(This posting includes a handout which you are welcome to use with your students.)
These days when I go for a run with my mask on, I find myself falling out of a habit that I had had pre-pandemic: smiling at other runners and walkers on the trails. With the mask covering my mouth, a smile seemed silly.
However, neuroscience researchers say–No, it’s not silly. In fact, a smile, even if it is unseen, can have a positive effect on our emotions and on those people whom we are smiling at.
As our campuses slowly open up to more face-to-face contact with colleagues, students and others we come across while still wearing masks, we’ll have opportunities to increase a feeling of connectedness and well-being with just a little effort behind our masks.
I could see from my roster for the upcoming term that the infamous Eddie would soon be attending my Advanced ESL Writing class. Eddie was slowly making his way through our academic ESL program and was well-known for his sense of humor and for continually arriving late to class. Having heard from his previous teachers about the unsuccessful strategies they had tried to use to get him to come on time, I decided to try a different approach.
Coincidentally, around this time, I was preparing to make a proposal to our program director and instructors and was trying to decide how best to present it. To get our Writing Course students to read more, I decide to recommend that we assign them to read for an hour a week and write a brief reading journal. And in order to not add more work for the teachers, I was hoping we could hire a person or two be a “Reading Journal Reader” who would read and write comments on the journals. (For more details about using a “Reading Journal Reader,” see One of Best Uses of an ESL Program’s Funds—And a Giant Help to Teachers. )
Fortunately, I had recently listened to Psychologist Adam Grant’s podcast “Worklife” in which he tells about a skill we can use when we’re trying to initiate a request. It’s counter-intuitive, but I’ve found, it’s quite effective.
One day, a colleague, Sarah, who was relatively new to the ESL teaching field, told me about two grammar questions that one of her students had presented to her. (*If you are curious, you can see the questions and my explanation at the end of this posting.) She said that after class, she had spent quite a bit of time searching for answers on the internet but to no avail. Finally, she decided to ask me.
It turned out to be a fun interaction and a kind of puzzle for me to solve. On my drive home after classes that day, I realized that I was feeling great, but I didn’t think that there was any specific reason for it. A while later, I happened to come across some research that perhaps explained my exuberant emotion. And it had nothing to do with it being a Friday.
Maybe this is why students tend to love their ESL classes.
We can actually include something in our lessons that will fire up the reward brain circuits in our students’ brains. However, there can be a downside to this.
Neuroscientists at Harvard found that people’s brain reward circuits lit up when they were talking about themselves. Amazingly, doing this can trigger the same sensations of pleasure in the brain as food, money or sex.
In other words, talking about ourselves feels good. In fact, it feels so good that participants in a study were willing to accept 25% less money if it meant that they could talk about themselves rather than talk about someone else.
This research has interesting implications for our ESL classes.
We now know how to help our students enjoy conversation activities, and that’s good. However, it’s not as easy as it sounds. Apparently, some students like the brain pleasure they feel so much that they can’t stop themselves from dominating conversations talking about themselves.
Techniques to encourage conversations/discussions but that keep students from dominating the activities.