Discussion topics

Gazing at satellites

A satellite in space

When I was a kid, my father would drag us out of bed in the wee hours of the morning to watch a rocket launch, on our fuzzy little 9" black-and-white TV. They were momentous occasions. When I was 7, the Apollo 11 mission took us to the moon. I saw that happen! It was awesome.

For years after that, my father would point out satellites as they traveled across the night sky. It was amazing to see them out there. But that was about 50 years ago. Today there are so many satellites that you almost always see one. And with the new mega-satellite arrays being developed, that number is going to explode. SpaceX alone plans to launch more than 30,000 in the near future. While this will make huge advances possible in various technologies, it will also add to a new problem—satellite pollution. 

With thousands of satellite arrays in orbit around the Earth, even the darkest night skies far from cities will be littered with them. Stargazing has always been wondrous for me, but I fear the satellites will ruin it. All I will see when I look to the heavens is our own selves blinking back at us.

What can you infer about the writer's feelings towards the space program from this article? Do Homework
Can you explain what the author means by the last sentence: "All we will see when we look to the heavens is our own selves blinking back at us." Do Homework
What do you think about stargazing? Do Homework
In your opinion, are the gains from technology always worth the losses? Do Homework

Design for humanity

On one hand, designers aim to make useful, attractive products or services. On the other hand, capitalism aims to make money for investors. When these two things are put together, designers can lose. Designs become more a means of profit than things of beauty and utility.

Investors want to get a high return on investment. So, they continually push for new products. If there isn't a demand for that product, they try to create demand. They use advertising to persuade consumers to buy unneeded products. On top of that, profit-driven companies create products that don't last and can't be repaired easily, so people have to keep buying new ones.

Designers, unfortunately, have little or no say in the matter. Designers often want to make beautiful, sustainable products, but can't. They simply have to satisfy the profit-driven executives.

But there is a solution. Designers schooled in subjects like business, ethics, economics, and politics would be able to move up into the C-suites and take on responsibility for design decisions. For more designers to be free to design for humanity rather than investors' pockets, design education must change.

Summarize the article in 2–3 sentences. Do Homework
What does it mean to "design for humanity"? Do you know of any projects where designers have helped people and/or the Earth? Do Homework
Come up with some examples of new designs being used to add benefit to people's lives,not just to make a profit. Do Homework
Why would designers need education in ethics? Do Homework
Describe a design you would create to add benefit to humanity and/or the Earth. Do Homework

Men artists: Jean-Michel Basquiat

Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960–1988) was part of the Neo-Expressionist movement of the 1980s, led by Andy Warhol. Basquiat's primitive style grew out of his time as a graffiti artist in New York City. People first knew him as part of the anonymous duo SAMO© (pronounced "same-o"), with Al Diaz. They were among the first to use words to communicate thoughts, rather than just tags with names and numbers.

For 3 years, from the age of 17–20, Basquiat sold his art on t-shirts and postcards on the street for a couple of bucks each. Finally, he made it into a group show at an art gallery. People and critics loved his work, and in no time people were paying $50,000 or more for one of his pieces.

The child of a Haitian father and Puerto Rican mother, Jean-Michel Basquiat brought the Black and Latino experience into the fine art world. His art was angry and harsh, yet also poetic. He was able to express a reality that had long been excluded from elite society.

Sadly, with fame came a serious drug problem—Basquiat became addicted to heroin. At one point, he traveled to Hawaii to try to break the habit. Though he said he was clean when he returned to New York, it didn't last long. On August 12, 1988, he died of a heroin overdose. He was 27 years old.

Basquiat's reputation has continued to grow since his death. In May 2017, a Japanese billionaire purchased the painting above, "Untitled", for $110.5 million, the most ever paid up to that time for a work by an American artist.

Describe the painting, "Untitled", shown at the top of this article. Use vivid vocabulary so that a person who can't see the painting can imagine it. Do Homework
What does "Untitled" make you feel? Why? Do Homework
If you had all the money in the world, would you pay $110 million dollars—or even $50,000—for a painting? What sort of painting would you pay a lot of money for? Do Homework
In your opinion, is there a link between creativity and drug/alcohol addiction? Do Homework

Learning English with "Friends"

Many successful English language learners use television shows to learn.

Sitcoms (situation comedies) are especially popular. And, without a doubt, Friends is the most popular one. It has easy-to-understand English, familiar situations, and lovable characters. The show ended in 2004, but it's still one of the most-watched shows on streaming channels.

