17 February 2007

The David Letterman approach to English teaching

I received a message from a teacher in Brazil lamenting that the teenagers find the school's English course book boring. I've yet to find a fun exciting thrilling English course book. Even the best courses seem to get boring after awhile.

Igniting the spark in bored students can be quite a helpful challenge. It can help teachers to strive to make their lessons much more interesting and engaging. Consequently, I have adopted the David Letterman Late Night Show approach to teaching.

There are many of these late night variety TV shows with a host who tells jokes, does some funny routines and then invites guests on the show, usually some sort of celebrity, to talk about their latest movie, book, vacation, party or something interesting and then ending the show with the performance of a music group.

Let's look at the features of the talk show:

One of the biggest ones is that, unlike school, no one has to watch it. It is all purely voluntary. In fact, with remote control in hand, even a momentary lapse into boring material and the viewer will zap it in favor of another channel.

"Can you image the impact it would have on teaching if viewers could zap the teacher if he got too boring?"
How do these shows keep viewer interest? Letterman follows a pattern that insures variety:

  1. The monologue, a series of jokes he tells at the beginning of the show while standing in the middle of the stage.
  2. Then he sits down and tells a funny story of something that happened to him or someone else.
  3. Following this is one of a few things, a "game" played with the audience, more goofy stories or reading Oprah transcripts involving members of his cast.
  4. The "Top 10!"
  5. Guest #1, a movie star, politician or other famous character
  6. Guest #2, same as #5
  7. The band or music group at the end

With this little routine David is able to have a successful show and make nearly $1 million a week. People learn a lot of things from the Letterman show. They see and hear things and remember them. They may remember some details about an operation an actor had and some specifics about heart surgery. They may remember some anecdotes of an author. They may remember some interesting points about a vacation destination.

A lot of this is trivia. It may never be useful. But people hear it and often remember it. They have learned it. Later they sometimes refer to this information when making decisions. I feel it is significant that teachers often have trouble teaching students important things but television often has no trouble teaching people unimportant things.

With this in mind, I've added more variety in my classes, even if it is routine variety. I usually try to start with a short monologue, a story about something that happened with me and my family. This only takes a couple minutes and gives me a chance to 'read' the class, how they are feeling today, are they sleepy or bored, etc. and how do I need to conduct the class to engage them?

Then if this is a relatively new class I am teaching I will probably do a game. Games seem to work well in the beginning but students may not care for games in every class. Game or no game, I believe it is the teacher's duty to warm up the class and teachers should not expect much participation if they don't get the students warmed up.

At this point we will dive into our material, lessons I have prepared or a course book. No matter how good the course book is I have not found one that does not get boring.

I always try to save the best for last, something fun, maybe a lesson based around a film clip. End with a wrap up. Tell them what they learned? Review with them all the new vocabulary, the grammar they practiced. Often they don't know that they learned something and you have to remind them.

Then send them home with a rousing "Goodbye! and thanks for being good students!"

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