Stories waiting to be told
The three image types have one thing in common; they need someone to interpret them, to fill the gaps, to pick out the details or to open them out into a bigger picture.
The first is close ups. I think close-ups are particularly useful, not for what they show, but for what they don’t show. This is where the language lies, in exploring and explaining and telling the story that lies beyond and around the image. Here is an example of a lesson based on a simple close-up photo.
The first step is to make sure I have a camera with me when I’m out and about at the weekend – in my case this simply means having my phone at the ready – and taking close up shots of places or moments that have some kind of special significance for me. In the next class I share the photo and ask the students to place it in our local surroundings. I ask them to think about when I took it and why I was in that place and if it conjures up any particular mood. Once we’ve established the location, I ask my students to position themselves as if they were taking the photo. They put themselves in the scene, they position the phone or camera as if they were taking the photo and then I ask them to take two steps back and “take” a second photo, this time a mental snapshot in their mind’s eye. They compare the photos they’ve just “taken” to give the original close-up 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 – and need for language.
There are lots of different directions we can take from here, 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 places. 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 in the scene, 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 them. 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. I think it’s important to remember that these activities are starting points, not ends in themselves and that it is the language, not the image, that is the final point of focus.
The second type of image I like, for very much the same reasons, is shadows. Again, the important thing is not what you see, but what you don’t. One way to exploit shadows is to ask the students to ask questions about a shadow. I first elicit question words and expressions (who, where, what, how long, how many, often etc) and then I show the students a photo of a shadow that I’ve taken recently and ask them to write as many questions as possible about the photo. 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 cross out any questions that aren’t worth asking (there are always quite a few) and then I ask them to ask me the remaining questions. Slowly they tease out the story behind the photo. 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 question spontaneously having gained confidence and 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.
We call this last kind of task “homework in my pocket”. I’ve found that it appeals especially to teens, who think it’s an easy option, after all, all they have to do is take a photo. But once they realize that the photos will be used in class, that I will expect them to talk about them, the photos in their pockets become a powerful tool for revising, activating and practising language as they prepare themselves mentally for the follow-up tasks in class, rehearsing what they want to say about their close-ups or shadows and processing language in a deeper and more relevant way than when they complete workbook exercises or the like.
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. There are some stunning aerial shots to be found online, or by using tools such as Google maps we can find aerial views of the students’ hometowns to explore from above. Rather than taking a few steps back, as we did with the close-up image, I ask the students to travel into the photo, to explore the streets, houses, buildings or landscapes in the image and to step inside them. My elementary students take me on simple guided tours, around the streets of a strange town, or on a first visit to a new home.
I live on the ninth floor of my block of flats, so I can take semi aerial shots and share the view from my living room window. Once I took a photo as a parade of colorful flamenco costumes marched by in the street below and shared it with a class. As well as asking students to place the picture in a context (that was 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 asked them to choose one of the people in the photo, to go down to the street and find out more about that person. They had to fill in a “profile” for them: their name, age, where they’re from, why they’re taking part. Then I asked them to imagine they were radio reporters and asked them to come up with interview questions to ask that particular person, and the other people in the procession. This stage allowed for a lot of monitoring and feeding in of language that the students needed, clarification of meaning, consolidation of wording, in short a lot of processing and learning. Then they acted out the interviews and the language they’d prepared, asked for, rehearsed, was put into action. This image worked well because it came from the students’ lives. They knew much more than me about what was going on and they were the experts in telling this story.
As with the close-ups and the shadows, as a follow-up, you can ask the students to produce their own versions of the image. They can either take a photo from a window, or imagine the scene they might see from a given window, and rather than take a photo of the view, take a photo of the window instead. This has led to a lot of interesting discussions – as well as a lot of rehearsal and practice beforehand. With each of the three image types the lesson structure is more or less the same: start with a photo of your own, provide a structure for exploring it, then ask your students to take photos to share, explore and narrate.
By Ceri Jones