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December 2020 - Year 22 - Issue 6

ISSN 1755-9715

Fish is Fish – Making the Most of a Story with a Twist

Uwe Pohl is German-born teacher educator based at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. Currently, he is particularly interested in language teacher education and intercultural communication. E-mail:



Fish is Fish is a story for children about the power of curiosity, imagination and friendship. Two friends, a tadpole and a fish, live together in the same pond until the tadpole grows into a frog and leaves the water. When the frog returns he tells his friend about the outside world and the creatures he has come across there. The fish very much wants to see it all for himself. But he finds out the hard way that he cannot breathe outside the pond and is only saved by his friend, the frog.

But there is more to this story than meets the eye and since its publication in 1970, Leo Lionni’s beautifully illustrated book has been translated into many languages. Lionni also co-authored an animated film by the same name. I first heard about Fish is Fish in the early 1990s from Italian-born Matilde Grünhage-Monetti, who was then working at the German Institute for Adult Education in Frankfurt. She also drew my attention to the deeper layers of the story and how these might be explored for intercultural learning (Grünhage-Monetti/Pohl 1997). Since then Fish is Fish has been a key ingredient of my language teaching, teacher training and cultural studies classes at university.

In this article I would like show why this story is not just for children. I will share the way I have been working with it in education because it has inspired creativity, reflection and discussion in generations of students and course participants from around the world.  


Setting the scene

I always start by telling only the beginning of the story. As I talk, I make it simpler or more language-rich depending on the level of the students’ English. Here is a more embellished version:

Once upon a time a little fish and a tadpole lived in a pond. They had been born on the same day and become really good friends. They spent many happy hours swimming and playing together, exploring their world. Every day they grew a little bigger.

One day, the fish noticed something sticking out of his friend’s body. He asked: ’What’s that sticking out there?’ The tadpole replied: ’These are my front legs, stupid!’ The fish said: ’But you can’t have legs – you’re a fish like me!’ But his friend answered: ’I’m no fish! I’m going to be a frog!’ And sure enough, soon he had grown front legs and hind legs. The fish didn’t like this at all. Perhaps he sensed what might happen...... because a few days later, the tadpole woke up and realized he had become a real frog. He climbed out of the pond. And his friend, the fish, was left behind all alone …

But then, one day, there was a big splash! The fish looked up and to his great joy he saw his froggy friend. ‘Where have you been all this time?’ said the fish. ‘I’ve missed you so much!’ ‘Oh’ said the frog, ‘I’ve been out there and I’ve seen very strange things.’

‘What? Tell me!’ said the fish excitedly. ‘Birds’ answered the frog. ´What do they look like?´ asked his friend. ‘Oh, they are very different from you and me. They have wings and feathers and only two legs and they come in many different shapes, sizes and colours. ‘Really?!, said the little fish wide-eyed. ‘What else did you see?’ he asked. ‘Cows’ answered the frog matter-of-factly. ‘Cows?!’ What do they look like?’ asked the fish, ‘Are they like birds?’

‘Completely different’ replied his friend. They are big, have horns and munch grass all the time. And between their legs they carry pink bags full of milk!’

‘Goodness!’ exclaimed the fish. ‘Was that all you saw?’

‘Oh, no! replied the frog. ‘Well, what else?’ the fish wanted to know. ‘People’, said his friend. ‘Bigger ones and smaller ones. They are not like any of the other creatures. They walk on two legs, and they always have some strange kind of stuff covering their body.’ ‘That’s amazing!’ gasped the fish. …

Later that night he just couldn’t fall asleep for a long time. And when the fish finally did fall asleep he had the strangest dream. In his dream he saw all those strange creatures his friend had told him about…

I stop at this point and then invite small groups of students to draw the creatures the fish saw in his dream. For this I provide markers, coloured pencils, crayons or chalk as well as A3 size sheets of paper and set a rough time limit of about 20 minutes. Some groups share the task of drawing and colouring-in evenly. In other groups some students give instructions and others do the drawing. Yet others take time to discuss what these creatures might look like. As the groups work, I do not comment on what I see but encourage everybody to do the task to the best of their ability.


Do you see what I see? – what the story reveals

As is to be expected, students come up with very different imaginings of the creatures the fish saw in his dream. Here are a few examples from my large collection of student drawings.

As can be seen, though, these imaginings are of two types: most depict rather bizarre creatures with fishlike features like the ones on the left. Usually, as shown on the right, there are also one or two posters with ‘real’ birds, cows or people, i.e. living creatures as we know them based on our life experiences as humans. When everybody has finished I get the groups to hold up their posters at the same time.

This is often a real surprise moment, when, in mock puzzlement, I ask: “Can someone please explain what is going on here?!’ In the ensuing class discussion we talk about why it is that the fish can only imagine what he knows, has seen or interacted with in the watery world of the pond. He only had the frog’s report to go by and simply morphed this minimal information into shapes of fishlike beings. With the help of their posters, students from the groups with such ‘fishy’ creatures often provide specific illustrations of what that meant to them.


Digging deeper: what about your fishy experiences?

One possible way of continuing is to dig into the students’ experiences of other cultures or people from other countries. For example, I often ask my students to think about something they had imagined or expected in a certain way but found to be quite different when they first visited a particular place abroad or even just a different region in their home country. This may take a little time and it helps if prompts such as these sentence beginnings are provided:

It was funny that…

I was surprised when …

I felt uneasy because …

I felt annoyed when…

Talking about such personal experiences is best done in pairs or small groups first. This way, students can articulate and rehearse what they would like to say without pressure. I then invite some of them to share their stories with the whole group. This gets students to realise that what strikes us as ‘alien’ in some way – the appearance of people or their behaviour, unfamiliar sights or tastes - is personally and culturally conditioned.  We make sense of everything against the background of what we know and are used to.


