Introducing this issue:
Graduations are traditionally a time to consider what’s most important—the most useful perspectives we can offer young people as they make major decisions about their lives.
There are four great commencement addresses that I want to look at in this newsletter—at least two that are so well known they need no introduction, but I think any of them could be great discussion-starters in an end-of-term intermediate-up ESL class.
All four tell stories to help clarify the meaning of failure and success in life. You are probably already familiar with the speeches Steve Jobs gave at Stanford in 2005 and J.K. Rowling gave at Harvard in 2008.
I found what they said about the
value of failure in their lives compelling. (You can see some quotes, with a brief explanation of a few idioms, on the Learning from Failure page in EnglishHints.)
However, a large part of each talk is in difficult English for language learners. The other two talks I want to mention are equally compelling but in simpler English. (84-87% of their words are in the first thousand of the General Service List of most common words; 90%+ of the words in both are in the top 2,000.)
Atul Gawande (at Williams College in 2012) spoke about “Failure and Rescue.” He pointed out that we cannot avoid all failure, but being prepared for it, and catching it as early as possible, can allow recovery and prevent “failures from becoming a catastrophe.”
He illustrated with the story of an
87-year-old with an unusual complication, and how one doctor’s attention, and his supervisor’s willingness to let him follow through even though the problem seemed unlikely, let them resolve a problem that could so easily have been fatal.
He goes on to show how those same attitudes of humility and willingness to admit early that something has gone wrong can save the day in so many circumstances—from oil rig disasters to personal life. “The only failure is the failure to rescue something.”
Marc Lewis, at the University of Texas in 2000, tells three true stories that combine to make an important point about life. He tells about the acrobat Blondin crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope, then asking an onlooker who expresses confidence in him to “get in the wheelbarrow” to be pushed across.
He also describes a childhood bet he made with two friends about who
would be most successful, and how their ideas of success had changed by the time the bet ended, and how Eddie the Eagle saw success in an Olympic ski jump that many counted as a failure.
I think this is my favorite speech of all, especially as he discusses the way his feelings about success changed over the years. I liked it so much I ended up writing a couple of pages of reading comprehension questions about it and including it in a vocabulary/reading/discussion lesson packet I made to practice goal-setting and goal vocabulary. (See below.)
”Practice Makes Perfect”:
The practice activity for this newsletter is a crossword puzzle reviewing success and achievement vocabulary. Click here for the puzzle, and here for the answers.
I made a lesson packet for ESL teachers including several more pages of games and practice with that vocabulary, the crossword, the Lewis speech comprehension questions, and some class discussion or writing prompts. It’s called “Words for Success”, and is at the bottom of the Academic Vocabulary Worksheets page if you’d like to check it out. (It’s on sale for $3.00, 20% off, for the rest of this week.)
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Coming in the next issue: Shakespeare Revisited
In case you missed these: Earlier issues of English Detective have articles on a number of topics, plus practice with all 570 words
from the Academic Word List. You can check them out with the link to the back issues page below (or find what words were practiced each issue here.
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Also, you can reach me by mail at 1752 Driftwood Drive, El Centro, CA 92243, USA.