How I teach

“It’s not just any kind of lesson.  It’s highly intelligent play”.

Sarka Robinson, parent, Prague, Czech Republic.

The Alphabet Song, with first graders in the role of Mozart (conducting the singers), a Professor of Letters and a six-year old camerawoman –

When children come to my classroom, they don’t just learn English.  They learn everything! English, like any language, is not only a subject but a medium.  My greatest joy as a foreign language teacher is using ESL to engage children in a wide spectrum of disciplines and topics – world geography and world cultures, world history, science (zoology, evolution, physics, chemistry, biology, anatomy, paleontology, Earth history), geometry and other mathematics … everything comes together under the umbrella of our English lesson, and, because children love play-acting,  the class goal is a performance at the end of each class.  Our class is equipped with literally hundreds of costumes and props for the children to use to get into character, and dolls who impersonate famous people from the past and present.  My vast collection of such dolls include Queen Elizabeth the First and William Shakespeare, Leonardo da Vinci, Socrates, King Tutenkhamoun, Buddha, Mozart and Beethoven, Ada Lovelace, Jane Austen, Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, early and former Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Barack Obama … and many more! With carefully planned lessons that leave room for children’s spontaneity and creativity, complemented by costumes and materials, and a fantasy-rich classroom that attracts young visitors even during free time, children are quickly engaged to learn both English and any subject or topic across the academic spectrum.  Through their own initiatives, the children go from student to expert and in their performances, visiting teachers and their parents what they know.  When we practice English together through play and performance, the sky’s the limit!

Doctor Bara explains the human organs and their functions –

For my focus on inspiring children to be international learners, I am indebted to my own international family and upbringing, my frequent travels and my experience living in many different countries.  One of my goals is to open up children to the unfamiliar places and inspire them to take on the world, making life-long friends wherever they travel, as I do.

Presentation on Paris and France by second graders –

An amazing presentation of London and English history by a boy very new to English with minimal training before the presentation: 

Below: a presentation of Prague and the Czech Republic –

My passion for inspiring children’s interest in all subjects across the school curriculum has been influenced by Maria Montessori (doctor, educational reformist, philosopher and pedagogue) and the hands-on / humanist approach she developed in her understanding of how children learn.  Working for six years in a Montessori school in Prague, I developed an interest not only in my accredited field – foreign languages – but in every subject.  I marveled at how the classroom teachers taught children subjects like science, maths, history, art, language arts and other subjects in such a way that children as young as six were working down the hall, far away from the classroom, completely on their own or in small groups, with only minimal supervision. I observed and learned from my colleagues, and bought, created or borrowed many Montessori materials to teach children an “English version” of the lessons they were getting in the Czech language.

I am also indebted to Shelley Anne Vernon, an international speaker and author of very practical and effective books and learning materials for children learning English as a second language.  It is Shelley Vernon’s book Fun ESL Role-Plays and Skits for Children that helped me successfully engage and teach younger children in my first few years of teaching primary school students.

Below: one of my earliest staged performances with children, using simple, repetitive language with an entertaining outcome. Thank you, Shelley!

After getting more comfortable with my role as drama teacher, I went on to create my own mini-plays for English learners, incorporating many subjects and topics into my easy-to-learn scripts.  Thus, children as young as six take on roles like Henry the Eighth and Queen Elizabeth, Mozart and Beethoven, Leonardo da Vinci and his model, the famous Mona Lisa, King Tutenkhamoun and Queen Nefertiti, Einstein and Socrates.  (One parent told me that his son knew more about such influential people than he did!)  Again, I owe this success to the use of drama and performance, and my early years of teaching English in this dynamic style were helped tremendously by Shelley-Ann Vernon.

At most of my schools where I give English and drama workshops, I usually meet with each student group only once a week.  I have literally hundreds of students, and not just one small class of children who I see every day.  Therefore, I don’t get to teach English and other fundamental skills with the same group of children from one day to the next.  The time I spend with any child must therefore have a lot of impact, and have a lasting impression on that child.  In most cases, a whole week goes by before the same kids see me again.   It means that I have had to find ways to make sure that what they learn is so memorable, that I do not need to repeat the whole lesson in order to produce results on stage or on film.  This goal (creating unforgettable lessons) used to frustrate me until I replaced my drive for perfection with a drive for excellence.   If the children, at the end of a single lesson:

  • have learned a lot of new words in English
  • have connected these words to the world at large (through geography, history and world cultures)
  • have understood interesting and inspiring topics taken from many school subjects, even science and maths
  • can present it to an audience or at least to their own family
  • show awareness of their results and pride in their results

I know that I have realized that goal.

Raw and “unedited” is often my style.   It is not easy – for many reasons – to bring a professional photographer into the classroom, and most of the time other staff members are also teaching.  Often it is one of the students (as young as six years old), who films the lesson or performance.  This actually helps the students to be even more engaged than they already are.  Filming is often done by students who like learning English with me, but do not like to be on camera or to be the centre of attention.  There is therefore a job for everyone: actor(s), script writer(s), stage / prop manager, director (who appraises the scene and the cast, and decides when we are ready to start or to stop, and uses the clapperboard), and finally, cameraman or camerawoman.  I don’t aim for a perfectly polished performance; I care for engaged children who are trying their best, learning and having fun.  And part of that fun is that great feeling of ownership over one’s education.  Look at any of the pictures or videos of my students here, and hopefully, their faces will show just that: engaged, joyful learning.  Intrinsically motivated learning.   Such naturally focused involvement in a project is the outcome of greatest lesson I have learned from the wonderful Maria Montessori and from life itself: teach something interesting and make the game around it fun, with problems to solve.  The kids are eager and quick to find solutions, and cooperation in teams is practiced and strengthened.

If my young students can say that they co-produced the performance, they have reinforced ownership of their own work.  Just imagine the quantum leaps in their self-esteem!   I’m so proud of them :).

It is amazing work that they do – and always through fun, so that the youngest of them go home and tell their parents that all they do in my classes is “play”.  Luckily, their parents know the truth: their kids are learning English and a whole lot more! Hopefully the results below will speak for themselves.

Famous People impersonations by children from 1st through 3rd grade –

Famous People Presentation (Queen Elizabeth, Frida Khalo, Vincent Van Gogh)

Tummy Rumble in the Jungle –

Science Fiction and Fantasy Play (co-production between teacher and student)

Class songs with second and third graders –

Restaurant role-play with five to seven year olds –

At the Fortune Teller’s (telling the Future / the English future tense) –

 

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