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Conceptual Literature Blog

Hodder Education Blog Post: Our Climate as Concept

In this recent post as a guest on Hodder Education’s blog, I discuss the ways you can make a current hot topic into a concept for your Language A classroom and point to areas in my book that can help you to achieve this goal.  

You can further connect a concept like this one to student CAS work through writing, volunteering, or activism and interdisciplinary work including biology, earth science, or geography as well as ethics in TOK.  In this way, it can be a case study, a pedagogical method I can help you develop through workshops.  

Related reading:

Posted 1 week ago

Hodder Education Blog Post: Student choice, Agency, and Co-Design in Language A

Part of developing the voices of our students is in listening to the topics or texts they want to study.  Student choice on your syllabus will not only motivate your students to read but will also help the entire classroom, including yourself, hear new perspectives.  Even if students are choosing from a set of topics or texts you have pre-selected, the reasons they vote on particular items help us to understand the children better and allow us to see the matrix of our selections in a different way.  

You can build student choice into your course in a variety of ways.  This is something I address at several points in the IB DP Language A concept-based learning book.  In this recent post on Hodder’s blog, I discuss these aspects.  It is also something we can work on together in a workshop or through consultation.  This is just one of many ways to make the learning in your classroom more relevant, dynamic, and fun.  

Posted 5 weeks ago

Language Profiles: student agency & multilingualism

This post is relevant either to language A/B teachers or to educators looking at whole school literacy implementation ideas.  

Thank you, Yi Shen (Sandy) for showing me the power of a language profile in our workshop in Hong Kong (Sha Tin College, September 2017)!  This is something any of you can try with your teaching staff or your classrooms to make language a truly dynamic part of the learning process at your school and help people become aware of the power and challenges that come with personal language knowledge.  

Some schools will already have a language profile for each student.  Often, this only lists the home language(s) and level of English (or language of instruction) of the student.  We can do more!  Also, sometimes the level of English listed is from an application filled out by parents trying to impress the school.  Find out where the information comes from to really understand what it means.  Essentially, there are many ways to get more information that can help gain knowledge for the student’s personalised learning strategies, but likely the best person to create this portfolio is the student, at least in secondary schools.

In order to understand how this works for students, try to do it yourself:

Think back to your infant development and schooling: what is your language story?  Where and when did you learn language(s)? What dialects do you speak?  What slang do you know?  Especially if you live away from where you grew up, this dynamic has probably changed over the years.  Even if you only speak English, you have probably had exposure to different kinds of English and use a certain type with friends, family, and students.  You probably also at one point learned a second language in school.  What was this experience of language learning like for you?  What excites you about (other) languages?  What scares you?  How does language give you power?  How does it make you powerless?

There will probably be a wide range of responses to these questions from colleagues and students alike.  Sharing your language story with a colleague or two can help you to express what language is for you and to have empathy for others who may find difficulty with language.

Try drawing a map of the language(s) you use today.  With whom and for what purposes do you speak different languages, dialects, or slang?  Maybe your register simply shifts; that is ok as well. Maybe you speak some languages for fun and others out of a need.  

I was raised an anglophone.  Hailing from Boston, I avoided the accent and local dialect due to the nature of the transplant and immigrant town of Lexington that I grew up in.  My parents came from Minnesota and Texas, and each had lived in Boston since just after their university years.  We had a blended American English at home.

My mom also studied French extensively at school, so when I started lessons at age 7 in our school system, the fit felt natural.  Half of my mom’s family is French and with Québec not that far away, schools in the area at that time all taught French to students as a ‘second’ language.  I took French all through grade school until the AP exam when I feel out of love with the language.  Suddenly, I had teachers who just cared about correctness and memorisation rather than taking us to see the Impressionist exhibit at the Museum of Fine Arts or teaching us how to make crepes.  The joy was killed.

So at university, I took Spanish for a year.  It was fun, but I wasn’t quite in love with it the same way.  And then there were all those other courses on the syllabus and I wanted to double major…so…no language B study for a couple of years.  But then, Latin the last year.  I had wanted to take Latin as a first-year but my advisor said it was a dead language.  What was the point?  I found the grammatical structures a fun puzzle and our tiny class of five a fun classical oasis.  

After college, I went straight into my MAT to earn a teaching degree.  I hadn’t studied abroad like so many US students mostly because of sport with the plan to somehow do it later.  My MAT programme allowed you to do your student teaching abroad, but you had to find the school.  It was much of the reason I had chosen the program.  

