Burning questionnaires

Mosaics from Burning Questionnaires by Ian James, Anne Robinson, Ceri Jones and Dale Coulter


I consider myself a Dogme teacher, it’s what interests me, or, more than that, it’s what motivates me, and, even when not in ‘full Dogme mode’, the principles behind Dogme underly my teaching philosophy and practice. I firmly believe in the student’s right to choose, to learn in their own way, to be respected by their teacher(s) and not simply treated like ‘just one more’, but of course most of us work within the constraints of an institution, with a syllabus, a coursebook, tests to be passed, a Director of Studies (and parents) to be kept happy, boxes to tick. In my ‘institutional’ work, I have a coursebook, but also a very open-minded, ‘tuned-in’ DoS who is happy to allow me to be as learner-orientated as I wish / they need, but my classes are generally of 20+ students, so true personalisation is on a student-by-student-per-class basis, or by applying a type of democracy. Not so in my one-to-one classes. Pure Dogme (or Dogme 2.0, as I always have my laptop to hand and my students usually arrive armed with smartphones and/or iPads) is par for the course (with a Plan B, just in case), and the ELTpics suite of resources is a big ingredient in some of the more successful lessons.

The other day I was talking to a student, a journalist by profession, about the interview blog, the Burning Questionnaire (*for the origin of The Burning Questionnaire, see the end of this post) – I can’t remember why, but as a journalist, we may have been talking about – hey – interviews. We went into the blog, and I showed him some of the mosaics chosen by interviewees (see above for examples), and we spoke about what they might say about those people. My student’s curiosity was piqued, so we read Dale Coulter’s interview. I hadn’t particularly noticed the language in Dale’s answers – the blog is aimed at ELT people after all – but my student found it fascinating. He is of what used to be called Intermediate or Upper Intermediate level – B1 or B2, depending on the day – and he enjoyed reading chunks out loud and playing with the pronunciation, for example with Dale’s description of Vince Vaughan in Swingers as an ‘outrageously misogynistic character’ (and this reviewed the word ‘tongue-twister’ from an earlier lesson..). We spoke about music, motivation, why we become what we become, professionally, and about the film – and book – High Fidelity by Nick Hornby. My student (J.R.) was genuinely interested in Mr Coulter, to the extent that we decided to read another interview and compare them. Ian James was our next subject, and my student was even keener, particularly upon reading Ian’s musical tastes, as J.R is a music buff with even more musical knowledge than the guys in High Fidelity. Ian’s explanation for where it all started brought mirth, then

Scribblings.    From an image by Fiona Mauchline at eltpics (click for full image)

Scribblings.    From an image by Fiona Mauchline at eltpics (click for full image)

the musical recommendations agreement; vocabulary items were discussed ‘scribblings’, ‘pews’, ‘toad-in-the-hole’, and we compared notes on Ian’s recommended films, particularly as one of them is set here in Extremadura, more language chunks for pronunciation, the meaning of inspiration, and just who WAS (IS) Jenny Agutter

I asked J.R if he fancied writing his own answers to the Burning Questionnaire, and he agreed, seeming quite keen after having read two examples and, I think, been impressed by the eloquence of the ‘average’ ELT person 🙂 I slightly modified the questions to suit a journalist rather than a teacher. and emailed them to him. A day or two later, he sent me his first draft, and we looked through it in class, without writing on it in any way. I pointed out areas that I felt could be improved on, either in language or spelling, and we discussed his answers in terms of content, much as we had discussed Dale’s and Ian’s. After class, I highlighted in yellow the areas we’d suggested he improve on, and he redrafted his answers. Very few errors remained. I sent a quick email querying a couple of things and he sent me his final draft, and his choice of four ELTpics. I have asked his permission to reproduce his work below. And believe me, this is a student who is B1- B2, but you can see how his imagination has been caught by the writings of Messers Coulter and James, and how the desire to write well shines through. If you have any one-to-one classes, or perhaps even groups well managed (reading and discussing in smaller groups), you may like to try this idea. It certainly worked for J.R.

My Student’s Burning Questionnaire (NB this is his third draft, uncorrected, and presented in the same way as those on the Burning Questionnaire blog, with his mosaic and individual images):


What is your full name, and where did it all start?

José Ramón Valdivia González, heir to a dynasty of conquerors from Extremadura. Hahahaha. One of my history teachers told me that my ‘great, great, great grandfather’ Pedro de Valdivia, conqueror –or defiler of Chile, as we see- was killed by the natives, who used his bones to make cups, plates… cookware . I guess it all started there.

What music do you listen to while driving/cooking/contemplating your navel?

