On Chucked Wood

I'm well aware that I must come across as a pretty negative person in my writing, relentlessly attacking English teachers, pooh-poohing their methods, tearing into standard textbooks, despairing at the idiocy of the world.

Well, I do do that so, you know, guilty as charged. But in my heart of hearts I am a positive and fair-minded person. Which is why I am going to describe my own approach to teaching for others to ricucule (turns out it's kind of hard to type r-i-d-i-c-u-l-e).

Let me explain how exactly I conduct my classes so that you can pinpoint all the things that I do wrong (both minor ones and big-picture stuff) and suggest improvements that I then will roll my eyes at and brush off contemptuously. And so on and so forth.

Most of my teaching style is centered on stories. Everything we do in one way or another revolves around a story. Most exercises and other add-on activities are spin-offs from a story we have done or are working on. Most conversations that students engage in are based on stories they are familiar with. Well, you get the idea.

    So like I said, I like to use stories. Not boring stories, like the ones you find in most textbooks

Hello! My name’s Gordon Wilson. I come from Aberdeen in Scotland, but now I live and work in London. I have a very small flat near the centre. I’m a waiter and I’m also a drama student. I work in an Italian restaurant. I eat Italian food and I drink Italian and French wine. I don’t drink beer. I don’t like it. And I don’t play sports. I speak languages – English, French and a little Italian. I want to be an actor.

I prefer stories that start out like this:

When I was 15, a woodchuck taught me a valuable lesson about taking risks. Here's what happened: One summer, long ago, I was riding through a field on my old motorcycle when the front tire suddenly got stuck in a hole that a woodchuck had dug and was apparently living in. The motorcycle stopped. I didn't. While I was flying, time slowed down for a few seconds. This allowed me to make a quick promise to myself that, if I lived, from that day on I would follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and stay out of harm's way. I did live and I stuck to that decision for the next thirty years.

* This one's by Scott Adams, by the way. I hope he doesn't mind me using it.

Yep, that works much better for me.

    So first, I tell the story, obviously. Actually, no. First, I explain the vocabulary. Obviously.

a woodchuck is a little mammal that lives underground; it makes these tunnels in the fields that you don't really have to worry about unless you ride your bike into one of them; woodchucks like to stand on their hind legs and kind of scan the countryside, or maybe I'm just imagining that, but you do know what I'm talking about, right? you do remember seeing these funny little animals in a nature documentary, right? anyway, as part of your vocabulary it's pretty much useless, I mean who talks about woodchucks, except maybe woodchuckologists?

stay out of harm's way means to behave very cautiously and try to avoid getting into dangerous situations; for instance if a guy goes to war, his mom will beg him to stay out of harm's way, which he really can't, though, or else he'd be useless; it's similar in meaning to "stay out of trouble"

And sometimes we do a miniplay instead.

So. What have you been up to?
Not a whole lot. I got out of prison a month ago.
What were you in for?
Selling drugs.
You done with that now?
Oh yeah. Unless I find myself starving or something like that.
You're kidding, right?
Yeah. I'm through with that stuff.
So what are you doing now that you're out?
Trying to be an average Joe.
How's that working out for you?
Not too good. I mean, it's tough out here.

Or I ask about a homework fill-out.

    Either way, once that's done, I ask lots of questions

So what are woodchucks for?
They can teach you lessons.
Right. Very valuable lessons. How do they do that?
By building tunnels.
Right. How do you find out about these tunnels?
You ride on your motorcycle.
You drive into a tunnel.
What happens to your front wheel?
It gets stuck.
Which means?
That the bike stops.
Do you?
No, you keep going, unfortunately.

