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The Uni-Files

A candid look at EFL life and lessons from a university teacher's perspective.

June 17, 2011

Unsolicited advice- a small group project that hits all the right buttons

As most of you know, I tend to use this blog as a vehicle for being an opinionated blowhard. This is, of course, a good thing if you are blogging. After all, reading a blog that contains little or no fist-waving or finger-wagging (e.g. “Last night I ate curry rice. It was delicious. Here’s a photo”) is rarely gripping. And there is no blogger on earth that does not suffer from a degree of blowhardism- Hey, it comes with the territory!
(*the astute reader will notice that this opening paragraph duly constitutes blowhardy opinion).

But today I’d like to take a short departure from the realm of rollicking rhetoric and go over something highly practical instead- Yes, an actual lesson/teaching project suggestion in the uni-files!

Poster sessions work!

Here it is in bold- having small groups of students prepare and conduct poster sessions in English is a good thing. A number of vital pedagogical points emerge naturally from holding poster sessions. The students are being productive and creative. They take responsibility for their work. It is both visual and verbal- various skills are thereby engaged. It involves both cognitive activity (such as background research of the topic) and a prestige form of language- which leads to awareness and reinforcement of good language form(s). It contains rehearsed and practiced as well as dynamic, spontaneous elements. Oh yeah, and it’s fun.

The framework- nuts 'n bolts

Here’s how I administer these sessions:
1) Students have 4 (possibly 5) weeks’ prep from the initial explanation of the sessions to the final ‘performance’. Give them anymore time than that and they’ll inevitably dawdle until the week before, resulting in a cut ‘n paste mad dash at the finish.

2) The first week involves topic choice (more on the impotrtance of this later). The next two weeks will involve peer and teacher checks, and peer and teacher suggestions (for both content and layout). Surface error checks and formatting suggestions will come into play here too.

3) The week before the actual poster session should include a practice session and physical preparation of the posters.

4) At the actual poster session students should be divided into 2 sets-- to act as audience for one session, and as poster hosters for the other (thus, anywhere from 6 to 14 students makes an ideal number). In a 90 minute class that means about 30-40 minutes of postering for each set. You could invite other teachers or students to view these sessions too.

5) The week after the session should involve follow-up, self-reflection, and feedback about poster session strengths and weaknesses. I do it one on one for 7-10 minutes with each student.

6) The actual poster paper should be that wall-sticky ready-made ‘writing sheet’ stuff. The actual slides which form the poster content are best made as oversized (1 slide per page) Powerpoint slides. Magic markers, scissors and scotch tape should make guest appearances too.

Warning! Do not attempt this unless...

Now, here are the ‘chui’ (be careful!) bits. And this is the part you should definitely read closely if you’re interested in doing a poster session:

A clear, narrow topic that you want to talk about

The whole purpose of doing a poster session should be because you really want to inform others on a certain topic and you really want them to be interested or stimulated by it. Without the feeling of personal interest, and a desire to communicate that interest, the session will fall short. This means that careful choice of topic is crucial. Students must choose a topic that is a) of interest to them and expect it to be to others b) narrow and focused enough to be covered in 6 to 12 poster ‘slides’. A poor choice of topic hinders the later development of a meanigful, informative poster.

A lot of students initially choose a topic that is much, much, much (and did I say 'much'?) too wide (e.g., ‘Canada’ 'The Human Body'). Helping students get a handle on exactly what the topic is will be the focus of your first class. Clear and narrow are the keywords here: “A Modern Gomorrah- The Sleaze Bars of Belleville, Ontario”, “An Analysis of the Appalling Performance of the Vancouver Canucks in Game Seven”, “How To Riot Like a British Columbian” are the type of things you want.

Topics that are too wide also tend to be shallow (duh!) and predictable. They tend to jump around a number of sub-topics in one ten-slide poster leaving the reader/viewer with no lasting impression.

Research is crucial- so is flow

Students should do at least some backround research and, in doing so, think carefully in advance about poster flow. Is the poster moving in any direction? This will affect the choice of what information to include- to determine relevance and order. The students should ask themselves-, what direction is it flowing towards? And how can I accentuate this flow to make it more gripping for the viewer? A lack of clarity regarding direction and flow leads to herky-jerky posters which tends to create bouts of ‘What’s-yer-point anyway?’ head-scratching on the part of viewers.

Too many students tend to think of research as simply listing a bunch of Wikipedia-type facts. (“Lady Gaga’s early life: Aug. 4th, 1984- Went bowling. Sept. 10th 1984- Borrowed a neighbour's hammer. Aug. 12th 1985- Wore fishnet tights---OK, I admit that last one could be interesting). Students must be encouraged to interpret and personalize the data so that it might become meaningful for the viewer. I do admit having to be harsh, but honest, with some students in this regard: “Ok, Keiko, that’s very nice but why would I be interested in knowing your cat's ten favourite toys?” (keep in mind that I teach university students).

If you too are teaching at a university you will probably want the students to focus upon a certain amount of academic and/or specialized material. For those students who plan to work in academic fields later the whole English poster session process is a very practical learning tool. But the teacher should make sure that such students avoid treating viewers as if they are either Oxford Professor Emeriti in the field or, conversely, as if the viewer is good old Cletus from the trailer park.

Students should also be clear about what they want to tell the viewer directly in the poster text versus that which they want to or have to explain- which will involve both content and English research. They should most certainly prepare the English for those parts they will have to expand on verbally- and yes, a lack of any prepared student distinction between the elements of poster text and verbal expression is a very common weak point.

Connecting with the viewer- the visuals

A poster is primarily a visual medium. Avoiding strict linearity and adding decoration that accentuates content, drawing the viewers’ eyes to all the ‘correct’ places, is essential. The slides don’t all have to be Powerpoint square in shape- students can cut and outline them to suit the theme and format they desire.

They should use a variety of fonts, including a number of different sizes and colours, and add graphics of some sort to most, if not all, slides. Magic markers can decorate the actual poster sheets to indicate direction or to draw attention to certain spots. Writing “Ask me why!” in a caption near a key point (redolent of the Krispy Kreme employees’ badges: “Ask me about our new Maple Frosties!”) is useful. Stark and bold splashes of: “Did you know this?” or “Unbelievable!” can accentuate a poster's key points (just like the subtitles on a Japanese TV game show).

(Cultural generalization warning) Frankly speaking, most Japanese students are excellent at the decorative aspect of posters- with a wonderful sense of balance and scale- but some care must be taken not to overdo these whistles and bells.

Making posters interactive

Good posters should be interactive. Not everything you want to express-- not even half-- should be written on the poster. The text on the poster should hint at the more expository, deeper points- which the poster host can explain in more detail to viewers at the poster session. Therefore, students have to maintain a delicate balance between being too text-heavy (too intricate, hard to read, often boring, making viewers passive) and too text-light (shallow, cosmetic).

To make posters interactive having some sort of Q&A element will involve viewers more fully. Hiding information behind attached cardboard doors for this purpose (the peek-a-boo effect) also works well here. Other tactile features (scratch ‘n sniff?) draw audiences in well too.

Finally, students should know that being a good poster hoster means engaging your viewers actively- using ones social skills. Looking down at your feet or shuffling to the side when visitors come is no more endearing than that customer service guy at Yamada Denki who always seems to find paper work to ‘look at’ when Mr. Gaijin customer looks like he wants some help.

While the students are doing their sessions, I observe and make notes on their hosting performances as well as the actual posters. I will also go up to each host and ask them questions or make the type of comments that a regular viewer would likely do. This all becomes part of the next class’ feedback session.

Trust me- properly handled, poster sessions really work.

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