I had decided I wanted to give French a go again.  After writing to many schools in Switzerland and France, I finally got a positive response from the Lycée International American Section director, just outside of Paris.  Paris!  What a dream.  They wouldn’t pay me, of course, but I could work with several of their teachers and live with one of the school’s families in exchange for some babysitting and tutoring.  

That year was bliss.  But I could digress for ages about my love affair with Paris…back to the language!  I had to take intensive French courses again as part of my visa.  It was also a great way to meet people from other places.  I had very good, slow, correct French, I was told time and again.  But it was slow.  Part of culture is how you speak, and the French, at least the Parisians, don’t like to speak slowly.  I was given the advice to just spit it out and not worry about my mistakes.  So I did that, time and again, until I felt comfortable in French.  I felt like a different part of my personality came out in French.  

Fast forward three years: I had moved back to the states and then to Italy.  My French proved very useful in learning Italian and the locals were even more encouraging about just trying the language out.  Within a few months, I was comfortably having conversations.  Sadly, a lot of that is lost now after more than a decade without much exposure, but I think I could reclaim it in a month or so if given the opportunity.  

Similarly, when I moved to Hong Kong, I took Mandarin Chinese lessons.  But though I loved it, I found it difficult to practice the language in a place that is mostly Cantonese and English.  Cantonese was trickier to learn and ‘not as useful’ once you move away.  I never knew how long I would stay…if I had known it would be eight years, I probably would have learned right away.  In any case, learning some Chinese helped me to at least understand what it’s about and is something I would go back to as well with a longer stay in the mainland or again in Hong Kong.  

I kept up the French, though, with long, frequent stays in France, lots of films, and a long-term French beau along the way.  Now, I have friends with whom I speak French in Vienna, I read in French when I can, and I have that dream of living there….

But most of my life is still lived in English.  I’ve learned some German living in Vienna.  I took a class and did some self study.  But there’s always that time factor, and I decided to have a baby and do some writing instead.  Maybe I’ll go back to it.  Let’s see how things shape up in a year or two.  The little I’ve learned is certainly helpful and shows a sort of respect in trying, I think.  When I travel I also like to learn a few phrases for this reason.  We who speak English are privileged to have the ‘international language’ at our fingertips.  But we are only denying ourselves if we limit the other languages we can learn.  

Now I also have a baby boy who is learning language every day.  We speak American and British English at home.  We try not to swear around him.  I sometimes speak with him in French.  He will attend a mostly German speaking nursery school soon.  It makes more me aware of how and why we learn these languages.

That’s my language story in brief.  I’m sure you can find links with geography, emotions, work, and more to understand even more where it all comes from.  I have students with much more dynamic backgrounds.  Some speak three languages at home with their parents, a different one at school (English), take a foreign language, and speak in some kind of multilingual slang with their friends. When students go through their language journeys, their stories, they find ways to use language for learning.  They acquire agency.  In asking teachers to also go through the process, they can connect with the student’s learning as they make reflections on their own journeys, connected also to emotion, place, people…the list goes on. These associations help us understand the way we use languages as well as our motivations or fears connected to language.  

One of my students studying three language A at school (English, German, Italian) for a trilingual diploma (wow!) conducted her Extended Essay research on the topic of multilingualism and cognition.  She narrowed it to bilingualism since little research has been done beyond this, even though, as she noted, many people speak more than two languages.  She always felt her languages were a hindrance, which really shocked me.  Most of the recent research I had read showed the cognitive power of having more than one language.  This is why so many people try to get their kids in immersion programs if there is only one language at home.  She was aware of this, but sometimes felt like words escaped her or she couldn’t understand something she read.  She realised that even though she reads a lot, the time is divided among these three languages. Her vocabulary development could be limited in that way.  Research supported this, but this was the only area she found to be a hindrance.  The way she uses language can be more creative and the development of her brain allows for code switching that goes beyond language and into experiences.

Are any of you doing research in this area?  I would be interested to hear about any current work with multilingual speakers and happy to post a link to your published work on my blog.  

Posted 7 weeks ago

Field Trip: newsroom

You can incorporate many field trips or extension trips for your students to enrich the conceptual learning experience.  I know it is a legal hassle, but it is worth it!  Day and local trips, even those after school hours, will afford you the least problems of legality, money, and cutting into other course meeting time.  One easy way to access this reality is through local writers and specifically newsrooms.

No matter where you live, you will be able to find a local newsroom.  Though it is a busy place, many reporters or editors will be eager to share their experiences with local youth.  You might already know a journalist or media representative in your area.  If not, reach out to fellow teachers or contact the agencies directly.  Consider the language of the medium if your language of instructions is different from that of the local language.  You might either find agencies operating in English (if that is your course language) or consider a multilingual learning experience that is more focused on the concept of news media rather than the actual written text.

