Media surround and penetrate our lives, structure the course of our day, influence, inform and manipulate. The apparently vast, daily growing flood should not just be managed but should in part at least also be grasped and understood.
This, as well as the fact that a large part of communication in global cyberspace takes place in English, made us decide to make “The Media” a firm part of English lessons in class 11.
The first lesson in the block: two or three class 11 pupils together each sit in front of an edition of The Daily Mail, The Guardian, The Observer – leaf through the pages, look at the pictures, search for the sports section with the results of the most recent Champions League games or read an article about the British royal family. There is so much to discover that the task – preparing an overview of the sections and their respective length – can easily be forgotten. Yet the results are nevertheless up on the blackboard by the end of the lessons. The contributions also make clear who might already have had a look at one or another of the papers.
In the following lessons we look at the relationship between pictures and text, investigate the use of language, examine more precisely the structure of an article and scrutinise advertising strategies and their effect on the reader. The focus is always on the role of language in general, and English in particular, for example when researching the witty use of headlines, something which requires a bit of flair and a feeling for language. Language is experienced as a powerful instrument which can significantly influence how something is reported and through clever headlines can invite us to read further or in advertising persuade us to buy something. Every morning three or four newsreaders present “news” they have selected themselves from the websites of the major English-language broadcasters or newspapers. Once again it becomes clear what the focus of each one is and what they consider to be important or worth reporting. Beyond the opportunity of speaking, the presentations offer the opportunity to talk about how to handle “news” and raise the question as to where the things we easily consider as objective news come from and how they are made.
The pupils have now busily practiced reading, comprehension and speaking in the class discussion as much as in repeated work with partners and groups. As a rule, at least two thirds of pupils are willing to speak English with one another also in the group work. Because the subject is fascinating, the foreign language becomes a medium which enables discussion and loses its threat. And those who do not say anything in English themselves simply listen, as happens in the class discussion in any case. In addition, vocabulary lists of the most important technical terms are made and the results of the discussions written down.
Then comes the point when all that knowledge is put to practical use: a newspaper is made in small groups. The task offers freedom of action and demands many different skills. It is an invitation to all those talents and interests which often remain hidden and now reveal themselves. A decision has to be taken about the target readership and a name for the newspaper has to be found. As this is a class 11, the rule applies that the content has to be true or at least could happen in that way.
It is rewarding to experience the motivation and commitment with which everyone, including the otherwise generally weaker pupils, sets to work if they can determine the content and form themselves – albeit within the “newspaper” framework. The objection may be raised that in such a situation the teacher cannot control whether English is really spoken in the teams and whether the texts are not just copied from the Internet. The teacher may well not be able to control that, but he or she can create a space in which young people work with the English language with interest and pleasure and in different ways.
A few lessons later the newspapers are completed, either with scissors and glue or on the computer, and proudly presented to the class. At the next monthly school gathering they will be displayed in the foyer for viewing.
The “Media” block continues with a “Film” block in which a number of pupils discover their interest in film and produce impressive short films.
It is not just the pleasure with which all the results are presented which bears witness to the worthwhile nature of this work, but also the pupil who said at the end: “I thought it would be totally boring because I already know it all, but now I look at films and newspapers with completely new eyes.”
About the author: Ulrike Sievers is an English teacher at the Elmshorn Free Waldorf School.