Back to the drawing board

This is a very simple lesson outline that worked well for me.  It grew out of a lesson plan prepared by a colleague for the team of teachers teaching supplementary skills classes in a local state school.  For me it was part of an on-going challenge to work my way around the physical and psychological obstacles of a traditional, fixed-seating classroom.

our classroom before the lesson started

Students: 14 teenagers aged 16-17, mixed level

Global aim of the lesson : to build confidence and fluency in writing

Original focus: describing people

Step 1

I drew an empty egg shape on the board in chalk.  I said it was a person and confessed to being a terrible artist. The students eagerly agreed and sat up in their chairs, looking over their classmates’ heads rather then hiding behind them in the back rows.  I asked them if they thought it was male or female and when they said he was male, I drew a second egg shape and told them that that one was female. I then asked them to prompt me to draw the facial features.   We labelled new words as they came up, (bushy) eyebrows, (long) eyelashes, wrinkles/laughter lines and slowly built up a kind of old-fashioned police identikit meets Frankenstein’s monster  on the board.

A late arriver came in and was promptly announced to be a great artist.  I immediately surrender the chalk and sat down among the rows.   The class continued to prompt the late student to draw the girl’s face.  I joined in at times, but on the whole the class had taken the activity and were giving it their own momentum. The student’s artistic abilities didn’t really make up for my initial clumsy egg shape and both faces were deemed badly drawn caricatures (another new word) with great pleasure from the class.

At this point I stepped back in front of the class and asked the students to give the two people a bit more flesh and blood. I used this stage to quickly focus on the language that had been chosen for the class, the three questions, what is he/she like? what does he/she like? and what does he/she look like? We drilled the questions and then used them for the next stage: character building.   The students gave the egg heads names, ages, interests, likes, dislikes and personalities.  The energy was still good and the suggestions flowed, bouncing back and forth across the rows.

Step 2

In this step we moved away from the board and to paper.  The students worked in pairs. Each pair took a piece of scrap paper and created a new egg-head, prompting each other on features etc as they did. The language we’d used originally to draw the eggheads on the board was still there.  There was quite a lot of referring to the vocabulary and more chat and interaction than usual.  I think the activity worked well partly because we’d set the bar for the drawing very low – and the standard for the character building pretty high.

I went around, joining each pair in their row, or in the row in front or behind, listened in, and as they finished asked about the people they’d created. At this point each pair was working at their own pace.  I monitored to keep the ball rolling. I didn’t mind what stage they were at so long as there was activity and momentum.

As each pair reached the stage of having a fleshed out person in their minds, I asked them to imagine that they had met that person recently. I asked them to imagine where they met them, what they were doing and how they got talking.  I asked them to think about what they said to each other and whether they became friends or not. The next step was to write about their first meeting with this person, and at the same time describe them, as fully as they could.  As each pair got to this point, they all put pen to paper and the writing flowed.  The class was by now totally out of synch … and working pretty hard.

Step  3

Possibly the most difficult thing to engineer was a kind of closure to the class.  What I did was ask each pair, as they finished, to show their person and share their story with another pair. We continued swapping stories until everybody had finished. The last pair to finish told the whole class about their encounter and that’s where the lesson ended. I collected the texts to get an idea of where they’re at with their writing, but I’m not going to do any direct correction. We worked a lot on the texts as they grew. The final product was a final product that the students were happy with.

Drawing conclusions …

All to be taken within the context of a mixed ability teenage class:

  • it’s OK to front at the board if all the students are engaged and involved
  • it’s good to start off with a whole class activity that allows everyone to contribute, and where every contribution is equally valid, be it basic (a big nose) or a little more advanced (bushy eyebrows), before branching off into smaller groups or pairs
  • I can get into the rows, monitor and move around among the students, almost as easily as in the traditional EFL horseshoe
  • being out of synch is good, letting everyone work at their own pace, so long as everyone’s absorbed and that we can draw it all together at the end
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15 Responses to Back to the drawing board

  1. Baiba says:

    Ceri, it is fantastic what you can do with a simple activity! Thanks for describing the steps of the lesson which helps to see what you have to do to get the final result.
    Might try this in my lessons 🙂

  2. Hi Baiba, thanks for dropping by 🙂
    yeah, simple seems to work with these classes. What I’m learning about them -. or so it seems to me – is that if I start with a strong springboard that catches their attention as a group and have a clear idea of my final destination, the rest kind of works itself out.
    Let me know what faces yours come up with 😉

  3. Pingback: Building writing confidence and fluency in teens through drawing |

  4. Wish i were there too! So much out of a simple activity!
    But HOW do you get the teens to cooperate with activities that involve drawing? Lots of my students (not all) are too worried about their self image to be “caught” dealing with something that can seem childlike or to be seen drawing if that isn’t their particular talent!
    Good for you!

    • Ceri Jones says:

      Hi Naomi!
      I think it worked because I’m so bad at drawing 😉 – comically bad in fact – and we milked the comedy at the board, but were also doing a lot of language work, and the language stayed on the board. I think there was an implicit message of the badly drawn faces just being an excuse to have some fun and that the real focus was the language. This carried over to their drawing. Very bad was allowed – in fact almost encouraged! – and the onus was on a quick sketch (as you can see from the results 😉 ). I was very proactive in moving them on as quickly as I could to the stages where they brought the sketches to life and imagined meeting them. I used a lot of prompting in both phases, trying to take them beyond the teenage gut instinct to do the minimum and just say “I’ve finished”. I gave importance to the person behind the drawing, not the drawing itself, which got a quick smile and comment, but that was all. I guess that might have been the key – the drawing was a means to an end, a way of focusing them on a task, but what they eventually shared with the class, was the person they’d created, and their story, not the drawing.

      Thanks for pushing my thoughts further on this one, Naomi!
      By the way, have you seen this? Nikki Fortova (@nikkifortova) tweeted it recently it’s an online drawing tool, and the person you create then comes to life. It might appeal to those students who think they can’t draw? or think it’s childish? I haven’t tried it out in class yet, but I’d love to!

  5. Pingback: Back to the drawing board | Dogme ELT |

  6. annforeman says:

    Hi Ceri,

    Great class activity with lots of legs so that it can go in directions that best meets students’ interests/needs.
    Have just posted a link to it on the TeachingEnglish facebook page if you’d like to check there for comments.

    Please feel free to post on the page whenever you have anything you’d like to share.



  7. ilanadavita says:

    What a great looking lesson. I am thinking of using it as a way to revise how to talk about oneself and other people with students aged 18-22 (with very mixed abilities) before moving on to writing a cover letter. Theoretically I don’t need the physical description bit but it never hurts to revise basics.

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  9. Pingback: Back to the drawing board | English (ok ESL) Wr...

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