Improvising with Nancy Sinatra’s “These boots are made for walkin’”
A few moments before starting my lesson on the future, today I told the Teaching Assistant “I like your boots”. This obviously made me think of Nancy Sinatra‘s song These Boots are Made for Walkin’, and by the time I put the bag by the desk, I decided to drop my lesson on the future and make one using that song.
Changing my plans and improvising is something I really like, because it makes my lessons interesting and unique, always original and tailored to the students in front of me.
The reason why I can improvise is that I use the language of the students, so I can keep their attention at all times by making jokes and responding to what they say.
It is true that, through full immersion, students extrapolate the meaning of words and sentences, but this is usually a very slow and superficial process. Using the same techniques, but also being able to count on the language of the students, we are able to do a much more thorough job, explaining quickly the simpler concepts and move to more interesting topics, such as why translating with the dictionary is not good.
The students in this class are 13-year-olds, and many of them think they are smarter than me. When we met the first time they boldly told me that they do their homework with Google Translate. Instead of forbidding to use it, I make them understand the limitations of a dictionary and the habit of translating word for word, pushing them to move away from the thought of considering English a language they don’t speak and focus on the meaning that an author wants to convey.
The sentence These boots are made for walking is a good example. When I initially asked what this meant, almost all of the students raised their hand to give a translation which, while grammatically correct, was wrong in the meaning. They translated literally, which meant nothing.
Making a parallel with Italian, it is like the expression That is the door. If we translate it literally, without taking into consideration the cultural context, for an Englishman that expression means nothing, while a good translator, instead of doing a literal translation, will translate its meaning, namely Get out of my house.
To understand the true meaning of the song (or at least how I interpret it) it is, therefore, necessary to analyze a series of aspects, of which only one is the language.
Much of this conversation took place in Italian, and many English teachers and parents would consider it a waste of time. For me, on the other hand, it acts on another part of the brain, linked to interest and pleasure. By making an effort to understand, students take an active role, as if it were a puzzle to be solved, instead of passively listening to the lesson.
We projected the original video on the classroom screen and I guided them to understand the meaning of the song.
First of all, we noticed that it is a video from the 60s, a period of time of freedom, compared to the conformism of the 50s, and from the miniskirts and the sexy moves we deduced that the song has to do with the thoughts of the singer, who feels emancipated. From who? Probably, given these premises, from the relationship with her man.
So we started to understand the meaning of the song before even focusing on the lyrics, just by reading a situation.
Taking our attention away from the language and constant feeling of I don’t understand English is a very important part of my lessons.
We then analyzed some pieces of the lyrics just focusing on the Keywords, and we realized that it is a song full of resentment:
YOU KEEP LYING when you oughta be truthing
And YOU KEEP LOSING when you oughta not bet
You keep saming when you oughta be a’changing
Now what’s right is right but you ain’t been right yet
Later I focused on the use of tenses (in particular the future), and also slang expressions such as
These boots are made for WALKING
And that’s just what THEY’LL DO
one of These days These boots are GONNA walk all over you
Once we have analyzed the song as a mystery to be solved, in which students were investigators, it’s been time to decipher the mysterious famous sentence These boots are made for walking and what (in my opinion) it means.
At the end of this improvised lesson, the students came to the same conclusion as me, and that is that that sentence means Cicciobello, keep it up and I’ll leave you.
After our English reached the end, it was time to reflect on how it had gone.
The first thing to consider was whether it was worth it. Most of the lesson, in fact, was in Italian. We listened to the lyrics, commented, analyzed and reflected on the meaning. I also taught them grammar with all of the students’ eyes on me, but if we consider Full Immersion the only correct way to learn a foreign language, then it was a failure.
In this hour, the students became passionate, they opened their minds to understand the meaning of the song to crack its meaning, they paid a lot of attention while I was explaining grammar, they understood why using the dictionary is limiting, they learned many new things and understood the importance of knowing the cultural background in order to understand a situation or a person (a concept they will use in their lives) and above all, they got passionate and in their brain, they associated English with something positive they will do with pleasure also on their own.
Among all of them, in fact, those who will have the best results will not be those who will study the most, but those who will become passionate and will continue to use English for what they like.
With this impromptu lesson, I managed to interest the students much more than with the lesson I had prepared, with some games and a focused reading on the use of the future, and I was able to improvise this lesson because I spoke the students’ language. For this reason, I was able to touch on much more engaging topics for them.
Very often, we ask ourselves who is better at teaching English, whether native speakers or foreigners. My personal conclusion is that as long as we teach English exactly as a native speaker does, they will always be the best.
What we should do instead is enhance our strengths. A native speaker who does not speak Italian, for example, could not have improvised a lesson as I did.