Philip Kerr is a teacher trainer and materials writer, whose books include the coursebook series, Straightforward (Macmillan), and the methodology handbook, Translation and Own-Language Activities (Cambridge University Press). He blogs about technology and language learning at Adaptive Learning ELT
Philip has been a friend of mine since the early days of my career. And over this time, there is one thing that I have learned: if you ask Philip for feedback on your writing, you do so at your own peril. Philip’s feedback is always honest and to the point. But it has been known to crush a man’s soul.
Philip has interviewed the best of them – from Princess Anne to … many, many others. So, was it a good idea for me to ask Philip to cast his critical eye over Videotelling before publishing?
Jamie: Hello Philip. Thank you for being involved with the book. For me, one of the highlights of the publishing process was when you sent back my final manuscript with an accompanying message that said: “Actually Jamie, this is not bad!” I considered putting those words on the back of the book. But I’m not sure that people would have appreciated how important they were. So, where should we start this interview?
Philip: Why don’t you start by telling us what Videotelling is all about? Can you select one image that best sums up Videotelling for you?
Jamie: Yes – that’s a good place to start. A lot of people think that this is a book of video activities. But it is not. It is an anti-video book. An image that comes to mind is that of my father. He is a great storyteller and, more often than not, the stories that he tells originate from the screen – adverts, films scenes, comedy sketches, moments from nature documentaries, viral videos, etc. And it is quite normal for his descriptions to be better than the real thing. A couple of years ago, I caught one of his performances on camera. Have a look:
So that is what Videotelling is all about: telling videos before showing them.
Philip: It’s a bit strange this, isn’t it? Here we are pretending to talk (writing, actually) to each other, but we’re really writing to unknown readers. Anyway … you make it sound as though Videotelling is a book of speaking activities based around video clips. Perhaps, it’s primarily that, but it’s rather more, I would say.
Jamie: Philip! Don’t ruin it. We have to create the illusion that we are sitting together in a fancy café, sipping frothy cappuccinos. So yes – there is more to Videotelling than that. At the heart of the book are 45 stories, each based on the narrative of a short video, and each intended to be told in the classroom by the teacher. Each story is accompanied by a whole load of ideas for getting students involved, and setting up tasks for speaking, writing, thinking, interpreting, problem solving, text reconstruction, and more. Does that make sense?
Philip: Yes, that sounds more like it. But the videos are at the heart of the book. I’m always amazed at the things you find. How much of your life do you spend watching video clips?
Jamie: I say story, you say video. Could you pass the sugar? Well, I suppose that I spend quite a lot of time on video sites like Reddit and YouTube. Perhaps 30 minutes a day. But rather than looking for videos, I am looking for stories. That is the state of mind that you have to get into – to see or recognize the narrative in the material. I just found a new video/story this morning. Let me tell you about it:
Imagine a bedroom. It’s got all the usual stuff: A single bed, a wardrobe, a desk, some shelves, a table, etc. The bedroom has no windows but it does have a small fridge. There is a man lying on the bed, reading a book. Suddenly, the table falls over. A few moments later, the fridge door flies open and its contents fall out. At the same time, books and boxes fall off the shelf and land on the floor. Everything slides across the room. The man seems a bit annoyed about this. He gets up. He picks up the table and puts it back in position. He puts the food back in the fridge and the books and boxes back on the shelf. Then he goes back to his bed and back to his book. But then it happens all over again. The table falls over and everything falls out the fridge and off the shelves.
I have a personal connection with this video because I experienced this very phenomenon when I was about 28 years old. So, in this sense, I can bring myself into the narrative. Can you make sense of it?
Philip: My first thought was that the man is an astronaut, but somehow I don’t think you’ve ever had that experience. A hallucination? An earthquake? On a ship?
