I was first introduced to non-linear narratives through Quentin Tarintino’s 1994 cult hit movie Pulp Fiction. I was hooked. When I saw Christopher Nolan’s Memento in a small art theater in 2000, I had to return to watch it again a week later.
These two movies are among my all-time favorites, and I eagerly recommend them to anyone who hasn’t seen them, but I’m hesitant to recommend them to my students. Both are violent and Pulp Fiction, in particular, has some very mature themes. I certainly couldn’t use either one in a classroom, which is a shame because the non-linear storylines offer unique opportunities to use a variety of verb tenses to discuss the difference between the order in which the events occur chronologically and the order in which they are presented in the narrative. Trying to untangle these two timelines is a fun challenge even if English is your first language.
The non-linear narrative in music video above, Darling It’s True by Locksley, affords all of the same opportunities, but instead of a gruesome scene in which a gangster’s moll overdoses in a drug dealer’s livingroom, there is a catchy pop rock beat. Another advantage that a three-and-a-half-minute video has over a feature-length film is that it can be viewed and reviewed several times over a much shorter period of time, which is absolutely necessary if you’re going to wrap your head around the difference between the order in which the events occur and the order in which they are presented.
So, the next time your students are struggling to find an interesting application of the past perfect, have them watch this video and then ask them whether the lead singer had met his bandmate at the corner store before he visited him at the tailor’s. And if so, how many times? When the video was recorded, had he visited the store before he went to the tailor’s? If your students are focused on the task of untangling the timelines instead of worrying about which tense they are using (or which tense they will have been using) you’re doing something right.
Have you ever used non-linear narratives with your students? If so, leave a comment below and share your favorite examples.
You didn't think your students were reading, did you?
As promised, the list of songs I used in my History of English Language Popular Music Elective (HELP-ME) class is below. The class was taught over 20 days in 5 weeks with each week devoted to a different decade of popular music. We covered one song per day usually beginning with watching a video of the song, examining the lyrics and something linguistically relevant (grammar, vocabulary, pronunciation, etc.), talking about the meaning of the song, and then listening to the song again and singing along.
A much more exhaustive (and exhausting!) resource is available as a Google Docs Spreadsheet. The spreadsheet also contains several songs I considered but didn’t use. Each entry has the song title, the artist, the year it was released, the genre, information about it’s popularity (#1 for four weeks, for example) as well as links to the lyrics, video, and Wikipedia articles on both the song and the artist. I also have my notes on relevant or ESL-appropriate features of each song.
I delivered all of this information to students using Moodle, an open-source online course management system. I hoped to present as much information for students to explore as I could and several students took advantage of this opportunity by logging in and exploring many of these resources. They were also able to listen to each of the songs via our streaming server. (Simply giving them the .mp3 files would have created copyright issues.)
Overall, the class was very well received for it’s novel approach and interesting subject. I included a wide variety of musical genres so that no student would have to suffer through a prolonged period of country or R&B. Students also appreciated touching on grammar points and new vocabulary words in the more relaxed context of an elective class. They were exposed to more English without having to worry about a final exam.
If I were to teach the class again, I would probably eliminate a couple of the longer songs, or at least find a way to devote more time to them. The class really enjoyed Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen) and Parents Just Don’t Understand, for example, but we had to rush through them a bit in order to completely cover the lyrics. In fact, I would like to teach this class every quarter, and could by changing up the songs so that they wouldn’t be repeated if students take the class in back-to-back quarters. The class included students from all five levels in our program and I worked hard to ensure that all students were able to gain something from the class. According to my student evaluations, I was successful.
In the table below, the names of the songs are linked to the lyrics (on sing365.com) and the artist names are linked to their page on Wikipedia. As I mentioned above, you can view more information at the Google Docs Spreadsheet.
Sing, floss, stretch. But trust me on the sunscreen.
I wrote recently about the elective class that I am developing and teaching on popular music. I’m covering a decade per week and a song per day. Within each song, I highlight an interesting grammar, vocabulary, or pronunciation point.
Developing this class has meant combing through many online resources including lists of Billboard number one hit songs on Wikipedia and best-of-the-decade lists such as AOL’s radio blog, which is a good place to start because you can listen to most of the songs on the list. I’ve also found that the website sing365.com tends to have the least errors of all of the lyrics websites that are returned in Google searches.
I intend to post the list of songs I’ve used at the end of the quarter (I might even link to the Google Docs spreadsheet that I used to record all of the songs I considered for each decade) but for now I thought I would post the following music video, which I plan to use tomorrow, the last day before Thanksgiving break.
The song is actually a spoken word piece which has an interesting story. While not a traditional pop music video, I think the message is inspirational without being cheesy. Plus, there are lots and lots of examples of advice using the imperative. It might not get you through the last two weeks of the quarter, but it doesn’t hurt.
I came across this video a couple of months ago and haven’t stopped thinking about it or recommending it to people. It makes a very compelling case for using Web 2.0 technologies to allow students to construct their own knowledge. This would change the role of the teacher from keeper of knowledge to facillitator of learning.
In particular, I’ve been thinking about how these ideas could apply to my grammar classes. I often teach advanced grammar to ESL students with a wide range of abilities (our students are placed into levels based on aggregate scores, not into each class). In general, I present new material and then vary their homework activities based on their ability. But what if there were a better way?
The materials I typically present in class could be put online (with my voiceover explanations, animations to illustrate key points, etc.) and students could watch the presentations at home. The could then come to class prepared, ask whatever questions they had, and then we could do the “howework activities” in class. Wouldn’t I, as a teacher, be more helpful to them while they were trying to use what they had learned?
My presentation could become a part of what they used to study a particular grammatical structure. They could supplement this with other online resources they find (and are probably already using) and share them with the class via online courseware. So, some students could learn from stories that include highly contextualized examples of the structure while others could examine charts and tables if that was their preference. It’s easy to see how this process would enable students to learn in ways that matched their learning styles.
Will it work? I’ve tried elements of this approach and one of the biggest hurdles seems to be the reaction from students that the teacher isn’t “teaching.” If we can get past this issue, we might really be able to run with it.