Russia in colour 100 years ago: past passives lesson plan

Dagestani women

Note: In 2010, the Boston Globe published an amazing and beautiful series of photographs of life in Russia 100 years ago, and I thought it would be great to be able to share some of the pictures with students in a lesson. Here’s one idea.

Levels: intermediate to advanced.
Ages: older teens and adults.
Type: using photos as stimuli to produce particular grammatical forms; text reconstruction.
Skills: speaking; listening; reading; writing.
Language focus: past passives; vocabulary to describe some scenes represented in photos.


    If you don’t have access to a laptop or IWB, you’ll probably need:

    • Colour copies of the first page of this worksheet for half the students in your class
    • Colour copies of the second page for the other half
    • Colour copies of the third page for each group of four students in your class
    • copies of the text on the fourth page for each student
    • Blank paper for each student to draw a picture on

    …On the other hand, if you do have a laptop or IWB, you’ll need:

    • One copy of the photos from this handout ready to be screened
    • Enough copies of the text on page four of the handout for each of your students
    • Blank paper for each student to draw a picture on

Preparation: prepare the copies as above. Note: If you have an IWB or laptop, you could forego making copies in this way – in the second activity, below, ask Bs to turn away so they can’t see the screen, then ask As to describe one of the two pictures to their partner, while B draws what they hear. In the third activity, students could look at the colour pictures on the screen while discussing answers to the questions in pairs.


    Warmer 1 – guided visualisation

  • Ask your students to close their eyes and imagine they’re on the best holiday of their lives. Speaking in a fairly slow, clear and relaxed manner, ask them to think about where they are on this holiday. Ask them to look around their imaginary place (keeping their eyes closed!) – what can they see? After a few seconds, ask them what they can hear; and then – can they hear any conversations? Tell them to try and listen in, if so – can they tell what the people are saying? And then: what can they smell? Does it remind them of anything? Are they eating or drinking anything? If so, what is it? What does it taste like, or feel like inside? Are they lying down, or sitting, or standing up? A few seconds after this last question, ask your students gently to open their eyes, and tell the person next to them where they were.
  • Nominate a couple of different students to tell you where they were on this holiday. Encourage other students in your class to ask for more information if they don’t have a clear picture of the scene in their minds. Board any useful language and elicit corrections. (Note: after boarding the language, it can be useful to focus quickly on pronunciation – and encourage your students to note down any vocabulary they want to remember).
  • Russia in Colour - first two pages of worksheet

    Warmer 2 – describing scenes from pictures

    (Note: I’d use both of these warm-up activities, as one leads into the other, and the first generates useful language which your students could use in the second; however, if you don’t have time for both warmers, I’d say this one will be the most useful).

  • Explain that you have two pictures, which you’d like your students to describe to each other in pairs. Divide your class into A/B pairs and, if possible, ask them to move so they are back-to-back, each with a folder or other writing surface in front of them, and a pen. Otherwise, ask them to make sure their partner can’t see what they’re doing.
  • Hand out a piece of blank paper to all your students, as well as the first page of the handout to As, and the second page to Bs. Make sure they don’t show each other their pictures.
  • Ask your students who thinks they are the best (or the worst) artist. Draw attention to the empty paper in front of them, elicit that they have a different picture from their partner, and ask them what they think you might ask them to do. Get a couple of ideas, then explain you’ll ask As to describe their picture, while Bs draw it; then, after a few minutes, you’ll ask them to swap round, so B describes while A draws. Elicit that they must keep their drawings secret from their partner, as well as their pictures, and that it doesn’t matter if they’re no good at drawing – in fact, the worse the picture, the more interesting it might be to look at!
  • If you used the first warmer, above, point out the useful language on the board which your students can use. Allow your students a minute or so to think about how they will describe their pictures, then set a time limit for As to describe and Bs to draw (say, four minutes) and start the activity.
  • After a few minutes, ask As and Bs to swap roles, making sure they keep their pictures and drawings secret for now. Elicit the time limit from your students.
  • After four minutes or so, ask your students to show each other their drawings and pictures. Normally, this generates a little laughter and discussion…
  • If you like (and if you’ve time), ask your students what was the most difficult thing about describing or drawing their pictures, and what was not so hard. You could elicit and board a few ways they can improve on what they found most difficult to do, and encourage them by focussing briefly on what they found easier to accomplish.
  • Russia in colour - third page of worksheet (five pictures)