Depends if I’m alone in the car or not. With (my wife), rumba and singers like Pablo Alborán. It’s a dictatorship. When I can choose – most of the time- I turn on my iPod, connect it to Chevrolet and and let the music play randomly: Sigur Ros, Love of Lesbian,

Image by @fionamau at eltpics

Image by @fionamau at eltpics

Maga, Belle and Sebastian, Leonard Cohen, Dylan …

When I cook, I do the same. Sometimes I prefer flamenco, especially Camaron, El Cabrero and Poveda. By the way, ‘Three daggers’ is a masterpiece. “I’ve bought three daggers for you to give me death. The first: indifference. The second: betrayal. And the third: stainless steel if you have courage”. Great! I have recommended this song to all my friends.

Do not usually look at my belly button … metaphorically, either.

What’s the most satisfying – or frustrating – aspect of your job?

Satisfying: Communicating. Informing citizens and stimulating their analytical and critical capability.

Frustrating: Seeing every day unscrupulous businessmen who do not know the mass media are demolishing the foundations of good journalism and democracy.

Writing or on the air? Why?

Both of them. I still haven`t found what I’m looking for. Today, I prefer to fly on the air. Tomorrow, who knows… But always writing.

A teacher from your schooldays:

It’s hard to say, but none of my teachers — and I’ve had dozens- influenced me. In none of did I find that mixture of passion and knowledge to become a reference in my life. I barely remember the names of ten or twelve.

What was the first thing you learnt as a journalist?

Absolute truth does not exist. Nor does objectivity.

Image by @fionamau at eltpics

Image by @fionamau at eltpics

What motivates/inspires you most?

The good people always motivate me and inspire me. Every day I search for them in the pages of newspapers, on the television news, on the streets, in the family, among my friends…

Do you ever cry in the cinema?

Many times. Especially with emotion. With ‘Schindler’s list’, ‘Cinema Paradiso’, ‘It’s a wonderful life’… The list is very long. My private little secret (not anymore) is related to a Jennifer Lopez’s movie called ‘Maid in Manhattan’. I’ve seen this film twice and I cried both. She is an immigrant hotel maid and a famous congressman falls in love with her. Cheesy, no?

Your favourite meal? Where? And perhaps with whom?

A good stew of chickpeas, with their meat and vegetables. With good wine, of course. Best at home. Although I would say that the most pleasant culinary moment is when Mati and I eat paella at the beach bar in Aguablanca (Ibiza).

A dream?

See my son become a honest, honorable and happy man.

Favourite film?

I will not be original: The Godfather saga. Under the excuse of the mafia and the family, the three films complete a metaphor for life, with their miseries and greatnesses. Few days ago, when Ratzinger flew, I remembered the third movie. If we talk about Spanish cinema, I love –and hate– ‘Los santos inocentes’, because it’s masterful and reflects the Extremadura that should never exist again. Not everything is going to be drama. ‘The front page’, from Billy Wilder, is the best comedy I’ve ever seen. Oops, I said five movies … and

Image by Phil Bird (@pysproblem81) at eltpics

Image by Phil Bird (@pysproblem81) at eltpics

all, including the last, are dramas. I’m sorry.

A sport?

Rugby, because it contains all the human values ​​that I cant`t find in football or basketball. In rugby, players fight to the death to win, but always respecting the opponent, without tricks. Also, this historic sport has managed to integrate new technologies to solve problems. Basketball begins to do it. In football, it’s unthinkable. Football is another world. “Football is football”, said the historic coach Helenio Herrera.

Beach, mountains or city?

Beach, of course. It is the ideal of every ‘extremeño de dehesa’. Few things are comparable to a day at the beach, swimming, talking to friends, reading a book, having a beer at the beach bar and watching the sunset. In Ibiza or Zahara better.

Image by Steve Nickodemski (@senicko) at eltpics

Image by Steve Nickodemski (@senicko) at eltpics

Day or night?

The night, because the night belongs to lovers, as legendary musicians like Patty Smith, The Boss or Natalie Merchant have sung. At night, I find the necessary solitude to cultivate my spirit, or to destroy it. I always find inspiration, peace and food for my life. Also at night I have shared the best moments with my family and friends. Definitely, I’m a vampire.


* The Burning Questionnaire was originally a feature in an old ‘webzine’ of mine called The Atlantic Forum, back in the day (about 12 years ago, I think). Apart from articles on ELT and news, I used to ask a ‘Name’ in ELT to do The Burning Questionnaire, and ‘victims’ back then included Mario Rinvolucri and Mark Hancock, whose BQs I still have on my computer 🙂 When Take a photo and… was about a year old, I decided to reuse the format with contributors to this blog, and hey presto. SO be warned, all contributors past, present and future; your turn will come….. 😉

Fiona Mauchline 2013

5 thoughts on “Burning questionnaires

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  5. Hi Fiona,
    It’s great to see you taking this into your classroom. I know I’ll be a future ‘victim’, but to preempt one of the answers, I cry at everything, including Maid in Manhattan (which I expected not to enjoy, and ended up buying!), so your student has company 🙂

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