Drawing Inspiration from Inspirational Students

Drawing Inspiration from Inspirational Students

By:Paul Mathieson

All language teachers have faced those seemingly motivational-blackhole scenarios: the first period class in the depths of winter, the class after lunch on a steamy Japanese summer afternoon, or the first day back in class after the happy vibes of the school festival. But I think good teachers rise to such challenges by attempting to make their classes engaging, meaningful, and hopefully fun, whatever the circumstances. I am thankful for those wonderful students who also rise to the challenge of helping to create stimulating and engaging classes with us teachers–those students who appreciate our efforts to enliven classroom activities, and those who are willing to jump into the figurative English language learning mosh pit.

This is what happened–on an entire-class scale–with a group of first-year medical students I had the pleasure to teach recently. From the early running, everything in this class seemed to click–they laughed at all of my stupid jokes, they let their imagination run wild during in-class activities, and so on. But there was one “Eureka!” moment for me in terms my understanding of student motivation and engagement.

The “Eureka!” moment occurred when we were doing an activity that was designed to develop students’ critical thinking and English communication skills. The basis for the activity is a fairy-tale land ruled by a king who is fiercely protective of his queen (and as I am typing this, I realise that perhaps it is time for me to bring the story into the 21st century and switch those roles around!). There are a number of other characters in the story, all of whom have some role in the eventual and unfortunate demise of the queen (including the queen herself). After listening to the story, the students are put into groups and tasked with evaluating and ranking each character based on who they think is most to blame for the queen’s death (and explaining why).

One of the characters in the story is the queen’s secret lover. In the PowerPoint presentation that accompanies the story, I had previously used a generic photo of a dashing, mustachioed 1970s European footballer as the queen’s secret lover. However, on a whim, I decided to ask one of our students–who was a popular member of the class and who also happened to be the oldest member of the class–whether it would be okay for me to use a photo of him as the queen’s secret lover. Thankfully for me (and for this story), he not only agreed, but he was delighted to help me to add some colour and humour to the activity.

Moreover, his willingness to put himself out there in that activity opened the door for incorporating student “characters” into other in-class stories and activities. This included using an adapted version of Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, for our special Christmas lesson, which was filled with Dickensian “characters” from our class. Can you figure out who they are representing?

Incorporating your students (or even characters based on your students) into classroom stories or activities is obviously fraught with risk. It depends very much on the willingness of students to involve themselves in the class narrative in that way, and teachers of course need to be wary about possibly marginalising students by either inclusion or exclusion in relation to such things. However, if it is handled sensitively and (crucially) inclusively, I think such student involvement in classroom stories has the power to create impactful and lasting classroom memories for both students and teachers. And, last but not least, it has the potential to get gratitude flowing in both directions in the classroom–something that I am sure we could all do with more of.

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