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

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.

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”

What’s the weather today?

I love talking about the weather. It is the easiest way to initiate a conversation with a stranger or acquaintance if you need to break the silence. Great for elevator rides, spontaneous waiting time and warm repartee.

It is also a ubiquitous element that can have multiple impacts on our lives. Indeed a rainy day, bright sun, or a snowstorm will change how we dress, the meals we eat, the activities we plan and perhaps how we get to work. Personally, I check the weather every morning because I take my bike to work–even in winter.

Moreover, I find weather phenomena fascinating. Tsunamis, earthquakes,  tornadoes, nature has a way of reminding us who is really in control. Beautiful, powerful, terrifying the planet is a person. She breathes, she aches and she speaks. Are we listening?

This particular discussion lesson goes from general to scientific to silly. The objective is to elicit the vocabulary around a familiar topic and add a level of complexity with either the science behind weather or weather-related expressions. I just couldn’t choose, so I put everything.

Pre discussion

  • What are the different types of weather or climate you can name?
  • What affects the weather?
  • How does the weather make you feel? When it rains, when it is sunny, when the snow falls…
  • Do you use the weather forecast to plan activities?
  • What activities do you do in spring, summer, fall and winter?
  • What are the seasons like in your country?

Option 1: The Video: The Science of Weather

  • Divide the video into 2 or 3 segments and do a Tell Back  of the main themes and words
  • How do meteorologists sort through information, identify trends, and make predictions?
  • Why do they often get it wrong?
  • Why is it important to predict the weather?

Option 2: Weather idioms

For this, I made a handout and some flashcards. They are on Teachers Pay Teachers TPT. Click to go see.

Why do we lie?

  • Level: B2, C1
  • Activity: Agree/Disagree on TPT ($0.99)
  • Language focus: justify/explain a point of view
  • Media: video

Why do we lie? Notice that I didn’t ask if is lying wrong, or whether you consider honesty important–because in both cases, I’m pretty sure you would agree that the answer is “yes, but…” or “yes, except…”. We all lie, a bit, or a lot. The more interesting question is why.

Consider the extremes. Do you remember the comedy Liar Liar with Jim Carry? In it Carry plays the role of Fletcher Reede, a pathelogical liar who ends up being cursed to tell the truth–all the time. Ugly hairdo, need to lose a couple pounds, bad breath, it all comes flying out of Reede’s mouth and needless to say it gets him into a lot of trouble. But it is also very restorative. It urges Reede to express more vulnerable feelings and gain more trust and loyalty.

So let’s try to unpack the issue. Keeping famous movies as a template, let’s say lying can fall into different categories: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. In the Good category, birthday surprises, and hurtful opinions, in the Bad category, making up excuses to miss work or homework, and the Ugly category could contain breaking the law, dark secrets etc.

The point is, how and when we lie can generate an interesting reflection.

Warm up

Do a Mind Map of the Good, Bad, and Ugly lies

The Video: It’s OK to be Smart: Why do we lie?

Discussion

Use the statements in this handout to discuss some of the key elements of the video.

So many possibilities…I may I might

I am an avid visualizer. I love hypothetical dreaming. I test out lessons, see possible problems, and think of fun ways to connect the classroom to reality. It’s like a constant mini-movie up there. I don’t just visualize lessons, I play out conversations, memories, happy places etc…

Our ability to hypothesize and weigh possibilities is probably one of the most fascinating traits of humankind. With that deep and philosophical introduction, I would like to point you in the direction of this recent find: esllounge.com. It is a great site full of teaching resources definitely worth perusing.

For today, I am linking a nice little conversation exercise that is meant to get participants to use ‘may’ and ‘might’. Of course, if it doesn’t go in that direction, it ok too. At the very least, it should encourage hypothetical discussions.

Click on the image to go to the site

What are your thoughts on Omicron breakthrough infections?

Great ESL lesson to explore the information about breakthrough infections and on Omicron.

  • Level: B2, C1, C2
  • Activity: True/False handout on TPT (0.99$)
  • Language focus: emotions vocabulary, science, health
  • Media: video

What are your thoughts on Omicron? Are you frustrated that despite all your efforts, people (maybe even you) have gotten sick? Are you afraid of the next variant? Are you vaccinated, boosted and wondering why you bothered? Or do you see Omicron as the beginning of the end of a pandemic that has changed us in so many ways we still can see the forest for the trees? Perhaps you see Omicron as a blessing, a harbinger of better times yet to come.

All of the Above

If I am being totally honest, I feel all those things. I am vaccinated, boosted, wear my mask everywhere I go, wash my hands obsessively and analyze every sneeze, cough and sniffle with scientific discipline. I am a goody-goody who did everything public health officials recommended. Do I regret it? No, absolutely not? Do I sometimes wonder if it was too much? Yes, sometimes.

Give me the Facts…Again

That is why I really appreciated, Jo Hanson’s video Here’s What I Learned from Getting COVID. The host of PBS’s It’s Ok to be Smart is pro-vaccine, pro-mask, pro-anything-that-will-protect-the-population (see Masks vs. Corrona, lesson), and got COVID anyway. He candidly shares his frustration. Still, without defending or trying to convince, he diligently gives a fact-based explanation of why this happened and why it is still important to do everything in our power to stop the spread.

Warm-up

  • Elicit people’s thoughts on Omicron: is it a blessing or a threat
  • How does this new variant make them feel? Helpless, no big deal, ready for another wave, discouraged, scared.
  • What do we know about the virus?
  • (I would stay away from a pro or against discussion on vaccines if I were you)
  • Go through the statements on the handout and make predictions of the answers
Handout on TPT 0.99$

The video: It’s Ok to be Smart– Here’s What I Learned from Getting COVID

Discussion

  • You can use the handout to talk about the various points made in Jo’s talk
  • What do you think are the key ‘take-aways’ on vaccines, the severity of Omicron, what attitude we should adopt to stay safe AND stay sane?

