At the deep end

  An On-the-Spot Scrapbook

 So. My first ‘learner’ blog post. Rather than launch into a description of dogme, unplugged or materials-lite teaching as the ideal option for teen learners of pretty much any level, I thought I’d start with a little idea I had today while waiting for my son. A teen if ever there was one.

At the moment, I’m helping Sandy Millin and Carol Goodey curate eltpics, a photo resource for teachers, so I carry a camera everywhere. Just in case. Today, I had planned to try out an idea I’d read on Paul Braddock’s blog (see blogroll) and take photos every two minutes as I walked to a particular place. I was then going to try this idea on my 12-13 year olds. But it didn’t quite work that way. No. I had a different idea.

I found myself standing outside the local bull ring (this is Spain, after all), at 5pm, in bright, too-hot-for-April sunshine. My son is 13, so speed is not his forte at the moment, and I had plenty of time to ponder a class idea. Maybe even a classy class idea.

Let’s face it, most kids have a mobile phone these days and almost all have cameras – and those who don’t have one (my own sons are the perfect example) can probably borrow a mobile or a camera for homework reasons – so using them to help the kids themselves provide the input for a lesson seems like the logical, learner-centred thing to do. So I tried it for myself.

I stood fairly still and looked around at stuff. When I spotted something that put a thought in my head (‘inspired’ being a strong word for this sort of thing,’made me think of something’ doesn’t quite do it), I took a photo of it. I moved slightly, but not a lot, and took several photos in the space of about 5 minutes (if you click on the photos, you get the full, huge version).

Now, I hadn’t gone to a particular place to do this, I just happened to have this idea while standing at that spot, so took photos there. I don’t think it’d be too much to ask a 14 year-old, say, to go and stand somewhere for 5 minutes and take 6 or 7 photos of things they see that spark a thought off in their mind.

I would then suggest that, afterwards, they looked at the photos again, and in their head, rehearsed what they could say about each photograph, with a view to reducing the pictures until they’re left with 4 or 5 they can safely say something about in L2, without getting in a pickle. As I stood taking my pictures, I ‘edited’ my thoughts by disallowing any thoughts with more complex sentences along the lines of ‘Gosh, she’s wearing too much black! She must be sweltered! Far too hot for this weather’…nah, delete that photo. When students have simplified their photos, they’re ready to write. They could write a blog entry, a powerpoint presentation, copy, paste and write a regular composition with photos, a script to read while they show classmates their photos….. Here’s mine:

Picture 1: I’m standing outside the bull ring and this is the symbol for the Camino de Santiago on its wall. My town is on the Ruta de la Plata, the north-south branch of the Camino. These are two great symbols of Spain’s past: the Church and bulls. I also notice that the window above the blue and yellow ceramic shell is a similar shell shape reminding me of another typical Spanish image: the fan. What a cliché photo, haha!

Picture 2: Sol means sun. The sign on the other side says sombra. But I’m next to the Sol sign because it’s in the shade and the sombra (shade) side is in the sun. And it’s really hot and sunny today. I’m staying here.

Picture 3: The sign says Portugal 106. Portugal is only one hour away, and that’s quite near. I love Portugal and I want to learn Portuguese. I’m going to look for classes. Maybe we’ll go to Portugal for a day next week. Yes, that would be a nice way to spend Easter.

Picture 5: It’s quarter past five, it’s the first half of April, and it’s 31ºC. This isn’t normal! Where’s the nearest café? I need a cold drink. I like the poster with the women and their fans – very typical image. What’s going on in Casar? It doesn’t look like a bullfight poster. Perhaps it’s for the fair. Casar is the home of the smelliest cheese you can imagine – an incredibly popular, smelly cheese. I nearly bought a house there, but I’m allergic to cheese, so I didn’t – the irony was too great.

