This was the first lesson of the new school year with my 6th grade groups, twelve years old primary school children (A2- level of English). We greeted each other exchanging wishes for a productive and interesting school year ahead. The shiny little faces in front of me were all familiar from our previous years together, yet it always amazes me how fast children of this age can change in two months during the summer break. We were all a bit numb; half present at school and half reminiscent of the carefree summer days we had left behind.
Since the school is still understaffed there was no fixed timetable so the element of surprise is strong. The 6th grade groups I would be working with that day had just been given their two new English books, and had piled them on top of the rest of the books for all the other subjects they will be taught this year; seventeen books in total. Their small heads were almost hidden behind this pile. I decided I was not going to ask them to open their books on this first day. This was going to be a forty-five minute session and after initial greetings and wishes we had about thirty-five minutes at our disposal.
I drew a sun on the board and wrote the word summer in it. I heard a few sighs in the classroom. I added the word memories in the sun shape. More sighs were heard. I wrote underneath, outside the shape: I remember…
I asked them to close their eyes, think of their summer, and choose only one of their memories to share with the rest of the class. They would start with I remember and try to keep their answers short, up to five or six words.
This was a brainstorming activity and it was not long before initial awkwardness receded and summer memories filled the classroom board. Students were speaking, listening to their classmates’ ideas, I was recording their responses on the board and they were taking notes. Here is an example of the brainstorming diagram we ended up with one of the groups.
When we completed this step, I asked students to choose one of the memories shared because it was most important to them. I wrote on the board the first choice. It was “the sea view”. I asked: How was this sea view? They came up with “beautiful, gorgeous, colourful”. I added this as a second line underneath. Then, another student chose “riding my bike”. I wrote it on the board as the third line. I asked: Why did you like riding your bike? The answer was “Because I saw the sea”. I wrote “I saw the sea” as a fourth line. How was the sea? was my last question. Calm, was the answer. I added as a last verse: The calm sea.
We went on adding verses to our poem in the same way. Students would choose a memory and then I would ask them to add something relevant to it. The questions usually aimed either at encouraging them to come up with some descriptive language or explore and explain their feelings. The what, where, how, and why of their memories. Each stanza of the poem had four or five verses. The rough pattern was: memory-expanding on it-memory-expanding on it.
Here is another example of how this activity worked with another group of eleven-year-old 5th graders I taught that day (A1+ level of English).
Some of the stanzas turned out to be more coherent in terms of the overall meaning they communicated while others had unexpected associations. This is because children chose a memory at random from the initial brainstorming diagram, but it is also has to do with the actual way memory works. It does not work directly, you need to wake up different angles. I have been thinking after trying this activity in class that the “I remember” element could also work with other prompts; Christmas, Easter, a happy/sad day in my life. It would also be interesting if we asked students to think back and choose five to ten memories about people, places, events they have experienced. It will all be about using personal experience to write creatively.
It was a nice first day at school. Students dived in their summer experience, voiced it, experimented with language and vocabulary, and communicated creatively and freely. I was happy to find out in the next lesson that quite a few of them had tried to go on with writing short poems at home without having been assigned this as homework activity.