As a teacher, I feel that my biggest challenge is to engage my students in spontaneous conversation. The questions in course books do not normally trigger much of a reaction.
Although we tend to think that everyday subjects will allow or better encourage children and teenagers to express themselves, in my experience this is not necessarily true.
Therefore, emboldened by the thought that there is nothing to lose in trying more abstract, less run-of-the-mill subjects, I have experimented with various more abstract ideas. One of my favourite themes is “walls”.
I start by asking the question how people feel about walls and where they stand on this matter. Are walls a good thing or a bad thing? Here are a few of my students’ ideas:
· Walls are there to protect us from weather conditions and threats of all kinds.
· Walls offer us privacy when we need some.
· Walls protect whole cities or countries from enemies or invaders.
· Walls divide us.
· Walls stop us from seeing what is on the other side.
· Walls imprison us.
My point is that the nature of the topic is such that allows everyone to contribute to the conversation with different aspects of a multifaceted issue. What is more, one person’s idea may actually act as a springboard for another coming from a different person.
Personally I find the theme of walls has huge potential from the Berlin Wall and Pink Floyd’s “Wall” to today’s walls of kindness.
A recent article in The Guardian entitled Painting for peace: global mural project highlights the walls that divide our cities will fire the students’ imagination with the different styles of paintings on city walls.
Banksy’s work on the West Bank wall in Ramallah. Photograph: Marco Di Lauro/Getty Images
One could start by asking what the girl is trying to do and how she hopes to achieve her goal. Alternatively, one might ask if the style of painting reminds them of an artist and who that is. Plenty of teenagers are familiar with Banksy and his work.
For students who have a knack of craftsmanship, one could introduce vocabulary related to materials and construction: from adobe bricks and stone to bricks and mortar.
One could also do dictation asking the students to draw on either side of the wall placing people and objects. Here is an example I wrote for more advanced students though one could tailor it to different levels. Probably one would need to change the scene to make it more manageable in terms of language and it would be desirable to integrate vocabulary that has been recently taught.
There is an old wall of stone dividing the two houses. At the far end of the wall near the street there is an apple tree on the side of the two-storey house—a favourite retreat for the children of the adjoining houses.
Right now a boy of about 10 is climbing the tree with one foot firmly fixed on a branch and the other precariously hanging over the wall. There are some younger children looking on and cheering from the safety of the other side of the wall. A couple of ripe apples have been sacrificed in the boy’s effort to get a good grip.
A window has been flung open in the more humble cottage on the other side of the wall, and a young woman with the sleep still in her eyes is gesturing the kids clustered under the tree towards her.
One could continue along these lines and after comparing their drawings, the students could be given the actual text to look at it more closely. They could be asked to add more descriptive detail; for example, what did the fallen apples look like? were there any passers-by and how did they react?
I find that this type of activity is an all-round skill test with the potential to develop into anything the students make of it.
When it comes to walls, the sky is the limit! Therefore, I will come back later with more of them.