The other day I pulled out a picture for picture talk and, remembering what had been successful in other classes, I started to describe the picture to my students with a particular ‘story’ in mind. I knew exactly where I wanted to go and that was part of the problem. My students had no real opportunity to contribute except in a mad-lib ‘fill in the blank’ kind of way. We have all taught lessons that went fabulously in one class and, upon trying to recreate the fabulous experience in the next class, it just falls flat. Especially when teaching online!
Sometimes we might think that the problem is with the materials; “if only I had a better picture, a better story, or a better video to describe”. This leads us down the rabbit hole of endless prep when there really is an easier, no-prep solution. Have you ever gone to a social event and, remembering the great time you had at a barbeque the day before, tried to wrestle every conversation to replicate that great barbeque experience? Of course not, because real conversation is unplanned and has active participants, not an audience.
The search for better materials leads us to believe that if we were better performers, more interesting on stage, then our students would pay more attention and acquire more. False! Instead it only teaches students to be even more passive, critiquing our teaching performances as interesting or not.
It is worth the effort to learn to become a good conversational partner rather than a performer in class.
All we need to bring to class is something that creates the smallest of sparks. A funny picture dies on stage because there is nothing to say beyond the few chuckles. Instead, we need a mild photo from which we can kindle a few questions while sitting in a circle, not on a stage. If there is humor or sadness, laughter or anger, it comes from the students, not the picture. Resist the urge to make your classroom a theater.
We should be able to use the same picture in all of our classes, all levels, because the questions we ask (and the responses we receive) will naturally mirror the level of our students. There is no ‘level 1 Movie Talk’, but rather only developmentally appropriate questions and responses. As this sinks in you’ll find that multi-level classes don’t have to be difficult to manage.
Here are some concrete tips to become a better conversational partner for your students:
(1) Ask more questions. Tape the Basic Skills Cheat Sheet in your line of sight while you teach as a reminder.
(2) Use the Sweet 16 verbs to add a greater diversity of questions. If teaching online, add a language frame as your background or make it part of your power point slide. If teaching face to face, physically touch the posters on the wall while you speak.
(3) Every question is worthy of exploration. Connect any question word with any of the Sweet 16 verbs to make an unexpected question. Model the curiosity that you want your students to develop. “Where does the guy playing guitar put… (glance at the photo to figure out how to finish this question), ah, the money that people give him!”
(4) Build the back story. You are teaching students to actively consider the questions you pose. Build an image in their minds that extends far beyond the picture talk. When we imagine the family circumstances of people in pictures, their motivations, their problems, when we imagine their unique lives then we help our students build empathy for humanity.
If your students just stare at you and never participate, I get it. Schooling has trained them to turn off. Tell them to answer with just a few words in English. Then put their ideas in the target language, slowly and deliberately. Are they still silent? Turn and write it on the board. Point at it, read aloud and pause. Then ask another question. Don’t give up. Don’t respond to the need to fill the space. You are not on stage.
Become comfortable with awkward silence. You are not there to entertain them; you are building social skills that many young people have not developed. When students become engaged, curious and actively consider your questions, they enter that state of flow where language is acquired effortlessly through good, comprehensible conversation.