In this series we talk to inspiring teachers who use stories and storytelling to set up reading programmes and creative projects, and use the arts and literature to develop their students’ language and literacy skills. We share real examples from real teachers to show how small ideas can make powerful learning activities. When teachers share their techniques and experiences with us, the first thing we notice is that no matter how diverse our world is, our students are interested in similar issues and enjoy doing similar creative tasks.
Just like last year, our colleagues in Germany organized the Helbling Germany Reading Competition for school grades 5-10, ages 10-15. This year the winner of the competition in the Classes 5-7 category was class G7 (G6 in the school year 18/19) from Gesamtschule Geistal Bad Hersfeld. We asked their English language teacher, Maximilian Schoenauer, how the class prepared for the competition and what they learned in the process.
Students were asked to read a Helbling Reader and transform it into a radio play. The class chose The Blue Carbuncle from Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels by Arthur Conan Doyle, and then they worked together to create a dramatized version of the story.
You can listen to their play here.
The competition was for grades 5-10 students with different sections for grades 5-7 and 8-10. The task was to create an audio recording or a radio play based on a passage or dialogue from a Helbling Reader (Red and Blue series). This type of project offers an excellent opportunity for group work, reading aloud, dramatization and experimenting with digital literacy skills. The recordings were then evaluated by a team based on previously set criteria:
- reading quality (voice, stress, rhythm)
- timing (4 minutes for grades 5-7 and 6 minutes for grades 8-10)
- additional criterion for grades 8-10: creativity/interpretation/originality
A chat with Maximilian Schoenauer
Helbling Readers Blog (HRB): How long have you worked as a teacher?
I have been working as a teacher for about four years, including my teacher training.
HRB: What inspired you to start reading stories with your students?
In general, I think that students should be encouraged to read and be introduced to the pleasures of reading as early as possible. This goes for reading in English or any other (foreign) language as well. By reading texts they like they learn how to overcome language boundaries and realise that they are capable of understanding way more than they might have thought.
HRB: How did you learn about the Helbling Reading Competition in Germany?
Frankly, your brochure was in my mailbox :-).
HRB: What made you choose Sherlock Holmes and the Blue Carbuncle for this project?
I’ve known the kids in my class for quite a while now because I’m their tutor as well and, given their reading interests and habits (detective stories, adventure books, horror, to name just a few), I reckoned they would like it. Plus, they are all familiar with Sherlock Holmes from movies and television, which I thought would motivate them even more.
HRB: How did the students react to the idea of the competition?
Actually, they were a bit reluctant at first as they didn’t trust their own abilities. They thought they wouldn’t win, a reaction which is typical of their age. I had to put some effort into convincing them that it is always worth trying and that they had a definite chance of winning. In the end, I managed to convince them!
HRB: How many students were involved?
19 students, my whole class. Six of them were involved in the final recording.
HRB: How long did the preparation, the reading and the recording take?
It took us about 4 weeks, a total of 20 lessons or so, to read both stories in the textbook, work through the reading comprehension tasks and prepare and finish the recording.
HRB: What steps did you follow?
I introduced them to the topic by presenting items to them which are commonly used by (fictional) detectives (magnifying glass, handcuffs, and so on). We also compared different Sherlock Holmes characters from television and the movies and how the representation of the character has changed over time. After that we worked through the book and did the pre-, while- and post-reading tasks in the textbook which I thought were great for reaching a deeper understanding of the text and teaching the students how to work with new words in context. The kids then worked in groups to write their own versions of their favourite passages of the story and did some test readings in the safe environment of their group before finally presenting their adaptations to the class. The whole group then had a vote and decided which of the presentations they liked best or found most representative for our class’s work as a whole. Hence it was quite a team effort.
HRB: What digital tools did you use? How much did the students help with that?
I used Audacity, a well-known easy-to-use open source tool, with our school’s own microphones. I did the recording and editing myself. However, the students were constantly involved in the process as they supervised it and chose the takes/versions they considered best. If they wanted to try again, they did. They also decided which of the license-free sounds they wanted to use and helped me putting the finishing touches on the final version of the recording. Sometimes I had to help them as well, especially with pronunciation. To my mind, students should be encouraged to work independently as much and often as possible but obviously they shouldn’t be left alone.
HRB: Could you give some tips to other teachers who would like to do something similar?
Don’t be afraid to skip a unit/section of your school books in favour of a reading project. It’s always worth the effort and time. I am of the opinion that students learn a lot more if they get the chance to read and work with texts creatively or if they are involved in some sort of language activities. These advantages can be combined in such a project. If there’s no time for a reading project, it can be very fruitful to just give them a book or short story every now and then and let them read individually and at their own pace for a lesson or two.
HRB: What was the most difficult thing about the project?
It’s sometimes difficult to stay in the background and let the students do the majority of the work, especially if you have the feeling that they need your help. I often wanted to give them some advice right away when I noticed that they were struggling a bit, but sometimes it can be worth the wait if they have to keep trying to solve a problem by themselves, and then help them when they’re stuck.
HRB: What benefits can you see?
The most obvious benefit about the project was that some students who usually do not have especially good marks in English participated alongside students who do very well in class. The students who find studying grammar and vocabulary difficult were especially happy and proud of themselves when they learned that we had won the competition. I cannot think of any better way of encouraging them to learn and speak English regardless of disappointment at school. It helps them to deal with “everyday school life” a bit better. Moreover, it shows them that learning a language is not all about having good test results. There’s more to a language and the kids need to understand that.
HRB: How do you encourage your students to read in English? What activities do you use to inspire them to read more?
I usually start off with reading the first paragraphs of a text together or I simply read some lines to them to help them get a feel for the text and what it might be about. Collecting the student’s associations with the title or showing them key words in a “word cloud” for instance are also tried-and-tested useful approaches. As a second step, I let them read at their own pace quietly or out loud together with a partner via “paired reading and thinking”. That way, they don’t feel the pressure to avoid pronunciation mistakes and have the chance to talk about what they have read before we talk about the reading together in class.
One way to inspire them to read more is definitely a “class library” which the students can use to lend their favourite German and English books to each other. I used to allow them some time during lessons to skim through these books quietly (it’s a library, after all) and continue reading them if they were interested. It’s a great way of including the student’s reading habits into the English and German classroom.
HRB: Is there anything you are working on right now?
I’m preparing a reading project with grade 10. Let’s see how this turns out.
Many thanks for the interview!
Want to know more?
Read other interviews in the Inspiring teachers series:
- Inspiring teachers: a reading project from Turkey
- Inspiring teachers: active reading in Austria
- Inspiring teachers: creative reading in Brazil
- Inspiring teachers: creativity and reading in Germany
- Inspiring teachers: group reading radio play in Germany
- Inspiring teachers: teaching young learners in Italy
Read more about the reader Sherlock Holmes and the Stolen Jewels: