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Humanistic Teaching

An approach to learning English

October 25, 2009


The first time I ever encountered trick or treaters was on a suburban street in Nottingham. It was the late eighties. Three children accosted me in the street some time before dusk and somewhat sheepishly mumbled out the words "trick or treat". "Neither!" I snarled and strode away leaving them confused and empty-handed, They had caught me in a dour mood, though what they thought they could get from a passerby I can only imagine, pennies I guess.

I'd gone to Nottingham for an interview for a job at Peace News. The interview is no more than a blur. I remember I was almost late because I'd misjudged the time it would take me to drive to Nottingham. And then I'd had to find the place, which was actually a house. I know I was asked questions and I mentioned that my father had written for them back in the days of the Committee Of One Hundred. Then I was given an exercise to do that possibly involved some kind of paraphrasing. I know I forgot to include a title or some such and actually returned to the house a second time to give it. As I walked away I was all but certain that I hadn't got the job.I hadn't, though I got a nice telephone call later as consolation. But this entry is supposed to be about improvisation.

I've remarked elsewhere that I think the best time to make a lesson plan is after the event. I think knowing how things work together (and how they don't) is more useful than planning what to do. I'm very wary of lesson plans that nail down every minute. The more we teachers plan the more likely we will be so busy pursuing our plan that we ignore the feelings of our students and miss opportunities for real interaction. Why should the needs, desires and aspirations of individuals be subordered or superceded by what we think the students should be doing? The meticulous plan is in line with the blank slate, empty vessel, banking modal of education. Students should learn what the teacher demands at the time and in the manner that the teacher dictates. But I believe that learning is much more to do with a spirit of inquiry and a vivid curiosity. I don't mean that it is impossible to learn things via the top-down banking modal. What I mean is that there are strings attached. What I mean is that the price is too high. The loss of humanity is too great.

In a way improvisation can also be the tool of the planner. Improvisation suggests an end in mind. As the old adage goes, there are many ways to skin a cat, but the result is always the same, a dead cat. However, there are certain times when planning is useful and being able to improvise is a great skill to have. Want to, or have to, hold a party in small room with a large number of children? Planning is a must, even if sometimes it goes just plain wonky. This morning provides a good example.

We were having our first large Halloween party of the year for kindergarten aged children. Our typical format is to start with a toast and take photos, have a game, then some food, another game, more snacks and then trick or treat followed by going round our Halloween tunnel in party groups and ending with a last mass photo session. Parents like photos!. Party groups are decided by us in advance and indicated by stickers put on party bags given out as the children arrive. Planning in detail. For our elementary aged students our second game this year involved miming Halloween creatures doing leisure activities. We decided that this was too difficult for youngsters so I had prepared a game where they could find partners by making the sound of different Halloween creatures. I chose ghosts, witches, black cats and monsters for their distinctive easy to recognise sounds. I had cards with several pictures of each and the idea was to find a partner with an exact matching card. I got everyone ready to play the game by showing large flashcards and getting them all practising the sounds. And then, just as I was about to hand out the individual cards, I realised I'd overlooked the obvious. Because of the low tables crammed with crumb-stacked plates and half drunk drinks there was no way people could easily move around to find partners. The game was dead on the floor.

trickortreat1.jpgWith older children or adults I might have got it working with partners calling to each other but I knew I had no chance of making that work with little ones. When improvising be careful of jumping at the first idea as that is often the weakest. A more successful strategy is to think about ideas that have stood the test of time, and especially ones well known to the group. When I told my wife about the game problem she wanted me to do "Go Away". This is a typical lesson activity for post-toddlers that has me (or a post-toddler) knocking and coming into the room over and over each time holding up a flash card of a scary Halloween creature and the group, who sit at the far end of the room, singing the creature out of the room. "Witch, witch go away! "Zombie, zombie go away!". We usually set the activity up by fist looking at flashcards and deciding together what isn't scary, what is a little scary and what is scary. Items in this last group are the ones we use.

I knew "Go away!" was a popular activity and we had even thought about including it in the party but rejected it as we felt it was too similar to our trick or trick time. That has children going to the room door in party groups knocking and me running through a series of quick costumes and handing out candy. But in this moment of rejection was when inspiration arrived. Improvising means being willing to reconsider and being stubborn about it and also being quick about it. We suddenly realised that we could combine the two ideas by telling the children that if they saw a scary creature when they went trick or treating to tell it to go away. Only silly strangers would have candy for them. This allowed us to extend the trick or treat time and fill the gap.

I don't know if the idea subverts the notion of trick or treat, not that I mind subverting it. I've never liked it, even before that day in Nottingham. I've always felt that trick or treat is teaching children extortion. Gangs of children prowling the darkness mafia-like. I prefer the ideas of souling and carolling as alt least these both involve supplicants performing for their victuals. But guess at heart when it comes to Halloween I'm a dirty stop-in. When I was a child Halloween never involved anything more than bobbing for apples in a plastic washing up bowl or biting at them swinging from a string. Modern Halloween is culture creep I personally could do without, but it seems the majority of children I work with want it and isn't that what democracy is all about?

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A great idea. I wholeheartedly agree that occasionally "shooting form the hip" has its distinct advantages when planning.

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