One of my favourite lessons to do, either with new or established students is one that is called ‘Lost’, I don’t suppose that this is particularly original and I fail to recall now where I actually took the idea from in the first place.

One of my favourite lessons to do, either with new or established students is one that is called ‘Lost’, I don’t suppose that this is particularly original and I fail to recall now where I actually took the idea from in the first place. I have in fact amended it many times to keep it relevant to current news and world situations (like the economic crisis and political changes) but it works well, only requires a small amount of preparation and I have used it successfully with groups and individual students.

I teach English as a second language in Italy and I have found that this is a good conversation starter, fires up the emotions, forces opinions to be shared and challenged, and can have a different result every time. It is also fun to do and is great at encouraging some of the more timid students out of their shells a little; it is solely conversation based and actively encourages students to engage in a detailed conversation, as well as using descriptive language skills. In my case, I also require my students to practice their translation skills as I only provide the reading materials in English.

The principal behind this lesson is similar to a ‘Balloon Debate’, but without the actual balloon in the story.

For those readers who are not familiar with balloon debates, the principal is that a number of speakers are asked to win the approval of an audience, who are described a scenario which entails a number of participants in a hot air balloon which is rapidly sinking. One individual must be thrown from the hot air balloon, in order that the others may survive.

The scenario that I prefer to use is as follows:


You are on a ship. A fire on board has destroyed the radio. From the rate the water is rising inside the ship you estimate that it will sink within two hours. You did not tell the authorities of your destination.
It will take about 45 minutes to launch the only lifeboat which can only take 5 people. You can't jump as the water is shark infested. The nearest land is an uninhabited tropical island 30 km away.
Your task is to decide which people will enter the boat. Everyone has agreed to abide by your decision. Items held by individuals must stay with the owner; they cannot be transferred to other people.

Each student is given an identity and scenario in order to prepare to state their case for survival; in this instance the teacher plays the role of judge and jury. For single students, I adapt the lesson as in the scenario above and place in front of them a list of passengers and crew members, along with a brief description of each individual.

You can make up as many passenger and crew members as you feel fit for the lesson, I typically use around 13 for a single student to decide from, which provides more than enough material for anyone to express preferences on who should be allowed into the lifeboat and why. Although I find it more interesting to discover the reasoning behind why some passengers or crew were thought not worthy of being saved.

Hers is a sample of passenger and crew members I use for this lesson:

Captain: age 57. Married three times; five children aged between 5 and 27. His youngest child has Down's syndrome. Drinks and smokes heavily. Plays the accordion. Carries a bottle of rum.

Cook: a former Special Forces officer reduced to working as a cook after being court-martialled following an unfortunate incident involving a torpedo and a presidential yacht. Carries a knife.

Anglican priest: a Philosophy graduate who taught English as a foreign language in South America for several years before returning to her home town to look after her disabled mother (now aged 85) with whom she still lives. Trained as a counsellor and was ordained in 1990. Carries a first aid kit.

Ship's engineer's wife: Aged 35 and about to begin maternity leave from her work as a medical sales representative. Due to give birth to their first child in 4 months time. For some reason known only to herself she happens to be carrying a fishing line and hook.

French Botany student: Lived in the Brazilian rainforest for eighteen months while carrying out Ph.D. research into plants that can be used in anti-cancer drugs: these are now undergoing testing by a major multinational pharmaceutical company. Voted for Le Pen in the last election. Has a rifle.

It is interesting how some students, usually male, think that getting to the Island and hunting for food is most important. Female students usually consider the issues of communication and rescue. It is also surprising what things they sometimes forget to consider, for example if someone who is injured will be able to row the lifeboat ashore, do people need a religious presence to assist with counselling issues, etc.

I like using this exercise because it works well with English language students of all levels and abilities, it enhances student vocabulary and there is usually something for them to get passionate about within the discussion.


I've tried this activity a number of times and it works really well. I first came across this as a balloon activity where the class chooses celebrities or occupations to go into the balloon and have to choose one person to leave.
It works a lot better if you give them descriptions as you have done, otherwise they argue for their celebrity or profession forever!
If you get bored you can start a space colony or choose people to send in a rocket from the dying Earth or who will survive in the desert: there's lots of variations!

Thanks for your comments.

You are right, there are many different versions of this exercise around, this is the one I prefer to use. You are correct about giving descriptions of people instead of letting them choose celebrities etc. I think giving students a choice of different people with different skills makes them think a little about who should be chosen and why and gets them involved in a discussion.


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