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How Personal Heirloom Stories Can Spark Emotion and Motivation by Using Short Films in the EFL1 Classroom

Heirlooms: comment motiver l’apprenant en anglais, encourager et personnaliser sa production en s’appuyant sur des très courts métrages
Kenneth Beirne et Pierre Floquet
p. 103-112


Depuis longtemps, nous utilisons les supports filmiques de toute sorte pour l’enseignement de l’anglais à un public non-spécialiste en école d’ingénieurs. La série australienne de très courts films d’animation, Heirlooms, permet aux étudiants d’appréhender différemment le multiculturalisme, tant à l’étranger qu’autour d’eux.
Cet article met en avant le potentiel et les limites de l’utilisation de tels films en classe. Heirlooms a été proposé comme une suite d’exemples, à partir desquels les apprenants devaient réfléchir à un objet symbolique de leur propre héritage culturel, pour le présenter en anglais sur une vidéo. Malgré leur nombre restreint (15 sur 40), les réalisations abouties laissent entrevoir qu’une telle tâche est non seulement accessible aux étudiants, mais qu’elle suscite une production à la fois riche et variée, et qu’en outre elle nourrit les échanges au sein du groupe d’apprenants.

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Texte intégral

Introduction and context

  • 1 English as a Foreign Language (EFL).

1One of the overall program requirements at the École Nationale Supérieure d’Électronique, Informatique et Radiocommunications de Bordeaux (a top French engineering school) is that students reach a B2 level (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) in English, and that they open up to foreign cultures to help them adapt to an international professional context. Hence, English is presented as both an essential communication tool and a cultural vector. Using film in class has been a long-standing practice with our non-specialist students, in multiple formats for multiple purposes. Obviously, our team of English teachers does make a distinction between showing and actually using films in the classroom. Indeed, a number of activities have been developed to ensure that the use of these films is a language learning activity.

2The first issue to be considered for this project is content and didactic use. As our students are neither specialists in English, nor in film studies, we mainly use films for cultural purposes in order to encourage language production, group discussion, and later reflection upon different cultures and multicultural issues. The students may be asked to do some written production in a final step, as a thematic development and/or as a synthesizing document. Their levels of English vary significantly, so they are organized into small groups (up to twenty) that generally ensure relative homogeneity within each group. The goal is to cater for all levels of proficiency which means tasks are adapted from a main core of activities to match their abilities. In any case, our students mostly remain very passive towards the medium in use.

3The second issue is technical, as it is rather time-consuming to use lengthy features in class, without even mentioning copyright issues! Actually, when dealing with a traditional two-hour film, the standard procedure is as follows: select relevant sequences to the theme we wish to develop with the students, trim and gather them into files or burnt DVDs to be distributed in class. Such a process requires that every student has previously viewed the complete film/films so as to properly participate in the development of the suggested topics. For example, for the past couple of years, we have worked on the representation of the American family in films, advertising the topic in the months preceding the actual working session and requiring our students to watch Rebel Without a Cause (Ray 1955), Far from Heaven (Haynes 2002), The Hours (Daldry 2002), American Beauty (Mendes 1999), Virgin Suicides (S. Coppola 1999), History of Violence (Cronenberg 2005), Little Miss Sunshine (Dayton & Faris, 2006). Our students are encouraged to watch them roughly four months prior to the beginning of the workshop. However, as we have little control on the good will and dedication of the said students, the pedagogical result is not guaranteed to be positive because the students may or may not have watched the film.

4As an alternative, short films are also regularly used, such as Tex Avery cartoons. Indeed, their format (six to seven minutes) is an asset, beyond any consideration of content, as they may be used more easily in class.

Theoretical framework

5One of the central elements in using ‘Personal Heirloom Stories’ (PHSs) with our students is the production of stories based on personal experience. By recounting stories of personal significance, learners engage with a storytelling task in a more profound way than if they were required to create a story. In fact, personalising the language learning process is widely cited as being a much sought-after aspect of the language learning classroom. Thornbury (2001: 74) argues that by personalising lesson content, it becomes more relevant and meaningful and therefore learners are more willing to invest time and effort in language learning tasks. Dörnyei and Csizér (1998: 215) as well as Brophy (2004: 240) also include personalisation as one of the key ingredients that teachers can use to generate and maintain their students’ motivation.

