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Why teach values in the Primary classroom?

shutterstock_408187930Susan Banman Sileci is an American ELT author. She has written materials for pre-primary, primary, secondary, and adult levels, including textbooks, activity books, graded readers, resource packs, and digital practice materials and is the author of Everybody Up, Super Stars, and Shine On.

I’m an American living in Brazil and I’ll be honest: it’s been a rough year. Brazil is going through a corruption scandal that included the impeachment of a president and, of course, there was this month’s presidential election in the United States. The world has seen just how much Americans don’t agree and how ugly the discussions can become.

It’s been hard and the adults have been fighting. But guess what? Now more than ever we need to teach values to the little ones. That doesn’t mean that we impose our political views on our students, much as we might want to. School is about lots of things including learning to read and write, learning subject matter, learning to get organized, and learning to listen to and respect one another.

In the past six months, through all of this, I’ve been struggling to listen and be respectful. I’m learning too! Home is often a place where we all believe the same thing, and school is where we gather up the beginnings of life in a larger community. Certainly, most primary students aren’t talking about impeachment in Brasília and the American elections (and I rather hope they’re not!), but English classrooms can easily be places where we help our little ones learn to listen and respect one another.

How? I have a few ideas.

Set a good example

First, we need to look at ourselves and realize that we’re models to our students. They’re watching us closely and whatever we’re asking of them, we need to be sure to do ourselves. It’s not always big things… have we taught “please” and “thank you” to our students? Do we use those words ourselves at every opportunity? Have we finished a lesson about being on time but they see us racing into class, not quite prepared and a little frazzled? I know my students have.

And to me this one is a big thing. We need to say “I’m sorry.” We teach the language for this – it’s common functional language in many primary books. Do we require them to apologize to one another for mistakes and impolite things they’ve done, yet they never hear us apologize?

Share our values

We can share more about our lives. We teach simple language and basic values to primary kids: be polite, be fair, share your things, work together, be helpful, respect nature, among others. I suggest we look for opportunities of good values, or failed values, in our lives and spend a few minutes once in a while talking about them in class. In fourth grade, our teacher told us about a racist incident she’d seen on a city bus. It wasn’t in the lesson plan but my teacher needed to share something she’d seen. Why do I remember it 45 years later?

Provide opportunities for good citizenship

Finally, we can look for opportunities for our students to do good. They’re young, yes, but they’re still critical to one another and to our community. More than anything else, showing them how to do good and then doing it teaches them values. There are so many ways even our youngest English students can make a difference. They can work in the school garden (or start one!) and talk about what they’re harvesting in English. They can make holiday cards or write letters to be delivered to older people or others in need. They can listen, and offer solutions, when a classmate is struggling.

It feels like the world is upside-down sometimes, but our classrooms can be places where we teach, discuss, and then live out the best we can be.

In my webinar, I’ll be examining some of the ways we can introduce values into our classrooms. We’ll talk about where we can find examples of values and how we can make the most of values opportunities in our textbooks. We’ll also discuss a few concrete ways to help students practice what they’ve learned and be important members of their larger communities. I hope you will join me!


Are your young learners getting their five a day?

Mother and Son in supermarketIn the light of recent food industry scandals, Everybody Up co-author Patrick Jackson asks some questions about what we are putting on the table for our young learners.

When I was little, breakfast was spent listening to our budgie Jacob telling my sister to wake up. I drew faces on boiled eggs, poor souls, then executed them with the whack of a spoon. Above all, I read the back of the cereal box from which you’d often get a small plastic toy. Nowadays, because I eat boring grown-up cereals, the backs of cereal boxes only give me nutritional information and charts showing me how I have made the right choice and will live for 100 years. To be honest, the magic has gone. No more mazes, jokes, cartoons or collectible plastic figures for me.

As educators, we are responsible for providing our students with a healthy balance of activities to make up a good all-round educational diet from source to table.

