Moles and horses in an online classroom: what, why and how?

by Catherine Lindsay              

Read on to learn about how Catherine has used pen & ink drawings as metaphors, models and motivators in her online classes …

What do a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse have to offer an online class in today’s world?  If I’d been asked that question some months ago, I would have been bemused, perhaps curious.  The chances are that some of you are bemused or curious, but others may be familiar with these four endearing characters created by the artist Charlie Mackesy.

Drawn over a period of time, they were published in 2019 in a delightful small hardback book which made its way into the window displays of Waterstones before Christmas… but since then they have made their way into NHS hospital corridors (pinned up by doctors or nurses perhaps) and into the hearts of many around the nation.  Charlie’s pen and ink drawings depict a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse as they encounter life’s questions.  Themes explored are kindness, love, courage and resilience.  The boy usually asks questions; answers come from the wise horse, but sometimes the mole. “Being kind to yourself is one of the greatest kindnesses”, said the mole.


Let’s return to our original question:  what do a boy, a mole, a fox and a horse have to offer an online class in today’s world?  A great deal, as it turns out.  Our roles as teachers are multi-faceted and as COVID appeared and lockdown started, I found my pastoral role come to the fore.  Checking in with my students at the start of each online class became very important.  The familiar question, “How are you?” had extra resonance.  Yet at a physical distance, linked only by a screen and microphone, finding that human connection was harder.   It also turned out that receiving honest answers was not always easy.  I remember one day asking all my students how they were.  “Fine …. well, Miss”, replied one student.  I then asked the students to talk to each other, while I did a quick task.  I was surprised to hear that same student saying she was finding things very hard and it wasn’t all fine.  I realised I needed a different approach to my normal, ‘How are you?’ question.

And so arrived the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse into my online classes.  The images, their questions and their answers became metaphors for my students.   Let’s take an example:  “What is the bravest thing you’ve ever said?” asked the boy, looking small.  “Help”, said the horse.  Using this image and question, I could then gently apply this to my students.  If they needed to ask for any kind of help, that was a positive thing to do.  Safeguarding our students and signposting them to help has become even more important in this new COVID world.  Pastoral questions at the start of lessons were easier and less confrontational with Charlie Mackesy’s drawings.


As well as our pastoral role as tutors, we are models.  Not just of good language or pronunciation, but of how to cope with the new normal and how to manage our changed routines.  I found myself sharing one tip a day that I was myself following to develop my own resilience during lockdown.  “Find joy in the small things; live one day at a time.”  Again, the drawings of the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse illustrated these truths.


Finally, we are motivators.  “Your brain can remember more than you think.” “Your efforts will bring you rewards!”  However, these are just words; can our students respond at heart level if the language barrier is still there?  Images cross over this barrier.  They resonate on a deeper level than just words alone.  Let’s also not forget the importance of teacher presence for motivating students; with just a screen and microphone, our teacher presence is watered down.  Enter one of the advantages of online teaching: detailed images sent via our wondrous screen share option, which can be discussed and absorbed more easily perhaps than when displayed on a distant whiteboard in a classroom.  Picture a small boy and a very small mole riding on our wise horse.  “We have a long way to go”, sighed the boy.  “Yes, but look how far we have come” said the horse.

“Do you feel like the boy, when you think about all the English grammar you still need to work on?” I might ask.

“Yes” reply my students.  Or perhaps you feel like the horse?  “Um, not sure”.  Do you think you can be both the boy and the horse at the same time?  “Oh”, replied my students.  Helping students to recognise the voices within themselves each day is so valuable, especially if we can lead them to learn the value of positive self-talk. “Yes, but look how far I have come”.

We too might feel we have a journey ahead in our FE world, but look how far we have come.      

Catherine Lindsay is an ESOL tutor working with adults in the community in West London.

Follow Lindsay on Twitter @clindsayteacher