Since last Thursday I’ve been teaching cartoon story lessons with my groups. You may want to try this lesson with your classes, so here’s what we did. If you do try it, please do let me know how it goes down!
I asked the SS (students) to work in pairs and take out their notebooks and pens. I drew a three-panel cartoon strip on the whiteboard (as in the image above). I deliberately chose something simple, with some drama (the “shocked” character in the middle) and some action (the character leaving). The SS were intrigued – to varying degrees! I drew the speech bubbles and asked the SS to think of the story and write the dialogue for the four speech bubbles. I encouraged them to consider:
the expressions of the characters and what emotions they signified
After a few lessons I banned the students from using the topic of romance/love/relationships for their dialogues. Some SS asked “Why?” and I said, “Because it’s too easy.” The comic strip is rather leading in that direction. Many SS from the first groups used relationship tropes – as in “I’m leaving you…!” or “I’m pregnant! And it’s yours…!” – so when the SS had to think of something else they had to work harder, e.g. making the relationship between the characters daughter/father, brother/sister, student/teacher, customer/shop assistant, and so on, rather than romantic partners. This worked much better.
SS worked in pairs or, exceptionally, threes. After about ten minutes each pair came to the front to read out – or act out – their dialogues. (This was the presentation part.) Then I introduced the second exercise of the 45-minute lesson: I drew a series of three blank panels on the board and asked the SS to draw their own comic strip, with dialogue, and with a given topic – in the example above, Crime.
The SS had until the end of the lesson to complete this work. I monitored and checked the pairs (and threes) and collected in the work to mark it. The picture below, by Ola and Ania and reproduced here with their kind permission, was one of the best examples of SS’s work, from a class of 15 year-olds. In this case I had given the SS keywords to include in their comic, rather than a topic.
Continue the story with further panels…
Write the next part of the story…
Use the same comic strip, but change the dialogue.
Use the same dialogue, but change the pictures.
I used this lesson with almost all of my eighteen groups this week, and it evolved over the course of the week. I had started off using an A4 handout with a much longer comic strip, which the SS had to complete and then present to the class. The strip in my picture above was, to begin with, just the warmer. Over time, I realised that 45 minutes wasn’t enough time to do everything and we were getting bogged down in spelling and grammar with the longer comic strip. My job is to get them talking, after all, not writing in class.
The concept of the lesson – writing and drawing comic strips – was engaging for most of the SS, even some of those who had been harder to engage in previous lessons, which was a nice surprise. It was a fun lesson with each group.
Neither you the teacher nor the SS need to be able to draw well to pull off this lesson. The goal is to get the SS speaking and doing the presentations. The artwork does not have to be pro standard! (See my example with stick people, above.)
It was great to do a lesson without any photocopying – once I’d ditched the original idea for the lesson. The lesson was easy to deliver, with no preparation and minimal resources: just a board and pens or chalk. The resulting work was easy to mark and give feedback on.
We were also able to explore topics like using humour in the cartoons and using our imaginations.
Some of the pairs tried to pass off very short dialogues, along the lines of “Hi!” “What?” “Don’t leave!” “Bye!” I didn’t accept these and asked them to redo it. A few of the pairs didn’t feel like producing anything.
Some students complained about their lack of creativity. One very bright fourteen year-old guy, with a good level of English, said: “But I’m not creative! What would you do?” I replied: “I would try my best.” The problem was that he was not prepared to try. In the end, he refused to do the activity, so he ended up with some extra written homework.
There’s a danger that this lesson becomes about writing skills and grammar/vocabulary, with dictionaries out in full force, when what I wanted most of all was to hear the SS speak.
There are still significant (I think) issues with the SS using L1 during the preparations stages and not listening to each other’s presentations. I got fed up with saying “OK! Listen, please!” before each presentation.
Some of the SS’s work was a bit, well, boring. Their story might be: “Let’s go to the shop.” “OK. I need to buy some bread.” At the shop: they buy the bread. Result: “Let’s have a sandwich!” “OK!” I encouraged them to include drama or humour in their stories by inserting a problem into the situation: “Let’s go to the shop.” “OK. I need to buy some bread.” At the shop: “Hey! The shopkeeper has overcharged us!” Or, at the shop: “Oh no! The shopkeeper is a dolphin!” … and so on.
