A while ago I was called in at short notice to cover a lesson for an absent colleague. As we know, there are various ways of handling these situations, but because I was familiar with the coursebook that the group was using, I decided not to do an unplugged lesson but rather to go in and use the book as a starting point. My idea was to do a few communicative activities to revise the most recent topics and vocabulary.
At our school everyone learns English, but different class groups have different ‘profiles’. This particular tenth-grade class has extra classes in Art and Design, and I noticed straight away that one of the guys sitting near me was doodling absent-mindedly in his notebook as I took the students’ names and did all the admin at the start of the lesson. ‘Aha – an artist!’ I thought, but said nothing.
Then I began teaching. I got a fairly good response from the students, who were quite active and willing to talk. One student seemed quite reticent, though, a little bit uncomfortable, even. Which one? The doodler. He still had his notebook open, but he clammed up whenever he was supposed to speak or make a contribution to the lesson. I gave him a long, quizzical look (I was really just trying to decide what to do) and then I saw him move apologetically to put his doodle-filled notebook away. That’s when I got the idea.
“No, it’s OK. The others can do this task. I’ve got a special job for you. I want you to draw me something.”
Actually, I had no idea what I wanted him to draw for me, I just thought it had better be something a little bit out-of-the-ordinary. So I said the first thing that came into my head:
“I want you to design me a car with two steering wheels.”
And that’s exactly what he did. For the next twenty minutes he was totally absorbed in his task, drawing away happily as the lesson hummed and coughed around him. Occasionally he looked up at me cautiously to see if it really was OK for him to be sitting there drawing instead of getting involved in the lesson. I caught his eye and just nodded to indicate that everything was fine.
This is what he drew:
(You can click on the image for a closer look.) Now I think this is brilliant. As you can imagine, I told the student what a great job he had done and showed the sketch to the rest of the group. Then I got him to explain his design in a few sentences. Everyone listened – and helped out with vocabulary, too, when he got stuck. When the bell rang for the end of class, it felt like the lesson had not been a waste of time for anybody.
And that might have been the end of it.
I kept the sketch, actually carried it around inside the notebook I always take to lessons. From time to time I looked at it and smiled. I wanted to use it in some way – it was too good just to chuck in my desk drawer and forget about. I just didn’t know what to do with it.
Today I taught my eleventh graders. I asked them to do three things.
1. Warm-up. Think of a radical new car design.
I got some interesting ideas. Here’s one:
These students are the scientists and engineers, as you can probably guess. There were plenty of other great ideas, ranging from rotten-veggie-powered cars to design-it-yourself ‘skateboard cars’. There was even an idea for an i-Car – “using the iCar app you can just swipe the i-Key to start the engine.” Pretty impressive, I thought 🙂
2. Look at the picture. What is it? What do you think about it?
Then I showed them the picture of the twin-steer car that I had been carrying around with me all this time. My original, idle request for a car with two steering wheels had been just that: idle. My students, however, saw all sorts of possibilities in the design:
3. Then came the main focus of the lesson: a writing task based on the twin-steer car design, which also allowed students to practise producing the kind of texts commonly featured in the writing section of language exams – which is it what they are all preparing for, of course.
I showed them this slide:
I’ll leave you with a selection of the students’ efforts, in extract form.
A for-and-against essay:
A letter of complaint:
A couple of marketing leaflets, which I’ll reproduce in full. Click on the images for a more detailed view:
Some wonderfully witty and original pieces of work here. A car that runs on the energy created by the shattering of childhood dreams – did you see that? Brilliant. How interesting to reflect that if a few months ago in class I had told a certain doodling artist to put his pad away and pay attention none of it would have been possible in the first place.
The real lesson of the twin-steer car is not to rush to judgement. The doodling student who seemingly made little meaningful contribution to my lesson in fact produced the very materials which subsequently inspired an impressive selection of top-quality work from another group of students.
Keeping an open mind in the short-term about the supposed ‘usefulness’ of our students’ contributions to one particular lesson can unlock a fantastically rich potential palette of student-produced materials for use in the long-term, provided we are resourceful enough to notice that potential and then to carry it around with us until we work out what the next step is.