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Party Mix: Engaging teenage learners

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Group of teenagers at a partyIn this guest post, Anna Musielak, a Gimnazjum (Lower Secondary) teacher and teacher trainer from Poland, tells us how she coped with teaching teenagers and gives her tips for how to engage this troublesome age group. Feel free to follow Anna on Twitter (@AnnaMusielak).

Teaching teens is a very challenging job. They are extremely hard to please and it is our role as teachers to provide them with tasks and activities that will be interesting, motivating and effective. Of course, our teenage students very often decide to make our life, well… living hell!

When I taught Gimnazjum students I very often felt like screaming. There were days that I could (literally) stand on my head and they would still say the lesson sucked… But there were those precious moments when I got to them, when the lesson was so interesting that they forgot to moan and complain and just took part in it!

The key, in my opinion, is to introduce a variety of animated and efficient exercises that motivate students of mixed abilities and help them learn and reinforce the material. The activities have to be engaging and directed to all students – those better at English and those who struggle with it.

Of course, it helps a lot when we have an idea what our teenage students are into. For some it will be the Twilight Saga, for others Facebook, and for some, playing Guitar Hero. It is our role to find out about their passions and hobbies – by doing so, we prove to our students that we are genuinely interested in their lives. Obviously, I don’t mean channeling your inner rock star or coming to the classroom plugged into your iPod. I just think that knowing a bit about our students’ activities outside school gives us a perception of their temperamental life and, what’s more, helps us understand them better.

There is one activity that always works with my Gimnazjum students – I call it Party Mix. It does not require a lot of preparation from the teachers (one of the biggest advantages when conducting a lesson) and gives freedom to the learners.

To start with, I present each student with a photo of a person – the stranger the better. They are usually magazine cut outs – but no celebrities – just ‘average’ people like:

I tell my students that they have to take on the role of the person in the picture – and ask them to come up with the story behind it. They have to decide on the name, nationality, age, hobbies, job etc. They have to think how this person walks, talks and behaves around others, and so on. After five minutes I explain to them that they all meet at a party and have to make new friends. (Remember! They cannot show their pictures to the others!)

The task provides students with a lot of freedom and allows their creativity to shine. They can move and chat like the person in the picture and, thanks to that, they are less intimidated to make mistakes (because it’s not Petra who did something wrong, but Granny Jo). The weaker students can jot down their ideas on a piece of paper first and use a story that is less elaborate. I noticed that this task allows them to open up (as the pressure to perform is lifted) and they join in the fun.

The activity concentrates on gestures, facial expressions and body language. It creates an imaginary context and helps learners be spontaneous when expressing emotions. It fosters students’ creativity – they would definitely put their own twist on the stories behind the pictures. Mine came up with crazy nicknames (Scary Sue, Jumping Buzz or Lil’ Justin) and the stories they make up were current and linked to their interests.

After about 20 minutes I tell the students that the party is over and show them pictures of the people they just met – they have to match the ‘real people’ with the photos and justify their choice. It generates lots of fun as they guess (very often without any mistakes) and provide their explanation.

There is another plus of this exercise – as this activity reflects real-life, teenagers are more active, and their learning more meaningful and efficient. And watching the usually grumpy teens leaving the classroom energized and in a good mood is the greatest reward a Gimnazjum teacher can get.

What activities do you use to motivate and energise your teenage students? Leave a comment below – I’d love to hear them.

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Author: Oxford University Press ELT

The official global blog for Oxford University Press English Language Teaching. Bringing teachers and other ELT professionals top quality resources, tools, hints and tips, news, ideas, insights and discussions to help further their ELT career. Follow Oxford ELT on Twitter. Find Oxford ELT on Google+.

15 thoughts on “Party Mix: Engaging teenage learners

  1. I’m starting my practice teaching tomorrow with a group aged 14-15. Language focus is on… Guess what… Speaking! :)
    This is the best ever idea I could find now, thank you! I’ll definately try this activity with them, it sounds really interesting and fun.

    Thanks a lot! :)

    • I’m really glad you like it and find it useful – and it really works:) Fingers crossed for your classes:)

  2. Great article, Anna!

    Wonderful writing style, and the ideas are awesome. I think that the strange folk photos,which you said “provides students with a lot of freedom and allows their creativity to shine” is exactly the direction that works with teenagers.

    For an age group that asks themselves everyday, “who am i” and “what do my peers think about me”, being able to hide these questions by becoming another changes everything. As you said, they become “less intimidated to make mistakes”.

    Always love crossing paths with you in the virtual world, and soon at Brighton! :)

    • Thank you very much Brad. I was looking for some ways to encourage my teens to open up and just communicate and this activity really helped a lot:) I guess the idea that they are someone else (so if they do make any mistakes it’s not them but e.g. “Crazy Joe”;))and are at a party just works for them;)

  3. Loved the idea. Thank you. Great for speaking clubs, too (my personal latest craze) =)

    • I’m glad you liked the idwa:) It’s a real energizer – and soemtimes it’s difficult to put and end to this activity;)

  4. Hi Ania!

    I love this activity – as always, a super energetic activity that the students love and that we teachers can “pinch” for our own classes! I love the name of the activity, the impact it had on the kids and your enthusiasm and inspiration to get such great ideas.

    For those of you who have never been to Ania’s workshops, do not miss her next one! I went to one of her workshops in November and it was truly one of the best I have ever attended. Thanks to everyone at OUP Global for having Ania as guest blogger!

    Kindest regards,
    Vicky

  5. Dear Vicky, thank you so much for your wonderful comment. I am so glad you find the idea useful. I guess the beauty of this activity that it works with all age groups and levels (you just need to change it a bit).:)

  6. Thanks for sharing a great idea. I’ll try this one out on my students in Japan.

  7. Hi Anna

    You make the point really well that the secret to getting the most out of our teens learning is to find out what gets them interested, and then to engage that interest with stimulating activities.

    Hope you don’t mind I have posted a link to your blog onto our Global English Facebook wall http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=22863514733&ref=ts as I know a lot of our EFL teachers struggle with getting teens engaged.

    Thanks again for this great idea!
    William

  8. Pingback: Foodoholics Anonymous by Anna Musielak — www.mikejharrison.com

  9. Thus game work really well with my teenagers……….fantastic!

    Would love some games at slightly lower level students. (Teaching in Korea, teens here are really really shy and self conscious)

  10. thank about this idea .iam teaching happy earth 1 and really i need to teachers book of this book my collegues could you send me????/of cours i know what should i do .but i need it/

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