Have you ever been put in a box?
The other day, when I was trawling the depths of the web for some new ideas to help my students work with the language of speculation, I came across a fascinating social challenge called Judging America.
With his photographs, in which one person is shown dressed in two different ways, portraying two very different possible identities, Joel Parés challenges us to explore the meaning of the expression "Don't judge a book by its cover."
One photograph shows the person portraying a common stereotype and the other shows the person in real life, and it's clear that our perception of them has to do with how the people are dressed, their appearance and their body language in the different images.
So I thought: what would happen if I used this technique in class somehow?
What was the aim of the activity?
Essentially, I wanted to test the influence of stereotypes on my students, but I didn't want them to know what the real aim of the activity was so that their observations and ideas would be as true and natural as possible. I simply told them that I wanted them to practise the language of speculation.
How did I set up the activity?
First, I realised that I needed to use the images differently to how Joel Parés had originally used them in his challenge, in order to really focus on the process of speculation and the deduction skills of my students.
I divided the class in two groups and gave each group a set of pictures. One group was given the stereotypical set of images, whilst the other was given the set of photographs showing the people in real life (I had, of course, removed the banners which identified the "real person" photographs!).
Now here comes the good bit … I told my students that both groups had images of the same people, but I didn't tell them that in fact they had different photographs of the same people!
I asked each group to speculate on things like the age, job, studies, tastes, country, background, religion, etc. of the people and I told them we would compare ideas as a whole class afterwards.
How did my students react?
As they began sharing their speculations about each photo in turn, it was very entertaining to see the confusion on their faces. They knew they were talking about the same person, but wondered why they had such very different speculations about them!
Inevitably, the class also started to go in the direction of physical description when they suspected they were looking at different photos and that's where the stereotypes started pouring out of them!
To wrap things up, we looked at each pair of images together and I asked students to reach agreement on which photograph depicted the person in real life and this really helped to drive home the extent to which they were being influenced by stereotypes, and generated a lively discussion!
Finally, in order to squeeze a little more from the activity, despite their pleas otherwise, I told my students that they should think about the images over the coming week and that not until the next class would I reveal which of Joel Parés' photographs depicted the people's real identity!
Ready to take on this challenge with your class?
Try it, I'm sure you'll find the results fascinating!
By Puri Rodríguez
Bio: Puri has been teaching English in Galicia for 15 years, 10 of those learning and evolving with Ana Demitroff at You First Language Centre. She has a degree in English Philology from the University of A Coruña and a qualification in Pedagogical Aptitude from the same university.