We interview ELT author and teacher trainer Edmund Dudley about why teaching teens can be so enjoyable, how to avoid sabotaging your classes and how to inspire your students with the right activities.
Transcript: Engaging and Inspiring Teenagers (with Ed Dudley)
Tracy Yu: Hello, everyone.
Ross Thorburn: Welcome to the podcast.
Tracy: Today, we actually talked about something we haven't explored much, which is teaching teenagers.
Ross: Right. A lot on the podcast, we talk about teaching adults and we talk about teaching young learners, but teens is a group that we've not really spoken about much.
Tracy: Have you ever taught teens before, Ross?
Ross: I have, yeah. I must admit they were not my favorite group to teach.
Tracy: When I first started my teaching job, I was teaching teenagers like 14, 15 years old.
Ross: Today's guest who's going to tell us all about this is Ed Dudley. Ed is from the UK. He's worked in Hungary for a very long time. He specializes in teaching teenagers. He's got a book out called " ETpedia Teenagers." Ed is also a freelance teacher trainer with Oxford University Press.
As usual, we have three areas that we talked to Ed about. First of all, we generally go into what it's like to teach teenagers, and then we ask him about general tips related to teaching teens. Near the end, we ask him to share some of his great activities from his book that are specifically geared to teaching teenagers.
What is it like to Teach Teenagers?
Ross: Hi, Ed. Thanks a lot for coming on the podcast.
Ed Dudley: It's my great pleasure.
Ross: Do you want to start off just by telling us a little bit about what it's like to teach teens and how you got into that age group?
Ed: I have to say that when I first began teaching, I avoided teens for the first 10 years or so of my teaching career. I think that was partly because I was very young myself, and so I felt a little bit intimidated by teenage students.
It was also because I needed that difficult baptism of working in the primary classroom, which I still think is the hardest arena to teach in as a teacher. Once I got some experience under my belt, I then felt much more confident about working with teenagers.
As soon as I began teaching teens regularly in a high school setting, I actually felt straightaway that it was the age group that I had most success with, both in terms of what my students were producing and in terms of how I was feeling about the interaction between this and the lessons that we were having together.
Tracy: What kind of strategies or tips that we could use from teaching adults or young learners to teaching teens?
Ed: I think looking back on that period of your own life is always a really useful way to start when you're working with teenagers. I remember it being quite a volatile time. I remember it being a time of great insecurity and also being obsessed with the idea of what people are saying about me and what judgments people are making about me.
Very often, it's quite common for teens to be having a difficult time of things with their parents, also with their teachers. I think it is quite interesting that they're growing up very fast, and yet some parts of them are maturing and growing more quickly and more successfully than others.
You have this weird combination of young people who are amazingly mature and impressive in some ways and yet incredible childlike still in other ways. That's I think unique to the teenage classroom.
Top tips for teaching teens
Tracy: How do you build rapport with the teenagers, and then how do you win them over? Because when I was a teacher, it was really difficult from the beginning to make sure they trust you.
Ed: My own approach is to bear in mind what I don't want to do. I think it's far easier to make mistakes than it is to actually build rapport in a proactive way. I often feel that it can take months, perhaps even years, to build rapport with a group of students or with a particular student.
On the other hands, it's possible to ruin rapport in a matter of minutes. I think if we can avoid, for example, finding a reason to laugh at their expense, teenagers are very often quite awkward in the things they do and the things they say.
The teachers that I had very often used to prey on that and would score a cheap laugh at the group's expense by laughing at one student, trying to get a laugh is exactly the way to make that one student hate you.
Also to plant the seed of doubt in the minds of everybody else in the class, thinking, "What's this teacher going to say about me? What's going to happen if I do something which is awkward?" That leads straight away to the students keeping their mouths closed when they're asked questions.
I think another thing that we can do is that's a mistake when working with teenagers is to be impatient with the fact that they don't want to talk. It's taken me a while to realize that a lot of our teaching in the classroom is based on promoting fluency and promoting communication. That often leads to us putting pressure on students to speak.
It's ironic in a sense that teenagers, especially teenage boys, are very often at a stage in their lives when they don't want to say anything to adults at all. Being aware of this and being accepting of that is also something that I think is an important thing to do.
It can also be tricky when setting up classroom tasks. If I think about, for example, pair work, in a sense when you're working with very young learners, you can be much more of an autocrat in the way you set up tasks. "OK, you two, I want you to work together. You stand up. Come here. Work with this person."
That's not going to work with teenagers. There are all kinds of reasons why certain individual students are reluctant to work with other students in the class. I think those things have to be respected equally.
We tend, or I tend, to overlook how very, very busy and complicated teenagers' lives are. You see this every time students come into the lesson, that they're usually distracted. There might be a couple of moments late. They're very often looking at their phones.
It's easy for a teacher to think, "Well, here she is again late for class." When actually what's happening in her life right then, what was that message she just got on her phone ‑‑ it's very easy for us to assume that students have nothing better to do than concentrate on our class.
