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Linking Your Classroom to The Wider World

shutterstock_247739401In this blog, Patrick Jackson shares his experiences of learning as a child.  His insights illustrate some important elements of engagement and motivation that often get overlooked in the day-to-day busy classroom and curriculum.

What do you remember from your school days? Forty years on, I can remember:

  • Some of the faces
  • Many of the feelings
  • Much of the fun
  • Very few of the facts
  • The times the wider world came into our classroom
  • The times we weren’t actually at school

As a teacher, I’ve learned to incorporate those early memories of school into my own teaching. I’d like to share some of those lessons learnt with you.

Lesson #1: Exploit opportunities that you can build a lesson around.

My first experience of education took place in a wonderful Montessori school that occupied a room in a local racecourse. In return for allowing the school to use the room, the students had to pick up the litter on a Monday morning after race meetings. We loved collecting the colorfully numbered betting tickets that littered the ground. One day, a student found a pound note. That led to a discussion as to what should be done with it. In the end, half went to charity and half to a bag of sweets for the whole class. I’m sure that this early experience led to my lifelong interest in litter picking although you won’t find many pound notes these days. I can’t remember much of what happened in the classroom but I do remember how much we’d look forward to those Monday mornings

Lesson #2: Bring the outside world into your classroom

The clearest memories are of the days when we escaped from the classroom or when the wider world came to see us. We had a teacher who brought his Labrador to school every day. It would sit under his desk. One morning, a pigeon flew through the open window and flew around and around, to be eventually caught and released accompanied by much barking and excitement. There was the day we received a package from a school on the other side of the world. It was full of stickers and interesting snacks. We were fascinated. There were the happy days when a visiting speaker would come and talk to us about something wonderful and different and new. Those were the best days. When something different and new happened.

Lesson #3: Take your class out into the world

Then there were the delicious days we spent away from school – the trips off campus. There was the day we went to Stratford Upon Avon and the theatre had to be evacuated because of a smoke alarm (nothing to do with us, promise). There were museum trips where invariably somebody would get lost and we’d all have to wait for them to turn up at the meeting point. There were nature field trips, and visits to the local old folks home where we would sing the residents Puff the Magic Dragon and songs from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Most heavenly of all was the annual three-day trip to an outdoor activity centre where we would rediscover our true calling as children – to get wet, dirty and exhausted. Outside.

Lesson #4: Don’t be afraid to go off topic

In the classroom, more than any syllabus or curriculum, I remember the red herrings. By that I don’t mean smoked fish. I mean the times when we could distract our teachers to tell us all about their favorite things – those lovely moments when they would drift far away from the task in hand and enthuse about their own interests. Those were the teachers we loved the most and the teachers I can remember now. There was a Mr. Green who supported Derby County Football Club and would always tell us in detail about the previous weekend’s match. There was a Mr. Sanderson who loved Motown and could never resist playing us one or two of his favorite tracks. There was a teacher of some forgotten subject who had a collection of ceramic owls in her classroom. It wouldn’t take much to get those teachers started talking about their pet passions and a good red herring could last to the end of the lesson.

Lesson #5: Share your passions

There was a history teacher who came into class one day with a silver spoon. He held up this spoon for the class to look at. It was an antique Georgian Irish Silver ladle. He started to talk about it, full of enthusiasm. I am ashamed to say that my friends and I sniggered at the back of the class. But the more he spoke about his spoon, the more we became engaged. He told us about how the spoon had been passed down through his family. He enthused about the design of the spoon, about the elegant curve of the handle, about the process of making a spoon like that two hundred years ago. He passed the spoon around the class so that we could all see the little silver marks on the underside of the handle. He taught us how we could identify the maker, the date and the place where the spoon had been made. He spoke of the type of home that this spoon was used in in Georgian times. I can’t remember the rest of that lesson. To be honest, I can’t really remember the teacher that well but I can remember his spoon.

I am very pleased to invite you to join my webinar this month. Together, we will look at some ways in which all teachers can create links between the classroom and the wider world. By opening up to our students and opening the doors, windows and hearts of our classrooms, we can become more memorable and more effective teachers.

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Making books look like candy

shutterstock_280154789Patrick Jackson, author of the popular Potato Pals series, Shine On! and Everybody Up!, explores the importance of design and ‘eye candy’ in materials for young learners.

In the natural world, colour and pattern are keys to reproduction and survival. The attention of bees is guided by precisely marked, competing flowers. Camouflaged moths hug tree trunks, invisible to their predators. Birds and animals show off their plumage and markings to attract a partner. Phosphorescent creatures in the warmer oceans mirror the night sky, filled with the stars that guide our journeys across its expanses.

The same is true with the learning journey we embark on with pre-elementary and elementary students. The learning materials we use must guide, motivate and excite, firstly and above all through the eyes of our young students. The characteristics and effectiveness of materials are largely determined by the visual impression they make and the deeper design decisions that undergird their development. As teachers and publishers we rightly should embrace the extent to which design decisions influence the whole learning process.

An Oxford University Press designer once said, “I like to make books look like candy.” Children, more than any other age group, are visual learners. The younger the learners, the more important the visuals are. That is not to say that they are not important with older age groups, but in the absence of a lot of printed text, children depend on what they can see on the pages (or increasingly, the screens) in front of them. The classroom can be very cut off from the outside world and exciting images from beyond the classroom bring the experience of learning a new language alive.

Young learners benefit deeply from interacting with different illustration styles and different media. These inspire creativity as well as maintain students’ attention. Good illustrations convey emotion and that in turn motivates young learners. The aesthetic experience should be pleasurable and the content memorable. No doubt we all remember our favourite illustrations from the books of our childhood. Furthermore, language itself is not linear and the visual presentation of language in context is a powerful tool that mimics the state of language in the real world. It has been proven that language is more memorable when presented with images, particularly images that children can identify emotionally with. Again, this replicates their experience of learning their first language.

The layout of activities on the page gives a book its feel and determines how we will respond. The lesson should flow smoothly from well signposted activity to the next. Icons and titles are part of this rhythm. The font and size of rubrics are also very important, as is the amount of blank space on the page. This informs how we perceive the level of difficulty of the material. The feel and finish of a course book are also vital to our experience of a book. Who hasn’t stroked the cover of a book or run their hands down its spine? Who hasn’t been frustrated as a child by trying to write or colour on the wrong quality of paper? All of these decisions, taken by the editorial and design teams, contribute to the soul of the materials and the ‘user experience’.

We call something superficially attractive but lacking deep meaning ‘eye candy’. They also say that ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’. On the contrary, we can and do tell a great deal about course books by looking at their covers, and a bit of eye candy on their pages for young learners is just what they like and need. Their first impression of the path ahead is partly determined by the design of their very first English book.

So let’s not underestimate the work of the design department as we choose the materials we use. Let’s celebrate those beautiful illustrations and gorgeous double spreads. Let’s obsess about clear, well-set rubrics. Let’s appreciate delicious paper quality. Let’s delight at a bit of bling on a cover. As a great scholar may or may not have once said, “Per pulchra ad astra.” Through beauty to the stars!