Volume I - 1993

What Color is Your Picnic Basket?
An Interview with Susan Litt

Susan Litt is a full-time ESL teacher in the Union, New Jersey public schools and an adjunct professor at Kean College of New Jersey. She has a B.A. in speech correction and an M.A. in TESL. She is an active teacher trainer and has a private accent reduction practice.

Editor's Note: This interview was conducted by The Journal of the Imagination in Language Learning (JILL).

JILL: Tell me about one of the teaching techniques you use, one that employs the imagination.

Litt: In teaching auditory discrimination and listening, I sometimes ask people to close their eyes. They have a lot of trouble with that. Especially adults. Right now I'm working with an adult Oriental male. It's very hard for him to just let loose and close his eyes for a minute and listen to something or other. He becomes very uptight and fearful. That's unfortunate because in teaching listening, it's very important to learn to block out everything visual and just use your ears. I have a book, Purple Cows and Potato Chips, that does happen to work on listening. It stresses the use of the senses and, for me, that involves the use of the imagination. One of the exercises calls for the playing of a piece of music and having the students relax. Then it asks them to close their eyes and imagine themselves somewhere, say, on a picnic. I try to get them to conjure up pictures and then I start asking questions like, "What are you wearing--to the imaginary picnic? What are you doing? Who's with you? What color is the picnic basket? How far away are the trees?" Things like that. The class is divided into groups, and the students discuss their answers with other members of his or her group. So that, through the use of their imagination, the students are led to other activities--in this case, group discussions. This use of the multi-sensory approach is very good for the students, and very interesting for the teacher.

JILL: And I would imagine that the students are very eager to articulate what they are "experiencing," and that this exercise creates a most valuable immediate and pressing wish to communicate.

Litt: Yes. And you can take the exercise in two directions: you can have students jot down answers and comments that they will use later in a speaking experience, or you can expand the activity into the basis of a writing assignment. For example, one assignment could be, "Write a story about your afternoon at the park." This is one way to use the imagination in the teaching of listening. Another thing to do is have the students go outside, close their eyes and listen carefully to all of the sounds in the environment--outside because that's a nice place to go. Later, I have them do it in the classroom, in their kitchens at home, in the hallways--always closing their eyes, listening carefully then listing and describing what they hear. People generally are not aware of the sounds around them, sounds they normally block out. What you find out is that there are a lot of children who don't block out sounds, and that gets in the way of their working. That's sometimes the case with children who have learning disabilities. I myself am having a problem related to this. We just got a new stereo television set. The quality of sound is good, too good. Now, I'm hearing too much background noise, and it is getting in the way of my hearing what's being said. I find it very annoying. And I think of children who have learning disabilities and who can't block out sounds--I understand why they have difficulty concentrating. Even in the average classroom with the windows open, there are a multitude of sounds--airplanes, horns honking, garbage cans banging, birds chirping. Normally, you just block it out. I try to make students aware of what they're doing.

JILL: And the listening exercise that employs imagination--is that a way to teach them to block out sounds?

Litt: Sometimes, it's hard. You've got to get them to focus on a particular sound, a voice they know. And you go about it slowly, in small pieces of time. I do have a tape with voices over background noises. On side number two, the background noises are extremely loud. It forces them to attempt to concentrate, to block out noise.

JILL: Is that a technique you've developed?

Litt: No. It's from a canned program for learning disabled children, but I find that it helps all of my students, who range in age from 5 to 10. It forces them to concentrate on human voices as opposed to the other sounds.

JILL: Do you teach learning disabled children as well as ESL?

Litt: No. At this point, I only teach ESL. However, I do have two learning disabled students that are in a perceptually impaired class. I also teach classes in methods of teaching ESL and in pronunciation for incoming students at Kean College.

JILL: Do you care to mention some other techniques you've been using?

Litt: There's the "Listening Association" in which students are asked to name an object or activity upon hearing a stimulus. For example, I say "key," and they respond with an association like "car" and they describe the car. Another lesson is a listening chain activity called "I'm Going on a Trip," in which the first student says, "I'm going on a trip and I'm packing an alarm clock." The next student says, "I'm going on a trip and I'm packing an alarm clock and a bathrobe"--the list of packed items continues to grow. This chain incorporates the skill of memory, too.

JILL: Would you call that a situation of optimal learning?

Litt: Yes. I think that optimal learning involves the creation of a situation that they can figure out for themselves. I try to set up a situation and provide them the opportunity to solve some problem or other. It's different when you're working with elementary and intermediate level students on the one hand, and when you're working with adults. I don't follow canned programs. I have such programs, but I don't follow them. I do what I feel the kids need. I'm very much into the Natural Approach, into hands on learning, into creating situations in which they don't even know that they're learning, but they are.

JILL: We've been talking mainly about listening. Have you found the imagination directly relevant in the development of writing skills?

Litt: Trying to get students to think things through and find a natural sequence when they're putting their ideas on paper is very difficult. I have always found that getting them to verbalize first is good. You do the brainstorming and you talk, verbalize and try to picture. I always say to my kids, "Get a picture in your mind, talk about it, and then write about it." Or give them an actual picture. If we're doing winter, and we've come up with maybe fifty words about that season, then I'll give them a picture of a winter scene, and I'll say, "Okay, now make believe you're one of the people in this picture. Which one are you? What do you see around you? What's happening? How do you feel?" Then, I'll get them to talk and then they'll start to write. I never just give them a sheet of paper and ask them to write cold turkey. So, first I get them to visualize. And visualization helps them get something more concrete, and then they can try to find the words.

