During my “Making Writing Real” webinar presentation at the SkyEng online conference in March, I discussed five ideas to make writing in lessons a more motivating activity by writing for an external audience (not just the teacher!) and doing useful, everyday tasks.
I received several comments in the live chat box that this philosophy is all well and good, but it can’t apply to exam classes. After a few weeks of reflection, I must respectfully disagree.
In fact, the added motivation beyond satisfying exam criteria is a real boost for the learners, and reminds them of the practical application of the exam skills. The exam topic might be boring, but the preparation doesn’t have to be. Motivation problems for writing don’t disappear just because an exam is standing over the students like an ogre, and two I mentioned in the webinar are applicable: having no real reader, just the teacher and a lack of interaction.
So in my Year 9 exam preparation class here at IH Riga, Latvia, I recently coupled an exam task (writing a short letter) to reality (sending the letter to other people). The topic was an Easter drum festival we’d looked at in Tobarra, Spain, which I attended five times while living nearby. After editing the letters together, I sent them off to Tobarra’s mayor Pio Bernabeu, as well as Jose Luis, the Head of Studies at the local high school, whose students had provided us with an excellent informative video we had used in class:
Here are some extracts from the letters I emailed over to Spain:
I cannot understand how it is possible to play drums for 104 hours.” – Kristina
It is very unusual and I have never seen anything like this.” – Fredrik
It was a really interesting video in which we understood how this festival starts and traditions of this festival.” – Veronika
I consider that it is very interesting when cities have their own traditions, and features, which are observed by every citizen.” – Ilya
…although people who are sleeping or relaxing at home might become very annoyed by loud drums.” – Eriks
I and my friends want to learn the melodies from the video like ‘la zapatata’.” – Vlad
If I could, I would like to visit this festival in Tobarra village, because it would be a new experience for me and I think I would not spend my time in vain.” – Daniel
I want to know something new about it, not by reading sites on the Internet, but by asking locals. Also, I want to make international friends.” – Polina
Real readers, not just the teacher (me) – CHECK (Mayor Pio, Jose Luis, his students).
Many levels of interaction – CHECK (with me to correct the letters, with the village of Tobarra and its English learners – see next section)
1. Mayor Pio left a long thank you message on his official Facebook page on 24th April (in Spanish – but Google translate gets the basic message across!), thanking the learners and extending an official invite to the festival next Easter:
‘I want to express that we await you next year with open arms, Tobarra’s doors are open to you, and I’m sure you’ll be made welcome by all of Tobarra’s citizens, as we would love to show you our traditions.’
This provoked many comments from Tobarra locals, welcoming the idea of a Latvian visit and thanking the Latvian students for their words. Several of the students have added Mayor Bernabeu on Facebook to be able to read through the comments (via Google translate!)
2. Jose Luis, English teacher in Tobarra and a great friend, shared the letters with his class who had created the mini documentary for my learners.
What happens next?
1. My students take the Year 9 English exam on 24th May. They may choose to forget most of the information once the papers are handed in, but I hope they remember that writing letters/emails is a life skill that can connect them to people all over the world.
2. Student trips to Tobarra for the Tamborada 2018 and beyond? Mayor Pio and the village are keen to welcome them, several students are keen to go, and I’m keen to join the two together. So WATCH THIS SPACE.
3. Although both mine and Jose Luis’s students are busy with exams in the next month or so, we’ve left the door ajar to further email communication between the two groups of learners. We’ll be exchanging email addresses next week.