    Discussing the other pictures; listening comprehension

  • Explain that you have five more pictures taken by the same photographer, and that you have five questions you’d like your students to answer about them. Dictate the following, and ask your students to write down what they hear:
    1. When do you think these pictures were taken?
    2. Who is in them?
    3. Where are they?
    4. Who do you think took the pictures?
    5. Why were these pictures taken?
  • In pairs, ask your students to compare what they wrote, then elicit and board the questions, eliciting corrections as necessary.
  • Divide your students into new groups of four and hand out the third page of the worksheet (which has five images on it). Ask your students to discuss the boarded questions in their groups. You may want to explain that this is a chance for them to practise their conversational skills, and that “I don’t know” is banned!
  • After a few minutes, explain that you have a short article about these photos. Tell your students that you’re going to read the text aloud, and ask them to listen and try to answer those five questions on the board.
  • Read the text from page four of the handout in a natural voice, then ask your students to check their answers in pairs. If necessary, re-pair the students and ask them to check again. If time, read the article again, and again ask your students to check their answers together.
  • Distribute page four of the worksheet to your students (there should be enough for one each). Ask them to underline any unknown vocabulary and try to guess the meaning from the context. They can then check with their partners, and any remaining problems can be checked either with a dictionary (if they have one to hand) or by asking you.
  • Text from page four of Russia in Colour worksheet

    Text reconstruction; grammar focus

  • Take the text back from your students (if they’ve made notes on their copy, ask them to write their names at the top, so it won’t get mixed up). With their partners, ask your students to try to reconstruct what they read, using their answers to the boarded questions (and the boarded questions themselves) to help. You can circulate and help with language as your students do this.
  • After a few minutes, go to the board and ask the whole class to help you write the text. Nominate different students to call out sentences, or parts or sentences, and elicit changes or corrections from the class. Board what your students write, and engage them in discussion of any grammatical or vocabulary issues as they arise. It doesn’t matter if the language or the order of information is different from the text; all that matters is that the class-generated text is written in a logical order, that it answers the five questions above, and that it’s written in appropriate and grammatically correct English.
  • Once the class-generated text is complete, hand back the text from page four of the worksheet. Ask your students to look through it – were there any details they missed? What are the main differences in vocabulary and grammar?
  • Jewish children with a teacher, Samarkand

    Focus on past passives

    (Note: although the text lends itself to work on past passive forms, it would be equally useful for eliciting past perfect forms and meanings – or how articles are used, and so on. The focus below is really just an example of what you can do with the language of the text – you might want to try something else, like a DIY gapfill task, instead.)

  • Ask your students to find and underline the passives used either in the class-generated text or the original version (in the version on the handout, we have The photos… were taken by, He had been asked to…, Three… images were taken…). Elicit the passive form ([form of ‘be’] + past participle) and board this in a new column. Ask your students if the passive sentences are about events in the past, present or future (they’re about the past), and which happened first (in the original text, the photographer was asked to record life in the Russian Empire) – elicit how the past perfect signifies an earlier past. Ask your students why the passive is being used in these instances (the subject isn’t so important), and if they know any other times when we might want to use a passive form, and ask them for example sentences illustrating these other occasions (when we don’t know the subject of the verb – e.g., “a man has been shot” – or when the subject is obvious – for example, the headline, “Thief arrested” – obviously by the police…). Ask them to look back at the questions they wrote – can they find examples of passive questions? (Questions one and five are passive) Ask them how we can make passive questions, and whether there is only one possible word order for making them (no – in the questions, we see “[noun] + were + past participle” and “were + [noun] + past participle” respectively). Ask your students to listen as you change the questions around: When were the pictures taken? and Why do you think they were taken?. Do the questions still sound OK? (Hopefully, yes).
  • Personalised practice using past passives

  • If your students have a mobile phone, a purse or wallet with a personal photo they’re happy to share with the class, ask them to prepare to show these. If not, ask them to close their eyes and imagine a very special moment in their lives which they’re happy to share with the class.
  • In pairs, ask your students to describe their photos or imagined scenes to their partners, using past passive forms if possible in their descriptions.
  • Circulate and note down language for subsequent feedback (a good way to do this might be to turn the sentences you note into a boarded gapfill). If your students aren’t producing any past passives, don’t worry – note down a few occasions when these could have been used, and board or elicit these in the feedback.

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