Visual cues – floor marks

At the Language School last week I discovered a new visual cue, or tool. For a few weeks now we have had a line of blue sticky-tape stuck to the carpet. It was put there for a lesson some time ago, but never got pulled up, and I have noticed how the students pay attention to it without being asked, how they often sit in a line along it, or behind it, and that it gives them a sense of how to organise themselves in the space.

I have to emphasise that, because there are such limited English language skills in a class, it is not always easy to communicate things like where you want the children to sit. When there is great excitement in the room, or the children are tired, or distracted by other people, words do not always get heard! The sticky-tape line has already played a useful role – it is such a simple thing, and of such a distinctive colour, it is easy for the children to focus on.

The other day, with the Lower Primary class, we were giving them each a turn with the violin – tucking it under the chin, holding the bow, trying out the bow on the string. They were all incredibly excited and eager, and had to wait patiently for their turn.

It is often noted in the school that children who have spent a lot of time in refugee camps find some of the turn-taking routines, and other gentle behaviour, quite difficult to remember. So much of their experience in life has been that pushing to the front (and others out of the way) ensures you get food/a turn/water/seen. These are strong survival skills in the chaos and unpredictability of a refugee camp or post-conflict context. There are three children with this kind of background in the class, and when they came up to the violin they would grab it, and cling on determinedly.

The tension in their bodies made it very difficult for Mel to show them how to hold the violin properly (in order to get a satisfying sound from it). There would be one hand clutching the bow, another in a fist around the neck of the violin, meanwhile the child’s head is jutting forward (because they have all noticed how the violin sits tucked under the chin). Lots of tension in little bodies.

Then we had our brainwave. “Go and stand on the blue line,” we suggested. The boy went and stood on it, and as he stood there his body relaxed. It was as if the designated space (as it were) gave him permission to be more passive. Perhaps it also reassured him that there was order here, that he could let go of his survival reflexes because he wasn’t going to miss out. His arms went to his sides and he let Mel pass him the violin and shape his bow hand into a light hold, so that he could get a warmer sound from the strings. His breathing slowed down, he took on a look of concentration, and focussed on the violin alone.

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5 comments so far

  1. Jan on

    I was interested in the visual clues. The owning of a space, having a place must be so crucial to the refugees. At a refugee centre in Croydon which I visit, the ‘owning of a place at a table’ is high on the priority of allcomers, and only once they have settled into it, do they relax.
    I remember a school trip with one particularly agressive, disruptive 11 year old …Peter for want of a name. We were at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight.The teacher in charge hoped to impart some intricate detail of the history of castle to the 40 children. Before he started he spent some time assigning Peter to one particular spot at the front of a huge cannon, and explained how this was where the look-out had to stay to defend the keep of the castle. The boy seemed mesmerised by the task and its appointed space. He remained calm , and glared into middle distance throughout the lesson, warding off any passing tourists with great purpose!

    I have a 28cm pile of things I ought to read waiting for me n my desk, but found your blog more interesting than any of it…..thanks

  2. musicwork on

    That’s a great story! I am finding that the role that the ‘blue line’ played in relaxing the young boy really interesting – I keep coming back to it. It could be tempting to devise a whole lot of floor markings that would indicate ways of organising the space – but these could then easily become another rules-based environment that doesn’t make sense to new students with limited language, and that simply needs to be learned.

    I love the idea of Peter taking on the protective role of ‘guard’, confident in where to stand, and maybe even imagining all the heroic things he was ready to do, should the moment arise! It sounds like it connected with his sense of himself as powerful, and needed, with a role to play.

    Teaching is so satisfying (and moving) when we have these insights.

    I hope you have got your pile down to maybe 20com now…. I hope in any case that it hasn’t grown! Thanks for the comment!

  3. Visual cues (3) « music work on

    […] for ESL students in the past – using a metronome to encourage a sense of pulse and ensemble, and floor markings giving student reference points for organising themselves in the space. Floor markings also seem to […]

  4. […] years ago, I began observing the importance of floor markings and other visual cues for ESL children. The children relax and tune in far more quickly when they […]

  5. […] The moment he went and stood on the line, he relaxed. All that overt tension left his body. You can read the post here – this little story still gives me a small sense of wonder, as it suggests so much about the […]


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