6In addition to personalisation, another key concept which is integral to such PHSs is what Csikszentmihalyi (2008) calls a state of ‘flow’. This is a state of optimal arousal that occurs during periods of time when individuals experience heightened motivation and complete absorption while accomplishing a task. According to Csikszentmihalyi (1997: 31), individuals are most likely to experience ‘flow’ when tasks are sufficiently challenging (but not overwhelmingly difficult) and they have sufficiently high levels of skill to accomplish the given tasks. Thus, flow is experienced when the challenge of a task is sufficiently high to arouse interest, without being too difficult or too easy. When there is too much control, relaxation or boredom is close at hand. If the challenge is too great, worry and anxiety may be experienced. This phenomenon is arguably close to the levels of involvement and focus that can be observed when watching the short videos made by our engineering students recounting their PHSs.

7A further aspect that underpins the use of PHSs in language learning context is the degree to which it is learner-centred. This corresponds to our social-constructivist model of teaching-learning (Williams & Burden 1997: 42-45) in which teachers are no longer considered to be the fountains of all knowledge, but rather that learners together with their teachers can create meaning through the interaction of their experiences and ideas. None of the students participating in this PHS project did so out of obligation. Furthermore, obliging students to record themselves on video talking about personal topics could have caused them to lose face ‘in public’. Thus, the driving force behind our students’ involvement was their natural curiosity and interest in expressing themselves and learning from each other. By adopting an approach that encouraged guided autonomy and peer involvement in this project, we drew on research from Self-Determination theory (Deci et al. 1991). In other words students could do the personal heirloom task for its own sake rather than it being imposed on them as an outside constraint.

The original Heirloom documentary

8The original Australian Heirloom series consists of ten one-minute animation films. They have been presented at various animation film festivals around the world, and have won an award at the Melbourne Animation Festival. Not only did producer Wendy Chandler offer a DVD of the series, but the films are also on open access on the web2, which freed us from any copyright issues. When contacted, Chandler was very pleased to learn her films would be used as a didactic tool, which provides an alternative way of broadcasting. Moreover, their short format automatically tackles the issue of dealing with over-lengthy material in class.

9The voice-over comments upon the images shown, in a string of documentary testimonies, as each original story describes the characters’ personal heirlooms (such as a coffee grinder, or a cane knife) and what they mean to them. The website presents the series as “artfully explor[ing] the relationship between people and their heirlooms. Based on 10 interviews with men and women from diverse cultural backgrounds, these animations bring to life the emotions each heirloom arouses”. The format is very similar, yet directors Wendy Chandler and Susan Danta skilfully selected different animation techniques (silhouettes, paper cuts, two dimension drawings, and so on), which guarantees a variety of styles, and thus avoids any impression of repetition. Pedagogically, this element triggers more curiosity among students.

10The general topic of the series slots in well with part of our second year curriculum, when we have our students focus upon multiculturalism. Another asset of Heirlooms is that the series is both a work of art and a genuine document, so that students can at the same time be confronted with artistic issues and with real-life experience. The emotional impact of the stories is therefore much stronger than when the students have to start a language producing activity from a work of fiction.

11Actually, what struck our nicely formatted “Grande École” students most was the originality and depth of each testimony. This point is discussed in the second half of this paper.

  • 3 Email conversation with P. Floquet, May 25, 2011. (Original text)

12When contacted by email3, Chandler detailed some points in their creative process:

The first story and the original idea for the series came from Susan Danta, the co-director and animator. A former student of mine, Susan is Korean; her family story is “John’s Story” about the Bible, John is Susan’s father. The rest of the stories came from either people we knew, some came from cultural associations where we posted a call for stories. Our aim was to find a mix of cultures and most importantly good stories. Many people had heirlooms they wanted to talk about, but there was no compelling story.
It was very important for us to find an indigenous Australian story, which was “Jeff’s Story”. I read about his story and tracked him down, he was very willing to participate. […]
What Susan and I wanted to show was a different side of Australia, not the more stereotypical image projected to the world. Australia is a multicultural society, apart from Aboriginal Australians everyone comes from somewhere else at some time. The series was also made for SBS TV, which is a government funded multicultural television station (and radio). […]
We started by doing interviews, most were an hour long. The most difficult task was to cut them down to a minute. After the animation was completed we did bring some of the people into the studio to rerecord their voice. For the last two stories, Franco and Jeff, I ended up scripting it, which they approved of without changes.