JILL: Do you ever use paintings?

Litt: Not so much with young students. I bring in pictures and realia--real objects. I've brought in clothes and had them get dressed up. For example, last year we read the story of "The Three Little Pigs." We talked about it, and then they acted it out. But first they had to figure out how in the limited space of a fairly small classroom, they were going to make houses. So they had to create. What they ended up doing was taking these desks and adding to them. For the house of sticks, they took tongue depressors and glued them onto paper and taped the paper to the top of the desk to create an effect of sticks. They have to use their imagination to find solutions like that.

JILL: Delightful. But exactly where is the connection to language learning?

Litt: We read the story, told the story, we discussed it using past tense and reported speech. Then the students spoke in the persona of the pig, and then they actually acted it out after an exercise in problem solving. They designed solutions and constructed them. All through this, there's a lot of language being used. And that's the goal--good, spontaneous language.

JILL: And do you consciously insert language structures in this type of instruction?

Litt: Sometimes you have to. When the curriculum says they have to learn certain things. Or when I notice that they are having trouble with a certain grammatical construction such as the past tense in questions and answers. In which case we practice the particular forms through conversation like, "What did you watch on television last night?" or "Did you see a certain program last night?" or "What did the pig do?" "He built a house." "What did the wolf do?" "He blew on the door." We do indeed bring the structures in, but we bring them in the back way.

JILL: I assume such discrete points are addressed more or less analytically in their other classes.

Litt: Yes. If we try to do that in here, they really get bored. I try to make it fun for them. For me, ESL classes are supposed to be fun. With my own children, I didn't say that under these conditions we use this question word or that past tense marker. We just talked and it happened. That's what I try to do here.

JILL: I had no idea that you were so convinced of the effectiveness of techniques that call on the imagination.

Litt: Oh, yes. I do not believe in following books. I have books because the administration says we must have them. And I do use them. I use them when I need them. Definitely. But more important, I believe, is having fun, having them partake--having them actually plan what we're doing. And when they participate in that way, it makes it all so much more successful. We're just getting underway this year, and we aren't finished with testing yet. Kids I have had before keep on coming in and asking when are we starting--they have fun. For instance, I took them on a trip to the supermarket last year and they had a ball. There's a cooking studio there that could accommodate 14 kids. They made pizza. They stuffed celery and made little cars with it, adding pieces of carrots for the wheels. That's the imagination. They had fun learning the words and doing something. We went to the seafood department--they held a lobster. The clerk explained how crabs and lobsters walk. We went to the produce department and the kids learned how to squeeze fresh orange juice. We went to the bakery, and they saw the ovens and tasted fresh rolls. So a boring supermarket became a fun experience. Also I try to incorporate their own country. I try to ask them about how they did things there. The kids tend to be embarrassed about it. They don't want to use their language. We've got to get past that response, make them feel proud.

JILL: These are very young students. Are adults more resistant to their own imagination?

Litt: Definitely. That is they tend to be. But it is possible. In my college writing classes, I also use visualization techniques and physical movement to teach them things like prepositions. I tell them to get under the desk. They balk at first. Then one does it, and everyone laughs and the barriers begin to come down. But, generally, it is much more difficult with the adults. Even with the high school kids. They're much more resistant, much more rigid. The little ones are just wonderful in this respect.

JILL: What has been the response of the teachers you teach at the college? Are they a bit apprehensive about incorporating the imagination?

Litt: No. Actually, they like it. Most of them find that the problem is the administration that they are dealing with. Administrators are usually very set in their ways and want you to follow a set program. At most, they try to slip in creativity within limits. Also, the teachers who work with high school students find it difficult to work with the imagination. Number one, because they have very large groups. Number two, the kids are not nearly so open to it. But the teachers are. Right now, I'm giving a somewhat dry course--basic theory. Graduate students and I talk about what grammar translation is, what ALM is, that sort of thing. And what these students are finding out is that they really have the desire to open up and be creative and use their imagination. But when I give them an assignment and it has to be done within the framework of grammar translation or ALM, they can't do it and they get very frustrated because they do want to bring in more creativity. Last semester, I taught"Advanced Methods," which is a very hands-on course where they had to do a project across the curriculum in groups. So what they did was take, say, native American Indians. There were six people in each group. One of the students was a librarian who chose to work with Indian art. She actually got her class to make a totem pole out of paper. It was fabulous. One was a home-economics teacher who did a lesson on native American cooking. She brought in and arranged on a table many different types of corn; she baked corn muffins and made popcorn for everyone to eat so that they would have the sensation of totally different foods. She also related this to the different meanings of words like "ground" in "ground corn" and the ground you walk on. Others prepared lessons in social sciences, language arts, reading--all on the American Indian. And they all were so creative! I was upset because I had not realized what they were doing and did not arrange to get pictures of it. One thing that I think is happening is that many teachers are realizing that the natural approach has allowed them to use their imagination. The problem is that if you have a supervisor that does not understand, it becomes far more difficult. That's where the problem often is. Luckily that's not a problem I have here. Many years ago, I had a principal who after observing me said, "You should have more pencil-pushing activities." He didn't understand that language is not learned on a piece of paper. Generally, I believe that teaching techniques that employ the imagination are coming to be more and more widely used--at least in the elementary schools. An excellent trend, if you ask me.

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