Culture Club

This blog post is about why we should run at least one evening lesson a week in summer school.

The majority of students who come to an English language summer school attend a standard programme. This is typically a mixture of general English lessons, on-site activities, and excursions to local attractions. However, some arrive with bespoke programmes which might include specific lessons and excursions. If the group have been sponsored, they may require a set number of lessons, or preparation towards one of the Cambridge main suite exams or Trinity GESE speaking exam to meet their accreditation. When not in lessons, they may have paid for attractions which are not on the standard programme. In all of these instances, we need to work out how to cater towards their needs in the best way we can.

Typically, students should receive 15-hours of English tuition per week. We may struggle to provide this if:

  • The group arrive very late and/or depart very early. This essentially squeezes the programme into a shorter time period.
  • The group require longer excursions which eat into the time we have to deliver lessons.

Most large summer schools operate on a zig-zag pattern which means that the school is split in two with the first cohort having lessons in the morning and activities/excursions in the afternoon. The second cohort have activities/excursions in the morning and lessons in the afternoon.

If a group have paid for a full-day trip when they should be in lessons, we can go back to the tour agency and say that we cannot provide both and given the fact that lesson times are unwieldy- changing classes would affect other student programmes- one has to give.

This can be more problematic when students have been sponsored, especially if they require a specific number of hours to meet their accreditation requirements and have already booked and paid for their excursions.

Over the years, I have had to deal with group leaders asking me when their students will receive all their lessons. A mixture of late arrivals and early departures, coupled with a variety of extra excursions have meant a deficit of 3, possibly 6-hours of lessons.

I would usually schedule an extra lesson(s) in the evening. However, this requires time and planning: booking classrooms, getting teachers to work overtime, liaising with the group leader and the students so they know where and when to go, etc. When you are busy, this extra layer of bureaucracy is a hindrance and not helped by the fact that getting students to attend can be arduous, especially if it’s scheduled at the same time as other student activities which might be more appealing.

The solution to this problem is not a one-off fix every time there is a necessity. We would be better to apply a double-loop strategy to tackle the core problem, i.e. questioning the ‘governing variables themselves, to subject them to critical scrutiny (Smith 2001, 2013).  In essence, including an evening lesson in the standard programme, rather than adding one if and when needed, would be a better solution.

The impetus to do this was happened upon inadvertently. My colleague Phil wished to create closer unity, or a bridge, between the two disparate summer school products, lessons, and activities/excursions, by scheduling an evening activity, once a week, called Culture Club. The idea was that a teacher would deliver a lecture on a topic of interest, followed by questions and answers from the audience. Initially, the idea was warmly received with a health 10 or 15 students wanting to attend. However, interest eventually waned, probably because unlike other popular evening activities, such as football or a disco, it required a harder sell in order to pique anyone’s interest.

Having said this, I realised having a lesson-like activity served another purpose, which brings me back to the initial problem of student groups getting their allotted classes. With a little tweaking- adding in collaborative tasks after the lecture and incorporating emergent language, followed by some form of output- we have the makings of a task-led lesson.

If at the point where we were legitimately able to say, ‘this is a lesson’, Culture Club could serve as an overflow for students who need to make up their input time as well as those generally interested in the topic of the session.

So, the Culture Club MKII was born and now serves to provide topical debate and foster collaboration for anyone who is interested and willing to attend. Happening once a week, all students are welcome, regardless of their language abilities. What we have found is that if the topic is close to someone’s heart, e.g., basketball, or gaming, the beginner and the advanced learner of English would be enthused enough to attend and, within the parameters of their abilities, want to involve themselves.

This is not without its own challenges. The teacher delivering these sessions has no idea how many will attend- whether it will be zero or a handful of students- what their language abilities will be like and how best to scaffold understanding if it is needed.

In order for this to happen, we deliver INSETT on differentiation. This serves the purposes of both Culture Club, where we assume there will be a broad spectrum of abilities, and general English lessons when we are forced to put a 17-year-old beginner student in an upper-intermediate cohort- the beginner cohorts are all 12-years-old and this young man has a moustache! It does happen!

Regardless of any training, many of the teachers who want to deliver Culture Club are looking for a challenge- this is where differentiation-extreme meets Dogme. To compensate them, we either give teachers overtime or take them off any residential duties for the week- meal supervision, night-time student supervision, etc. In fact, the latter is more of a reward, as having to wake up early and make sure students are queuing properly for breakfast rarely fills anyone’s heart with joy.

So, in summary:

  • We schedule and deliver a 3-hour session, once a week, on a topic of the teacher’s choice.
  • It starts with a lecture, leads to collaborative speaking around a task and is followed by some form of student output.
  • Everyone is invited but we expect numbers to be generally low.
  • When a group are missing lessons, they are invited to attend Culture Club on a Thursday evening between 7pm and 10pm.
  • It’s the Group Leader’s responsibility to get their students to attend. The message is conveyed where and when, but the onus is on them to come along to the session.
  • As Culture Club is written into the fabric of the programme, there is no need for any extra work other than scheduling the teacher and relieving them of any residential duties they may have.

As we plan towards summer school this year, there has already been calls from group who might not receive their allotted class hours. For this reason, I will be going back in the standard programmes I’m managing to check to see if Culture Club is added to cover this eventuality.

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Smith, M. K. 2001, 2013. Chris Argyris: theories of action, double-loop learning and organizational learning’, the encyclopedia of informal education.

Interested in other summer school related topics? Look no further than here: Summer school ideas


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