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.

Learn to do simple board drawings

Here's a skill that all teachers should learn: simple board drawings, from the very excellent It would save you so much time and save so many trees that get wasted when you print the pictures you stole from Google, who stole them (without permission!) from other websites…

And it's so much more fun, and so much more creative, and if you want your classroom to be a creative space, lead the way!

From the same source, How to draw cats, dogs and birds.

See also 1000+ Pictures for Teachers to Copy

A fun, creative activity: Drawing photos

Spanish in Barcelona (note the Sagrada Familia!)

Here's a wonderful idea from a colleague, Susana Ortiz, who works in the Spanish Department at IH Barcelona.

Susana wanted to do an activity which involved the students sharing photographs of themselves. They reckoned that they couldn't as most of their photos were back home in their countries of origin. "That doesn't matter," Susana said, "because your best ever photo is probably there inside your head. See if you can describe it to a partner, and get them to draw it for you."

You might try that with the partner doing the describing keeping their eyes shut (not so that they can't see, but so that they remember more).

If your students are artistically inclined, great…!

The results varied tremendously from the artistic point of view (which wasn't what mattered, of course!) but in all cases as a communicative task it worked superbly, and was a lot of fun.

… and if not, providing they're communicating, that's not a problem!

We have a blogging project with photos that we do with our Spanish students; could we do a similar thing with our drawings, Susana says?

Yes! When do we start?