In Place of Coursebooks

[Note: the material in this post eventually became the material for “Rooms within the heart: Tanka as a medium for cultural exchange,” a short paper presented at The Festival of Ideas Literature in Language Teaching Conference, Kyoto, Japan, 2016]


As #TheGreatCourebookDebate–kicked off by Geoff Jordan–rages on (see here, here, here and here and here), I thought I would take a moment to share something that’s been going down in my classes.  I realise that this post might seem only tenuously connected to the coursebook debate, but I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt and read to the end.

A few months ago I stumbled upon Tesal Sangma’s blog, TESL with Tesal.  Tesal is an English literature/language teacher in India and also a poet.  At the time, I was planning the syllabus for a two hour a week project English class and thought that working with tanka (a form of short Japanese poetry) as well as poetry from one other country could be an interesting way to get my students thinking a bit more about the language they are learning, how culture relates to communication, and something about the flexibility of language and the need to move beyond word for word translations.  Tesal agreed to have his students from the Bachelor of Social Work programme at Martin Luther Christian University in Meghalaya, India take part in the project as well.  Soon after, Tesal sent me a series of poems from North-East India.  He spent time adding explanatory notes to each poem and formatted them for easy printing in a PDF file.  I’m including a link to a PDF of ‘Soul Bird’ by Temsula  Ao in this post because it is a lovely and accessible poem.  In addition, I have shared it with some of my students, and the general reaction can be summed up by Re-Chan, who upon reading it, simply closed her eyes and said, ‘Wow.’

Soul Bird

06 Soul-bird

Starting in July, I will be using this and 3 other poems from North-East India in my class, but the first half of our linked classroom project has been focused on tanka.

I had a few goals for the project which I jotted down and shared with Tesal before we started.  Basically, I was hoping that my students here in Japan would:

  • learn about tanka itself and be able to discuss the poetry form and its importance with people in other countries.
  • become more familiar with the structure of English, specifically the difference between the mora and the English syllable.
  • become more aware of the importance of line breaks, stress, and other features that distinguish poetry from prose

I brought a number of contemporary Japanese tanka collections to class and my students each picked out two tanka they liked.  We spent a bit of class time discussing why the students had picked those particular poems.  Many, but not all of the conversation, went something like this:

A: I think this poem is very good.  That’s why I picked it.

B: I think it’s very good, too.

Once students had discussed the poems, I had them form small groups, each group composed of students with similar taste in tanka, as they would be working together as a group to translate 2 of their selected tanka.  The next class period was structured in a ‘translation house’ style.  Groups picked one tanka and translated it (very) roughly into English.  Groups then exchanged their rough translations with each other, and translated the other group’s poem again, this time they were directed to focus on the level of the line as opposed to individual words only (which is what happened the first time around).  Once the poems were translated a second time, groups exchanged tanka again and did another translation.  Finally the tanka came back to the original group, and using the previous three translations, they decided upon a final translation to send to the students in India.  But as the students were finishing up their translations, one group in particular noticed that the poem they were sending might be hard to understand for someone who wasn’t Japanese.  They added some explanatory notes about Japanese culture and soon the other groups added a note or two to their own translated tanka.

To help facilitate the dialogue between the students in India and the students in Japan, I asked my students to come up with a question for each tanka that they would like the students in India to answer.  To see if the questions they had written were understandable, and if the answers provided the kind of information they were hoping to learn, my students spent one class period asking each other the questions and transcribing the answers.

In the end, we sent the students in India this PDF:

from the height

Exchange through Tanka-Stein

The PDF is collection of 7 tanka which includes:

  1. a tanka in the original Japanese
  2. a transcription of the tanka into the English alphabet
  3. an English translation of the tanka
  4. cultural information which the Clark students felt would help non-Japanese readers understand the poems and
  5. a series of questions to promote a dialogue between the students in Japan and India.

We also created and sent a link to a Lino Board called Exploring Tanka, which contained the English translations, the questions from my students here in Japan, and some of their answers to these questions.

