Brass rings, motivation, and a quote from good old H.C.

Neurovelho, "Rye." July, 9, 2007, via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution.

Neurovelho, “Rye.” July, 9, 2007, via Wikimedia, Creative Commons Attribution.

If you really want to know about how this whole idea of motivation got me confused as hell, you probably want to hear about what kind of theory books I read, what kind of certificates I have on my wall, and what I believe as a teacher, and how teaching for fourteen years has me all mixed up, and all that other kind of stuff.  But I don’t feel like filling up pages and pages with that kind of stuff, I really don’t.  If you want to know the truth.

Instead, how about I’ll tell you about this class I was teaching.  The students looked lost as hell every time I tried to get them talking.  A lot of people would say, ‘tried to engage them in communicative acts.’  But that sounds about as phony as it gets, cause what I wanted was the students to talk to each other.  And when you start saying things like, “engage them in communicative acts,” it’s just another way of saying you think you know something about opening your mouth that other people don’t.  And I bet every kid who every told his mom about the color shirt his teacher wore and how angry she got when he ate the black crayon and got wax all stuck in his teeth knows just as much as about “engaging in communicative acts” as anyone else.

So I wanted to get the kids talking and they were having a hell of a hard time doing it.  Really they were.  So I just wrote this sentence up on the board, “When I go to Tokyo, I always go to DisneyLand.”  Which got me feeling pretty depressed.  Because I never go to Tokyo.  And when I go to Tokyo, I never go to Disneyland.  So I was feeling pretty crumby with that phony sentence up on the board.  But I figured I had to do something.  I was standing at the back of the room and the students were looking at me because I had had them turn their chairs around.  Because I didn’t want them just looking at that crumby sentence on the board and just saying it like it was something they had to say cause it was up there on the board.  And time is going by and I say to this boy, Yu, I say, “Yu, number one,” which isn’t a very original thing to say or anything.  And he just looked back at the board and said the sentence and then when he finished, I said, “OK, everyone write.”  Then Ta-chan, the boy who sits right behind Yu, he just looks at me.  He doesn’t know what the heck is going on.  Really he doesn’t.  He looks back at the white board and there’s another sentence up there.  It’s labeled number two.  And it says, “When I go to __________, I always ______.”  And Ta-Chan looks at that sentence for about 15 seconds.  I was sitting there looking at him looking back at the board and looking at me and he looked confused as hell.  But I didn’t say anything.  I didn’t even smile.  I’m crumby like that sometime.  And there was this big silence, like a balloon full of nothing just getting bigger and bigger, taking up all the space and air in the room.  But finally Ta-Chan said, “When I go to school, I always talk to my friend.”  But he wasn’t very sure of himself.  I could tell because he spoke like he was asking everyone a question.  But no one bothered to answer him cause I had already said, “OK, write,” and most of the students were busy trying to write and not really paying any attention to Ta-Chan.  Which made me depressed as hell.  It always does.  Especially when a student took 15 seconds to say something and then everyone just acts like he said it right off or something and starts writing it down while the person who said it is still feeling confused as anything.

The next three students said their sentences pretty quick off, and some students opened their mouths and said things like, “can you say that again,” and “how do you spell that,” pretty quick.  Not slow like the first ones at all.  And they all wrote down about 20 sentences in their notebooks.  And suddenly I was feeling pretty good, like I do when I sometimes hear a little kid singing a made-up-song about some kind of nonsense like elephants getting married to snakes and even though it doesn’t make any sense, it also sounds about as reasonable as anything I’ve ever heard.  Probably because it’s about the least phony kind of music there is.  And all of those sentences in those students notebooks were like that, too.  Not phony at all.  But some of them were as funny as hell.  Like the one, “When I am in Kevin’s class, I always have to go to the bathroom.”  Which is true as hell.  That student always does get right up and goes to the toilet whenever he feels like it.  And that used to depress me.  It really did.  But now I don’t think it will depress me anymore.

