Volume II - 1994

Stimulating Imagination Outside the Classroom
by Stephen A. Sadow

      Dr. Stephen A. Sadow is an associate professor of modern languages at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts. He is the author of Idea Bank: Creative Activities for the Language Class (Newbury House); Fantastico: Activities for Creative Communication (Heinle and Heinle) and of articles in various international journals. He has taught Spanish and ESL.

      The role of the imagination need not end when students leave the classroom but can continue to play an essential part in language learning. Activities that stimulate the imagination help students to learn on their own and to take more responsibility for their own progress. Homework, for example, can be more compelling than the often tiresome workbook pages and pre- and post-reading assignments. Instead, structured assignments, tailor-made to any student who requests them, can be devised. At other times, a single imaginative task can be given to an entire class. Ideally, these tasks provide students a frame or template upon which to build their own ideas and conclusions. In this paper, those frames are discussed and specific kinds of assignments are suggested..

Frame Theory

      Whatever the task chosen, it should stimulate intrinsic motivation, make use of language skills already attained, and provoke creative thinking. Psychologist Teresa Amabile (1989) has shown that intrinsic motivation--doing something for the enjoyment or satisfaction of it--is crucial to creative production. Edward Deci (1992) calls for "optimal challenge," or pushing students a little bit beyond what they think they can do, but not so hard as to cause frustration. Perhaps most important, students should be provided with a frame (sometimes called a schemata) upon which to develop their own ideas. With rare exception, simply telling students to "use their imagination" has disappointing results. E. Paul Torrance (1970) pointed out many years ago that assignments should be ambiguous and structured only enough to give clues and direction, to require taking the next step beyond what is known, and to allow for many solutions. Torrance argued that ambiguity and change of perspective affect student participation in both quality and quantity. In short, students were to be steered toward figuring things out for themselves .

      "Frame theory"--which involves a set of still-tentative concepts known in artificial intelligence, linguistics, and literary criticism--provides a powerful tool for use in formulating imaginative tasks. Computer scientist Marvin Minsky (1986, p. 245) defines " frames " as a sort of skeleton, somewhat like an application form with many blanks or slots to be filled. We'll call these blanks its "frames"; we use them as connection points to which we can attach other kinds of information. For example, a frame that represents a "chair" might have some terminals to represent a seat, a back, and legs, while a frame to represent a "person" would have some terminals for a body and head and arms and legs. . . As soon as you hear a word like "person, " "frog, " or "chair, " you assume the details of some "typical" sort of person, frog, or chair. You do not do this only with language, but with vision, too... Default assignments are of huge significance because they help us represent our previous experience. We use them for reasoning, recognizing, generalizing, predicting what may happen next, and knowing what we ought to try when expectations aren't met. Our frames affect every thought and everything we do. Frames are drawn from past experience and rarely fit new situations perfectly.

      According to frame theory, hierarchical mental structures, created through extended experience, make it possible for people to recognize new versions of places, things, relationships, and linguistic forms. A refrigerator is recognized as a refrigerator even if the size, configuration and power source differ from the familiar. Remembered forms are not only quickly identified, they are generally added to by thoughts and feelings currently present. The refrigerator may bring forth thoughts of furnishing a newly purchased house or of having to make a trip to the dump. Most often frames carry sub-frames--a house frame may contain wall and roof frames, for instance. Partial or unfinished frames are inherently unstable; most people feel a need to finish them by "filling in the blanks" or "connecting the dots."

      Frames can be broken, and when they are, the results can be humorous, disturbing and even shocking. Analyzing the literary movements of Dada and Surrealism, critic Inez Hedges (1983) shows how artists such as André Breton, whose bizarre stories, and Luis Bunuel, whose horrifying juxtaposition of images like eyes and straight razors, jolted the expectations (frames) of their public. On the other hand, she adds "frame-making is a more specifically cognitive activity, relying on strategies of understanding that the perceiver has learned though experience" (p. 39). In general, frames are critical in the projects described below, and "frame-breaking" is often a source of additional interest and humor.

Doing the Projects

      Stimulating the imagination of individual students most effectively may mean working with each student separately to establish a mutually acceptable project theme. These projects may become credit-bearing honors courses or independent studies. In other cases, a few selected students or, where practical, each student in a class can choose a more restricted task to be done outside of class and completed within a specified time. While projects involving all language skills can be concocted, focusing on one skill--e.g. listening or writing--has proved more workable.

      Students are asked to choose the skill they would most like to work on. They are then given a list of relevant projects, some of which have been completed by previous students, and some that the teacher simply thinks might work. They are told to treat these topics as suggestions and come back in a few days with a proposal of their own. When they return, a teacher-student negotiation ensues with the teacher prodding on one hand and setting limits on the other. Not all projects involve a high level of imagination--some students do insist on writing a diary of the ups and downs of their classes and fragile romances--but most opt for a more creative course of action. During the term, students "check-in" on an irregular basis, asking for help or clarification when they need it. Once in a while, when a mid-course correction is called for, a project may be adjusted (by mutual consent) or even scrapped in favor of a more promising one.

