Opening the heavens: religion, reformulation and reasons to roll with it

So much of teaching is about the second-by-second set of decisions we make, whether consciously or unconsciously, and the decisions we make are shaped by intuition, which as we all know is the product of our cumulative experience this far – or expertise, if you prefer – rather than being some nebulous innate talent.

So anyway there I was, twenty-five minutes from the end of a class with my upper-intermediate group the other day, more or less at the end of a reading – a Chinese folk tale about money. I was just rounding up some vocabulary that students had asked about while reading, vaguely wondering if ideally wanted to rush on to the injected grammar (I wish with past perfect and past simple) or whether there might be some other more upbeat way of winding up 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.

Justin Bieber Sighting In London - February 25, 2013

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 maybe 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 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 Judgement 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 and Senegalese women 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 gotten by thus far 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.

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

So what, you may well be wondering? Why am I telling you all of this? Well, for a whole host of reasons, I think. Partly to illustrate how we ad teachers can take advantages of moments that present themselves – what Scott Thornbury has termed affordances – and how being alert to such moments can allow us to explore interesting , and sometimes less travelled, roads; partly to reiterate the fact that frequently the best way of doing this is via the exploration and exploitation of language that emerges from texts – what I’ve elsewhere termed ambient vocabulary. Partly also to remind the sceptics that a lexical approach to language – particularly one that takes on board the idea of working from what students TRY to say and helps them say it better, and one which reworks things in fully contextualised utterances, ensures far more exposure to – and far grater opportunities to engage with – grammar than traditional grammar-led approaches frequently do.

But maybe more controversially to demonstrate how similar people – and the languages they speak – actually are, whilst also acknowledging how fascinating the slight and subtle differences can be. Further to this, to show how different people within what are often perceived as monolithic cultural blocks (‘Muslims’) can be – and maybe most of all to suggest that supposedly taboo topics such as religion can actually be tackled in an interesting way.

Despite the almost complete absence of reference to the realm of religion in most published ELT material and despite the fact that many oublishers explicitly ban any mention if its very existence, no one died during this part of the class, no rows erupted, views were exchanged and whole sides if students’ lives not typically allowed existence within TEFL-ese were given space to emerge.

Not bad for an ad libbed, improvised closing flourish to a lesson intended to explore a totally different semantic – and lexical – realm.

Thank heavens for intuition! Where in God’s name would we be without it?


18 responses

  1. Look at Hugh going all emergent on us! 😉

    Otherwise… fascinating. I suppose that’s an added value of teaching in an ESL context where you get students from different countries with plenty of affordances for intercultural comparisons and discussions.

    From the lexical/semantic point of view I understand why students may find the whole heaven thing confusing. In many other languages “heaven” and “paradise” or “heaven” and “sky/ies” is the same word.

    Thank you for sharing the chunks you wrote on the board!


    1. Ha ha! Indeed.
      All I can see was I’ve been emergent for longer than many have been teaching, if that’s all it means!

      I still think the use of the phrase ’emergent language’ as used by all the Dogme folk doesn’t really work.

      If you’re reformulating, which bit is is that’s supposedly emergent – what the students themselves say using their interlanguage (in other words, using English to the best of current their abilities!), or is it the language that any given teacher at that moment decides is trying to ’emerge’ from this communication? I think my own definition of ambient vocabulary – language that can potentially emerge from texts, as described above with THE HEAVENS, makes at least as much sense and is maybe even more deserving of the phrase!Interestingly, Scott hasn’t actually included the term in his A-Z blog yet!

      Anyway, a semantic quibble aside, a couple of other bits and bobs: firstly, I wouldn’t call my context ESL. It’s much more EFL, as very few of my students are looking to settle here or to ‘integrate’, whatever that’s supposed to mean. But yes, it is multilingual. That said, I’ve never bought the idea that monolingual equals monocultural. Even in solidly monolingual classes, there are always plenty of different angles and opinions and personalities. And yeah, I grasped the heaven / paradise . . . heavens / skies parallels fairly quickly as the questions came in. In Indonesian, I know paradise and heaven are the same word in basic use, though if you dig deeper theologically of course there’s a different – Arabic-derived – word for different sections of heaven also, a fact beyond the remits of even a decent EFL class!

  2. Interesting post of what looked like an interesting lesson. But I think to get to the point where you can ab lib and have things go so well, you have to first experience things go quite badly.

    Here in China, there is a tendency to be extremely prescriptive at private English schools – even to the point of giving teachers scripts of what they should say for each part of the lesson. They’re observed and assessed on how closely they follow the script. This is a pity as it deprives a teacher of the chance to develop that intuition and to make the necessary mistakes and takes away the magic that can happen in your example.

    I’m guessing though that devout Muslims are a little more tolerant of differing ideas than young Chinese learners. We have one piece of advice to any teacher coming to work in China – “Never mention the three ‘T’s” (Tibet, Taiwan and Tian’anmen). Doing so results in, at best, complete silence from the class and at worst some very angry students who will regard you as a member of the ‘anti China forces’ they’ve heard so much about from the Chinese media.

    I think this fear of venturing away from safe topics such as shopping and the bland exercises in the books inhibits teacher development – another example of allowing the teacher the freedom to fall flat their face makes it easier for them to stand on their own two didactic feet.


    1. Hi Chris –

      Yes, I think you’re right about experience being a necessary prerequisite for this kind of improvisation, and that first you need to root yourself far more keenly to predetermined structures.

      I often think my relative failure to really master the guitar is down to the fact that I when I got my first electric job at 14 or 15, on HP, rather than do the tedious grunt work of learning chords and scales and other people’s songs, I simply used to wank away on it pretending to be Jimi Hendrix or whatever! And I remain stuck not much further down the road to this day.

      Creativity is absolutely rooted in a deep understanding and appreciation of the typical.

      As Andrew Walkley says elsewhere in the comments section here, though, initial teacher training has a major role to play in this as well, and we could be doing so much more to help teachers get to a stage where things like this would be more likely to occur if we didn’t insists on getting trainees to attempt to reinvent the wheel before they’ve even really grasped what a wheel is. The script idea is interesting in this sense, as the issue really becomes what kind of script – and why – and what’s done with it. like Andrew, I don’t think there’s anything inherently wrong with the notion of a script if it’s a good one! Magic is often mediated via the predictable.

      I suspect, by the way, that it’s sound advice to tell new teachers coming to China to avoid the three Ts! That said, I have noticed with the Chinese students I teach here that, while those particular subjects generally remain fairly undiscussed – and I understand why – they are becoming much more open in other ways, and discussion of corruption, pollution, land grabs, etc are all now commonplace, a change which I know is reflected in the Chinese blogosphere. Things change slowly, and change best from within.

      What you CAN do as a teacher, though, is if and when a word like massacre comes up in a text, you can explain it, ask for examples of ones throughout history – and see what comes back. 99 times out of a hundred, it’d be Nanjing not Tianamen, but it’s the possibility of that one time happening some day that keeps life interesting.

      At the end of the day, we’re not there to tell students it was or wasn’t a massacre, or to tell them what they should know or think about things like this, but it’s always good to leave space for things to emerge should students wish them to.

      It’s all in the questions we ask.

  3. What a wonderful way to start a dialog and to realize how similar we all are. Thanks for sharing!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read – and to comment.
      Glad it struck a chord.
      If only more people felt this way, the last twelve years down here on planet earth may have been very different!

  4. Just to emphasize too that all this started from COURSEBOOK material! Following on from Chris’s point about experience and training, this is why I think that the start of becoming good at this kind of thing is to have better scripts for the coursebook you are using! In other words, if you think of good examples of vocabulary that is in the book which might illustrate patterns (e.g. X is my idea of hell), questions you will ask that may lead to slightly open ended responses (how do you ask about someone’s religion? What answers might you get?) and you leave space in your script for students to ask about anything else in the material they have used, then you will get better long term at this kind of ‘ad-lib’. That’s in part, because ad-lib is actually normally just using your previous experience in new situations. For example, Hugh and I include a section ‘my idea of hell / my idea of heaven’ in Outcomes Intermediate and we have a whole unit on religion, with answers to the question ‘Are you religious?’ in Innovations Advanced. In this way, while there are some new things, actually Hugh has primed himself to do this by writing and using coursebook material – which doesn’t make the lesson or ‘ad-lib’ any less impressive, just shows the route to excellent teaching.

