Active bystanders

Video-based English class on taking action and not being a passive bystander

I was recently teaching a variation on the Toxic Masculinity class I posted here, including some work on the Gillette “Best Men Can Be” advert, inspired by this great lesson plan by Kieran Donaghy. Having had to split the lesson over two separate classes, I was looking for a short video I could use as a warm-up / engage activity to kick things off on the second week. Semi-spontaneously, I decided to show my students – in this case, B2/C1-level adults – this short Australian public service announcement made by the State Government of Victoria, Australia. 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

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

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

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

Tar and Cement

“Nail house” in Shanghai: Lucas Schifres/Getty Images

Film, music and photography-based ESL/EFL lesson about urbanization and nostalgia

My last post featuring Frank Sinatra’s It Was A Very Good Year reminded me of a grammatical structure I have seldom had cause to teach. Twice in the song we see the modal “would” used not in the conditional context that most students will encounter first, but rather to express habits in the past (“We’d hide from the lights / On the village green”, “We’d ride in limousines / Their chauffeurs would drive”). To build on this, as well as the structure “used to + verb”, to talk about our past routines, there is fantastic song which is also a rich basis for discussion about our relationship to the past, particularly as concerns urbanization and the irrevocable transformation of the natural environment into the built one. The song is Tar & Cement, a one-hit country-soul wonder by Verdelle Smith, written by Lee Pockriss and Paul Vance. Continue reading

Stages of Life

Louis Faurer, Accident New York City, 1952

Film, music and photography-based ESL/EFL class about the stages of life

After my last – rather academic – post about Bladerunner and optical illusions, I thought a more lighthearted approach was in order today. Saying that, it begins with a corollary to that discussion, namely the photo above, Louis Faurer’s Accident New York City (1952), which is anything but lighthearted. As with in the scene featuring Deckard’s Esper machine, it is a photograph that keeps on giving, the reflection of what might be a storefront window affording a near panorama of simultaneous activity that seems to tell two or more stories. Continue reading

Antonioni’s Blow-Up

Video-based ESL/EFL lesson plan on image rights, voyeurism and street photography featuring Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up

Following on from my post about Rear Window, a film I often like to use in class following Hitchcock’s masterpiece is Antonioni’s 1966 classic Blow-Up. While the main character’s casual mysogyny is jarring today, the film has not lost its intriguing power and ambiguity. I won’t reiterate the debate around what actually happens in the film here, suffice to say there are good grounds to doubt the veracity of what we see, particularly in relation to film’s central murder mystery. The film also includes one of my all-time favourite scenes, in which the hero photographer works – with increasing intensity – in his studio as he develops the photos that convince him he has unwittingly witnessed a crime, an extract of which features in my lesson plan below. Continue reading

Rear Windows

Edward Hopper, Night Windows, 1928.

English class on surveillance, voyeurism and neighbourliness, featuring Alfred Hitchcock, Edward Hopper, Avril Paton and Ole Marius Jøergensen

Following on from my previous post about The Prisoner, which evokes among other things the theme of surveillance, and the post about Brainstorm, which imagines a dystopian technology allowing users to vicariously experience other people’s memories, this class focuses on the subject of neighbourhood watch, privacy and voyeurism. The clips I have used that best elicit discussions on these themes are from one of the all-time greats, Hitchcock’s Rear Window. Continue reading