Stories waiting to be told

At The Image Conference at Barcelona last weekend (June 8) I spoke about three types of images I like to use and explore in class. The first was, of course, close ups. Like the one below for example. I think close-ups are particularly useful in a language classroom, not for what they show us, but for what they don’t show us.  It is that which is withheld (as Jamie Keddie explained in his opening plenary) that is powerful. That’s where the language lies, in exploring and explaining and telling the story that lies beyond the picture.

Cider bubbles

cider bubbles from #eltpics

I like using visualisation with close-ups.  First we explore the photo itself, what it shows us, what about it appeal to us, what kind of mood it portrays.  I sometimes play a kind of trick with my students. I’ll maybe show the photo while I talk about something else and then turn it off (if it’s on a projector), or turn the screen away (if I’m using my laptop) and ask the students to remember the photo, to conjure it in their mind’s eye while they discuss the questions. Try it out with the photo above if you want.

When we come back to the photo we share our answers, explore any language or avenues that seem worth exploring and then I ask my students to position themselves as if they were taking the photo.  Again try it out if you feel like it. Put yourself in the scene. Position the phone or camera lens. Where are your hands? Are you sitting or standing?  Have you got the pose?  Now take two steps back (stand up if you need to!) and “take” a second photo.  I then ask my students to compare the photos they’ve taken to describe what they see around the glass and to give the photo a context.  These second photos will have lots of things in common, but there will also be lots of differences.  The discussion can throw up a lot of interesting language – or need for language.

Having got this far there are lots of different directions we can take, depending on the class, their needs, their energy levels, their interest – and maybe too the teaching agenda.  It can turn into a discussion of favourite drinking haunts, maybe exploring recommendations for places to go out at night. It might turn into tales of travels or holidays or special occasions. One of my favourites is to turn it into a drama activity. We position characters at the table, we give them reasons for being there, we explore who they are and why they’re there.  Then we put thoughts in their heads and words in their mouths. Being more of a writer than an actor myself I prefer to ask my students to write scripts and then, if they want to, to perform.  But some classes (and students and teachers too I guess) prefer to improvise. Anything goes really.  From a language point of view the important thing is that the students are processing language, making meaning and creating “texts” that can be explored and analysed and mined for learning opportunities.

The second type of image I like, for very much the same reasons as the close-ups, is shadows.   Again, the important thing is not what you see, but what you can imagine hiding in the shadows.  I described a lesson plan based on this photo on a blog post for Ken Wilson a few years ago. The basic idea is that students create a lexical set by describing not what they can see, but what they can’t -and by describing what they can’t see, they’re actually describing what’s in their mental image of a living room and generating the vocabulary that’s relevant to them and their worlds.

living room shadows

Another way to exploit shadows is by using the 5 Ws (as Ian James called them in his session): where, who, why, what, when and asking students to ask questions about a shadow.  I’ve done that with this picture below a number of times.  Initially the students mechanically write a long list of questions without much thought for relevance or interest.  I ask them to revise their list and strike through any questions that aren’t worth asking (there are always quite a few) and then I ask them to question me.  Slowly, through the questioning they tease out the story of my outing with my family and friends.  Once the questions have dried up I ask them to retell the story in pairs or groups and maybe to write a brief summary of it.  Then I ask them to think of similar stories to tell each other.  Usually they prompt and questions spontaneously having gained confidence and some fluency from the activity before.   I then ask them to take a picture of another shadow for their next class so we can repeat the exercise again in groups.  Shadows seem to appeal and there are invariably enough shadows to go round.

bike shadow

The third type of image is aerial shots.  They are the opposite of close-ups, because rather than asking you to take a step back and create the bigger picture, they ask you to look closer, to climb into the picture and explore the details.   Here’s one below that I took from my living room window (I live on the ninth floor so it lends itself well to semi- aerial shots).  Apart from asking students to place the picture in a context (and that’s easy enough for them, this is procession that takes place each year in their town – and throughout western Andalucía, the Rocío) and explaining their take on the event, I ask them to choose one of the people in the photo, to go down and find out more about that person, fill in a “profile” for them: their name, age, where they’re from, why they’re taking part.  I usually like to ask students to do this kind of profile building in pairs or small groups, it makes for more discussion, more ideas, more flow.  Then I ask them to imagine they are radio reporters and ask them to come up with interview questions to ask that particular person, and the other people in the procession.  This stage allows for a lot of monitoring and feeding in of language that the students need, clarification of meaning, consolidation of wording, in short a lot of processing and learning.  Then they act out the interviews (with younger students I’ve found that using voice recorders on their smartphones ups their game) and the language they’ve prepared, asked for, rehearsed is put into action. This image has worked for me because it comes from the students’ lives. They know much more than me about what’s going on here, they are the experts in telling this story.

view from my window

Aerial shots may be more difficult for students to take themselves, but they can find aerial views on, for example, google maps.  Or they can take photos -real or mental snapshots – of the view from their windows.  (I’ve written about this as a possible starting point for a class here.)

That more or less covers the meat of my session at The Image Conference. Thanks once again to Kieran Donaghy and Nicky Hockly and all involved for organising such a great event.

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13 Responses to Stories waiting to be told

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  3. Great post, Ceri. Really interesting and innovative use of images.

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  5. Jackie says:

    Hi Ceri,
    This is a fantastic post! I’m sorry I missed your session but I couldn’t make it to Barcelona for the conference. Thanks for sharing it like this.

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  8. Richard says:

    Nice article, I agree with using close-ups and having the students speculate about what the topic / theme is. I often use the ‘spotlight’ function on the interactive whiteboard with a large image, where it blacks out most of it apart from a little circle and the students have to guess what it is. It’s quite good for introducing certain topics.

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  10. Tom English says:

    Your pictures are very dramatic. I’m very inspired to use powerful images in my English class. This is also a good way to encourage students to take pictures in this age of mobile phones. Instagram and other social network sites are powerful ways of learning English.

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