It’s a simple writing activity, but I think it works. Like a slightly more sophisticated ‘show and tell’ that has the beauty of being flexible – you can ask students to swap photos, choose the one they like best, use one or two to illustrate a story, a tourist guide etc etc etc.

And of course, once you have your students’ photos and texts, you can get even more flashy and use their texts as dictogloss or as gapfills. Produce the gapfills yourself blanking words in your students’ written pieces, and use the photos to provide clues.

Or convert their texts into a wordcloud and use the pictures and wordclouds later on in the course to get students to reconstruct the original text, and then perhaps improve on it, add to it.

The possibilities are endless.

Now you know what I think about – day-dream about, perhaps – while waiting around for my own personal teen.



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17 responses to “At the deep end

  1. I think you’ve summed it up well: “The possibilities are endless”

    Liked the photos too. Impressive that it was all from one spot. I’ve thought of mlearning homework missions where students would do exactly this and bring in photos to share/exchange and practice theme-based vocabulary.

    In the end, it’s all about finding a way to make repetition interesting, isn’t it!

    • Hi Brad!
      Thanks for your comment – the first comment on the first post! I wonder if that gets a prize…
      But yes, standing on one spot. I moved about 5m for the last photo, but of course using a zoom helps.
      As a sort of PS to the post, it occurred to me the next day, as I walked to a friend’s shop, that students of a fairly low level could also walk along their street and take, say, six photos, then write about their street as a more motivating take on that ‘There is a chemist on the corner. Opposite the chemist, there is a school. There are some traffic lights. This is my house, and this is my best friend Jean-Pierre’s house’ etc. It all becomes a show and tell rather than a dreary there is/there are thing. It’s also personal without infringing on REALLY personal stuff, and they can show the more glam elements or the grottier elements, as they see fit. Graffiti and litter or window boxes and sweet shops.

  2. I really like this lesson idea, Fiona! It’s very simple and learner-centred, and because it’s so personalised but not too revealing, I think it is ideal for teenagers. Have you used it with a class yet? Did you (or do you plan to) get the students to take photos for homework? And if so, did they all do it? I don’t usually set homework with my group and feel that if only half of them actually did it, the lesson wouldn’t work. Would it be feasible to actually take them outside and ask them to take the photos during part of the lesson? These are really rhetorical questions – I’m just thinking aloud, really! I might give this a go after the Easter hols – I’ll let you know how it goes 🙂

    • Hi Michelle!
      I totally agree about it being personal, but not TOO personal (see my reply to Brad above) and this is a key issue with teenagers. In recent years, the buzzword in ELT has been ‘personalise’, and oft we hear that teens LOVE talking about themselves, but it’s worth considering that they actually only really like talking about their ‘ideal self’ or their ‘perceived self’, rather than their reality; the two are not the same at all. To talk about your achievements, your loves, your dreams and hopes, your ‘one day I’m going to be in the national basketball team’ self, rather than your ‘truth be told, there are two or three guys in my team who’re better than me’ self. To motivate teens, it is important to work with the self they see in their mind’s eye, their ideal self, rather than what they see as their ‘real self’. Teen ‘real selves’ can be unsafe ground, either because they have genuine problems in life, or simply because they are insecure, adults-in-training.
      But this is a post for another day….
      I’ve set the task of taking the photos as homework, but it’ll be after the 25th when I see the results. The students were very keen, though. What you say about some students not doing homework, well, yes, that happens, but in my experience, these ‘self display’ activities get great results homework-wise, as the tribal effect kicks in. If a student is the only one or one of two who can’t show off their photos, they feel like outsiders, and what tends to happen is that the next time you do a similar activity, they ALL appear with their homework done.

