The Tesla Coil

January 25, 2010

ESL vs. “Hamlet” – the remix (part 2)

Filed under: Remixes — Sputnik @ 12:54 pm

And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us.

One of the most extraordinary scenes in English literature takes place in the graveyard of Elsinore during the funeral of Ophelia.  Laertes, brother of Ophelia, jumps in her grave and commands that they pile up the dirt upon him until he is buried under a mountain of it.  Disturbed that anyone should overreach his own excessive grief, Hamlet promptly joins Laertes in Ophelia’s grave and claims that 40 000 brothers could not have the amount of love for Ophelia that he has.  He then goes on to issue a series of dares that would prove his love, such as eating a crocodile.  Finally, Hamlet declares that he too would be happily buried alive with Ophelia but that he would be buried under millions of acres until the mountain reached the sun.

This hyperbolic episode, of course, has immediate resonance with the teaching of ESL (yes, it does) .  There is a sublimity to it, an asymmetry between Hamlet and Laertes’ grief and its practical expression, which also finds an affiliation, if not a completely different emotional hue (I hope), in the basic project of all TESL.  The fundamental premise of each and every student’s career is that they cannot do that which they seek to do.  Students begin with an asymmetry – they want to communicate in a language they cannot speak.

There is a kind of glorious foolhardiness about the enterprise of learning such a vast thing as a language.  Hours, amounting to weeks and weeks of labour, are required just to sound like a fool.  Fluency itself is a dream akin to piling up a mountain of dirt from which to touch the sun.  Rarely do so many people announce such a blissful disregard for the present and invest so much energy, effort and time into a project of seemingly monumental sublimity as when they sign up to an English course.  There is a magnificence to it of which I am happy to partake.

January 10, 2010

Are boys aquatic animals?

Filed under: Dumb questions — Sputnik @ 10:12 pm

No way!

What can possibly surprise a marine biologist?

Given the bewilderingly insane stuff that passes for normal life under the ocean, I was interested to learn earlier last year that a small band of these underwater scientists had been astonished by the findings of a study they were undertaking on mushroom coral.  Shock No.1, of course, is that coral are actually animals.  This was no news to the marine biologists who had all been far more diligent than me in watching David Attenborough, but what was, was that mushroom coral change sex.  One year they were female, and the next they were male.  But why?

The answer was not that a lab assistant got drunk and started messing with the team’s laptops; rather, it was stress.  Apparently, when female mushroom coral are stressed they convert wholesale into male mushroom coral.

Wake me up when I need to learn something

This situation immediately reminded me of the average ESL classroom.  Dr Madsen Pirie, sometime President of the Adam Smith Institute, infamously remarked not so long ago that the reasons girls had overtaken boys in terms of academic performance at school was that the exams had changed.  Where once passing exams in English schools had relied on a do-or-die, revise-at-the-last-minute, up-and-at-‘em approach, the new modular exams are wholly or in part based on coursework, which favours a more reasoned and considered approach with effort spread across a year.

It was Dr Pirie’s contention that this methodical approach suits girls better than boys.  Girls like the calm and attention to detail of coursework, whereas boys like the stress and short burst of exams.

This seems to bear a correspondence with the ESL classroom. It is not that, for example, the Cambridge Suite is better suited to boys than girls; rather, it is that learning a language is better suited to girls.  Becoming fluent in a language takes patience, an attention to detail and an awful lot of coursework.  Hence, on average, a minimum of 80% of my advanced students are female in any one year.  Across the range, many more students are female to begin with, and, of course, they are always more likely to do the homework.  Learning a language, it seems, is a female pursuit.

No more needlework

So what do we do with the boys and the men?  Are our long-term approaches failing them?  Should we not introduce more stress into the classroom to help them?

I have had many ideas on this subject, including shouting, using cattle prods, and showing pictures of distressed puppies.  Perhaps more usefully, it might be possible to begin by separating boys and girls. If you have one boy in a class of 20 girls, you inevitably still spend 90% of your time on him, essentially, now I understand, trying to stress him enough to learn.  This, of course, is no good for the girls who just want to chill and patiently assemble the next part of their linguistic capability.  Boys could then have test-based lessons in a shorter, more intensive course leading to an exam, while girls take the less-stressful option of conversing in the classroom, and building coursework for a different kind of exam.

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