Making meaning: collective concept mapping

It was our first day at school after Christmas break and we all looked a bit numb. There was a mixture of sadness that holidays had ended and happiness to see familiar faces again. We were also a bit tired and sleepy after a two-week period of waking up late. I felt it was important not to overwhelm students right from the get-go at 8:00 am on a Monday morning, but opt for a more open-ended, student-led activity that would encourage creative thinking.

Photo credit: Annabel Lee

This post reflects on how we worked with two groups of sixth graders, mixed-ability A2- English learners, on the concept of “change” by using the thinking routine Making Meaning.  The aim of the routine is to build collective meaning of words, ideas, concepts or events; a collective concept mapping. It is a new routine I had come across some time ago, but had not given it a try so far. I was a bit cautious not knowing how it was going to work with students. Yet, after having tried routines in my classes for a long time, I trusted in the results they can yield with students and the richness and originality of ideas they can trigger. In any case one can never find out until one tries and cautiousness was outweighed by curiosity and anticipation.

In our case the concept was “change” and it emerged after looking at a visual stimulus. It was a street art piece which read: Happy New Year. The change starts here.

We first discussed a bit what it showed and where it could be found. We identified that it was a street art piece, probably on a wall, and that the focus was the concept of change. Change was written in the centre of the board. The first step then was to ask students

1.Think of one word that you associate/connect with change. Which word is this?

This was done as a whole class brainstorming activity and yielded some first tentative responses. Students came up with the words: New Year, school, safety, technology, economy.



As a second step I asked:

2. Now, can you think and add one more word or phrase under any of these four so as to tell me something more about it?

Students began to warm up and were able to contribute more ideas, there was greater participation and more words and phrases were added under the initial ones.




In the third step I asked them to:

3. Look at all the words and phrases we shared on the board. Can you see any connections? Think and tell me about them.

The third step found me coping with the practical issue of how to draw joining lines between the connections the children found and talked about, and how to write on those lines. It was quite an enjoyable stage as we were all taking notes, trying to accommodate on our concept maps the new information that came up from sharing ideas. It was also a moment that reveals so eloquently that thinking expands in multiple directions, it “does not happen in a linear manner” (Ritchhart et al., 2011).

In the fourth step I asked students to look at the collective concept mapping our board was displaying and think and ask any questions about the topics that had emerged:

4. Look at all our ideas shared on the board. Do you have any questions to ask about what we discussed?


We ended by adding some interesting questions:




I tried the routine with another class on that same first day at school after Christmas. I did not have the time though to take proper snapshots of our board so here are the few hasty ones I captured:

What kind of map is this?

It was funny how on finishing with the four steps, students in both groups began making jokes about this kind of map they had in their notebooks, different for each one since their notes were personalized. Some of them had opted for a full diagram while a few others had opted for a mixture of diagram and listing ideas and questions as I noticed by a quick look at their notebooks. One student said that it was “a map not to find your way, but to get lost”, another added “yes, to get lost in ideas and thoughts”, a third remarked that “it’s a map of all the different, nice ideas we had in our minds” while some others were explaining to their classmates how they were able to navigate themselves in their maps through lines, arrows, colours, boxes and clouds. I told them this was a concept map and the term seemed to stick in their minds.

The new language that emerged out of the students’ need to express their ideas while working on this routine was: connect with, associate with, concept map, economy, sustainable, equipment, space, hybrid, citizens, develop, thefts, special needs (first group) and connect with, associate with, concept map, radical, gap, reduce, increase, tax, racism, origin, argument (for the second group).

The proper wrapping up of the Making Meaning routine is that students come up with their own definition of the word, concept, topic being explored. We did not have much time to do this individually as the session was coming to an end so I asked children to hierarchize the most important elements for them and came up with a joint very short piece of writing.

I found it interesting how in both groups the routine facilitated the expression of a diversity of ideas that captured aspects of the issue ranging from the personal/school/local one to the wider “big global picture”. They associated the concept of change not only with themselves, their school, their relationships with classmates, but also with the current state of unemployment in the country, feeling of insecurity, loss of homes and the more global issues related to sustainable environment, gap between rich and poor, racism, injustice, war/peace. Each one of the questions the students asked at the final step lends itself to a new circle of inquiry.

