This blog post is the fourth in a special series I am dedicating to my coursebook series Boost! during the month of June. Boost! is a six-strand, four-level skills and integrated skills series made for learners aged 10-15.
In my previous post on this blog, titled Opening up a coursebook with a blank expression, I floated the idea of including blank sections in coursebooks and gathered some comments and discussion. I did promise to demonstrate some potential options for applying these open areas if anyone was interested, and as someone indicated they were, here I am making good on that promise (at least to some degree, I hope).
I'd like to start with the section - an entire blank page, in fact - that I called "Starting with You!" in the previous post. This is an open page that precedes the coursebook unit proper, and amongst the various hypothetical models I presented, you can see where this page fits in the diagram below (the "Starting with You!" pages indicated by a blue arrow):
Now, one of the reasons I'm interested in discussing this particular page is because it is something I was adding to my regular coursebooks (via a blank looseleaf page) many years before I started writing Boost!. It has become a fundamental aspect of my general teaching approach when working in a program that demands pre-set coursebook application. I also got to apply it in real classrooms with my own Boost! series as well, including of course the actual sample unit depicted above ("Let's Go Camping!").
The long and short of it is: I let the learners decide what to do here.
They may need some patience, encouragement, and suggestions at first (it is a recurring painful experience for me to see the look of bafflement bordering on anguish when I announce to learners that they can look at the unit title and spend up to a full 40-minute lesson doing whatever they want on a blank page in response to that title). However, by brainstorming as a class some of the potential options and listing them on a whiteboard, the learners do quite quickly get the hang of it, and very soon won't need anything more than a "Starting with you now, students..."
You see, the idea here is for the students to think about the unit title and respond to that very simple caption in whatever way they like - so long as they are communicating something. They can do it entirely on their own, or they can pair up or even form groups.
For the particular unit show above ("Let's Go Camping") here is a fairly small selection of what I've seen students come up on their "Starting with You!" pages:
- A picture or sketch of a camping scene, sometimes labelled, other times followed by a short written description
- A list of all the possible words the student can think of in relation to the general topic of camping or outdoor recreation
- Personal essays giving opinions about camping, or stories of previous camping experiences, or fictional stories of desired or even quite fantastical camping experiences (one very memorable story was from a student imagining herself in the future, returning to a campsite - one she'd been to with her family in the past - with her own children, only to find it replaced by apartment blocks and factories)
- Students in pairs creating a dialogue based around the idea (or perceived ideas) in the title
- Students in small groups preparing skits and even short plays using the unit title as a starting point
- Radio, magazine or website advertisements/announcements based around camping (could be equipment or tour companies, or informational announcements from wildlife park authorities)
- A collection of signs that could be considered relevant to a camping ground or national park
- Comic book pages, relating a story about camping (often twisted for humour, or even incredibly embellished, featuring characters from World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings!)
- A map of Korea, with some of the best places for camping indicated (and sometimes with extra information for foreign visitors to the country who may be interested in camping)
- A world tour schedule from a student who imagined camping and doing things in a variety of different overseas destinations
- An interesting description of the camp site and events from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie (when the characters camped out for the World Quidditch Cup)
- A list of creative inventions to help make camping more comfortable and convenient in the future (I'll never forget the tent with an in-built Internet connection and touchscreen monitor built into the fabric of the walls...)
- A passionate rejection of the suggestion in the title ("Let's Go Camping!") from a student who detested the idea, and had a string of "Let's Go ....ing instead!" alternative suggestions
And there were many, many more.
Some people call this sort of thing "schema building," and some coursebooks claim to already have schema building covered through a couple of quick discussion prompts at the start of a unit.
I call it learner investment (for them) and learner research (for me). I also (quite fiercely) maintain that it can't happen in 5-10 minutes or through a couple of quick prompts at the start of a coursebook unit. It needs time, a free rein, and a real emphasis on personal reactions and creativity.
I won't say that the learning of the unit that follows is automatically better as a result of this sort of thing, but here are some clear advantages I've noticed (which see learning as a broader and more flexible priority):
- The learners get personally involved, use their creativity, and show me much more in terms of their personal interests, using the language they already have at hand or are at least willing to try and use
- The interests and ideas expressed here become valuable bases for offshoot activities to extend other parts of the coursebook that follow
- This can be used as a sort of open pre-task, which - following some input and language/skills modelling throughout the unit - can then be re-applied as an extension task-based project at the end of the unit (even if students elect to switch to a different mode of task, inspired for example by what some of their classmates came up with in the earlier "Starting with You!" session)
- Students get models and ideas from other students to use in the "Starting with You!" section of subsequent units
- As a teacher I get some great ideas for homework and independent tasks for the learners that they may actually genuinely enjoy and get fired up over
- Students are sent a very powerful message that the class is about them before it is about anything else (including what external authorities expect them to be interested in or need to learn from)
- It's just a whole lot more fun and motivating for everyone concerned
My only regret, if there even is one, is that this sort of thing has to be relegated to external notepaper which is either jammed/stapled into the coursebook proper, kept as an extra notebook, or (most often) destined to become shoe-filling at the bottom of students' backpacks. There are of course other options (like posting this work on the walls, for example - an option I was rarely allowed to engage in because I was in a context where stark clean walls were seen as being professional and more conducive to effective study).
I guess that is one of the reasons I floated this idea of coursebooks making room for this sort of content and activity within their actual covers.
And I hope readers take away one very important piece of the information from this:
It's not what I - the teacher - would do with this blank page that matters.
It's what the learners will do with the page.
Prepare to be surprised... and impressed!