Classroom reflection

So, that technology thing again. 

I taught a lesson today, during which I used a cassette player. I also couldn’t switch the computer on as I needed the socket for the cassette recorder. So no interactive whiteboard either. 

And do you know what, it was ok as well. The world didn’t end. The listening task was nice, the work the students did was useful, engaging, all those things. Would it have been better with a digital rather than cassette recording? Marginally, perhaps, because instead of rewinding the cassette while students checked in pairs, I would have been able to monitor the conversations a bit, but even then, it wasn’t an onerous task, and I managed it pretty speedily. In to activity, the technology neither enhanced or transformed the act of listening. And neither should it. What about the board, though, did the lack of IWB make things worse? Not realky: if anything it made it better: with an interactive whiteboard I have more or less infinite pages of board, which makes me very sloppy in my boardwork: everything goes up there, uncurated and chaotic. With the limits of the regular one, you have to think carefully about how you are laying it out, which bits you keep, which bits you get rid of. Today I ended up with this, for example: 

It was a fairly organic board (yes, I know that’s a posh way of saying “unplanned”), but it captured everything from the lesson where an IWB would have sprawled across multiple pages. The list in the middle is the answers to the listening task (listen and say what type of relationship it was). The words in the top right and bottom left are the remnants of a discussion that we had at the beginning about different types of relationships (it was tempting to drill “I am in love with you” but propriety stopped me). The stuff at the top left is language that emerged during the final speaking task (tell your partner about three different relationships).  It’s not an award-winningly clear whiteboard, and it only made sense if you were there, but it captured it in one “screen”. 

And I do think this is a valuable skill. I worry with CELTA trainees, in a curmudgeonly kind of way, that they are all learning how to use an interactive whiteboard and PowerPoint before they have really learned how to use a whiteboard. I worry about this because there is a very real chance they may rock up at a job in a year or so and find themselves with nothing more than a few old coursebooks and a whiteboard and pens, and not know what to do with it. Or cassettes: standing there with the original Headway and some old cassettes, how will they cope? Ok, so that’s maybe a little OTT, but you know, I wonder. 

Then there also the sneaky, naughty, not-Best Practice thought that although things like IWBs and digital recordings bring a load of convenience to the classroom (and believe me, I’d miss them) another part of me wonders if  there’s something to be said for the discipline of a whiteboard and a cassette player which makes you think more concisely about what language is happening in the classroom. Or perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I can think of ways of bringing across that focus and  concision into using an interactive whiteboard, so that all the other bonuses of the interactive whiteboard (printability, quick access to google images, that sort of thing) can be utilised as well. 

I realise, of course, that this is a well worn tread for this blog, and I should probably redress the balance and say something warm and cosy about how great technology is. Because it is and it can be, and to be fair, interactive whiteboards are, in and of themselves, pretty remarkable bits of technology, even if they tend to be overloaded with unintuitive, gimmick-heavy software. And a digitally controlled audio recording is damn useful. But there are plenty of blogs and articles out there doing the hard sell, so I’ll leave that job for now. So for now, just remember, using tech is fine, in its place, and so is not using tech. Just don’t be too much in awe of it. 

Fluster

SONY DSC

I must not fear.

Fear is the mind-killer.

Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.

Frank Herbert, The Litany Against Fear in Dune.

I had my formal observation this week, and my feedback. It was, as has generally been the case, a pretty accurate evaluation of the lesson, and, as any observation should, picked up on a couple of bits that I missed, or perhaps was in denial about (like “do the differentiation which you planned.” which is an improvement on “plan differentiation”)

One of the other, less formal bits of feedback was an observation that I fluster, which is interesting because that’s something I’ve seen in other people and commented on as having a negative impact on the lesson. That same fluster and nerves was really the impetus behind my last post about planning as well: frustration, being unhappy with the ideas for the lesson, never mind anything else, all of which was compounded by nerves. The nerves beget fluster, the fluster begets mistakes, the mistakes beget more nerves: the little death becomes the total obliteration.

A bit of nervous energy is not always a bad thing, mind you. If I plan in too much detail, and too far in advance, for example, I get complacent about the lesson, and forget what it is I have planned, treating it as “done”. I plan more or less day by day because I find my brain works better that way, and part of that is nerves: a sense of pressure that acts as a motivator, and I have a hundred better ideas in the house before the lesson than I do in the preceding week.

