IH Madrid’s Class Book Competition

by Andy McNeish

Why do you want to read about our young learners’ class book competition? That’s a fair question; we don’t normally tell each other about the competitions we run.  But ‘The Class Book Competition’ (TCBC) has been a bit more than yet another competition for quite a few reasons and these, I’ll wager, will interest you whether you’re a teacher, a DOS or a director.  Read on and find out what made this competition so successful and so special and hopefully this will give you an opportunity to reflect on whether it’s worth doing something like this with your class or school.

So, what is ‘The Class Book Competition’? Apart from being our most successful competition so far, with around 1800 students taking part, TCBC, is a variation on the Travelling Book idea which we[i] first came across this in primary schools in Madrid[ii].   In this, a book with blank pages is given by the teacher to their class. Then, each student takes the book home where, typically, they, and often their family, write in it about what they have done over the summer holidays. It might include scrapbook type items that they have collected, photos, narratives and messages to give just a few examples. We liked this and thought we could exploit this format.  But that rather than summer holidays, we’d ask the students to tell us about their favourite thing(s) as this was easy to understand, universally applicable to all our YL ages and levels and still had a lot of scope for expression.

That was the easy part. It quickly became apparent that this was going to be hugely difficult logistically. Each class needed a book, like a scrapbook. That sounds easy to sort out but they were a nightmare to source in numbers (a gap in the market?). We ended up getting these made up ourselves; we ordered 500, 13-page, A4 ring bound books with an IH-branded TCBC cover.  There was a not insignificant cost involved here. We managed to persuade marketing that this was a worthwhile investment: all of our students would be taking part and they’d be taking part of the class home.  It can be very difficult at times to show parents what their kids are doing and capable of and we hoped that the class book would do that. And as you’ll see, I think, it did.

Another organisational problem we had to overcome was how to fit the competition into a term. Our maximum class size is 12 so we needed twelve weeks to do the competition to give each student a week with the book.  12 weeks per term would leave no margin for error.  However, there were quite a few holidays which meant that classes on Fridays and Saturdays would not have 12 classes in a term.  We decided to do the competition over 2 terms, rather than 3, to keep momentum going.

Then the fun began. And for us before the students! The senior teachers, ADoSes and DoSes had a go first. This proved to be not only good practice but also helped us get an idea of the potential pitfalls, lows and highs.  And most importantly it really did seem to help the students’ generate ideas when it came to their turn.

In a whirl of websites, URLs, fliers, posters, QR codes, instructions, boxes of books and inspirational power points the competition began.  And right away it was clear that we were onto a winner.  Most students responded with enthusiasm.  And from the off there were whispers, rumours and reports of amazing stuff being done.

Teachers and students, week by week, started to discover what made the members of the class tick. We found out that Patricia’s (6) favourite day is going to the park, that Mario’s (6) favourite planet is Saturn (in plasticine), that Lucia (9) loves video games and that Elena not only likes but she excels in Origami! The book coming back was looked forward to with anticipation and its reappearance became a weekly show and tell session.  The teacher listening, the class listening – what better way to build rapport[iii]? And this student-centred interaction was a space for real communication and learning to take place.

YLs were also very excited about it being their turn.  Their turn meant they got to take the book home and talk about themselves – a subject close to all our hearts. Of course they enlisted help.  Great! What better way to spend some quality time with parents?  And in English – superb. For some, perhaps, it was just more homework but I’m sure for many others, English really broke through into something that they were doing in their own time, because they wanted to do it.  The holy communion of motivation, communication and learning.

They really expressed themselves creatively too. There were plasticine planets, books within books, pop up surprises, quotes and questions, textures and colours, writing, cartoons, photos and collage. Very mixed media. This doesn’t always show up too well on the scanned versions you can see online (see below) but in real life these books are a real feast for the senses.  And as such, a veritable feeding-frenzy in terms of multiple intelligences and learning styles.  It’s clear as well, especially, but not exclusively, at higher levels that students have employed may so-called 21st century skills to great effect.

I could go on to describe a few in their intrinsic detail and linguistic delights, painting pictures in words,  but probably best, and certainly easier for me,  you see some for yourself here http://ihmadridtraining.com/myfavourite/

It sounds like a cliché, especially in a competition, but I think here it’s never been truer: everyone’s a winner.

The students got to talk about themselves in a very natural and non-threatening way involving many learning skills. The teachers had some great opportunities to exploit in class. The classes learnt a lot about each other.  Parent’s got to see what their children could do in English. English broke through into the childrens’ lives.  The school got to show what a difference it could make. This competition was viral in an offline kind of way – in fact that’s the very nature of TCBC.

And the winners?  Yes, there were actual winners (see above) and, yes, it was extremely difficult to choose them, (another cliché but all the truer for it) got to see their work online and they had a party in class. They also got an actual copy of their book (again, not cheap, but worth the investment we think).

We’ve published web pages and blogs, had links from the IH World website and even written articles to try and showpiece the amazing work produce through this great idea.  There’ll also be an exhibition at the parents meeting. We hope the students, and parents, are very proud of their work. We are. But more than that: We hope they stop to look through them and learn a little bit more about their classmates, their schoolmates, peers and the tall good-looking one in the other class. Because at the end of the day that’s the idea: That they are motivated to communicate and learn.  And we think that TCBC has managed that on a massive scale.

Author’s Bio: Andy McNeish has worked in EFL since 1999 and has been at IH Madrid since 2003. He is now Academic Director for Young Learners and a teacher trainer. This year he’s teaching primary 1 age kids and B1 teens and working on syllabuses (yes, syllabuses).

[i] Alistair Wood, ADOS here at IH Madrid, came up with this idea after seeing it at his kids’ school.

[ii] ‘Libro viajero’ in Spanish – the English translation, when entered in google, does not produce a wealth of examples

[iii] https://scottthornbury.wordpress.com/2012/01/15/r-is-for-rapport