... to make sure that everyone understood what the story was about.
* A recording of the story is then posted on the Internet for anyone to download.
** There are other ways to see if the students followed the storyline, such as fill-ins

When I was 15, a woodchuck ___ me a valuable lesson about ___ risks. Here's ___ happened: One summer, long ago, I was riding ___ a field on my old motorcycle when the front tire suddenly ___ stuck in a hole ___ a woodchuck had dug and was apparently living ___. The motorcycle stopped. I ___.
___ I was flying, time slowed ___ for a few seconds. This allowed me to ___ a quick promise to myself that, if I lived, from that day on I ___ follow in the footsteps of my ancestors and ___ out of harm's way. I ___ live and I stuck ___ that decision for the next thirty years.

    Later on in class, I point out all the important phrases

► kdo tě takové věci naučil?
► zbytečně neriskujme
► na jakém typu kola jsi jel?
► co když se tam to jídlo zasekne?
kopu jámu, abych tě mohl pohřbít
podle všeho tam Ted ještě bydlí
► já sportuju rád, ale sestra ne<

► proč zpomaluju?
► tohle ti umožní žít déle
► něco nám tehdy slíbila
dávej na sebe prosímtě pozor
► pokud máte plán, držte se ho
► on to vlastně věděl, ale...
► teď už vím, že to nemám dělat

... that I want my students to learn. Students can test themselves on this knowledge at home, too.

    I usually spend a few minutes explaining grammar rules that students tend to have trouble with

✛  nejčastějším vztažným zájmenem v běžné angličtině je THAT a nikoli WHICH/WHO, jak se zde učí (the ideas which/THAT you brought up; the people who/THAT we talked to) a už vůbec ne what (everything what they showed us); úplně úplně nejčastějším, abych byl přesný, je v hovorové angličtině VYPUŠTĚNÉ THAT (the house your parents bought, something she said, things I hate), které by ale v našem případě svou abdikací na sebe bezprostředně napojilo dvě podstatná jména uvozená neurčitým členem (a hole a woodchuck had dug) – a co je moc, to je příliš (čímž neříkám, že by to nešlo)
✛  problém druhý: neurčitý člen před slovy HOLE / WOODCHUCK; v češtině nic podobného jako neurčitý člen nemáme a obvykle jej suplujeme – nesprávně a velmi otravně – slovy one / some / any (in some hole which dug one woodchuck), odvozenými od českých ekvivalentů (viděl jsem jednu paní – I saw a woman / je tam nějaký hotel co... - there's a hotel there that...)
✛  předminulý čas (had dug) zde není úplně klíčový; je hezké, pokud si jej v tomto kontextu vybavíte, ale zářný statut, jež mu byl přidělen v místní gramatické mytologii, není ani zdaleka na místě; ponaučení zní: hlavně klid, nehledejte v každé situaci v minulosti důvod k použití předminulého času ("Tam jeden děj předchází druhému! Tam jeden děj předchází druhému! Mámo, rychle mi podej tu tašku s předpřítomným časem!")

    Then it's on to talking. The must-use sheet forces students to use the important phrases/grammar while telling the story.


    Every story leads to plenty of conversations

[TV] MODERÁTOR – VYPRAVĚČOVA MAMINKA: So I hear your son had an accident. -- Yes, Sir, that's right. -- Was he driving his car when it happened? -- No, he was on his motorcycle. -- Was there someone else involved? -- Yes, although not directly. He went into a woodchuck's tunnel, you see. -- Oh, so you're blaming a woodchuck for this? -- Not really. My son should have known better than to ride...

some more improvised

DIALOG SVIŠŤ-VYPRAVĚČ: Are you out of your mind, woodchuck? -- What do you mean? -- Why did you make this damn hole? -- That's what I do. It's all I know how to do. -- But did you have to dig it right here? -- How was I supposed to know you'd be riding through here? You people are stupid.

than others

[POV] VYPRAVĚČ POPISUJE DĚJ V PŘÍMÉM PŘENOSU: Ok, so I'm on my bike and I'm heading towards this field. I've been told that it's a really bumpy field and I like that. Ok, I'm almost there... this is so much fun. I'm really enjoying this. In fact, I think I'm going to buy... WTF?! What the hell was that? The bike must have stopped. Time has slowed down. Am I flying? I think I am. Well, this seems like a good time to make some sort of a major decision...

most with twists of some kind

[POV] SVIŠTÍ VĚDMA (mluví se svištěm): So you know about that tunnel that you dug recently? It could be pretty dangerous. Not for us woodchucks, for people. Some people like to ride motorcycles across fields and... Anyway, a guy is going to be riding his bike here tomorrow and he will not notice your tunnel and he will go right into it...