Once you find your willing body, plan your event(s).  You probably have a lot of ideas about how to best utilise this experience.  I think it’s important to have some sort of focus related to your curriculum in addition to a general tour and Q&A that might get kids excited about this profession.  Here are five focus ideas that work, and I would love to hear about more you try out with your students:

1. Biases

The journalist or media professional can help your students consider the ways media can be biased or not.  What do different text types tell us inherently about biases?  If we call these ‘perspectives’ do they become more acceptable?  Some, of course, are meant to be unbiased while others are allowed certain biases.  How might a journalistic author also include different opinions in the text?  Together, you might analyse different articles or types of media or discuss a difficult situation when a reporter has strong feelings about a topic they have to cover.  Politics are a great place to start here!  Papers typically endorse candidates at times of election but are meant to cover all candidates in an unbiased fashion.  You can look at how the media might accomplish this task…or fail.

2. Image content

There is no doubt that we are now in an increasingly image rich society.  Together, consider how images (still or moving) impact the way we digest news.  These might be portraits, photos or videos of events, cartoons, images of natural phenomenon, and more.  How do journalists and other media find the images they use?  How do they ensure it is not doctored?  How does cutting parts of images change the way we view it? What is the impact of images vs. words in today’s media?  The professional might have strong opinions about the way images are used online.  You might also consider citizen journalists here and the way their content can be picked up by media corporations.  How do our phones act as witnesses to events?  Is it a good thing to have so much witness available?  What might be the downsides?  

3.  The biz!

Consider the angle of the media as a business.  If you have many business students, this will be especially interesting.  Consider how news sells.  What headlines create the most hits?  How do agencies decide on their content and where to place it?  What do images have to do with sales or hits? All of this can lead to discussions of text types: how is the news written most effectively and how does the layout on the page enhance the readership?  Students might then create their own news reports that “sell”; they can annotate or orally explain the way their articles are able to make money.  They might also consider ethical debates about printing what sells vs. what is important.  The journalist will no doubt have some examples of this conundrum.  

4. Where does information come from?

This is a great TOK connection if we consider where our knowledge and version of the truth comes from.  There have always been different versions of reality represented through media, but now there is open discourse about the validity or censorship or ‘fakeness’ of it.  Journalists can help your students to find out where exactly they find their information.  They can together consider the relative values of information from witnesses, police reports, government documents, Twitter feeds, and more.  How do they comb through this information to arrive at their published material?  How do images add to this information?  What are they careful of?  Your students might look at a particular emerging story with them to understand this idea more fully.

5. Whom can you trust?

The ideas above lead right into this question: when we digest our news, how do we know if we can trust it?  Consider the language of “post-truth” and “fake news”: what to do these imply about our media today?  Also consider censorship and its role in the media.  How does the move of news from print to online both allow for more truth and fact checking as well as more opportunity for ‘fakeness’?  The journalist might present students with a story covered in two entirely different ways and attempt to analyse where the truth lies.  Or, they might be given tools to attempt to read truthful accounts everyday.  No doubt your contact will have some ideas here!

Additionally, you may choose to have follow up sessions in house if the journalist is interested in doing more.  Your students might work on creating a type of media themselves that the professional can follow up on.  S/he won’t necessarily make and comment on work specifically, but could lead a discussion of how to go through the editing process or consider the impact of the language they have chosen (and its potential biases).  It is more effective with the media professional, but you will also learn more skills to help your students when it is just you in the classroom.  


London, April 2019

Posted 12 weeks ago

Teaching Text: The Hate U Give

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give (Balzer + Bray, 2017) is a book people should read.  It tells us a lot about America, now.  But in addition to being a great story with strong messages about race, crime, empathy, and more, Thomas’ novel is one you can teach as part of several different conceptual frameworks.  You could teach this book to grade 9 or 10 students as part of the main curriculum or in book circles, or you could use it as an extension text for older students.  Let’s look at a few ideas of what points it might illustrate for your students.

The book is told from the perspective of Starr, a witness to her friend’s shooting by the police.  Starr is a Black teenager from a poor, mainly Black, neighbourhood who attends a mostly white school.  Her parents are kind and loving; her father was once a gang member and drug dealer, now reformed.  The story is about how Starr and the neighbourhood deal with this death, but also how a young person can find her voice.  Below, check out my top five reasons to teach this text.


