Get your students to talk, listen and draw

Walking Barcelona

If you're familiar with Barcelona, you should (just about!) recognise what the illustration above is supposed to represent. It came from morning break last week in the staffroom, where there was some disagreement about whether or not you can get learners to draw things.

I think you can — and should — no matter how little artistic talent you have or your learners think they have. It isn't a question of being artistic: in a language classroom, it's a question of getting people to talk and if their drawings are so poor (?!) that they require asking for and receiving explanation, great!

Instead of the teacher finding, printing and photocopying images of Barcelona for them to then describe a walk through the city (which was the activity we were disagreeing over), get your learners to do this:

  • Imagine an interesting walk in your city
  • Make a few notes on what you'll see on the walk, with any language help being provided by the teacher
  • Describe the walk to a partner… who then has to draw it (check the recycling bin, there's scrap paper, right?)
  • In collaboration with your partner, label the drawing (see example, above), omitting (important!) any place names
  • Switch roles and repeat with your partner
  • Pin the work up on the wall and walk round the "gallery" (remember drawing pins?). How many of the walks can you identify?
  • Optionally, as a class, actually go on the walk (take some drawing paper and cameras/phones with you!)

If there is ready access to a scanner, send a "volunteer" off to scan the illustrations, and if you have an Edmodo group or a class blog, they can then be shared and commented on (the latter being particularly important, for taking maximum advantage of the opportunities technology offers for further interaction and use of language).

The illustration above — a quick doodle, which is what you want, rather than "art" — is from the staffroom, with a little editing afterwards.

Essential reading for any teacher 1000+ pictures for teachers to copy

Drawing Mr Men: a fun "getting to know you" activity

Another activity that I demonstrated in my session at our ELT Conference last weekend (the original idea [content in Spanish] for which came from my colleague Xavi Mula).

Before you begin, you probably want to make it clear that this is intended to be fun: you don't want anyone to be offended. It's also an activity that probably works best in a class in which people already know each other to some extent, and get on well.

You could always steal your Mr Men from Google Images, but don't do that: instead, get your learners to draw them, by following these simple steps…

ONE Draw a circle, a square and an oval:

Mr Men 1

TWO Redraw them, giving them a "leg":

Mr Men 2

Believe me, it's easier to do ONE and then move on to TWO: experience with this in classrooms suggest many people struggle if you start with TWO (?!).

THREE Add features to your redrawn figure — noses, eyes, beards, eyebrows, hands, a second leg, props… whatever your imagination suggests, like these:

Mr Men 3

FOUR Decide who you've drawn, which must be someone you have some sort of relationship with (e,g. your mother-in-law, your husband, your ex, a self-portrait… but see Footnotes, below) and give him/her an appropriate "Mr Men" name — such as Mr [Silly] / Little Miss [Bossy].

Left to right, in my example above, you have my Dad; (the original Mr Grumpy); my sister (Little Miss Piggy — cruel, I know!); and myself (with toothache).

FIVE Show it to the psychoanalyst (aka your partner) who is sitting next to you.

SIX Have him/her "analyze" it and give a "professional" opinion.

SEVEN Discuss the opinion with your psychoanalyst.

EIGHT (optional) Class discussion of whether we can really draw any conclusions from such things.

With younger learners, you probably want to specify that they cannot draw anyone else in the class; or another teacher in your school, otherwise it can get cruel; with my own learners, I think I'd avoid mentioning Little Miss Piggy.

It's simple; it's fun; it's creative; it doesn't require Google Images (or much other preparation time); it doesn't require lots of talent (anyone can do it!); and — above all — it generates a lot of language.

Thanks @ Rachel B. for the suggestion that your learners can run their Mr Men characters into other activities, in order to illustrate other activities.

Creative teachers or creative learners?


Minibooks created in Christine Wilson's session | Photo: Christine Wilson

Among the great sessions at the IH Barcelona ELT Conference this last weekend there were several on the subject of creativity, with the suggestion being that we should all be creative teachers.

I didn't get to see Christine Wilson's session but that's what I understand by creative and it always worries me that treachers are frightened off by the term "creative", in the Picasso sense of the term. Most of us are not particularly creative in that sense — or least we don't see ourselves that way.

Below, another of the suggestions [see further details] made in my own session, which came from Susana Ortiz, possibly one of the most creative people I've ever met in a school staffroom:

Doodled by learner

The suggestion was that learners who don't have digital photographs of significant moments in their lives (things from childhood, the birth of a child, weddings…) to bring to class to talk and write about can nevertheless picture those; and if they can picture them in their heads they can describe them to a partner…

We can get them to get their partners to draw those images, as in the example above, which makes an amazing "information gap" activity. ("Draw", as I suggested in my session, is also perhaps an off-putting word, too. Let's make that doodle, because no one can be "bad" at doodling!)