The recent food industry scandals have made us all think a bit harder about where our food comes from and who we trust to supply it. We should have the same rigour when choosing what we bring into the classroom. Home-grown and home-cooked are the most delicious but not everybody has the time or the expertise to prepare tasty food day in day out. When the ‘family’ consists of 40 or more with ‘meals’ running all day long, it is time to reach for something that has been prepared for you. Do your materials come from trusted suppliers and are those suppliers providing what they say on the packet?

The other day in the supermarket I was struck by how, down the whole length of the aisle, I could only see plastic, paper and glass. I could not see any actual food at all. What a shame it would be if we allowed our education system to become like that: depersonalised, delegated and always covered in expensive and unnecessary packaging.

Patrick in the supermarket

So what are you bringing to the table? Are your lessons nice and fresh or a bit stale and mouldy? Is your presentation crisp and crunchy or a getting rather tired and floppy? Do you use enough organic local ingredients? Are your lessons colourful and attractive or bland and uninviting? Do they change with the seasons or is it the same thing all year round? Do you even get to choose what is on the menu and do your students get to feel like they have choice too? Are there some tasty treats and snacks to brighten things up now and again? Is there enough variety and balance? What utensils do you use to prepare, serve and eat? Does it all come to the table piping hot or have your materials got the look and feel of yesterday’s cold pizza? Do your students get enough chance to ‘cook’ for themselves or is it always a one-way process?

And how about those essential five portions of fruit and vegetables we should be eating every day? What are the language teaching essentials that young learners absolutely need? Everybody will have their own ideas on this but I believe that the diet should include the following:

  • Music and movement
  • Links to real world wonder and discovery
  • Creative and imaginative activities
  • Stories and values
  • Personalisation moments

We owe it to our students to give them fresh and healthy produce. When we need to reach for processed fare, we should do everything we can to ensure it does what is says on the tin. What sort of meals are you laying on for your students?

Try the Everybody Up Global Sing-along for free animated songs, lesson plans and a great learning opportunity for your students.

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Teaching values is nothing new!

Having given us some tips for teaching values in the classroom, Susan Banman Sileci, co-author of the new Primary course Everybody Up, now considers whether this is a new phenomenon or not.

EFL teachers, especially those who teach young learners, know instinctively that they’re standing in front of a group of kids teaching more than English. One of those things is values – how to behave at school, at home and out in the community.

I recently spent some time online preparing for a presentation on teaching values and found a few sites expressing worry about this generation of children “The world is on the verge of collapse,” the sites suggest. “What will become of the world with kids like these in it?” Some sites say the biggest problem is video games. Others say it’s divorce. Others blame today’s social woes on bad teachers, rap music, reality TV, the Internet, cell phones and political corruption. If you believe those sites, we’re in trouble.

But then I look back on my childhood in the 1960s and 1970s in the United States. I remember a lot of talk from the adults around me about how terrible my generation would turn out. There were drugs everywhere. There were rock festivals, disco music, political scandals, race riots, girls wearing boys’ clothes and guys with long hair. Every night we watched the Vietnam War on the news and mourned the assassination of our leaders, from President Kennedy to Martin Luther King, Jr. It wasn’t an easy time either.

I asked my mother about her generation. For kids of the 1950s, listening to Elvis Presley was the end of the world to the adults around her. Before that, moving from the farm to the city was trouble. Even Plato and Socrates worried about their own disrespectful kids and teenagers.

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Tips for Teaching Values in the Primary Classroom


I was a child who very much cared about pleasing my parents, and my earliest memories seem to involve the stressful or surprising moments when I did not please them. For example, I must have been around four years old and my family was at a restaurant having lunch. A child at another table was talking loudly and waving his arms. My response was to stare at that child, and I lifted my arm to point at him and asked my parents to look too. To my surprise, I was told clearly not to point at anyone and to stop looking at the child. The direct message was, “It’s not polite,” and I was not supposed to stare and point here or anywhere else.

