My English Safety Light

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Two years ago went to Goodwill (yes, the one from the video), and came back with a $5 lamp.  I put a blue compact fluorescent bulb in it, and then put it on top of the media cart at the front of my classroom.

And that’s how I built my English Safety Light!  When the light is not on, it is DANGEROUS to speak English in my class.  When it’s on, it’s still not great to speak English… there might still be a disaster.. but at least the safety is on.  And that’s how we stay in the target language.

Here’s the deal:  do not do a bunch of explaining about the light on that first day when classes begin in the fall.  I usually tell them about the lamp in the target language (i.e., in Mandarin or Spanish), but in the middle of it, I’ll switch the light on mid-sentence, and continue in English for just a moment or two… but then quickly switch it off and go back to the target language.  They find the switching to be dazzling.

The students will at first assume that it’s an English-as-much-as-you-want light, and they’ll point at it like it’s some kind of magical protection for them to speak English in my classroom, and that’s when I growl at them that their English still makes me mad, light or no light.  And then I go over and turn it off.

Why is it blue… and bare, you ask?  Well, that’s because I want the English Safety Light to be annoying. I want it to glare in their eyes, and for them to hate it and want it to be off off. The point is that everyone should want the light to be off.  I would really prefer to never have it on.  Sometimes they ask if it’s ok to ask a question in English, and I’ll turn the English Safety Light on for them so they can ask.  But if it turns out to be something they could have said or asked in English, I go back over and turn it off, scowling and grumbling under my breath. Then I make them ask me again in the target language, like they should have from the beginning.

One time, a student asked if he could ask a question in English, and I indicated that he should go ahead.  He looked awkwardly at the unlit English Safety Light and asked hesitantly if I was going to turn it on for him.  I gestured for him to get up and turn it on himself, because I had JUST SAT DOWN.  He rolled his eyes and proceeded to ask his question (perfectly fine!) in the target language.

The freshmen are very mystified by the English Safety Light.  I purposely remain vague about the limits of its operation, because I want them to be cool.  By the time they are sophomores, they become very policy-oriented.  They want the rules of the light to be stated explicitly, and are ready to litigate against me when they feel that I have violated their rights under the light, which is hilarious because it’s not the “Inalienable Right To English” light; it’s the English Safety Light. It’s there for their safety.

As juniors, my students don’t see the blue light on as much, since we try to stay in the target language; everybody’s more comfortable that way.  However, junior boys are sometimes hilarious comedians, and so they’ll ask to speak English under the pretext of asking a question, but really they just want to show off their hilarious comedy, and be the comedy heroes of Chinese or Spanish class.  So when they ask to speak English, I turn the question over to the class:  ¿lo dejamos hablar en inglés?  我们让他说英文,好不好? Shall we let him speak English?

At the beginning of the year, the class usually answers “yes, let’s let him speak English.”  The light goes on, and he asks the question.  If it’s genuinely a good question, I answer it and we all benefit from it, and I turn off the light and thank and affirm him for his good question.  But if he starts doing comedy… “How do you say “one time my dog farted and…” no, it’s a serious question…” and by that time I’m scowling and muttering under my breath and walking over to the light and turning it of and shaking my head and spooning up the side-eye.

The next time that boy asks to speak in English, he usually has that “I’m obviously about to do a comedy set” giggle all over his face and shirt… I turn it over to the class, asking  ¿lo dejamos hablar en inglés?  我们让他说英文,好不好? Shall we let him speak English?  But this time, the answer is a tired “noooooooo” or a fed-up “不要” or even a “不用”.  I shrug and explain to him that the class said “no” and then move on with the lesson.  I personally think it’s hilarious that the rest of the class is shutting down the comedy, but I don’t show it… I just shrug and move on quickly.
Update: my friend John tells me I should probably be asking “我们允许他说英文,好不好?” 允许 is a better choice for “to allow.” Thanks, John!

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