How exactly does gender work?

Books have been written about it, alcohol-based dinners never go without it, and more recently, we are digging into what defines it.  Put simply, what are the differences between men and women? This TED talk by biologist Karissa Sanbonmatsu really got my attention. First of all because she presents some of the new discoveries from epigenetics and research in DNA that explain the differences between men and women from a biological perspective. Gotta love science. This lesson is filled with tons of scientific vocabulary to describe how DNA works to create gender differences.

However, here is the twist, Sanbonmatsu, a transgender scientist, also talks about the challenges she faced through her struggle with her own identity. This content is layered and complex. On one hand the objective is to help science-based students become more verbal with DNA related vocabulary–an important corner stone topic for biologists. But beyond that, the speaker pulls in the social challenges of the “old boys club” that exists in the scientific community as well as the very misunderstood transgenderism.

Pre discussion

  • What are some of the theories you have heard about the differences between men and women?
  • Do you think there are differences?
  • What does it mean to be transgender?

The Video: The Biology of Gender

There are really two aspects in this video mashed up together. 1) Sanbonmatsu shares the science of gender. 2) Sanbonmatsu talks about the reactions of her scientific community towards transgenderism.

I would first untangle each aspect.

  • What does the latest research tell us about gender?
  • What is the behaviour of our DNA?
  • How is Sanbonmatsu contributing to a society of tolerance inclusion?
  • Why does Sanbonmatsu expose the scientific community as being especially hard on her choices?
  • Do you think there are other social circles where transgenderism is more difficult?
  • What about less difficult?

I leave you with that for the weekend…have a good one.

Mel

Do you have a job or a mission?

  • Level: B2-C1
  • Discussion questions included in the post
  • Media: Video
  • Language focus: jobs, hypotheticals, modals

Do you have a job or a mission?

Celeste Headlee, a trained opera singer turned radio show host, has some rather interesting insight to share about the difference between a job and a mission. She also has a lot to say about how we get stuck focusing on our education and job expectations. But if you think she gives the same old spiel about finding your passion, being brave and embracing your true calling, you would be wrong. She knows we all have mortgages, rent, food, and stuff to pay for. Moreover, she also knows that finding your passion is complicated, changing, and doesn’t always match the needs of the market. Thankfully, she is not going to tell you to quit your job or sit at the top of a mountain to meditate.

Practical vs. Ideal

This is the third post on this series on jobs and careers. So far we have gone through some basic vocabulary and explored what jobs are out there and then saw some fun ways to go about choosing. In this post, we will take a more analytical approach and explore the skills connected to jobs. We are going to exercise our mental flexibility and examine the components of various jobs or fields and see how they can apply to other jobs and fields.

Warm up

  • What do you think is the difference between a job and a mission?
  • How many job-related skills can you name? e.g. if you are a teacher, that means you have skills in public speaking, pedagogical design, presentation design, audience analysis, planning, leadership etc.

The Video: TED Don’t find a job, find a mission

Discussion questions

  • Do a Mind Map or recap of all the main points of the talk (see our list)
  • What do you do? What are the skills involved in your job?
  • Do you like your job? What do you like and don’t like?
  • What things do you look for when looking for work?
  • If you were to do something completely different, what would it be?
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Profession: super hero

Would you rather text than talk?

Would you rather text or email than talk?

It’s just so easy. I don’t have to interrupt anyone, I can write while I’m in the moment, I don’t have to hold anything in my memory, I don’t even have to wait my turn to talk. When the thought appears, I can just shoot a message off and my counterpart can react when it is convenient for them. In some cases, with my more talkative friends (and family members) a digital message is the only way I can get a word in edgewise.

Plus, I can re-read, check my tone or make sure I didn’t word anything in an insensitive way. I can edit. Digital communication allows me to put forth my best self. Great stuff…right?