However, when it comes to formal observation of lessons, why fluster?

A part of it is simple lack of confidence. I was reading the other day about “imposter syndrome” which is where despite being good at something, you lack confidence in that ability and as a result you are convinced that you are about to be outed as a fraud.

Sometimes the fluster cycle occurs simply because something goes wrong that you weren’t expecting: it’s why we get trainee teachers on CELTA to think about things that might go wrong. Mistakes beget nerves and suddenly we find ourselves trapped once more in the nerves-fluster-mistakes cycle.

In this particular case, a small part was to do with something outside the lesson: it would be indelicate of me to comment on what the was, but I was distracted by this and had dropped a bit of professional focus. Partly, I think, it was relief at being somewhere familiar for me, and settling into overly comfortable patterns, and really not following through on it.

But whatever. These things are all well and good. They’re  not the real problem with teacher fluster during observation. In another conversation this week, there was a sense of dismay that teachers should feel nervous at observation, or feel worried about the process.

This simply demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of the process in which teachers are being involved. Teacher observation for quality assurance purposes is, essentially, a high stakes summative assessment, like a GCSE exam or a degree dissertation. Whether the lesson is graded or not, if there is the potential for punitive consequences for the individual, then there will be nerves. It’s ignorant and arrogant to suggest otherwise. Never mind the official “don’t forget it’s also developmental” cant, because if it all goes south, a quality assurance observation can be the little clatter of stones that precedes the landslide.

The irony, of course, is that this awareness is more likely to lead to it happening. Almost, I think, something like the rational meditative state implied in the less well known half of Frank Herbert quote is the only answer.

I will face my fear.

I will permit it to pass over me and through me.

And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.

Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.

A little dramatic maybe, but it gets to the point – you have to try, somehow, to get past it and work through the nerves. You have to consciously acknowledge the consequences, but also rationalise them. It may be the clatter of small stones, but the landslide may still not happen.  ‘ve only seen the landslide a few times, so to speak. As  awfully new-agey as it sounds, perhaps the answer does lie in some form of meditative reflection before the lesson, an opportunity to rationalise and clarify, and to focus on the important thing – the learning in the lesson. Don’t deny the negativity, or try to gee yourself up, forcing yourself into some manic pixie state of rabid positivity, just let it pass over and through you.

Teach the students, make them learn. Everything else can wait.

Comparatives, Superlatives, and “by far the most charismatic teacher in college.”

This week, owing to the arbitrary governmental diktat that one ESOL qualification = 100ish hours, marks the end of our first semester. It’s a weird time, because for students who are not going up a level, it essentially means a week of diagnostics and inductions, then business as normal. It doesn’t feel like the end of a course, even though technically that’s what it is. 

So anyway, I thought it was a good time to teach a lesson which was somehow both a closing off of the course while still maintaining a sense of continuity. Also, after a week or so of exams, target reviews, course evaluations and so on, I thought it might be nice to get the students to learn something. (What’s that you say, targets are part of the learning process? Bless you and your funny ways.) In fairness, myself and the group’s main teacher have both worked hard, I think, to maintain a balance between the more reflective-administrative aspects of the course, and a need for the students to have something to take away from the lessons, but still, a “pure” language lesson, I thought, might be nice.

The lesson, then. I started from an idea around the students making farewell certificates for each other, initially thinking of students simply completing a prewritten certificate. You know the sort of thing: “this is awarded to Julio for being the Hardest Working Student”. Then I worked it through a bit more. What language were they going to need? Superlatives, of course. But this is a Level 1, that is intermediate group, and superlatives alone would be too easy, so I thought we could add in a review of comparatives, and, for good measure, some intensifiers. 

Ok, so next stop, how to get the idea started? Usually when I teach comparatives and superlatives, I like to get students to share personal (ish) information and compare that, but in this instance, I thought it would too similar to the final task, and anyway, a bit easy. So instead I chose to build a context by getting the students to classify a whiteboard full of nouns. Most of these were the traditionally bland items: cities, countries, vegetables, that sort of thing, with a couple of clever dick moments (China, Italy & Hungary to reflect countries of students in the group, plus another 3 countries, Australia, Iceland and Fiji… think about it.) I also allowed my inner imp some playtime and added recent US presidents and UK prime ministers,  including the current incumbents. 


This was quite fun, and I think I judged the complexity of the groupings and and the number of words just right: a quick bit of pair work after working it out individually, before then feeding back to check. These then formed the basis of the practice activities later on. 

