In School in Germany: Picture Games

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To start off this article, I would like to offer a word of advice to teachers whose passion also includes photography: Take as many pictures as you can and keep as many as you can. You may never know when and how you will need them- especially if you find the best ones for an activity (or several) for your class. 🙂  This principle I’ve followed for years which has led to not only successful activities but also successful articles.

This applies to vacation time, as two thirds of the population of German children are starting school now, with the remaining third still out until September. The same trend applies in the US, where half the schools start in mid-August; the rest after Labor Day. Children gather vast amounts of experiences through travel, summer camps, visits to long-distant relatives and friends, work and other events that add experience and enrich their knowledge of what’s around them. And at the beginning of the school year, they would like to share that experience with other classmates and especially their teacher.

After all, as we would like to look at their interests and get to know them, we can help them along so they can be what they want to be, right?  Be all that you can be, like in the US Army commercial. 😉

 

If you, as a teacher, have some problems coming up with activities to encourage the students to use their language skills and share their experiences with others, there are some activities that can help. Using a collection of photos, you can introduce the following exercises to them to motivate them to speak and be creative. These activities are not only meant to break the ice in terms of establishing communication between the teacher and the students, it is meant to unlock the knowledge that has been sitting in the freezer inside the students’ heads and it just needs to be thawed out. For the first exercise, photos from the teacher are required for use, whereas the second and third activities one can also use the photos from the students, if requested. In the fourth and final exercise, the students should present their photos and images, even if through Powerpoint or a slideshow.

Here’s a look at the photo activities you can use in the classroom (suitable for all ages and language levels):

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Picture This:

Based on an exercise in Baron’s TOEIC Preparatory Book, the object of this game is to look at a picture provided by the presenter to the group, and identify what is seen in there. How students view it and express themselves depends on what the picture has. The picture can be a landscape, a certain scene with people doing activities, a phenomenon, or something totally different. What is seen is what is to be identified. Some people may feel restricted because they have to focus on the picture itself and therefore may have some difficulties finding the right vocabulary for the pictures. Yet by the same token, especially if the activity is done in groups, one can take advantage of learning new words from this game or even refreshing the vocabulary that had been sitting unused for some time.  There are two ways of doing this activity: one is in a large group where each student can find what is in the picture and make a statement on it. The other is in pairs or small groups, where each one receives a picture, analyses it and can present it to the rest of the class. With the second variant, five minutes of preparing and five to ten minutes of presentation total will suffice, pending on the number of students in class.

As a trial run, use the picture above and find out what you see in there. You’ll be amazed at what you will find happening at a place like the Westerhever Lighthouse at the moment of the pic. 😉

 

Finish the Story: 

This activity comes from the film, Out of Africa with Robert Redford and Meryl Streep. Originally in the film (produced and directed by the late Sidney Pollack), the character Karen Dinesen (played by Streep) is a story-teller and in a conversation with Denys Hatton (played by Redford) and others, she explains the concept, where one starts the story with a sentence, where the other finishes the story the way it is seen fit. Like in this example:

While one could adopt this concept in the classroom, if it was a one-to-one training session, in larger groups, it would not be as exciting as it is when each student adds a sentence to the first one given by the teacher, and going through a couple rounds until the entire class feels the story is complete. This concept helps students become creative while at the same time refresh their knowledge of sentence structure and a bit of grammar. While one can try this without pictures, more challenging but exciting would be with pictures, especially from summer break, like the ones presented below. Try these with the following sentences below and complete your own story……. 🙂

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It was afternoon on the North Sea coast and a storm is approaching. It is windy and perfect weather for kite-flying………   

 

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It is high tide, and the beach is underwater. Two people sitting in Strandkörbe are taken by surprise……..

 

Make a Story:

 Going further into talking about vacations and things to do in the summer is creating your own story, using a pic provided by the teacher. In groups of two or three, students have five minutes (for those on the beginner or pre-intermediate levels, 7-10 minutes should suffice) to create a story to present to the class. The advantage of this exercise, is that students are able to exchange ideas and knowledge to create a fantastic, rather interesting story to share with the rest of the class. In small groups of six or less, the exercise can also be done individually.  Even when you have pics like these below, which are rather simple, one can create great stories out of it. The whitest and plainest of canvases make for world-class pictures with this game.  Word to the wise  from my former uncle, who was a world-class painter. 😉

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Mini-Presentation:

With time constraints being the thorn in the side of teachers, one has to go by the principle of “Less Means More,” and optimize your class, in order to make learning as effective as possible. Mini-presentations are the best way for students to talk about their vacation in the shortest time possible. With a couple pics as support, each student has 2-3 minutes to talk about their trip.  The downside to this activity is that the student does not have much to talk about. It is possible though to choose one aspect of the vacation that you love the most and would like to talk about. The best aspect always receives the best attention. How it is presented depends on the student’s creative talents. One can focus on a sport the student tried, a wonderful place the student visited, a local food the student tried and loved, or a local event that took place during vacation. It can also include a summer job, summer camp, talent show or even a local festival, such as a parade, county fair or city market. Whatever event was the highlight, the student should have a chance to present it- as long as it does not overlap with another presenter.  🙂

