Chomsky or chocolate


Every time I give a look at the many piles of books I’ve read in my life and think at the many subjects I’ve had to study to become an English teacher: linguistics, psycholinguistics, literature, metalinguistics, glottology, philology…I can’t help but wonder: once I found myself behind the teacher desk, chomskyhow much of what I have learnt has been really helpful to me? For example when it happens to teach in a school considered “border” with many cases of social distress among students – and a lot of stress among teachers – what or who has really helped me find the right educational intervention? Who could give the right inspiration in times of trouble? Don’t know, maybe Noam Chomsky? In my case, it was Michelle Pfeiffer.

It is more that ten years ago now, when I made the experience of teaching in one of these schools as I had no better alternatives; it happens when you are at the beginning of your teaching career.  Actually, teaching English in such schools does not require great linguistic expertise, if fact in the five-year course all the shades of the Present Simple are usually explored, sometimes even the Present Continuous can be introduced in more advanced classes. However, what you really have to master is the relationship with the class, which is of a tamer vs tigers kind, hence you have to be strong, firm and let me say, healthy if you don’t want to end up devoured.

I remember one class in particular, it was a second year of high school. They were supposed to be 15/16 years old, but the average age was 19 and I can tell you that the rare days they were all in, that is 12 in dangerousall, they seemed a crowd to me. As it was a second year, I thought they would have been more involved if I had introduced something new, rather than keeping on musing on the tedious Present Simple, I wanted to make a step forward and that step was the Past Simple. I don’t think they actually listened to a single word I said. I remember their yawns, and these were the most brilliant, while the others were totally engaged in something else. At the end of the lesson I assigned them to learn some paradigms, not many: 10. They following day none of them had studied a single paradigm.

What did I have to do ? Threat them ? Call the principal? They would have sneered at me and marked with the infamous stamp of cowardice. I had to find a solution. My extensive readings of Chomsky’s works couldn’t be of any help, but the solution was not on books, it was on tv.  Right those days I had watched a movie: Dangerous Minds, SCHOOLED-DANGEROUS-MINDSwhere Michelle Pfeiffer was a novice teacher who had to deal with problematic students some of them even with a borderline personality. I couldn’t certainly pretend I had been a marine, just like she had said to catch their attention, and you know, I do not exactly look like Michelle Pfeiffer, but one thing I had understood clearly: I had to find the way to involve them, if I wanted to reach my goals.

imagesI decided to make an investment: I bought 20 euros of chocolates and sweets of any kind and the next day I was ready to put into practice my brilliant idea. I sat at my desk and I calmly placed right in front of them all that glucose. They looked inquisitive. Then I divided the sweets and chocolates in five piles, which represented five prizes, and told them that if they wanted them, they could win them. How? I would produce a list of 30 paradigms and give 15 minutes to learn them all. The first five who could write on the blackboard 10 paradigms without making any mistake, would have their reward. I can only tell you hat at the and of the hour there was still one pile left, but they didn’t let me go, till it was conquered.

That was the beginning of a great year. Grades naturally replaced chocolate, my students started to improve their skills and as it usually happens, when they saw their improvements they kept on studying, because success made their self-esteem grow. As for myself I learnt that the most essential part of teaching is helping students see and reach their goals, no matter what means I have to use, even chocolate, if necessary.


31 thoughts on “Chomsky or chocolate

  1. Well done, a clever and successful strategy.
    Chomsky or chocolate…..both of them together would make for a most pleasant and interesting afternoon for myself 🙂 – sonmicloud.

  2. English is my primary language so first I congratulate you on having a higher grasp of it then I do. I think what the kids got out of the exercise, more than anything, is that you wouldn’t give up on them. 😀

  3. This was great, wish I had a teacher like you. I specially liked what you said in the last paragraph, about improving their skills and once they saw that they kept on it to reach their goal of be “successful”. I only found my skill in the American educational system, where they saw I was good at history, psychology( I know this one is hard to believe), and English Literature. Specially the last one I seemed I excelled so they pushed me but in a gentle way, it was really a balance of pushing me and knowing me to the point that they knew that if I was pushed to hard I would just flick them the finger and do nothing just to be a rebel for the sake of it, to piss them off. (Which obviously you don´t piss them off, they see thousands of students, you only piss away your own future) So the way they handled me and me keeping my face buried in books in the library got me that scholarship.

    Psycholinguistics, metalingistics, glotology…what is that?

    I liked that your last resource was to bribe the student´s though. Imagine if you would take them to the “cool” park for adults,can´t remember the English word for it, but the one where you ride up and down in vehicles and your adrenaline goes up. Just like in the movie. That would be fun. Probably end up with all the piles of chocolates gone at the end of the day and a bunch of geniuses running around.

    • Thank you Charly for this lovely comment. For me teaching means using the little I know to offer my students the chance to follow their own way and be satifisfied with what they do. From this point of view, it’s really a great job. Your experience in the U.S. Is a sheer example of what I wrote: a success. 🙂

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