  3. Hi Fiona,
    I’d just been leaning out of my living room window snapping photos when I came back to find this post! I’m going to take photos on the hour for a couple of hours. Different moments in time, but from the same place. I want to use them in much the same way. A springboard for students to do the same and then explore what language grows out of them. Your ideas have crossed and mingled with my meandering thoughts and taken them off in new directions. Thank you!
    Great first post by the way 🙂

    • Thanks, Ceri! You and I often coincide, ideas-wise….
      How did the photo-session go? Have you used the pictures yet?
      As a firm believer in the beauty and power of dogme, this sort of ‘dogme with student-generated promts’ is a key element in my ‘teacher’s paint box’. As you say, you wait to see what language grows out of it, or ’emerges’, to coin a phrase. And you can recycle the language by swapping photographs, then in a different season of the year, take photos in the same place and use them to compare the scenes. So many things to do, so many potential images to use. You could even ask them to take a panoramic sequence of photos, but tell them to leave a gap between two or three pictures, for two classmates to work together and describe what they think is missing – using memory or imagination, depending on how familiar they all are with the place in the photograph.
      Do let me know how your photo session worked out.

  4. Nice job on your first post – congrats, wishing you every success in the blogosphere. Best, Rob

  5. Hi Fiona,
    You’ve just inspired me to get my PET teens snapping away over Semana Santa…hopefully they’ll be motivated to take some photos and it will be a nice first day activity to start back after the holidays and see what they’ve been up to!
    T 🙂

    • Hi T, how are you doing?
      Do let me know what your teens come up with, both pictorially and text-wise. As an after-holiday activity, the doors are open wide when it comes to what you can do with their photos: postcards, presentations, grouping kids together depending on what they’ve photographed to create posters or presentations on different aspects of Semana Santa (whether seafood and beach picnics, or bare-foot, hooded chaps swinging incence burners…), asking them to keep a photographic journal for the last six weeks or so of the academic year, writing texts separately from the pictures, then print the pictures, number them, stick them on the board, and ask students to match each text to the correct picture etc etc…
      There’s only one potential problem with comparing photos from the Easter holidays…. and it’s the same with comparing holidays, comparing houses, comparing families.. it’s that ‘have/have not’ element I (for some reason) tend to call The Twilight Zone. The kid who spends the week at home alone while parents work, the kids whose parents take him/her to Paris, the kid who ends up working on his/her parents market stall…. This is why I tend to set tasks that are slightly more neutral or involve imagination, rather than The Truth.

  6. Hi Fiona,
    Great start 🙂 Welcome to the ELT blogosphere (know you were blogging before).
    I really like this idea and the fact that there are so many possibilities for it. If the students send them to you before the lesson, you could also mix up the pictures and ask them to decide which ones were taken from the same place. That might solve Michelle’s problem if not all of the students have taken pictures as it gives everybody a job.
    Look forward to your future posts!

    • Love your idea, Sandy, and yes, it really does solve the ‘oops, I forgot to do my homework’ issue. You could also create a class flickr page and create a set of ‘on the spot’ photos – rather like eltpics – as you then have a mosaic of the set allowing students to choose either their own photos to comment on or photos belonging to a classmate. This would solve the homework issue, the ‘I haven’t got a camera’ issue, and also allow students that moment of personal glory – always motivating – if a classmate chooses one of their photos to launch a ‘thought’ from. A class flickr site would also mean the class could build a permanent, shared, learner-generated resource for you to use in your classes. If you, the teacher, don’t have much time for uploading, you can nominate a curator (or ask for a volunteer).

  7. Hi. Thanks for the post and the thoughts. I’ve been intending to use students’ photos in class, but not really sure how to start.

    Oh and welcome to the blogosphere.

    • Hello Alan,
      thanks for the welcome – I hope I’ll feel at home here 😉
      I also hope that as well as my original post, some of the other ideas included in the various responses and comments above might help you leap in ‘at the deep end’.

      Now… what shall I write my next post about…? Hmmm.

  8. Pingback: Day-to-day photos « Sandy Millin

  9. Pingback: Day-to-day photos | English Teaching Daily

  10. Pingback: Sundays with BELTA – Fiona Mauchline | BELTA – The Belgian English Language Teachers Association

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