Students turned into journalists

Curiosity is like a message board. You have your eyes, your ears, all your senses open and every new discovery is a sticky-note pinned onto the wall. Most of the time it looks like  a motley collection of random thoughts, links, quotes, books, songs, videos, impressions. But at times, right notes stick out like dots. All you need to do is link the dots and you’ve got a new idea. Almost all of my classroom projects are born this way. It cannot be a forced creation, it is always an end product of slow maturation.

Sticky note 1 – Roughly a  year ago I stumbled on this fun and truly inspirational blog http://burningquestionnaire.wordpress.com. I loved the interviews and found the questions whimsical. They were questions I would have loved to answer myself. I had a fleeting thought of using this questionnaire in my own class but discarded the idea almost immediately. I feared it was too difficult, too abundant in structures and language we hadn’t covered with my students yet. I couldn’t see it fitting into the programme. But the sticky-note was there, on the board!

Sticky note 2 – A couple of months ago our school headmaster, who also happens to be an incredibly inspirational person, sent me a link to this website http://the-talks.com. He was wondering whether I could use it in my lessons in one way or another. I spend hours enjoying the wonderful interviews, taking immense pleasure in the language and the thoughts expressed through it. It was a real treat!  Sticky-note was on the board!

Sticky note 3 – One year ago I joined the amazing, ever-inspirational, supportive, wise community of English language educators. I began to read thought-provoking articles and blog-posts, I had my eyes opened to innumerable ideas, controversies, trends, beliefs. But above all, I began seeing my own teaching, my own beliefs, my own fears and doubts in a completely new light. What had previously felt like the only good idea, the correct basis for a solid teaching practice, started showing cracks, then had parts chipped off and finally crumbled into non-existence. It wasn’t scary! It was thrilling! Among these strong ideas was my belief that I was in control of my students’ learning. I had very much taken the sole responsibility for their learning. I tortured myself believing that I had to be up to making them fluent in English through the means I and only I presented them with. Thus, coming back to the interviews, I deduced they weren’t able to work with them as I hadn’t provided them with all the right tools yet.

Fortunately, I was able to rid myself of this obstinate and oh-how-painful principle. I relaxed, took a more playful approach to projects (and their outcomes!), but most of all, I realized that teaching and learning don’t go hand in hand. Or as so many wise teachers have said, It’s not because a teacher TEACHES something that a learner will LEARN this. When and to what extent learning takes place is not something a teacher can control. We can, however, inspire, propose interesting tasks, create favorable atmosphere and be there to guide and help when necessary.

At the end of the first semester I had two one and a half hour unplanned lessons to use for any project I felt like doing. And that’s when I linked the dots and came up with an interview project for my students. Initially, I was a tiny bit scared they might not like the idea, or rather, they might protest because of the workload included. But I am happy to say all my fears vanished into thin air the moment I saw my students’ eyes light up when asked who they would like to interview. They were in! They had had their curiosity, their excitement buds tickled and the project took off.

Here’s what we did

Lesson 1

First I showed a possible interview opening on the screen. It went like this:

Singing, dancing, weight-lifting actor Hugh Jackman on coffee, his biggest fears and wearing skirts to school

(From http://www.time.com/10questions)

I asked the students where they could see something like this and what its purpose was.

Next I showed two more possible openings. Here they are:

Rachel Khoo, 33, of BBC2’s The Little Paris Kitchen, was born in Croydon to a Malaysian-Chinese father and Austrian mother. She studied art and design, but after working in fashion, followed her heart to Paris to learn patisserie. Following the success of The Little Paris Kitchen, this year, Rachel travelled through France finding the best dishes…

(From a British women’s magazine Prima)

There’s no mistaking that Amanda Holden is in the room. The actress and TV star has such an infectious laughter and great sense of humor that she soon has everyone at the shoot giggling.

(From another British magazine Good Housekeeping)

We discussed how the three openings differed, and I asked them to choose one of the three types when writing their interview. Next on the menu was Tips for Writing Good Interviews. I had browsed through various sites and come up with a list of good tips concerning the best suitable location for the interview, which questions to avoid, how to make the person feel at ease etc. I gave different tips to neighbors. They had to read theirs, take notes and then report their ideas to their neighbor. Once finished, I asked them to read their neighbor’s versions to check whether they got the truth and only the truth :-) I also wrote the main points on the board for a general round-up.

The last part of the lesson was reading several interviews. I had made copies of different interviews and students could choose what to read. All the interviews were taken from this site: http://the-talks.com

The classroom fell into deep silence as students devoured the words. I was dumbfounded! They do love to read! Just give them stuff they find interesting.

At the end of the lesson students had to tell me who they were going to interview. Their homework was to write down the questions and do the interview. They had one week for that. I encouraged them to use recorders during the talk!

Lesson 2

They had to come to the next lesson with the notes and the recording on their phone (plus earbuds!) The last lesson was writing. They had the whole lesson to write the final interview using the notes and / or the recording. And they did! Again, I was amazed to see how well they can work if the task feels important and personal to them. I was available for help and guidance.

End note

I started correcting their works this morning and I haven’t stopped smiling the whole day. Here are some extracts from their interview openings ( I changed the names):

Nancy is a seventeen year old young woman who has already written four novels. Meet the young writer with a lot of imagination!

Gregory is sitting outside, smoking a cigarette. He’s wearing my grandfather’s old shirt and a pair of mountain shoes. He looks so simple and it’s been a long time since I last saw him looking in my eyes with such a warm smile.

Mary has just turned 17. I have known her since she was a baby and we have always lived in the same street. Mary has an expensive but tremendous passion.

A café in the town centre. Tracy looks happy. She’s smiling. Nothing suggests she used to suffer from bulimia.

I will correct all the interviews and then ask my students to type the corrected versions on computer. On one hand, I want them to re-write the interviews going through the errors and (hopefully) learning from them. On the other hand, I wish them to keep beautiful versions of their work. They definitely deserve that.

Right, back to corrections. It can be fun too!

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2 thoughts on “Students turned into journalists

  1. I found myself smiling the whole time I was reading about your students’ interviews, too. This is wonderful :) LOVE this idea and hope I can incorporate something like this in my own class sometime. I think we are all drawn to personal stories and story telling in general -how great to incorporate it into a lesson. Your post reminded me of http://www.storycorps.org and how powerful it can be to interview those around us. Thanks for sharing!

    • Hi Laura,
      And thank you so much for taking time to leave your thoughts here! I’m all curious about the site you mentioned. It will probably become another sticky note on my message board :-)

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