It is no secret to us, ESL/EFL teachers, that our object of work is an instrument that connects the world. We teach the lingua franca to our students in the hope they will use it with a foreigner, when they travel abroad, or to move up the career ladder. Nevertheless, how much have we reflected upon the power we vest our students with when we enable them to use this tool? How much do we wonder about how our connections can have a positive effect (and affect) not only in our learning, but also in the community we belong to, and in our place in the world as global citizens?
In 1929, Frigyes Karinthy, a Hungarian writer, theorized that every person on Earth is connected to every other person by a chain of no more than six links. He called it Six Degrees of Separation. That means that you, dear reader, as well as I, are connected to presidents, dictators, and celebrities through the good old “friend of a friend” notion. Let’s say, for the sake of illustration, that my cousin is friends with a congressman. He, in turn, befriended the CEO of a large company in Brazil, who happens to know the ambassador of the USA. The Ambassador has worked closely with former-president Barack Obama (THE OXFORD MATH CENTER, 2017)
It is safe to assume that I am connected to the Queen of England through Obama. I am also connected to the inspiring Malala Yousafzai, to the wealthy Bill Gates, and to the murderous Syrian dictator Bashar Al-Assad. And so are you. Through different connections, but you are too. It took us no more than six connections to arrive at Assad. This is how small the world has gotten.
Interesting theory, however, what does that have to do with affect, Project-based Learning, and ELT? Let’s start with affect, shall we? Jane Arnold (2009) tells us that affect has to do with feelings, emotions, and attitudes that cause some impact on students’ behavior, and how they learn. The brilliant French philosopher Gilles Deleuze (1996, p. 64) said in an interview that a class is both emotion and intelligence. Bloom (1956), in his famous taxonomy, places a great deal of importance not only in the cognitive domain, but also in the psychomotor, and in the affective domains of learning. The advocate for a reformulation of the world’s educational system, Sir Ken Robinson says students need not be anesthetized, quite the contrary, they need an aesthetic experience, to be awakened, in order to learn (RSA, 2008). Learning only happens effectively if it happens affectively, through emotion. Now, I ask you this: do we care more about fictitious people on the pages of English books or real people out there in the world? Are we more prone to getting emotionally involved with people who do not exist or people who do? What about our students?
Allow me to offer a recent example of emotional connection in my classroom. The same way we look at Syria with fear, and prejudice, we judge most Middle-Eastern countries, especially Iran, and Iraq. We are bombarded with terrible news every day by the media, hence our negative feelings. In 2017, however, an Iraqi woman asked to join my Facebook group to practice English. At first, unfortunately, I treated her with suspicion and avoided adding her because of all these horrible things we see on TV. But then I told myself: you know what? I will talk to her. I found out that she went to the University of Education in her city to study English and become a teacher. I added her, and we have been talking ever since. Her name is Afrah, she loves fish, and pizza. She has two beautiful nieces, Zahraa and Mariam, who dressed like Santa Claus for Christmas last year, and her father is the kindest man she knows, who likes everybody, and is helping oppressed families who are persecuted and killed by the Islamic State in Mosul. Bottom line: She is a person, a human being, just like any other.
I invited her to talk via Facebook to my students. I used my own account and wrote my students’ questions to her and she was kind enough to send voice messages. It was really hard to understand some sentences but I could hear the thrill in her voice because, maybe, for the first time, someone decided not to shut her off and send her away. My students created an emotional connection with her, and even wrote her letters, postcards and sent voice messages through my WhatsApp. I could tell that my students were curious about her life, and that they were really surprised to know she lives a life that is not that distant from our own.
