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What I learnt from Jeremy Harmer

About the role of course books in the modern age
Helbling Languages – Books and Bits
(joint professional development event)
by Erzsébet Békés

As background music, I have Sona Jobarteh playing the kora and singing while I’m writing this. Twenty-four hours ago I had no idea if ”kora” was a kind of circle dance or a medicinal plant in the Amazonian jungle. Mind you, the lady who sat next to me wasn’t sure either; she thought it was an instrument that musicians played at Jewish weddings. She told me this, because 25 minutes into his session, Jeremy asked us to look at a list of 16 instruments and identify the ones we didn’t know and then said: “Go and look it up. Google it”.

Since I don’t have a smartphone, I was going to ask the colleague sitting next to me, but time was already up. We had a new task: to identify six world famous musicians and the instruments they played based on their photos alone. This was far too little information to go on and guesswork is of limited use when you can’t even pronounce the names. But then Jeremy gave us chunk-sized biodata on each artist and even had us listen to how Yuja Wang plays the piano. Vocabulary-rich, scaffolded language presented in a way that only a music lover can.

“But what did you learn?” asks my daughter, who couldn’t attend because she had a last-minute meeting at UNAE, Ecuador’s only teacher training university where she is Head of English. After all, if the Stanford PhD theoretical particle physicist, Helen Quinn, who is on UNAE’s governing body, asks you for a meeting, you make yourself available…

Well, I learnt or confirmed a lot: to start with, I felt that my approach of putting my students first was validated. That whatever topic I brought into the classroom, if I was enthused and engaged enough, that enthusiasm will be contagious. That five diamond words can be introduced and will create intellectual pleasure (“prelapsarian”, “dialogic interaction” and “he had a brainwave” are in my suitcase now). I could see clearly that short presentations provide rich, comprehensible input (we heard mini-lectures on Dogme and Teaching Unplugged, the CLIL approach, and the Recycled Orchestra in Paraguay). That silence is powerful and profound learning can take place when no words are uttered and you leave with a question lingering in your mind.

I realized that even if you prefer to teach twenty students instead of forty, it is possible to manage 350 participants in groups of five or six talking animatedly about their musical talents or lack of (I don’t play any instrument, but my stepmother was an internationally acknowledged violin soloist, so I had my 20-second fame in my own group). And that you need to leave time for your students to settle back and you can afford to wait for some in the farthest rows to hush the crowd.

I smiled when I saw that you can improvise: if the music is not loud enough, you press the wireless microphone to the sound outlet on your laptop and start the audio again. You don’t need breath-taking PowerPoint presentations, simple and uncluttered slides will do the trick since crucial messages and quotes (“If you want your students to learn English, don’t teach language” – Fillmore) will stay with you, because the idea itself is stimulating or provocative.

I also learnt that vocabulary can and needs to be memorized and good language learners are good memorizers, while higher order thinking skills (predicting and guessing) are also part of the package. That at key points in this process, a course book arranged along these lines (“all about you”; use your brains, produce language and go digital) is more than helpful. It is a crucial base that teachers can venture out from and return to.

I was pleased to see that while you may have to follow a grammar or grammatical syllabus (I first heard “dramatical syllabus” and was duly thrown), in a session of this kind, you don’t have to apply the PARSNIP principle and avoid everything that has to do with politics, alcohol, religion, (go and find out the rest, google it, if you need to). You can say that you wish Woody Guthrie’s This land is your land (another mini presentation / reading passage) was sung again during the inauguration ceremony of someone worthy of it (while drawing attention to the three verses that are often left out for being most critical of American society at the time when the song was composed).

I felt quiet satisfaction on hearing that language emerges when people get together to talk to each other and the present perfect should be taught “when it is ready”, namely, when it is needed and, therefore, the learner is ready to absorb it; grammar on demand, as it were. I thought it was great to revisit topics like that of the Recycled Orchestra composed of children from the landfill area of Asunción (called Cateura) playing instruments made entirely from garbage. And it was amazing to hear that they went on tour in Latin-America with Metallica and that a film was also made about them (Landfill Harmonic).

I remembered the story from before, because it resonated with me so much that I shared it widely. Now I was making a mental note that beside “Pay it Forward” and “The Freedom Writers’ Diary”, this might be the third film to be shown in the Film Club that I volunteered to run for the non-English degree teacher trainees of UNAE. There are 1241 of them.

Finally, I found it is OK to wipe away a tear when you’re singing “This land is my land” at the top of your lungs with Jeremy now playing the guitar and singing, too, because you belong to that generation of Joan Baez and Pete Seeger and your trainer has just touched that invisible cord that connects the heart and the mind.

And, of course, I had known what the kora was. Rather, I knew what it sounded like. In the autumn of 2009, after having spent almost three years in Ethiopia setting up English Language Improvement Centres as a VSO volunteer, I was waiting for my flight back to Europe and picked up a last minute gift for my daughter and son-in-law: a CD of West-African world music (African Odyssey). Before I gave it to them, I listened to the tracks and was blown away by Malian artist, Adama Yalomba’s piece – the melody and the rhythm and the sound of that beautiful, exotic instrument: the kora*.

Cuenca, Ecuador
20th September 2017

*Except when I checked with Putumayo’s ethnomusicologist, Jacob Edgar, it turned out that what I heard was the kamale n’goni, which is similar to the kora, but has fewer strings and is constructed slightly differently. Both are exquisitely beautiful in design, too. Go, google.

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  • Elsiye

    Links: Sona Jobarteh on youtube: Landfill Harmonic documentary: