Connect, Grow, Thrive

Jeremy Harmer’s reflections on ELT

INSIGHTS: ETAS Journal Volume 30 N0. 2 Spring 2013

Jeremy Harmer’s reflections on ELT, language, verse, and music 

Jeremy Harmer is currently on the faculty of the MA TESOL program at the New School University, New York. Among his writings are How to Teach Writing (2004), How to Teach English (2007), The Practice of English Language Teaching (2007), and Essential Teacher Knowledge (2012)– all published by Pearson Education ESL. With musician Steve Bingham, he has recorded the CDs Touchable Dreams (poetry and music) and Other Loves (songs). touchabledreams.posterous.com

It is a tremendous honour to be interviewing none other than Jeremy Harmer for ETAS Journal. Jeremy is well-known for his work in English Language teaching and particularly for his book The Practice of English Language Teaching, which is a standard reading text among English teachers worldwide.

Jeremy, thank you so much for giving us this interview for our Spring issue. What do we find you doing this period?

Well, currently I am in the UK, but pretty soon I start travelling again, with exciting trips to Mexico, Indonesia, Georgia, and Turkey, among others. I am greatly looking forward to all that.

You are currently involved in a project called Touchable Dreams with Steve Bingham, for the British Council. How did you come up with this fascinating project, which is a combination of reciting poetry with background music?

I met Steve through an amateur orchestra I play in of which he is the professional leader. We became friends and got talking about the possibility of collaborating. We decided on poetry and music, and once we had chosen the theme of ‘love’ we were away! The mix of words and poetry creates effects which never cease to amaze me.

How has music tied in with your teaching in the past and your teacher training now?

I have used songs to teach structure and vocabulary or to introduce or comment on a topic we were working with. Songs are also, of course, a way of changing the atmosphere in a class by giving the students a ‘break’ from the normal run-of-the-mill lesson. Music also helps students create ‘pictures’ in their mind, or to provoke ideas for writing. But even music obsessives like me have to remember that not everyone is crazy about music. Not all students will throw up their hands with glee when we take music into the lesson! This is especially the case – it seems to me – when teachers put on music to accompany groupwork, for example, without even asking the class if they would like it. How strange!

What criteria do you use in choosing the artist or song to accompany your readings? From what I have seen, the range of songs you choose is quite diverse, with pop songs included.

In Touchable Dreams we sort of ‘threw’ music and poetry at each other and when, suddenly, a poem and a piece of music worked together and moved or amused us, we knew we had found something good. The music we use is eclectic – everything from 18th-century classical music to modern pop songs, even some jazz in there!

You have also used The Beatles’ Yesterday in one of your readings. What is your goal with students when you use this song, for instance? What pre-performance and post-performance activities do you use to engage the students in the song?

There are so many great things you can do with poetry and with song lyrics. We can give students lines which they have to put in the correct sequence (before they listen to a song). We can do fantastically concentrated fill-in exercises. We can use poems and lyrics for running dictation and, if we give them some structure (think of all the ideas there are for using poems with kids), we can get students to write poetry of their own – they may not be great poems, but they are fun to do. Finally, we can get students to learn and recite poems in English. It does wonders for their pronunciation and their speaking confidence.

After these activities, what feedback do you get from students in terms of their learning?

Well, as with every activity or technique, it is somewhat mixed. For example, once when I used music for writing I asked students for feedback and I got some really enthusiastic comments – which made me feel really good. But others in the class didn’t especially enjoy what we had done at all. I was very depressed about this at first, but it turns out that most of the things we do are like this. We are unlikely to get 100% approval for anything we do. Students are different, that’s all.

But against that we should mention the sense of pride individuals feel when they have understood a poem and/or can speak it well; when they have enjoyed putting a song together; when their poems appear on the class noticeboard or website, and so on.

Let’s move on to your writing. You have written numerous books, coursebooks, and readers. What gives you inspiration for your ideas?

In the case of readers (to start with) it is just ideas or bits of ideas that get me going – something I have thought or heard about, something that interests me. If I am lucky, that sets of other ideas and possibilities.

When writing about methodology, however, I get my ideas directly from teachers, either in person, or in the wide range of articles and books which make up my daily professional reading. I have seen my role as being a describer (and explainer) of what seems to be good teaching practice around the world. There are so many wonderful professionals around, and what I want to do is make sure that all the ideas they come up with form part of a teacher’s training and education.