13This was about as far as the interviewees got involved in the film making, apart from contributing photos. Obviously there is an enormous difference between what we attempted to achieve with our students and the highly polished professional documentary. Nevertheless, our students were expected to look into their own lives for an heirloom to highlight as well as to make their own video recordings.

Teaching methodology

14When it came to using PHSs for language teaching purposes, the first step was to have students watch the original documentary in pairs or groups of three. This was done by dividing the documentary up onto three separate DVDs so as to create a type of ‘jigsaw’ activity. In other words, one group would initially see three or four of the heirloom films before briefly discussing what they had just watched and then join one or two other groups to share what they had seen and understood. Next they were given the opportunity to watch the remaining heirloom stories before discussing and sharing their impressions with the whole class. The variety of stories captured our students’ attention and helped them begin to consider what kinds of heirloom stories they would personally like to talk about.

15After this initial introduction to the topic of heirlooms and significant family memories, students were put into pairs to brainstorm possible topics themselves. While they were brainstorming, relevant vocabulary and expressions could be written up on the board such as “My strongest memory is…,” It reminds me of…,” I’ll never forget the time when…,” “a souvenir, I remember listening to…,” etc. By circulating around the room, the teacher could help to guide learners towards potential avenues for heirlooms (for example: songs, food recipes, special objects or places). This stage produced a great deal of “head-scratching” because students found it difficult to choose an appropriate heirloom story. As a result, they were given the task of further reflection for homework and told that once they had found an appropriate story, they would be asked to do a video recording of themselves in the following two weeks.

Transcription and analysis of student recordings

16To help students understand what kind of format the recording should take, a sample recording, made by one of their teachers, was posted onto YouTube. Basically, it had to be short enough (less than ninety seconds) on an heirloom of their choice in which they explained the context and meaning of their heirloom. Some students chose to do this in class time, while others preferred to do it in the privacy of their homes. Out of the two groups of fifteen students, fourteen recordings were made to varying degrees of sound quality and general levels of clarity. All of these were posted onto a YouTube account to which students had password access.

17Our students generally chose items of special personal value with a related story or food recipes, and in some cases important moments or memories which had particular significance in their childhood. Three of these transcribed recordings have been included below as examples.

Student 1 (Michel): A war cricket
Hello, my heirloom is a war cricket that my grandmother gave to me. A war cricket is this (shows cricket to the camera). A piece of steel and thanks to that, you can make a sound like this (click, clack sound). It was used by the American parachutists during the D-Day in 1944. Thanks to that they could know where were the other parachutists in the dark night making a click, clack like this (click, clack sound). Therefore, it avoided to stay alone during the night.
During the D-Day my grandmother lived in Rouen… A few months later the first Americans arrived in the city and pushed back the German army. One soldier saw my grandmother in the street. My grandmother she was happy because she felt it was the end of the war and the end of the big bombings of the city. She kept this object a long time to remember this moment. And one day she explained to me her memories of the war and gave to me this war cricket, which is a very special thing for her.

Student 2 (Julie): Childhood songs
My heirlooms is the musical legacy of my parents. It is a recollection of some songs that my parents used to sing when I was a child. Here is the story. Em… sometime when we were at home at night, we went out and we sat in the garden. And my parents, specially my father sing… eh… sang us some songs and told us about his past, his childhood and told us some funny stories. And… am the… just think about that and eh… sing this song. And… just hear it, hear them eh, make me think about the very first time when I realize how great can be the connection which ties us to our parents. And em… I think that I will never forget this song. That’s, that’s why I took this musical legacy… am… legacy as my heirlooms.

Student 3 (Jean-Sébastien): A barrel
My heirloom is a barrel. It’s a special barrel cos it was made by my grandfather. By his own hand (s) ah cos…uh… in fact it was his job. He was a cooper and he has to do barrels. But this barrel is special cos… eh… because in fact it was transformed… uh… into a furniture to contain bottles and eh in this case alcohol and red wine bottles. So this (zis) barrel in fact remind (s) me… all family meals that… eh… we have shared, me and my entire family. This heirloom reminds me all those great moments shared with people that I love, with people that I care and that I can’t see… uh… every time. You know. Uh… we are a little spread into the country so when we do family meals… ah… it’s very, very special and they are great moments for me. So that’s why this barrel is my special heirloom.


