Hierarchy, bureaucracy and paperwork

Video-based ELT class on bureaucracy featuring clips from Terry Gilliam’s Brazil and the Coens’ Hudsucker Proxy

France is a country that suffers somewhat from bureaucracy, excess paperwork and a rigidly hierarchical work culture. These issues are not unrelated. As a fonctionnaire in the Education Nationale I have suffered some absurd bureaucy to prove who I am to my own employer, processes which involve sending paperwork up the chain to be signed by those authorized to do so (i.e., the top brass). The fact that senior members of, say, the Human Resources department do not themselves have the authority to approve such documents is quite revealing: we are talking about a “top-down” culture here. Continue reading

The Other Side of Town

Paraisopolis, Sao Paulo

Resources for an ELT class on ghettos and ghettoisation

A recent class I have done that worked well with adults and undergraduates was on the theme of ghettos. Indeed, the picture above, for which I do not have a photo credit, was actually shared with me by a student who responded well to the material. Showing the vast social divide between the shanty towns and luxury apartment complexes of Paraisopolis in Sao Paulo, it captures evocatively a modern form of ghettoisation which even many comparatively egalitarian countries experience to lesser or greater degrees.

Continue reading

Smartphone addiction

Seeing the sights? Copyright: Marc Davenant

Some ideas for a video based ELT class on the subject of smartphone addiction

A popular theme for EFT classrooms, for adults and younger learners alike, is the role of smartphones in our lives. I myself only recently acquired one, having long resisted, and have now joined the massed ranks of perpetually distracted people. While I try to work out ways to be more responsible in my use of this new gadget, I have developed some ideas for class materials on this theme.

Continue reading

Active bystanders

Video-based English class on taking action and not being a passive bystander

I was recently teaching a variation on the Toxic Masculinity class I posted here, including some work on the Gillette “Best Men Can Be” advert, inspired by this great lesson plan by Kieran Donaghy. Having had to split the lesson over two separate classes, I was looking for a short video I could use as a warm-up / engage activity to kick things off on the second week. Semi-spontaneously, I decided to show my students – in this case, B2/C1-level adults – this short Australian public service announcement made by the State Government of Victoria, Australia. Continue reading

Sound effects and setting the scene

Creative English class on describing scenes of suspense based around Brian De Palma’s Blow Out

Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie Blow Out makes no secret of the fact that it is an elaborate hommage to Antonioni’s virtual namesake Blow Up and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, two of my favourite films (around which I have structured classes here and here). Much has been written about the links between these three films, and someone has even taken the trouble to edit a three-movie mash-up out of them. The result is catnip for film geeks. Continue reading

Airports and the flying experience

Martin Parr, Chicago, 1997

Communicative English class on the theme of airports and flying, based around photography and film clips

I teach a lot of business English and often find myself doing lessons about air travel. At the university where I work in France, I also do a lot of general English conversation classes and it is a theme that is often requested. Frequently in the past I have opted for bog-standard lesson plans found online or from a student manual but I have got bored of doing this and wanted to do something more student-led, based around film and photography. Continue reading

Toxic masculinity in four songs

American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, 1951

Some song ideas for teaching gender politics and “toxic masculinity” in the ESL/EFL classroom

Following my post touching on toxic masculinity – an expression I don’t care for particularly but a topical one – and this one on murder ballads, I have been thinking of a few songs that respond to one another around the theme of gender politics. Rather than a structured lesson plan, I have just sketched a few ideas about the songs’ potential in class, thematically and linguistically. It is also the right moment to introduce a photo of which I am particularly fond, Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy (above), one of a series featuring Ninalee Allen Craig – who died at 90 in May last year – on her adventures in post-war Europe. Continue reading

Rebellion and rebel uniforms

Don McCullin, Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971

ESL/EFL lesson plan on the theme of rebellion and rebel uniforms including cinema, photography and music

There is an exhibition on at Tate Britain that I am currently missing. No doubt I will keep on missing it, regretfully, until the end of its run on May 6th, being unable to tear myself away from work and family life in France. My Dad did, however, get to go, and gives it a resounding thumbs up. It is a retrospective of the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, taking in a lifetime’s work on the frontline of many struggles, whether they be overseas wars or studies of homelessness back home in the UK. Many will be familiar, like perhaps the image above of unrest on the Bogside area of Londonderry, which is not alone among McCullin’s work in the way that it captures something absurd or even funny among the chaos and the fury.  Continue reading

Uniforms and Uniformity


Henri Cartier-Bresson, School children, Moscow, USSR, 1954

Ideas for a photography and film-based ESL/EFL class around the theme of uniforms and uniformity

Writing about Walkabout the other day got me thinking about another theme that normally inspires debate in the English classroom, that of school uniforms and, more broadly, what constitutes a uniform or uniformity more broadly in society. The first clip from my Walkabout-themed lesson plan is particularly evocative in this regard, framing the school uniform as just one form of costume in a vision of Western society that is highly prescriptive and regimented: we see not only the blazered boys and girls at school but marching soldiers and besuited office workers all busying about as if in rhythmic unison. Continue reading

Tar and Cement

“Nail house” in Shanghai: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Film, music and photography-based ESL/EFL lesson about urbanization and nostalgia

My last post featuring Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year reminded me of a grammatical structure I have seldom had cause to teach. Twice in the song we see the modal “would” used not in the conditional context that most students will encounter first, but rather to express habits in the past (“We’d hide from the lights / On the village green”, “We’d ride in limousines / Their chauffeurs would drive”). To build on this, as well as the structure “used to + verb”, to talk about our past routines, there is fantastic song which is also a rich basis for discussion about our relationship to the past, particularly as concerns urbanization and the irrevocable transformation of the natural environment into the built one. The song is Tar & Cement, a one-hit country-soul wonder by Verdelle Smith, written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance. Continue reading