Un-stereotype through stereotyping

Stereotype is a thought that can be adopted about specific types of individuals or certain ways of doing things. Sometimes, people tend to put individuals into classifications, thinking that everyone who belongs to that group needs to be the same. 

I'm sure you know this exhilarating feeling. You've just had a lesson and you think, Yeah! That was it! I'd like to share one of those moments of excitement with you now. I'd like to share something I did with my students the other day. It hadn't been planned in advance; it emerged at some point of the lesson, and it sat perfectly with everything we had done before and what we were to do after. In addition, it was not only about language, but it also helped to raise social awareness. 

It was to be an ordinary lesson - one of my favourite topics but nothing out of the ordinary. The thing is I really love teaching adjectives describing personal traits. It's because I believe that one thing that students definitely love is to talk about themselves (and criticize their peers). We started with what Ss already knew, i.e. I elicited familiar vocabulary items. Then we added some more, such as patient, honest, rude, outgoing, easy-going, arrogant, etc. We immediately doubled the input by working on opposites, prefixes and suffixes. 

In the coursebook we use there is an interesting article about music lovers. This text describes how the kind of music one listens to is related to their personal traits, e.g. a classical music lover tends to be serious (what a surprise), an indie fan is creative but not very gentle and hard-working, etc. (I remember this because it's supposed to be me; I must have personalized the input). After regular listening and reading activities I asked Ss what they thought. I didn't have to wait long before one boy (14-yer-old) reacted: It's the same nonsense as horoscopes - one of Russ Mayne's fan :-), I guess. 

I wanted to resist, of course, because I wanted to be professional and stick to my plan, but I couldn't help uttering a single remark: "I like horoscopes". And it's always the same; people say it's rubbish (horoscopes, Tarot cards, palm reading, blood types, etc.), but they crave talking about it; they want to talk about themselves and how they do or don't fit in the category. I experience this with kids as well with grown-ups. I'm always amused. It's fun. And as I suspected this kind of entertainment could be great for language learning, I simply gave it a try. 

I wrote all the signs on the board. We wrote names of the people in the class next to the corresponding signs, e.g. Capricorn = Lucy, Aquarius = Jane, etc. This offered lots of extra opportunities to work on the emergent language, such as prepositions, ordinal numbers, etc. We found at least one person for each sign, except for Libra. A side note; call me crazy but I love secretly studying a group's dynamics based on when people were born. Mind you, this is only my personal investigation; I deny any (pseudo)scientific connections. :-)

Anyway, I asked the kids if they knew what stereotype is. I gave them a few examples, and they immediately came up with some great ideas. I asked them to choose a person in the class they knew very well and describe them using as many new vocabulary items as possible. This happened towards the end of the lesson, so I asked them to think it through and write the final version as homework. 

In the next lesson, I asked Ss to erase and substitute the name of the person they had described with the sign of the Zodiac that person was. I asked Ss to come to the front of the class, one by one or in groups if more people had chosen the same person to describe, and read out their definitions in the following way: Paul A typical Virgo is lazy, friendly and listens to rap music. Paul likes They like being around creative people.....  

I observed the rest of the class; they were listening closely, especially when their sign was being described. After each presentation we discussed whether the description was true for other people as well, family members, for example. In the end I said: "Look, what we've done is stereotyping; we claim that every person that belongs to one category is the same as other people in that category. We judge that based on what we know about one person. Do you think it's right?" Some interesting ideas popped up. 

I think it was a valuable lesson because the students had learned lots of useful language (what they had produced was concrete evidence of that), and as a bonus they understood what stereotyping means. And the teacher had fun too! 

Postscript: The day before the second lesson, I had told my brother what I was going to do with my students. What he said really amused me: "Oh dear, how I used to hate those 'creative' lessons when I was at school! What a crap and a waste of time!" A typical Virgo, I thought. :-)