English exotic

I opened the year with my year nine English class by showing them a picture. “This is how I feel about this year,” I explained, gesturing toward the monkeys and lush jungle of Henri Rousseau’s Exotic Landscape, 1910. “It’s inviting but mysterious, tantalising yet difficult to explain. For example, what is the monkey doing with that orange circle? And what even is that orange circle – an orange?” They gave me twenty perfect blank looks.

exotic landscape

Then I asked them to source and share images that express their own feelings about our year in English. When I asked for volunteers to share their images the feedback was dreamy: a tropical beach for relaxation, multi-coloured beads for diversity, a smiley face. Based on these examples, English for this group was the academic equivalent of drinking lemonade.

But not everyone was sharing. When I collected all the images at the school’s online learning system the cumulative picture was more complex. What was this twice-appearing clown, and were those planets colliding? While students completed a writing task, I projected their images on rotation, reflecting to the class its emotional palette as the year commenced. Then I asked for questions – were there pictures that people wanted to know more about?

“That one,” they agreed in unison, when the words “YES” and “NO” appeared on the screen, interrogated by cartoon figures. Like me, the students showed most interest in their peers’ most surprising choices, the symbolic opposite of a beach.

“I chose that one,” a small voice said, “because, well, I feel different things about English. Sometimes I like it and sometimes I don’t.” The brave words were spoken so nervously that I left only the shortest silence before replying. “Me too,” I said, “and I think your picture comes closest to the jungle scene I showed everyone before. Remember, with the monkeys?” The student nodded. “I’m glad we understand each other.”

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