      Assignments made to the class as a whole are simpler to organize. While these assignments are not individualized, they still provoke a wide variety of imaginative responses. An imagination-stimulating task or device is announced as any homework assignment would be. Students are assured that original responses are valued, but that the task must be taken seriously. When the tasks are completed, results are compared in class.

Example Projects:

Writing Fantasy Journals:
      Instead of the daily recording of studies, social life, and work, the fantasy journal requires the student to take on another persona, inhabit a different environment and perhaps a different time. The student chooses the time and place, and then spins the yarn. Length of entries is agreed upon in advance; the story is to progress coherently and not atomize into unrelated segments. A simple version of this task would be to have students fantasize about themselves in an alternate life to the one they are living. More challenging, a student can concoct, day-by-day, an inter-stellar journey or life in a First World War battalion. The journal becomes a set of related anecdotes or, if especially well done, a novella. In one intermediate Spanish course, a young bride was the heroine of a tale set in the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War; in another journal, an astronaut visited Spanish-speaking planets in far-off galaxies.

      In a different sort of project, students respond in writing to a series of problems which call for imaginative responses. They are asked to design and describe a crest and a time capsule for themselves. They are told to invent a new board game or plan a new town. They put together a nutritious menu for a homeless shelter and plan a guided tour of their neighborhood. In all cases, the topics are ambiguous. The questions are phrased so as not to contain readily identifiable names, places, products, or slogans which would act to direct or limit thinking. (Calling a city "Watertown," for example, tends to focus thinking on floods or fishing). Problems for which there actually is one preferred solution--such as how to build a suspension bridge--are avoided. In one problem, the student is told:

      After seemingly interminable negotiations, the executives of Smith & Co., makers of clocks, and Jones & Co., makers of electric appliances, have reached an agreement for the merger of the two companies. This is only one problem yet unresolved. The new agreement is in danger because the two groups cannot reach a compromise about a name for the new company; in a similar fashion, they have not been able to settle on a logo or a slogan. Heated discussions have led nowhere. In desperation, they have decided to communicate with you, a well-known commercial artist and highly experienced consultant. They request that you find an original and appropriate name (Smith & Jones is not acceptable), that you design an eyecatching emblem, and that you invent a slogan that will reflect the spirit of the new company. (Translated from Sadow, 1989, p.58)

      Students can compose examples of almost any familiar genre, from obituaries and cereal boxes to morality plays and movie scripts. After identifying the frames upon which to build their compositions, students then twist them to their own purposes. By rearranging the component parts of a well-known genre like the horror film or the fable, students remake it in modern dress or wherever their fantasy takes them. Two examples follow:

1. Write the postcard that Christopher Columbus could have sent from Cuba in 1492 to Luis Sant Angel, a friend who stayed back home in Spain. Design the illustration that would have appeared on the other side of the card.

2. The editors of Geoqraphicus magazine are always looking for articles about little known places. They ask that you, as a highly experienced traveler, write an article in which you describe a remote and fascinating place. It doesn't matter if you make up some details. No one will know the difference!

      As a follow-up, students can invent logos and slogans for themselves and then write out a description of their creations. The inclusion of archetypal concepts and figures can make an activity even more compelling. For example, the student learns that:

      Heraclautus, wiseman, entertainer, and teller of myths in the faraway country of Grekia, has run out of tales. After so many stories about Zeus and Hera, Apollo and Diana, he simply cannot think of anything more to add. That wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that Heraclautus is under contract to produce four new myths a year--one for each season. Having heard that you know a great deal about myths and how they are made, Heraclautus urgently requests that you help him out. He asks that you invent a new myth. You may use traditional Greek characters or make up your own. Remember that in myths, gods act like humans. The mythical stories contain messages and morals that teach us about human life.

      Another student is told that a book has arrived in damaged condition: a tale must be reconstructed from pictures of a dragon, an evil sorcerer, a idealistic young knight, a damsel, a cave, and an amulet.

      A related technique has students replicating a magazine written in the target language. The student can write and edit a version by playing with the conventions of a particular popular magazine. While exaggeration is desired, the basic format is kept. Similarly, stories can be built (or rebuilt) from one line--"An unexpected letter arrived in Thursday's mail" or "It was now or never."


      Imaginative listening tasks also build on what is known. Students can simply be asked to listen in on several L2 conversations. Normally these are not hard to find, even for the lesser taught languages. Foreign students congregate in the cafeterias of most American colleges and universities. Students of English as a second language are of course surrounded by English conversation, whereas American Sign Language chitchat can be observed at deaf clubs. Eavesdropping--listening in on L2 conversations from a discreet distance--forces even advanced students to piece together overheard words and phrases in an attempt to establish what is being said. (This exercise can include a study of gesture, touching, facial expression, social distance, and a raft of other sociolinguistic features.) Eavesdropping on groups is also possible, though it may be necessary to watch from a greater distance. Turn taking, silences, and male-female interactions can be observed. Each listening-in period takes five to ten minutes: it is hard to be inconspicuous for longer than that. Immediately after listening, students jot down everything they have heard and seen.