The Making Meaning routine helped smooth our way back into “school mode” and gain some energy after the Christmas-hynernation phase. It reminded me a lot of Chalk Talk, another routine that helps students build understanding collectively. For some pictures of classroom practice with the Chalk Talk routine you can have a look here and here.

Hope you have a Happy New Year.


Ritchhart, R. Church, M. and Morrison, K. (2011) Making Thinking Visible: How to Promote Engagement, Understanding, and Independence for All Learners. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


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The Potato Eaters and our images of poverty

There was a unit on shopping we were recently working on with my sixth grade primary school students that triggered the idea of showing them Vincent Van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters” and relating it to poverty. After looking at coursebooks images of happy people shopping and paying at supermarkets, and reading texts on the numerous goods one can buy there, I could not help but wonder how the children would react to the issue of poverty, especially since they are growing up and living in a country constantly descending into poverty because of the prolongued economic recession. There was also some reaction on the part of the children while working with the coursebook when a couple of them pointed out that “well, if you don’t have money, you can’t buy anything”. That made me even more curious to find out what the students see around them, in their surroundings. For these children, who in their majority come from families who can provide for the basics and in some cases more than that, are the poor invisible? or even worse “written off as trash” as John Berger phrased it?

My main aims during these lessons were to:

  • expose them to the work of art and encourage careful observation and aesthetic appreciation
  • encourage students’ thinking, speaking, active listening and writing
  • associate the work of art with the issue of poverty and prompt their thinking on it
  • explore how the children make meaning of poverty through seeing around them, drawing their own images of poverty and writing about them

The Potato Eaters

The “Potato Eaters” (1885) by Vincent Van Gogh is a realistic painting about harsh country life. It depicts five peasants sitting around a table, eating potatoes. The colours are dark and gloomy and the only light source comes from an oil lamp on the ceiling, at the centre of the panting, which sheds light on the facial expressions of four of the figures.

What’s going on?

We first observed carefully the painting. I then asked the students:

What’s going on in this painting?

When a student offered his/her idea, I asked a follow-up question:

What do you see that makes you say that?

This is the Visual Thinking Strategies approach (VTS) to finding meaning in imagery, developing visual literacy through learning on the arts, fostering thinking, and communication skills—listening and expressing oneself. Following a constructivist, developmental approach to aesthetic appreciation, VTS views the teacher as the facilitator who allows the students’ mental frame to evolve by making connections, new constructions, and building meaning in new kinds of ways as they weave their understanding and interpretation of a work of art.

This was a viewing, speaking and note-taking activity. Children agreed as to the more evident elements like the fact that “there are people around a table who are eating”.  They also negotiated meaning on:

  • what exactly it is that they’re eating and drinking
  • what is the overall situation they’re in

In the first case, ideas involved “fish”, “apples”, “potatoes”, “tea”, “coffee”, “cocoa”. In the second case, some children believed there are “poor people in a house” while others believed the people in the painting are “in a war” situation.

The What do you see that makes you say that? stem prompted them to look more carefully for details that supported their ideas so

  • “poor” was related to the figures’ “old and cheap clothes”, and the fact that “they’re eating from the same platter”. Students also related “poor” with “sad and tired faces” who “are not smiling” and even with “dirty” appearance
  • “eating” was related to the fact that they can see “food on the table”, “they’re holding forks”, “they’re sitting around a table and families usually sit around a table to have lunch or dinner”
  • “potatoes” was related to the fact that “they are not expensive so they can buy them”
  • “War” was related to the “small room” which had no electricity, but “only one lamp” and because these people “looked sad”

I finally asked the children if the atmosphere in the painting is cold or warm. Opinions were divided. Others thought it was cold because the people in the painting were poor, tired, sad. Others, however, thought it was warm because these people were all together and were sharing their food.

As students were expressing their ideas and listening to each other’s ideas, I facilitated note-taking by writing key words and phrases shared, when speaking, on the board for all to see. I also helped them with the language they needed in the flow of the conversation which involved items like “hiding shed”, “platter”, “serve”, “shelves”, “in the background”, “all together” “atmosphere”, “I believe”, “in my opinion”.