18By looking at the transcripts, it can be said that all three are quite compact and succinct versions of what must be longer anecdotes. What is also clear is that a great deal of preparation was required to produce such shortened heirloom stories. There is also a fairly marked difference in terms of discourse between the first student and the other two. Whereas the former relates his story in a flowing yet quite controlled manner (“Therefore, it avoided…”, “A few months later…”, “She kept this object…”), his fellow students produced what is visibly much more conversational in style with numerous hesitations (“… eh…”, “… am the…”, “…ah…”, etc.), self-corrections (“…my father sing… eh… sang us some songs”) and vocabulary more commonly found in spoken discourse (“…cos it was made…”, “You know…”, “so that’s why…”). This difference is probably due to a different focus of the stories – the first one being on the grandmother’s experience and the second being on the students’ emotional reactions to their heirlooms. It may also be due to the fact that the first speaker relies more on a prepared text version of his heirloom.

Benefits of PHSs

19One of the main benefits of working on such personalised and meaningful heirloom stories is that they engage students more significantly than with rather dry, impersonalised tasks commonly found in some language learning books. As Williams and Burden (1997: 125-127) have pointed out, for language teaching purposes, interest and arousal have to be maintained and sustained. The creation of tasks that are perceived to be both intrinsically interesting and which have an appropriate challenge to skills ratio also helps language teachers to enable their learners to experience a sense of flow in each lesson.

20Another advantage of PHSs is their simplicity. Once students have watched the original documentary as well as the other sample PHSs by former students, they know what the task involves and what they should be aiming for. Asking them to choose a single episode from their own lives, a single object, a memento or a memory means that the task has a pleasurable simplicity which can help to focus students’ attention. Having said that, of course, once they start the process of brainstorming, selecting, planning and recording, they soon realise that there is a considerable degree of difficulty in trying to complete the task. This may, in fact, explain why the task has the potential to produce experiences of flow. The goal is clear (produce a one-minute PHS), the feedback is immediate (recordings can be played back to check the performance) and the students’ skills are fully involved in overcoming a challenge that is manageable (Csikszentmihalyi 1997).

21Producing such stories also involves high levels of exchange among students during the initial viewing and brainstorming stages. As such meaning is constructed together and through the process of exchanging stories, learners cooperate and get to know each other better. This kind of activity could be seen to fit into a social constructivist model of teaching-learning described by Williams and Burden (1997: 42-45) because of the degree of interaction between the learners, the teacher, the task and the context. Thus, the choice of topics and the recordings themselves were influenced by the social interaction among the learners, the teacher and the recording context (i.e. at home or at school).

  • 4 Dörnyei (2001 : 42-45) maintains that several factors, such as sharing time together, learning abou (...)

22Another benefit in creating such personal histories is that they can have positive effects on classroom cohesion, which in itself helps to promote a good language learning environment4. The challenge of making such short video recordings requires students to plan, edit, rehearse and repeat on numerous occasions. This element of built-in repetition may also be conducive to language acquisition. As Van den Branden et al. (2009: 269) remark, the “previous experience of a task is available for speakers to build on in subsequent performance”. Seen in this light, the repetition and rehearsal required within such a project can help learners to improve their fluency and build confidence in their ability to speak English as a foreign language. Although no evidence of improved language skills was recorded in the creation process of our students’ PHSs, the final videos were more articulate, polished and more clearly structured than the initially brainstormed ideas.

23On a more general note, the positive response from our students to the Heirlooms project can perhaps be explained by the fact that they found the stories and the task itself to be novel, enjoyable and challenging yet at the same time do-able. Thus our experience appears to be in congruence with Schumann’s work (1997: 186-189) on the neurobiology of stimulus appraisal in second language acquisition, which suggests that learners subconsciously evaluate tasks in terms of the perceived novelty or familiarity, pleasantness, goal significance, coping potential and alignment with self/social image. Based on data gathered from motivation studies, diary studies and autobiographies of second language learners, Schumann (1999: 32) argues that positive appraisal among learners enhances language learning, whereas negative appraisals inhibit it. Finally, the feedback from our students indicated that they enjoyed the novelty of recounting such personalised heirloom stories.


