nothing should get in the way of a good story

Have you ever asked your students what they do when waiting for their flight in an airport? When you have, I bet the majority would tell you how they love observing people. Right!?

Sometimes, when walking in the streets, I look at the passers-by and think how they all come from very different and incredible stories. They are characters from thousands of tales and what I can see in the street is simply a microscopic glance into a book that will very likely stay shut for me.

Human beings are the most curious and exciting source of tales. Everyone, no matter how insignificant they consider themselves to be, can tell tales which would leave us awestruck, incredulous, entertained, aghast. Their tales can teach us, warn us, inspire us. So to open this treasure chest of experiences, all we need to do is listen to people, ask questions and BE CURIOUS.

When I discovered Humans of New York I instantly knew this was one of the treasure chests. This blog is a collection of pictures and stories of the motley crew of humans you might meet in the Big Apple. It seemed that “meeting” these ordinary or the most extraordinary people would be an inspiring thing for my students. Wanting to know about these humans would push them to use their existing language but also learn new vocabulary. And as these people couldn’t suddenly simply materialize in our classroom, the students also had to use their imagination when guessing these people’s lives and thoughts. So here’s what we did.

It was the first lesson after the long summer break. I had the same groups as the previous year, so it was a good time to brush up on their English, rekindle the class dynamics and restart the learning process by proposing something inspiring.

To begin with I showed a picture of a homeless guy in New York on the screen. He looked absolutely in peace with himself and the world. He was sitting on a folding chair, reading a book and in front of him, on the pavement, there was a doormat which said WELCOME. I told my students that holidays are perfect times to meet new people and make friends. I said that we were going to meet someone today too. And there he was, the guy in NY. I asked the students to look at him and then write down their first impressions. (Imagine you see this guy in the street, what goes through your head)

After two minutes of writing, they had to share their ideas with their neighbor followed by a general feedback and vocabulary questions. We got quite many new (forgotten) words on the board.

After that I asked the students to write on a sheet of paper four questions they would like to ask from the guy. Then I collected the questions.

The next step was getting to know more people, but this time different couples. Every student got a picture of a curious couple. (and there are tons of those on the site) I asked them to write down their impressions once again. However, this time they had to think of some guiding questions (who are they, why are they there, what did they do before etc) I also asked my students to write for four minutes without stopping. If they couldn’t find the word in English, I asked them to write the French equivalent. (It was important to catch their ideas, their thoughts and impressions!)

While they were working on that, I quickly corrected their questions. Mostly the usual missing auxiliaries, prepositions at the beginning of the questions etc.

After the “stream of consciousness” writing, they had time to reread and work with their dictionaries. I walked amongst the students and helped with any language questions they had. There was no time limit. How long you let an activity go on always depends on your students. Once you feel most of the students have stopped, that’s when it’s the best moment to ask everyone to finish the sentence they are writing. After the editing part they had to show their picture to the neighbour and share their thoughts.

Then we looked at the questions. I gave the corrected versions back to the students and then had a class discussion. I wrote the most common mistakes on the board and highlighted the usual pitfalls.

Now came the last part which included corresponding with other students. Every student had to write five questions they would like to ask from the couple. Then I took the pictures and the questions and swapped these with other pics and questions. Now the students had a new picture and five questions. They had to imagine being these people in the picture and answer (in writing) the five questions. I emphasized there were no right or wrong answers, what counted was their imagination and creativity.

Once the answers got written down I gave them together with the pics back to the initial owners, so they could read the answers. There was A LOT of laughter in the class!

As these kind of tasks are open ended, they suit well to mixed level classes. The weaker students have time to work with the dictionaries and produce what they are able to (no pressure!) Whereas the more advanced students can push their own limits. Okay, I admit, they don’t necessarily do that of their own accord. But that’s when your encouraging remarks are welcome.

It’s also an activity that is exciting for the students, it arouses their curiosity. And nothing’s more fruitful to language learning than curiosity!

I used this lesson plan in four different  classes and it worked each time.


4 thoughts on “nothing should get in the way of a good story

  1. Thanks for sharing – great resource, indeed, also the texts. Concerning working with pictures- it’s amazing how they always get students’ imagination working, isn’t it?
    Reading your blog has also just given me an idea of how to exploit photos of people in our community, where someone staged an exhibition and published a book of portraits to illustrate the fact that a large number of nationalities can be found among us: population of about 9000 and 77 nationalities.

  2. Dear Sirja,

    I was so delighted to find your blog today….You have inspired me with the words that are so close to my heart. I am from Latvia and have spent about 7 years in UK. I did my degree in Molecular Biology some time ago before embarking on this bumpy path of teaching. At the moment I am about to finish my PGCE year with good/outstanding. As you described in your “non-native speaker” post, some days it flows, while some other day I feel my tongue just sticks to my throat. Being able to express myself quite well, I still find it intimidating when occasionally some parent will make a comment on that their child didn’t quite get something because of my accent (which is actually very slight and even the teachers always praise my excellent pronunciation). It is leaves bitter taste in your mouth, you know, and undermines your confidence. Your blog was so powerful in curing this pain, I thought you should know that because it showed me on what a fantastic teacher you can become with a degree of devotion, and the eagerness to learn. You gave me so much hope. The mother of three, I just cannot believe people like you exist. I want to become like you one day….Thank you.

    • Dear Mariasha,
      Thank you so much for your kind words. I’m delighted to learn my thoughts here might be of help to others, makes it all worth while, hundreds of times!
      I think what you’re doing is truly praiseworthy! It takes courage to go out there and start from the scratch in a new society. Your students can only learn from you! Don’t take the occasional negative feedback too much into your heart. Daring is brave, cruel comments sign of weakness.
      All the best for your teaching career!


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