Are there any OTHER end of the year activities, besides the traditional tea-party?! Or to use an ancient formula, is there life on Mars?

The end of the academic year in Siberia can be quite exotic. While there are still huge piles of snow scattered around in May, including those up-to-the-first-floor-windows sagging mounds, the temperatures may reach +30C. Every short break between lessons, hordes of over-excited screaming children rush outside dressed in their T-shirts, shorts and sneakers (trainers) to jump gleefully on that soft “last” snow, at times going all the way down and being rescued by their classmates. I confess it is one of the weirdest sights I have ever seen as an adult; yes, I also used to do that as a child. The weather, that ever fascinating topic, thus presents great opportunities to conduct a lesson on climate change. The use of ICT at any such session is practically a must. One can show various cities, regions and continents, and suggest that students compare the temperatures, the air pressure and precipitation, and then try to come up with reasons for such great disparities. Naturally it is always good to look at the countries “down under” like Australia and New Zealand because they have winter when we have summer, the fact which never ceases to amaze children of all ages.

A tea-party with any class, any age and level presents great opportunities to arrange a Round Table and have if not a discussion than a chat, in English. Bear in mind that while soft drinks and cookies are usually enough for primary school, teenagers require more food like pies and cakes in addition to soft drinks and cookies. Rather than enlist the help of their parents I would usually inquire about the group’s culinary skills. Most often it is also necessary to tactfully but firmly nudge the young men to help with carrying the victuals from homes to school. I always bake a huge pie and/or cake too, which raises my students’ appreciation of me as a teacher enormously. I would list my cooking and baking talents as contributing factors to my reputation as a “cool teacher”, on a par with my knowing about such movies as “The Predator”, “The Expendables” and other romantic shows.

We usually watch a few clips and listen to some songs. With younger kids it is important to give them freedom of movement. Let them sing karaoke-style, even if they sound off-key. Dance with them while singing along. Strangely enough the energetic teens often prefer to just sit around and talk; that is fine as long as they conduct all the conversations in English. Traditionally we introduce the summer vacation topics, and ask our students about their plans. We may suggest that they remember to take a few notes if they visit an interesting place, read anything worthy of sharing, and recommend any new film they consider fit for their age. Any photos, videos, recordings made during the summer months are to be appreciated. One or two children may be quite creative; it is important to know if they wish to show their stories, drawings, presentations to their peers, or just have a trial run with their teacher before going public. A surprising number of adolescents write poetry, or at least rhymes, not necessarily about a girl or boy they like. I still keep a few little poems where my own name is rhymed unexpectedly, in English, by my students who praise my pedagogical skills.

One of the topics which is very important if not even vital to us EL teachers, and which is not apparent to the children, is the following. We need to know what they have learned during the school year, what they feel they need to learn, and what challenges they face. Introducing this thread into a relaxed discussion is not easy, but you are the one who knows your class best, so you can figure out a tactful unobtrusive way to do it. “I read well but I wish I could hear and distinguish the words well!” Or, “I wish I could find a way to memorize the new vocabulary faster!” Or, “I dislike writing, can’t we do without it?” Some of the utterances may coincide with what you already know about every individual while others may be quite a revelation. It pays to share your own experiences as a student, the problems and obstacles you managed to overcome, the way you still continue learning. Have a few examples of the new words or the new usages of some familiar words and expressions you found, and still find while reading a book, watching a new TV show or listening to some songs. Quote or if possible share some clips, like the immortal very expressive one of the actress Whoopi Goldberg shouting in frustration, “Mick! Mick! Speak English!” It is a tiny episode from the American movie “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”; “Mick” of course is the singer Mick Jagger. Any such example serves to illustrate that sometimes, even a native speaker cannot understand all the words in their native tongue!

We once asked an American visitor to listen to a song which had us stumped at one line. He listened several times, and then sighed: “The poor lady doesn’t know what she is singing!” These many years later I still sometimes quote Angus McQueen who spent an academic year here in Siberia and taught all those who wished to learn quite a lot. He had no difficulty deciphering a line from the musical “My Fair Lady” which none of us teachers could properly hear: “This VERBAL class distinction…” I would go further than a mere illustration and compare the way this initial sound /v/ is pronounced in English and in Russian; that was the stumbling block. Are there verbal class distinctions today? This is a great discussion topic in itself for the end of the year.

Nina MK, Ph.D.

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