When this session ended, I revealed the title and asked them to write a text on what we did in class, drawing on the classroom discussion and their notes. Children came up with shorter or longer texts that ranged from simple descriptive accounts of the painting to more elaborate reflective texts where they incorporated their own thinking as well as their classmates’ thinking. All of them responded well and even struggling students found the activity accessible since the in-built differentiation and the fact that their writing was based on classroom experience was of considerable help.


In the second session, first, we briefly revised the previous lesson through a plenary discussion and brainstorming around questions like: “What did we talk about last time?”, “what did we see in the painting?” I also mentioned the name of the painter and his country of origin. Then I asked them to look again and answer the question:

What more can we find?

This is the third question in the VTS approach that encourages more careful viewing. We focussed on

  • the colours of the painting which the children found dark and gloomy, but  noticed bright spots, too (What do you think about the colours?)
  • the appearance of the people in the painting (What are the people wearing?, “)
  • what their job might be (What do you think their job is?)
  • how the room is illuminated (How is the room illuminated?)
  • any other details they could find (Can you see anything else?)
  • what emotions the painting evoked (What are your feelings?, How does the painting make you feel?)

The new vocabulary that emerged out of this session included items like “ceiling”, “illuminate”, “bony” (fingers), “kerchiefs”, “caps”, “bright”, “little, a little, very little”, “depressing”, “gloomy”, “feeling”. I also provided them with the terms “monochromatic”, “realistic” and “naturalistic” related to the artistic elements of the painting. I finally explained that Vincent Van Gogh made this painting for two reasons: he wanted people to see that he was a good artist, and he wanted to show how hard the life of poor peasants is because he lived among them at that time. “Peasants” was added to our words list and I asked the students’ opinion on whether the painting was successfully showing what it was supposed to show.

At the end of the session I asked them to work in pairs on a gap fill activity

For the next lesson I assigned them to write a text on the new information we had added


I also asked them to look around them, think, and draw their own images of poverty along with a short description and rationale.


My Image of Poverty

The children did look around them and what they brought in class indeed reflected the face of poverty in our surroundings. In the final sessions, they presented their images to their classmates and talked about them. The majority chose to depict people scavenging food, paper or anything useful from rubbish bins which in the Greek debt crisis context has been rapidly rising and has become a way to survive. At times they associated it with the country’s shuttered industrial infrastructure, scarcity of jobs or poorly paid ones.

Begging in the streets, in the subway, in front of global supermarket chains and homelessness also featured in their work. This was again at times related to the rising unemployment in the country and the rising cost of living.

Others related their images of poverty to immigrants and refugees

Or associated poverty with different reactions towards poor people

On completing these series of lessons, children had come in contact with art, had shown interest in both the aesthetic and social aspect it embraces, had had the opportunity to express themselves in verbal and visual modes, and had seen and identified the often unseen and overlooked. Their responses were marked by awareness and emotional and cognitive engagement. As they were trying to make meaning of poverty through drawing their own images and writing about them, they employed their thinking, planning, and connecting skills. There were interesting signs of individual engagement with putting together their own works of art and reasoning their choices. Of course, there were varying degrees of conscious connectivity among the children which have to do with their diverse degree of maturity, artistic and language ability, familial and social context.

Ideally, a related problem-solving situation that would push children’s thinking beyond identifying and empathizing towards developing and initiating ways of tackling with the issue of poverty should follow. Poverty is a very complex issue with the unequal distribution of wealth at its core. We did not go that far. Food for thought for the future.


Visual Thinking Strategies website

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The Image in ELT & Integrating global issues

Here are two publications I have been happy to contribute to. Starting from the most recent one:

