea from what was probably a used in one of those dreadfully delivered corporate diversity training events and decided that this would be the main speaking focus of the lesson. The task, essentially, was to draw up a list of statements describing the things that you and a partner have in common and which things are different.
I worked back from here. What language would they need to do this? They are an Entry 1 group, roughly elementary in level, so I figured that present simple in basic SVO sentences was a safe bet as something they should be vaguely familiar with. In terms of new(er) language, I opted for the use of both and neither as well as using but: e.g. We are both parents. Neither of us live in Leeds. A has two children but B has three children. I also that it would be good to have a base of vocabulary to build on, things like family, interests, daily routines, and so on.
Ok, so how to go about this? First up the vocab: the students worked in four groups, each of which had a large sheet of flip chart paper. They had to brainstorm vocabulary to do with their topic: daily routine, family and friends, free time and interests, and places you go. I have to admit the last was a bit iffy, but I was feeling a bit stuck for ideas at this point. After five minutes or so brainstorming I passed the paper round for the next group to add and error correct, and then repeated this as a carousel until the paper had made its way back to the originating group. This gave us a big stock of vocab to work with, if needed.
Then the grammar: the students worked in pairs to compete a list of what they knew about me and the other teacher in the class. This was then put up on the board, and sorted into matching pairs: for example: S has 2 children. Z has three children. S works at College, Z works at College, and so on. Then we elicited the form: how can I put these together. A few students suggested “and” for the two positive sentences, so I reminded them of the focus of the lesson. In this case, I think sharing the target language with the students at the beginning paid off: they quickly realised what they needed to do and managed to fit it in quickly with some accuracy. The perfect moment arrived when one student said “You are married” which provided both a chuckle for the group. This in itself was a stimulus for the student in question to reevaluate her language output and rephrase it herself as “You are both married.” The fact that neither I nor the other teacher live in the town where the class takes place provided the stimulus for “neither” and our differing numbers of children finished the set.Before long we were busy eliciting sentences for each of the similarities and differences: first in pairs written on mini whiteboards, then held up for the whole class to check together and compare before writing up on the board.
All of this laid the ground for the speaking task which followed: A3 sheets of paper were folded in half and each half of the pair wrote their names at the top. Then the similarities and differences were discussed and written down, with some lovely moments. The whole group plenary at the end of the lesson was a chance to find out some universals, or at least some general commonalities and surprises, which led to the final statements “We are all human. We are all friends.”
Thinking back then, to my previous post about specific outcomes, would they have made a difference? There was a definite aim to the lesson, a clear language focus (both, neither and but) and a skills focus (speaking). If I had expressed these as measurable outcomes in the form of “be able to form X number of sentences using both” and so on, I’m not convinced this would have made a difference. Assessment occurred at several times during the lesson: during the eliciting of the sentences, for example, and while students were working together to prepare their sentences, but having a set number of utterances/sentences wouldn’t have told me or the students much at all. The focus was enough without the trite measurability.
What did we achieve in this lesson, then? We achieved a sense of cohesion and community in the class, language was developed. There was that buzz of people discovering that they could communicate with each other, learn from and about each other, and doing so. There was a satisfaction of being able to do a new thing (neither) and being confidently able to use language previously learned. There was the pleasure gained from learning, for all of us, that in the hyperdiverse social reality captured in the microcosm of an ESOL classroom, there are many things which make us all the same.