I teach a lot of writing classes to first and second year English majors, but I also teach one English language class to a group of 4th year Architecture students. Even students who aren’t English majors have to take four years of English (or test out of them). In these courses, we technically cover all four skills–reading, listening, speaking, and writing, but it is a challenge because of our class sizes, which range from 40 (if we get lucky to 70). As you might imagine, it’s quite a challenge. Most of our general English classes are taught to groups of students with similar majors and are very general in content. That is to say, that we have a series of in-house textbooks that are used with all students, regardless of their majors (again, this does exclude English majors). For those of you who are aware of my “textbook project,” the purpose of that project is to update these general materials, but that’s a topic for another post. After all, I’ve just finished a very long first paragraph and haven’t even mentioned igloos until now.
One of the departments at our University is architecture, and it is a five-year program. So when these students are in their fourth year, they aren’t following the typical senior schedule (which doubles up some course hours for a few weeks to allow for an early departure a few weeks before actual graduation). In addition, various majors have varying reputations for their interest in learning English, and let’s just say that architecture students have had a reputation for not being terribly interested in English. This is where I come in. Two years ago, I was approached about incorporating some architectural materials into the textbook project (which is no problem, since I plan to incorporate a bit of all departments into the upper division books). But more than that, they wanted to pilot an English course that was more focused on the needs (read interests) of their students. This may come as a major shock to those of you who know me, but I took it on, starting with that second semester two years ago. For the two academic years since that time, I continue to have these fourth year students, and I am already scheduled to have them next year.
From the beginning, I met with the Chair and other members of the Department of Architecture faculty to map out a more specialized course for these students. One of the main concerns was that students were unable to talk about their architectural designs in English when they went to conventions and conferences. So after some basic experiences with speaking in front of the group in English, their presentations over the course of the rest of the semester will be to do just that. They will present their presentations as if they are hoping to win a contract for such a building. For example, three of my students are going to present their ideas for nature centers, so those three students will all present their designs on the same day, in a competitive format to try to convince me, the pseudo investor, that their design is worth pursuing. We have six students who have designs for art museums. I also have students who are renovating space to use for businesses. There are lots of options, and I’m trying to set this up to be interesting for everyone and help them get over their fear of speaking in English. Of course, they also have to learn enough English of the architectural variety to be able to talk confidently about their designs.
As a result, I am always on the look-out for things that might be of particular interest to them. We’ve looked at interesting restaurant designs. We’ve done a project where the students work in groups to prepare a PowerPoint presentation about an architectural structure of their choice. I will also show them snippets of videos that explain particular architectural methods or periods. One such snippet had to do with igloos. I chose igloos because the way they are built is quite interesting, but more importantly, many of my students have never seen snow. So igloos are especially fascinating to them. Although, I try different things with different groups, the igloo has been one constant through the three groups I’ve had so far. In fact, I am planning to add some supplemental materials for next year to help focus on building reading skills and build on the interest that these frozen structures bring out in the students.
Here is one of the videos that give a sense of what’s involved in building an igloo. I think it’s safe to say that even in the US, most people will have to wait until next winter to try this at home.