Teaching Teenagers - the "Harry Potter Effect"

The key to good teaching is to find out what grabs the students' attention and use it to help them learn. The traditional saying is that you can't teach anybody anything, all you can do is open the door. The modern version is that you're not teaching English, you're selling it to them!

But that's the easy thing about teaching languages compared with other subjects, that you can illustrate almost any grammar or conversation point using things the kids find cool and worthy of their interest. With all the travelling I've done to different countries, and all the school lunches I've eaten with kids, you can pretty much guarantee that with younger kids everyone loves to play, and well chosen songs and games work a treat almost 99.9% of the time. ( Just for the record, adults also tend to be the same - especially classes of older ladies!)

The tricky bit comes when the kids get to 11,12 and 13.

Here they don't really know what they want or what they are interested in, they're looking for something, but they don't yet know what it is. As a teacher it's really difficult to pinpoint one activity or topic that will engross a whole class of 30 very different teens or pre-teens.

Sometimes a lesson using famous pop songs will work a treat, other times it will flop.

English from the top box office movies can be a sure fire hit for some, and send others to sleep.

From what I've found so far, and I'm always looking for the "holy grail" of teaching teenagers, the only common link that just about all older kids all over the World share is what I call the "Harry Potter" effect - all kids want to be the special one.

The Harry Potter Effect

Harry Potter is a boring, bullied, averagely average school boy putting up with all the things around him. He's nothing special, he's more ordinary than ordinary. Then all of a sudden Hagrid comes up to him and says "Eh up Harry, you're a wizard!". And not just any wizard, but the most famous wizard of all, everyone loves you plus you have a bank vault full of cash!

Sounds good doesn't it.

And that seems to be what teenagers want. You can find it all over in the literature of all sorts of cultures, even in societies where individuality is supposedly not-valued, every kid wants to be plucked up and told that they are the best, to be looked up to, to be popular, to be admired.

It's the same with Star Wars.

Depending on how old you are, Star Wars is about a poor little slave boy who is suddenly told he's a Jedi. And not just any Jedi but Darth Vader! Of course if you are a little older, like myself, then Star Wars is actually about a poor farm boy who gets given a laser sword and saves the universe by becoming a Jedi like his dad.

It's the same with Cinderella

Or any of the traditional fairy stories, or tales like "Momotaro" in Japan.

Kids want to save the day, to be seen as the someone special in their group of friends.

So how do you use this in the classroom?

Games are one answer, where even the shy spotty kid in the corner can answer the question that wins their team the prize.

Music certainly helps (if it's cool and you teach it right!) .

Or using projects or presentations we need to get the kids to express their personalities more, to let them use the English or grammar points you are teaching and make them to be about people they like or things they like or want to do, to make the English truly theirs, some special English just for them, so they can be known as the kid who likes whatever they like.

I remember in English class at school that when we got to write free sentences it was always something like "I'd like to go into space" or "My ideal house would have a massive recording studio", and it was cool to live that dream, even for a few moments.

And conversely when my German teacher wrote on my report card that "all Graham wants to do is talk about food and eating" I wasn't very happy at all - that wasn't a good association to have!

It's the same with the suggestion I always give of using famous people to illustrate grammar points, it's the association with someone cool that makes the lesson cool.

Well, this is just something to think about.

It might never turn into any solid help for lessons, but it's always good to remember when talking to the kids, always let them finish the sentences, let them add in the trendy vocab. Praise them often and really listen to who they are.

You never know, in this Matrix that is teaching, it might not be Neo that finds the holy grail of the perfect lesson plan for teenagers, it might be you.

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