What is your comfort food?

What is your comfort food? I dare you to NOT think of the answer. Too late? I bet your favourite dish is already in your mind. Maybe you are even seeing a memory or a person attached to this dish. Is it something your mother made when you were sick? Something you eat at Christmas? Is it sweet or salty?

Healthy…probably not

Chances are your comfort food is not too healthy. Right? Generally speaking, comfort foods are hardy, starchy and fatty. All great words that describe food. And that is exactly what you will find in this Insider Food video featuring 20 different people from 20 different cultures describing their comfort food.

But it makes me happy

Food makes people happy, conjures memories, and heals us when we are sick or sad and is often the heart of most celebrations. It is also a super fun thing to talk about. It ties in food, feelings, events and people, thus a nice integrated vocabulary exercise. The perfect Whole Language exercise.

While you listen

This video is chalk-a-block full of vocabulary, so I made a Google docs handout available through Teachers Pay Teachers to help collect the essential ideas. Or you can try this cool interactive worksheet. Of course, if you are working with more advanced students, you might want to ditch the handout and just let the students note what they can. Rember you can turn the CC on and slow down the video.

Google Docs Handout

Pre Discussion

  • Just to get the food words flowing, do a Mind Map
  • What is your comfort food?
  • Why?

The Video: 20 Comfort Foods From around the world

Discussion

  • Which story did you find the most interesting?
  • Which dish have you tried?
  • Which dish would you like to try?
  • What do most of the dishes have in common?
  • What were some of the reasons the dishes were considered comforting?

Masks vs. Coronavirus

It seems counterintuitive that a small piece of cloth can stop a deadly killer. It is even harder to believe that less than a year ago if you walked into a grocery store with a mask you would have probably caused all kinds of suspicious looks and anxiety. For some masks represent a new way to express individuality, for others a necessary nuisance and for others still a political statement. One thing is for sure, during the coronavirus pandemic, carrying (and wearing) masks are as necessary as taking your keys and wallet.

The misconceptions

Of course, I’m sure you heard some of the arguments against wearing masks. Notably, masks cause you to breathe in your own germs, or you could poison yourself with your own carbon dioxide. And if you have ever asked yourself, “if my pants can’t contain a fart, how can a mask contain the Coronavirus”, then you are not alone.

The discomfort

In addition to the misinformation about masks, there are discomforts. For those who have to wear a mask all day, they can cause acne, rashes, moisture. For others, it may even feel like you are working harder to breathe. And last but not least, they really fog up your glasses.

We do it because we care

The bottom line is, masks do prevent the spread of germs, and if you need to understand how, I invite you to watch this video from PBS’ It’s OK to be Smart. Coronavirus is invisible, insidious, and in many cases comes without any symptoms at all. Yet for others, it can spell doom within a matter of days. So why not get all the facts about mask-wearing and then wear it loud and proud…because you are part of a together-world.

Lesson Handout

For this lesson, I prepared a simple true/false handout that you can get on TPT (Teachers Pay Teachers) for a dollar (a girl’s gotta eat). What I like to do with my students is read through the statements and have them guess the answers before they watch the video. This way you can explain any difficult vocabulary and get their brains ready for this fast-talking video. The handout includes the answer key. If you don’t want to use the handout, that’s ok too. I’ve included a few warm-up and discussion questions you can use.

You can download the full hand-out on TPT for 1$

Warm up

  • What do you think of wearing masks?
  • What do you find unpleasant about it?
  • What kind of mask do you wear (does it have designs)?

The video: PBS It’s OK to be Smart: Masks

Discussion

  • Cut the video up and do a TellBack of the main points
  • What are some of the misconceptions about masks and the Coronavirus?
  • What are some of the weird questions or arguments in the video or that you have heard?
  • Can you explain why masks help fight the spread of viruses?
  • Why are some people against masks?
  • What are some of the advantages and disadvantages?

5 of the most interesting talking points…

ESL and EFL discussion on what questions lead to great conversations.

  • Level: A2-B1-B2-C1
  • Handout: on TPT for 0.99$$
  • Language focus: questions, preferences, past tense, present tense
  • Media: article

It is no secret that I am a talker. What’s more, I love conversation–I devoted a whole website to it, so that should tell me something right? I genuinely enjoy getting to know people. Their stories, their values, what they like and don’t like, their guilty pleasures. Every time I manage to get to a deeper level in a conversation lesson, I am always, touched, grateful and amazed at the variation on a human theme we have.

What I mean to say is that as humans we share quite a few common elements: we eat, we sleep, we have routines, we have dreams, we have hopes, we have worries, we have doubts, we have projects, we have disappointment and we have pride and we have shame. But it is the stories inside those elements that often testify to the infinite variations these elements have in our lives. They create the stories that are our lives. And by stories, I don’t just mean the play-by-play events all strung together, but the inner dialogue we have with ourselves as our lives play out like movies.

It’s not surprising that when I fell on this article 5 Questions the Most Interesting People Will Always Ask in a Conversation, I ate it up. Thus I am sharing it with you, my teacher community. Not only will it make you reflect on your own approach to prompting conversation, but It may also be a great tool to use with a class. Once for the reading comprehension, and then as a discussion launch pad.

I made a little true/false handout to go with it on Teacher Pay Teachers (0.99$)

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