“SEVEN IN…”

As they practise present and past tenses using descriptive vocabulary, the students get engaged in thoughtful discussions on aging and emotional evolution in this reading and speaking task based on two literary texts. The students are first asked to focus on an extract from the poem “Seven in the woods” by Jim Harrison. After discussing the meanings of words like “bedroll” and “chickadee” (“What is it?”, “What kind of animal?”, “How do you know?”), the students draw a quick sketch of the scene on the left-hand side of a paper that has been folded in half:

[…] I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars.

The students swap pictures with a partner, check that everything has been included, discuss any missing elements, and answer the following questions in their teams and/or as a whole group:
“Who do you think the narrator is?”
“Is it a boy or a girl?”
“What can we tell about his/her personality?”

Finally, the students read the whole poem:

Am I as old as I am?
Maybe not. Time is a mystery
that can tip us upside down.
Yesterday I was seven in the woods,
a bandage covering my blind eye,
in a bedroll Mother made me
so I could sleep out in the woods
far from people. A garter snake glided by
without noticing me. A chickadee
landed on my bare toe, so light
she wasn’t believable. The night
had been long and the treetops
thick with a trillion stars. Who
was I, half-blind on the forest floor
who was I at age seven? Sixty-eight
years later I can still inhabit that boy’s
body without thinking of the time between.
It is the burden of life to be many ages
without seeing the end of time.

Jim Harrison 

“Who is the writer?”
“How old is he?”
“What is the main idea of this poem?”
“What do you think of it?”

Now read the beginning of Sandra Cisneros’ short story “Eleven”:

What they don’t understand about birthdays and what they never tell you is that when you’re eleven, you’re also ten, and nine, and eight, and seven, and six, and five, and four, and three, and two, and one. And when you wake up on your eleventh birthday you expect to feel eleven, but you don’t. You open your eyes and everything’s just like yesterday, only it’s today. And you don’t feel eleven at all. You feel like you’re still ten. And you are –underneath the year that makes you eleven.

Like some days you might say something stupid, and that’s the part of you that’s still ten. Or maybe some days you might need to sit on your mama’s lap because you’re scared, and that’s the part of you that’s five. And maybe one day when you’re all grown up maybe you will need to cry like if you’re three, and that’s okay. That’s what I tell Mama when she’s sad and needs to cry. Maybe she’s feeling three. Because the way you grow old is kind of like an onion or like the rings inside a tree trunk or like my little wooden dolls that fit one inside the other, each year inside the next one. That’s how being eleven years old is.

You don’t feel eleven. Not right away. It takes a few days, weeks even, sometimes even months before you say Eleven when they ask you. And you don’t feel smart eleven, not until you’re almost twelve. That’s the way it is. Only today I wish I didn’t have only eleven years rattling inside me like pennies in a tin Band-Aid box. Today I wish I was one hundred and two instead of eleven because if I was one hundred and two I’d have known what to say when Mrs. Price put the red sweater on my desk. I would’ve known how to tell her it wasn’t min instead of just sitting there with that look on my face and nothing coming out of my mouth.

Have the students write their personal reaction to the text first independently for a few minutes, then share it with a partner, and finally with the rest of the class. Discuss:
“Do you sometimes feel the same way?”
“Which metaphor about aging do you like most (the onion, the rings inside a tree, the wooden dolls)?”
“How much of a seven-year-old are you? ”
“Do you sometimes find yourself reacting or behaving as if you were seven?”

The students use the other half of the paper to draw a memory from when they were seven. Tell them that someone else in the classroom will be describing it later, including the mood, and coming up with a title starting “SEVEN IN…” The pictures are swapped and the students take turns describing each picture while the authors confirm or correct any details in their partner’s description.

A fantastic trip down memory lane about which the students had so much to say. (They enjoyed it, too!)

 

 

 

 

Don’t Get Me Wrong

Students use grammatical and lexical knowledge, context clues and comprehension skills to solve this puzzle and reconstruct the lyrics of “Don’t Get Me Wrong” (The Pretenders, 1986). The students first start in the centre of the circle at number 1, follow the arrows outwards and inwards, and move clockwise. The lines are numbered for easier reference. There are three rings:

  • The inner ring, in which the words cannot be changed or moved. These belong to the beginning of odd-numbered lines and the end of even-numbered lines.
  • The middle ring contains a series of words which must be put in the right order.
  • The outer ring, which the students use to end or start a line by looking for a suitable phrase somewhere in the ring. The students are also provided with a few prompts in the writing sheet to help them move on.

Finally, the students listen to the song, check their answers, and try to explain any mistakes or difficulties.