And while the students were saying all these things about when they do this and when they do that, I was kind of thinking about “motivation.”  It’s not that I know anything about motivation.  It’s just that I had read this article by this person, Rebecca Oxford, and she had said that motivation was a desire to do something or being moved to do something and I immediately had gotten kind of dizzy and wondered which one was it.  Was motivation wanting or doing?  And what about all of these kids making up these sentences in class about “when I something somethin, I something something.”  What did this have to do with motivation?  Did they want to say the sentences.  And how about the other classes I had tried, the ones where I had given them those crazy topics to talk about.  You know, things like ten-year-olds buying cell phones and bottled water being filled with bacteria and all that.  Did they want to talk about those things?  Or were they just wondering when the chime was going to ring and hoping I wasn’t going to make them talk about that phony bottled water problem because they all drink tea anyway and wouldn’t even think about buying bottled water.

So anyway, I made it through the day and a lot of other stuff happened.  I had to kind of yell at some kids because they didn’t have any pencils or paper or notes or any of the things you usually have in a book bag.  And I was thinking that maybe they had more important stuff in their bags.  Maybe they had some red hunting caps with a peak at the top they liked to flop over to one side.  The kind that looks stylish as hell.  And maybe I could have asked about the hunting cap.  But instead I got all worked up about paper and pencils.  I’m a mad man like that sometimes.  So I was feeling pretty crumby when this boy, Raymond came up to me and kind of stood in front of me.  Raymond has long hair and he doesn’t talk much.  But when he talks the words just burst out.  They burst out like he can’t keep them in anymore.  And he looked at me and burst out, “I think kids don’t know how to talk so well and you should teach them how loud their voices need to be so that when we listen to them, we can really hear them.  Because they are trying their best to say something.”  And I didn’t say anything.  I just thought that someone should give Raymond a fancy certificate and he should hang it on his wall because he sure knows a lot more about engaging in communicative acts than a hell of a lot of other people I know.

So the next day I had the students practice talking and we all figured out how loud you have to be so everyone in a classroom can hear you.  And it wasn’t phony at all.  The students just read their sentences from the day before and we figured out you had to be a hell of a lot louder than you would think.  Turns out there is all this other noise in a classroom you don’t even notice.  The heater is blowing.  The cars are driving by outside the window.  And we were just figuring out how loud to be and reading those sentences again and again.  And everyone was as excited as hell.  Like the way it feels to lace up your skates before heading out on the ice rink.  And then I figured that if this made everyone feel excited as hell, maybe I didn’t have to say things like, “OK, everyone write.”  So I told them that they could do that, too.  And that if they wanted to hear what someone else had to say, they could just ask that person to go next and tell the class something.  And they did.  I mean this girl Lulu was so excited she didn’t say “write” or anything, she just asked her friend Mai-Mai to say something.  Like she was running through traffic to the other side of the street.  Even a quiet student like Lulu can get crazy as hell sometimes.

For four days the students did this sentence thing on the board every morning.  I guess they call it tabling and I know there are a lot of teachers who get excited as hell about things like tabling.  And I can really understand that.  I really can.  I mean when a student says, “When I went to New Zealand, I had to speak English every day,” it can be as exciting as hell.  But you don’t really want to talk about it all the time.  You don’t just want to go up to people and talk about things like tabling, because it’s easy to talk about it so much that you start to change it a bit here and maybe change it again the next time and then you aren’t even talking about what happened anymore.  And then you aren’t talking about anything anymore but what you hope is going to happen.  And those are the kinds of guys I can’t stand listening to.  It’s like they crack open a book and instead of reading it, they just say any old thing they want.  Sometimes I think I might end up turning into  one of those guys.  And that depresses me like anything.  Really it does.