Edited by Kieran Donaghy and Daniel Xerri, The Image in English Language Teaching is  the first publication of the Visual Arts Circle, a community of teachers with interests in visual literacy and language learning. It is a groundbreaking book whose diverse papers reflect on the multi-dimensional role of images in teaching and learning in an increasingly visual and complex world. The papers in the book were presented at different editions of The Image Conference whose aims are to put images at the centre of the language learning agenda, offer guidance on using them critically and creatively, and to promote visual literacy in language education. There are contributions by members of the Visual Arts Circle such as Ben Goldstein, Anna Whitcher, Antonia Clare, Paul Driver, Sylvia Karasthati, Paul Dummett, Magdalena Wasilewska, Andreia Zakime,Elena Domínguez Romero, Jelena Bobkina, Candy Fresacher, Tyson Seburn, Magdalena Brzezinska, Emma Louise Pratt, Samantha Lewis, Jean Theuma, Valéria Benévolo França, and myself.  The book includes a preface by Gunther Kress, Professor of Semiotics and Education in the Department of Culture, Communication and Media within the Institute of Education of University College London. My paper, “Images on canvas: art, thinking and creativity in ELT” draws on my presentation at the third edition of the Image Conference in Cordoba, Spain, and is about how exposing students to paintings can serve to structure their thinking and enhance their writing skills. The book is available by open access thanks to the support of the ELT Council and can be downloaded from the Visual Arts Circle website.

Edited by Alan Maley and Nik Peachey, the Integrating global issues in the creative English language classroom book is a British Council publication that aims at bringing together practical and creative language teaching ideas with a focus on raising awareness of the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. My contribution is on Sustainable Development Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems. It explores in particular the issue of deforestation through a series of activities that utilize artful visual prompts and aim at having students appreciate the value of forests, the diversity of life in rainforests and raising awareness of the role of palm oil in deforestation and Orangutan extinction. The book is a follow-up to the first volume on Creativity in the English language classroom where I was also also happy to be a part of.


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Children have the right to

This is a post about a fine resource I came across and how we used it in class. It is the  UNICEF’s Cartoons for Children’s Rights series, a treasure chest of a animation spots based on the articles of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. The duration of each spot is less than a minute and all of them are non-verbal with captivating images full of visual information. They call for students to watch carefully, observe, and look for visual details that will help them describe, decode and understand the message of the each spot.

There are two such videos available on youtube: Cartoons on Children’s Rights 1 and Cartoons on Children’s Rights 2. In my case, I made a selection of spots from the first video and worked on them with mixed-ability A2-, sixth grade, primary school children (11-12 years old).

My aims were to have students

  • slow down and watch carefully each spot.
  • practise their speaking and communicative skills in the ensuing classroom discussion by responding to a set of questions, listening to each other’s ideas and building on them.
  • practise note-taking and paragraph writing.
  • express themselves creatively in verbal and non-verbal ways through drawing and sketching.
  • think about their rights, and learn that children around the world lack things they take for granted.
  • explore and discuss their ideas, and form their own opinions and values with no fear of right and wrong answers.

The procedure I followed with each animation spot was to

  • show the spot pausing it at the moment before the relevant right appeared verbally.
  • prompt a classroom discussion by asking questions.
  • write the ideas shared in class and key words on the board, while children kept notes.
  • ask them to guess what the right might be.
  • reveal the right.

Before starting, I told children that they would use their notes for their homework assignment which would be to produce short texts describing each animation spot, and writing about their thoughts, feelings and opinions. Lower level students could write sentences about each spot instead of a text. I told them that if they wanted to they could also make drawings about the spots.

We watched a total of nine animation spots and we needed three forty-minute teaching sessions.

Here are some of the spots we worked on and some ideas of how students responded to them through note-taking, writing and drawing:

  1. Children have the right to protection from child labour. Article 32. (0:00-0:50)
Italy (RAI Television). Created by Guido Manuli.

Italy (RAI Television). Created by Guido Manuli.

Questions to ask:

  • What were the children in the beginning of the spot doing?
  • Where were they?
  • How do you think they were feeling?
  • What was the child in the room doing?
  • How do you think he was feeling?




2. Children have the right to appropriate information. Article 17. (0:51-1:34)


Finland. (EPIDEM). Created by Antonia Ringbom.


Questions to ask:

  • What is the child doing?
  • What kind of images/programmes is he watching?
  • Do you think this is good for the child? Why?
  • Is there an adult with the child?

3. Children have the right to express themselves. Article 13. (1:35-2:16)

USA (Nickelodeon). Directed by Bob Peterson. Designed by Byron Glaser and Sandra Higashi CGI, in association with Pixar and Zolo, Inc.

Questions to ask:

  • What is happening in the spot?
  • What do the figures in the spot look like?
  • What is the little figure doing?
  • Does the big figure like this? Why do you think so?
  • What do you think of the little figure?
  • How do you think the little figure feels?
  • Can you see any colours in the room?
  • What happens in the end?