Don'tGetMeWrong

Don’tGetMeWrong.pdf

Don'tGetMeWrongWorksheet

Don’tGetMeWrong-WritingWorksheet.pdf

Lyrics.pdf

This positive, vibrant song about one’s feelings in somebody’s proximity can also be used as an introduction to this short film. After summarising what the song is about, have the students watch the short film and discuss whether the woman or the man in the film would be the singers of “Don’t Get me Wrong” and explain why. Perhaps both in different ways? The students can then watch it again and write a short review using these questions as a guide:

  • What is the title of the film?
  • What genre is it?
  • Where is it set?
  • What is the story about?
  • What is the main theme?
  • What do you think of the film?
  • Would you recommend it?

“If music be the food of love, play on”

William Shakespeare, Twelfth Night

 


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Film Dubbing: a Flexible Integrated Skills Task

A context or topic that is relevant and interesting for the students is one of the main factors that helps to make language learning tasks successful and memorable. Flexibility is another ingredient: if tasks are flexible, the students will be able to work at their own performance level while working on the same goal. This is especially important in mixed-ability groups or teams within a group, but it also holds true for other more homogeneous settings where each student may need more work on different areas and skills at a given time. Finally, flexible tasks carried out in engaging contexts result in student ownership. When students manage to create something that is unique by making the necessary connections, linguistic and non-linguistic alike, learning naturally results.

There are probably many other elements that help to make tasks and lessons successful and meaningful, but over the years I’ve found these three elements to be decisive. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t expose our students to topics they are not interested in or less flexible tasks such as having them practise a particular structure; however, trying to twist the dullest of content or routine practice (see also: “coursebook”) to include at least some of these characteristics often pays off.

A flexible task that I like doing with my teenage students is film dubbing. At its very simplest, the students are shown a clip from a film again and again with no sound until they can write a script and read it as they synchronise with the actors in the scene. Clips from classical or popular films work best as the motivation to deconstruct the whole thing will be higher (I’ve used clips from “Casablanca”, “Gone with the Wind”, “The Goonies”, “Braveheart” or even “Rambo”!) MovieClips.com and its YouTube channel has tons of clips to choose from. The students first identify the number of people participating in the dialogue and the length of each contribution, then they brainstorm ideas in their teams or in pairs, and finally write the script down. Apart from language accuracy, the students will be manipulating the language so that it fits each contribution, they will be making decisions regarding register, and they will be practising pronunciation skills such as intonation.

As the students make the scene their own, in a flexible setting and with a topic of their choice, the students analyse the language by comparing how they thought something should be said and how it is actually said, or simply by becoming aware of language gaps and making up for them. Again, this is a highly personal process but in this case within a context that is engaging enough for language needs to become personally salient and, therefore, more likely to be acquired. And once the clips are shared with the rest of the class, a good amount of language will come into play and a great opportunity to focus on specific language items through mini-lessons based on the students’ production.

I’ve always kept it low-tech, but this activity can get as simple or technologically complex as you want, and you may even want to consider recording the dialogues and adding them to each clip using software such as Movie Maker — even special effects! Would you give it a go? Have you tried anything similar?


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Listening for detail: “Kilkelly, Ireland”

American songwriter Peter Jones discovered a collection of letters in his parents’ attic written by his great-great-great grandfather, Byran Hunt, to his son, John Hunt, who had emigrated from Kilkelly in Ireland to the United States in 1855. The Great Famine in Ireland had forced large numbers of people to emigrate in search of a better life. The five-stanza ballad he wrote based on these letters cover the time period from 1860 to 1892.

“Kilkelly, Ireland” is a breathtaking, thought-provoking song in which family news, including births and deaths, are shared for a period of thirty-two years. In the activity, the students listen for specific information by writing an explanation for each of the words, names or pictures in the timeline. Pat McNamara, for instance, is the teacher who writes the letters for John’s father. At the end of each letter, go over the answers and have the students read the lyrics if necessary before moving on to the next. If needed, you may want to pre-teach a few words such as “dampness”, “turf”, “pass on”, “bury” or “feisty”, although both the slow rhythm pattern of the song and the type of words used in the lyrics make it a challenging yet attainable listening task for students with a B1+ level and above.

Kilkelly

Kilkelly.pdf

 

The song could be an excellent starting point to get the students talking about why people migrate and cultivate empathy in the classroom. Alternatively, the students could write their own personal responses at the end of the song and focus on the universal theme of the sadness and longing by people who have been separated for a long time. In my experience, though, the song is so powerful that you can often tell what the students want to talk about after listening to it and thinking about it for a short while. Perhaps now it’s our turn to listen.

 

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?

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from by H is for Home, on Flickr

Little Red Riding Hood illustration from” (CC BY-NC 2.0) by H is for Home

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