Monday, 23 February 2009

The USA: Immigration, ethnicity and Crash

Right now in my English class we are working on immigration, race and ethnicity in the USA, a complex topic that can be dealt with in a number of ways. We have chosen to combine a quick glance at the history of immigration in the USA with a more thorough look at the current situation. These web pages on American immigration give a very good overview of which countries people have emigrated from throughout the history of the USA. The pages contain a timeline with maps that show from which countries immigrants into the USA have originated at what time. In addition, there are two maps that show the current situation; which countries the largest ancestry groups originate from (numbers from 2000) and where the largest groups of illegal immigrants are arriving from (numbers from 2005). The pages also contain text boxes that help explain the maps. For a closer look at the immigrant experience we have read the article "Best of friends, worlds apart", which tells the story of two Cuban friends, one black and one white, whose experience and understanding of race and ethnicity were completely altered as they were forced to adjust to American society. My excellent colleagues Liv Kristin and Kjetil at Sandvika upper secondary school made this lesson plan: RACE AND ETHNICITY IN THE USA (photo: "united")

Having worked with the above mentioned texts and timelines, a suitable and student-friendly way to round off the topic of immigration and ethnicity in the US is to watch Paul Haggis' Crash (2005), which seems to be a film that always succeeds in catching the students' attention. When the film received the Academy Award for best film in 2005, members of the Academy explained that they had voted for the film because they felt it so aptly described an important and difficult aspect of American society. The film takes us to LA and introduces us to the racial prejudices of most of the ethnic groups that make up the legal and illegal population of the city. Intertwining storylines and a large number of characters may present a challenge to students, but they never seem to lose interest, nor miss the message. However, it can be a good idea to have students look at Wikipedia's pages on Crash, which give a plot summary as well as an excellent overview of the many interesting characters. For study questions on Crash and a number of other quality films, see Manitowoc Public Library's Critic's Choice film series. Have a look at the trailer of the film:

P.S. After writing this I discovered that Larry Ferlazzo had published a link to a short article in the Sacramento Bee, "Characteristics of the foreign-born", that sums up the 2007 demographic data on foreign-born people in the nation, states and cities in the USA. These numbers are certainly an interesting next step after studying the maps and texts on American immigration (legal and illegal) and ancestry groups mentioned above.

Tuesday, 10 February 2009

Let's talk about ART

To use a cliché, I don't know a lot about art, but I know what I like. I am always looking for ways to make students talk more and share their opinions in the English class. Why not try to discuss art for a change? When I went to school, art simply served as illustrations in our textbooks. I still associate certain authors and titles of short stories, poems and novels with particular paintings. For example, my Norwegian textbook introduced me to J.M.W. Turner who I have loved ever since. The light is just incredible! I don't expect my students to jump for joy at Turner's light, but I would love it if they would take a look and share their opinion without worrying whether they understood the painting or not. If you too would like to have your students talk a little bit about art in the English lesson, maybe this TED talk can help them understand that it is okay to look at art in unconventional ways: Ursus Wehrli tidies up art. I am certainly going to try to incorporate art in my lessons more often. Illustration from flickr: Whaam

Writing About Film

Earlier in this blog I have pointed out that working with film takes time (like everyhing else), and that we don't always have time to be as thorough as we might want. However, when we ask our students to write about film on an upper secondary level it should be our aim to take our students beyond the boring plot summary. These are some of the elements students could look for when writing about film:
First of all, you should introduce the film with the title, the name of the director and the year of production. It might also be relevant to state the nationality of the film. Is the film based on a true story or is it perhaps based on a short story or a novel? How was the film received by its critics and audience when it was released? Try to briefly explain what you think is the theme of the film. In the following, you should give a plot summary, but remember to make it short. Save details for later. Explain the opening scene (exposition) of the film. Who do we meet and what do we learn? Say something about the chronology of the film. Is it chronological from beginning to end or not? Are there a lot of flashbacks? Are there parallel plot lines? Then go on to say something about the characters in the film. Are they stereotypes or complex individuals? How are they portrayed? With body language, make-up, costumes, props, music? Do the characters develop during the film and what are the relationships between the characters? What can you say about the setting of the film and is the setting very significant in this particular film? Does the film portray a certain social environment? What atmosphere(s) does the film convey?
Go on to say something about the techniques used to tell the story of the film. What type of shots dominate (close-ups, extreme close-ups, long shots etc.), what camera angles are used, how is the film cut and how have the filmmakers made use of lighting, colours, sound, music and special effects (if any)? When you comment on these techniques, try to say something about the effect they have. Also, if symbols are important in the film you should say something about this. You should end your analysis with a conclusion where you try to sum up the main theme and message of the film. End with your own assessment of the film and make sure you explain your opinions. Finally, I would like to share an excellent and famous example of the technique crosscut (or parallel cut) from The Godfather. Here the conflicting identities of Michael Corleone, mafia boss and family man, are contrasted in a disturbing way. The organ music from the church simply underlines the dark and sombre atmosphere that permeats the film trilogy. Illustration from flickr: Uncut