In fact, I've realized that in a large number of cases with teenagers, our lesson is the least important thing going on in their lives at that particular moment. Not realizing that, instructing them to put their phones away and, "Come on, let's get down to business," this kind of approach can actually be hugely counterproductive.
Ross: You mentioned using phones. What do you think about using phones with the groups of teens?
Ed: To me, a lot of this context is dependent. I wouldn't like to make general points about how phones should or shouldn't be used. The problem I have personally with that is that once a phone comes out, it's quite hard to get it put away again.
My own tendency or my own default is to use them towards the end of the class rather than at the start of the class, and also to do tasks which make use of offline functionality.
I know from talking to Shaun Wilden who's written a book on "Mobile Learning" that there's an awful lot that we can do with the basic functionality of a mobile phone. For example, getting feedback on lessons very often using an emoji approach or using something, using Instant Messaging, can be really effective. Shaun has got all kinds of good ideas for doing that.
Ross: What are some of your favorite things? I think we spoke a lot about the challenges. What do you think are some of the best things about working with that age group?
Ed: The thing I love especially about younger teens is that energy and that vitality, particularly when it comes to certain topic areas or things that students are particularly interested in, and then you'll find that certain teenagers have an encyclopedic knowledge of things that you know very, very little about. You have also that kind of wonderful sense of humor as well.
One of the things that I loved about working in a high school was that I got to go and spend my working day in a room with kids who are on the verge of laughter most of the time. For especially young, for 13 and 14‑year‑old boys in mixed classes can be really tough because of that kind of boisterous slack behavior.
When it's channeled in a positive way and when they're really on point of making funny observations in English and are able to bring a smile to your face as well, there's something really joyful about that, that you do get sometimes with other age groups. Not as consistently as you get it with a group of good teenage student, with whom you've established a very good rapport.
Great activities for teaching teens
Tracy: Ed, would you like to share some activities that you use with teenagers in a classroom?
Ed: One activity that I love doing with teenagers is a speaking activity. Really, it's a technique for motivating students to repeat themselves or to try and polish a piece of spoken language. The reason I like this is that very often teenagers don't want to polish their work. They don't want to try it again.
The way it works is they have a topic they have to talk about and maybe they've had some time to prepare something. I used to get students to talk about a photograph of some graffiti and talk about why they'd chosen it. Anyway, the students film each other. When they finish their short piece of language, what happens is they review it.
Very often, the student says like, "No, that's terrible. I sound really bad. Delete that. I want to do it again." It's that power of control that students have over that work which motivates them to make it better.
Unlike teachers who still don't like seeing themselves on video or hearing recordings of their voices, teenagers are absolutely fine with this. This technique of getting them to film themselves actually motivates them to do a much better job than they would have normally done.
The other one that I like is a random slide show, like a random PowerPoint task. The way this works is you prepare a few slides at home and you give the students a topic. You tell them what the topic is, for example, 21st century life or something like that. They have a few minutes to prepare a short presentation of what they're going to say.
The thing is they're going to have some slides as well to go with that presentation. The first time they get to see the slides, their slides, is when they're standing up to give their presentation. Each time they click on Next Slide, what they see on the screen is completely unexpected.
Now, this is the challenge that can be just hilarious. The images that you have, you might just, for example, have a picture of a forest, then they have to figure out quickly on their feet what a forest has to do with 21st century life.
It might be a cup of coffee and they have to talk about that, or it might be something really absurd like a picture of a rabbit with the title politics is complicated. They have to think on their feet and figure out a way that this is relevant to that topic of 21st century life. You often get a lot of laughter and then a lot of hugely imaginative and memorable answers from students.
That's the random PowerPoint idea, that is one that I've had a lot of success with high‑flying students. That idea grew out of the compulsory phrase activity where you have a student who is really not interested in doing the compulsory written task that you have to do like a letter to a hotel or something.
You make that task more open ended and challenge students who are willing to be challenged to include a preposterous phrase in the letter which you have given them beforehand, which has nothing to do with the topic of the letter, like, "The warm glass of Sri Lankan mango juice," or whatever it was.
That's something which allows you to have task which work at two levels, the standard exam practice tasks for those who wish them to be back. They have this added value of the challenge to those who want a bit more to keep them entertained and engaged.
Ross: Ed, thanks so much for coming on and being so generous with your time. Can you tell our listeners, if they want to find more about you or they want to read about your writings related to teaching to teens, where's the best place for them to go?
Ed: The thing I'm most proud of at the moment is the book that I've written about teaching teenagers. That's called ETpedia Teenagers. You can find out about that at myetpedia.com. I sometimes post ideas about teaching teenagers as well. There's also a link I can give you for that. www.legyened.edublogs.org
Ross: Great. Thanks again.
Ed: Thanks so much for having me.
Tracy: Bye. Thanks for listening