Elif Konus, from Turkey, used the show (among other things) to learn English. Now, she is an English teacher and has written English lessons based on "Friends" episodes. She even used the learning technique for her Master's thesis.

Celebrities such as Kim Nam-joon, the leader of the South Korean pop group BTS, have used Friends to learn English.

Sitcoms also help you understand a culture's sense of humor, which can be really different from your own. Even English-speaking cultures have different ideas of what's funny.

One reason "Friends" continues to be so popular is that the humor is timeless. So even though the show ended nearly two decades ago, the relationships are much the same everywhere and always.

Please summarise this article in a few sentences. Do Homework
Why do you think Friends is so useful? Do Homework
What's the difference between a sitcom like Friends, and a presentation like TED? Which is more useful for learning English communication? Do Homework
What do you think about American humor? Do Homework

Women artists: Georgia O'Keeffe

Petunias, 1925. Oil on hardboard panel (1887-1987) de Young Museum

Historically, women have struggled to be accepted in the world of the arts. In the art of painting, they were subjects for men's art, or wives and sisters of male artists. Women weren't accepted as artists themselves. But that began to change in the 20th century. Georgia O'Keeffe played an important role in that change.

Georgia O'Keeffe (1887–1996) was part of the American Modernist movement. American Modernism grew out of the Industrial Revolution and focused on everyday subjects like cities and factories. It used abstract forms and bright colors. Georgia O'Keeffe pushed the boundaries to develop her own style. Her paintings were still abstract and brightly colored, but she added a little realism.

She looked closely at flowers and painted their abstract forms, but the flowers were still easily recognisable. After moving to New Mexico, she painted the desert, cow skulls and bones the same way. No one else was doing that at the time. O'Keeffe persevered in her art for decades before finding success. In 1928, six of her flower paintings sold for $25,000, the most any living artist had made at that point.

Her impact on the art world has earned her the name, "Mother of American Modernism". She became, and continues to be, an inspiration for other women painters to persevere and succeed.

Describe the O'Keeffe painting "Petunias", seen in the image above. Do Homework
Why is Georgia O'Keeffe an inspiration to women artists? Do Homework
What effect did industrialization have on people's lives in the early 20th century? Do Homework
Why do people spend a lot of money on paintings? Would you? Do Homework

Visuals: average height increases

People today are taller, on average, than their ancestors 100 years ago. This is true for every country in the world.

The data shown below is based on a global study. It reports mean height for adults by year of birth, from 1896 to 1996; in other words, people who had reached their eighteenth birthday from 1914 to 2014.

Please look at the graph and discuss it with your teacher.

Why do you think people are taller today than they were 100 years ago? Do Homework
Do you think there is a biological limit to how tall people can get? Do Homework
Name some advantages of being tall. Do Homework

The Songkran Water Festival

A water festival Bangkok

If you go to Bangkok during the Thai New Year in mid-April, you might get splashed with water. This is because the Thai celebrate New Year with a water festival called Songkran. It is a holy festival where people bless each other with water. So, in Bangkok, people with water guns take part in huge water fights.

People of all ages take part in Songkran. You should be careful when refilling your water gun since older folks might pour ice-cold water down your back while you’re not looking. The good thing is that it’s very hot in Thailand, so the cold water feels refreshing. Some tourists join in the fun. Others don't. For those who don't, the best place to be is indoors. Anyone on the street will get splashed with water, even if they're driving. Throwing wet powder on each other's faces is also an important part of the festival!

What a fun way to spend New Year!

Identify at least one useful phrase in this article. Do Homework
Would you want to take part in a festival where you get wet? Do Homework
What is your favourite festival? Can you describe it? Do Homework
Do you think festivals are important? Why? Do Homework

The Enchanted Forest

Hidden on the north coast of California is a stand of very unusual redwood trees. Salty winds off the ocean break the trunks, but the trees keep on growing. New branches grow straight up from the broken trunk. Since the trunk is tipped over on its side, the tree ends up looking like a candelabra. After generations of this cycle, the trees have become twisted into fantastical shapes.

Redwood conservationists say they've never seen anything like it anywhere else. It's become known as the Enchanted Forest. Thankfully, the twisted trunks and branches have saved the trees from being cut down. Lumber companies need tall, straight trunks, so even though the old-growth forests around them have been destroyed by logging, the Enchanted Forest remains.