4. Children have the right to protection in times of war. Article 38. (2:17-3:05)


USA (Matinee Entertainment). Directed by Frank Saperstein.

Questions to ask:

  • What birds did you see in the beginning of the spot?
  • What were they carrying?
  • What else did you see in the sky?
  • What were they carrying?
  • Where did the babies land?/Where were they born?



This was a very interesting spot to work with because in the beginning the children started giggling and saying ‘Come on, we know storks don’t bring babies, we’re too old for this!’ I wanted to prompt their thinking towards the symbolism behind showing storks carrying babies so I asked:

“Ok, but why do you think the creator of this spot chose to show storks carrying babies? Why?”

Children’s wisdom came up with the answer: “Because both storks and airplanes fly, but one carries life while the other death”.

It was also interesting to see how children brought to class their experience from watching and listening at home about the war in Syria. Some of them knew about the underground playground created for children there so that they can have a place to play safely.

5. Children have the right to protection from trafficking and abduction. Article 35. (3:06-3:50)

Denmark (A Film ApS). Directed by Jørgen Lerdam.

Denmark (A Film ApS). Directed by Jørgen Lerdam.

Questions to ask:

  • What did you see in this spot?
  • What was the child in the spot doing?
  • What was he playing with?
  • Whose is the hand that takes the child?
  • Do you think this person has good intentions? What makes you say that?
  • What else did you see or notice in the spot?


6. Children have the right to protection from neglect. Article 19. (4:36-5:20)


Taiwan (Wang Film Productions). Directed by Robin Wang. Created by Pongo Kero and Fish Wang.

Questions to ask:

  • What did you see in the beginning of the spot?
  • What is happening later?
  • What does the house look like?
  • How do you think the child feels?
  • Where is he hiding?
  • What does he look like?
  • What happens to the child later?





Children liked working on these spots. In the last session, I decided to take the activity a bit further so I asked them to bring along a photo of their own. The guidelines were as follows:

  • Think about the children’s rights that we watched, talked and wrote about.
  • Look closely around you, notice details in your room or your house.
  • Choose one or more rights and take a photo that you think is relevant to the right/s you chose.
  • No photographs of faces of people.
  • No selfies.
  • Jot down a few sentences about your photo. When writing think of the following questions:

-What is happening in your photo?

-Why did you choose to take this particular photo?

-What is the right you want to show here?

They responded enthusiastically and we had an extra class where the children presented and talked about their photos. I acted as a facilitator asking questions and keeping the conversation going. Some of them:

The right to expression

The right to protection in times of war

The right to protection from child labour

The right to appropriate information

What I found particularly effective while working on these spots was the way concepts like child labour, appropriate information, self-expression, trafficking, abduction, or neglect were received, recognized and remembered by the children when speaking or writing. This had to do exactly with the way the spots’ visuals aided memory, clarified and enhanced children’s learning. At the same time, the topic of these spots, timely and universal, spoke direcly to children’s personal experience, holistically and emotionally. Their personal schemata were activated to make diverse associations, compare and contrast, and reflect on their rights and other children’s rights. Finally, the enjoyment they showed about the photo task had to do with the fact that it gave them a feel of ownership over the activity. I’m still getting new photos in my e-mail.

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First day at school: “I remember summer” poems


the unbearable lightness of summer

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.

I rememberThis 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.

img20160918_15191482-page-001-%ce%b1%ce%bd%cf%84%ce%b9%ce%b3%cf%81%ce%b1%cf%86%ce%aeWhen 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.

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Looking 10×2: Pushing beyond the obvious

In this post I will describe the Looking 10×2 thinking routine. It is a routine that helps learners slow down, concentrate, observe carefully and describe. The routine stems from the Artful Thinking programme, one of the programmes at Project Zero. It is linked by the theme Visible Thinking which aims at helping students develop thinking dispositions that foster thoughtful learning.

Step 1

Introduce the source material. This may be any kind of image, painting or artwork, especially visual art.

Step 2

Ask students to concentrate and look quietly at the source material for thirty seconds. If the source material is rich in details, you can extend the time to one minute.