That short story brings me to the PBL part. George Lucas, the genius filmmaker who happens to have an educational foundation, claims that: “With project-based learning, students learn by designing and constructing actual solutions to real life problems.” (PBLworks, 2021). Katherine Bilsborough (2013) accurately states that: “Projects bring real life into the classroom; instead of learning about how plants grow (and all the language that goes with it), you actually grow the plant and see for yourself. It brings facts to life.” The completely unpretentious virtual encounter with my new Iraqi friend brought the classroom to life and ignited in my students the desire to know more about other peoples, and cultures in our world. So, I registered them on iEARN.org, an online platform with 100 active projects, 140 countries, and 2 million youth participating every day.
Three of my groups were involved we uploaded photos and videos. One group was involved with the One Day in the Life project (https://iearn.org/cc/space-2/group-6), through which students exchange information among several nations about their daily routine. Our first step was to share about school. My second group was so touched by Afrah’s story that they got inspired by a USA project called Debunk Stereotypes, and decided to help people get in touch with the Arabic and Islamic cultures (http://us.iearn.org/node/261). My third group loved the Don’t Waste – Create project, and they worked on calling people’s attention to pollution and recycling (https://iearn.org/cc/space-2/group-196 ).
ELT OR ELF?
What do all those projects have in common? People. Real people, real places, real lives. People who want to connect with the world. And do you know what binds them besides the desire to meet new people and change the planet? The English language. The ultimate communication tool that makes global collaboration possible. When we shift the attention to English as a Lingua Franca (ELF), we can better visualize a hidden mission that we often neglect as teachers and educators. It is the mission of allowing people from different cultures to exchange stories, dreams, projects, and create mutual understanding, tolerance and respect.
I feel like we can do much more. I feel that we can do more than simply judge people because of the country they were born in or where they live. I feel we have the tools to connect our students with them and make them claim their place in the world as global citizens, fighting for the common good, side by side with our students. And you know what? Talking to them – to these people from the far reaches of the planet – is the first step.
In a world that resorts to war, suffering, and killing to solve problems, as well as stigmatizes people, cultures, and nations, the English author Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s quote has never been so current:
The pen is mightier than the sword
Or, in Malala’s own words:
Let us remember: One child, one teacher, one book, and one pen can change the world (…)
In our case, it is the keyboard.
I am glad I did not ignore my newest friend from Iraq, who taught me some Arabic, touched the lives of my student and decided to continue her studies because I encouraged her. I certainly hope you can connect your students with more people like her. With English, our keyboards, our hearts, and our minds, little by little, we are changing the world and reducing Karinthy’s Six Degrees of Separation to only Two Degrees of Separation: You, platforms such as iEARN, and the rest of the planet. I’m sure you’ll realize that we’re not that different after all.
My final tips for you are:
- Join a PBL platform and connect your students with international students
- Have a guest speaker from a different country in your classes
- Offer to connect with other teachers’ groups
- Use your community and its demands to think of projects that can cause great impact
- Try to leave your own prejudice aside and connect with cultures you don’t fully understand
Arnold, J. (2009). Affect in L2 learning and teaching. Estudios de lingüística inglesa aplicada, 9, 145-151.
PBLWorks. (2021). Available at https://www.pblworks.org/. Access on
Bilsborough, K. (2013). TBL and PBL: Two Learner-Centred Approaches. Available at https://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/article/tbl-pbl-two-learner-centred-approaches. Acess on April 11, 2017.
Bloom, B.S. (Ed.). Engelhart, M.D., Furst, E.J., Hill, W.H., Krathwohl, D.R. (1956). Taxonomy of Educational Objectives, Handbook I: The Cognitive Domain. New York: David McKay Co Inc.
Deleuze, G. (1996). O Abecedário de Gilles Deleuze. Available at http://escolanomade.org/wp-content/downloads/deleuze-o-abecedario.pdf. Access on April 11, 2017.
RSA. 2008. RSAnimate: Changing Education Paradigms. Available at http://www.learninginstitute.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/rsa-lecture-ken-robinson-transcript.pdf. Access on April 11, 2017.
The Oxford Math Center. Six Degrees of Separation. 2017, Available at http://www.oxfordmathcenter.com/drupal7/node/655. Access on April 11, 2017.