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If I were in your shoes… by Margaret Horrigan

If I were in your shoes…
By Margaret Horrigan

Perhaps some of you know that 2010 is the UN’s year of biodiversity. Now, biodiversity is a term I heard a few years ago and it essentially was used back then to refer to the animal and plant kingdom. However, if we take Bill Bryson’s (2003) word for it, our every atom is part of something more immense and more ancient than our physical essence, the universe. In this sense, every human being is essential to the well being of the world as we know it. This is particularly true if we think of what a group of people can do to cause disruption to the Earth and its well-being, but this is not my issue here. I am not interested right now in groups. Quite the opposite. I am interested in individuals.

My English language teacher slant on 2010 as the year of biodiversity is on the individual. My slant is that every human being is special because they are different and have something to give. For so many years we have focused on similarities among peoples and cultures to disperse intolerance. It is, however, natural to feel comfortable with the familiar. There is no real learning if we focus on what is the same so let’s try to appreciate what is different between cultures as well. That is my biodiversity…knowing that what is different about us as individuals makes us special.

The idea
I went to a seminar where the speaker, Vinicio Ongini, presented his book (2009) in Rome recently and the topic was the role of shoes in children’s literature and how this fed into the inter-cultural programme that many schools in Italy are encouraging. Italy like many nations has a large immigrant population and the most wonderful state school teachers who, with little or no support from the state, strive to be aware of each new student’s situation and how to integrate all learners into their learning programmes.

I had an entire vision in my head of how this seminar might evolve. I was of course wrong, the presenter spoke at length about shoes in fairytales. When I asked my age-old Italian friend, Rosaria, what the practical applications of the seminar were after about 40 minutes of anecdotes and stories she pointed out that so far everything was related to inter-cultural issues. I was enjoying the seminar but had to leave after an hour and on the way home on the underground I was already planning my own ‘shoes’ seminar and have opted to share my ideas here first.

When we come into this world the first part of us, usually, to get here is our feet. From this precise moment the race to get a pair of shoes on those feet is on! Your very first pair are very often preserved in bronze! Indeed, the Carrie Bradshaw addiction to shoes is not, my friends, a myth. I know quite a lot of women who have this problem. Why this addiction? Well, shoes do tend to say a lot about us. In no less than two Nanni Moretti films, Bianca(1983) and Sogni d’Oro (1981), the protagonist  reveals his ability to grasp people’s personalities just by looking at their shoes. In his most famous film, Caro Diario, he bickers with a surburban dweller who proves Morettii 100% right by wearing slippers in public! You can get your hand and shoe prints on the sidewalk of Hollywood Boulevard outside the Chinese Theatre if you are famous enough. The ancient Roman Emperor, Caligula, was so called after a type of sandal. In short, we are fascinated by shoes. Always have been and probably always will be.

There is, however, the significant but not particularly special issue of student days where buying second hand clothes is absolutely fine but lowering yourself to wearing second-hand shoes is not! Shoes have the scratches and dents of our everyday toils. Shoes have the DNA of sweat and dead skin cells of the wearer. In reality you can’t really wash the previous owner away from a pair of shoes, now can you? In language terms most of us want to ‘pop our clogs’ ‘with our boots on’ and spend our time here not ‘getting too big for our boots’… shoes are important, I think you are getting the picture.

The speaker at the seminar I mentioned earlier referred a lot to Cinderella and the Elves and the shoemaker fairy tales. I have come up with a few more: Hermes- because he had winged sandals, The Wizard of Oz- Dorothy and her ruby red slippers, and, don’t forget that ‘There was an old woman who lived in a shoe!  The speaker also mentioned one vital piece of information, at least for me, the fact that shoes come in pairs…

We have a left shoe and, obviously a right shoe. Now, on reflection, I noticed that the opposite of right can also be wrong and that the Italian word for ‘left’ is ‘sinistro’ which also just happens to be the translation for the English ‘sinster’. So, shoes are the person’s yin and yang. We have both good and evil within us, basically nobody is perfect. Shoes also come in many colours, shapes and sizes. Shoes can be new and old…the other opposite of ‘old’ is of course ‘young’. Shoes sometimes have ‘eyes’ where we thread our laces through and they can often also have tongues. A shoe also has a sole. So do we, it’s just spelt differently.