There’s these writers who know a lot about motivation.  Dörnyei and Ushioda.  They have this book and it’s filled with a lot of the stuff that people have found out about motivation.  Like being interested in other countries maybe makes you want to talk more in a foreign language.  Or that if you think you can do something, you probably are willing to give it a try.  Or that if you do things to just get a prize, like riding a merry-go-round to grab the brass ring, you’re not going to notice much about the ride.  And all these things are just as reasonable as hell.  I mean I can tell that Dörnyei and Ushioda and Oxford aren’t just cracking open a book and saying whatever the hell they want.  I can tell they look at their students when they are talking.  And they’re willing to wait for more than 15 seconds for a kid to say something.  The only thing that bothers me is I still don’t know what all of this has to do with motivation.  I mean it could have something to do with motivation.  I don’t want to say I’m sure about anything.  But I once knew this kid back in my old high school who said, “how do you know what you’re going to do till you do it?”  And he was right as hell.  You can’t.  So you just do things with your students in class and watch.  You just watch and see if they are doing it or not and try and change it so that they do do it.  At least that’s what I said to my advisor on my dip TESOL.  I told her all these books about motivation were sitting on the table in my bedroom, but I felt like maybe they were all piled up on my back.  All the time.  And I told her maybe I should just put them in a closet for a while or something.  She listened to me for a long time.  She was as kind as hell.  It’s funny.  When you start telling someone about this kind of stuff, it sometimes doesn’t help at all.  Sometimes, if you do start talking about these kinds of things, you start to mix it up with everything else.


Dörnyei, Z. (2005). The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. & Ushioda, E. (2011). Teaching and Researching Motivation (2nd ed.). Harlow, UK:Longman.

Oxford, R. (2003). Towards a More Systematic Model of L2 Learner Autonomy. In D. Palfreyman & R.C. Smith (eds.) Learner Autonomy across Cultures: Language Education Perspectives, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 75-91.

A little bit of an explanation. This blog post was a kind of emotional reaction to a dip TESOL assignment I had to write on how teachers can motivate learners of various ages.  The content of the post comes from 4 days of lessons in which the first 10 to 20 minutes was dedicated to a tabling activity.  I took short videos of each day, transcribed the audio, and used both the video and transcripts when writing this post.  If you are interested in reading the original dip TESOL assignment (which I don’t necessarily recommend), you can find it here, on Scribd:


4 thoughts on “Brass rings, motivation, and a quote from good old H.C.

  1. Hello Kevin,

    I’m motivated to leave a listy comment, although the kind of post narrative obviously detests lists. This does not demotivate me, though.

    1) What kind of certificates have you got on your wall?

    2) I’m sooo sensitive about phony things in a class. Which I think does not at all mean there’s no phony in my class. I’m wondering how lousy a teacher I am in connection with this.

    3) Reading this reminded me of one file I have in old folders. I’ve found it. I might share it I think. I just don’t know where or how or why. It’s hell of a fun one to read now, 8 years later, though.

    4) It gets me feel depressed to imagine students looking lost and feeling lost and being lost. As much as teachers.

    5) Good old H.C. is wisdom sharer. This one is of my many special favourites:
    “I don’t exactly know what I mean by that, but I mean it.” It’s also about this comment.

    Thank you.


    • I’m a huge fan of lists at any time. So thanks Anna for leaving 5 points for me to read, enjoy and respond to.

      1) they include, but are not limited to: a very nice certificate from Delta Airlines proclaiming that I took my first airplane flight and got my Delta wings when I was 5 years old and a Japanese language proficiency certificate.

      2) Trying to keep things real by creating moments of genuine talk, and building an environment in which students feel they need to express themselves is one of the things I struggle with all the time. It’s especially difficult to find texts which my students connect up with and feel real to them. I would have to say this is one of my most lousy areas. But the more I leave the generation (and bringing in) of texts to the students, the less phony things get. Controlled tabling activities helped me find out a bunch of stuff my students are currently interested in (the list includes Pope Benedict and the Tokyo Governor elections…who would have figured).

      3) if your file has something to do with borrowing the narrative voice of an observant teen trying to figure things out in New York, I certainly hope you will share it somewhere

      4) I agree and this blog post was actually based on a video and transcript I made of class. I was pretty shocked at how I kept pressing ahead after confused students finally managed to get a sentence out. Really thinking about how to make sure there’s more feedback so a learner who struggles to produce a tabled sentence (or any language really) can feel the emotional floor beneath their feet start to firm up.

      5) Thanks for another bit of H.C. wisdom. He’s one sharp guy. And he knows his hats.



    • Dear TSD,

      Thanks for the comment and perhaps most amusing reference to word clouds ever found in a Tweet. I had a request to do a Huck Finn treatment of the Lexical Method. Not sure if I’ll end up doing it. But I promise to keep exploring what happens in my classroom. And I hope you’ll stop by once in a while to see how it all plays out in blog form.



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