Teaching Prompts

A Blank Canvas


I am not the most creative person when it comes to creating lesson plans; when I do try to flex my creative muscles, often times the results are sub-par (read, Ke$ha). Last week, partially inspired by a discussion with Danielle, I decided to try something different with my conversation classes. So, without giving them any background, I presented them with this painting, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper:

Teaching Prompts

As far as I can tell, the concept of a diner is completely unheard of in Turkey, which prompted lively discussion from my classes.

“It’s a bar, teacher! They’re all in a bar drinking beer!”

“No, they’re at a coffee restaurant!”

No matter what they said, I refused to give a definite answer, telling them that any answer was certainly a possibility. I was always a little skeptical of the Socratic Method – just asking students questions and guiding them until they came upon answers themselves – but done properly with students at the right level, it is amazing what people come up with.

One student, who always works incredibly hard but spends more time laughing loudly in Turkish with his friends than speaking English, commented on how the colors in the painting were ‘mute’ and made him feel lonely. This theme was later echoed and carried further forwards as students noted the implied distance between the couple, as well as the lone man.

Surprisingly, in every class I showed this painting to – four – at least one student had the idea that either the man and woman were engaged in an affair, and that the lone man was a private detective following them. In my highest level class, however, this idea was quickly shot down and replaced with the idea that this was just an ordinary night with ordinary, tired, lonely people.

Building on this, when I asked the class why the painting was named Nighthawks one student amazingly responded:

“If hawks are the birds I’m thinking of, they live alone their whole lives so they are lonely like the people.”

I have no idea if that is true of hawks or not, but I am still impressed by her rational a week later.

Of course, giving the students such a blank canvas to work with also allowed students to show a much more creative side. One of my lowest level, but always eager to participate, students insisted that everyone in the painting were vampires. He backed up his claim by talking about how the painting took place and night and everyone was extremely pale.

All in all, I was amazingly happy with how well students responded to a ‘blank canvas’ exercise. Even some of my most quiet students, who I have almost never heard from, became excited and involved. This energy then naturally feeds back into the class, forming an amazing lesson throughout.

Picture credit from ShadeOne.

2 thoughts on “A Blank Canvas”

  1. What a wonderful class exercise (and fun for you too, I imagine). It no doubt got them to use vocabulary they don’t always use and I love that it even engaged the quieter students (plus their reactions were fascinating). You’re a good teacher, Jeremy!

    1. I like to think it was fun for everyone involved. Thanks though, Letizia! I’m enjoying teaching much more than I expected to, honestly.

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