Nathan Black – The Big Picture

The Big Picture has been a wonderful resource for me this year.  Most of what shows up is related to current news footage, and as such is mostly useful for my 3 / 4 combined class who enjoy talking about the real world, but even then, I only pick and choose (Useful: Oil Slick in Gulf, Flooding in Nashville, Volcano in Iceland—they can see themselves in these shots and relate; Less Useful: Earthquake in China, Riots in Kyrgystan—heavy violence and turmoil [including potential corpse photos] are just too harsh a world for them right now).  I will narrate the slides (establishing vocabulary), and then ask very simple questions as to reactions, what it would be like to be in a particular picture, etc. This has the potential to go really wide vocabulary speaking, but a picture anchors the understanding very well while I can just point at the item.  I can throw in a dictation afterwards that sums up the major points of what we just saw, recycles the vocab, and allows them to process the language safely.
Often there will be a great general-interest series that all of my classes want to know about: the World Expo in Shanghai, Signs of Spring, various international holidays, etc.) and then I’ll do a similar flyby on the pictures: establishing vocabulary, determining interest and milking the conversation as long as the mood in the room lets me. On these pictures we’ll just riff and play around with whatever comes up.
Occasionally, though, I’ll hit the jackpot and find a picture world so compelling that we need to just take a class trip there for a few days. In March, for example, after seeing the pictures related to the Olympics, I allowed my German 1s to each choose a clothing item from the stack we were learning about, decide what super-power it bestowed upon them, and then we went to go compete in the Olympics ourselves.  We laughed our way through the different events we competed in (Bob was supposed to ice-dance but suddenly became shy, so Julie used her weather-control powers to create a thunderstorm distraction while Lara teleported down to the ice to give Bob a pep talk; Bob, of course, won the Gold). 
Just this week my normally reserved and “what else you got” German 3 /4 class just let it all hang out after I showed them pictures of an English “Tough Guy” competition.  After seeing the pictures I had them group-think their own “Tough Guy” competition locally (jumping from train to train, getting eaten by a shark/mutant carp and fighting their way out, changing a baby’s diaper who had explosive diarrhea, crawling under barbed wire wearing a thong [don’t ask], etc.).  I gave each student a blank 4-picture sheet and had them illustrate their own variations of events during the discussion.  The next day (after I had scanned the pictures and organized them into related “events”) they had decide which member of a pre-selected team (Kirby, Bowser, Turkish ninja cats, and a Grillwalker Bratwurst vendor) would compete in each event and discuss how they would overcome the obstacles.  We worked the vocab “would be” , “would have”, and “could” and it came off like a charm.  I was worried that the discussion would get too wide vocab-speaking , but the pictures anchored everything, the target vocab was second nature really quick, and  we had a riot.  We spent two days working their team through the obstacle course they set up, and they were left wanting more.
In summary, I see the Big Picture series not as a daily resource, but more like a special event or holiday that crops up every now and then.  Sometimes we’re just glad for the chance to see what a great big world we live in, and other times (when I’ve got the energy to throw into it) it turns into a massive team-building exercise.  Either way, we’ve enjoyed it.
[ed. note: I would love to hear others’ ideas on this point that Nathan made twice, quoted here:
“…this has the potential to go really wide vocabulary speaking, but a picture anchors the understanding very well while I can just point at the item…”.
“…I was worried that the discussion would get too wide vocab-speaking , but the pictures anchored everything,..”.
This has enormous potential]



7 thoughts on “Nathan Black – The Big Picture”

  1. I like this idea – and anything with pictures or visuals. Either I draw a great deal or better yet I have the students draw the beginning to a story or problem. This gets their “voice” in there and rewards those who like to draw instead of those who offer clever answers out loud. I agree that the visuals keep them focused and actually reign in the vocabulary rather than expand it. But the visuals have to be chosen correctly for it to work well in asking. I gave them instructions from an ESL book that uses pictographs (the book is called Chalk Talks and I think I wrote about it before) to show emotions. I will do that again next year.
    I appreciate all the end of year wisdom and honesty being shared here on this site. I would like to hear from people regarding input-based classes and the use of the word “rigor” in schools. I hate this word. It seems that to many rigor just means volumes and volumes of vocabulary or terminology with little meaning.
    Any thoughts?
    Thank you.

