For the past eight years, I have worked closely with upper secondary learners in southern Italy. It was clear from the outset that the only way I could make an ELT career work for me was if I could make it meaningful. After numerous conversations with teens over the years, it is apparent that many of them lack supportive teachers at secondary school who give them the space to express themselves. I realised that the reason teenagers have always enjoyed themselves in my classroom is that I give them something they don’t often get at school: a chance to be heard.
My coaching journey started a few summers ago when I began researching the role of a sports coach and how those skills could be transferred to the English language classroom. What started as a hobby (and a lifetime obsession with Rocky!), turned into a learning development project and is now central to my work as an English teacher, materials developer and qualified life coach for young people.
When I talk about my great passion for working with teenagers, I often get very strange reactions from stressed out teachers who are tired of trying to get teens on their side. They ask me how I do it and the answer is always the same:
I give young people permission. Permission to express themselves in a supportive environment. Permission to discuss the topics they feel strongly about. Permission to make mistakes and learn from them. This permission empowers teens which, in turn, leads to increased self-esteem.
I combine a supportive classroom space with a variety of materials which I call Activities with Purpose (AWP). These are activities which I develop and use throughout the year with a strong focus on self-improvement, self-exploration, resilience and self-esteem building in young people.
An activity that I love for kicking off the academic year is an AWP entitled class cone. This came about after my first lesson last September with an upper secondary group preparing for the Cambridge Advanced exam. I genuinely love spending my life with young people, but I will admit, it is always nerve-racking walking into a classroom of fourteen brand new faces on the first day of term. I had started the lesson with a simple getting to know you mingle and as I moved towards to Vincenzo and his partner to listen in, he turned to me (in perfect English) and said:
“Sofia, can I ask you a question? Why do we do the same activities every year? It’s just so boring.”
Meme by Sofia Leone via imgflip
I could have taken offence at his honesty, but I thought it was a fantastic and accurate insight and I later thanked him for inspiring this activity!
At the start of the lesson, students are given a blank paper scoop of ice cream and time to think about their perfect English class (pace, teacher, amount of homework, activities etc). They take their time to draw and colour their ideal class. The students then mingle and share their ideas with each other which gives me the chance to listen to everyone’s requests. I take in everyone’s scoops and make an attractive wall display without saying too much about the activity. The best part of this is the challenge that you can set yourself: to try and fulfil as many of the requests as possible without making it too obvious. The teens want personalised topics? I can easily craft lessons about sport and entertainment. They want time to dedicate to their passions? We can dedicate a whole lesson to “my passion” presentations and learn from each other in the process.
Class Cone by Sofia Leone
This worked incredibly well for me this year and on the last day of term, I gave my students back their scoops and asked them to write me a letter answering this simple question:
“Did I meet your expectations?”
This may seem like a simple activity, but a teenager who feels listened to will give you so much more than one who is told what and how to learn.
Me, My Selfie and I
Another AWP which I’ve developed sheds a positive light on something which is often considered superficial and detrimental: selfies. I ask students to take out their phones and find a selfie they would like to show their classmates. The students mingle and ask each other questions about where they were, how they felt on that day, etc. The students also get a chance to see my not so typical selfie!
Me, My Selfie and I Web and Photo by Sofia Leone
I model four positive adjectives which I would use to describe myself and I then ask students to take some time to reflect and do the same. Once the students have at least four adjectives, I show them my selfie poem and I ask them to create theirs.
Me, My Selfie and I AWP Poem by Sofia Leone
Some students will love the opportunity to try writing a rhyming poem in English and others will need support. I always tell them that copying the first two lines is a good start. This can then lead to a mingle activity or an even longer poem. Some of my students this year wrote longer poems and asked if they could present their selfie poems to the class! What started as a mini poem ended as a class celebration of our wins, and I feel that my learners had a real chance to show that selfies can be meaningful when given the chance.
Maria Francesca’s beautiful poem which she presented
Why is building self-esteem important?
The real question should be, why is it not important? I love building teenagers’ self-esteem but I am also an English teacher with deadlines and exam courses to follow. I understand the pressure to ‘fit it all in’. I do, however, believe that by supporting teens to help develop their strengths and cultivate new habits, I am in fact helping to create the right environment for solid language learning to take place. By bringing the teens’ lives to the classroom, I bring the classroom to life and my students’ feedback and improved performance are testament to the power of active listening and positivity.
I can’t wait for you to try out these activities and watch your teenage classroom vibe go from good to amazing!