Dave Dodgson: Filtered and distilled - the first lesson

Starting this academic year in a new teaching role at a new school gave me plenty of time to stop and consider that opening ‘get to know you’ lesson.

Starting this academic year in a new teaching role at a new school gave me plenty of time to stop and consider that opening ‘get to know you’ lesson. Every since I first started teaching the idea has been more or less the same – I introduce myself and spend some time passing on information about myself and then I get my students to do the same in a similar manner. The manner of achieving this, of course, changed several times over the years and that is what I want to explore in this post.

First lesson, first mistake

The natural place to start would be with the very first time I taught a class of my own, a group of upper-elementary level adult learners. I decided to go with an activity I had seen on my training course and so I drew a cloud on the board, wrote some single word facts about me in it and challenged the students to find the questions to which these words provided the answers. All was going well until will came to the only answer left without the right question: 21.

They asked how many countries I had visited, what my lucky number was, my apartment number and a few others until they gave up and I told them the correct question: How old are you?

Stony silence

Everything had been going well up to that point but now there was a distinct change in atmosphere in the class and it was a struggle to get through the ‘getting to know the students’ part of the lesson. Afterwards, the owner of the school came up to me. “Why did you tell them you are 21?” he demanded. “They immediately came asking for an older teacher… In future, tell your classes you are 25!”


And that is when I started to lie to my students. I changed my age and then I started to exaggerate and alter a few other things I told my students in that initial lesson to sound more interesting, more experienced, and more authoritative. During this time, the ‘opening act’ largely stayed the same with just minor changes like my cloud becoming a spider or a wheel, or asking my students to go first and then telling them about myself later.

Until, that is, a couple of years passed and I got a new upper-intermediate class. I was still ‘25’ at this point and when the ‘How old are you?’ question was revealed to be the right one, it caused a puzzled look from a couple of students. “But we were in your class 2 years ago,” they said, “and you were 21 then.”

At which point I congratulated them for their sharp memories and informed them that it was all part of the plan and I was going to ask them to spot the lie once the activity had been finished. I then asked them to note down their personal facts but to include one piece of false information. Suddenly, a pleasant and mildly engaging activity became and a much more involved and lively one as the students, many of whom had taken classes together before and therefore already knew each other, tried to spot the lie and trick each other by thinking hard about unlikely facts that happened to be true. My first lessons had begun to evolve

The camera doesn’t lie…

I later started to teach more advanced level classes and so ditched the ‘ask me questions’ format in favour of a fake autobiography, again with false information in it, before asking my students to do the same. However, when I first started to teach kids, I needed to change tack again. These were 8 and 9 year-olds with basic literacy skills so I decided I need something more visual. I made a poster with photos of me and my hometown in the UK and used it to introduce myself. Their first task of the year was then to create a project about themselves using photos and then present it to the class.

When working PCs and projectors finally showed up in the school, I moved on to PowerPoint and later dabbled with a few tools like Glogster, Photo Story and Movie Maker. It was then that I started to offer my students a choice of the format they presented their ‘About Me’ project in, which added an extra element of incentive for them.

…but technology does!

Alas, the ‘lie’ element slipped out of my classes as I was mainly using real photos. That is until I got a nifty little digital camera with some photo editing templates. Suddenly, I was able to show a quite convincing image of myself in a pilot’s jumpsuit standing next to a jet fighter and at Wembley Stadium doing keepie-uppies (sadly, lost 2 or 3 laptop upgrades ago). Kids, being kids, were surprisingly easy to convince and it almost felt cruel to tell them the photos were not real… but then some of them started to produce similar photos of themselves and add them to their slideshows, Glogs and video mash-ups. The lies were back!

The first lesson, aged for 15 years

Of course, not every kid is into technology so I started to offer the option of making hand-made posters again. I also started to teach older kids and encouraged them to produce a little more, writing bio data or longer compositions to go with their work and adding quiz questions to ensure their classmates had been listening.

So, where does that bring me at the start of this new academic year in a new job teaching EAL students (all with a generally good level of English) for the first time?

Well, I started with a PowerPoint slide but I didn’t tell my students anything. I asked them to get into groups and speculate about what the images told them about me. I then told them if they were right, nearly right, or completely off-course and encouraged questions and gave some extra information, including the lie (in this case, that my youngest son is a photo model for a well-known brand of nappies). They then recounted to me what they had learned about their teacher and then I told them that there was false information in there somewhere. Again, they grouped up and speculated about what was false and why they thought it was so, before I revealed the answer.

So far, so good as they had learned a lot about me as a person without me talking too much and they had also got a good taste of what my lessons will be like.

Then, over to them. I asked them to think of information about themselves and write down single words or sketch quick pictures about it. They then paired up and tried to guess information about each other and spot the lies. With lesson time running out, I set them a homework task (at the end of the first lesson? Why not!) to produce a simple PowerPoint slide or poster similar to mine and present to the whole class in our next meeting.

The second class was then all about the students as they presented, speculated, confirmed or denied, questioned, lied, and ultimately found each other out. Each student then followed it up with a quick quiz to make sure everyone had learned the truth. As an observer and participant, I got to see up close their ability to communicate, present, ask questions, discuss, and think critically, all useful information as we move forward.

And that for me is what first lessons should be about – not simply ‘getting to know you’ but also getting to know what the lessons are going to be like, where the students are at in terms of their strengths and weaknesses, and also what their interests are. All valuable information filtered into one activity for planning an effective and specialized course programme

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