Exploring Tanka

Over the past week, my students and the students at Martin Luther Christian University have been engaged in a pretty interesting dialogue on the Exploring Tanka Lino board.  And over the course of this two month project, students have dealt with a number of language related issues which clearly exceeded the three goals I had identified before we started the project.  Either by themselves or in their groups, and with my guidance or wholly on their own, my students have:

  • Explored using Google Search as a good to identify collocations, chunks of language, and slotted grammar patterns that they could use in their translations as well as when engaged in dialogue about the tanka.
  • Learned to identify aspects of Japanese culture which, while perfectly ordinary to them, might seem extraordinary to people from other countries.
  • Realised that translation, and writing in English in general, often requires multiple drafts and that time between drafts is also necessary in order to produce something of progressively higher quality.
  • Developed an appreciation of the need for extensive answers when engaged in a dialogue, especially when discussing such things as interpretation and personal reactions to poetry and other forms of art.
  • Improved their ability to form 5W1H questions in various forms.
  • Written and asked questions to check their understanding of a text, as opposed to using comprehension questions developed by someone else

Seeing all of the benefits that come from a project-based language class, you might come to the conclusion that I am not a huge fan of coursebooks.  And you would be mostly correct.  I do not think that coursebooks, aside from saving teachers a chunk of time here and there, have done very much to make the world of ELT a better place.  But time is what I find myself wanting more than anything else at the end of a week, and so I still do use coursebooks.  In fact, over the course of the poetry project, I also taught a coursebook unit on ‘Talking about TV’ in which my students managed to practice all of the skills touched on above.  Perhaps, as Geoff Jordan has suggested, I, and other teachers like me, only find coursebooks valuable because we use them “in ways so entirely different from the way the authors intend them to be used.”  Perhaps if ELT was structured in such a way that I had more time every week to think and plan for my lessons, I would be less ambivalent about coursebooks.  Perhaps, I would be writing with conviction about how there is really no place for coursebooks within a language classroom.  But for now, on a very personal level, I still see that they have a place within my school, within my class.

While I still see that coursebooks serve a need, I also see glimmers of how that need can be met in other ways.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I wrote this post.  Perhaps that’s part of the reason why I took the collection of tanka poetry and worked with my students to turn it into a PDF file that I hope other teachers might be willing to use in their own classrooms.  Because if there is one thing I can fault coursebooks with, it is the fact that they provide seemingly simple and convincing answers for questions which are never simple and rarely answerable. We really do not know the best way to learn a language.  We do not know exactly what materials will engage students and keep them exploring, using, and playing with language in a way that will best help them acquire English.  But the more spaces we have for teachers and students to make, change, and use materials that are built organically, out of the interests and needs of students themselves, the greater the chance that we will begin to find the answers to those questions which actually suit our particular students’ needs.  Answers as quirky as a poem, or even, perhaps, as stunningly individualistic as the learners who make up our classes.


My Friend, Marco

The following is a short story I wrote for my high school students.  Lately in Japan, there is a lot of talk about bullying.  But to be honest, I’m not really sure what bullying is.  And when I asked my students about it, almost all of them said something along the lines of, “Bullying is when someone feels like they have been bullied.”  But this way of defining bullying seems to put all the responsibility on the victim of bullying.  What happens if the victim doesn’t realise they are being bullied?  Does that really mean that there’s no bullying taking place (in Japan, that actually does seem to be the case).  Anyway, I wanted to discuss these issues with my students, for both my own understanding and to maybe help make a safer school environment.  That was the main impetus for writing this story (as well as to exorcise a few of my own nagging demons).  We used it in class, it generated a fair among of conversation, and even led to the illustrations that are scattered here and there in the text.  It’s a 984 word story and 98.47% of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) so it should be appropriate for intermediate level students and above.  I’ll try and follow up with a post about how I used it in class and some more details of the students’ reactions.  But for now, I hope you will give the story a read.  Thanks in advance for your time and also any comments you might have on how to recognise bullying or to get students to talk about the issue in general. My Friend, Marco (a short story for ELLs) (all pictures by Clark International Course students)

* * *

photo 5 When I was seven years old, I knew everything about everything.  I knew the names of all the people who lived in my 32 house neighbourhood.  I knew which dogs would bite and which wouldn’t.  I knew which trees you could steal apples from and which you couldn’t.  I also thought I knew this boy who lived across the street.  His name was Marco.  That’s not a great name to have as a child.  The other students all called him Marco Polio and ran away whenever he walked towards them.  Marco wore eye-glasses with heavy black frames.  Sometimes Marco would start swinging his head back and forth really quickly for no reason.  A few times his glasses flew right off his head and broke against the wall of the school. photo 3 I used to sit with Marco during lunch.  He didn’t say much.  But when the lunch room got too noisy, he covered his ears with his hands and started singing the children’s song Row Row Row Your Boat to himself.