1. Concept topic: Englishes or Black English

Recently, I was working on a chapter about the IB DP concept question: How do literary texts reflect, represent or form a part of cultural practices? for our student book on the new IB Literature course (see the Publications page).  Several parts of this chapter can be illustrated by this novel.  First of all, I take a look at the James Baldwin essay: “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me What Is?”  to look at the relationship between dialect and identity.  You can find this essay online; it was originally printed in The New York Times.  

We extend his ideas to understand Black English in relation to a cultural identity in fiction and music, including Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, and Kendrick Lamar’s ‘i’.  However, you can also use this novel as part of a unit on Englishes, including different dialects from all over the world, like Chinglish or Australian surfer.  

Here is a very brief example when Thomas uses standard English for the narration and Black English for the dialogue, much like Baldwin, Twain, and Smith.   “’Nunya,” Khalil says, meaning none of your business.  ‘What you pull me over for?’” (p. 22)  She even explains language for her audience who might not understand.  

2. Code Switching

You can further investigate the way Starr uses different language in different situations.  Because she is fluent in both ‘standard’ American English and Black English, she can move between the languages.  This is called code switching.

In the same book chapter mentioned above, I take a look at Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker and the way characters use Korean or English at different times for effect, and essentially power.  Starr uses standard English in school and with police officers, in addition to her narration.  She uses Black English in dialogue with friends and family.  To some extent, everyone code switches in similar situations.  Most students speak differently with friends, family, and teachers.  Whether a different language completely or simply the use or absence of slang and swears, they can relate in this way.

Starr is aware of her code switching, which is emphasised in the settings she negotiates between a white school and Black neighbourhood.  Here is a brief example from the moment she goes to the police station to give her witness account to the shooting:

I let go of my mom’s hand to shake the detectives’ hands.  “Hello.”  My voice is changing already.  It always happens around ‘other’ people, whether I’m at Williamson or not.  I don’t talk like me or sound like me.  I choose every word carefully and make sure I pronounce them well.  I can never, ever let anyone think I’m ghetto. (P. 95)

3. #BlackLivesMatter

#BlackLivesMatter or political hashtags in general can also be Concept foci for your units.  You can again investigate this focus through music, especially that of Kendrick Lamar (who happens to be on the IB list), but also others.  Further, you can look at media — both social media and mainstream — to underline the dialogue around this movement.  Investigate together how and why the hashtag is used.

Tumblr and Twitter are explicitly used in the novel to show the way a political movement, protests, or riot can start and the way perspectives are shared or even fabricated online.

4. Voice of the Youth

The use of social media emphasises the voice of the youth.  Starr expresses her opinions on Tumblr, which also creates some conflict.  Starr is aware of her voice and the power of using it or not in her instance as a witness to a crime.  Even though it is dangerous for her to speak out, she chooses to because she knows the power of that speech.  She sees the father of the police shooter speak out on television and feels silenced by not being included in the dialogue. 

The use of a child narrator is a classic trope of the American novel.  You can trace this through novels like Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Vernon God Little.  Her voice gives her power as the narrator, and her awareness of that voice is present in many ways throughout the novel.  As a young, Black girl, her voice is not one we would normally hear through politics and media.  She is creative in the way she approaches situations and helps us to understand the world in new ways, such as the way she understands her Christian and Muslim family as “Christlims” (p. 31).  

5. Musical Allusions

Kahlil, who is shot by a cop after being pulled over for a rear light not working and who is wrongly labeled as a gang member, tells his friend Starr:

“‘Pac said Thug Life stood for ‘The Hate U Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.’’

I raise my eyebrows.  “What?”

“Listen!  The Hate U—the letter U—Give Little Infants F—s Everybody.  T-H-U-G L-I-F-E.  Meaning what society give us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out.  Get it?”

“Damn.  Yeah.”  (P. 17)

There are many other musical artists alluded to throughout the book.  You can look at the lyrics mentioned or understand through a different cultural context.  In addition to Tupac, we see artists like J. Cole, Taylor Swift, the Fresh Prince, Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and more.  

You can look at music as poetry, investigate its healing powers, and understand it as a form of voice.  Songs can be cathartic, political, and chronotopic (telling us a lot about the time period — see Mikhael Bakhtin for more on this term).  Perhaps look at other works that use music in this way, like Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.

Another area you could investigate would be the concept of adaptation in the film that came out last year in 2018.  But I haven’t seen it yet!  Let me know what you think and if you do teach this text, I would love to hear about it on the contact page.


Vienna, April 2019

Posted 15 weeks ago

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