Next stop – presentation: I went teacher led, posting example sentences for each structure covering the main points (comparatives and superlatives) around form and spelling, concept questioning in classic CELTA style to draw out and check meanings. After covering each, the students wrote example sentences using the words from the sorting activity. Finally, the students reviewed with me various intensifiers for comparative and superlative phrases: by far, easily, for superlatives, far, much, a great deal, a lot, a bit, a little, a little bit, and a couple more for comparatives. These were then inserted into the previous sentences. 

The final task was the certificates (after a brief tangent into imperial and metric weights and measures – don’t ask). This was simple: students wrote their name at the top, then the “certificate” was passed around the room, and each student wrote a complimentary sentence about the person at the top, with feedback, before the finished certificate being returned to the originator with 8-10 sentences on it, which they could then read. Where students finished early, and to balance things out, I had the students write similar certificates for me and the group’s other teacher, which produced things like this:


It fitted the bill nicely, and was, overall, a good lesson. Like a lot of the lessons I teach now, context was incidental, arising from the classroom and the students, rather than an imposed context. There was a lot of opportunity for language and concepts to arise that I couldn’t necessarily predict, while still having a structure, and an expectation of language production. It was a lesson of ratios: in the first task was the right ratio of nouns and complexity for sorting, and later there was just the right ratio of new to old language, and this created the right level of engagement and focus for the students, with plenty to learn as well as recap. Insofar as it is ever possible to tell, the final sentences suggested, as well, that learning, or consolidation of learning, had happened.

Ob, and one more thing: I didn’t prompt the sentences about me, I promise. 

When the students know it is bad. 

In one of my earliest lessons, whilst doing my initial certificate, I really screwed up. Oh man, did I ever screw up. There are screw ups who can only dream of screwing up that badly. The lesson, a badly judged hour on adjectives for an upper intermediate group, had involved ages of painstaking work on planning and resources (cut out of fluorescent card, for reasons lost to posterity), to result in thirty scraped, desperate minutes at the end of which my trainer stood up and finished off the lesson while I sat in a corner with my day-glo cards and optimism in tatters in the floor. To my credit, I knew it was dying, I knew it was bad, just by the slow, deadly collapse of student interest and the polite, albeit frustrated, sympathy on the students’ faces. Unfortunately, being three hours into teaching, I just didn’t know how to make it stop, short of running from the room and never coming back. I have the expressions on the students faces burned into my memory, and the shame, oh the shame. 

(This wasn’t the only excruciating moment on that course; honourable mention should go to the oh so embarrassing hand out I did which I claimed was about the past tense of “have” but was, in fact, about the past perfect and my furious Wiltshire born insistence that the “r” in “car” was widely pronounced. Yes, I do know these are incredibly geeky things to be embarrassed about.) 

Since then, of course, I have been impeccable as a teacher. Mostly. Sometimes. Or at least occasionally, but always, always, the most affecting, most devastating feedback I have ever been given on a lesson is from students. This feedback, can take many forms, of course, through indirect feedback like the stony expressions as you flog the dead horse of your lesson to death. Students may simply tell you directly that said horse should have been put out of its misery a long time ago; although in my experience of such things, adult ESOL students sometimes find this hard, almost embarrassing, perhaps because they come from a culture of trust and respect for teachers. If anything, however, this makes it even worse: the very fact that for some students it is hard to give negative feedback to a teacher makes it all the more important to respond to that feedback appropriately and with respect. 

Sometimes, of course, a problem is not one of your own practice, as such, but of student belief or expectation: for example where a student thinks there are “too many games” because you use game-like information gap activities for speaking practice, or because they have unrealistic expectations about their abilities, and want to take an advanced exam by next Thursday. But whether it be the cold, stony silence of polite disengagement, or the niggling chatter of a disinterested group, or perhaps a student with an eloquent, genuine comment which is clearly rational, and based on the opinions of their classmates, you can tell if the problem is real, because, deep down, you know full well you have messed up. 

Student feedback, perhaps more than any other, triggers guilt. Guilt, as Yoda never quite said, leads to anger, and anger leads to the Dark Side. In this case, however, rather than donning a scary black mask and throttling people through the power of the force, one merely gets defensive, albeit sometimes aggressively so. It is, after all, genuinely upsetting to be told you’re not doing as good a job as you hoped. And maybe you feed on this, and you respond negatively to the students, all defensive and cagey “it was the lights/the management/the direction of the wind”. Or perhaps you internalise and dwell on it and lie there awake at 4 am wondering what you have done, and whether you are in the right job, and wouldn’t it just be better for everybody if you stopped now. 