If we do that, we're not necessarily being creative ourselves but we will be asking our learners to be creative: it's not the teacher that should be doing all the work of making things, creating images, and slideshows and videos — it's the learners that should be doing all that.

In one of his wonderful sessions, Kieran Donaghy said the following:

Everyone is a filmmaker

Everyone — not just the teacher, that is. Couldn't we use all that technology in their pockets to get our learners to make movies (even if we're talking just a minute, or less)? You don't have mobile phones available? Being "creative" is finding ways round problems: make them on the kind of digital camera there in the image above! Why be embarrassed by it if it's fun?

Another brilliant session: Lindsay Clandfield on Six reasons to love lists. My daughter (18) caught me the other day adding to one of my lists — things that make me grumpy:

  • Unnecessary photocopying and printing
  • People that don't let you get off the Metro before they attempt to get on
  • Supermarket queues
  • People defacing great graffiti
  • The power of Google, and how we've surrendered to it
  • … and a very long list of others!

She then sent me one of her own — 100 things she loves:

  • Finally untangling my earphones
  • The lyrics to No Surrender
  • Campfires
  • Crossing out the exams I've done from my agenda
  • … and 96 more

Getting our learners to make (and discuss and share) lists like that is making things, and doesn't actually require us to be that big-C Creative.

Where we possibly do want to be creative is in finding new ways to do old stuff. I think it was Anthony Gaughan who suggested in his session that he'd taught 60 or 70 CELTA courses; I wondered how many times I've taught the present perfect since I first did so in 1979?

My #1 tip: trash all but the very best of your lessson plans and find a different way to teach it next year and never go back to last year's lesson plan and just teach that: that's creative — or it will be if it involves your learners doing and making things.

I think we do want creative learners in creative classrooms, but I'm just not sure any of us really need to be Picasso to achieve that.

Book (or film) reviews on post-it notes

Heart of Darkness

Heart of Darkness reviewed on a post-it

The idea for books reviews on a post-it note I came across here, on The Perpetual Page-Turner, Jamie's book blog. It would work great if you have a class library; if not, film reviews on post-it notes are an alternative.

Things like writing on post-it notes (and super short stories, 100-word sagas and Twitter stories) work especially well if you get the writers to collaborate and work on the writing and rewriting to squeeze as much information as possible in. They're also a lot of fun to share and award prizes to.

My example there isn't actually a post-it: I used and just happened to like that design more. You could use real post-its, but a digital tool is also fun, especially if that means you can share somewhere else, like on a blog or Edmodo.

You have similar digital post-it tools here and here.

How do you learn all the prepositions in English?

Here's one that came from Maria, who attended a session I gave recently, and who asks if I can recommend a site where you can "learn ALL the prepositions, if poss. with an example, the pronunciation and a diagram". I'm not sure that I can, Maria, but here's a couple of ideas that I think might work better than such a site, even if you could find one.

In the image, above, a young learner at IH Barcelona has drawn a picture to illustrate "Where's Oscar?", in order to practise and learn the prepositions. In the insets, there are much more complex examples for the same purpose, part of a complete collection of "all the prepositions", produced by design students in their English class (the original idea there came from a dictionary illustration, so long ago that I can no longer remember which dictionary!).

How about a spot of creative writing?
Alternatively, how about getting your learners to see how many prepositions of time and place they can pack into a single story of a limited number of words (say, 120-180, depending on their level).

The start of an example story, for quite a high level:

On a cold starless night in 1858, in a small village outside Astorga, an old man dressed in a threadworn overcoat sat on a bench looking down the road into the trees, expectant…

At a lower, level, you could take the story In a dark, dark wood and get your learners to create their own version (illustrated, with their own artwork, if they're young learners), again incorporating as many prepositions as possible.

If your learners share their stories (think Edmodo, a class blog, a wiki…) and you/they award "prizes" to the best, the most original, the best ghost (etc.) story, and the one with the highest percentage of words that are (correct!) prepositions in the text, and so on, it becomes challenging, creative and fun, as your classroom should be.

How do you learn all the prepositions?
I like these ideas more than a single "site" providing you with practice "exercises". Apart from meeting such words in context — which is going to require extensive reading and listening in order to meet them many times — the learners really have to use them and manipulate them creatively, which they will have to do with these tasks.

Doing the kind of task suggested above collaboratively involves more of that; sharing the end products (after all a huge part of what 21st century technology allows us to do) also means that the learners "meet" the prepositions in context more often, in reading the work their peers produce.

But… if anyone can think of a site like the one Maria was after, do add it to the comments ,-) !

See also
Short, creative writing projects with Twitter, Edmodo