After taking the register T randomly starts clapping slowly, then encourages SS to join in: ‘Clap with me!’ Then varies the speed – slower or faster. When everybody is clapping in time, T varies the timing and SS have to try to follow the clap. Then clap in time, then vary the timing and/or speed, etc. T asks: ‘What’s the point of doing this?’ SS: ‘To get us to focus’, ‘To get us to listen/watch’, ‘To get us to follow’. Let different SS lead the clap.
Warmer 2: Line Up.
SS make a long line against the wall. T asks them to line up in order of:
first name (A-Z)
height (shortest to tallest)
what time you went to bed last night (earliest to latest)
birthday (January to December)
SS give their answers in order. T can have short conversations.
SS work in pairs. Tell them you are going to give each pair $1,200 (or in local currency). Put the instructions on the board (see image above). Run through the instructions; ensure everybody understands what they have to do; stress the aim is to hear a spoken presentation from each pair by the end of the lesson.
It was a good opening gambit. SS were immediately interested when I said I was going to give each pair 4000 zl (Zloty) in cash! However, only one pair bought me a present! (A trip to Sydney, Australia.) I chose 4000 zl because it’s a good amount of money, but not a ridiculous amount – like five million pounds. You could give a different amount. Stress that SS have to spend all of the money (to the last penny) and that they can’t invest it. One pair wanted to invest all of their money in Bitcoin.
It was a nice challenge for SS to work in pairs and get the presentation ready in around 15 minutes, then present it. I repeated this lesson several times during the week with different groups and towards the end of the week I cut one then both of the warmers to allow more time for preparation and presentations.
It was a good ‘clockwork toy’ activity – set it up and watch them go! There was a good positive hum of activity from SS during the preparation stage. I allowed them to research prices online – on laptops and mobile phones. All SS were engaged. It was a relevant and motivating task. There was a nice element of wish-fulfilment for the SS – choosing presents with somebody else’s money.
Following on from last week’s lesson about the weather, I aimed to get them to use more English in the classroom, rather than L1 (Polish). I asked two of the higher-level groups to try to speak only in English during the prep stage as well as during the presentations. I monitored this and when I heard them doing it, it really felt like I was doing my job properly for the first time – getting them talking in English during the lesson. My challenge is to roll this out to all other groups, as far as possible, over the next few days and weeks.
After last week I aimed to use the same model, and it worked again: warmer -> pair research on PCs or mobile -> presentations.
When SS did their presentations, they would often present the information by rote, like this: ‘Person: my mum. Present: a scarf. Price: one hundred Zloty…’ and so on. They didn’t present the information in sentences, so it was not very interesting to listen to. As lessons went on I realised this and asked them to try to connect the data in sentence forms. Some of them did. I started promising to give them a better mark for their presentations if they used sentence forms. The model could be: ‘I would buy [present] for [person] at [shop] because [reason], and I think their reaction would be…’
SS not listening to each other during the presentations. This is more of a behaviour issue. I’m thinking about how to improve this.
I hadn’t anticipated this problem, but many SS had trouble – while presenting – with saying longer numbers, for example, saying 1350 in words – ‘one thousand, three hundred and…’
SS giggling when presenting their work. For some it meant a lower mark. I hope the novelty of having to give presentations will wear off, and this be much less of a problem.
The biggest issue is that time is always against us. The lesson has to be delivered and done in about forty minutes. All feedback has to be given in those forty minutes too. Timing is so important. Next week there will be a new lesson to deal with. The bell rings and the SS rush off to think about another subject with another teacher. If we had an hour or ninety minutes we could have more time for preparation and time to address issues of sentence forms, numbers, and listening to one another… I wondered whether I should devote two weeks to one topic, but by next week the SS will have probably forgotten what we did. It’s the transferable skills that we can work on week-in, week-out – via different topics: working together, researching and preparing information, speaking in public, and listening to other people.