Thursday, February 25, 2016


Just imagine what a good teacher could do with this!


I have already said a lot about these books and on Philip Gibson’s work. Apparently these books are the result of a long experience teaching English as a foreign language in Asia and it is true I had said it would be perfect to teach English to foreigners, non English speaking foreigners. But these books are done for children and would be best for at the most primary school children.

I have already suggested that these drills can be reading drills but they can be learning drills provided they are made a lot more attractive to the kids by the teacher and what he does with the books. Let me suggest some activities, and the main word here is “active.”

The first thing could be to have the different parts played by the kids. One will be playing Lee and one will be playing Pat. Another could be the teacher and a fourth one the father. The mother could be the sixth kid and the lady at the end of book three could be a seventh kid.

That would be good to treat these small scenes as drama, as something to be performed and that would enable the teacher to introduce some subtleties here and there. The narrator using the third person singular or plural could be a character per se, but there could be better results if it were one character him/herself speaking of the others or speaking of a group of people including himself, hence moving the third person plural to “we.” That narrator could be addressing the characters themselves and thus shift the third person plural or the first person singular or plural to the second singular and plural “you.”

Those manipulations can be interesting and can be a real game with a couple or three kids scoring the mistakes and correcting afterwards or using a small bell to indicate the mistake when it happens. And these referees would have better be right. Correction from tha actors or from the audience.

I have already suggested that these drills could easily be transformed into rap performances this time with groups of students. The best part would be for a group of three, four or five kids, to be the percussionists that would give the basic rhythm of the rap. English is basically an iambic language. Which means “unstressed – stressed” which produces a syncopated rhythm, which is the basic rhythm of jazz. But it might be better to start with the stressed syllable, the way the text does, and thus use a trochaic rhythm instead, “stressed – unstressed.” The kids speaking on that rhythm have to put all the stressed syllables on the stressed beats of the tempo produced by the musicians with sticks and cans (like tam tams), or tambourines, or even drums (Indian drums). You can imagine how much the kids would learn about English that way, and all that by playing. And that playing is intense and difficult, a lot more than we may think at first but they would only feel the playful activity. I remember some teachers from Hatlem high schools explaining in a world congress in Amsterdam how they were teaching all subjects, mathematics, geographic or history by inciting the students to pur that stuff in some rap music, or blues music.

Of course you can also follow the musical imagination of the kids and come to some chanting or even singing. They love it and they can do it. I did that a lot when I was giving some simple half-hour lessons to 10-11 year olds. Of course we could play for ten minutes with “What is this?” and “What color is that pen?” but very young children have to change activities every three or four minutes. My best experience in the field was in North Carolina where I had a singing club with my students and my colleague the Spanish Teacher’s. The day the principal came they were working on Kalinka and he afterwards expressed his surprise at listening to Spanish and French students singing Russian. But you can’t imagine how much these high school students loved it. It was different from the standard Frère Jacques or Cadet Roussel.

But I had an even better experience in Tourcoing, France, where in 1976 or 1977 for Halloween that was just coming out in France I introduced a singing ritual to the goddess of the day, the pumpkin. Imagine thirty 17 year olds singing at the top of their voices of course the following song to the music of God Save the Queen: “God save our dear pumpkin, God save our dear pumpkin, God save pumpkin, etc…” with a pumpkin on the teacher’s desk, eviscerated – drawn as they used to do on the day before Bartholomew Fair in the Middle Ages, though with human beings condemned to die on the scaffolds – of course with two eyes a nose and a mouth and a candle inside. The first time I did it my colleague from next door – out of shock or out of curiosity – popped in to wonder what was happening. The 17 year olds gave him one more round of the killing song.

When I assigned the same students to read ten pages of the short stories by Malamud, the Magic Barrel, every week for next week they did it with gusto too, because that was different. It was though slightly difficult to negotiate the visit of the local rabbi to answer the questions of the students on Malamud and Judaism. But the “secular” administration in the end accepted, provided the rabbi did not speak of religion, or something along that line. Boy Scout Promise of course. I just let the students ask their questions and the rabbi answer them with the moderation no one had to require. We live in a civilized world after all, even if some seem to doubt it.

That’s what I think could be done with these books with young kids: games, songs, rap music and singing, dramatic performances, and eventually some cultural exploration. The texts and the topics are just perfect, or quasi perfect, for such work and the teachers can always add a little bit more. The book is the hot dog in its bun and the teachers and students are supposed to choose and add all the possible relish: one night I arrived in New York central bus station and I had to wait till 12.01 am (meaning one past midnight). So I went to the restaurant and ordered a hot dog. The Black waiter stated telling me a never-ending list of condiments, relish and other dressings. I think I remember I told him the second and the fifth, and he stared at me a little bit. That’s where these book could be fun, real fun.


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