Step 3

Ask them to take notes and make a list of up to ten words or phrases about any aspect of what they have just seen. In this stage students can work individually, in pairs or in small groups.

Step 4

Work as a whole class and share ideas. As students come up with their words and phrases keep a visible record on the board by using a brainstorming diagram or a concept map. A circle map works well with this routine. Ask students to take notes of the ideas shared in class.

Step 5

Repeat steps 1-4. That is, ask students to look again, add more words and phrases to their list, and share them.

Step 6

As this is a routine that helps students generate descriptive language, it is a useful springboard into a writing activity. After completing the routine ask them as a writing assignment to produce a short text reflecting on the activity, the classroom discussion or elaborating further on the thoughts and ideas the routine triggered.

Classroom experience

Ida5f1-circlemap have tried this routine on quite a few occasions so far with my mixed ability A2+ groups of 6th graders (twelve years old).  The first one was with the topic of war/peace where we used Picasso’s Guernica as the source material. I did not tell them anything about the artwork apart from the title and the name of the painter. Students were highly engaged and motivated and came up with some interesting responses. Their responses involved references both to what was obvious (horse, bull, lamp, door, faces, feet) as well as attempts beyond it (lost lives, lost dreams, black world, death, fear). We used a circle concept map to document our words and phrases. Red marker was used for the words and phrases they came up with when we repeated the routine.

Another occasion was with the topic of refugees. Here the source material was an illustration for World Refugee Day by Hanane Kai, a graphic designer. Again, students’ responses were recorded through the use of a circle concept map.

A third occasion was with the topic of mobility disability. In this case the source material was an image by Ian James for ELTpics. This time we used a brainstorming diagram.

Things to consider

The idea in this routine is to have students slow down their usual busy mode of work and spend some time to look carefully and think.  Careful looking means taking time to notice more than what meets the eye at first glanceIt is the observing and describing disposition that is at work here, a component of creative thinking, which is about noticing, thinking and communicating impressions.

What I find interesting about the Looking 10×2 routine, and the same goes with all the routines I have tried in class, is that it serves what David Perkins calls “the optimal ambiguity” in an assignment. It is flexible for the teacher, structured enough to guide students, and open enough to let them discover their unique paths. This openness results in a nice flow of ideas expressed in the English classroom.

Using artwork as source material is enriching as it provides a nonjudgmental territory for students. Art is open to multiple interpretations, pushing students at the edge of what is and what isn’t; it is exploring, there are no incorrect answers and this is particularly important for students with low confidence.

The routine is most effective when attached to a topic or content which gives students something worth thinking about. It can also be nicely combined with the See-think-wonder routine to push their thinking further.

The routine may also be used with a piece of music as Listening 10×2. 


Art in the English Class, Guernica: Looking 10×2

Artful Thinking, Looking 10×2

Papalazarou, C (2015) ‘Making thinking visible in the English classroom: nurturing a creative mind-set’ in Maley, A and Peachey, N (eds) Creativity in the English language classroom. British Council: 37-43. Available free as a pdf file.


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Here I am, I used to have a home

This post is a report on a recent classroom project we had on refugees with a mixed ability A2 group of twenty-five 12 year old students. The aims were to build thoughtful awareness, encourage empathy on the issue, foster open-mindedness and respect for others, and keep refugees from seeming foreign and distant.

Students observed closely and described, wondered and asked questions, sought answers, responded to a short video, engaged meaningfully with a poem with a focus on capturing “what spoke to them”, recited poetry, made a class recording, and summarised the essence of the topic in verbal and non verbal ways. They also practised refugee related vocabulary, present tense, past continuous, past simple, and used to through reading, writing, listening, watching, speaking, and note taking.

The source material used was:

  • an illustration for World Refugee Day 2011 by Hanane Kai
  • Lior Sperandeo’s video “People of nowhere”
  • the poem “Here I am” by Electra Alexandropoulou

Session 1 – Introducing the topic/Looking 10×2

We first had a look at an illustration for World Refugee Day by Hanane Kai, a graphic designer. I asked students to:

1. Look carefully at the painting for 30”

2. Make a list of up to 10 words or phrases about any aspect of what they saw

We shared ideas. Students stood up and wrote their words or phrases on a piece of construction paper we had stuck on the classroom wall. They also kept notes of all the responses shared.