And then one day… let’s get more creative!

Having only heard the beginning of the story, students are naturally curious about what happens next and how it ends. This is an ideal moment for a bit of creative writing. So I ask what they think what might have happened. What would make an interesting ending to the story­? I tend to make this homework and an individualized task to be shared in the next class or online. Here are two endings written by students of different age and language ability:

And then one day …the fish went up to the surface of the lake. He looked around and saw some trees. Then the fish saw a cow and then a bird. He wanted to touch them and swam to the beach. Suddenly, an angel came and said: ‘Hello!’ and gave him lungs. The fish tried to walk out to the lake. But he fell and the angel said to him. ‘OK, I’ll give you wings.’ But he couldn’t really fly. So the frog came and said: ‘Come with me and just be a fish, be yourself.’

Written by a twelve-year old pre-intermediate student

And then one day, Stickleback swam up to his friend, the frog and told him: ‘Look, I hate it here in the pond! I want to go outside, I want to see the birds, the cows and these people you told me about! I want to be like you!  The frog replied: ‘My friend, don’t say that. You weren’t born to be a tadpole and you have everything here that you need: crystalline water, friends, food. The world outside is dangerous for you. But Stickleback said: ‘I don’t care! I have to see it all myself! I wish I were a frog, too!’ OK, said the frog. ‘Come with me, I’ll show you something.’

It was a cold September evening. When the sun started to set Fluff, the frog, asked Stickleback to look up at the sky: there he could see a flock of white birds flying towards Africa. The next day, the frog asked his friend to come for a swim near the reeds. He knew that there was a pasture nearby. After some time, all the cows from the pasture started to come to the pond to drink water. Stickleback swam near their noses and looked up: he could finally see the cows, too.

A day later the frog asked Stickleback to come for a swim near the rocks. It was day-break when they started to swim around. There they saw a yummy piece of corn swinging just underneath the surface of the water. The frog asked Stickleback not to eat the food but look towards the edge of the pond: Stickleback looked up and saw an elderly man and a young boy sitting on chairs, waiting for something. Stickleback was very happy. He had seen the birds, the cows and the humans, too. When he said goodbye to his friend, Fluff reminded him: ‘These things, the birds, cows and humans have always been here, near the pond, Stickleback. You just have to look around and really see what is in front of you. Sometimes all we need is already there.’

Written by an eighteen-year old advanced learner

The first example shows that, even at lower levels, students can communicate their ending idea creatively, coherently and with good expression. Some students at all levels also like giving the two main characters a more personalised name or add illustrations to their story ending. Most importantly, perhaps, this task prompts students to think about and explore other potential layers or morals to the story. Interestingly, these interpretations often hint at the dangers or challenges of leaving home or remind us to value ourselves as imperfect but unique (human) beings.


Summary: What’s in it for me (or you)?

Working with this Fish is Fish offers a rare mix of opportunities for meaningful language practice, intercultural and (inter)personal learning. I would like to end with a brief summary:

  • The story offers a light-hearted approach to the ‘serious’ topic of people’s perception: how we see others and are seen by them. We all create ‘fishy worlds’ in our heads as we tend to view people through the filter of our upbringing, experiences and personal habits. This is especially true when we are ‘out of our depth’ in an unfamiliar cultural environment.
  • In our daily interactions with the people around us perspective-taking is a crucial part of social-emotional learning and systems thinking (Goleman/Senge 2014). It is when they realise the limits of their own, ‘fishy’ perspective that students can develop this skill into one of the habits of systems thinkers.
  • Discussing ideas for what to draw and how to do it triggers a creative and collaborative process: opinions and ideas are exchanged, negotiated and decided upon in order to achieve a satisfactory group outcome in limited time.
  • The drawing element itself creates an intense but relaxed working atmosphere and a sense of anticipation (what will the others produce?). Pinned to the classroom wall, the students’ posters can serve as future reference points and reminders of shared achievement.
  • The different steps surface several memorable ‘fishy’ student experiences and perspectives that are always interesting and often surprising for the whole class. Such sharing also tends to have a positive impact on the dynamics of the classroom group.
  • The activity sequence draws on all the language resources the students have at their disposal and calls for meaningful practice of different skills – listening, discussing, summarizing, writing. At the same time it is easy to tweak teacher inputs and student outputs to suit different age groups and proficiency levels.
  • Fish is Fish can be taken into several directions, i.e. become the starting point for personal or cultural awareness raising and limited or more extensive language work. At the same time, teachers can use all or only some of the steps, depending on time and the students’ response.


Leo Leonni (1995) Fish is Fish. New York: Scholastic.

Leonni, L. (Director). (1986). Fish is Fish [Video file] Retrieved from

Goleman, D. & Senge, P. (2014) The Triple Focus: a New Approach to Education. More Than Sound Publications.

Grünhage-Monetti, M. /Pohl, U.: Vom Verstehen zum Verständnis. Interkulturelles Lernen im Fremdsprachenunterricht, in: Sprachverband DfaA e.V. (Hg.): Deutsch Lernen. Zeitschrift für den Sprachunterricht mit ausländischen Arbeitnehmern, Heft 1. Mainz 2001.

Waters Center for Systems Thinking. (2019) Habits of a Systems Thinker. Retrieved May 7, 2020 from


Please check the Pilgrims courses at Pilgrims website.

  • Fish is Fish – Making the Most of a Story with a Twist
    Uwe Pohl, Hungary

  • Forests and Climate Change in Canada
    Bill Bhaneja, Canada

  • On Activating Students’ Background Knowledge: Marine Debris
    Radhwan Munir Ahmed, UAE

  • Working Towards Peace through Peace Education and Transnational Writing Education
    Danning Liang, China;Jimalee Sowell, US