Describe the trees in the Enchanted Forest. Why do they look like that? Do Homework
Have you ever seen any unusual trees or plants? Share your experience with your teacher. Do Homework
Why do you think people want to save the trees? Do Homework
How can people be encouraged to save trees? Do Homework

Ramen: once a black market staple

Ramen is one of Japan’s most popular foods today, with over 10,000 ramen shops in Tokyo alone. However, ramen wasn’t always so ubiquitous in Japanese society. Chinese immigrants introduced it to Japan in the late 19th century. It was originally made with noodles in broth, topped with Chinese-style roast pork. It became an important part of Japanese cuisine in the years immediately after the Second World War.

In December 1945, Japan had its worst rice harvest in 42 years. As a result, the American occupying forces imported large quantities of wheat into Japan, which was used not only for bread, but also to make noodles for ramen, which most Japanese ate at illegal food vendors. Many people relied heavily on the illegal food vendors to survive as the government food distribution system ran up to 20 days behind schedule.

At that time, ramen was simple, unlike the myriad variations that exist today. As reported by Jonathan Garcia, a ramen class instructor at Osakana in Brooklyn, New York, ramen was a soy sauce-based soup made with pork, chicken, and dried sardines.

Please summarize this article in three sentences. Do Homework
How do you think the history of ramen has shaped the current form of the food? Do Homework
How have the eating habits in your country evolved over the past 20 years? How about 50 years? Do Homework
What other foods that you eat have an interesting history? Do Homework

The perfect-sized coffee cup

Most Americans love to buy a lot of coffee—I learned this when I traveled through the country with an 8 oz reusable cup. It takes about 10 to 15 minutes to drink this amount of coffee, by the time you reach the last drop, it's almost cold but not quite. I think that's a perfect size. But, the cafe staff I met did not.

In the San Diego airport, I asked for "this cup, full of coffee." The staff examined my cup like a foreign artifact. He wondered aloud how big it was. When I told him 8 oz, he looked confused, and then charged me for the smallest size they have—12 oz. I paid and didn't say anything.

Then in the Los Angeles airport, I asked for the same thing. The young woman working there was equally surprised by it. She looked at the till, frowned, and then looked over her shoulder, and said, "They're just gonna overcharge you." So she took the cup and filled it with coffee for free. I guess, to her, that's fair. I said thanks.

So, I over-paid in some places and under-paid in others. In the end, I like to think it all evened out. And I still think that 8 oz is the perfect amount of coffee.

What do you think about going abroad with a reusable cup? Would you do it? Do Homework
Would you pay a little more money for a lot more coffee? Do Homework
Is the American pricing strategy effective at increasing profit? Do Homework
Have you ever felt you don't fit into an aspect of a country's culture? Do Homework

Create a strong team with music

An important study showed that members of a team who listened to rhythmic music together before carrying out a task worked more cooperatively and efficiently than groups who listened to music without a clear beat. People who listened to white noise did the worst. Why is that?

Brain studies have shown that music releases endorphins and dopamine. These neurochemicals cause us to feel pleasure and closeness to others. So when we listen to music together, we naturally feel closer to each other. Playing music together has an even stronger effect. And dancing together to rhythmic music creates the strongest bond of all.

Beyond common closeness, music is also a very effective way to draw large groups of people together into a tightly bonded unit. That's why schools have official songs, and countries have national anthems. When you sing that particular song together, you immediately feel a strong connection to the group.

For these reasons, many presenters at group events give the audience a chance to sing together, or move their bodies in a coordinated way, even just by clapping rhythmically. And rhythmic songs have long been used by spiritual and political leaders to create a sense of belonging and inspire people to action.

So keep music in your toolbox for those times when you need to bring a new team together, or make an existing group more cooperative and effective.

Summarize the article in 2–3 sentences. Do Homework
Describe a time when music made you feel connected with others. Was it at a concert? A wedding reception? Graduation? An international sporting event? Do Homework
Does your company use music to help bring people together? How? If not, how do you think it could be used? Do Homework
What is your country's national anthem? When is it sung? How do people act when they sing it together? Do Homework
Give some ideas for using music to improve cooperation among nations. Do Homework

Visuals: Cats, dogs or other pets?

The battle between cat and dog lovers is well-known. Some people love dogs. They say that dogs are friendly, loyal and active. Other people prefer cats. According to cat lovers, cats are independent, lower maintenance and cute. Some people choose very different pets, such as fish, birds, or rodents (e.g. rats, mice, guinea pigs).

Please have a look at the graph below. Discuss it with your teacher. 

Present this graph to your teacher. Do Homework
Do you agree with the graph about your country? Do Homework
Have you ever had a pet? Do Homework
Do you think it is good for children to have pets? Do Homework
Why do you think there are differences in pet ownership across countries? Do Homework

How to avoid news anxiety

What is anxiety?

