Hopes and dreams and could have beens

Norman Rockwell, Breaking Home Ties, 1954

Ideas for a communicative English class about aspirations, regrets and changes in fortune

American painter and illustrator Norman Rockwell is a great source of inspiration for ESL and EFL classes. His works reflect many of the social concerns of his lifetime (1894–1978), notably the anxieties of a nation at war and racism, as this excellent class idea by Chrysa Papalazarou shows. Yet it is arguably for his vignettes of American family life that he is best known. As concerns lesson ideas, Rockwell’s works are particularly full of potential due to the stories they appear to suggest, and which the students can speculate upon and complete themselves. I was particularly struck by his 1954 piece Breaking Home Ties, above, which provided me with the final missing element for a class on hopes and dreams. The image and the class outline below would work nicely as a companion to my post on fatherhood, not to mention the themes of notalgia and regret explored in my posts on the stages of life and urbanization. Continue reading

Sound effects and setting the scene

Creative English class on describing scenes of suspense based around Brian De Palma’s Blow Out

Brian De Palma’s 1981 movie Blow Out makes no secret of the fact that it is an elaborate hommage to Antonioni’s virtual namesake Blow Up and Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, two of my favourite films (around which I have structured classes here and here). Much has been written about the links between these three films, and someone has even taken the trouble to edit a three-movie mash-up out of them. The result is catnip for film geeks. Continue reading

Offices, workplaces and working conditions

Film clips for communicative English lesson on the theme of workplace environments

I have to thank Kieran Donaghy at Film English once again for alerting me to this clever and biting animation The Employment by Santiago ‘Bou’ Grasso. In a darkly comic critique of our value system, people are seen fulfiling absurd everyday functions such as being a stand for a lamp, the legs of a table, or a place to keep keys for the central character, whom we see going about his daily routine and commuting to work. In an ultimately bleak vision of society, everyone is apparently someone else’s dogsbody, with the protagonist himself revealed not to be above this exploitation, ending his commute in an office building where he literally prepares to be someone’s doormat. Kieran structures his class around employment and jobs vocab, as well as the expression “to work as”. I would like to expand slightly on that by comparing the representation of working life in The Employment with other darkly comic interpretations from cinema. Continue reading

Airports and the flying experience

Martin Parr, Chicago, 1997

Communicative English class on the theme of airports and flying, based around photography and film clips

I teach a lot of business English and often find myself doing lessons about air travel. At the university where I work in France, I also do a lot of general English conversation classes and it is a theme that is often requested. Frequently in the past I have opted for bog-standard lesson plans found online or from a student manual but I have got bored of doing this and wanted to do something more student-led, based around film and photography. Continue reading

We need to talk about high school massacres

Communicative activity for the ESL/EFL classroom based on clips from films by Lynne Ramsay and Gus Van Sant

Following my recent post about fatherhood, one of the most striking and memorable depictions of motherhood I have seen in the cinema in recent years is that played by Tilda Swinton – in Lynne Ramsay’s 2011 adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s epistolary novel We Need to Talk about Kevin. Ramsay brings her impressionistic signature style – honed on breakthrough works like Morvern Callar (2002) – to the source material, a disturbing and topical story of a mother’s attempts to understand what led her son to commit a horrendous high school massacre. Continue reading

Toxic masculinity in four songs

American Girl in Italy by Ruth Orkin, 1951

Some song ideas for teaching gender politics and “toxic masculinity” in the ESL/EFL classroom

Following my post touching on toxic masculinity – an expression I don’t care for particularly but a topical one – and this one on murder ballads, I have been thinking of a few songs that respond to one another around the theme of gender politics. Rather than a structured lesson plan, I have just sketched a few ideas about the songs’ potential in class, thematically and linguistically. It is also the right moment to introduce a photo of which I am particularly fond, Ruth Orkin’s American Girl in Italy (above), one of a series featuring Ninalee Allen Craig – who died at 90 in May last year – on her adventures in post-war Europe. Continue reading

Rebellion and rebel uniforms

Don McCullin, Northern Ireland, The Bogside, Londonderry, 1971

ESL/EFL lesson plan on the theme of rebellion and rebel uniforms including cinema, photography and music

There is an exhibition on at Tate Britain that I am currently missing. No doubt I will keep on missing it, regretfully, until the end of its run on May 6th, being unable to tear myself away from work and family life in France. My Dad did, however, get to go, and gives it a resounding thumbs up. It is a retrospective of the work of photojournalist Don McCullin, taking in a lifetime’s work on the frontline of many struggles, whether they be overseas wars or studies of homelessness back home in the UK. Many will be familiar, like perhaps the image above of unrest on the Bogside area of Londonderry, which is not alone among McCullin’s work in the way that it captures something absurd or even funny among the chaos and the fury.  Continue reading

John Lennon versus Steely Dan

Walter Becker and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan

A lesson plan for comparing songs in the EFL/ESL classroom

As my last post showed, I’m a fan of working with songs which respond to each other in some way. I’ve not yet devised a much-needed Lynyrd Skynyrd vs. Neil Young face-off, but this should do in its place. I am going to lay my cards on the table and say I am not a fan of John Lennon’s “Imagine”. I have nothing against Lennon or his music; I adore Revolver and Abbey Road, not to mention “Jealous Guy”. “Imagine”, though, is rather vacuous ditty, with Lennon asking us to contemplate the disappearance of war and religion from what could easily be described as his ivory tower, the spacious white mansion where he and a curiously joyless Yoko Ono appear in the accompanying video (see below). Continue reading

Murder ballads

Lesson idea for the EFL/ESL classrom based around Johnny Cash’s Delia’s Gone and a contemporary riposte

One of my favourite bands of recent years is New Orleans’ improbably-named Hurray for the Riff Raff, centred around the singular talents of singer Alynda Segarra, who was brought up in the Bronx of Puerto Rican heritage. The band has expanded beyond its Americana roots but my favourite track of theirs is The Body Electric, a country-folk number that seems to tell the story of a woman’s murder, and the recovery of the body by a female friend, relative or same-sex lover. The timing of this post is also apposite as today is International Women’s Day. Continue reading

Uniforms and Uniformity


Henri Cartier-Bresson, School children, Moscow, USSR, 1954

Ideas for a photography and film-based ESL/EFL class around the theme of uniforms and uniformity

Writing about Walkabout the other day got me thinking about another theme that normally inspires debate in the English classroom, that of school uniforms and, more broadly, what constitutes a uniform or uniformity more broadly in society. The first clip from my Walkabout-themed lesson plan is particularly evocative in this regard, framing the school uniform as just one form of costume in a vision of Western society that is highly prescriptive and regimented: we see not only the blazered boys and girls at school but marching soldiers and besuited office workers all busying about as if in rhythmic unison. Continue reading