Saturday, 23 October 2010

Where I Stand on Dogme

Einstein's blackboard

Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

I just know this post is going to take ages to write. It took me ages to start writing it in the first place. I saw this challenge on Karenne Sylvester's blog several weeks ago and I immediately thought: "Oh, a blogging challenge! I love those. I should join." I kept postponing it and I even wrote a blog post that had nothing to do with the Dogme challenge just to get it out of my mind.
It was no use. The challenges came popping back into my mind. Every time I read the next challenge on Karenne's blog, I would spend days thinking about it. But I was still reluctant to join. Why?

Because I am not sure where I stand on Dogme.

See, I kind of like it. I know how to teach Dogme-style because that's how we did things back in 1989.

There was the blackboard. There were the chalks and the sponge. There was the book. The book was... Well, let's say it was very old. It told the story of Madge and Arthur and their adventures. What did Madge and Arthur do? Well, they travelled. They moved around a lot. They drank bucketfuls of coffee every day. You see, I know, because every now and then someone (usually Madge) would exclaim:

"I say, how about a cup of coffee."

Arthur would usually accept. He liked coffee.

So, we did Dogme. We didn't call it Dogme back then, but that's what we did. If Arhtur happened to watch a football game, we would talk about football, sports, hooliganism... If Madge bought herself a new dress, we talked about shopping. I would always start the class with: "What's new?" The students soon learnt that I wasn't going to be satisfied with: "Oh, nothing special." They would come with stories of their own.

I still start my classes with: "What's new?" and I am still not happy with "Oh, nothing special."

To tell you the truth, I care much more about what's going on in the outside world and in my students' lives than about doing every exercise in the book. So, if they start talking about something really interesting or if they start debating, I encourage them to go on.

However, I love the book we are using now. I will not tell you its name, as I haven't been paid by the publisher to do so, but it is a good book.

I believe in textbooks. I really do. One of the reasons why I believe in textbooks is that the students believe in them. They pay a lot of money to get the textbooks and, if something costs a lot of money, it has got to work, right? It is the placebo effect that can be explored to the full.

During the past 21 years I have used some really good textbooks and some not so great ones and I have found out I could almost always make the book work if I personalised the learning process. And I will continue to personalise the learning process even if one day someone sits down and writes a perfect textbook. You see, there is no such thing as a perfect textbook precisely because what happens to us and to our students both in the classroom and outside the classroom is always more relevant than what's in the book.

SIT students writing on the whiteboard
Photo on Flickr by Michael Stout

Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

OK, I have a confession to make: I am addicted to photocopying. Really addicted. And I would like to do something about my problem because I am tired of copying, printing and, above all, cutting up paper into little strips. I am tired of throwing away large quantities of unused photocopies and of being unable to find the exact paper I am looking for. I am tired of carrying a large pair of scissors in my handbag. Back in 1989, in the glorious Madge and Arthur days, we didn't copy much. Copying was expensive and, in fact, it still is. But now I have a large photocopier at work and a laser printer at home. And I use them. Oh yes, I use them a lot.

And yet, I don't need all those copies. I am perfectly capable of making my students communicate without lugging around several kilos of paper. You see, the paper makes me feel safe. If my mind should suddenly go blank so that there is no thought left in it, if the same happens to my students, if our books burn in an unexpected fire, then surely my secret stash of handouts will save the class.

It is not just me. Somehow, during the course of years, photocopying has become something that "good teachers do". Add to that cutting, sorting, stapling...

And yet, most activities can be done without all that paper. Role plays can be improvised, and, instead of giving them ready-made role cards, you can ask the students to invent their new identity and write it down. Pairwork questions can be written onto the board. The students can think up one or more questions to ask everyone in class and this can be followed by a mingle activity. And so on.

So, I have decided. Next week I'll leave my secret stash in the staffroom and I'll walk into the classroom unarmed. Let's see what happens. I'll take the textbook with me. I am not ready to let go of my textbook yet.

Luke Meddings & Scott Thornbury, Teaching Unplugged, Delta Teacher Development Series, 2009.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was in secondary school, I had this philosophy teacher. He was probably the greatest teacher I have ever had. He was slightly eccentric, but you expect no less from a philosophy teacher. One day a student drew his attention to something that was written on her desk. It read:

Why live when no one ever walked alive out of life?

Our philosophy teacher closed his philosophy book. There was a strange sparkle in his eyes. He turned on his heel. He went to the board. He wrote the question onto the board. He divided us into two groups. Group A were the optimists. Group B were the pessimists. The optimists were supposed to find arguments why life was worth living, the pessimists were refuting those arguments. We screamed at each other. He went from group to group playing devil's advocate. Once the discussion started dying out, he made us change sides. I walked out of that class with one clear idea:

Life is worth living. It is a gift. Every minute counts.

I also believe that particular class has made me become the kind of teacher I am. I teach because that gives me the chance to learn from my students. I listen to them because they have something to say. They have something to say because I listen to them. Along the way they learn a bit of English as well.


David said...


What a clear, succinct and well stated educational philosophy! That's what it really is and I've bookmarked it as a keeper.

Understanding such as you articulated doesn't happen overnight, nor your own approach of a "middle way" and eschewing extremes.

I'm sure I'll keep coming back to this post and will also retweet often - we need to keep reminding ourselves of the primacy of a constructivist approach towards developing language skills.


Natasa said...

David, thank you for your wonderful comment. In fact, every time I start doubting myself or my teaching, I will come here and read your lovely comment again.
This wasn't an easy post to write. Defining what you believe in is never easy. You need to give yourself some answers before you can share them with others.

elizabeth_anne said...

I have just arrived here from this year's multilit EVO and like David I REALLY enjoyed reading this post. I'm an inveterate lurker in these networks ;-) but I wanted just to say that your post resonates with my own experience. Thanks for formulating it so clearly and readably :-)

Natasa said...

Thank you, Elisabeth Anne. Yes, I believe our paths have crossed before, or at least we have both lurked in the same networks. The only time I come out of the lurking mode is during workshops and EVO sessions. As for this post, I remember it took me ages to write. I had to ask myself the right questions to find out what I believe in.


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