Were my parents teaching me values? At the time, they would probably have said no, they were teaching me to be polite and to behave in a way that was acceptable in American society. They were teaching me basic etiquette and good manners. But through etiquette and manners, they were also teaching me values. In this case, they wanted to teach me to respect the privacy of others and to mind my own business.

Every year, I hear more and more about teaching values in the classroom. Some governments suggest that teachers do it. Some schools enrol students by telling parents that their teachers do it. Some parents specifically ask teachers to help them out by teaching values.

It might seem like you’re being asked to do too much when, on top of teaching English, you have to teach students to be kind, helpful, fair, polite and careful while learning about recycling, caring for the environment and respecting the world around them. You might shake your head and say, “It just can’t be done.”

I suggest it can and, chances are, you’re already doing it.

When a student throws trash on the floor, you probably ask the student to pick it up. It’s basic manners to clear up our own mess, but you’re also teaching about the value of respect for ourselves, others, the school, and the environment by asking a student to pick up some paper they left on the floor. You’re teaching values.

You ask a student to lend you a pen or to demonstrate an activity and as you ask, you say “Please.” You then say “Thank you” when it’s done. And you ask students to use those same terms with you and their classmates in similar situations. You’re teaching manners and basic etiquette, but you’re also teaching gratitude and respect for things others give or do. You’re teaching values.

These values start small. We can’t and don’t expect that picking up one piece of paper will cause a student to become an advocate for a neighbourhood recycling program. We can’t expect that saying “Thank you” one time will cause a child to be more respectful of another person’s time and energy. But it’s a beginning.

More importantly, just as I needed to be told not to stare and point at another child in a restaurant, our students need direct and clear coaching in what society expects of them. Yes, of course, children absorb values from what they see around them. If everyone in the car puts a seat belt on, a child will one day learn that people wear seat belts in the car and probably do it too. But asking a child to please put his seat belt on might be the first step. And parents might have to remind the child several times, if not hundreds of times before a child remembers.

Our job as teachers (among many other things!) is to reinforce what children learn at home and help create citizens of the world who are not only polite but who respect others, who care for their environments, and who care for themselves. And particularly in primary classes, we don’t start with bigger issues like climate change, immigration, sexual identity, or hate crimes. We start by asking students to say “Please,” to clean up their messes, and remember to wait for their turn. These small values grow and build on one another until students begin to understand the bigger picture.

There are lots of manners and values to work on, but teachers can start by reinforcing them slowly and individually. For example, have Please and Thank You Week. During this week (or month, depending on your schedule), suggest that everyone remember to say please and thank you. In the classroom, they can do this in English. And they can do it in their native language outside the classroom – in other classes, in their communities and at home. To wrap up, spend a few minutes practising the different situations where students might say please and thank you.

For children, learning explicit values can be lots of fun. They enjoy helping one another remember this week’s value and really enjoy seeing me, the teacher, occasionally forget to use it (we’re all learning together!). At the beginning of the next class, I can ask students if they used their polite words yesterday. Did they use them with other teachers, or friends, or their families? I’d ask students to volunteer success stories and ask the class to act out that story in English. We might even make a poster and at the end of the week, we can celebrate by drawing a big star to show that we’ve mastered please and thank you.

By breaking values into small, meaningful chunks, stating our expectations, following up during the week and rewarding students for good behaviour, teaching values becomes not only manageable, but also incredibly helpful to your image as a teacher. Imagine being a mother whose child suddenly starts saying please or sharing with his little sister? If that mother finds out it’s because his English teacher suggested it (and she will), you’re a star!

So here’s a challenge: Besides Please and Thank You Week, what other “values weeks” could we plan? I’ve made a poster, stuck it to the wall beside my computer and will write your suggestions on it. Get yourself a star and share your ideas!

Turn your students into citizens! I’m running a free webinar on teaching values on 15th and 16th May, so if you want to find out more please do join me! Click the button below to register. 

Teachers play an important role in a child’s awareness of politeness, kindness, sharing etc. Susan Banman Sileci, co-author of the new Primary course, Everybody Up, shares some of her ideas on how to bring values into the classroom.

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