Anyway, Marco loved ants. He had a jar full of big black ants.  During the summer, Marco used to sit in front of his house and stare at those ants for hours.  He didn’t wear a hat.  He didn’t move into the shade under the big tree in his front yard.  He just sat there in the summer sun, his hair sticking up here and there, and stared at those ants. photo 1-2 One day, I went out and filled up my own jar with ants, only I collected the red kind. Red ants are terribly mean.  They will bite a person for no good reason.  And boy are they fast.  I went up to Marco and said, “Want to try an experiment?”  I said that the red ants were fast and good at fighting, but the black ants were big and strong.  I said we could mix them together and they would have babies and the babies would grow up to be a super red-black ant combination that was big, strong, fast and good at fighting.  Marco wasn’t really listening to me.  He was still looking at his own jar of ants, with his mouth kind of half-opened.  So I grabbed Marco’s jar and took the lid off.  Then I poured the ants out of my jar and into his.  And those red ants just started attacking the black ants.  They tore the black ants’ heads right off.  Marco started pulling at his own hair and swinging his head back and forth so hard I thought that maybe his head was going to fall off too.  He kept saying, “This is a tragedy.  This is a tragedy.”

photo 4Marco also had the best tree to climb in the whole neighbourhood.  But whenever I climbed the tree in Marco’s yard, Marco always stayed down at the bottom.  He never exactly said he didn’t like climbing trees, but he never tried to climb a tree himself.  One day I decided Marco really really needed to climb a tree.  I thought it would be good for him, maybe help him to see the world in a different way.  So I got under him and started pushing him up the trunk.  Marco was saying no, no, no, no, no, no.  And I kept saying, just go up, just go up, just go up.  Then it was like an engine got turned on in Marco and he started climbing.  He dug his hands right into the bark and pulled himself up and up and up.  He climbed all the way up to the first branch, about 8 feet above my head.  Then he just froze.  He didn’t say anything.  He just sat up there with his eyes closed, his arms wrapped around the branch.  I asked him to come down.  I said I would give him all the money I had in my pocket, $1.42.  Finally, I started screaming at him, “come down here right now!  Come on down you idiot!  Come down!”  I don’t know how long I was out there screaming like that.  But then I heard my mother calling for me to get home for dinner.  And so I left.  When I turned and looked back, I could see Marco still up in that damn tree.

I know it sounds like I was a pretty terrible child.  But in my experience, all children are terrible.  And anyway, I don’t do things like that anymore.  I have my own car shop. I’m a father.  I have a seven year old daughter.  I drive her 45 minutes to piano lessons.  I read her books before she goes to sleep.  Sometimes I tell her about what I used to do when I was her age.  I tell her about the snowball fights we had, but not about the blood dripping from Marcos’ nose.  I also don’t tell her about those red ants.  When I remember the small neighbourhood where I grew up, the white houses and cracked sidewalks, I can see Marco out of the corner of my imagination.  He’s still there, still up in that tree.  He is still waiting for me to help him down.  But I’m stuck here.  On the other side of time.  There is no way I can get back there.  There is no way for me to say I’m sorry for all the things I did.  Even worse, there is no way to say thank you. photo 2-2When I watch my daughter walking to school in the morning, always by herself, always with her head down, I realise that Marco was the closest thing I had to a friend then.  When I was seven years old, I thought I knew everything about everything.  But really, I didn’t know anything at all.  I didn’t even know that without Marco, I would have been alone every day of that long empty summer.