      From a teacher-made audiocassette, the student listens to exclamations and parts of conversations that might have been overheard at a noisy party. The segments are random and unrelated. For instance, a student might hear: "I can't believe she said that to him!"; "Two months in Europe? Incredible"; or "Charlie got married? When?" After listening once to each example, the student jots down ideas about what it was really about or writes out the dialogue that preceded and followed it.

      In a more elaborate use of the teacher-developed audiotape, students listen to recorded segments--not more that three minutes in length--of simulated advertising, radio drama, weather reports, events calendars, or other common audio formats. While very advanced students can handle material modeled closely on that heard on radio or television, teacher-made materials are preferable in that vocabulary, rate of speech, and even type of humor can be controlled. The instructor, aided by one to three histrionic native-speakers, can mimic (or exaggerate) and tape well known spoken formats. Armed with the necessary vocabulary, the student listens to the tape segment and reacts to it as directed, choosing which clothes to buy after listening to competing advertising, or planning a day's tourism after listening to an account of a day's happenings. In one bit, a platitudinous politician begins a speech, but a fit of coughing forces him to stop. The student, as a loyal party member, is asked to fill in and complete the oration. In another, a head waiter recites a sumptuous and varied menu; the student must order dinner. In a 90-second soap opera scene, Nilda must choose between the steady and conscientious Ricardo and the charming and devil-may-care Eduardo. Unexpectedly, the writer of the soap opera quits; the student must come up with the next scene. Student reactions to what is heard are jotted down as notes or in a short composition or dialogue.


Data Gathering:
      Individual students can of course practice speaking outside of the classroom by locating native speakers and engaging them in conversation. While not truly imaginative exercises, these conversations may be framed so they become investigative interviews in which cultural data is collected, sorted out, and later compared. Child-rearing practices, the meaning of success and failure, and the importance of the work ethic are only some topics that can be explored by students acting as anthropologists.

      Students can practice short imaginative speeches and then present them to a group. Giving a toast is a familiar format that readily brings forth affective and imaginative responses. Students make up toasts to elementary school, high school or college teachers. The are informed that: Mr. John Augustus, a teacher here for forty years, is retiring. In two weeks there will be a banquet in his honor. Since you are clearly favorite students, it would be an excellent gesture if you could write a short speech in Augustus' honor. Be sure to tell how he influenced your life. Be prepared to give the toast at the banquet.

      Students can toast a winning (or losing) football coach or team or an actress, all of whose movies they have seen. The toasts should be formulaic and can be worshipful or maudlin.

Show and Tell:
      Students prepare short speeches in which the theme is somewhat skewed. They must try to sell vacations at a resort where it always rains or explain the advantages of a vacuum cleaner that doesn't work. They explain a game they played as a child or give a book report about a nonexistent text.

The Real Thing:
      Students can react to realia as they would respond to an actual ad, contest, or announcement. Later they tell the class what they have would have done. Using just one big city newspaper, they can make plans for a weekend getaway including restaurants, hotel, and theatre. They can interpret the news, including the local slant on American politics. They can check on their friends' horoscopes, enter contests, and even bet on the horse races.

Final Thoughts

      There are of course many other things students can do on their own. They can watch old movies on L2 television, communicate with students in other lands by e-mail, volunteer to work in social agencies where L2 is used, or just read. Activities done individually should stimulate the imagination and in doing so increase intrinsic motivation and provide "optimal challenge". Through conscious use of frames and frame-breaking as well as a bit of humor, the student's imagination can increase the quality and the pace of language learning outside the classroom.


Amabile, Teresa. Growing Up Creative. New York: Crown, 1989.

Deci, Edward L. "The Relation of Interest to the Motivation Behavior: A Self-Determination Theory Perspective," in K. Ann Renninger, Suzanne Hidi, and Andreas Krapp, eds., The Role of Interest in Learning and Development. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1992, 50-6.

Hedges, Inez. Lanquaqes of Revolt. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1983.

Minsky, Marvin. The Society of Mind. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1986.

Sadow, Stephen A. Idea Bank: Creative Activities for the Activities for the Language Class. Boston: Newbury House/Heinle and Heinle, 1982.

-----"Creative Problem-solving for the Foreign Language Class," Foreign Language Annals 16(1983):115-20.

-----"Speaking and Listening: Imaginative Activities for the Language Class," in Wilga M. Rivers. ed., Interactive Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

----- Fant stico!: Activities for Creative Communication. Boston: Heinle and Heinle, 1989.

Torrance, E. Paul. Encouraging Creativity in the Classroom. Dubuque, Ia.: Wm. C. Brown, 1970.

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