Sherry Turkle is not so sure. Her TED talk Connected but Alone? takes a good hard look at what digital communication may be doing to us. We have all heard that technology may be making us more isolated, so beyond this statement, just how it is doing that? Turkle gets right under the hood of our communication habits and puts forth some thought-provoking concepts that definitely gave me pause.

This lesson is definitely for more advanced students. I did this with a mixed class of high-level and lower-level students and the lower level were a bit lost. However, I still recommend using first language material as much as you can to get their ears and minds used to native speaking. Once they get over focusing on what they don’t understand and focus on what they do, they will increase their ability to get into the English-speaking community.

Pre discussion

  • Let’s hypothesize…Why do you think Turkle thinks texting and emailing are making us more isolated?
  • Make a pros and cons list for digital communication
  • What is the difference between isolation and solitude?
  • What is the difference between friendship and companionship?

The Video: TED Sherry Turkle: Connected but Alone?

There is a ton of stuff to talk about here. And rather than try to Tell Back everything Turkle says (although you are free to do that), I would jump right into the discussion with some of the following key ideas:

  • “We want to customize our lives and control where we put our attention”
  • “We are getting used to being alone…together”
  • “We are compromising companionship for friendship”
  • “We have an illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship”
  • “We can’t get enough of each other, at a distance, in amounts we can control”
  • “We use technology to manage our relationships in ways we can comfortably control”
  • Technology is satisfying 3 basic fantasies:
    • We can put our attention where we want it to be
    • We will always be hear
    • We will never be alone
  • “Being alone feels like a problem that needs to be solved”
  • “I share therefore I am”
  • “Connection is creating isolation”
  • “We need to cultivate the capacity for solitude”
  • “We need to build a self-aware relationship with technology”

And I could go on and on pulling quotes from this video. Turkle is articulate, astute and a fantastic social analyst.

I am ready to admit that I am getting caught in the fray of convenience, but short of stopping (which is not going to happen) Turkle has helped me see where I might be more self-aware.

I hope you enjoy talking about this as much as me and my students.

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7 types of icebreakers that will get your students laughing, thinking and connecting

The art of asking the perfect question is my own personal Mona Lisa. It is the element in my practice that I am always improving and perfecting. In fact, I even made a little video about some of the cognitive elements involved in questions.

Let go of perfection

Crafting a perfect question takes audience intuition, subject knowledge and most of all genuine curiosity about the result. But getting it right can be a mix of experience, trial and error and just plain luck. Jump in with something you find interesting and see where it takes you.

Have my questions bombed? Oh yes. Have I had the uncomfortably long blank stare? Yep. I have even been asked why on earth I would ask such a boring question. Ouch.

Most of all, when you are ‘on’ and right in the middle of a lesson, you need a certain amount of preparation, as well as have enough spontaneity to roll with the group if they want to go another way.

listen for patterns

It is the simplest yet the most powerful tool to see how articulate and fluid your students are. If you can, try to set an intention for what you listen for. Perhaps you can focus on speaking patterns like verbs, or use of modals, or vocabulary from previous lessons. If you notice mistakes, try to pick the most prevalent pattern and then give it some attention. Or perhaps you notice that the students are incorporating a bunch of previously learned vocabulary–make sure you point it out and praise them.

Question Tag-You’re it!

During the COVID confinement, I taught an online conversation course with about 10 students at a time. To allow everyone to speak, we played a game I called “question-tag”.

Students choose a question from the list and ask another classmate. Then that classmate is “it” and chooses the next question and classmate. Simple concept, but it puts the control in the students’ hands and adds just a touch of suspense to keep people engaged.

Want to play…You can use these 7 types of icebreakers to get going. The questions are meant as a corporate team-building exercise. Thus they are authentic and funny. Let me know how it turns out.

What was your best/worst first date?

Get your students to tell you about some of the best and worst first dates.

  • Level A1, A2, B1
  • Exercise: video with questions and discussion
  • Language focus: past tense verbs, embarrassing situations
  • Media: video

Awkward!