Anxiety is fear and/or panic about an uncertain outcome. It usually appears when you are experiencing a stressful situation. Physical symptoms include a racing heart, sweating more than usual, rushed breathing, and having trouble sleeping. Psychological symptoms include feeling helpless or overwhelmed.

It is normal to experience anxiety from time to time, but if such feelings are interrupting your life, you might need to take action. 

Sometimes the news can cause such feelings. It's commonly known as news anxiety

How can you ease news anxiety?

  1. Limiting exposure to news can help. Only check the news during specific times you have assigned for checking it. 
  2. Read news only from reputable sites. Don't use social media to get your news.
  3. Don’t ignore your feelings. Talk to the people you trust.
  4. Remember, negative stories attract more attention than positive ones, so they are usually promoted. Reality might not be that bleak.
  5. Take breaks. You don’t have to be aware of everything that is going on. 

At the end of the day, it's important to know what's happening in the world. But you should focus on your world and what effect you can have on it. 

Do you tend to stay calm in stressful situations or do they cause anxiety? Do Homework
How does the news and social media impact your life? What about the society you live in? Do Homework
Do you think that parents should control what children read on the internet and social media? Do Homework
Do you have any advice on how to stay calm in a stressful situation? Do Homework

Cook to learn English

English is a tool you can use to do many things. Since English is a global language, you can use it to learn things from different cultures.

A fun way to learn English is cooking. You have to know how to talk about the ingredients, measurements, textures, times and flavor descriptions, and explain the process. And, if you teach cooking in English, your pronunciation needs to be clear enough for others to understand.

Accordingly, in 2015, two English language teachers in Manchester, UK, set up a program called Heart and Parcel. Karolina Koscien and Clare Courtney gather immigrant women together to cook dumplings. Why dumplings? Because "parceled foods" are universal to all cultures. Women from different countries can all come together with their recipes and share their unique histories with each other. Besides language learning, social connections are formed that help the women thrive in their new home.

The program has been a huge success, growing from 33 learners in 2015 to more than 1000 in 2023. They have Supper Clubs open to the public that always sell out. They sell their foods at markets. They've also published a cookbook that includes recipes and stories about the foods and the women who make them. All profits from these ventures go right back into the school so that it too can thrive.

What do you think about learning how to cook in English? Would it be a good way to practice for you? Do Homework
Describe parceled food in detail. Have you ever made parceled food? Do Homework
Are there particular parceled foods that tend to be associated with your culture? Do Homework
Have you ever cooked with other people? How is it different from cooking alone? Do Homework

A most interesting host

On a trip to Kathmandu, Nepal, my friend and I had a great conversation with an incredibly interesting AirBnB host. Over a few beers, he explained how he became a host after retiring from the national police force, where he was the Chief Superintendent.

Clearly captivated by this, my friend and I asked him to talk more about his past experiences. He talked about his time in Bosnia, Sudan and Iraq as part of a UN Peacekeeping force in the 1990s. Having grown up only knowing Baghdad as one of the most dangerous places on earth, I was fascinated by his recounting of the city as a safe cultural oasis back then.

Our host’s colourful past did not end there. He was part of the security force that oversaw the protection of the royal family in Nepal at the turn of the millennium. He was on duty when Crown Prince Dipendra opened fire on his family, killing the King, 11 other members of the royal line, and then himself. He explained that according to Nepali custom, commoners could not subdue royalty, and so the Crown Prince was not stopped during the massacre. In the end, Nepal transitioned to a democracy.

Our host was easily one of the most interesting people I've ever met.

Please summarize this story in 3 sentences. Do Homework
Have you ever stayed with an interesting host? Please explain what was interesting about them. Do Homework
When traveling, what type of places do you like to stay in? Are you most comfortable in hotels, bed and breakfasts, or hostels? Do Homework
Do you prefer relaxing during your vacations or do you go on energy-intensive adventures? Do Homework

Embracing change

Humans find it difficult to adapt to change and this is evident in how technological advances are viewed. This is nothing new because even Socrates, the architect of Western philosophy, wasn't too excited about the introduction of writing, as he felt people would become more forgetful.

It may be natural to fear change, but we have to realize that by nurturing this kind of fear, we are resisting innovations that could improve our quality of life, productivity and connectivity 

The fear of technological change shows a lack of trust. As it stands, Americans don’t trust each other, our corporations or our public institutions. The absence of trust means a lot of damage has been done and the only way to fix this is to ensure everyone has the information that is essential to building trust back up.

