Thursday, 2 June 2011

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From Morrissey to Marmite - Why You Need To Help Your Students Find Their Passion

Morrissey, the British singer best known as the singer of the Smiths, is one of those decisive characters that is ever loved or hated in roughly equal measure. We have a phrase for that in British English, the Marmite effect, named after the particularly pungent yeast-based spread that seems to divide the public in two. This is something that Marmite themselves haven't been afraid to exploit, as you can see below:

Anyway, back to Morrissey. It seems that he's an extreme example of the Marmite effect, as the people who dislike him appear to loathe him. He has been accused of racism on more than one occasion, unfounded I think (I think he loves being a provocateur, sometimes with unfortunate consequences). At the other end of the spectrum, the people who love him take adulation to a whole other level that is difficult for the non-acolytes to comprehend.

I have first hand experience of this as in a previous, non-ELT life, I was a music buyer for a central London music store. One day I was told that he was downstairs having a browse in our DVD section. I immediately rushed to find my friend, one of the believers in the church of Morrissey, who, standing about 15 metres away from him, staring with bloodshot eyes and with the tears slowly forming, asked me "Should I go and speak to him?" Weighing up the facts at hand and the very likely prospect of Morrissey being slightly disturbed by the sight of my blubbing incoherent friend, I thought of that sage maxim that I live by to this day: "Never meet your heroes." It was probably for the best, I think.

At this point you are probably and justifiably wondering why I am banging on about a bequiffed indie singer on an ELT blog, but hang on in there, I'm getting to the point.


Recently I was talking to a friend, who speaks superb English as his second language and was an English teacher in his own previous life, about his own love of Morrissey and suddenly all this worship made sense. He described how as a gay teenager he pored over the lyrics of The Smiths' songs, finding meaning and understanding in poetry that seemed to be written for him and his life.

This led him into a distant love affair with not only the singer and writer of the song, but also the land of their origin and the language that they were written in. These brilliant lyrics, dripping with wit, beautiful wordplay and culture, were analysed and deciphered. My friend described how he was desperate to visit England, a country far from his own that was hardly portrayed in the most positive way:

"Trudging slowly over wet sandBack to the bench where your clothes were stolenThis is the coastal townThat they forgot to close downArmageddon - come Armageddon!Come, Armageddon! Come!Everyday is like SundayEveryday is silent and grey."

Lyrics from the Morrissey song Everyday Is Like Sunday.

He was also equally despairing to understand all of the lyrics that seemed to speak to him directly.

"I am human and I need to be lovedJust like everybody else does.
There's a club, if you'd like to goYou could meet someone who really loves youSo you go, and you stand on your ownAnd you leave on your ownAnd you go homeAnd you cryAnd you want to die "

Lyrics from The Smiths How Soon Is Now.

And as my friend said "it meant the world for a depressed, ill-loved 17 year-old". And as an aside, he also learned the meaning of some useful vocabulary (soil, climb, cling, bride, groom, loutish, and good-looking were all gleaned from just one song, I Know It's Over).

As teachers, we are unlikely to find that most students have this kind of love and passion towards the language we teach. However, this conversation reminded me that if we discover, whether by accident or design, that our students find some aspect of the culture and subsequently the language of interest to them, we have to pounce upon it and use this as a way of encouraging their continuing studies. If the greatest resource in our classroom is the student themselves, then to miss this opportunity would be more than unfortunate, for both the teacher and particularly for the student.

It is normal, maybe even human, for us to enter the classroom with our own pre-assigned set of tastes and values which we cannot help but be influenced by. I know I do this, because more often than not I end up directing learners towards the Guardian because I think it's a great newspaper. The positive side of this is that our students can interact with a teacher who is passionate and cares about a subject or source of material. It gives them the chance to become involved with an authentic element of the culture in an enriching way.

The flipside is that it is prescriptive, and an imposition of taste upon the learner. I'm wondering if I had a student who loved Celine Dion and, god forbid The Daily Mail (no links to them, you may notice), would I be able to set aside my prejudices and cash in on their passions, even though it would make my job less pleasant? I don't know, because as far as I know, it's never happened, and that's the problem, I never gave them the chance to tell me.

So these thoughts lead me to the conclusion that when I'm doing needs analysis with a new student(s), I need to give them the chance to tell me about their current and past relationship with English language culture, and any passions they may have. It is entirely possible that there is nothing that they care about strongly, but I at least have to give them the chance to tell me, so I can cast my own prejudices aside and make the learning experience as rich as I can for the student.

And if I was teaching my friend now, I would fill his classes with the poetry of Morrissey and the taste of Marmite, which is, appropriately enough, his other great British obsession.



  1. Great post! Very simple yet often overlooked premise, which as you say often leads to potentially enriching experiences for students not being cashed in on.


  2. Terrific post, James! To add to your excellent reasons for tapping into our students' passions, it means we get to learn new stuff too.

    And I have just learnt that you used to be a music buyer. How interesting!



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