Just a Flashcard and a Visualiser: An English Lesson

I’ve used this lesson a few times now for different classes and texts and it always works well. It is super simple and low prep so I thought I would share.

Here’s what you need to prepare in advance:

1. A set of mini flashcards or PPT slide with a selection of key images/quotations from a given text. When selecting, you should choose images you think the class should already know and you should have a sense of some thematic clusters within this selection. This doesn’t need to be especially pre-planned as the serendipity of this task is what works so well, but there should be ways of connecting the images.

2. A pack of standard flashcards or if easier some ripped up lined paper

3. A visualiser

Here’s how the lesson works, step by step:

1. You begin by displaying all the chosen images on a single screen so they can all be seen at once. This might be just under the visualiser or on a PPT/word document.

2. As students arrive you ask them to look at the images and to try to contextualise them. Who says them? Where do they come from? In what context are they written? What are they describing? What comes before or after? The idea here is just to co-ordinate the thinking that is going to happen next. The prompt questions will change depending on whether the studied text is a poem, play or novel, but the principle is exactly the same. You might do this just as a thinking exercise or as a written Do Now.

3. Once students have had some time, you can now sample the room to get a sense of how well students know these images. Assuming you’ve selected important images from the text, this is a good opportunity to assess how well students know it, but also helps you to address any misconceptions. This lesson works best if everyone is pretty familiar with the chosen images, hence beginning by priming the thinking that is to follow.

4. Now, hand every student a flashcard or small piece of ripped paper. The physical constraint is important here so don’t just ask them to do it in their exercise book, unless you demarcate space in advance. They should label one side of the flashcard A and one side B. Ask them not to write their name anywhere on the flashcard.

5. You then ask students to select any two images they want and to write about why they chose these two images. The criteria they use can be pretty much anything, but the images should, when placed together, tell us something meaningful about the text. They should help to capture or convey or condense a wider thematic concern with which the text engages. I suggested to my students not to pick, say, two metaphors if that is the only thing they can think of that connects them. They should write down their rationale on the side labelled A and this does not need to be too essay-like or formal. It ought to be full prose, but can be more in the mode of ‘these two images interest me because…’ The physical constraint of the flashcard works well here because it tacitly forces them to be precise in their thinking and expression and to be more careful as to how they are articulating their ideas.

6. Let’s say they’ve now had 5 to 10 minutes to write down their initial justification, now we stop the class and ask them to turn their flashcard over. They and you know what will happen next! They now have an opportunity to upgrade what they have just written. Maybe at this point you pop a couple of scaffolds on the board (‘If you haven’t already I would love for you to use this phrase…’) or just let them think through how they may wish to redraft or tweak what they have written. We are asking them to be more precise and more sophisticated. We want them to be proud of what they produce. Again, the physical constraint offers a tangible reason to think very carefully about expression. Give them another chunk of time to do this.

7. At this point we collect all flashcards in, mix them up, and place them one at a time under the visualiser. It’s unlikely you’ll get through all of them but that is fine — you can pick at random. This is also why we didn’t want students to place their name on them so that it is anonymous, although of course if you already have an established culture of ‘Show Call’ then this will matter less. We can also start with our own, which no doubt we did alongside the students in the previous two steps.

But, how might we frame this part of the lesson? I think the idea is twofold:

1. We’re sharing our responses so that we can learn from each other and so students should be ready to jot down any ideas they encounter that they think are interesting. They might do this on a separate flashcard or now in their exercise books

2. We’re using these student response to start a discussion. Do we agree with what the student has written? Can we help to substantiate their claims? Do we perhaps have a different interpretation? Maybe even two cards seem to offer different ways of thinking about the same images. As we read out the card we can also be adding our own thoughts and verbalising what we find interesting.

So, this lesson is built around three core elements, all working together:

1. Recall of key images from a given text in order to prime thinking

2. An opportunity to write about two images as well as an embedded chance to redraft and edit

3. An opportunity to share these responses and use them as a starting point for further exploration and discussion

It is an extremely powerful lesson, but also very simple to do and with very little prior preparation. In fact, all you really need is a flashcard and a visualiser.

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