Both of these, while human, and understandable, are also deeply unproductive. They are indeed the Dark Side of professional reflection: and as such we should all be good Jedi and move beyond them. Whether the feedback is direct, as in a student complaint, or indirect (my stony faced certificate class), then take it on board, and, crucially, change. Because that is the only thing you can do. If you don’t change then you might as well give up. Getting defensive with the students, or indeed with anyone, is pointless: listen to the complaint, notice what has gone wrong, make sure you understand it, promise to take action then, and this is the important bit, take it. 

Everyone wins. Students are happier with their course, and with you. It helps to rebuild a bit of faith and trust between you and the students, which makes teaching a whole load easier. It also helps you become a better teacher. A much better teacher because you are a better learner. You have received information (feedback), and changed your behaviour based on it. That, I reckon, is a fair definition of professional learning, and any teacher who isn’t learning is either lying or dead. Sure, students need and deserve good teaching, and you can come over all quality control assurance at me if you want, but as a teacher perfection is a rare thing, and learning is what we are all about. As teachers we learn from feedback and reflection, and students are one of the best sources of information on how well we are doing. 

So yes, make mistakes, get it wrong and listen to your class, but, as Samuel Beckett said: No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better. 

Upgrading Tasks

I do a lesson at Entry 1 and Entry 2 on transport vocabulary. I have the students work in groups and brainstorm vocabulary to do with different forms of transport. They then pass it to the next group who check the vocab and the spellings, then add their own ideas. This goes round until every group has had a look before some sort of plenary. I’ve refined the task into people/places/things of late, so that group A do people (driver, passenger, etc.) then B do places, and C do things. At lower levels I dish out picture dictionaries, and it becomes a research task, at Entry 2 it’s more of a revision/expansion task. 

However, in my head, this is very much a low level lesson, restricted to Entry 1/Entry 2 (elementary) students. So when I did it with my Level 1/Level 2 group I very much expected it to fly by, leaving half an hour for a discussion activity. Needless to say, of course, it did quite the opposite. Sure, the obvious stuff was dealt with quite swiftly (ticket, passenger, wheel, that sort of thing) but we did have a lot of interesting things, like what do we call the person who pushes the refreshments trolley down the train, and why the automated tannoy on the train will announce “we will shortly be arriving into…” rather than “we are shortly arriving…”. My answer to the latter was about clarity, and “action in progress at a specific point in future time. Mind you, for the former I was stumped: I couldn’t think of a generic job title, although I’m sure the train company have something like “refreshments operative”. I did tell the group about “trolley-dolly” mainly because it linked into a discussion we had been having about genderised job titles (“air hostess” vs “flight attendant”) and discrimination at work, but also because it’s silly sounding. 

Whatever: this was a good reminder that with this sort of open ended activity, students tend to choose what they will take from it, rather than being reliant on teacher-dictated input, and I’ve moved away from some of those lessons of late, relying more on teacher generated and controlled input. Not that there’s anything wrong with a bit of teacher control, but opening the classroom  through activities is extremely rewarding for both me and the students. 

Mrs Khan went to the post office, the dentist, the bus stop, the sewing shop, the cafe….

I take it back, sort of. The criticisms are still there: the sometimes punitive over emphasis on “real life” for example, where observers and auditors of a particularly narrow mindset may criticise your planning for not linking to learners lives, as if this is the be all and end all; the notion that an ESOL for employment course should only link explicitly to employability skills; and the necessarily fake nature of some pedagogical dialogues. There are still issues with all these things. 

