On the Road with Gary in…the Baltics

Celebrities, ELT course books and teaching teenagers


Was on my way back from the Baltics last month (well, actually only went to Latvia and Lithuania this time), getting ready for IATEFL conference in Glasgow, when I came across an article in the latest IATEFL Newsletter Voices which made me stop and reflect on the talks I had been doing in the Baltics on teaching teenagers with two Cambridge ELT courses, English in Mind and Interactive.

Talk in Riga

Sara Hannam writes a regular ‘ELT under the microscope’ column in Voices and last issue she took a look at ‘the cult of celebrity in ELT’ and especially bad-mouthed course books in which rich and famous people are seemingly presented as role models. And I sort of both agreed and disagreed with her.

Of course, we don’t at all want to foster, as Sara writes, ‘an insidious ideology proposing the acquisition of money and luxurious lifestyles as the only route to happiness’ (Whew!). In fact, such celebrities are often teenagers’ role models. And not just because of their money and fame or outward ‘bling’ and notoriety. Often, underneath their ‘cult’ personalities are those more abstract qualities which they represent and that teenagers are starting to think about and desire to also somehow achieve in their lives:  excellence, creativity, talent, genius, courage, tolerance, love.

For example, during my Interactive talk I showed a page with a picture of Lady Gaga (used to discuss fashion styles and review clothes vocabulary). I also mentioned that if I were teaching from the book, I might bring in – as a follow-up – an interview with her from a recent Time magazine in which we find out that Lady Gaga is—in addition to being a crazy dresser— a philanthropist who launched the Born This Way Foundation to combat bullying.

And when I talked about project work with the teachers we looked at one of the projects in English in Mindabout a presentation of ‘a special person’. The teacher’s book reminds the teacher, as the teacher should remind the students, that this person is not at all necessarily a rich and famous celebrity but could just as well be, for example, their football or volleyball coach, or their grandparents who immigrated into the country and ran a small grocery store and raised a happy family.

Talk in Vilnius

In other words, I would hope most teachers as educators of teenagers would use any famous people presented in a course book as a springboard for their learners to, as Sara suggests, ‘comment on whether such individuals deserve so much attention…and not simply accepting these lifestyles as the norm.’

Do you think the use of celebrities in learning materials is a good or bad thing?
Has the use of celebrities in teaching materials ever caused any problems in your classes?
How have you used students’ role models to motivate their learning?

Gary Anderson, Cambridge ELT International Teacher Trainer


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