Critical thinking and language skills: “There Was Once”

In “There Was Once”, Margaret Atwood plays with Western culture stereotypes by questioning them to such extremes that the narrator is finally unable to tell her story. You may have worked with fractured tales before, but this ingenious exercise in deconstruction will get the students talking and analysing, revising — or perhaps confirming — their own viewpoints, and it will ultimately promote the development of critical thinking skills while working with the language.

1. In groups, students read the words in the box taken from the story they are about to read and make predictions by filling out a possible story map using those words. Groups share their story maps with the rest of the class. Discuss similarities and differences.captura-de-pantalla-2017-02-09-a-las-20-39-37

StoryMap.pdf

2. Although the text is a dialogue, it also works very well if either the teacher or one student reads one role and the rest of the students take turns reading the rest of the lines, resulting in a much more interactive reading experience. There are 24 lines for the second speaker in the text; assign each line to different students and allow them to practise reading their lines aloud for a few minutes. Read the dialogue as a whole class.

3. The students write down their personal reaction to the story independently for a few minutes. Their reactions should be just a few sentences long: “What do you think of the story?”, “How do you feel?”, “Do you like it?”, “Why?/Why not?” All the students in the class stand up and are asked to share their reactions randomly; if someone else has something similar, the student can sit down.

4. Once everyone is sitting down, the students discuss all the main ideas that have been shared as a whole group. Students often enjoy this clip from Monty Python on a rather different version of “Little Red Riding Hood”, which should help with the debate.

5. Refer students back to the story map they worked on at the beginning of the lesson and tell them that they will be writing a five-paragraph story using the same words in the box. In groups of four, students are numbered out for collaborative writing purposes:
– Students start writing their first paragraph introducing the setting and the characters. When the time is up, students hand out their papers to the person with the following number: number 1s to number 2s, 2s to 3s, 3s to 4s, and number 4s to number 1s.
– Students read the introduction and write a second paragraph with the first event in the story. Rotate papers again.
– Third paragraph: second event in the story. Rotate papers.
– Fourth paragraph: third event and rotate.
– The student that started writing the narrative reads the story and writes an ending.

Each of these stages should be timed, although the amount of time needed will depend on the level of the students and the type of support they need. This is also a great opportunity to have students proofread each other’s writings, have them edit their stories and hand in a final version to be shared with the rest of the class. How do their stories differ from the story maps at the beginning of the lesson?

“There Was Once”

Talking about the environment: “Big Yellow Taxi”

“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart… this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.”

Joni Mitchell. Los Angeles Times, 1996

Next week I’m using this activity as an introduction to a unit on environmental issues. The task is based on a song by Joni Mitchell, “Big Yellow Taxi” (1970), and it asks the students to find two words in each sentence which should change places with each other in order to make sense. The students then explain their answers and listen to the song to check if they are right.

I’m including two versions for different levels here, from easier to more difficult:


big-yellow-taxi-1

BigYellowTaxi1.pdf

ANSWERS: parking – paradise, and – hotel, know – go, parking – paradise, put – took, half – dollar, that – put, birds – spots, last – late, old – yellow


big-yellow-taxi

BigYellowTaxi2.pdf

ANSWERS: put up – paved, hotel – boutique, till – that, put – took, half – dollar, now – away, birds – apples, slam – door, old – yellow

(Extra support can be provided if needed by having the students circle a few of the target words at the beginning.)


Apart from Joni Mitchell’s original song, there are several cover versions out there with different styles, so I’m also including a few I like to choose from based on what I know about a particular group of students.  Notice, however, that the Counting Crows’ cover version changes “slam” for “sway” and “man” for “girl” at the end, and that in Amy Grant’s version the people are charged “twenty-five bucks” instead of “a dollar and a half! Just another great opportunity to provide an extra purpose for listening!

I’m planning to have the students write a one-sentence personal response to the song and the topic in general, read a few and discuss them, and then use them again at the end of the unit in a plenary discussion. The students will be asked to make any changes they want and to write a few more lines with the new information and personal thoughts which will hopefully demonstrate their critical thinking skills and help them to take a stance on the issue.

We need this more than ever, don’t we?

Description, down to a fine art

Improving the students’ organisational skills and getting them ready to write a well-rounded description of a painting are the main goals of this activity which was originally part of a longer unit around the topics of reading and literature. I first chose six classical paintings in which someone is reading a book.

The paintings are hidden behind black squares (see PowerPoint file below) and are progressively displayed square by square to draw the students’ attention to each part of the painting. The idea here is to encourage active conversations in which the students make predictions about the books, the people and the places, and the relationship between the main elements in each painting, as they are gradually revealed. Descriptive vocabulary such as “at the top” or “in the bottom left-hand corner” can also be introduced or revised at this point.

Paintings.ppt

The students use the oral discussion and their own ideas and personal impressions to complete a graphic organiser for each painting, first writing down a few words that describe the book, the person or people reading and the place, and then thinking of how each of these are related.

go-2

This is a fairly flexible task which allows the students to use their own vocabulary based on their proficiency level, but it’s also a good time to introduce new words that the students may need that should not be missed. In addition, by having them make connections (book-person, person-place, place-book) and write down their ideas in the circles, the students are encouraged to think beyond the painting and use these critical thinking skills to enrich their descriptions:
– What type of book do you think it is?
– Are they reading for pleasure? To find information?
– Are they enjoying it? Why do you think so?
– Are they in a public or a private room? Do they look comfortable? What can the place tell us about the person?

