By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author
One of the many challenges that all teachers face is finding ways to keep the learning experience interesting and dynamic. A good way to do this in a language classroom is to introduce thought-provoking themes or topics that students will relish discussing. Not only are such topics great for conversation practice, but they also allow for flexibility so that a teacher can apply them to focus on specific grammar points and writing assignments.
Here are two juicy themes that always get students thinking and discussing:
Teacher speaking to class . . .
You were part of a group that tried to start a revolution in your country. You didn’t succeed and the government captured you and your group. A court has ordered that you and your group will be put into exile. You will be transported to an island where nobody lives. There are many animals and plants on the island that you can use for food, and there is a lot of fresh water. You will have to spend 15 years on the island as your punishment.
You will have no way to communicate with the outside world: no radio, no television, no phones, and there is no electricity on the island. But the government will allow your group to bring ten items – only ten – to the island to help you survive. You need to work together to decide which ten items you should bring to the island. You have 20 minutes to do this.
If you have a small group of students, treat this as a whole-class activity and let everybody discuss the topic together. As they suggest which items are important to take, list them on the board and let the whole group discuss the value or worthlessness of each item. Try to reach a consensus to create a final list of which items they will take. Make sure they clearly explain the reason they have suggested this item or that.
If you have a medium or large class, break the students into small groups, perhaps five or six students per group, with one student acting as the group secretary who will write down which ten items the group decides on. Walk around the room and eavesdrop on your students’ discussions. Help out if need be. When time is up, ask one person in each group to call out the list of items and write them on the board. Then compare the items in each group and have the class as a whole choose which ten items from all those lists should be the final list of things to take to the island.
Who’s Most Responsible?
Teacher speaking to class . . .
A young woman is married to a salesman who travels a lot on business. In fact, he’s almost never home. She’s very lonely. There’s a river that separates her town from one on the other side. While her husband is away on another business trip, she decides to go to the other town to have an adventure. She doesn’t want anybody in her town to know what she’s doing. To go to the other town, she decides to take a ferry across the river.
When she arrives in the other town, she goes to a ____ (You can fill in a place that will be appropriate for the backgrounds of your students. For example, you can say a bar or night club, a park or an outdoor café, etc.) She meets a young man there, they talk and feel a natural attraction for each other, and later she goes with him to his apartment, where she spends the night.
The next morning, she remembers that her husband is coming home that day, and she panics. She must get home right away. She runs out of the young man’s apartment and makes her way back to the ferry. But there’s a problem. She doesn’t have enough money to pay for the ferry ride back to her town and the ferryman refuses to take her if she can’t pay. She runs back to the young man and asks him for money. He gets angry, thinking she’s really a prostitute, and throws her out. She begs the ferryman to take her and she’ll pay him later, but he refuses again.
The young woman knows that there’s a bridge over the river about a mile away from the ferry. Nobody uses that bridge because there’s a dangerous mentally ill man who lives under it. She doesn’t want to use the bridge because of the danger from the man under the bridge, but she’s desperate. She must get home. When the mentally ill man sees her start to cross the bridge, he thinks she’s the Devil who has come to hurt him, so he runs over to her, attacks her, and kills her.
My question to you: Who is most responsible for the young woman’s death? Is it her husband, who was almost never home and made her feel so lonely? Is it the young man in the other town who wouldn’t give her the money to take the ferry back home? Is it the ferryman who refused to take her if she couldn’t pay him? Is it the mentally ill man under the bridge, who killed her because he thought he was protecting himself from the Devil? Or is it the young woman herself who is most responsible for her death?
Have the students discuss this question just as in the first discussion mentioned. Make sure they understand that they have to be able to defend their choices of who is most responsible for her death by giving convincing arguments.
Believe me, you’ll find your students get fully immersed in these discussions with lively, animated conversations. And if you choose to, you can create all sorts of exercises like open-ended sentences and modified cloze procedures based on these topics to practice specific grammar points. You can also have them work on short writing assignments to get the most bang for your ESOL buck.
Have fun with these and any other thought-provoking topics you come up with.