* * *

A PDF version of the story is available for download as well: My Friend, Marco

Vocabulary Profile: If the words ‘jar’ and ‘ant’ are pre-taught or glossed, 98.47 of the words fall within the NGSL (New General Service List) as profiled on the VP-Complete-Input Vocabulary Profiler ( on Tom Cobb’s Lextutor site (  The specific breakdown is:
984 words total
NGSL_1 (first 1000 lemmas): 91.20%
NGSL_2 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas): 96.22%
NGSL_3 (2nd and 1st 1000 lemmas plus additional 801 lemmas): 98.47%

A story of giving is a story of learning

Students' hand made word cards

Students’ hand made            word cards

Today, I had my last English Teaching Seminar.  Over the past 8 months, 12 students and I studied a little English teaching pedagogy, made vocabulary flash cards, learned how to write out a lesson plan.  When we felt like we had something we could teach, we went over to the neighborhood kindergarten and ran a 45-minute lesson for a room full of five year olds.  My students learned how to run an activity without using the words, “no,” “don’t”, or “wrong.”  They learned how to sit next to a restless student and hold their hand until the child could calm down.  They learned that 45 minutes of keeping the attention of a handful of children is exhausting.  They learned that just showing up and being there for a child is enough to be showered with love.  So today I wanted to let them know they had done something special.

I went to the store and bought a few pizzas, a few bags of chips, some tea and apple juice.  The students filled their plates with food and sat and chatted.  Some of them talked about what they had done in the seminar.  Lilly-Chan said, “I really hated children when this seminar started.  But I loved English.  Now I realize little kids aren’t so bad.”  Mimi-Chan said that before the seminar, she had wanted to be a kindergarten teacher, but she didn’t know what that meant.  Now she knew she wanted to be a kindergarten teacher even though she had some idea of what it might mean.  I sat and listened and when the conversation flagged, I pulled out Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree

“I’m going to read a book,” I said.  “You can talk about it while I read.  You can help each other understand the meaning of the words.  There’s no rush.  I’ll read the page as many times as it takes until you all are ready for the next page.”  And then I opened up the book, turned it to face the students, and started to read…

“Once there was a tree

and she loved a little boy.”

At first, the students would say every line in Japanese.  They would turn to each other for confirmation.  Sometimes I read the same page two times.  Sometimes three times. 

“He would climb up her trunk

And swing from her branches.”

They pointed to the picture on the page and matched up words with images.  They mouthed the words as I read.  They nodded their heads and looked at each other as if reassurance could be found in a glance.

“But time went by.

And the boy got older.”

Rei-Kun whispered, “This is so sad.”  And Matsui, sitting next to me, pressed his hands against his eyes.  I put the book down and I said, “It’s ok to cry.  I’ve never read this book without crying.” 

And then one day the boy came back

And the tree shook with joy.

Lili and Mimi, Rei and Matsui, all of the students were listening in that way that is the making of something.  They were somewhere else.  They were struggling to build a house, find a family.  They were a friend left behind, remembering what it means to simply wait and wait some more.

“I am sorry,” sighed the tree.

“I wish that I could give you something…

but I have nothing left.

I am just an old stump.”

And I did cry, the ache and tears warm and welcome as they always are.  And Matsui covered his eyes.  And I saw Lili reach out and hold Karin’s hand.  And I tried hard to find my voice.  Enough voice so I could whisper out,

“Come, boy, sit down.  Sit down and rest.”

And the boy did.

And the tree was happy.

When the story was over, the room was filled with a silence that is not an absence, but the very essence of being.  After a while, the students began to talk about the story.  Was the tree truly happy?  Why did the boy have such a sad life?  And then they started talking about other things.

When all the pizza was gone, the apple juice bottle empty, I thanked the students for joining my seminar.  I told them that I’ve taught an English pedagogy class every year for the past four years.  And I said that after four years of teaching this seminar, I had decided that I will never know exactly what it means to teach.  But I was glad we had a chance to try and figure it out together for at least a little while. 

So what does all of this have to do with The Giving Tree?  I’m not sure that I can say what teaching is.  But lately, I think I have come to know something about learning.  Learning is the act of students and teachers working together to create the very ground beneath our own feet.  It is finding the courage to stand on our own, while standing together.  Sharing a story with my students is one way I can join them to create that space to stand.  Stories are the way I can be wholly in a class and learning with my students.  And when that happens, when we are all learning together, then I too, am happy.

(if you’ve never read the giving tree, I really recommend getting the book.  But if that’s not an option, here is a copy of an animated movie from 1973 in which Shel Silverstein reads the book:

and here is a copy of the book in poetry form at