This lesson plan is an old-favourite of mine. It’s based on a poem by Carol Ann Duffy and is great for a winter’s morning, afternoon or evening – especially if it’s been snowing. But it works just as well if it doesn’t snow where you live – it never snows in Cádiz! – images of snowfalls on the news can be context enough. The text is fairly challenging lingusitically but the structure is quite simple and the themes appeal to most students, especially older teens. It works best with upper-intermediate or advanced students. I’ve used it with teens, young adults and, once, with a group of older business people. It’s gone down well each time. (I also adapted it for use in the first edition of the Inside Out advanced student’s book).
I first used it with a group of students in the UK. They were all young adults on a nine-month language course. Many came from countries where it never snows. One day we were in class when snowflakes started to float past the window. A huge gasp went up and shouts of “snow”, “I’ve never seen snow”. It was only a flurry really, but enough to turn the hedgerows white in the street outside. We abandoned the classroom and went outside to learn about making snowballs.
A few days later we looked at this poem together in class. Here’s the step by step lesson plan.
1 Group Discussion(s)
This works well with three separate groups, but can work fine as whole class as well.
Each group is given a card. On one side is one word:
group 1: snowman
group 2: boredom
group 3: stealing
The groups do not know what cards the other groups have. (If doing this as a whole class activity, introduce the cards one by one – the danger of doing it whole is that the activity may become a little repetitive.)
The first instruction is for the students to look at the word on the card and, individually write down five words they associate with it (you can cut this back to three if you prefer – I have done with classes that are slower “givers”). Give them a time limit. Two or three minutes is more than enough (With my teen classes recently I’ve been using the timer on my phone for timed activities – appeals to their smartphone mindsets!).
At the end of the time limit, ask the students to compare and explain their choices, then ask them to turn over the card. When I first taught this lesson I supplied the questions. Two or three simple questions for each word, but in later versions I’ve asked the students to write their own questions, sometimes using prompts, sometimes just leaving the card blank. I think this reflects a change in my teaching style (I first used this lesson plan in 1997) giving more and more space for the students to write the materials, growing into a “less is more” philosophy of sharing the building of the lesson.
Here are the original questions:
- have you ever built a snowman? if yes, where were you? who were you with? how big was it?
- have you, or anyone you know ever stolen anything or had anything stolen from you? if yes, what?
- what do you usually do when you’re bored? do you have any “defence mechanisms”?
Again I set a time limit and ask the ss to discuss the questions. I set time limits because I want all three groups to discuss all three topics. We establish at the beginning that when I call an end to a discussion whoever is speaking at the time gets to finish what they’re saying and then the attention focuses back on the “centre”, on the whole class.
As each mini discussion ends, the cards circulate and the activity is repeated: brainstorming, comparing, discussing. Once the three topics have been discussed in groups, as a whole class we talk about which topic was most interesting, lead to most discussion, was most difficult to talk about and why. This usually throws up quite a lot of language that’s worth stopping to look at.
2 Reading the poem
I then tell the class that the three words are all themes in a text they’re going to read and very quickly field any off-the-top-of-their-heads predictions. I’m always cautious about over-predicting before reading a text. I think it can often be counter-productive. It’s often better to let the text speak for itself.
I then give each group the five verses of the poem, cut up on separate pieces of card and ask them to decide on a) an order b) a title.
You can see the full text of the poem here on a BBC website where there is also a recording and slideshow (more about that below).
The lexis is dense and colloquial. You can choose to pre-teach some of it if you want. I prefer to monitor and help as and when the students ask me to, I think it causes less disruption in the reading and processing. A written glossary can help too ( Glossary) The key to the activity, for me, is that there is no clear right answer. Of course, there’s the original poem, and we will listen to and look at that at a later point, but at this stage of the lesson, the students’ chosen order, whatever it is, is totally valid as their (re)interpretation of the poem.
Once they have decided on the order, the groups compare their versions and discuss any differences. We usually pause and look at the informal language too at this point, making a note of it, promising to come back to it later.
We discuss which word, snowman, boredom or stealing, is the best title for the poem and why.
3 Listening to the poem
The first few times I used this lesson, I read the poem out myself. I’ve since discovered various recordings online. The BBC site I mentioned above has a very good recording and an accompanying slideshow. The students listen and confirm or change the order of the verses. I keep back the slideshow for later.
4 Further discussion
We discuss any differences in the order and if it changes the emphasis of the poem at all. I ask the students to build a profile of the person who is speaking. Is it a man/woman, girl/boy?How old is he/she? Why? Where does he/she come from? Where does he/she live? To encourage individual answers and responses I ask the students to think about their answers first, to visualise the person. I read the questions aloud and pause after each one, prompting if necessary. I give them time to write short notes about their visualisation before they share the details with their classmates.
I then ask them to choose two or three lines they particularly like from the poem. They can explain why if they want – but that’s not always that easy! the lines often speak for themselves.
My favourite (and often a favourite with at least some of the students, especially teens) is, ” Mostly I’m so bored I could eat myself.” I think it speaks for itself. Instead of asking students to explain why they like it, I ask them to practise reading it out loud. In the original plan, we left things there, once the students had shared their favourite lines around the class. Sometimes we made posters of the quotes. And then we’d go back to explore the new vocabulary a little further.
5 Possible add-ons
images and slideshows: ask students to draw up a “storyboard” of images to accompany the poem if read aloud. They can compare their ideas with the slideshow on the BBC site or look for clips on youtube. I like this one by a class of school kids in the UK , the snowman doesn’t quite live up to my personal visualisation, I’m not so sure about the background music, but I like the way the students have made it their own.
the poet talks about her poem : As I was writing this post, I had a look online to see what other resources might be out there. As well as the BBC recording and slideshow (see links) and various study notes (the poem is part of an anthology for GCSE exams in the UK) I came across this great text by Carol Ann Duffy, talking about how the poem came about. The text is simple and accessible and would make good follow-up reading to the discussion of the “voice” or “face” behind the poem.