Depending on the level of the students, you may need to model or go over the elements that make a descriptive text both coherent and cohesive, and which will help them to express all the ideas gathered to the best of their ability. The students can then be asked to write the description of the painting they like most or simply assign one to each student, and later hold an art exhibition in class where the students are given the opportunity to share and compare their own writings. Can the students now use these observational, organisational and critical thinking skills to choose a painting or photograph of their choice that can be added to the art exhibition and write a well-rounded description independently?


All images are Public Domain

Pathways to Accuracy: “Somewhere Only We Know”

At the beginning of “Somewhere Only We Know” (Keane, 2004), the singer walks “across an empty land” and knows “the pathway like the back of my hand.” In this activity, the students find their way through the maze to read and understand the lyrics of the song while facing a series of challenges related to grammar and sentence structure along the way. The use of articles and possessive adjectives, or differences such as “been”/”gone” or “say”/”tell”, are some of the questions that the students will need to solve as they connect the words with a pencil or a highlighter. The students are also asked to fill in the circles with a suitable preposition. Depending on the level of the students, the prepositions that they are allowed to use can be provided beforehand (although here I’d have them think of an answer first or leave it blank if they don’t know it, check it later when they listen to the song, and then discuss any other possibilities.)

somewhere-only-we-know

Somewhere Only We Know.pdf

Lyrics

There are plenty of opportunities for language analysis and further practice after the students have listened to the song and checked their answers, but you may also want to work on comprehension and discuss what the song means to each student, get them to share their ideas, and finally compare them with these words by the band’s drummer:

We’ve been asked whether “Somewhere Only We Know” is about a specific place, and Tim has been saying that, for him, or us as individuals, it might be about a geographical space, or a feeling; it can mean something individual to each person, and they can interpret it to a memory of theirs… It’s perhaps more of a theme rather than a specific message… Feelings that may be universal, without necessarily being totally specific to us, or a place, or a time…

Richard Hughes

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Working On Connected Speech: The Fresh Prince

The theme song from “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is used here to help the students recognise and practise the various features of connected speech which make the stress pattern and rhythm of English so distinctive. Making the students aware of these differences and providing opportunities to work on them allows them to improve their listening and speaking skills and hopefully contribute to make their pronunciation even more intelligible to both native and non-native speakers.

In this activity, the students first watch the show’s introduction with no sound and take turns telling what they think the first-person story is about based on the images. Then they compare their predictions with the actual story once the lyrics are handed out. This is also a good time to play the video with sound once again and introduce new vocabulary.

Lyrics.pdf

Focus on sentence stress, read the first few lines and model the differences in prominence between stressed and unstressed syllables.

NOW THIS is the STOry ALL aBOUT HOW
My LIFE got FLIPPed TURNed UPside DOWN

The students practise the lines chorally and slowly at first, tapping the beat of the song as they sing and gradually reading and singing it faster and faster. As new lines are added to the choral reading/singing, introduce new features of connected speech as needed: elision (losing sounds), linking (adding or joining sounds between words) or assimilation (changing sounds). For instance, most students will struggle with the line “I’ll tell you how I became the prince of a town called Bel Air” unless they have worked on linking and elision first.

The group follows the same procedure with the rest of the song, playing it every now and then while checking their progress and areas that may need improving. The following audio file belongs to one of those progress checks in the middle of the lesson:

At the end, the students may be asked to think of possible implications this activity might have on everyday speech, how it could help them improve their speaking and listening skills, and share their ideas with the rest of the class. And now that they are familiar with the lyrics, you can’t miss this video in which “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” is run through Google Translate 64 times with the inevitable hilarious consequences (and a couple of subliminal lessons that any language teacher will relish!)

Fresh Prince by Rebirth Cycle, on Flickr

Fresh Prince” (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by Rebirth Cycle

I’m Going Back

I’m a big fan of All at C, probably the first blog with high quality teaching resources that I started following. Their superb lessons based on the John Lewis ad of the year are a classic in my classroom, so when I watched Heathrow’s Christmas advert a few days ago the first thing I did was to check their site. Call it premature seasonal impatience, but I also couldn’t help but start sketching my own activity as I look forward to further inspiration.

Heathrow’s ad is about an ageing teddy bear couple, Mr. and Mrs. Bair, who arrive at the airport and start their journey through it before reuniting with their family. The students work on the story line below in which the different situations they experience are explained with pictures. To guide them through the process, the students are also provided with a list of words that serves two purposes: to introduce difficult or unknown words (such as dangle, mistletoe or conveyor belt) and to help them to explain what is going on when using the picture prompts and establishing connections between them.

heathrow-ad-worksheet

I’m Going Back.pdf

Watch the beginning of the video first until 0:12 and do the first three scenes with the students in order to introduce the characters and the context, and for the students to get familiar with the procedure. The students then work together and write down what they think might be happening in each situation. When the students have finished, watch the video until 1:00 and have them check their answers, comment on any differences, and make any necessary changes.

Finally, the students make predictions about the end of the video orally and then watch it. In the large blank circle, they work independently and draw the picture or pictures that they think best depict that final scene. In addition, they may also add three words that can help to explain their personal reaction to it. Sharing and comparing their answers with the rest of the class at the end is bound to leave a memorable, lasting impression based on each student’s unique feelings and beliefs.

 

Images from openclipart.org, Public Domain.

Guess what’s being advertised

Eleven TV ads have been cut off in the video below to allow students to make their own guesses about what is being advertised in each of them, revise and learn new vocabulary, and practise structures used to talk about personal opinion and hypotheses. Just stop the video at each question mark, write the students’ guesses up on the board and introduce new vocabulary when needed, and hold short whole-class discussions in which the students explain the clues that support their ideas.

Before watching the second part of the video, go over the students’ predictions for each of the ads and check the answers!


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