A couple of recent successes in the classroom

What do Vancouver, Jimi Hendrix, and freeways have in common?

(Cue “Crosstown Traffic“…) If you answered “Hogan’s Alley”, then congratulations–you probably know more about Vancouver history than many Vancouverites!

This was a question I posed a couple of weeks ago in my afternoon upper-intermediate speaking skills class. The weekly unit theme was “Architecture”, and we had been practicing words like urban, traditional, modern, dilapidated, concrete, elegant, boxy, etc. Of course I didn’t expect any of my students to know the answer, but with a little guidance to a couple of websites, they were able to discover that Jimi Hendrix’s grandmother once lived in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood.   We talked about urban infrastructure, planning, and gentrification, and we had a fairly good debate about urban renewal vs gentrification. Lots of good questions were raised; for example, why does Vancouver keep tearing down all its most historic places? Such as the funny little brick building at 209 Union Street: site of the former Jimi Hendrix Shrine, and the last standing remnants of Vie’s Chicken and Steaks. You’d think it would be a perfect monument to a whole neighbourhood and far beyond, considering that everyone from Duke Ellington to Billie Holliday dined there! I think the biggest success of this lesson was getting my students to take a second look at some of the things they pass every day on Skytrain and to connect language, history, and culture to a real place where we all live, work, and study. 

Album cover art

My second big success was this past week’s “Art”-themed class. For inspiration, I drew heavily from the amazing website, TeachRock (teachrock.org). As a conclusion to the week’s theme, I usually get students to work in groups to produce a poster of some sort, demonstrating their reactions to some of the ideas we had been discussing up to that point. In the past, I used Roman Mars’ excellent TED talk, “Why city flags may be the worst-designed thing you’ve never noticed” to introduce principles of good design. This time I used the video, but then segued into applying it to evaluating album cover art.  The five principles of flag design, according to the Portland Flag Association, are:

  1. Keep It Simple. The flag should be so simple that a child can draw it from memory…
  2. Use Meaningful Symbolism. The flag’s images, colors, or patterns should relate to what it symbolizes…
  3. Use 2 or 3 Basic Colors. Limit the number of colors on the flag to three which contrast well and come from the standard color set…
  4. No Lettering or Seals. Never use writing on any kind or an organization’s seal…
  5. Be Distinctive or Be Related. Avoid duplicating other flags, but use similarities to show connections…

Since these don’t necessarily apply to album cover design, it provided an excellent opportunity to practice modals of possibility. The exercise of designing an album cover then gave students the opportunity to practice conditionals, comparing, contrasting, giving opinions, agreeing and disagreeing, and giving reasons for their choices. Plus, we all had a lot of fun and came up with some pretty cool stuff!


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