Why Language Teachers Should Know about their Learners' Lives Outside the Classroom

April 2022

Spring is here: the flowers are blooming, the birds are singing, and our students’ lives are bustling. What better time than now to learn more about our students’ as human beings? With this latest issue, we look into why teachers should get to know more about their students. Of course, we have some practical suggestions for teachers to use in their classrooms!

Our cover: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education.”– attributed to Mark Twain and Grant Allen.

Cover photo by Akson on unsplash; others from pixabay

Watch before you read...

There is not much written on how students’ lives outside the classroom affect their language learning experiences, but we intend to change that. Our Main video looks at the emotional dangers our learners face in their youth and the protective factors teachers can provide. Since so much of the issue discusses students learning from their outside experiences, the Lite video provides a brief overview of Kolb’s Experiential Learning Theory.

Mohammad Khari and Stephen M. Ryan will then set the stage for the issue by telling us why teachers should know about their learners’ lives. Harumi Kimura, Amanda Gillis-Furutaka, and Dawn Kobayashi look at particular aspects of those lives: family issues, adolescent impressibility, and part-time jobs. They also suggest ways we can incorporate these growing-up hotspots into our teaching. Julia Daley gives us a writing tool to find out about student lives, while Joe Keohane closes the issue by telling us why we should encourage our learners to talk to strangers.

And guess what? We are saving a lovely set of tips on romantic love from psychologist Carla Manly for the next issue. Her article will help our students navigate this treacherous outside terrain, and, because it is of such value to them, enhance their language learning.

Our Thoughts on Students' Outside Lives

Shoes to Walk in, Lenses to See Through Mohammad Khari

Think about students in high school and college. What is the most important thing in their lives? What stirs their passions? What are their needs? From our perspective, it is easy to assume that school is that central element: the source of their passions and provider of their needs. How easy it is to forget that when we were that same age, school was just a side event for most of us. Instead, we were focused on all the new things bursting upon us: moving out, making money in part-time jobs, falling in love, traveling, experimenting, and sometimes fighting with our families. As it was for us, our leaners are not as much pupils as pioneers.

Think Tank Articles

Walking on Eggs: Why We Should Know as Much about our Students as We Can Stephen M. Ryan

Nobody anticipated that Susan would hurry from the classroom in tears, but it didn’t take us long to understand why. We were teachers-in-training, participating in a demonstration lesson about how to warm students up to a text before they read it. The text was about an unfortunate young man who fell overboard from a boat. Our trainer was a little too good at helping us imagine what it would be like to feel we were drowning. He was so good at it that he triggered memories in Susan of a recent incident at the beach when she had been swept away by a strong wave.

Family Matters Harumi Kimura

When students start college life, they will all experience academic and interpersonal challenges, big and small, but at least some of them have to face another type of challenge, which I will call a clash of values. I talked about this with a school counselor who used to work for our university, a women’s university located in the northern part of Japan. My question for her was what the number one reason students visit our school counseling room was. She said, without any moment of hesitation, family matters.

An Occasion for Students to Share Julia Daley

Back in my writing classes in the USA, this assignment was by far the most popular among my students. The idea was introduced to me by my department head and from the work of Bill Martin in his article “A Writing Assignment/A Way of Life” (2003); in his article, he introduces an assignment that he calls the “Occasional Paper” and shows how he uses it in his class to great effect. The premise is simple: students must prepare and share a piece of writing with the class. The topic is entirely up to them—be it something from their personal life (Martin’s student shares about a game they played) or a topic they find interesting (no research necessary)—as is the timing of when they read it aloud to the class. It is not corrected in any way by the teacher; it’s solely a completion grade…

Indelible Impressions: How and Why Adolescent Experiences Expand our Brain’s Circuitry and Influence our Life Course Amanda Gillis-Furutaka

Adolescent brains are highly impressionable. Why is this? How has this contributed to our evolutionary success? And how is this related to what teachers can do with their students outside the classroom? To answer these questions, I will first draw on research findings to explain why adolescents are strongly attracted to novelty and why the reinforcing pleasure they derive from new and exciting experiences is so powerful. Next, I’d like to share a personal story to illustrate how vivid adolescent impressions have changed my brain and the course of my life, and then reflect on the implications of adolescent impressionability for us as a species and in our adult roles as teachers, guardians, and parents.

Part-Time Jobs as an Opportunity to Practice English Dawn Kobayashi

I attended university in the UK in the 90s, a time of no tuition fees and non-repayable bursaries to help with living expenses. This means I did not need a part-time job to help pay for study materials and living expenses. It also means that, until recently, I had not really considered the importance of part-time jobs for university students studying English in Japan. Fortunately, my research opened my eyes to how my students’ part-time jobs were providing them with valuable opportunities to speak English and also motivation to further improve their skills. I interviewed students during my research on student self-efficacy when speaking English. I was fascinated to learn that the majority of students’ spontaneous English conversations were held at their part-time jobs. Let me tell you about two students’ experiences.

The Benefits of Talking to Strangers Answers to our questions written by: Joe Keohane

Editors’ note: In a January Think Tank article, Curtis Kelly wrote about how Nigel McQuitty gloried in the wonders of talking to strangers again once pandemic lockdowns ended. Curtis responded that talking to strangers is a skill his students desperately need. Shortly after, Nigel sent Curtis a book, The Power of Strangers, by Joe Keohane. This amazing book explains how communicating with strangers can greatly improve our lives, and those of our learners. Read this book! But before that, read Joe’s answers to some questions we sent him:

Think Tank Plus

Call for Contributions: Ideas and Articles Think Tank Staff

Become a Think Tank star! Here are some of the future issue topics we are thinking about. Would you, or anyone you know, like to write about any of these? Or is there another topic you’d like to recommend? Do you have any suggestions for lead-in, or just plain interesting, videos? How about writing a book review? Or sending us a story about your experiences? Contact us.

Using your office hours to help students face the adult world is also a good idea.

Here are some tips on how to do that.

How a teacher understanding a student can change everything, even in their outside lives.

Full Prefrontal, the executive function podcast, interviewed self-avowed introvert Gillian Sandstrom (mentioned above) on talking to strangers.

Don’t miss the new addition to our site! For teaching and learning…

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The MindBrained Think Tanks+

is produced by the Japan Association for Language Teaching (JALT) Mind, Brain, and Education Special Interest Group (BRAIN SIG). Kyoto, Japan. (ISSN 2434-1002)

Editorial Staff

Stephen M. Ryan                Julia Daley                   Marc Helgesen

              Curtis H. Kelly                 Skye Playsted               

    Jason Walters                               Mohammad Khari




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