You have frequently filmed teachers in action. What has this experience offered you and how do you give feedback to the teachers observed? What are their responses?

beauty of filming teachers – rather than observing them – is that you can watch classroom incidents again and again. And again. This means that you have a real chance to analyse and think about what’s going on more than if you were simply observing and trying at the same time to note down what you see. You can miss or lose track of what’s happening as you write!! The danger, of course, is that the camera doesn’t give you the ‘all-round’ viewing experience that real-life observation allows – and the editing process can change the way things are seen. But when teachers watch themselves on film, they learn so much (after the initial ‘shock’) about what they do and how they do it that I can’t help thinking that watching ourselves is one of the best ways for teacher development!

Giving feedback? Well, the best thing is to let teachers watch the films together with someone else they trust. The conversation that develops (especially if the other person is good at asking for clarification and so on) can be immensely rewarding and helpful. The whole point about watching ourselves is to gain insight into what we do and have thoughts about how to do thing differently or better in the future.

One of your books, The Practice of English Language Teaching, is standard reading in the vast majority of ELT programs in universities around the world. What comes into your mind when you think about it or when an educator tells you it has helped them in their career?

You have described a situation that has happened on a number of occasions. My response is always the same: a deep sense of humility and gratitude that something that grew out of being a teacher trainer (and, originally, thinking about how to give my trainees appropriate backup material for the input sessions) should prove to be useful to many people. I am, to be quite frank, absolutely delighted that this is the case. But of course everything depends on who the trainers, teachers, and lecturers are when the book is being used – and how they help their trainees to approach the book. I would hate for people to read the things in The Practice of English Language Teaching uncritically. On the contrary, reading the book should be part of a long and questioning discussion about what good teaching is and can be.

Is there a type of book or topic you’ve never attempted to do before that you would like to write in the future?

Well, yes, there is in a way – and I guess someone’s working on it right now. That’s a properly interactive digital ‘book’ about teaching, where audio, video, visuals, and text all interact with each other and where the user/reader can manipulate all four in more creative ways (sometimes) than a reader does. That sounds a bit incoherent, even to me! But like so many other writers and publishers I would like to learn how to crack the digital ‘nut’!

The latest post on your blog (to date) is called Why do we need teachers at all? What prompted you to ask this question? And after writing the post – and getting all the comments – why, indeed, do we need teachers?

I think Gary Marcus (whose writing I quoted in that blog) has it about right. Teachers have to be enthusiasm conductors and generators; they have to lead students to be able to concentrate on what they are saying and doing. In particular their overwhelmingly important role (I am becoming increasingly certain) is as feedback providers – both in linguistic and in learning terms.

Apart from writing, you use blogging and social media platforms to interact with other ELT educators. What would you advise an educator starting out now to do with all that?

That’s a very interesting question. Many users of social media (especially Twitter) were hugely involved and participated for what seems now like a fashion-conscious two or three-year period. Then many of us ‘faded away’. Because we couldn’t keep up? Because it was just too ‘nice’? Because it got tiring trying to work out how to have real conversations without creating offence? I don’t know; it fascinates me. But still, I learned so much from the other people on Twitter – I mean in the professional sphere – and I think newer teachers should avail themselves of those opportunities, give themselves the chance to meet others online so that when they find themselves at a conference for the first time, they’ll already ‘know’ some of the people there.

Blogging is a different thing. I blog in the hope that people will make me think when they comment on doubts (of my own) that I raise. Other great blogs are always worth reading and I would want to say to newer teachers that comment is free and possible in the blogosphere. The more you put in, the more you take out!

How is the world of ELT different today, if at all, since the time you started out?

I suppose the obvious answer is Web 2.0 (see above), the fantastic reality that allows us to meet and interact with people across time and space; the fact that we can watch and listen to the people who inspire us in video and audio clips even when we are sitting at our desks. That the staffroom we live in just got bigger and bigger. The global staffroom is an amazing place.

But the essential business of teaching English – it feels very similar in some ways. The best teachers today are there doing their best, worrying about what they are doing and how to do it, getting interested and excited about the possibilities of doing it differently or better. When I started teaching way, way back, the staffroom was the most exciting place in the world. In the best schools and institutes and with the right people, it still is, still can be!

Many, many thanks, Jeremy, for sharing your experience and insights with our readers.

It is a pleasure!

Vicky Loras