Unexplained mysteries as a teaching aid

by Edward Crabtree

Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast – Lewis Carroll

"This is all crazy," says a middle-aged man holding a photocopy of a supposed photo of a ghost. He sits in a circle of adults and teenagers as creepy music sounds in the background.

"You have not seen a ghost?" asks a female student.

"Nobody has," he says. "Except for my mother – only my mother."

There is laughter.

Having made unexplained enigmas, such as ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle and so on, the topic of many class discussions, I am forever struck anew at just how effective they can prove in emboldening people into good language use. This is an attempt to explain why, and to give some tips on how to conduct such debates.

I have soldiered on with English language teaching in Britain and Russia for over an decade and yet still do not consider myself to be any kind of master linguist, and still less an inspirational coach. Perhaps some teachers live and breathe their language, but for most of us we chalk and talk by day to earn a crust: by night we become fans of teams, players in bands, or (say) international spies or (say) Lotharios and, in my case, a journalist who scribbles copy on the unexplained.

It is the students themselves, the adults and teens for whom the language is a lingua franca of opportunity, who provide the real energy of the classes. To encourage them to do so, however, I need to present myself to them as a fully rounded human being, complete with my own enthusiasms.

Ten years ago I was responsible for delivering a Study Skills class at an International Sixth Form in Britain. My students were made up for the most part of West African students who wished to go on to graduate at British universities. They were lively and inquisitive young people, whereas the course, I knew, could all too easily become dry even it its aim was to promote critical and creative thinking.

It so happened that, in my 'other life', I had embarked on a book by the Austrian mountaineer Reinhold Messner entitled `My Search for the Yeti`. The author’s investigation into what may or may not have been a myth tied me up in all sorts of epistemological riddles which required me to think in I just such a critical and creative manner. Why, I asked myself, should I lead a double life? Is this not the stuff of which Study skills classes should be made?

So when I arranged for a class head-to-head for and against the existence of the yeti and Bigfoot, complete with visual and audio materials for both sides, the classes became enlivened. The discussion would even proceed beyond the walls of the classroom and reverberated long after the event itself.

Chewing over the unexplained became a well-attended permanent fixture of my English language sessions when I later found myself leading ESL courses in Nizhnevartovsk, the Kazan and then Moscow. There was always a call for class debates either as an extra provision or as a part of ordinary classes, and a scramble for appropriate subject matter.

Special Power

Mysteries exert a fascination which is cross cultural. They are controversial without treading over too many areas of political and cultural sensitivity. (This is so as a rule, although there are cultural variations. The students in some countries may approach, for example, the issues of ghosts and the afterlife in a more serious way than others).

The open ended 'What if?' nature of the subject calls upon the imaginations of the students and shakes them out of standardised pre-learnt responses. The relaxing balm of humour, meanwhile, is also called forth – always a plus for any attempt at group speaking.

You can also open up a lexical treasure trove. What does 'Unidentified flying Object' mean? Why do we use the collocation 'Flying Saucer'? (The Russian language equivalent, after all, is 'Flying Plate'). What exactly does it mean to be an 'alien'? Is a 'ghost' the same thing as a 'spirit'? And so on. Dialogues about possibilities make use of the second conditional, evaluating the verity of various claims elicits modals of possibility, and describing mysterious events can require complex passive forms.

Best of all though, as the teachers themselves can provide no clear answers, the teacher-student barrier is broken down. In fact, he or she needs to get ready to find their own worldviews challenged, and to learn anew (It was from my students that I first heard of the 'domovoi': the troll like spirit which they say dwells in the cupboards of Russian homes).

The ingredients

To ensure that the debates are heartfelt, the teacher (more a master of ceremonies) must allow the subject matter the honour of being serious about it. You must get ready to play Devil’s Advocate for and against any proposition (should you believe that the Nazca lines in Peru were set up to communicate with interstellar visitors, then you must also mention the possibility that it could also be that they are just the artefacts of a culture that had believed its gods dwelt in the sky, and vice versa).

Provide all this, and then a natural structure emerges: someone always elects themselves to be the voice of scepticism, just as someone will oppose them as a spokesperson of wide-eyed belief. Then there will be all the shades of agnosticism in between, as well as one joker of the pack.

British and American popular culture abounds with ghost stories, and it is not too hard to find texts on this issue. Likewise, next to Agatha Christie, the Loch Ness Monster must be the UK’s best known cultural export (I once showed a flash card of a brontosaurus to an eleven year old Russian girl – my aim was to elicit the word 'dinosaur' – 'Nessie' she said with confidence).

Halloween is now marked in many countries worldwide and can provide a good spring board to consider all things spectral, in particular with the age group that has grown up with 'Twilight'. Then maybe you can call on that merry band of debunkers who also enjoy an international profile – Scooby Doo.

To give a taste of what hard copy resources English language textbooks have to offer here are a few that I found in an hour or two:

  • The New English File Upper Intermediate Student Book (Oxford University Press, 2001) features a discussion of telepathy and other psychic powers called `It’s all in the Mind` (pages 80-83). This showcases the use of relative clauses.
  • The New Cutting Edge Upper Intermediate Student Book (Pearson Education Limited, 2005) contains a chapter called `Mysteries. Problems. Oddities. ` (pages 96-101), a topic which elicits modals and past modals.
  • The Face 2 Face Upper Intermediate Student Book (Cambridge University Press, 2013) introduces a section called `Spooky` (pages 100 to 101) which reports on ghost hunting weekends, with the use of idioms.
  • The English File Upper Intermediate Student Book 3rd Edition (Oxford University Press, 2014) boasts a unit entitled `Do You Believe It?` (pages 8 to9) which rakes over the unexplained in general with comparative adjectives and auxiliary verbs.

Your own – and their – experiences might also be thrown into the cauldron too. For many years my real life 'encounter-with-a-UFO-over-Nizhnevartovsk' became an oft-told tale. What I saw, in all probability, was a Chinese lantern, but the students have proffered many more explanations.

Last but not least, the ambience of suitable atmospheric background music can do much to bring a sense of occasion to the proceedings (I use the eerie soundtrack to Fatal Attraction by Maurice Jarre).

When the magic has been unleashed, the participants will engage in verbal battles without thinking of the fact that they are using your target language. After all, we use our tongues for so much more than ordering cokes or getting job promotions. We use them to fill in the gaps, to groom each other and to speculate and tell tales.

Author’s Bio: Edward Crabtree is from the North-western coast of England. From the late nineties up until the mid noughties he tried to make a living as an adult education tutor in and around Leicester. Then, following a stint of volunteer teaching in Moldova he discovered teaching English as a foreign language and has since been teaching English at all levels to Russians in West Siberia, Tartastan and now Moscow.

He has been published in Fortean Times, Moscow Times, Leicester Mercury, and writes regularly for Unexplained Mysteries.com and UFO-Digest online.