Film, music & image-based EFL/ESL class on theme of fatherhood

There have been some great class ideas around the theme of toxic masculinity and the infamous Gillette advert. I want to steer away from the #MeToo debate for now although this post could certainly tie in with that theme, notably as the “Best a Man Can Be” advert hones in on notions of fatherhood, be they outmoded or even “toxic”.

For me, the theme of fatherhood is an excuse to play students a song I have long wanted to use in class, Color Him Father. It was originally recorded by The Winstons in 1969 and describes a father-son relationship. There are a number of other recordings of this song but the one I like the best is Linda Martell’s country-soul version of the same year which changes the complexion of the tune – especially as concerns issues of masculinity – by telling the story from a female perspective.

The song is great as it describes a number of cliché gender roles (notably the father figure as breadwinner and educator) before its big and poignant “twist”, namely that the man the narrator refers to is in fact her stepdad, her real father having been “killed in the war”. The expression ‘color him father’ then takes on a different, erm, hue, as the song ultimately describes the acceptance of someone new despite the loss of a loved one.

To add a bit of variety to the sequence I have started it with another poignant cartoon I saw in a newspaper recently (but whose artist I can no longer recall or trace), which evokes a rather modern vision of fatherhood (and motherhood too). Furthermore, I have worked in a clip from Charlie Chaplin’s classic The Kid (1921), in which the legendary silent film comic portrays the ultimate irresponsible adult to the eponymous child, played by Jackie Coogan. Chaplin’s films work brilliantly in the EFL classroom, as the humour is universal, and there is little or no dialogue, allowing ample opportunity for student description and discussion. No doubt I will come back to Chaplin’s work in future posts.

Level: B1+


Step one – cartoon analysis

Show students the picture and get them to describe the image above in pairs. Simple question prompts should suffice, for example:

  • Describe the cartoon
  • What do you think the cartoonist wanted to say?
  • How does the cartoon make you feel?
  • Choose five keywords concerning the cartoon and explain your choices

Once students have had time to share ideas, solicit suggestions from the whole group, noting down pertinent vocab for all to see.

Step two – brainstorm

If not already mentioned, elicit the word ‘Fatherhood’, then get the students to brainstorm words and feelings around this subject.

Clip analysis

There are a couple of great scenes from Chaplin’s The Kid you can use to evoke more ideas about Fatherhood. You can use one or both.

Clip one

Show the students the first clip until 15 seconds approx. Ask students to share their observations in small groups/pairs around the following question prompts:

  • Who? Where? What happens? What do you think will happen next?

Have students share their observations with the whole class, noting down pertinent vocab for all to see.

Play the rest of the clip repeat the exercise around the following prompts:

  • What happens in the scene?
  • Describe the different characters and their reactions
  • Describe the relationship between the two main characters

Clip two

Show the students the second clip until 35 seconds approx., and ask them to describe and discuss in pairs what they saw. Simple gist questions should suffice (what happens? where does the scene take place? who are the characters? what do you think happens next?).

Once the students have shared their ideas with the whole class, and relevant vocab noted for all to see, continue the clip until about 3 minutes. Get the students to watch and discuss the following questions with a partner:

  • How does Charlie Chaplin’s attitude to the fight change and why?
  • How would you describe the Charlie Chaplin character’s behaviour
  • What does the film say about fatherhood
  • What do you think the funniest moments were? Why?
  • Which clip did you prefer, why?

Song analysis

Firstly, give students the title and ask them to predict, in pairs, what they think the song is about.

Next, after getting students to share their ideas, play the song once without any particular task to do. Afterwards, they can discuss what they understood about the song’s lyrics and story, and how the song made them feel.


Next, you could do a gap-fill exercise with the song. You could choose to make the words available to them separately or not, depending on the level of the group. Another possibility is cutting up the lyrics and letting the students rearrange them as they listen, or from memory. If you do a gap-fill, the words you choose to remove rhyming words, which could be a point of interest as some do not actually rhyme (grin/again, war/far). Indeed, you could ask students to find those that don’t.

After the listening comprehension, you could get students to discuss the lyrics in groups, particularly the story the song tells.

  • What do you understand by the expression “color him father”?
  • How is the father represented? (big, strong, grin, tired, never a frown, smile)
  • What values does he embody? (education, hard work, patience).
  • How does he compare to the father figure in The Kid? Who makes the better role model and why?
  • In what ways has the image of fatherhood in the song dated?

Here are the lyrics:

There’s a man at my house, he’s so big and strong

He goes to work each day, and he stays all day long

He comes home each night looking tired and beat

He sits down at the dinner table and has a bite to eat

Never a frown, always a smile

When he says to me, “how’s my child”?

I said that I’ve been studying hard all day in school

Tryin’ very hard to understand the golden rule

I think I’ll color him father

I think I’ll color him love

I’m gonna color him father

I think I’ll color him love

He says education is the thing to complete

Because without it, life just ain’t very sweet

I love this man and I don’t know why

Except I’ll need his strength until the day that I die

I think I’ll color him father

I’m gonna color him love

I’ve got to color him father

I think I’ll color him love

Our real old man, he got killed in the war

Mom with seven kids couldn’t’ve gotten very far

She said she thought she could never love again

And then there he stood with that big wide grin

He married my mother and he took us in

And now we belong to the man with that big wide grin

I’ve got to color this man father

I’m gonna color him love

I’ve got to color him father

NB: if you search for the song lyrics on Google, most of the time you get those of the original Winstons version of the song, which are slightly different. To the best of my knowledge, these are the words to the Linda Martell version.

Productive/creative activities for students

Here are some suggestions for follow-up activities:

  • Debate/discussion about modern notions of fatherhood. Is it difficult for fathers to be a good role model today?
  • Students can prepare and present a manifesto for fatherhood, focusing on what characteristics and values are needed to be a father today.
  • Have students write a letter to one of the fathers from the lesson. It could be a letter to Charlie Chaplin, or to the stepdad in the song. Alternatively, it could be a letter to the father that was “killed in the war”, if this is not too morbid!
  • Have students write alternative verses of the song. This could be a comic version, with a modern scenario, or with the father figure changed to that of Charlie Chaplin.
  • Students can compare the Linda Martell version of the song to the original. How does it change the tone of the song? Are the lyrics different? Is the mood of the song different? Which do you prefer and why?
  • The students could prepare and present ideas for a video to the song. What scenes would they include and why?
  • As the warm-up picture seems to suggest two different time-zones, you could also focus the difference in routines experienced by the father and mother (and baby). Try to elicit the future perfect (e.g., “the man will have already had his dinner”) and, level-depending, conditional variants (“He would have already had breakfast”, “He could have called during a break at work”), also used in the song. You may need to provide additional language support (exercises etc.) to reinforce student understanding of structure.

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