 

There are several more activities which require the use of photos, while an increasing number of them require the use of 2.0 technologies, such as blogs and other interactive platforms, yet these four exercises do not require the use of technology (minus the Powerpoint aspect), but more with your language skills and your creative talents.  While these four activities can be used at any time, with even different themes, such as Christmas or school-related events for example, for the purpose of reactivating their language knowledge and getting (re-)acquainted with the students and teacher, are they perfect for the occasion. By implementing one or more successfully, the class will become so involved, it will appear that the first day in school never happened, and that the class will pick up where it left off before break, without missing a beat.

Even more so, when using photos for classroom use, a teacher can do a lot with them, while the students can benefit from them through their own stories. Therefore, take a lot of pictures and be prepared to use them for your future classes. Your students will thank you for it. 🙂

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Parting Ways with Garrison Keillor

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Sinclair Lewis’ Place of Birth in Sauk Centre, Minnesota. Photo taken in 2009

When I was a child spending time with my grandmother in a rural Minnesota community, I would spend my time in her basement, building and enacting a small community called Warnerville. Fictitiously located between San Bernardino and Los Angeles, the town of 22,000 inhabitants was an oasis surrounded by mountains and desert, located next to a lake and priding itself on professional sports. While everything was built together and up, using old boxes, metal rods and wooden boards, I brought it to life with a weekly newspaper, depicting scenes one would find in Minnesota, not California. That means, the model town was a deadman’s town, similar to my recent visit to the German town of Glauchau, in western Saxony, but its stories were typical of the ones that could be found in a local Minnesota newspaper, such as pen and plow-style gossip, crops and weather, local racing on the streets of downtown and a creative mentality that makes a traditionalist share the laughing and crying pillows!  🙂 While my grandma made sure her entire basement was not an urban sprawl (my town took up half her basement floor) and my dad dreamt up concoctions of the town being destroyed by natural disasters and toxic waste spills, my idea of the town and its stories came from my aunt, whose third husband was an art teacher at a small city college in Minnesota (specifically, Marshall), and up until their divorce in 1996, were passionate about listening to public radio, and in particular- A Prairie Home Companion. 🙂

Before diving into this topic, here’s a question for the readers out there, including those residing outside the US:  Have any of you heard of A Prairie Home Companion?

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A Prairie Home Companion was started as a morning show in 1974, being broadcast live from a theater at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. It was later relocated to the Fitzgerald Theater in 1978, where it has been its home ever since. The show’s structure originally followed that of several shows in Germany, in particular, the NDR Comedy Club (now known as Comedy Contest): live performance with acting and music combined with a little taste of home. While NDR’s show originates from the north of Germany, A Prairie Home Companion has a taste of Minnesota, with the likes of Guy Noir- Private Eye, The Lives of the Cowboys, News from Lake Wobegon, and all kinds of performances, capped off by the piece “Tishomingo Blues“, composed by Spencer Williams but the lyrics were added by the creator of the show himself, Garrison Keillor.

 

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If there is a general rule for Americans, especially Minnesotans residing overseas or in Canada, you never know what American culture really is unless you listen to two hours of Garrison Keillor’s show and Lake Wobegon stories every weekend. Since being connected to internet at our home in Germany in 2009, my wife, daughter and I have been listening to a Prairie Home Companion on Sundays in the evenings at supper time, listening to fiddlers on the roof, people with Minnesota accents talk philosophy in the corn fields, celebrities impressing the audience with their solo performances, and Keillor advertising fictitious products, such as Powdermilk Biscuits, Guy’s Shoes and the Barn Machè Beauty Salon, all in beautiful Lake Wobegon.  If one is wondering, Lake Wobegon is a fictitious town on a lake in central Minnesota between Sauk Centre and St. Cloud in Stearns County, even though Keillor in his show names it Mist County. A story behind the creation of Lake Wobegon can be found here. The show in general shows American culture, especially in the Midwest, that has been rarely shown in the classroom but should. The theatricals are scripted on one hand, but looks so real to the audience that after watching a live performance, the people become attached to American life from the eyes of the creator. All scenes are lively and the performers are really relaxed and into the scenes, sometimes intermingling with the audience. It is a combination of theater and madrigals into one, with some special guests making the show even more enjoyable to watch. Sometimes, the show gives the expats a sense of home that they miss but also have in their home country.

