Front Page News Photos Stimulate Lively Debates in Adult ELL Classes

Greetings from New York! Two years ago, I embarked on my “encore career” as an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College.  It’s an honor to have been invited to contribute to TESOL’s blog.  In my blog posts, I will be focusing on practical teaching tips as well as self-directed learning strategies adult students can use outside of class to improve their speaking and listening skills.

Last weekend, I attended NYS TESOL’s remarkable 34th Annual Applied Linguistics Winter Conference at Columbia University’s Teachers College. The Conference was chock-full of workshops that offered excellent teaching suggestions that could be immediately put to use in the classroom. I’m busy trying out what I learned and as I do so, I will be keeping you informed.

For starters, James Chang’s workshop on Using Technology to Maximize Brain-Based Learning provided a timely reminder that nothing beats real life photographs to stimulate class discussion and debate.

Inspired by his example, I created a lesson plan for my intermediate evening ESL class that focused on a front page photograph that illustrated the New York Times’ March 5, 2013 article about the contrast between the booming private sector in Detroit and the very public blight that city has suffered.

I asked my students to ponder the photo (without sharing the article with them at that point) and asked them to discuss in small groups, “What do you think the photographer is telling us?” Then, drawing on an activity that Chang shared with us, I asked the students to work collaboratively with their partners: (1) to write one sentence summarizing what they thought was the photographer’s message and (2) to give the photo a title.

We then put the sentences and titles up on the board, debated the differing points of view reflected in the sentences and titles, and worked together to correct their grammar and sentence structure. The lively ensuing discussion about urban blight and the prospects for an economic turn-around in American cities like Detroit was made even livelier when one student announced that he had once lived just blocks from where the photo was taken and prophesied that Detroit was poised to undergo the same precipitate growth in property values that Harlem has experienced. His classmates’ skepticism and ensuing debate about the wisdom of investing in abandoned buildings made for a highly communicative activity.

As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that, despite the title of Chang’s workshop, this activity was in fact pretty low-tech. I cut the photo out of the front page of the New York Times and simply projected it with a document camera for all the students to see and analyze. No smart phones or tablets necessary!

How do you use photographs to stimulate classroom debate about current economic and political issues?

About Alexandra Lowe

Alexandra Lowe
Alexandra is an ESL instructor at SUNY Westchester Community College, where she has taught Speaking & Listening in the Intensive English Program, English for Academic Purposes, Business English, Accent on Fluency and a wide range of ESL levels. She has also served as a consultant to the Community College Consortium on Immigrant Education, which is based at Westchester Community College. Her primary interests are bringing authentic materials into the ESL classroom, connecting ESL students to the supportive resources available at many community colleges, and promoting self-directed learning strategies that ESL students can use outside of the classroom to accelerate their learning and enhance their speaking skills.
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2 Responses to Front Page News Photos Stimulate Lively Debates in Adult ELL Classes

  1. Kathleen Collins says:

    Hi Alexandra,
    Tks for the sharing. Great pic u used and ensuing lesson!!

    • Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

      Thanks for your kind words, Kathleen. My readers and I would love to hear how you use news photos in your classroom.

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