Sunday, 8 February 2009

Cooperative learning and short stories

As a teacher at Sandvika upper secondary school I have been given the opportunity to take part in a couple of very interesting (and fun!) seminars about cooperative learning. Research shows that we learn a lot more when we are active than when we are passive listeners (see the pyramid), and personally I just think teaching is more fun when I get to vary the methods as much as possible. In my English class we recently worked on the short story "Panache" by William Patrick Kinsella and my colleague Liv Kristin made an after-reading activity partly based on cooperative learning methods. In one part of the activity, students do a role play where they each are assigned the identity of one of the characters from the short story. Instead of just discussing the story the traditional way, they are to make up questions to ask the other characters/ group members. With this activity, the students were forced to reflect on the actions and choices made by the characters in the story. This activity gave really good results in my class and most of the students seemed to enjoy it. All students were active and they appeared to really reflect on the content of the story. Furthermore, everyone spoke English during this class. I still think making everyone speak English is one of the main challenges as well as one of the most important goals of an ESL lesson. I will certainly try this method again with other short stories. For a complete instruction to the activity, see here: Working on "Panache" by William Patrick Kinsella. See my colleagues blog here: The road not taken. The role play activity is of course just one of many cooperative learning activities and I promise to share more in the future. Read more about cooperative learning here: The Cooperative Learning Center at the University of Minnesota. Illustration: Learning pyramid and Working Together Teamwork Puzzle Concept.

Saturday, 7 February 2009

Content and Language Integrated Learning in a Storyline context

During my practice period in an 8th grade in Øraker secondary school, Oslo in 2002/2003 I was given the opportunity to take part in the planning and execution of an inter-disciplinary Storyline. The topic for the Storyline was the industrial revolution. Since I was training to teach English I was eager to make my subject an integrated part of the Storyline. I therefore took the opportunity to introduce Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL). Planning the Storyline, I chose to include English teaching material covering some of the history curriculum that the students were to read. This was all based on the notion of creating a meaningful context for language teaching and I saw potential in second language teaching focused on content in an inter-disciplinary setting. The teaching situation of the Storyline made it easier to introduce a method of teaching (CLIL) that the students were not used to. The students were not particularly prepared for learning history/social science in English before the classes took place, but the Storyline concept was one with a surprise element, and in the beginning of the three-week period we focused on preparing them for the challenge this would involve.
To a certain extent some of the same principles lie behind the two methods of CLIL and Storyline, especially that of creating a meaningful context for learning; reflecting real life in school. Storyline can be used in many subjects, or in subjects combined with each other like we did. One of the basic ideas behind the method is that students acquire knowledge in a meaningful context. This is also an important argument for teaching subjects such as history or science in English, since the students then ideally will be focused on learning the content while acquiring language through this learning process. Due to the students' skills in English, I think it would be easier to introduce CLIL in upper secondary schools. On this level it is probably easier for teachers to find material in English that is not too difficult for the students, especially if you find a lot of your material online.
Interested? Read my article here: Content and Language Integrated Learning in a Storyline Context.
Illustration: I am here for the Learning Revolution

Bridget Jones of Camelot

Ages ago (in 2001) I took a course in Narratology studies at Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam. The course was taught by the excellent Professor Christien Franken. Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones was at the height of her popularity, and when given the assignment of turning Tennyson's "The Lady of Shalott" into a story, I decided to unite the two literary heroins. Perhaps similar assignments could trigger the imagination of students and make them consider old verse from new angles? Read my chick lit version of Tennyson's poem here: Diary of a solitary weaver.

Illustrations from flickr: Che pasticcio, Bridget Jones! and Lady of Shalott

Thursday, 5 February 2009

Analyse a music video

Working with film in the English-class is interesting and useful, but it is also very time-consuming simply due to the length of most films. It is therefore difficult to make time for more than 3-4 films during a one-year English course. Furhtermore, since we seldom or never take time to see a film more than once, we are unable to look as closely at the genre as we sometimes might want. Music videos are shorter, but may give students a good opportunity to practise their ability to analyse, interpret and assess multimodal genres. We are analysing music videos in Norwegian class right now, but it is also a task suitable for the English subject. If you would like your students to analyse a music video I have published a step-by-step assignment here: Analyse a music video One can of course find videos for the students, but I think they have more to say if they can choose a video they like. An old classic that caused a lot of stir when it was released is Madonna's hit video "Like a prayer". Analyse this: