How much risk are you willing to take?

Whenever you ask your students to use English, you actually ask them to take risks. For many learners, speaking (or writing) in English is a real challenge. It's as if somebody asked you to do a bungee jump saying that it's easy because many people have already done it before. It's as if you were asked to do karaoke - it's basically a piece of cake but once you are not confident in singing, it can turn into a truly embarrassing experience.

Earlier today, I asked my students to read a text about a very embarrassing situation a teenage girl had experienced on her first date. My lesson objective was clearly stated: it was an authentic blog post, full of useful, informal language items I wanted my students to acquire and put in use. After some language work and follow-up practice, it was time for personalisation: I asked my students whether they had experienced a similar situation at some point in their lives. Although this is a very talkative class of 18-year-olds never afraid to express their opinions, I was suddenly faced with a complete silence. But it was not the blank stares type of silence. It was the silence complete with unspoken ideas desperately wanting to be put into words. However, after a couple of seconds, instead of answering my question, a student struck back: And you, teacher? At that moment, I realized how my students felt. I experienced the moment of hesitation they must go through on a regular basis when bombarded with all sorts of personal questions: Shall I say something or shall I pretend that I've nothing to add to the discussion?

I hesitated for a fraction of a second and then I decided to take the risk: Yes, I have. I actually experienced something very embarrassing.... All of a sudden, they were all on alert. The inevitable happened. Tell us about it, then, someone begged. I hesitated for another fraction of a second and then told them my story as I remembered it, making it as dramatic as possible.

I could see that their expressions had changed completely. Some of them were still processing the information they had just received; they were probably visualizing the situation and judging the degree of awkwardness. But I noticed that a couple of them were already getting ready to share their own embarrassing moments - they'd probably remembered something resembling my story, or they'd simply gained confidence to come out of hiding. And the most courageous ones finally did share their stories. And I thanked them for their bravery and support - because my story suddenly didn't seem so embarrassing. The awkwardness had somehow been watered down, so to speak. Also, it seemed that the act of sharing our moments of embarrassment made us feel like a close-knit community for a while. But more importantly, it made our conversation genuine, real-life and meaningful; it was about us after all - not just about the language or the coursebook exercise.

It's not easy to share something you are ashamed of, and for some students, be it the weak ones or the introverted ones, it's often equally embarrassing to speak in front of the class, even when it's something pretty commonplace. Having said that, if we want our students to share bits and pieces of their private lives, we need to create an environment of equity and trust. And hopefully, if the teacher takes the risk, the students are likely to follow his/her example...