“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
(Carroll, L. 1865. Alice in Wonderland)
I wrote this piece about three years ago, reflecting on an old lesson and the role imagination plays in our ESL curricula. I believe this activity could be modified for an online classroom. If you give it a go, please let me know how it works out!
It is a gray and rainy day, and eighteen high-beginner English for Academic Purposes students are waiting for me to explain what a narrative text is and how to write one. I announce to the students that today’s class is going to be a bit different than usual. I ask them to kindly have pen and paper or their laptops ready. Using YouTube, I start the soundtrack to The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe; I have chosen a track called The Battle. I ask if anyone knows the piece. Luckily, no one does, so I can really rely on their imagination. Puzzled looks around the classroom. After a minute, I turn down the music and explain, “You are going to write a story inspired by the music.” Gasps, laughs, smiles, and questions fill the room immediately. I hear comments in the students’ first languages. The most outspoken student politely points out that he and his classmates do not know enough vocabulary to write a story. “It’s OK,” I smile, “You can use your phones to translate words you don’t know, and I’ll give you plenty of time.” I am usually against translations in class, but today’s lesson is special. I convince the students that they should try to write a story. No marks are attached to the task, and they do not even have to share their story with others if they do not feel like it. They seem to relax. They look a bit scared, but eager to try.
With the students onboard, I play the track for about forty minutes. Then I give an extra thirty minutes for the students to refine their story. They can ask for help from their classmates if they want. I do not give them any instructions other than that the story has to be inspired by the musical piece. At the end, I ask the students to share their work in small groups if they feel brave enough. I walk around and listen to them while the shiest students call me over to show me their work more privately. I am impressed…
An Epic Battle and a Victory
Words and expressions such as epic battle, mortal enemy, triumph of good over evil appear into the students’ stories. Words they would most likely not have used otherwise in our academic courses. I try to ignore mistakes related to sentence structure and grammar for the moment and I praise and build upon the students’ achievement. I am extremely proud of them. Some have written descriptions of kings and queens, knights, warriors, or the battlefield: I tell them they have a descriptive background for the story; now, they need to tell me what happens. Some have a rough idea for a plot. They go back to work, and when I tell them class is dismissed, they keep talking about sky-pirates and cities made of clouds, laughing and searching for new vocabulary while I smile and enjoy their victory.
Imagination in an academic and inquiry-based curriculum is not always easy to implement, but it is fundamental. It produces ideas, vocabulary, and helps students to develop a stance about issues. It helps students and educators alike to think deeply about how it would be to be in some else’s shoes. It pushes us to think differently. I could take my Narnia musical lesson and ask the students to imagine what the music would describe in a modern world and in our current society: Is it still the canvas of a battle? If so, who are the geopolitical forces involved? Why are they fighting? How can we stop the battle…? The possibilities are endless. If we start looking at imagination as a valuable ally in the curriculum, we can open the door to imaginative educators who help shape resourceful, empathetic thinkers.
I now issue the challenge to you: What are you going to do to promote and foster imagination in your classroom?