Humanising Language Teaching
MAKING COLLAGES IN THE SECONDARY CLASSROOM
Núria de Salvador, Spain
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One of the activities I do to teach English through collage posters consist in asking our 14-year-old learners to look for furniture items in decoration magazines. They will have to cut and paste them into a big piece of packing paper or cardboard and then describe in English the resulting collage.
The assumption is that by asking my learners to produce sentences using the vocabulary they have just been taught, which must be related to images that they have assembled, fosters acquisition, encourages ownership and creates a cooperative and dynamic atmosphere.
I do this activity after the lesson in my textbook where learners are introduced to the different rooms in a flat, their furniture, and the basic prepositions of place has been completed. Very similar lessons can be found in many textbooks for beginners.
At the beginning of the session, learners are grouped heterogeneously in groups of three or four. Once the groups are set, each group is assigned or chooses a different room in a house, i.e. the kitchen, the living room, etc. A series of rules are then clearly stated:
There is always some perfectionist learner who protests because a sofa in their collage is smaller than a cushion, or a basin bigger than a door. This is of course a problem many groups have, as they depend on the photographs they can find on a magazine. My answer is always that it doesn't really matter. Although this might cause my learners some frustration, it also reminds them that we are not an Arts class. They are engaged in a scissors-and-paste activity, and they must remember that creating a perfect image is not the main objective of the task.
It is also important to make them responsible of how they use their time. If they do not have time to finish the collage in one session this is simply because they did not use their time well. Of course there are some learners who will work on their collages until the very last minute before it is hung on the wall, but this is up to them, and they know it.
Learners are asked a minimum of twelve sentences to describe their collages in session 2. The use of there is, there are and have got is quickly revised. If the cushion that they chose for their collage is big, they must say so. If it is white and blue, they cannot say it is white. If there is a big teddy bear, which is under a cot, they must specify that. Having broken some basic size rules can be fun when they start writing their sentences, as many learners can't avoid some adjectives to define size or provide opinion (i.e. There is a huge cushion on the sofa).
I supply dictionaries, and I clearly specify that no sentences can be written on their collages before I have checked them. Being accurate and not making spelling mistakes is highly valued. I state clearly that any ungrammatical sentences will be rejected, but so are those that do not show descriptive accuracy.
Learners are asked to write their sentences in big, clear letters, and must correct any sentence they did not copy well. As cleanness is considered important, If they do not want their poster to look dirty they must be careful not to make mistakes, or either they will have to correct them in the neatest possible way.
Again, only a session is provided to do this. The learners who finish in time are given a bonus. One way to show flexibility to those learners who have not finished is telling them that the moment I come to class on the next session I want their poster hung on the walls. In this way no further time is stolen from the next session while a new opportunity is provided to those learners who haven't finished theirs. Learners avoid being penalised this way.
Once all the posters are hung on the walls, the students write down on their notes the other groups' sentences, and also theirs if they chose not to copy them before. Then, a weak member in each group is informed that s/he will have to come to the blackboard on the next session to read their sentences and translate them to the rest of the class. A group mark will be assigned according to how this weak learner performs.
Giving a weak learner this responsibility makes him or her stand out, while the strongest learners are in charge of providing clear notes on pronunciation and vocabulary to them so that s/he can achieve the highest possible mark.
Learners are informed before doing this activity that they will have to sit an exam where the teacher would choose any sentence from the posters and will ask them to translate it into Spanish.
Learners sit a 15 minutes exam where they are asked to translate two sentences from each of the posters. The objective of this exam is simply to remind them that posters are fun, but that they do actually have a purpose and that English can be learnt from doing them. On the other hand, it is a translation exam because the posters are there, and it would be a pity to take them out because learners must be tested.
Besides, making them sit this exam somehow challenges the role of the teacher as exam designer. They are tested on their productions and in this way the message conveyed is something like: "You've written this. You were able to produce it with the language and grammar you knew, and so you must understand it. It's your creation but also your responsibility. It you who has actually written this exam."
Learners get three different marks from this activity. I evaluate the first one, the learner's collage, taking into consideration their effort and interest. The same criteria are followed with the oral expositions. Although more strict criteria are applied to their exam, any learner having worked with interest in this activity, even if s/he is below average, can obtain satisfactory results if the three marks are considered. Strong learners that are not willing to co-operate find out a good mark in the exam is not enough. If a strong learner tries to show off and write very complex sentences rather than help their peers s/he realises that sort of behaviour is not particularly clever in this context.
I tend to take pictures of the learners with their collages when the task is completed, so as to encourage their sense of ownership. These pictures, together with a short comment, are published in the school magazine so as to encourage that they be proud of what they write.
Learner's opinions were positive:
"I liked collages very much because we learnt a lot and had a good time."
"I like collages because they are fun and we work in groups. I also like them because then we hang them on the wall and we decorate the classroom."
"I think they are fun, interesting and above all you learn a lot about that lesson."
"The most difficult was finding pictures that were appropriate: The furniture, the sofa…. Then, as we wrote not to make mistakes, there were few, because we asked, and looked for words on our dictionaries. It was worth the effort and I am happy.