Shoe Lessons
So, what to do with the potential of shoes for raising awareness about how special we and other people are? What follows are a few ideas on how to use shoes in the classroom in this, or any other year.

1. Let students talk about their shoes. They may want to talk about the ones they are wearing which is great because we can work on the present forms! So, then, the next logical step is to…
2. …let students bring in an old pair of shoes that they owned and talk about them. Past tense anyone?
3. Someone else’s shoes? Third person singular and speculative language such as ‘ I think’, ‘Maybe’, ‘Perhaps’ etc.
4. Getting pictures off the internet of shoes from around the world and using these to springboard from speculating or predicting into a relevant text.
5. Students create paper flip flops and write the journey of the flip flop on the sole.  These flip flops could be placed on display around the school.
6. Find a number of idiomatic expressions which refer to shoes and write a story around them which you can tell to your learners.
7. Create a shoe book where you can only see people’s shoes on one page and on the facing page the words ‘She/He might …’ and elicit ideas from the learners.
8. Take digital photos of your students’ shoes and get them to write profiles of the owner, not themselves, a couple of weeks down the line.
9. Create a shoe tree to show how man got to where he is today by using images of shoes, from more ancient to modern, and why the shoes look the way they look
10. Bring in a few shoes which are representative of members of a family and create stories around them. Shock the world if you can and create unusual families.
11. Tell them the fairytales involving shoes I mentioned earlier!
12. Let them listen to Depeche Mode’s ‘Walking in My Shoes’ and fill in gaps in the lyrics
13. If you’ve got a class of fortysomethings they might enjoy listening to Nik Kershaw’s ‘Wouldn’t it be Good’ and doing a gapfilled lyrics task
14. Both of the previous tasks cry out for a discussion about why we use shoes to try and imagine another person’s situation
15. Use the process of making shoes to introduce temporal cohesive devices
16. Let them tell you what your shoes say about you
17. Read and discuss with them dEBra Canada’s ‘Walk a Mile in My Shoes’ rare disease awareness week which is easily found on the internet
18. Have a paper shoe-making competition ala’ Project Runway to encourage teamwork and co-operation
19. Have a brainstorming session on things you can do with old shoes…and then do them!!! Check out essortment.com for other ideas.
20. Let students bring in their old shoes and paint them on the theme of biodiversity!
21. Create a geographical wall display of shoes!
22. ‘These boots are made for walking’…girl power pre-Spice Girls!
23. Visit http://idioms.thefreedictionary.com/shoe and read through the endless shoe idiomatic expressions and get learners to create a role-play/scenario with them
24. Bring in a picture of pairs of shoes you would never wear to teach language such as ‘too high’, ‘absolutely ridiculous’, ‘way too wild’, ‘far too uncomfortable’… in a spontaneous manner.
25. Visit http://www.ugandatreeoflifeministries.org/soles.php to see why some people would wear second hand shoes!

I hope I have left you with a few ideas on how the theme of shoes can guide your lessons for 2010 as the year of biodiversity and how to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity through respect for what is different among peoples. If not, I apologise. But hey, if all you do is plant a seed in an old boot and watch it grow…


• Bill Bryson (2003), A short history of nearly everything
• Nanni Moretti (1983) Bianca: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gHJtjgc-zuk
• Nanni Moretti (1981) Sogni d’Oro: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKyQXQViRcg
• Vinicio Ongini (2009),  Le altre Cenerentole. Il giro del mondo in 80 scarpe
• http://www.essortment.com/lifestyle/oldshoesrecyc_sges.htm
• dEBRA Canada: ebrelay.org/

Author’s Bio:
Margaret Horrigan has been an English language teacher since 1991. She teaches adults and children and is a Cambridge trainer of DELTA, CELTA and CELTYL courses and assessor of CELTA and CELTYL. Margaret holds an MA in Applied Linguistics and TESOL and is currently Director of Teacher Training at IH Rome.

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