Jamie: Great guesses and that is, of course, what it’s all about. By withholding the most important information about the video, the text immediately becomes interactive. This is the way that Videotelling works – it reverses the standard way of using video. Rather than showing the video first and asking questions second, the story and discussion comes first and the video viewing comes second. That is why it is an anti-video book. In this case, you are correct. I was never an astronaut. But I did work as a musician on a ship in the year 2000 and remember this scenario quite well. Here is the video:
Philip: The technique you describe is like an extended tease.
Jamie: Yes – a Videotelling activity can become an extended tease if that is how the teacher approaches it. And although that can work well in some cases, in other cases it becomes a problem.
Let’s go back to the messy bedroom text. The text is interactive because of the obvious question that it throws out: Why are these objects moving around the bedroom, apparently on their own? Now, if the teacher attaches too much importance to that question, the activity may descend into a cheap guessing game. And if that happens too quickly, the teacher may miss out on valuable opportunities to explore other questions that may arise (What do you have in your bedroom? What do you know about earthquakes?) or to draw attention to language in the text (the grammar of the verb to fall, the adverb back). Teacher control is key here. Slow down, try to forget that you know ‘the answer’, give students space and freedom to explore and express ideas, repeat the text a few times. And use the word ‘no’ sparingly.
Philip: I’ve tried out some of your ideas with groups, and I realized that their success depends a lot on my relationship with the group. (I guess that’s true of all teaching techniques.) It seems to me to require a blend of teacher control, whilst still giving students space and freedom to express their ideas. It’s not always an easy balance to achieve. You always make it look so effortless, although I’m sure it’s not. Any tips?
Jamie: Yes – I think that that applies to teacher-led storytelling in general. It’s a highly unpredictable format for the classroom. Whereas gap fills, listening activities and reading comprehensions are safe, there is so much that can go wrong with classroom storytelling.
But when it goes right, it’s beautiful. And there is the payoff that as your storytelling skills improve, so do other areas of classroom communication – giving instructions, defining words, explaining grammar, asking questions and responding to answers. It’s all about embracing and developing teacher talk rather than banning it. It’s about preparation, practice and reflection. But it’s strange – somewhere along the line, we were led to believe that teacher talk is bad and that teaching English is easy. This is so wrong. Quality teacher talk is essential. And teaching English is reassuringly difficult.
Also, I don’t think that teachers should pay too much attention to my way of doing it. They should certainly steal the storytelling techniques that I use (I have listed over 30 of these in the book appendices). But it’s important to remember that there are as many ways to tell a story as there are human beings on the planet. And if my storytelling performances seem a bit showy during the talks that I give, I would point out that an auditorium stage is very different place to a classroom. I am a different type of storyteller when working small groups of English learners as I am sure you are too.
Philip: I haven’t exactly grilled you, have I? So. How do you, or how can a teacher, evaluate the effectiveness of the lesson ideas in Videotelling? In everything I write for coursebooks these days, there have to be stated learning outcomes, which can be measured in some way.
Jamie: You might have opened a can of worms there Philip. Now that you have turned the heat up, we may be having grilled worms for lunch. I hope you are OK with that.
To answer that, I’ll have to differentiate between stated outcomes (i.e. aims and objectives) and actual outcomes (i.e. the learning). The difference is that the first is what teachers start with. The second is what students end up with.
There is a considerable discrepancy between these two things. It is hard to predict or describe what students will take away from a lesson. And that is particularly relevant to teacher-led storytelling – the type of format that we are dealing with in Videotelling.
I am half-way through my answer. What do you think of it so far?
Philip: My feeble attempt at grilling was pretty weak. So far, I couldn’t agree with you more. The stated learning outcomes in the materials I write are works of fiction. I think it makes sense to talk about ‘learning affordances’ – the potential for a particular activity or piece of material to lead to learning gains. But, most of the time, the idea that activity x will lead to learning y is, frankly, silly. But it’s a piece of silliness that is hard to get away from in a time when everyone is so obsessed with measuring performance.
