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One of my group participants has just moved to Australia. His wife was sent there by her company. They work for the same firm, but unfortunately they didn’t have a position for him. (However, I heard from his former colleagues that, once there, he found something.) Due to this major change – as I felt – in his life, I took the opportunity to focus on Australia for as long as he was still there. Australia, so far, had been a country I hadn’t dealt with very often. And as in another class a participant was planning to travel there for five weeks, the topic ‘Australia’ pushed itself into focus.
We dealt with several aspects of the country: e.g. historical themes concerning the original European settlement by the British who needed space for all their prison dwellers. Until then Australia hadn’t been of major interest to the British. I don’t want to go into all the aspects we dealt with in detail, as there is plenty of information on the internet. So here just a few references: One page, e.g. lists all the different convicts sent to Australia (actually several pages do this) and one lesson activity I created was ‘Find the convict’: I listed all the different people, from petty criminals to various politically procecuted ‘rebel’ groups, and provided short texts describing them. I deleted the terms in the texts referring to the respective people and together we matched the descriptions with the convicts. I don’t do these kinds of exercises very often, as most of my groups are advanced and more interested in discussions and this type of exercise is more for intermediate groups. However, I couldn’t help myself as I found all this quite interesting and wanted to go into it a little more deeply – plus: the exercise itself didn’t take that long, and also provided plenty to talk about.
Everybody knows that the first Australian settlers were prisoners, but not what kinds of people they really were. And I was quite surprised by the many webpages about those convicts (maybe I should stop revealing my ignorance. Well, gaps in knowledge are there to be filled – and though my Australia travelers knew about these things – all of them had read Bill Bryson’s Down Under, or rather the German translation ‘Frühstück mit Kangaroos’ – most others were as ignorant as me.) http://convictcentral.com is one of these pages. It’s titled ‘Convicts to Australia’ and is a guide for people looking for ‘convict ancestors’. Fascinating. Another one is: www.australianhistory.org/convicts, a very nice page on general history of Australia.
The internet is a huge resource for learners of English as I never tire to point out to my students. I often hear them say things like: when I’m home I don’t like to go sit in front of the computer again as I have done it all day. Although I understand that, I try to convince them to maybe substitute something they would do anyhow in their native language – like reading or listening to the news – by doing it in English, even if just for a few minutes. Build up a habit. And read Bill Bryson in the original.
Whoever deals with Australia has to deal with the Aborigines. When our group member came back from his five week trip, he told us about the many drunk Aborigines he had seen in the towns. I provided a little background information on the Aborigines from wikipedia, to go into further detail, but we never got around to that as I had a change of plan. I decided, instead of taking a more academic approach by reading a factual text, to bring a few pages from Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Message from Down Under. And this turned out to be one of the most enjoyable reading sessions we’ve ever had. It was really fun to read and discuss the aspects of Aboriginal life she describes when she went on a three month journey with an Aboriginal tribe who calls themselves ‘The Real People’. She and the group explore each others’ different ways: She learns e.g. about their food and eating habits, rituals, games, healing methods, all basic things of life and especially life in the outback, and tells – and occasionally shows – them about hers. The clash of cultures is quite intriguing and provides many things to talk about. But our reading together, as we all felt afterwards, had been very enjoyable. We agreed that it had been much more intense than reading alone: for one thing we noticed more details. Almost all had read the book at the time it came out, though not the original but the German translation under the title ‘Traumfänger’. It was quite a bestseller in the late 90ies, (Harper Collins published the original in 1994). A reading experience where you can discuss issues of and in the text right away can be a very satisfying experience.
Especially with quite advanced groups I like introducing books I find interesting, non-fiction and fiction alike. A note on the copyright issue: in the strictest sense of the term we might not actually be allowed to use copies of any number of pages in classes. My own feeling here is that every book I present in class is promoting the same. And often class members indeed go out and purchase it. (I would never copy and distribute whole books.) I believe, especially since the internet provides such a great platform of exchange, that we have a big community of give and take, and unless you’re not selling someone else’s writings as your own, and sharing yours with others if you can, from an ethical point of view everything is fine.
In another session, our traveler to Australia showed us the pictures he had taken. This is an opportunity you should never leave out as a language teacher: having your students show their pictures. In one class, we even had the luxury of a big screen slide show (of a trip to the US), as the student brought a projector – and we turned the whole thing into a nice event with snacks and drinks.