Then, we repeated steps 1 and 2 adding some more words and phrases.



We used a concept map (circle map) to document our responses. Red marker was used for the words and phrases the students came up with when we repeated steps 1 and 2.





28 001I then wrote on the board: What questions do you want to ask about refugees? We brainstormed some questions and recorded them. Students were assigned to:

a. Write a short paragraph reflecting on the classroom experience: What we did, what we saw, what we talked about.

b. work on the question/s of their choice

Session 2 – Reporting back



During the reporting stage, they presented their answers, answered their classmates’ questions and took notes of the responses shared in class. We kept a visible record of all the answers shared in a diagram.




We then had a look and read the following slide with the definitions of “Refugee”, “Asylum-seeker”, and “Immigrant”.

Students were assigned as homework to write a short text based on the classroom discussion and the notes they kept.


Session 3 – People of nowhere

DSCN2086We worked on Lior Sperandeo’s video “People of nowhere”. First, I played the film, sound only, and asked students to close their eyes and listen to the music.  I then invited them to respond to the question:

What did you “see” in your mind’s eye while listening?

We shared our responses and then listened to the music again. This time I asked them:

How did you feel while listening to the music? 

We shared ideas again.


people of nowhereI then told students that:

a. We were going to watch the video.

b. After watching they would have to write down as many visual details as they could remember.

Ideas shared:

As a homework assignment I asked them to write a a short text, describing the video. I also asked them to reflect on the question: Are your feelings after watching the video the same or different?

Session 4 – Here I am

We worked on the poem “Here I am” by Electra Alexandropoulou. It is a powerful poem, written in the first person where the refugee persona describes his/her current situation and recalls the past. You can find the poem as a scribd document here.

I first drew children’s attention to the geographic glossary I had included at the end of the poem handout. It is not a difficult poem in terms of language, but there is a number of references to places, cities and rivers they were unfamiliar with. We traced them with the help of a world map.

Then, I read the whole poem aloud to the students so that they could get more of a “feel” for the text. This had a powerful effect on them. The class was a so quiet you could hear a pin drop. We then worked on the new vocabulary. Finally, children did some silent reading themselves and took turns reading it aloud in class.

As a homework assignment I asked them to do some more reading of the poem and write sentences about:

the things the refugees used to do in the past

their present situation

Session 5 – The tree of past and present

DSCN2076Feedback was given in the form of a plenary discussion where individual students read their sentences and the rest of the class took notes. We kept a visible record of the sentences shared in class and in the end we added the drawing of the blossomed and dry tree.

I assigned as a homework to:

choose a line/phrase/word from the poem that struck them as powerful and important and explain why.


Session 6- Line-Phrase-Word

Students shared their choices of lines/phrases/words explaining why. We kept the ideas shared visible.

Session 7 – A class recording

In this session we had a final reflection on the poem which had a great impact on the students. The idea of attempting a class recording was discussed in a previous session. We tried it with enthusiasm. You can listen to it here.

The project was coming to an end. I asked them to think of all the ideas shared and imagine they were reporters writing an article about refugees.

What would the headline be?

I also asked them: if you were to offer a drawing to a refugee child what would you draw?

Session 8-Headlines & hopeful drawings

The children responded not only with headlines. A few of them also attempted short articles to go with them. Here are some of their ideas:

And here some of their drawings for refugee children:



The poem “Here I am” is included in the book “The Coldest Summer” issued by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation. The book presents the stories of 3 refugees fleeing into Europe, their nightmare, hopes and fears, sketched as a graphic narrative. Here is the link to download the book

The saw-felt activity in session 3 as well as the visual details activity in the same session were adapted from two activities (Memory Game & See-hear-feel) in Kieran Donaghy’s excellent book Film in Action: Teaching language using moving images (Delta Publishing).

Thanks to Torn Halves for bringing to my attention the video “People of nowhere”.

The thinking routines used in this project were: Looking 10×2, Line-phrase-word, and Headlines. You can read more about them here, here, and here.

While setting up this project I came across these interesting links on refugees

Syrian Refugees interactive timeline

Syria: A children’s crisis?

Unit plan for ages 15-18 in Language & Literature: The Depiction of Refugee Experience in Literature



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