24In the final analysis, it has to be said that some students had difficulty finding an appropriate topic. Some of them claimed they did not have enough life experience to find a story as compelling as the ones used in the Heirlooms documentary. In addition, not all students had access to a laptop computer in order to record their stories at home, which meant that they had to record themselves in a computer room in the school. Consequently, there was more background noise and potential sources of disturbance during these recordings. Another problem which surfaced once students started to post their recordings was that many of them felt the need to use a text script which they read during the recording. Finally, some students expressed their nervousness about recording themselves speaking English on a topic of a personal nature.

25However, despite these reservations and problems, it is clear when watching the short videos made by our students that they felt they were recounting something of personal significance. If students can overcome the initial stress of filming themselves, they may well be able to benefit from this experience for any future oral performances they will be faced with. Similar experiences are probably quite rare for students in standard teacher-led, top-down language classes. For future uses of heirloom stories, we could definitely make more use of analysing differences in spoken and written discourse by having students watch each other’s videos. There is also great potential offered by the annotation of various aspects of language and pronunciation on YouTube videos posted by learners. This could be a useful way to raise awareness about fossilized aspects of pronunciation or grammar. From a teacher’s perspective, it was genuinely intriguing to learn more about our students, which may well have helped to improve the teacher-student relationship and the classroom environment in general.

26Finally, by giving students the locus of control with such language learning tasks as the PHSs, opportunities for greater student involvement can be generated, which in turn can have a positive impact on their levels of motivation. As Thanasoulas (2002) remarks, most classroom environments are based on coercion or rewards and punishments. Instead of this scenario, he calls for teachers to develop a relationship built on rapport in a pleasant and supportive environment. And as a result, learners will be more likely to mutually support each other. It is in such a context that PHSs would be most productive. By their very definition, PHSs are celebrations of each student’s personal, psychological and social make-up. Therefore, it would be quite difficult to imagine why they would fail to improve group cohesion.

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Brophy, J.E. 1998. Motivating Students to Learn. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 1997. Finding Flow. New York: Basic Books.

Csikszentmihalyi, M. 2008. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics.

Deci, E.L., R. Vallerand, L. Pelletier & R. Ryan. 1991. « Motivation and Education: The Self-Determination Perspective ». Educational Psychologist, 26: 325-346.

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1 English as a Foreign Language (EFL).


3 Email conversation with P. Floquet, May 25, 2011. (Original text)

4 Dörnyei (2001 : 42-45) maintains that several factors, such as sharing time together, learning about each other, experiencing a common threat or joint hardship and generally interacting with one another can help to promote group cohesion or a strong “we-feeling”.

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Référence papier

Kenneth Beirne et Pierre Floquet, « How Personal Heirloom Stories Can Spark Emotion and Motivation by Using Short Films in the EFL Classroom », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité, Vol. XXXI N° 2 | 2012, 103-112.

Référence électronique

Kenneth Beirne et Pierre Floquet, « How Personal Heirloom Stories Can Spark Emotion and Motivation by Using Short Films in the EFL Classroom », Recherche et pratiques pédagogiques en langues de spécialité [En ligne], Vol. XXXI N° 2 | 2012, mis en ligne le 20 mai 2012, consulté le 17 janvier 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/apliut.2708

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Kenneth Beirne

Kenneth Beirne, enseignant d’anglais depuis 12 ans, a travaillé dans diverses universités et écoles de langue en France et en Allemagne. Après avoir fait des études de langues en Irlande, en 2012 il a obtenu un un Master 2 TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other languages) avec la Sheffield Hallam University en Angleterre. Il travaille depuis sept ans dans une école d’ingénieurs, l’ENSEIRB-MATMECA à Bordeaux.

Pierre Floquet

Pierre Floquet, Maître de conférences en anglais à l’IPB - ENSEIRB, Bordeaux, a toujours utilisé le film dans l’enseignement de l’anglais. Travaille sur le cinéma d’animation, et sur le cinéma direct anglo-saxon. Au contact du monde de l’animation, il est jury de festivals et met en place des rétrospectives et conférences sur Tex Avery en France comme à l’étranger. Membre de la Sercia et du Ciclaho, il participe à des ouvrages, en Europe et au-delà. Il dirige en 2007 le CinémAction 123, CinémAnimationS. Il publie en 2009 chez l’Harmattan Le langage comique de Tex Avery.

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Droits d’auteur

Association des Professeurs de Langues des Instituts Universitaires de Technologie

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