Jamie: Well, maybe you can grill me about the critical thinking …
Yes – it’s an idea that’s hard to get away from. I suppose that aims and objectives, especially of the narrow variety, provide a safety net for both teachers and students. That shouldn’t be overlooked. And for that reason, I have included many suggestions for typical grammar points throughout the book. For example, one of the story texts – Lepus articus – contains a reoccurring third conditional which is designed to be comical and catchy. But I don’t know if I would call that an aim – just something that students may notice with a bit of help from their teacher. And in any case, I wouldn’t want that repeated structure to distract students from the rest of the language in the story text. I spent a lot of time choosing words, collocations, phrases, idioms and structures which are (what I consider to be) useful to learners of English.
But that’s just one half of the picture. The stories are designed to be interactive – even dialogic. Each activity comes with ideas for questions and tasks which invite students to express their own ideas, and allow teachers to take a reactive approach and work with emergent language. So, all in all, although the lessons in Videotelling are light in aims, I hope that they are heavy in learning affordances.
Philip: I think I’ll pass on the critical thinking. I have a more practical question. Teachers’ resource books, like yours, are full of good ideas. I read them, I think ‘that’s a nice idea’, put the book on the shelf, and then when it comes to daily lesson planning, I forget about the good idea I came across a month or so back when I read the book. And, then, sometimes, when I’m in class, I think, damn, I could have used that idea from Jamie’s book. So, sometimes, now, when I come across an idea that I really like, I find a place in the coursebook I’m using a lot, and write on the page something like ‘check out Keddie page 27’. That way, when I come to teach that unit, I don’t miss the opportunity. But, of course, I can’t do this with every book I might be teaching from. Do you have any other ideas about how to make the most of a resource book like Videotelling?
Jamie: I like your idea. When you say that you find a place in the coursebook, I wonder how you do that. I guess that you are looking for thematic or lexical connections between the activity and the coursebook topic. Making those connections can be a skill in itself and this is something that I quite often talk to teachers about in workshops.
I suppose that my own way of doing things has always been to create and maintain a list of activities that I have learned about at conferences or found in resource books. I can then run my eyes over the list when planning a session and look for possible connections.
But there are so many other ways that you could use the book. For example, you could wear it on your head like a hat.
Philip: How do you wear an ebook on your head?
Jamie: I was referring to the paperback which will be out in April. That’s the problem with ebooks, isn’t it? There’s not much you can do with them except for download them and read them. I never heard of anyone who claims to like the smell of a freshly downloaded ebook. Have you?
Philip: I’ll ignore that. One of the advantages of ebooks is that it’s easy to print out a page and stick it somewhere handy. You can always rip out a page of a print book and do the same … By the way, if you buy the print book, do you get a licence to the ebook as well?
Jamie: I’m still looking at how to bundle the products. There will certainly be an option to get both for a discount. And I’ll also be offering everyone who buys (or who has already bought) the ebook a discount on the paperback.
Philip: One last question, Jamie. I wish you all the best with Videotelling, but we all know that methodology books don’t sell by the bucketload. I know how much time you’ve put into this project, and I know it’s very unlikely you’ll see any return on your investment. So, if not for money, why did you write it?
Jamie: You’re right – I’ve been working on this book for a number of years. And it has become quite a personal ambition for me to get it published. Having written two methodology books already, I know very well that they don’t sell by the bucketload. But I also feel that it is wrong to focus on ELT book sales to inform ourselves about what is possible and what is not. The more I learn about the world beyond our profession, the more possibilities I discover to explore. So, even if I see no return on my investment with this book, I believe that self-publishing is a good route for me. I have a lot more books in me and also online courses to create. And now I can build on the experience that I have gained from this project.
Philip: Clearly I have never crushed your soul!
Jamie: Well, if you ever did, I came back stronger! Your feedback contributed a lot to getting this book into shape. So, thank you very much for that Philip.