PODMÍNKY, LÍTOST: What was I thinking riding across that field? I shouldn't have listened to my friend who told me to give it a shot. It was supposed to be fun. Well, it wasn't, not for me. I wish I'd gone to see a movie instead. If I'd stayed home, I wouldn't be all broken up now and I wouldn't have to start saving money to buy a new motorcycle...

    But it's not all stories all the time. I teach conversation skills

Frankly, riding a bike across a field is not a very smart thing to do.
Not unless you wear a helmet, which you weren't, right?
And anyway, there's only so much a helmet can do.
Even if yo'd worn one, it wouldn't have been much help anyway.
As far as I know, not many people ride bikes across fields.
In fact, I don't think I've ever heard of anyone doing this.
I guess you must be pretty stupid to do something like that.
Apparently, you're one of those stupid people.
So all things considered, you probably had it coming.


Jo, a mého bráchu normálně nevzali. -- To mě ani moc nepřekvapuje.
Co říkal, tak se jim nelíbil jeho přístup, ani jako člověk. -- A divíš se jim?
Jo, s ním se nevychází snadno. -- To mně vykládej. (O tom žádná)
Ty sis kvůli němu taky prošel ledasčím. -- To teda jo. (Ani nevíš jak.)
Nechceš si o tom promluvit? -- Ty, ani ne.
Stejně bych chtěl, abyste se usmířili. -- S tím bych nepočítal. (To moc nevidím)
Ale no tak, nemohl by sis s ním promluvit? -- Asi budu muset, co?
Omlouvám se, že ti to nijak neusnadňuju. -- To neřeš. (To je v pohodě.)
No nic, rád jsem tě viděl. -- Nápodobně.
Díky moc, že se kvůli mně tak obětuješ. -- Stačí říct.
Pozdravuj ženu a děcka. -- Provedu.

as well as monologs

The other day I had to fly to Chicago for work. So I'm at the airport and I'm standing in line, waiting to check in, right, and this lady shows up and she just cuts right in front of me like I don't even exist. Now, ordinarily I let people walk all over me, but for some reason I was kind of in a bad mood that day and I wasn't gonna put up with this crap. So I tap her on the shoulder and I go, 'Excuse me, Ma'am, but some of us have been waiting here a long time and I really think you need to go back and stand in line like everyone else.' So then the woman turns around really slowly and gives me a very dirty look and she says, 'Do you even know who I am?' Now I'm all confused so I take a closer look at her and I think, Holy shit, that's that lady from that TV show.

    There are also warm-up tests so that students can, well, warm up before the class kicks off (and start wishing they'd stayed home).

kdybych byl mladší, oženil bych se
stará se o dědu, abych já nemusel
pokud to nevyhraju já, tak už nikdo
proč to pořád říkají?
nezajímá, proč jste se ztratili

copak ty ses o ty kočky nebál?
děcka jsou moc slabé, než aby mě unesly
tenhle výsledek je mnohem překvapivější
toho kluka ještě neznáme, jaký je?
co budeme dělat, když to nevyjde?

dej mi seznam, vím s kým mám mluvit
tys býval mnohem lepší hráč
dlouho se jde, aniž byste kohokoli viděli
rád bych věděl, kolik toho sestra ví
proč to všem tak vadí?

    Sometimes we discuss the most common errors

INCORRECT: We had big problems to make our boss to understand what were we trying to do. But we still explained and explained him it until he didn't understand it.
CORRECT: We had a lot of trouble making our boss understand what we were trying to do. But we kept explaining it until he finally got it.

    And sometimes, we just let the freak flag fly