Lessons in your Rucksack

Author: John Hughes Publisher: Keyways Publishing On my office wall I have a painting done by a very good friend of mine. It shows two young men walking along a cobbled street in Mexico. Both are wearing casual western clothes and large hats to protect themselves from the sun. They are both carrying large backpacks […]
Reviewed for Teflnet by Lindsay Clandfield

Author: John Hughes
Keyways Publishing

On my office wall I have a painting done by a very good friend of mine. It shows two young men walking along a cobbled street in Mexico. Both are wearing casual western clothes and large hats to protect themselves from the sun. They are both carrying large backpacks (or as our British colleagues would say, rucksacks) with Canadian flags embroidered on them. One is carrying an open map and the other has some books in his hand. The title of the painting is “Los maestros llegan” (The teachers arrive). The two young men are my friend and I, about to start our first ever teaching job at a university in a mountain town in the south of Mexico.

I was twenty-five years old at the time, just off my initial teacher training course in Canada with a desire to live abroad. I would have fallen right into the target market for Lessons in your Rucksack by John Hughes.

Lessons in your Rucksack is, according to the back of the book, aimed at newly qualified teachers, gap year travellers, language assistants, summer school teachers and volunteer teachers. It aims to provide tips, ideas and activities and lesson plans for a first year of TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language).

The book is divided into 13 very sensible chapters, from Surviving your first lesson to Practical matters (which is mostly a collection of websites and addresses for all things TEFL). The chapters cover ground you would expect for a general book of teaching tips: reading activities, grammar tips, sample lesson plans, vocabulary teaching, speaking ideas, listening lessons, conversation classes and writing activities. The inclusion of chapters on summer schools and evening activities are interesting and original choices.

Each chapter contains between ten and fifteen activities. All of the activities are graded by level, with a number of them suitable for any level of students. These activities are indicated by a thumbs-up icon, and teachers will be happy to see a large number of “thumbs up” activities throughout the whole book. It’s an established fact that the majority of novice teachers primarily want a series of practical activities which will help get them through a class and on this count the book delivers. The activities are often tried and tested language teaching favourites, including the notorious ball-toss activity to learn people’s names. However, there are other noteworthy additions which would be attractive to seasoned teachers. The author’s email correspondence sheet for a written role play (page 120) is one such activity. Many of the activities have photocopiable pages, except that in many cases I found these rather small and not particularly attractive to copy (a simple grid or chart, very little artwork) and teachers might prefer to make their own versions if they have access to a computer and a printer at their school.

As well as the activities there are teaching tips dotted throughout the book. Examples include “Establish routines” (for kids’ classes), “Record your lesson” and “Classroom language and instructions”. These are very helpful, and remind me of the kind of thing that teacher trainees on courses find most useful – the little tips and techniques that arise out of observed teaching practice. One slight criticism is about the signposting of these tips; they are in shaded boxes, but then the same shading is used later on for parts of activities (e.g. sample letters or advertisements) which I thought was potentially confusing. Alongside these tips from the author are tips from teachers about their first year in the field. Many of these had me nodding, and they touch on aspects not only of teaching but of living in another country too. My favourite was the following pearl of wisdom from Jenny going to China:

“Other things I’d take are… knickers, bras and shoes if you are going to China and have a big bum, boobs or feet (size 5 is big out there for women).”

This book is very much written for the young, native English-speaking teacher leaving home to teach abroad. At least the book makes no pretence of being anything else, and in a way this is nice because many publishers are far more interested in the local, non-native English speaking teachers who make up the bulk of English teaching worldwide.

My only major criticism of the book is the title. First of all, rucksack feels like a very English word and many North American teachers might wonder what it is (fortunately there is a picture of a rucksack on the cover). Secondly, the image of the “backpacker teacher” trotting around the globe with little or no training is one which has plagued English language teaching over the past twenty years or more. I’ve heard many teachers, novice and non-novice, say that they don’t want to be thought of as a “backpacker teacher”. So, while the title may appeal to twentysomethings thinking of fleeing the UK during the credit crunch and searching for adventure, it’s also a title that I suspect many slightly more experienced teachers would reject- which would be a pity, because the content is anything but amateur.

In short, I’d recommend this as a good first book of activities for first year teachers. It’s got sound classroom advice and a fair few activities to get you started. It’s the right size too for a book for travellers and it won’t take up too much precious room in your rucksack/backpack.

Happy trails.

Reviewed by Lindsay Clandfield for TEFL.net February 2009
Lindsay Clandfield is a teacher, teacher trainer and writer based in Spain. He is the author of Dealing with Difficulties (with Luke Prodromou, DELTA publishing) and The Language Teacher's Survival Guide (with Duncan Foord, It's Magazines). He also has a blog, www.sixthings.net, a collection of miscellany from the world of ELT.

One Comment

  • Kerry Howard says:

    I totally agree. While I gave it to my son who was off to China for a holiday on the off chance he might do some teaching, I have just arrived to teach in Hong Kong as an experienced teacher and I’ve found it a great resource. It didn’t take up too much room in my suitcase either – and for the first two weeks – to get me started – it’s great.

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