However, I did take the decision to go with a few “situational” sessions, but rather than using published materials, my first idea was to start with the crucial vocabulary. To this end, I took a walk down my local high street, taking pictures of a the various shops and services along that street. I live in a completely different area to where my students live and work, but focussed on my area for two main reasons. Firstly, I’m lucky enough to live in one of those areas where you have almost every local shop you could possibly need, and more: a couple of  cafes and restaurants, a small supermarket, an old fashioned greengrocer, a barbers with a rotating barber’s pole as the sign, a florist, a butcher, a small DIY shop, a brilliantly useful hardware/homeware shop that sells more or less everything, a couple of takeaways, a superfluity of hairdressers, nail bars and beauty salons, and, of course, a post office. As a range of potential situations and vocabulary, this was simply too rich to pass up. The second reason was far more pragmatic: I teach in a very large town, and the students are scattered across the various suburbs of the town, so the centre of the town is the only really mutual area that is familiar to all the students. I don’t know if you’ve been to a British town centre recently, but this one is stereotypically bland, with little to distinguish it either from other similar town centres (except the surpassing ugliness of one pedestrian precinct), or to distinguish the shop fronts visually from one another. Therefore, to find the same sort of easily identifiable range of shops would have taken something of a trek to find, whereas my own local area was a simple matter of walking home after taking the children to school. So yes, there was a slight stone-built cottagey tweeness to some of the pictures, but they worked as an effective stimulus for vocabulary. 

PowerPoint was king on this one. Each photo was loaded into a presentation, which was then used as a stimulus to get the students to name each shop. They worked in groups and wrote down the name on mini whiteboards, which meant I could check the ideas easily, and the students could peer check both word and spelling. After this eliciting stage, I have the students a  (black and white – austerity measures!) print out of the presentation, and asked the students to work individually to add the names of the places. This meant that a) they all had a practice in writing and spelling, and b) they all had a record of the key spellings. 

On the day, I followed this with a focus on functional language, and I wish I hadn’t. I typed up possible “things people say” for each place, and had the students work in groups to discuss which sentence went with which place. This was with a view to then writing up mini dialogues based on each sentence, and a focus on polite language. In practice, there wasn’t really time to move onto the functional language forms, and I rather wish I had simply revised present simple and adverbs of frequency with them and had the students talk about how often they went to the different places. Instead we finished the matching of utterance to place, and only really had enough time to do a bit of a spelling / vocab recap at the end. 

So as a follow up in the subsequent lessons I used a couple of different ideas. I still liked the idea of working with a dialogue, so accessed a couple of rather brilliant listening activity on the EsolNexus website. Some of the students are doing listening as part of their final exam, and really need to work on this. The first was a series of sounds from around the town, which was a nice revisit of some of the vocabulary from the day before, and students had to say where they thought it was, and then justify this using present continuous (“it is a playground. Children are playing.”) which was a nice chance to revisit that language. Then there was a listening based, of course, in a post office. I liked the listening though: it’s fast, for one, and includes a natural switch halfway through from a transactional conversation (sending a parcel) to an interactional one (“its busy in here today…”). It also had some complex bits of language that you might not expect at this level: a pointlessly applied reflexive pronoun, for example, and an unusually placed “anyway”, which provoked some discussion among the more able students in the group, although the biggest challenge, I thought, was the strong London accent, but in fact, the students coped admirably well with all this. 

So next up comes the functional language. I’ve cleared a lesson to concentrate on request forms, and hopefully will get to exploit the sentences from the first in this little trio of lessons. I probably should have done this as the second lesson, but I wanted the listening to provide a few more examples of some of the forms we might use in a transactional situation. I think I’ll go back to my sentences from lesson 1 and get the students to highlight which ones are questions, and then eliciti all the ways we can ask for something, before then getting the students to expand the sentences into role plays which they can then share and practice. 

So yes, Mrs Khan does indeed go to the post office in my lessons, just not all the time. 

Mrs Khan Goes to the Post Office

It’s generally assumed, it’s safe to say, that ESOL courses should be “relevant to students’ day to day lives”, perhaps more so than any other area of ELT. The ostensible intention of any kind of language education for immigrant population is enabling interaction with the target language society and culture, which leads to a functional/situational model of course design, built around lessons on practical, “everyday” contexts: going to the shops, interacting with the doctor, that sort of thing: what I call the “Mrs Khan goes to the post office” school of course planning. 

The challenge however, is around the definition of “relevance”, which is an entirely subjective concept: what does it mean to say that something is relevant to learners lives, exactly? My interpretation, based on what I know of my students, may be different to that of someone reviewing my scheme of work, who may have some knowledge, but not necessarily as much as me, and certainly will have a slightly different interpretation of “relevant”. An inspector, or other outside observer, may have another interpretation of what is relevant to learners lives, particularly if they are an OFSTED inspector with a focus on governmental priorities and how these are relevant to the learners: basically being a) (more) economically active and b) good little non-critical citizens, grateful for their lot.

