I’m an English-As-Second-Language instructor in Vancouver, BC, and for the past two years have been producing a YouTube series with language learners called English Weirdness, which I publish on YouTube. In each episode of this series, I investigate the strange and confusing side of English grammar and syntax.
Ι use dramatization, animations that graphically illustrate the language structures at work, and an inductive, analytical discussion between a student and myself. In addition to the student who appears in the video, and aside from myself, this video series is produced exclusively by my international students. Our audience is made up of ESL/EFL learners from all over the world, and is growing steadily.
Think ‘Sesame Street’ meets ‘The Twilight Zone’.
A Change of Career
None of this I ever imagined I’d be doing when I left a career in the private investigation and security industry, to become an ESL instructor in 2013. Back then, I pictured myself spending my days scribbling on a whiteboard and marking quizzes. I wanted that, to be sure, and was excited to begin doing just that; spending my days discussing language was something of a mid-life dream come true. I never imagined, though, that in the course of my teaching experience I’d find myself rekindling my childhood dream of being a filmmaker.
That, however, is precisely what has happened.
In 2018, I wanted to make a simple video in the classroom to promote online tutoring work from my website. Knowing he owned a video camera, I approached one of my students, an aspiring filmmaker named Uriel, who was studying English in preparation for film school in Vancouver, and asked him to shoot the video. I would appear in it. He agreed, and after that first, simple whiteboard lesson, we began brainstorming what other sort of videos we could make.
I had observed that students often had similar questions when confronted with the contradictions, irregularities, oddities, and mysteries of English syntax. These were questions that nagged at them but which they could find no answers for in their reference materials or even on the internet.
I took note of these confusing and confounding aspects of the language, and my students’ frustration at the pat answers provided by grammar references and textbooks. Ι began thinking of ways to explain them that would satisfy my students’ desire to understand ‘why’ English behaved in these strange ways. Weirdness was born.
We decided to make a video in which a social miscommunication occurs between international students because of a specific grammatical error or confusion. Then, the student seeks help from “Teacher Paul” who explains the grammar issue in an extended analysis that uses the inductive method of grammar explication.
Ιn this method, you start from an authentic example, and extract from it a formal pattern and, if possible, rule. By approaching the grammar in this multi-dimensional way, my hope is that the viewer can come to a much deeper understanding of the intersection of English form, meaning, and use.
English Weirdness is born
This first episode drew the attention of a high school in Japan. Hiroko Nakahara, principal at Sakata Minami high school in western Japan, saw it and recognized its potential as an educational tool for her school’s English program, which she wanted to be innovative. English education has long been problematic in Japan, and she saw English Weirdness as a useful addition to her revolutionary English program.
Visiting Canada in September 2018, a deal was struck to finance the production of an entire season of English Weirdness, which she intended to use as part of her curriculum. This backing enabled us to expand the vision of the videos, involve other performers, and rent better production equipment and publish a more polished product.
In the ensuing 20 months, we shot ten episodes. Each one was shot over the course of a full weekend, using the school campus as a ‘studio’ and set. I recruited volunteers from the student body to appear in the classroom video if they were comfortable trying that, or else contributing as technical shooting crew.
Aside from my main collaborator, the film school student, no student had any experience or real knowledge of how to shoot film and video, so this presented an intriguing learning experience for them. Hopefully, it also inspired them to make their own videos.
Multiple Learning Opportunities
It should be no surprise, but in addition to the learning benefits of watching these videos, for the volunteers who’ve participated in their production, there have been rich opportunities for developing English learning.
In the planning stages, we hold after-school production planning meetings and script readings, all in English. During the shooting stage, in addition to the filmmaking craft they learn, the students learn copious amounts of new vocabulary and technical jargon, and must communicate fully, clearly, and precisely to ensure effective and, because of the hazards of using so much electrical equipment, lighting and technology, safe teamwork.
For the onscreen performers, the learning is even more acute. Reading from the script, (which I write myself) under my direction they learn to appreciate the nuances of pronunciation, how word stress and syllabic emphasis changes the intended communicative meaning of a line of dialogue.
Interestingly, many of the students who have volunteered to appear in the videos could be characterized as reticent, if not actually shy. But, to their credit, they have leaped at the chance to push on their limits and exceed their comfort zone to do a little acting. This has yielded noticeable shifts in their confidence levels and gregariousness.
Other students, including Brazilian singer-songwriter Nic Darwin and cartoon illustrator Samuel Chang Bravo, have contributed musical and illustrations to the videos, and participated in some of the post-production chores.
This project has been thrilling and deeply satisfying. It has allowed me to indulge in my personal love for filmmaking and video production, as well as to extend my teaching into creative projects. Most importantly though, it has allowed me to help my students learn in an exciting, creative, and highly effective task-based way. An intense way to be sure, but seeing their smiles and laughter when they see the results of their efforts has been a great privilege.
The goal of producing a YouTube series with language learners and English Weirdness in particular is not merely entertainment, although we hope it is that. The goal is to add something of value to the efforts of the global community of English learners. It is their sincere desire to learn, improve and develop their English proficiency that has always motivated and inspired my teaching.
Making and sharing English Weirdness, you could say, is my way of saying thank you to these inspiring learners.