What’s Op-Docs?: A Fantastic Source of Authentic Input

When I first got access to an LCD projector for my English classes, I scoured the Internet for bite-sized videos, short enough to be appropriate for use in class. I used TV commercials, movie trailers, short films, even music videos. These all have their strengths and shortcomings. Commercials are great for their language content but often not substantive enough to generate thoughtful conversation. Trailers are engaging but don’t usually contain long enough stretches of authentic, unplanned speech. And so on.

One of the most successful classes I have ever had was built around a quirky little video that for some reason or other The New York Times (NYT) decided to publish online, entitled “The Man Who Sells the Moon” (note the nod to the wonderful David Bowie song). It clocks in at 6 minutes 26 seconds, in which time it describes the bafflingly successful business of Dennis Hope, a man who claims to have the legal right to sell off segments of land on the moon, and does just that, having marked off his more than 600 million acres in sales on a gridded lunar map since 1980. “There are some people selling properties in outer space that don’t own the land,” says Hope, without irony, “As far as I’m concerned, they are criminal in their intent.” The video raises more questions than it answers: Is this man sincere in his endeavor? Can this possibly be legal? Who on earth is buying this land on the moon!? This, of course, makes it ideal for an English class.

My lesson plan for this hourlong class was extremely simple:

  • Five minutes of schema-activating discussion questions (What does it mean to “own” something? Are there things that you cannot own? Are there ways to own something besides paying for them? Etc.)
  • Watch the video once through, focusing on overall understanding, not on individual words.
  • Whole class comprehension-focused discussion (Which properties is Dennis Hope selling? Why does Mr. Hope believe he owns the moon? How much does a property cost?)
  • Watch again, noting new words/phrases on the board, pausing if necessary for language-focused questions.
  • Small group open-ended questions (Do you think Mr. Hope is sincere? What makes you say that? What do you think about the people sending Mr. Hope money? Should this be illegal? Etc.)
  • Watch one last time (Optional: I’ll usually take a chance like this to focus on some connected speech pronunciation work if there’s time.)
  • Homework assignment: watch the video again at home; in two paragraphs, summarize this video and summarize your thoughts on it.

Classes of a format like this are some of my most successful, but they depend completely on having the ideal little video, short enough to be watched several times, but complete and self-contained enough to serve as the basis for a sustained conversation. Well, we’re in luck: since I first used that video in 2013, the NYT has built a small brand out of these “Op-Docs,” now in their fifth season, all available for free online. There are even several shorts by revolutionary documentarian and frequent NYT contributor Errol Morris.


About Robert Sheppard

Robert Sheppard
Over the past 10 years, Rob has explored a variety of roles and contexts in the field. These include the cram-school culture of Taiwan and Korea; IEPs in Boston focused on academic English; advanced conversation and TOEFL prep taught via Skype to students in Japan; and nonprofit, community English programs for immigrants to Greater Boston. He currently serves as sr. director of adult programs at Quincy Asian Resources, a member of the community advisory council at First Literacy, and a curriculum consultant at Boston Global Institute. He has a master’s degree in TESOL from The New School, and his areas of interest include adult ed, pronunciation and grammar instruction, curriculum development, and assessment.
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