A lot of the time, Mrs Khan going to the post office, Kasia talking to the doctor, Mr Wu complaining about his new shoes, or Alessandro talking to his daughter’s teacher are entirely relevant and useful things to cover. I’d love to find or develop some good low level resources for the last one, in fact, as it often comes up when I talk to students about what they want to cover on a course. The trouble with these things, as with any situational syllabus, is twofold. Firstly they are inaccurate representations of real interactions, and second, they are potentially limiting as course design constructs, particularly as students’ language gets more advanced.

The inaccuracy issue is obvious, when you think about it. Go into any service situation, for example, and the interactions are rarely as they appear in published materials. In Ronald Carter and Michael McCarthy’s book, Exploring Spoken English they record a series of actual dialogues in real settings, and show that instead of being purely transactional, as in the mind of most teachers and materials writers, service conversations are a mix of transaction (getting things done) and interaction (exchanging pleasantries about the weather, that sort of thing. Even when operating in a second language, or even operating multilingually, this blend of interactional and transactional intention is possible: consider how quickly and naturally our own students drift from task focussed, controlled practice of target language to social focussed conversation, switching between languages as necessary. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t necessarily use these simplified, unnatural transactional dialogues, often because we need the authentic context to engage students, and set up a lesson for a specific language point: ask for the location of something in a supermarket, and you’re more likely to be given an aisle number or even shown directly where it is, than be given tidy directions or prepostitions, but you’re just setting up a lesson on prepositions of place, not making a real claim to be teaching “authentic” language in a real context. This isn’t making it relevant, or meaningful, it’s just taking away the uncertainty of the unfamiliar. 

Even if we do include these fake “real life” conversations, as we should, we can’t restrict course content to them. Anyone who has tried teaching ESOL for employment will recognise the limitations of tying everything to a limited context. The imposed restricted context of these courses leads either to particular language areas not being taught because they don’t fit, or awful shoehorning of contexts which are, if anything, less meaningful to students: adjectives to describe people for example, could be covered in a work setting (“you are looking for a new colleague. Describe her to your partner.”) but good grief is it ever strained, as compared to talking about family or people we know. This applies to any “real life” setting, good to a point, but sometimes, often perhaps, you need to go off the wall a little, and cover something outside of students’ experiences. As they get better and better, you end up needing to cover things outside the immediate reality simply because the language demands it: try limiting second conditional to “real life” and you’re pretty much onto a loser. The negative impact of these limitations is not necessarily reason to avoid these functional settings. Far from it, but we must acknowledge the inauthenticity, indeed, accept that there is nothing terribly “real” about a language teaching dialogue. 

I wonder if sometimes teachers just assume that the learners want language to be set in “real life” contexts: perhaps something of a hangover from ESOL’s association with adult literacy programmes where making it relevant may have been partly to offset reluctance or nervousness around literacy learning for adults. I think that while ESOL learners recognise the pragmatism of such an approach, I think they often lack this kind of motivational barrier: it’s probably pretty safe to say that the motivation of many, perhaps most ESOL learners is pretty high, and they quickly acquire and come to expect an explicit focus on grammar. There’s also the influence from our training, focussed on communicative language teaching, language learning should be about making meaningful communication; and which encourages us to set lessons into a context. Having “real life” as our consistent context is an easy way to satisfy both of these learned responses. Context does not have to be linked to students’ reality, mind you, and actually contexts can arise out of the language, rather than the the language out of the context: teaching discrete, decontextualised sentences to illustrate a grammar point, for example and then getting students to suggest the context after the fact can be an interesting and engaging way to work with language. 

I’ll admit, gladly, that I’m as guilty as the next person of this sort of thing. I like to use topics as an organising principle, and tend to pick these topics from “real life” whatever that actually is, usually in conjunction with the students. What happens within those topics, mind you, is anybody’s guess: I tend to select listening or reading texts based around those contexts, vocabulary arising in them, and on the opportunities for grammar teaching that the context suggests. But then I also see a scheme of work as not so much a moveable feast, but rather a rough guide to be adapted and revised as appropriate, even ignored and abandoned, and so while Mrs Khan may get involved in a discussion about good shops and bad shops, experiences with the doctor, read about money, listen to a text about someone’s life history, learn about present continuous by describing a video, or practice present simple in the context of “a day in the life of a toaster”, she is unlikely to go to the post office.