    1. Thanks for this Andrew.

      I obviously totally agree that much of what appear to an observer sitting in for day, say, as improvisation is rather the result – and, to be crude, regurgitation – of previously taught material. It’s ironic also that much of what one is able to do without materials – as in this instance – is simply the result of being able to offer up a redux version of published lessons I’ve previously taught (and of course, in this instance, WRITTEN!)

      Obviously, this is both a blessing, but also potentially a bit of a curse as it means we’re more likely to fall back on what we’ve done already – and if I’m honest, most of what I ended up with on the board was stuff I’ve probably written on the board several times before. The exceptions in this instance were actually the starting point – the heavens – and the thing about religions having different branches (which, incidentally, aroused much laughter as one students noted that it was funny that the same word was used for major global chains, to which the Sicilian student quipped “Why? They ARE major global chains!”). The fact that everything else was stuff I’ve taught previously doesn’t seem to me to a real issue, here at least, as it’s all stuff that students were generally either trying to say – or could well have been! Having a fixed repertoire to fall back on when doing this kind of ‘student-guided’ teaching also means (a) I end up with SOMETHING on the board and (b) I’m maybe more able to also focus on bits which diverge from what I’m expecting to hear as well.That said, it can of course also get in the way of actually really listening and / or of thinking on the sot about other potentially new and useful chunks and items worthy of exploration. It’s a fine line, but one we have to tread.

      The influence of published materials we’ve taught on how we reformulate is one I don’t think I’ve heard Dogme folk discuss much.
      Perhaps unsurprisingly!!
      Ditto the fact that much of this kind of ‘Dogme-rooted’ teaching, for those that want to see it that way, happens in response, as you note, to coursebook material!

      1. Absolutely. Often there will be little extras – and I’m sure you’re more able to focus on these points, because as you say you’ve already got a core of stuff you can easily access. I guess branches will now be added to your repertoire and give you more choices, including when you next come to teach ‘branch’? What other things can have branches? (subjects – a branch of medicine / physics; religions – a branch of Islam; trees!)

  5. Really great discussion guys!

    I like your description of teachers cutting their teeth on the course book and then, once enriched by their experience, venturing out beyond the margins of the course book pages.

    Being a corporate trainer, I hadn’t used a course book in years until I did an FCE class a few days ago as a favour at the weekend. It was so liberating to have something concrete to work from – I found having the materials right there in front of me with the lesson already laid out meant that I could free up my mind to concentrate on what the students were saying and where I could add a little bit here and there. In my day job I have to make all my own materials according to my own designs. So having the lesson pre written for me was a real treat. Life with course books is not so bad after all – at least for a day.


    1. Hi Chris –
      As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, I suspect, I’ve always loved the old Funkadelic quoting of Subud ideology: freedom is free of the need to be free!

      I was toying with the idea of trying to do an Advanced class next term without a coursebook and doing more improv / Dogme classes, but then I actually sat down and thought about the amount of work it would entail, the endless lesson prep, the graft, and realised that in the end, I’d basically end up either reinventing coursebooks I’ve already written or crafting bits of a possible new one!

      Far simpler – and I suspect more beneficial for all concerned – to use a book as the basis of where we’re going and then riff round it, teach the gaps, add to what they already know from it, and so on.

  6. Thanks for sharing this post, it´s as minimun, interesting.
    I remember a few years ago in one of my courses I emerged the theme of Buddhism among Muslims, Hindu and Orthodox. The topic finished in discussion( I think because I knew not to act as moderator) and the findings in terms of lexicon were scarce but the experience was very rewarding.
    I would add that the fact of how a religion is taught, influences vertically in how the information is absorbs. I mean, it’s not just theory that is internalized,if not the own practice religious in verbal sense.
    Finally, I must add that I think would be interesting to study religion alongside philosophy, in which I think there are more similarities than generally are observed.

