It’s the Thursday before carnival weekend. Preparations are being made throughout the town. The lights are up, the burger and hot dog stalls are in place, there are fluorescent wigs and plastic hats fluttering in the wind in the cathedral square. The kids are excited, my two can’t get to sleep, and a couple of days ago when I wrote the word “carnival” on the board in class my students could hardly contain themselves. In fact I had to rub it off, replace it with a sad face and set a dictation to bring them back down again!
That’s when I remembered that I’d written a post about this time last year about carnival but I’d let the days slip by and it got out of date and didn’t get posted. So I dived into my drafts, dusted it off, rounded off the last paragraph, tidied up the narrative tenses here and there and here it is!
This post and the lesson it describes were inspired by an activity shared by Jason Renshaw – the Pako Festa. Thanks, Jason.
Carnival is a big deal here in Cádiz. It lasts for two weeks and spans three weekends, starting with the traditional Mardi Gras weekend, but continuing on through the nights and the narrow streets of the old town for the following two weeks. It is an intensely local carnival, but one that attracts visitors from all over Spain, and Europe too. Carnival-goers feel very strongly about it. As do my high school students. So when I saw Jason’s lessson – a reading text about a multicultural carnival in his hometown of Geelong – it was just perfect.
The classes I was working with at the time were fairly large (17-19 students), mixed level classes preparing for their university entrance exam. In my classes, one hour once a week, we’d look at the reading and writing skills needed to pass the exam. It was a challenge, trying to cater for everyone, stretching the stronger students, supporting and motivating the weaker students. Allowing everyone time to digest and process the reading texts. Allowing everyone time to plan and write the compositions. This is how I used Jason’s text to help me with that challenge.
I used to start all my lessons with movement and/or noise. We’d start with activities that were not linguistically demanding, but that did demand focused attention. They were often based on single words, or single sounds, and on chorus drilling or very controlled pairwork. For example counting games, spelling games, single word conversations or intonation/attitude drills. It meant we were all together, all on the same page, and yes, initially, all focused on me, the teacher.
In this lesson we started with a spelling game. Nothing particularly elaborate. I shouted out the letters, they had to repeat them and when they thought they knew the word, they had to shout it out. It was done at speed and at volume. I spelled words that described the carnival weekend that had just finished (the first of the three): rain, costumes, streamers, parade. They shouted them back at me and we wrote them on the board.
This was the starting point for the next stage, a brainstorming stage. I handed out chalk to everyone, they all went to the board and wrote words they associated with carnival. (This is only one section of the board that runs the length of the room. Sorry about the flash reflecting on the blackboard!)
I find that with the brainstorming to the board, the stronger students usually try and stretch themselves (or possibly show off). They write words like wigs, fancy dress and cotton candy, leaving the simpler words like fun and hats and tourists to the weaker students. Everyone has something to contribute and hiding in the crowd of everyone at the board helps the shyer students as well. We quickly looked through the words we’d collected on the board, explored any that needed exploring (for example, sandwich – the student said they always take sandwiches to keep them going through the long nights of the carnival street parties), laughed at any that were funny, rubbed off anything that was “irreverent” and moved on.
The next step was to hand out strips of paper to each student and ask them to write their own definition of carnival, of what carnival means to them. Here are a few. You can see something of the range of opinions … and of levels:
As they finished I collected them in, made on the spot corrections where I thought the students had made a slip. Again the stronger students tend to write more, elaborate more on their ideas, push the activity as far as they can. This allows time for the weaker students to gather their thoughts and produce shorter, often simpler, but equally valid sentences. Juggling the different paces in a class like this is always an on-the-spot challenge. When I’d collected in all the slips, I read out the definitions and opinions and asked the students to agree or disagree, encouraging both loud, enthusiastic chorused agreement and individual reasoned disagreement.
It was now time to turn to the text. I explained that we were going to look at a text describing another carnival, one that took place far away and asked them to guess where. They guessed the Canary Islands, I said, no, further. They guessed Venice and Rio, thinking of carnivals in catholic countries that reflect something of the carnival traditions in Cádiz. I told them even further, they guessed China and Japan and finally arrived in Australia. They confessed to having no idea what a carnival in Australia might be like. So I asked them to read the text and find any similarities with the carnival in Cádiz. We discussed this and they highlighted the similarities (the parade, the costumes, the music and dance). We then focused on the differences. Again they underlined the relevant passages.
In the exam they need to answer three open comprehension questions and decide whether two sentences are true or false, justifying their answer with reference to the text. The next step in the lesson was for the students to work together in small groups to write exam questions to accompany the text. They could use the passages they had underlined during the reading stage or any other area in the text. I asked them to make it difficult, challenging, explaining that we would be using the questions to test other students in the class. They always seem to rise to this particular challenge! There were two main aims here, one to encourage the students to process more deeply the task types in the exam by putting them in the examiner’s shoes and two, to encourage paraphrasing as the students will drop marks in the exam if they do not use “their own words.”
I set up the groups, mixing stronger and weaker students, and monitored, ensuring as much as possible that all the students were taking an active part, that no-one was dominating and that no-one was being left out. They enjoyed the task and the challenge, and as I collected the “exam” questions, I also collected the texts. I handed out the questions to new groups and asked them to answer them as they would in an exam ie in full sentences, justifying their answers with reference to the text (which they no longer had in front of them so needed to rely on their collective memories) . Of course, they had read the text so intensively when they were writing the questions that they had no problems answering them. The last stage was for the exam writers to check and mark the answers. And that was the end of the lesson.
In the next lesson we started with a short board race, two teams, two pieces of chalk, a kind of relay brainstorming with the teams writing up words on the board they associated with the Pako Festa carnival in Geelong (one student was particularly proud of herself for remembering the name). I then read out some of the true/false statements they’d written in the previous lesson and fielded answers. We did the same with the comprehension questions. They remembered everything, even though a whole week with all its ups and downs and teenage life had passed in the meantime. I think it was wholly down to the fact that they had written the questions themselves.
Their task in this second lesson was simply to write a similar text about carnival in Cádiz. I handed out the Pako Festa texts again. We looked again at the similarities and the differences, and we highlighted useful phrases. And then in groups they got down to writing. They needed very little coaxing or guiding. But we did a lot of discussing and redrafting. Some wrote out their own separate texts, leaning on Jason’s as a model. Others took the copy editing route, crossing out the information that was irrelevant and adding their own, starting with the title, changing it from Celebrating Diversity to Celebrating Cádiz. Simple but effective. Very like the original text ( a great model text, Jason!) and very like their final products.
Reading back through this post I found that I had flashbacks to that lesson, very clear, almost photographic images of various different stages in the class. An interesting experience taking a journey back through a forgotten lesson. Maybe letting things sit a while in the drafts isn’t such a bad idea after all.