[callout]This post is written by Outi Frisk, an English Language Educator in Sweden with a long experience of teaching English to all age groups, from young beginners to high school students and their teachers. You can connect with her on Twitter @WebEnglishSE or on her website, WebEnglish.se.[/callout]
One day back in 2005, my student Malin walked in looking for me. She just wanted to tell me that she used to hate English before I became her teacher. The reason for the change, she said, was that she got to decide a little more herself and that she could learn more because she was interested.
That’s when I knew I was on the right track.
I started ditching textbooks in the late 90’s, when Mr. Matt Miller was probably still ditching his toys.
I was teaching a 5th grade ESL/EFL class in Sweden and there was a chapter in the textbook about King Henry VIII, who happened to be my favorite in the line of British monarchs. I told the story of his six wives the best I knew how with an amazing result: The class made a unanimous request to learn more stories like that!
I paused for about 5 seconds and said: “If you want, we can throw these textbooks out of the window”, while pretending to toss the book out, and continued: “and study only British history. I could tell you the stories and then you could write about what you have learned.”
They agreed and we started from Stonehenge; I collected the material into handouts with text and pictures, we discussed the stories in class and they wrote what they had learned as homework. The following lesson started with some students reading their stories before we went on to the next.
We continued even after the summer break until we got to Queen Victoria. That’s when they felt tired of history and we chose something else to study, but I never looked back at textbooks after that.
An added bonus was their history teacher who told me later that this class had a generally better understanding of history than his other classes.
In these 20 years, I have gradually developed the method and created a website WebEnglish.se to go with it.
5 steps to show your students that they are in charge
- Ask your students what they can recall as having been the best and the worst activities in their former studies.
- Let them think about this individually for a couple of minutes. Make small groups, 3-5 students in each, where they share their ideas with each other and choose the ones they can (mostly) agree on. While they are doing this, you draw two columns on the whiteboard with the titles ‘Good’ and ‘Bad’ on them. Of course, you can have this ready on a Google Doc that you project on the screen.
- Groups report their lists. Check each item with the rest of the class. Write each item on the board only if the majority agrees with it. (You can also write them all and have a vote afterwards, crossing out the ones that do not get the majority vote.)
- Surprise your students: draw a big cross over all the items on the ‘Bad’ side of the board, promising never to have them do any of those things. On the ‘Good’ side you can draw a big heart around the list and promise to bring all of those things to class.
- Save the results! I used to take a picture of the whiteboard, but if you do this digitally, of course, it is automatically saved in your Google Drive.
I always say to my students “English is a world language. You can study anything in English.”
If their wish is not in the WebEnglish.se list of topics, I still make it happen. One time, I learned a lot about the FBI, after one student suggested it and the others agreed.
5 steps to let your students do the planning
- Give your students a list of topics either on paper or digitally (eg. in Google Forms).
- Ask them to mark all the topics they find interesting individually for a few of minutes. Collect their answers.
- Have your students start writing a story while you count the results, or you can both take your tasks as homework. If there are too many winning topics to be managed in one term, have another vote in class.
- Show the students the number of weeks they have and ask them to work in small groups to distribute the topics to suit the length of the term.
- Collect their suggestions on the whiteboard and discuss till you reach a consensus.
When going through these steps, remember that the students only choose the topics to be studied. The teacher is responsible for the pedagogy and covering the curriculum.
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