    1. Yesterday I spoke to my cousin who is seventeen about a wording that he has to write for his philosophy classes, desperately he asked me about God’s opinion.
      – Are you asking me about god? I answered surprised, so I return to comment on the post.

      Chance or necessity. Is it reasonable to wonder by God?

      Considering the concept of time in a romantic sense, God’s existence dates back to a distant time ago, so actually, it developing of that idea has pierced from generation to generation up to the present.

      For some people it may be understood as something random, something has been found casually through illuminations also called beliefs / revelations ( C3% B3n_ (belief)), ie one point that marks a before and after in the belief or faith in God.
      On the other hand, can be seen as the human need to fill some of the void existential seeking to give a sense to be logical or his time on earth.

      The identity of God is a generic idea that brings us to the rational explanation of the existence and the correlation between this in a physical and intellectual ( C3% 81rbol_de_la_vida)

      As far as I´m concerned, it would be irrational not to ask for God’s existence and leave to chance without being the owner of your own individual providence

      1. Hi Marian –
        Thanks for taking the time to read – and for this comment.
        I have to admit, when I first wrote this post, I really hadn’t expected to end up getting into such philosophical debates!
        I don’t have a huge amount to add to your comments other than to say that your post is proof of the incredibly wide range of views on the matter, and it’s diversity that interests me and that can be exploited in the classroom.
        Personally, here, I don’t think it really matter what my own views on the existence – or otherwise – of God may be, to be honest.
        That was never the issue I was trying to raise.
        Anyway, thanks for such a thoughtful – if unexpected – response.

      2. One other thought I had about this is really just a question.

        I was wondering the degree to which other languages frame the question about religiosity and whether most ask ARE YOU RELIGIOUS (AT ALL)? – which I think is the standard post-reformation / post-Nietzsche / secular north-western European standard – or whether the preferred question in many languages is actually WHAT RELIGION ARE YOU? – I know in Indonesian, for instance, this is always the question I’m asked, which has always struck me as a weird one because it presupposes that I do actually have a religion.

        Then again, in Indonesia, to be a citizen, you do have to state an adherence to one of the five officially sanctioned religions, and this preference is then stated on your ID card, etc.

  7. It’s good to see someone else taking a topic the students are clearly showing interest in and running with it. Whether people want to call this emergent language teaching or not, the point is that you allowed your students to learn something they wanted to know and which is useful for them – end of story.
    Another important point about this is the subject matter. The fact that published ELT materials censor themselves so heavily means there are huge areas of language that students don’t get exposed to – at least not in the classroom – and many opportunities for fascinating intercultural exchanges are lost. I blogged about this myself the other week –

    1. Hi Steve –
      I’m not sure it’s strictly true to claim that the class a whole were showing interest in – or running with – the topic of religion.

      Rather, it was one particular student who asked the thing about THE HEAVENS versus THE HEAVEN (sic) and then two others who made the Justin Bieber quip and then asked about PARADISE.
      It was really then very much MY decision to roll with things from thereon in – and as Andrew suggests above, this decision was made much easier by having previously had experience of seeing how this conversation often unfolds as a result of having taught another piece of coursebook material with other classes, and basically doing an improvised, adapted version of that here. That students THEN ran with this and were interested in it is true, but I think the decision to allow exploration of this road was still very much teacher-directed and reliant on this past experience. A minor quibble, perhaps, but an important one to make given much of the discourse about teacher-led versus student-led teaching: I think that the latter really doesn’t – and cannot – exist without a strong sense of the former also at play in the classroom!

      I’ll try to find time to have a look at the PARSNIPS piece you linked to later on this weekend, but I hear you loud and clear on the vast areas of normal adult life that are often (though not exclusively, or systematically, I’d dare to venture, as I know we’ve sneaked things through, as has Ben Goldstein!) expunged from EFL materials.

      I may also resurrect an old talk on TABOOS at some point soon and post that up as a post as well.

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