  2. The Department of State is your friend on this one. Here is a quote I really like:
    Teachers must also ensure that the program is intellectually rigorous, or academically challenging for each student at his or her individual level. Academic rigor does not imply harshness or severity. In a recent interview, Alfie Kohn (in O?Neill & Tell, 1999) states, “A lot of horrible practices are justified in the name of ‘rigor’ or challenge.’ People talk about ‘rigorous’ but often what they mean is ‘onerous,’ with schools turned into fact factories. This doesn’t help kids become critical, creative thinkers or lifelong learners (p. 20).”
    The website goes on to give characteristics of academic rigor:
    -depth and integrity of inquiry
    -sustained focus
    -suspension of premature conclusions
    -continuous testing of hypotheses
    For the full discussion of relevance and academic rigor, go here:

  3. Thank you. I will check this link out.
    I am just weary of hearing rigor equated with meaningless volumes of information or the number of students who don’t pass a given class. More students pass my Spanish class than other classes in the 9th grade so at times teachers seem to pass judgment on the level of “rigor” in Spanish…

  4. I am just weary of hearing rigor equated with meaningless volumes of information or the number of students who don’t pass a given class.
    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement. However, outside agencies see a high D/F rate as a failure by the school to teach properly. The last time the accrediting committee came to my school we received only a three-year accreditation (and some on the committee wanted to give us no accreditation at all). Part of the reason for that was our high D/F rate. They told us we had to find a way to make our students, freshmen in particular, successful in high school. In some classes the failure rate is nearly 50%. That doesn’t show rigor; it shows absolutely abominable teaching. If a couple of students out of the 150+ that I teach fail, I can feel justified in concluding that the issue lies with them. If half of my students fail, the problem lies with me not them.

  5. I’m a little distracted. That last post should have started out:
    I agree wholeheartedly with your statement. Many teachers equate volume of work with rigor and complain loudly about how lazy students are these days. They justify their high failure by blaming their students. However, outside agencies . . .
    [Without the intervening sentences the “however” is pretty senseless.]

  6. We did something fun today – I wanted to get the kids into the writing frame of mind (tomorrow is the writing part of the district CRT) but not be stressful at all.
    I have a huge folder of crazy pictures on my desktop. I picked 8 of them, totally unrelated, and showed them one at a time. The kids worked together in groups of 2-3 to write a story linking them. They could say whatever they wanted, I told them I wouldn’t grade them for spelling or anything other than having written a story, and that they needed to come up with something that flowed along with the pictures.
    Each picture was weirder than the one preceding. The first was a guy on an airplane wearing a big orange sweater/stocking that covered his entire head and went down over a laptop computer. You couldn’t see the computer, his head or hands. I got some great ideas – of course, some wrote the obvious (he was looking at dirty pictures on his laptop) but others were funny – he was the ugliest man in the world and had to cover himself so the other people wouldn’t be hurt; he was a spy on a super top secret mission; he had a big zit.
    The final picture was a woman sitting inside a vehicle while a troop of monkeys destroyed all of her luggage and climbed around the vehicle – maybe 25 monkeys or so? I wrote on the image that the woman was me and gave the names of students to the monkeys. They got a kick out of that, I told them it was just like being in class – one sane person surrounded by a bunch of crazy monkeys! (they probably thought it was the other way around, since I’m probably the weirdest one of the bunch)
    Anyway, they had fun writing without it feeling like work. They were creative, and while I got very short stories from some groups (8 sentences, one for each image) from others I got much more – 1 1/2 to 2 pages!
    So tomorrow when they have to do the 75 word minimum essay on what they are going to do over the summer, it will feel like a walk in the park. What’s 75 words about something so simple when you’ve done 2 pages of something complex and creative?
    The pictures just helped them so much with creativity. I’m definitely going to do this again, it was inspirational for them. I’m planning to use pictures more in my stories as well.

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