Dive Deep Into Your One Word Images

I suspect that many of us do not truly squeeze the juice out of our OWIs because we are too intent on the beginning, the concrete descriptions. The OWI process is a great way to prime the pump of creativity, but after a few weeks even low-level classes become frustrated with the first part of the process. The concrete descriptions become a drag on engagement. This newsletter suggests a few ways to expand the activity so that it remains captivating. Your intermediate / advanced students will also get a lot out of OWIs with these variations.

Ben Slavic once told me that his best images were not class-created images, but what he called “invisibles“. These are the images that students made on their own time. He would explore them in a whole class conversation through a picture talk.

Following Ben’s lead, once or twice a year I give my students 20 minutes and a blank piece of paper to create their own characters. At the end of the day I have a thick stack of 200 student-created illustrations that we can explore. It takes months to explore the entire pile. We have one crucial understanding: once I put an image under a doc cam, the image and the story we create no longer belongs to the imagination of any one student. It belongs to all of us.

Try starting class with one of their fantastical creatures projected against the board. Describe it; the process will take much less time than when asking the whole class for each description. Resist the urge to describe more than one image per class period because taking the time to imagine the story behind the image is where it gets good.

Learn the basic OWI process through video tutorials in the CI Master Class

Normally making an OWI is a two-day process; we create the image on the first day and I present the image and ask a story on the second day. However, once your students have already acquired the basic vocabulary frequently used in OWIs, you will probably be able to describe a new image in less than ten minutes with just a few new words to tackle. If you move quickly you’ll be able to present the character and then imagine a story all within one 25 minute session. At this point, once they have mastered the concrete descriptions, try one of the following variations for a deeper OWI experience:

(1) Troublesome character traits

Normally the fourth question we ask is whether the character is happy or sad. If the character is sad, during the problem creation part of the process we simply ask why, and the story emerges easily. If the character is happy, we ask why and then take that happiness away, which sets up our character to go on a quest to regain their lost source of happiness.

In this variation we change the fourth question. Instead of happy or sad, we use one of the pairs below. For example, Is the character brave or cowardly? At the end of the character description when we are establishing a problem, we then ask how being brave or cowardly gets the character into trouble.

Just choose one pair of traits and give your students space to explore their creativity. How can being brave get our character into trouble? Whenever students are asked to be creative, let them start in English and perhaps brainstorm for 60 seconds in pairs. This will lead to richer language as long as you reel them in before it becomes too complicated. Here is the list of adjectives that I use in this variation:

Brave – Cowardly
Resilient – Fragile, low self-esteem
Enthusiastic – Downer
Creative – Dull
Persistent – Gives up quickly
Humble – Self-aggrandizing
Spontaneous – Cautious
Hard-working – Lazy
Motivated – Passive, lethargic
Leader – Follower
Amusing – Gloomy
Curious – Uninterested
Empathetic – Indifferent, uncaring
Reliable – Irresponsible
Trustworthy – Untrustworthy

(2) What are we really talking about?

This variation requires that the teacher be really perceptive in the moment to tease out a deeper theme emerging from the character description. This can be difficult, but is well worth it because it leads students to start analyzing their own characters for deeper themes.

I normally do not plan this variation ahead of time but instead start a normal OWI and then interrupt the process once I begin to perceive a deeper theme. For example, we might be creating a character who is enormous and a student suggests something that cues me to realize that our character is not just physically imposing, but obese. Students will often use the OWI process to suggest themes that they think are taboo, and in fact if there is a small group giggling while the rest of the class appears uncomfortable then you are right to suspect that the students’ intentions are less than noble.

Glance around to be sure that none of your students are being mocked. This may be a moment to launch into the “Cool Generation” routine described in last week’s newsletter. In fact, I would do this even if no one was explicitly being mocked. Body image is a very sensitive issue.

Now ask, “so what is this really about?” And then reframe the ‘problem’ that the character faces without running from the controversial theme.

Is this about a character who is bullied because the school cannot maintain a safe, respectful environment? Because I want to be clear: no one who is bullied deserves to be bullied. No one.

You not only defuse the bomb, but you help your students reframe problems that they face in real life. The story that emerges then becomes a metaphor for how to problem-solve real life problems. Even if there is an element of ridiculous fantasy, solving the problem becomes cathartic.

Sometimes a small group of students will persist in trying to create a negative vibe. Take control of the narrative and tell them, in English, that we are creating a world that we want to live in. We are solving problems to make the world a better place. Don’t make the mistake of uncomfortably laughing along in order to “have a good class”. The rest of the class is listening to you, and observing not only where you draw the line but also what you do to protect them.

What are we really talking about?” is a powerful way to address issues faced by our students such as sibling rivalry, race and gender identity, loneliness, self-esteem and body image issues, harmful group dynamics, depression, alcohol/smoking/drug use, defiant behaviors, peer pressure and unhealthy competition. Once you have articulated the problem in English, go back to working in the TL. Students tend to embrace these characters as masks that they wear at a masquerade ball. Let them try out several solutions; this is compelling!

(3) A Problem Inspired by AP themes

This variation does not require the teacher to be as “in the moment”, but can still lead students to grapple with real world problems within a safe classroom environment. Complete the OWI process to create the character and, just before establishing the problem faced by the character, project a copy of the AP themes for all to see. In my own classes I have projected the entire AP themes graphic and let students choose any of them, but in workshops I found more success by focusing on only one specific theme at a time.

Students form small groups and brainstorm in English for 3 minutes, using the graphic as inspiration for their brainstorming. Then we come back together as a large group and choose one idea to pursue in the target language. Initial brainstorming in English is fundamental to getting great ideas, but limiting it to 3 minutes prevents the ideas from getting out of hand and allows an easy transition back to the target language.

While the themes generated through this variation do not tend to be as personal as the “what are we really talking about” variation, they can still be compelling. I find that Freshman and Sophomores tend to react best to variation 2 because developmentally they are very much immersed in their own world. My Juniors and Seniors, however, desperately want to have candid conversations about the real world in ways that are thought-provoking. They want to be taken seriously, and the AP themes approach works well with that age group.

Don’t be disheartened if you try this and your students do not suggest great ideas immediately. You are asking them to open their hearts in a way that is rarely done in school. You are asking them to trust you. Earning that trust is worth the effort. These variations may not work the first time through, but they are certainly worth trying a dozen times until your students get good at playing this game. Once that happens, you’ll be having satisfying conversations frequently with your students, in the target language. Does it get any better than that?