It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a first date. And frankly, I don’t miss them. There are so many ‘what if’s’. What if we have nothing to talk about? What if I’m boring? What if I don’t like him? What if he is the one? What if he is a sloppy eater? What if he is a lousy tipper? I remember my mind ping-ponging with random thoughts and situations that would probably never actually happen. It’s a mix of nerves and excitement, but it mostly it puts us in a rather vulnerable state where we are exposed and not fully in control.

Awkward silences, clumsy interactions, you just hope you can reach that moment where you can find something to connect over. Nonetheless, First dates can also produce some funny stories worth sharing.

Don’t mess it up

Splattered spaghetti on your white shirt? Spit out nonsense words instead of an actual sentence? Or perhaps you decided to break into a brand new pair of shoes that left you hobbling by the end of the night? Or worst of all, you meet an ex while on your date. I’m sure if you think about it, you can find all kinds of little horror stories that make for good memories.

Exercise

Work through the statements on this sheet and then take a look at the video to gather some of the key vocabulary.

The Video: “First Date” by First Date Team

Your turn

Check out this list of first-date mishaps and have your students draw inspiration or choose scenarios that may have happened to them. The first link features actual Tweets from real people. Some are hilarious.

Ask your students to prepare a little anecdote with some detail.

  • What were you wearing? What was the other person wearing?
  • Where did you go?
  • What did you eat?
  • What was your first impression?
  • What did you talk about?
  • What happened that was funny or embarrassing?
  • How did you both respond? (laugh, get embarrassed, ignore the situation, etc.)

Feeling sick? What do you have?

It’s fall and the viruses are running amok. As I type these lines, I am sitting in bed, with my weekend pj’s, a box of tissues and a cup of tea at arm’s length…humph! What are my symptoms you ask? I am sneezing, I have a runny nose, I have a dry cough, I feel tired and I am congested. All expressions we only use once in a while but are crucial for a second language speaker to have.

When my daughter was three, she woke up looking pale and feeling awful. As the day went by, she started running a small fever. Normally I would have given her some acetaminophen and kept her quiet. But when my little teary girl put her hands around her collar and told me that her neck hurt, I immediately thought of meningitis. I went into full mommy panic mode and no sooner had I put her little coat on than we were in the emergency room. Once we saw the doctor, he deduced that “neck” meant throat in her language. She did not have meningitis, but just a bad cold. My point is, words matter, especially when talking about your health.

Lessons introducing health vocabulary can be interesting because you can pack a lot into them. Given it is a familiar subject in our first language, the task really boils down to having English equivalent to words your students already know–which can feel really satisfying. But if you add some role-playing, you can review yes/no questions, give treatment advice with verbs in the simple present and even learn a thing or two about which symptoms can considered serious or not.

If you are looking for a first-language site to use as a reference or even a role-play launch pad, check out some of my favourite go-tos…

  • Pharma giant Pfizer has a nice little reference sheet that can be used for a role-play Q&A.
  • WebMD has symptom checker that can be interesting to play around with
  • And for advice and recommendations, WebMD has a nice article all headed with verbs.
  • WebMD also has a simple article on home remedies “that work”

Grammar in a spoonful of sugar anyone?

3 tips to nail your grammar lessons

When you say the word grammar, does your class suddenly give you the blank stare of death? Or perhaps you have a more mature class and they become overly focused on rules and lose sight of the communication goal of language. Whatever the reaction it causes, I find grammar lessons challenging.

It’s not that I am not good at grammar, I quite like it actually. But I’ve lived through many not-so-great grammar lessons (#introspectiveteacher).

1. Research how to explain it

It’s one thing to understand grammar it’s another thing to explain it. For this, YouTube is my best friend. Watch at least a couple of videos to see how others do it and either use the video in class or use the best of. One thing I told myself after some confusing and a little humiliating attempts and improvising… Never…ever improvise. At least I won’t.