We need to accept the mentality of change if we are going to grow as a society, and a key step in this process is making sure everyone is well-informed. This responsibility lies with each individual, company, and institution.

How do you think people felt about automobiles when they first appeared? Would someone who'd only traveled by horse and buggy trust a machine that could go at a much higher speed? Do Homework
Can you think of other technological breakthroughs in the 19th and 20th centuries? How might people have reacted to them? Do Homework
What are some technological breakthroughs in your own country's history that changed the way people lived? Imagine how people felt about them. Do Homework
What can we do to help build trust in new technologies today? Do Homework

Perpetual stew

Do you like to eat leftovers? At Wattana Panich bistro in Bangkok, you can have a bowl of soup that's been in the pot for almost 50 years. Known as neua tune, it follows the "perpetual stew" method of preparation: the leftovers at the end of each day are kept overnight to become the base for the next day's soup. 

Cultures all across the world have versions of perpetual stew. In France, it's called pot-au-feu, or "pot in the fire", for the way it was traditionally cooked—in a pot that hung over the hearth fire all day. Other cultures' versions of perpetual stew include Chinese master stock, Mongolian Firepot, and Olla Podrida (literally, "rotten pot") in Spain. In the U.S., we have "hunter's stew", and the wonderfully named "Skilligalee" of pioneer times.

Modern home cooks use slow cookers—electric pots that you can start in the morning and leave on low all day (or overnight)—to make big batches of soups and stews. Then you can eat the leftovers for the next day or two, or four... 

Does your country have a version of "perpetual stew"? Can you describe it? Do Homework
Why do you think cultures across the world have "perpetual stew"? What are the advantages of this kind of cooking? Do Homework
How do you feel about leftovers? Do Homework

Japan has the most old companies

Japan has more old companies than any other developed nation. A study of 41 countries shows Japan has more than half of the companies older than 200 years. As a matter of fact, the oldest company still in existence is Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd., founded in 578 A.D. It was in operation under its own name until 2006, when it became a subsidiary of Takamatsu Construction Group

According to David E. Weinstein, an expert on the Japanese economy, business failures are as common in Japan as anywhere else, but the importance of tradition keeps the companies on their feet.

To ensure survival, a popular custom in Japanese family businesses is to adopt heirs outside the family, such as in-laws and talented male workers. As stated by Weinstein, "It's the name that is continuing, people get attached to the names."

While many parts of the world prioritize profit maximisation, Japanese companies focus on building and passing on a legacy to future generations.

What examples of old companies can you think of? Do Homework
Do you agree that tradition and attachment to names can help a company in Japan survive? Do Homework
What other reasons could explain the longevity of Japanese companies? Do Homework
What can companies around the world do to become more sustainable? Do Homework

Visuals: Threat of extinction

Over 900 animal species have gone extinct since the year 1500, and many more are threatened with extinction.

Extinction means that an entire animal species dies. For instance, the Dodo bird, a flightless bird that used to live on the island of Mauritius, went extinct in the 18th century because of overhunting by humans.

Please have a look at the graph below and discuss what you see with your teacher.

In your opinion, why are some types of animals more at risk of extinction than others? Do Homework
What sorts of human activity have quickened the risk of extinctions in the past 500 years? Do Homework
What are some of the consequences of animal species going extinct? What are some consequences for ecosystems and humans? Do Homework
Can you think of any ways to slow the threat of extinction? Do Homework

Where art and science meet

When you hear the word "artist", you might not think at first of the person who drew the pictures in your science textbook, or created images of the coronavirus during the pandemic. But medical and scientific illustrators are definitely artists. The job requires equal amounts of scientific research and artistic skill. Just look at works by Cynthia Turner, or Bryan Christie. They're gorgeous enough to frame and hang on your wall.

Medical illustrations not only have to communicate complex information in visual form, but they also have to reach a specific audience. Does it need to be simple enough for the average person to understand, or detailed enough for medical students and professionals? And what colors should the artist choose? For example, some artists chose to use reds and oranges to show the dangerous nature of the coronavirus, while others decided on blues, greens and purples to attract people's attention without scaring them too much.

Medical illustrators prove that art and science aren't mutually exclusive but can work together in harmony to teach more than either could alone.

Summarize this article in 2–3 sentences. Do Homework
What do you think of medical and scientific illustrations? Are they art? Do Homework
Are there any aspects of your job that you would call artistic? Edit Homework
What is "art"? Do Homework