To give you an idea of what you are missing, here are some examples:

 

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Despite all this, 2 July, 2016 will be remembered as the day people leave Lake Wobegon forever. Its creator Garrison Keillor is retiring from the show after 42 years. Born and raised in Anoka, Minnesota in 1942, Keillor is both a writer and a broadcaster, having graduated with a Bachelor’s in English at the University of Minnesota and starting his broadcasting during his time as a student for a campus radio station, known today as Radio K. After graduating from college, he started his career at Minnesota Educational Radio (now known as Minnesota Public Radio- MPR) in 1969, where he hosted a few programs, including the forerunner to the popular show, A Prairie Home Entertainment, which featured music that veered away from the classical music MPR had played  before. The show was later changed to A Prairie Home Companion in 1971 and it remained a radio show until it was launched as a show with live musicians three years later. Keillor was the host….

…..and the rest was history.

Minus a two-year hiatus, Keillor was a host for 40 years, and omitting the four years in New York City, all of the shows have taken place in Minnesota, which he has called home. And it is good that way as when one calls a place home, it is the place where the person does his best. This was the signature of A Prairie Home Companion and even more so as a writer. Keillor has 21 novels to his credit, ten of which come from the Lake Wobegon series, which started with the first one published in 1985. A Guy Noir novel was produced in 2012. Three poetry anthologies and three poems are included in the mix.  He also created The Writer’s Almanac, a daily post by Minnesota Public Radio which features a poem by a famous author, combined with some interesting facts about famous people, including writers, politicians, inventors and historians, just to name a few.  Keillor intends to continue writing and producing for A Prairie Home Companion, yet come this fall, the show will become the care of another host, who will carry the torch and create his new version of Lake Wobegon. But even if the host, Chris Thile,  has large shoes to fill and the show will be different, his previous experience with the show when Keillor was hosting will help him bridge the gap between the patrons who came to love Keillor over the years and those who listen to MPR and have heard of Keillor’s work, but are looking forward to a new chapter in A Prairie Home Companion.

For Keillor, there is this:  Lake Wobegon brought the Minnesotan in this author, listening to his show and following the Writer’s Almanac from Germany. Like the works of Sinclair Lewis, including his famed literary work,  Main Street USA, Lake Wobegon allows a person to close his eyes for a couple hours, head to a rural Minnesota town and enjoy the company of some interesting but friendly local people, while giving the author some ideas of what to write about in terms of articles, pieces for newspapers and even novels. And while I’m doing the first two, his ideas and stories from the shows are contributing to a concoction of events for a novel which I will get to soon. If published, I owe you a copy with a round of thanks, for bringing the two homes together for two hours on a Sunday night.  🙂

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Before doing this send off, I asked some readers if they knew about A Prairie Home Companion and what they remembered about Garrison Keillor and a lot of ideas came about. I decided as a way of closing to provide the top Garrison Keillor Greatest Hits for you to watch and listen. Most of the Prairie Home Companion shows can be found on youtube, while you can subscribe to A Prairie Home Companion and  The Writer’s Almanac via the Files’ Educational and Cultural Links (scroll down to the end and on the left).

Greatest Hits:

This four-part series is the oldest to be found to date on youtube, dating back to 1987, shortly before Garrison Keillor took a brief hiatus. Strangely enough, during his hiatus, two shows bore out of A Prairie Home Companion, one of which is All Things Considered, which is still being broadcasted on MPR today. (Click here)

A friend of mine (from Minnesota) once mentioned that he was involved in a concert featuring Keillor and the theme on Halloween. This one’s for him, even though this is an earlier version and he was in the concert with his choir about five years ago.

 

Holidays, especially Halloween and Christmas were Keillor’s main targets for themes in his shows but also when he is live and in person at several venues, like this one.

It’s no secret that Keillor is a lefty in terms of politics. Still he enjoys adding some humor to all the political themes, some of which would never be discussed at the dinner table these days. On his last day of performance on 2 July, 2016, he received a congratulations and best wishes by President Obama, whom he supported during the elections and his presidency. Obama was a regular listener of A Prairie Home Companion and enjoyed Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories while dealing with political issues at the White House.

Keillor has not kept one handicap back in his career, which is his highly functioning form of autism, which he was diagnosed a few years ago. He was never a person who looked at another person straight in the eye, and was a loner. Yet, he still enjoyed the company of many people from different backgrounds. From an author’s point of view, it never shows. And as a secret ingredient: the best people, and especially story tellers of fiction happen to be the most gifted. 🙂

Guest stars have been welcomed for over a decade, including frequent visitors, such as the Civil Wars duet, who stopped by Lake Wobegon for a dinner and entertainment in 2011.

Keillor could not escape the parody of the Simpsons, like in this episode (he was played by another actor, by the way). Just wished that Homer would take in the entertainment from a different perspective. He will before the TV series finally signs off.

An excerpt from a typical Prairie Home Companion show with The Lives of the Cowboys.

And Keillor’s final News from Lake Wobegon on July 2nd at the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. Over 18,000 people attended his final performance and an additional 10+ million listeners honed in on his final performance of his 42-year career.

Long Live Lake Wobegon  ❤   🙂

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