2. Keep drills short

I had a teacher in university who used to say, “use a guerilla attack approach to grammar.” I think what she meant was, to keep it short, explain, practice, correct and move to the next thing.

3. Follow it up with a communication activity

Ideally, your next activity is a more communication-based activity that can provoke the context to use that grammar item. For that, I have made many suggestions in other blog posts (the list is at the end of this post).

Grammar challenges us (teachers and students) in different ways. It can be complex, dry and full of exceptions. Being overly focused on grammar comes at the cost of losing authentic dialogue. However, being underly focused can compromise accuracy. It’s a bit like poaching an egg, it’s not enough to know what an egg is, or how to boil water, it’s the subtle interaction of both that makes the dish. By the way, I also have a lesson on how to poach eggs. 😜

Here are some of Whole Language lessons I have that focus on grammar:

13 resources for ice-breaker questions

Need a good question to break the ice? I got you covered.

I’m sure you have experienced it. First day of ESL class, you plan an icebreaker activity, launch the question and you get the dreaded silent stares. What do you do, let them stew with the question and stand your ground, or come up with a follow-up question? Do you let them see you sweat, or pretend that that is what you wanted because you want them to think? “Please, please kind extroverted student somewhere out there in the crowd, get me out of this.”

Icebreaker activities always make me nervous. It’s often the first class, you don’t know your group, the chemistry is not established, you may not know their level and they are usually a bit shy. However, they are in an English second language class to develop their language skills, so it’s my job to warm them up and find some interesting questions that can inspire conversation.

I collect icebreakers like some people collect jewelry or stamps. I am always looking for creative, thought-provoking, not too deep, not too personal questions that people enjoy answering.

To me, it’s reminiscent of a high school dance where everyone is waiting for that great song that gets people on the dance floor. You can let loose and get lost in the crowd. Thus in my ESL class, I am a DJ of questions. When one doesn’t get the party going, I have plenty of others.

For your party…I mean class…needs, here are my best sources.

ICEBREAKERS

What should I wear today?

3 great sites to role-play shopping for clothes

I don’t know about you, but I love getting dressed in the morning. I know, not everyone does, but I do. In fact, there is a whole other version of me in a multiverse somewhere who is a fashion stylist. I love the colours, the textures the shapes and what style conveys to your entourage.

I also love teaching the vocabulary related to clothes and style in my ESL classes. We go “shopping” and role-play asking for certain pieces including colours, price, size, etc. But as with everything, I like to use real websites to do this following the Whole Language method. However, I am selective with my sites. They need to be clean, have clear names for the clothes (sometimes marketing can make things more complicated than it needs to be) and have good descriptions. Full disclosure, I have taken some writing contracts where I produce those descriptions, so I am especially critical of quality language there.

Here are some of my favourites sites and why:

Banana Republic

I can barely afford the clothes at BR, but I appreciate the simplicity of the pieces and the short, but well-crafted descriptions.

Charlie B

Clothes are for women only, so that is a bit of a bummer, but the descriptions tell a story. So nice. Make sure you click on the drop downs, it will tell you “Why we love it” which is great vocab for the role of the salesperson, and also gives you advice on what to wear it with. And it’s Canadian ❤️

Nordstrom.com

The descriptions are short, but full of juicy adjectives. They also carry shoes which can enhance your dialogue options.

DISCLAIMER😜

You might be tempted to buy. I get no commission on sales. Yes I love to shop, and yes I like these shops, but mainly I like these sites because the sites are easy to click through and the descriptions are well written and interesting to teach with.

What does your day look like in pictures?

Challenge your student to take pictures of a day in their lives. Eating, travelling, working, whatever makes up their day. Then you can do a series of “show and tells” with the photos. To make the activity even more engaging, I always suggest that the listeners should think of one or two questions to ask the presenters after the presentation is done. This will make the listening more active and get the speakers to dig a little deeper.

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