Chunk of the day: get sidetracked

Last year we wrote a book called Perspectives. It’s aimed at secondary school students and is loosely based around TED talks – and part of what you have to do for any book you write, but especially for one like this, is a bit of research to ensure that the content you write is authentic and relevant. That’s all well and good, but the danger of this is that you get sidetracked very easily. In other words, you start ‘researching’ things which may be fascinating or entertaining, but are most definitely not relevant to the job you’re trying to do. Let me give you an example: one day, I was thinking about writing about new arts festivals people are planning to put on – connected to the unit theme of culture and transformation. So I Googled “planning a festival” and several came up connected to a total solar eclipse. A good possibility, but these relate to 2017, so by the time our book was being used in schools, the festival would already have passed. “Hmm.” I found myself thinking, “I wonder when the next solar eclipse will be”. Twenty minutes later, I’d looked at all the routes of total solar eclipses up until 2035. I went that far because by the time I’d got to 2027, I’d started thinking “Ooh! That’s weird. China isn’t getting any solar eclipses. Do they never get them?” So I continued on until 2035 when I learned that they will finally get one. (You can check all this for yourself on this site if you want to get distracted).

Generally, getting sidetracked is seen as a negative thing. If you get sidetracked in a discussion at a meeting, you never get round to making any decisions. If you get sidetracked with work, you fall behind and either miss your deadlines or have to put in some extra hours to catch up. If you get sidetracked while youre supposed to be studying, you may not revise what you need to and I guess you might end up failing your exams.

However, when it comes to English classes, I think getting sidetracked can sometimes be a very good thing indeed. I was teaching my Upper-Intermediate group the other day, and we were more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just looking at some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if I should rush on to the forthcoming grammar point (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more interesting way of rounding things off when opportunity knocked.

One of the items that had come up was THE HEAVENS – as in He clung onto the rope and was lifted up to the heavens. I’d explained that it basically meant ‘the sky’ and had given another example – The heavens suddenly opened and it started pouring with rain – when a student asked what the difference between ‘the heavens’ and ‘the heaven’ was. I told the class we don’t use articles with heaven – or hell – and that aside from their literal meanings, they’re often used metaphorically: it’s my idea of heaven / hell. There was some banter about how going to see Justin Bieber was one student’s idea of heaven, but everyone else’s idea of hell and then a Moroccan student asked “So what about paradise?” “That’s usually used to talk about a wonderful beautiful place, like Bali or somewhere, that’s maybe sold as a tropical paradise” before the student then explained that for Muslims, it refers to the highest part of heaven, where the Prophet Muḥammad resides. The student then jokingly added that he wouldn’t ever reach such heights and would be lucky to reach the bottom part of heaven. Another student, a Spanish guy called Mohammed, suggested that hell was a more likely destination at which point Sosan, a Saudi woman, demanded he retract this and claimed you should never say this!

I pointed out it was a common joke among friends in English and, curiosity piqued, put students in pairs to discuss whether or not they talked about heaven and hell in their own languages. Out of this, the most interesting thing that emerged was a discussion about the differing concepts of angels on shoulders that seemed to exist in different cultures: the Christian notion of good angels and bad angels giving you advice – and the Muslim idea of an angel on your right shoulder recording your good actions and another on your left noting down the bad (but only after an eight-hour pause which allowed the chance of repentance and righting the wrong), all of which were to be weighed on Judgment Day. Mohammed noted that with his Spanish-Moroccan friends it was common to joke that the left-shoulder angel was compiling a library, which aroused laughter from most of the class and looks of slight shock from the more devout Saudi woman in class.

The other thing that became apparent was that many students didn’t know how to ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL?) and had thus far gotten by with their own bizarre improvised versions (“You have religion?” and the like!). For the next five minutes, students changed pairs and asked and answered this question before we rounded up with some board-based reformulation. On the board we ended up with:
She’s / he’s very devout.
He used to be Muslim / catholic, but he converted to Buddhism.
I was brought up Muslim / Buddhist / Catholic, but I don’t really practise.
All religions have lots of different branches.
I don’t really believe in God, but I do believe there’s some kind of higher power.

And that was that. One of the best bits of teaching I’ve done for ages – and it all happened because I allowed myself to get sidetracked.

The grammar waited until the following day and students left the room still asking each other questions about each others’ beliefs.

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  • Do you ever get sidetracked in class? Can you remember the last time it happened? Was it good or bad? Why?
  • Do you ever get sidetracked when you’re working online? In what way?
  • Have you ever been sidetracked on your way to somewhere? Why? What happened?
  • Do they put on any big festivals where you live? Do you go to them?
  • Do you talk about heaven and hell in your own first language? What do you say about them?
  • Have you ever been anywhere that you felt was a real paradise?
  • Are you religious at all?
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